In her celebrated January 2010 statement on “internet freedom”, Hillary Clinton chided countries such as China, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Egypt for placing restrictions on internet access. The then-US secretary of state affirmed her government’s conviction that “the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become”, because “access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship”.
Not long after, the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks obtained a trove of information revealing US military and diplomatic conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the world. Information flowed freely. But the US government appeared somewhat less convinced of its capacity for strengthening society. Access to WikiLeaks was restricted in many government agencies; Amazon, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal were persuaded to withdraw their services; and students and government employees were discouraged from sharing Wikileaks information on pain of jeopardising career prospects.
Internet freedom, it turned out, was not a sacrosanct principle. It failed to resist the intrusion of profane political concerns. As an analytical category independent of political and social constraints, the internet produced stirring rhetoric, but shorn of its obfuscating theology, it proved subject to the imperatives of power as much in the United States as in Uzbekistan.
This disconnect between the reality of the internet – the physical infrastructure, with its platforms, protocols and utilities; its promises, perils and limitations – and the idea of “the internet” – as a fixed, coherent and unproblematic phenomenon that is open, public and collaborative – enables two dangerous tendencies that are the subject of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist.
The first he calls “solutionism” – a preoccupation with spectacular and narrow solutions to complex social and political problems. The second is “internet-centrism” – a conviction that “the internet” heralds a revolutionary era, a time of profound change in which old truths have become obsolete.
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