The Trouble with Repression in a Wireless World

IranThe British monthly Prospect has been playing host to an interesting back-and-forth between Clay Shirky, the author of "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations," and Evgeny Morozov, a Fellow at Georgetown and the blogger over at FP's Net Effect.

They've been going back and forth on the power of social media and mobile technology to support democratic movements in repressive states like Iran, Belarus, China, and Moldova. In his December installment, Shirky concedes that the "just-add-internet" zeitgeist takes an excessively optimistic view on the power of technology to change the politics of authoritarian governments. Still, he defends the basic proposition that, by limiting access to information and communications tools, and cracking down on those who use them, governments are robbing themselves of legitimacy at home and abroad. This, he writes, translates to a "net advantage" for insurrection in repressive states.

I found Morozov's response, which was published today, decidedly off-base in its premise. He argues that, if anything, these new technologies are making things worse for the everyday people who may fight for freedom. He downplays the advantages gained by Iranian protesters through their use of mobile technology-- but the ability of protesters to document both their own peaceful demeanor and the abuses perpetrated by the Basiji has cost the Iranian regime a great deal of legitimacy with their own people. The video of Neda's death became its own rallying cry of the uprising, and undoubtedly caused many Iranians to abandon their support of the government, even if quietly. With this kind of information and evidence free and available, the Iranian government has to work a lot harder to stay in power.

Protesters will use these tools to facilitate their cause, and repressive regimes like Iran's will fight back using the same technology. I think Morozov is right to cast a dubious eye on the frothy hype that often permeates conversation about how this technology will change the world. In some cases, mobile phones and social networks may not dramatically shift the balance of power between an authoritarian government and those who rally against it. But they create a world-- one in which abuses can be documented, information is free, and few can plead ignorance-- that is a lot trickier world for a government like Iran's to live in.