Is the internet helping to free people from oppressive governments or is it simply giving those authoritarian regimes another way to spy on dissidents? Ethan Zuckerman from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society joins Brooke and Bob to discuss the internet’s role — for better or for worse — in uprisings from Iran to Egypt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media live. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's take on the Internet and the world in the next segment. But first, we get a song from our friends, Dan and Dan.
DAN [STRUMMING GUITAR]: Hi, Brooke and Bob. Thanks for asking us on the show. I’m Dan. This is also Dan.
DAN: Hi. We heard that you’d been discussing the Internet and thought you might like to hear a song that we've written.
DAN: It’s quite an angry song, isn’t it?
DAN: Well, that’s because I’m quite an angry person.
DAN AND DAN STRUMMING/SINGING: They want to take our rights away. They're only happy when we've paid. The time for words is over. This is war! They don't care less about our health. All they care about’s their wealth. We're not standing for it anymore.
DAN: Good for you, Dan. I mean, what are we going to do about that then? Go on a demo, maybe?
DAN: Mm, no.
DAN: Maybe make a donation somewhere?
DAN: You’re joking.
DAN: Well, do some volunteering, then. I mean -
DAN: [LAUGHS] I don't think so.
DAN: Well, what are we going to do then?
DAN: Well –
DAN, SINGING: We're gonna join a Facebook group about it.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHS] We're going to get all our friends to join it, too. We're going to write some messages about it. That’s what we're gonna do.
DAN [SINGING]: Click here if you've had enough. Like this if you don't like stuff. Click here if you disagree. Post this so your friends will see. We hate cancer, drop the debt. Banks are evil, free Tibet. Yes to fair trade, stop the war. No to landmines, help the poor.
[LAUGHTER] We're gonna join a Facebook group about it. We're gonna get all our friends to join it, too. We're gonna write some messages about it. That’s what we're gonna do.
DAN & DAN [SINGING]: We're gonna join a Facebook group about it. We're gonna get all our friends to join it, too. We're gonna write some messages about it. That’s what we're gonna do. That’s what we're gonna do. That’s – all we're going to do.
BOB GARFIELD: It has been an extraordinary two weeks.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This is undoubtedly a revolution for the 21st century.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The revolution in Cairo was coming for some time. Its roots are in years of social discontent and -
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Their 18-day revolution began not with terrorism and tanks, but with Twitter and texts.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: In a country without a free press or free speech, activists insist new media helped get the word out.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Facebook and Twitter are kind of like the, the tool that got people organized.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Facebook, which boasts five million users in Egypt, the most in the Arab world -
MALE CORRESPONDENT: But the government is trying to choke off access by blocking cellphones and shutting down the Internet.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A new weapon in an old fight, helping Egyptians do battle against an oppressive regime.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was sheer jubilation in Tahrir after the news that President Mubarak had resigned.
[SOUNDS OF CROWD CHEERING/UP AND UNDER]
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Out-organized and outmaneuvered by social media, by kids with keyboards.
BOB GARFIELD: In short, online connectivity is changing the world. And, by the way, for, for this part of the show, I'm going to make the case for Internet utopia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'll be arguing that while, of course, the Internet has changed the way people communicate and organize, the Internet didn't bring about revolution in Tunisia or Egypt. People did. You know, Bob, maybe you should acquaint yourself with the writings of Ethan Zuckerman, one of the world’s experts in communication on the new media across the globe. He’s a, a Harvard scholar, and I think that you'd stop imagining that pokes and tweets can foment a revolution.
BOB GARFIELD: Really?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think it’d be quite an education for you.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Well, that’s funny, because I just happen to have Ethan Zuckerman right here.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: You know - hi, Bob, Brooke. Hi, everybody.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: You know, Brooke, I, I've been listening to you here, and I - I think you just completely misunderstand my work, and -
[LAUGHTER] - I, I have to say I have no idea how you found yourself hosting a [BROOKE LAUGHS] syndicated public radio talk show.
[BOB LAUGHS/AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, that is so Annie Hall. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Uh, Ethan, Ethan, considering Thomas Paine and Robespierre and Lenin and the Ayatollah Khomeini - didn't have any, any Twitter accounts, how can we gauge the impact of the Internet on Tunisia, on Egypt and maybe even on Iran’s would-be Green Revolution?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I don't think anyone reasonable is arguing that Facebook is the causal factor in a revolution like Tunisia. But when you actually look at the situation, there’s a pretty good case that Facebook was pretty important. The protest that started in Tunisia started in a tiny little town, Sidi Bouzid, about 40,000 people. There’s no media that was able to cover the protest. Tunisian media didn't cover it. Al-Jazeera was blocked from coming there. And so the way that people were able to get that footage was via Facebook. Now, that said, the reason people actually saw that footage was that Al-Jazeera, which has a vaster reach than Facebook, was able to spread it out. And so, what’s gonna happen over time is we're gonna get off of this “Twitter did this, Facebook did that, Twitter can't do this, Facebook can't do that” and we'll have people actually trying to analyze what happened and how certain stories made it into the media dialogue and then led to mobilization of large numbers of people in the streets.
BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of analysis, it’s worth noting that this very afternoon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke in support of the Internet as the ultimate empowerer of the individual. Jamie, could you play that piece of tape?
HILLARY CLINTON [CLIP]: We want to keep the Internet open for the protester using social media to organize a march in Egypt, the college student emailing her family photos of her semester abroad, the lawyer in Vietnam logging to expose corruption, a teenager in the United States who is bullied and finds words of support online, for the small business owner in Kenya using mobile banking to manage her profits.
BOB GARFIELD: So tell me, Brooke, has the Secretary of State missed something?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. No, I think she has missed something. I mean, later in the speech she does refer to the darker purposes to which this new media could be put by authoritarian governments, but most important is she seems to fail to hold American companies to account. I'm reluctant to regard Facebook and Twitter as the digital equivalents of Radio Free Europe or, you know, Voice of America because, unlike Google, unlike Microsoft and unlike Yahoo!, they've refused to sign on to, what’s it called, the Global?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Global Net Initiative.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - the Global Network Initiative. This is a group of industry-wide standards that they want all the big companies of the world to sign onto, standards for freedom of speech and human rights. So, why didn't Facebook and Twitter sign onto that? Ethan?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, let me first back up and say I think the smartest part of Secretary Clinton’s speech today was making the point that the Internet isn't just a two-sided tool. It’s not just a tool that you can use for creative purposes and dreadful purposes, as you were discussing in the first chunk of the show. It’s inherently a mix between the two. The same tool that you use to stay in touch with old friends over Facebook turns out to be a great tool to organize a protest. And if you as the dictator try to block one function, you end up blocking the innocuous function, as well, and you really don't want to do that. What the Secretary didn't talk about today is the fact that almost all of these tools that we're praising are digital public spaces that are being run by corporations, for profit, within their own rules. And these companies aren't necessarily in the business of empowering revolutionaries. So Facebook, which is getting a ton of praise around, you know, the Egyptian protests and, and praise, including from me, in, in the role that it had bringing the Tunisia story to light - Facebook actually has a real problem with activist users. Activists often go onto Facebook, they start groups and they do so under a pseudonym because they're scared of getting arrested. Facebook has this very, very strict real name policy. And so, Wael Ghonim, this organizer who everybody has been praising and is now emerging as a major opposition figure in Egypt, lost his Facebook group because he signed up under a pseudonym. So people are now asking companies like Facebook, like Twitter, to step up and take these human rights issues seriously. And there’s a group, Global Network Initiative, that is trying to get people to agree on commons standards of how do you deal with human rights issues within these platforms. The trick is human rights aren't necessarily great business. If you’re trying to get traction for Facebook in, say, Vietnam, announcing that Facebook is the best platform on which to hold your revolution probably isn't going to go over real well with the government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: When did you become a hostile witness?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, and the fact is, is that it is, it’s not just corporations. Governments, as we've said, can use the same social media to track dissidents, to lurk in chatrooms, to spread disinformation, even to crowd source the identities of dissidents. Listen to this tape from blogger Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion. He has a great accent.
EVGENY MOROZOV: Well, in Iran, what we saw after the protests of 2009, the government actually went to many social media sites and they began collecting information about people who were tweeting, people who were posting information to Facebook. They even went to sites like Flickr and sites like YouTube and they collected photos and videos. There was one government-run news site which actually published photos that they found online, mostly on Flickr. Then they circled the faces of people that they couldn't recognize, in red, asking public to identify whoever they could recognize. So it’s a very interesting use of crowd sourcing.
BOB GARFIELD: Look, the defense stipulates that some American companies like Facebook and Google and Yahoo! and others, Twitter, may have some things to answer for, and, and obviously repressive governments have all the same access to these tools that freedom-loving peoples do, including this particularly nefarious idea of crowd sourcing the identification of protestors. But revolutions are by definition the work of crowds, and crowds can do a lot more than snitch on one another. Ethan, tell me about crowd sourcing not for evil, but for good.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well first when we look at Iran, let's keep in mind that we're dealing with one of the most repressive governments in the world, and the notion of going out and, say, taking photos of protestors and then sitting down in the State Security Bureau and identifying them is, is hardly a new technique. The idea that you put it on the Web and you try to crowd source it is very sexy, but essentially what you see with these tools is what is -
BOB GARFIELD: Very Stasi, very sexy.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Very sexy, very Stasi.
