Daniel R. McCarthy of the University of Melbourne provides his thoughts on the Benchmarking Public Demand report.
In Benchmarking Public Demand: Russia’s Appetite for Internet Control the authors have produced an interesting, insightful, and at times disheartening picture of public attitudes towards Internet freedom in Russia. It is important, as debates over the future shape of the Internet continue, that researchers identify the different attitudes and distinct national conceptions of what the Internet is and should be, moving beyond somewhat stale paradigms of the straightforward authoritarian imposition of censorship on domestic publics and the often problematic paradigm of Internet freedom. To this end, Monroe Price and Gregory Asmolov’s comments in the introduction and Asmolov’s accompanying short article are central in setting out how we can start to think about these complex relationships and processes of opinion formation, placing the quantitative information into a coherent narrative of how public opinion formation takes place and how it matters for Internet governance.
The report also highlights a significant number of outstanding conceptual problems when thinking through Internet governance, and these will be the focus of the rest of this piece. If one problem stands out immediately in how we conceptualize Internet freedom and conduct research on the topic it is the assumption that Internet freedom is the fallback or natural position to which a public should aspire. Research looking at attitudes towards Internet freedom seems to be looking for deviance from what is the presumed normal condition of a strong desire for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This is not to suggest that these are not valuable goals – they are political aims that I certainly support and would like to see extended – but, at the same time, it is vital that we recognize this as a specific political position that shapes our research and how it is framed. Speech has always been regulated, even in the United States, and acknowledging different valuations of free speech to public life is important.
This points to a further conceptual problem related to studies of Internet governance – how we understand the state and policy making processes. Often, the view of the state in studies of Internet governance relies on a liberal conceptualization of the state as standing outside, over, and against the public and civil society. In this understanding there is a significant gap between the state and the public, and state policies will not necessarily reflect, and can also set out to manipulate, the public that it is estranged from. In this general understanding, the public is naturally liberal. As a result, explaining authoritarian policies becomes the attempt to explain how the public was duped, ‘manipulated’, or misled – no one would naturally choose such policies! Indeed, in many ways this mirrors similar arguments by vulgar Marxists throughout the 20th century, in which the failure of the working class to overthrow their capitalist oppressors was because they were duped, not because they actually viewed capitalist social order as legitimate. The analogy holds for Internet governance and public opinion. Just as there are actors promoting various frames, there are also audiences to interpret these frames, and they do so on the basis of their lived experiences and socialization into different cultural groupings.
Perhaps we should explain public opinion in favour of Internet censorship not as the outcome of top down manipulation, but as the result of genuinely held beliefs by certain sections of the public who happen to support state policies, policies which emerge from the groups in civil society that come to gain state power in the first place. The construction of a specific media ecology matters in perpetuating this process, as Asmolov rightly notes. The exclusion of liberal voices or alternative perspectives within the Russian media space limits the extent to which an alternative discourse, appealing to different – liberal – aspects of Russian society, can gain traction. Yet the process of constructing this media ecology requires initial support for moves to block alternative media sources. Arguments that the Internet is dangerous, an external imposition, and so forth, appeals to certain cultural or normative values that resonate with a substantial portion of Russian society, who in turn support government policies to narrow the public sphere. This is how social movements construct political coalitions that emerge to govern, and one of the reasons why Putin has enjoyed popular support – his picture of Russian society clearly resonates with a substantial portion of the population. Asmolov’s analysis is an important step in this direction in examining elite framing, and it deserves a wide readership. It remains to be completed, however, with studies of how audiences receive and interpret this information. This is, of course, a very tricky research task, but an important one if we are to avoid suggesting that the public can be led around by their noses.
Pushing for Internet freedom is a laudable aim, particularly if Internet freedom is expanded to include the ability to access information that may also be restrained by private property rights. It is a goal, however, that requires making a case for its merits, not assuming it as the default position. Recognizing the struggle over Internet governance as a between competing social forces moves the conversation beyond one that focuses on ideological manipulation towards a more clear understanding of the complex and very political nature of the contest and the various agents involved in making it.