Egypt’s strongman Hosni Mubarak has cut off his country from the internet in an effort to thwart the protesters’ ability to organize and share information. In other popular democratic uprisings, such as the recent one in Iran, Facebook, Twitter , and other online sites have proven critical. And yet, as this article shows, those same technologies are being used by tyrants to crush dissent:
The Iranian police eagerly followed the electronic trails left by activists, which assisted them in making thousands of arrests in the crackdown that followed. The government even crowd-sourced its hunt for enemies, posting on the Web the photos of unidentified demonstrators and inviting Iranians to identify them.
“The Iranian government has become much more adept at using the Internet to go after activists,” said Faraz Sanei, who tracks Iran at Human Rights Watch. The Revolutionary Guard, the powerful political and economic force that protects the ayatollahs’ regime, has created an online surveillance center and is believed to be behind a “cyberarmy” of hackers that it can unleash against opponents, he said.
Repressive regimes around the world may have fallen behind their opponents in recent years in exploiting new technologies — not unexpected when aging autocrats face younger, more tech-savvy opponents. But in Minsk and Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, governments have begun to climb the steep learning curve and turn the new Internet tools to their own, antidemocratic purposes.
The countertrend has sparked a debate over whether the conventional wisdom that the Internet and social networking inherently tip the balance of power in favor of democracy is mistaken. A new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” by a young Belarus-born American scholar, Evgeny Morozov, has made the case most provocatively, describing instance after instance of strongmen finding ways to use new media to their advantage.
After all, the very factors that have brought Facebook and similar sites such commercial success have huge appeal for a secret police force. A dissident’s social networking and Twitter feed is a handy guide to his political views, his career, his personal habits and his network of like-thinking allies, friends and family. A cybersurfing policeman can compile a dossier on a regime opponent without the trouble of the street surveillance and telephone tapping required in a pre-Net world. . . .
Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International, said the popular networking services, like most technologies, are politically neutral.
“There’s nothing deterministic about these tools — Gutenberg’s press, or fax machines or Facebook,” Ms. Brown said. “They can be used to promote human rights or to undermine human rights.”
Hey, even in my field of academia, administrators are doing this sort of thing to catch misbehaving students. At Marquette, a vandalism case was solved when a student bragged about what he did on FaceBook and posted pictures of himself doing it! He was very indignant about the university violating his privacy! (You do see the irony of that, don’t you?)
But what about this? That the internet can be used to restrict liberty and to stamp out dissent?