[LAUGHTER] You can form your own images there. But these technologies, again, they're double-sided, and you can use them for a lot of different purposes. In Kenya, in the wake of really terrible violent protests that swept the country after the disputed 2007 elections, you saw a group of people get together and build a platform called Ushahidi. And the idea was there was so much going on in Kenya the media couldn't cover it; you simply couldn't witness both the bad things, the devastation of what was going on, and the good things, people taking in people of another tribe, sheltering them from violence, so on, and so forth. These four programmers put together a platform called Ushahidi, which allowed anybody with a mobile phone to take a photo or send a text message and either report something bad that had happened or something that – good that had happened and put it together on a map. That form of crowd reporting has been so powerful, it’s now been used all over the world for things like tracking the Russian fires this past summer or even tracking snowstorms in Washington, DC. So you can use these technologies for almost whatever purpose you turn them to. It shouldn't be a surprise that the Iranian government is putting them towards a miserable purpose, but it doesn't have to be that way.
BOB GARFIELD: Before I turn the witness back over to you, you mentioned earlier the notion of the state being stuck in what I think is called the dictator’s dilemma, that in order to repress the public by shutting off the Internet they would have to simultaneously close off the corridors for running an economy, for example. Can you talk about that, particularly as it played out in Egypt?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: So the dictator's dilemma basically stipulates that if you run a repressive government, the last thing you want is a communications medium that people can use to organize themselves. So you really don't want SMS on mobile phones because we know from the Philippines that people use it to organize and get people out to a public square. You really don't want Facebook. You don't want any of these tools that people could use to mobilize a mass of people. The problem is if you turn these tools off you crash your economy because these tools are dual use, and it’s very, very hard for a government to withdraw itself from the Internet entirely without suffering severe economic consequences. One of the things that I've been advising to activists for years is to try to use these tools for completely trivial purposes, as well as for serious purposes. That is something that I've called the cute cat theory, which is to say that it’s a real expensive thing for governments to shut down Facebook if people are using it mostly to share cute pictures of cats. If they're only using it for political revolution, then it’s actually pretty easy for a dictator to shut it down. But anything that is a dual-use technology, whether it’s dual use in keeping your economy running or dual use in allowing people to have sort of silly and fun uses for it, that’s a much harder technology to take offline in the case of an activist movement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But can't the governments track how you’re using it? I mean, if all your friends are investment bankers, maybe they'd leave you alone, and if all your friends are human rights activists and you read nothing but critical assessments of the authoritarian government, they're going to find out. So they can be quite selective, so they can maintain the financial parts, the parts that fuel the economy and crush the other parts.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: So surveillance is a really tough topic. And the problem with studying surveillance, which we try to do at the, at the Berkman Center, where I'm based, is that if it’s done well, you’re never going to be able to see it. So what you have to sort of study is what surveillance potentially could be. And it’s very hard to imagine, even in a country like China that throws an enormous amount of resources at surveilling the Web, to believe that you could surveil everybody. So what we tend to assume is that the surveillance tends to focus much more on known activist types. The sort of profiling that you’re talking about sounds really spooky, but when you think about it and you look at sort of what ads you’re targeted on the Internet, they generally don't get my gender right, never mind whether or not I'm trying to overthrow the government or not.
[LAUGHTER] So at this stage of the game, I'm not entirely sure that I'm going to worry about algorithmic targeting. Now, I might worry, on the other hand, if I'm a known dissident in Bahrain right now, where the government is, in fact, very actively cracking down on people who are using services to stream from the protests in Pearl Circle and stream from their mobile phones onto a live video site. We know that they're targeting individuals and shutting them down. So surveillance is real. It just may not be as broad as we imagine it to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, but blocking access is very broad. We decided to go on this site that tells you which websites are blocked in China at any point, and we hit Dalailama.org, figuring that one would be blocked, and, sure enough, it was. Then, of course, we decided to search the very anti-authoritarian radio program On the Media, assuming that would be blocked in China as well – oh - oh, well.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHS] It wasn't blocked. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: That was disappointing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But anyway –
BOB GARFIELD: I haven't been so upset since I wasn't on Nixon’s enemies list.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It looks like we have to wrap this up, Ethan. So do you see yourself as an Internet utopian when it comes to global affairs?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I don't much care for the terms of the debate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was nice of you to -
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much, Ethan Zuckerman.
[TWO AT ONCE]
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: It could be dystopian, it could be utopian. The point isn't whether it’s one thing or another. We only really invented the consumer Internet that we're all talkin’ about in the last 15 or 20 years. There are people in this room who probably were involved with inventing it very early on. We've had less than two decades to wire this thing to be the way it is. The question we should be asking is how to make it less dystopian and more utopian. That’s a worthwhile question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so just a quick follow-up in 30 seconds. How do we do that?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Have me back in a year or two.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Ethan Zuckerman, thank you so much for joining us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Next up, the future and how a supercomputer named Watson may be the next Jeopardy champion.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, live.
[FRANK KIMBROUGH PLAYING PIANO/UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that’s Frank Kimbrough playing.