Fri, Mar 28, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Leaders unable to subvert communications of high-tech revolutionaries

Governments have also joined the fray and have formed special agencies tasked with protecting the public by keeping track of the Internet activities of their citizens

By John Naughton  /  The Observer

That particular experiment in isolationism ended after five days, and it is still not clear why. Some observers argue that the Egyptian regime’s about-face was forced by the Egyptian military’s realization that their vast commercial interests were being harmed by the ban, while others argue that the blockade had the counterproductive effect of encouraging even more people on to the streets to find out what was going on.

In that context, it is even possible that Erdogan knew what he was doing. In a perceptive blog post on the Twitter decision, British journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason says that the ban may have been a gambit “designed to force the secular, young and leftist opposition onto the streets during the election, boosting the turnout of their opponents, the conservative Islamist masses.”

Even so, Mason sees Erdogan’s ploy as just the latest indication of a deeper trend.

“This is not about Turkey; it’s about the right to be modern,” he says.

He says the aging elites of the pre-Internet age are slowly realizing what young people are born knowing: You cannot turn off social media without turning off modernity and economic life.

The workaround Turkish tweeters are using exploits the fundamental strength of the Internet: It is a network of networks, containing non-hierarchical pathways that simply do not allow authorities to switch part of it off. This is a signal moment in that process, when a once-respected statesman turns into a Canute-like clown.

There is a whiff of technological determinism about this that makes me uneasy. Ever since the Internet appeared in the 1980s, the really big question that it posed was whether it would prove a powerful enough force to overthrow the established order.

Will the central elements of that order — the state, transnational corporations, military and hierarchical institutions generally — be “disintermediated,” dissolved or bypassed by this new decentralized, empowering, liberating, democratizing technology?

The honest answer is that it is too early to say. There have, of course, been some heartwarming examples of how the corrupt old order has been discombobulated and outmaneuvered by technology and its resourceful users. However, in the last decade the world has also seen how the Internet has been commandeered by the established order — for example in the way the US National Security Agency and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters have turned it into an Orwellian dream machine, and in the way the Chinese have invented a new form of tech-savvy governance — what the Internet freedom campaigner Rebecca Mackinnon named “networked authoritarianism.”

Erdogan may or may not be a clown, but he is not really a serious player in this particular game and hubris is a luxury that only fools can afford.

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