Ad for International Society for Human RightsMJ: The International Society for Human Rights just launched an ad campaign showing various autocrats cowering at the sight of a computer mouse. Visually, it's brilliant, but is this idea that authoritarian governments automatically see the internet as a threat accurate?
EM: Let me unpack this. It is true that authoritarian governments increasingly see the internet as a threat in part because they see the US government behind the internet. It would not be accurate to say they are reacting to the threat posed by the internet, they are reacting to the threat poised by United States via the internet. They are not reacting against blogs, or Facebook or Twitter per se, they are reacting against organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy funding bloggers and activists. This fits into long-running fears about color revolutions and regime change facilitated from abroad.
MJ: What do you mean when you argue that the internet can breed complacency—that it's the new opiate of the masses?
EM: Many of us were a little to early to assume that the most logical uses of the internet in authoritarian states would be to empower people. And to force them towards participation in politics. If you look at most authoritarian states, they are very grim places to live in—I come from one. It's not the most exciting place to live in and the politics of it makes it even worse! The only good thing about it is fast internet. That's the only way you can find some meaning in an otherwise very dark and gloomy life. If you look at Russia, there is no internet censorship. They banned a handful of websites, but it's nowhere on the level of China. They use the internet as an entertainment platform, more or less. Russian young people spend countless hours online downloading videos and having a very nice digital entertainment lifestyle, which does not necessarily turn them into the next Che Guevara.
MJ: In your book, you tell this remarkable story about East Germany and the impact of Western media there. Do you mind repeating it?
EM: If you look at East Germany, it was in a unique position. Pretty much he entire country with the exception of a very small piece of territory could receive broadcasts from the West. So you ended up with a significant chunk of East Germans watching only western TV. The assumption that some of us would make, if we really believe that information empowers, would be that East Germans would be watching news from West Germany in order to know what's really happening. But it turns out what was happening was that East Germans were actually turning to western television only to watch soap operas. They would watch Miami Vice or Dynasty; the news from West Germany was the least popular type of programming. What's most interesting is that later there was some research done looking at the attitudes of East Germans toward the West German state and how many wanted to leave the country. And they basically found out that those who could not receive West German television were the least satisfied with life and the most likely to apply for exit visas.
That experience slightly confirms the thesis that the internet can be the opiate of the people. With the internet we are facing more or less a very similar story. It does offer virtually limitless access to entertainment and for many people living in extremely depressing conditions in authoritarian states, it does provide a vehicle for getting by. For many oppositional movements, the internet, while providing the opportunity to distribute information more quickly and cheaper, may have actually made their struggle more difficult in the long run.
MJ: You're currently in Belarus. Is the fact that we're having this conversation via Skype mean that Belarus has relative online freedom or just that the Belarusian government isn't very good at monitoring the internet?
EM: Here it's not really as bad as it is in Iran or China. There is still very little internet censorship. I'm at my parents' house; if I were in an internet café, it would be worse because I would have to present my passport. But to tell you the truth, you have to present a passport when you visit an internet café in Rome. You'll probably have to do that [in the United States] at some point if the next Times Square bomber detonates his bomb from an internet café.