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The Internet, Politics, and the Politics of Internet Debate

December 3, 2014

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To reflect on the “political implications of the Internet” today is both arrogant and futile. What we call the Internet—computers and routers but also smartphones and the Internet of Things—is invading our existence. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; properly designed and governed, it could actually be a healthy development for democracy. But once the Internet is everywhere, a question like “What are the political implications of the Internet?” loses much meaning, in part because it is like asking “What are the political implications of everything for everything?” or “What are the political implications of money?”

The “Internet” is a set of services, platforms, standards, and user behaviors that vary across cultures. Online platforms that are popular in Russia—LiveJournal and VK—have different modes of governance, free-speech policies, and functionality from the platforms popular in either America or China. These platforms, shaped by the peculiar political conditions in which they emerged, give rise to different citizens and different politics. The totality of platforms, behaviors, and users constituting “the Internet” in one country is not the same as “the Internet” in another country. It never has been and never will be the “same Internet”—not even in the context of a single country.

There is no Platonic ideal of the Internet, or a stable abstract object around which we can build a philosophy, or a social science with implications on which we can reflect. The Internet certainly exists as a ubiquitous presence in our public debate, but this is not the Internet as it is experienced by actors on the ground—those who are actually making politics. 

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  • • The Internet, Politics and the Politics of Internet Debate

Social networking, for example, is different in Egypt than it is in China. Users in Egypt expect and do different things on social networks than do people in China—which makes perfect sense given that they live in different cultures,  with different political, social, and cultural concerns. In Egypt, much social networking happens on Facebook, an American site; in China, social networking happens on local sites that are tightly controlled by the government.                                       

China probably has a team of native speakers to do censorship—not necessarily the case in Egypt/Facebook. Such differences have profound implications on users’ freedom, ways of relating, and ability to openly express discontent, as well as on the ability of state authorities to monitor users’ actions.

Is social networking good for protesters? For dictatorships? For democracy? These are not questions we can answer in the abstract. The idea that social networking—or other technologies such as search engines, databases, Wikipedia, smartphones, sensors, Big Data, and algorithms—will have similar effects across political cultures seems delusional.

Questions about the utility of Twitter for protest and the challenges involved in containing the sprawling apparatus built by democracies require a lot of soul-searching and force a lot of uncomfortable questions, about the future of capitalism, privacy, personal data, responsibility of companies and governments, the Western obsession with the war on terror, and so forth. None of these questions will be easy to answer on their own, but they will get maddeningly difficult to answer if we also confuse ourselves with an unnecessary urge to somehow make sure that our answers cohere to some vision of the Internet as a singular network.

Given the immense technological resources available, the failure to predict the Arab Spring looks far more remarkable than the failure to predict the fall of the Soviet Union. Should we give up trying to predict anything, and just blindly hope that somehow, now that everyone has access to a smartphone and Google, things will work themselves out and democracy will eventually prevail? Well, no: this would be too irresponsible. The best we can do is to develop a better set of optical tools—the ones that would allow us to zoom in on particular practices and notice the actual bits and pieces of the many infrastructures hiding behind the Internet label—and embrace a form of epistemological modesty where, when we are asked to opine on “what does the Internet do to Subject X?”, we politely decline and stay silent. Or, if we are of a more dissenting breed, we point out the explicit danger of asking such questions.

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Evgeny Morozov is a contributing editor at the New Republic and the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs, 2011) and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (PublicAffairs, 2013). In 2010–12 he was a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation. In 2009–10 he was a fellow at Georgetown University and in 2008–09 was a fellow at the Open Society Foundations (where he was on the board of the Information Program between 2008 and 2012). Between 2006 and 2008 he served as Director of New Media at Transitions Online. He has written for the New York Times, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. His monthly Slate column is syndicated in El País, Corriere della Sera, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Folha de S. Paulo, and several other newspapers.

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