Foreign Policy: The Politicization Of Digital Space

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Whatever Washington does in the digital space these days would almost necessarily reflect on Google -- even if they have no direct involvement in the issue. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Google

Whatever Washington does in the digital space these days would almost necessarily reflect on Google -- even if they have no direct involvement in the issue.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Evgeny Morozov, originally from Belarus, is a Yahoo! Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

Not long ago I already announced my return to the world of bytes, tweets, and pokes — only to disappear for another three months. But this time I feel like it's for real: I am back! Spending nearly three months in a Belarusian forest, offline and surrounded by, well, "legacy media" of all sorts, has been a very exhilarating experience. Of course, it was also the worst possible summer to spend in a Belarusian forest — what's with all those fires? — but I withstood all the pressure (and no, I didn't meet any partisans).

This summer was full of technology and geopolitical news — BlackBerry, WikiLeaks, North Korean tweets — but I wasn't exactly shocked by any of the developments. The recent announcement that Iran is working on their own national search engine did not exactly shock either but it gives your humble blogger a good excuse to reflect on the growing politicization of the Internet in general and of search space in particular.

I've tracked the idea of national search engines for some time — see my coverage of Russia's plans to do the same here and of Turkey's plans here; this summer we also heard some noises from China on that front.

Now, in the case of Iran, we know very little about this new search enterprise; some fear that it might create some kind of an intranet in Iran — but that's about it. Let's assume it would be very expensive and very ineffective — not unreasonable assumptions to make in the context of a sluggish state like Iran, which has a few other things to take care of before exploring the world of Web2.0 in all its glory. (For the record, I can't wait for Tehran to host a delegation from Silicon Valley).

Still, I don't think that the high cost or the poor effectiveness present insurmountable obstacles to the project. The calculator may also seem somewhat inferior to Microsoft Excel — but if the latter is unavailable, prohibitively expensive, or too risky to use, even the calculator would do just fine.

I find the idea that ordinary Iranians would all flock to proxy-servers and censorship-circumvention tools to access Google and Bing — in case those do get banned — extremely ridiculous. First, it's not like there are enough functioning proxies to make that happen. Second, it's not like they are easy and quick to use for the ordinary folk. Third, my bet is that Google hasn't exactly spent much time fine-tuning its Farsi-language services to better serve the Iranian market; a well-funded company would find it much easier to beat Google in Iran than, say, in Portugal. And, well, if the Iranians could really make this service work faster than the rest — and why wouldn't they given that the Basijis already own the telecommunications company? — they may gain unfair advantages even over local competitors. The point being that I wouldn't write off such efforts just because they are state-led.

Now, there are a few other aspects to consider here. The recent public debates about the politics of the Internet in China, Iran and Russia have convinced me that Google, having joined the U.S. government in its quixotic quest to promote "Internet freedom", is in an extremely unenviable situation. Whatever Washington does in the digital space these days would almost necessarily reflect on Google — even if they have no direct involvement in the issue. The more moves the State Department makes in cyberspace, the more difficult it would get for the likes of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to claim that they are simply apolitical operators who are out there promoting the common good of our civilization, making the world transparent, and whatever other outlandish claims they like to make. Their own moves, in turn, would be interpreted in light of the demands of America's own foreign policy. Such are, perhaps, the costs of doing business a la "21st century statecraft".

From this perspective, everything Google has been doing in this space for the last 12 months — all those boring conferences and presentations in D.C., where Google's executives joined the likes of Freedom House and the National Endowment of Democracy — did not really help to burnish their credentials as independent and apolitical intermediaries. It's as if Halliburton decided to fund a Dick Cheney chair at some Texas university at a time when everyone in the media was buzzing about the latter's Energy Task Force.

For better or worse, Google chose to join with the U.S. government in politicizing the digital space — and it's only logical that foreign governments are beginning to see Google's dominance in their search markets as a political — rather than pure business — matter. As such, I expect many more plans similar to Iran's to pop up elsewhere. When Washington is leading a crusade for "Internet freedom" and Google is cast as one of its leading warriors, what sane government would be happy with a situation where everything its citizens search for can be data-mined by Google? Especially when the latter is so happy to tout its collaboration with the National Security Agency. Seriously, Google's publicity people sometimes just blow me away: if there was one relationship with the U.S. government they should have kept secret, it was that one. (Somehow, I find it hard to believe that it was NSA who leaked it to the media).

So, here is what we've got. In 2009 it became obvious — for American diplomats anyway — that Washington was in a unique position to exploit the fact that so many Silicon Valley companies were uncontested leaders in so many markets and that so much civic and political activism was emerging in those digital spaces. In 2010 American diplomats squandered such opportunities by unnecessarily politicizing this space, alerting their very opponents of the political uses to which the Internet can be put (e.g. making contact with Twitter during the protests in Iran — which I take to be the worst possible intervention into digital matters by the U.S. government ever). In 2011, we'll be seeing all sorts of pushback against the very Silicon Valley companies that were previously thought to be largely unpolitical market leaders. Everyone was fine with Google being the most popular search engine in their country until Washington began acting as if Google's market leadership may also be politically expedient (which, of course, it's not — but claiming otherwise makes for great newspaper copy).

Hence all the recent fuss over "information sovereignty"; whatever the actual circumstances, cyberspace is perceived to be strategically important as long as Washington treats it as such. Of course, as far as Washington is concerned, this entire "21st century statecraft" business may be just a rhetorical trick — but the problem is that from the perspective of foreign governments, especially if they are hostile to America, such tricks would almost always demand strict countermeasures. And those countermeasures would inevitable backfire on those who have signed up to use such services. None of this looks very pleasant, does it?

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