Monday, November 21, 2005

The Despots Strike Back

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In their revolutionary book, 'The Third Wave', Alvin and Heidi Toffler explained how Information Management would become the next great paradign shift in human conditions, comparable to the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions before it. Unfortunately, just as with the first two revolutions, there are people trying to control access to Information and establish an effective monopoly of knowledge trade. The present campaign revolves around control of the Internet. The Washington Post (of all people) got it mostly right in an editorial dubbed “The Internet At Risk”.

It boils down to this; some twelve thousand people convened in Tunisia to discuss control of the Internet, including American control. I think it is significant that a location like Tunisia was chosen to discuss a high-technology issue. Not Seattle, Tokyo, London, Houston, Berlin, San Francisco, Bombay, New York or Kuala Lampur, but Tunisia, the city of Tunis to be precise, a “hot spot” only when one is speaking about the weather. And the forum was once again mainly about “rich” nations needing to share with poorer nations, without a single mention about how many of the poorer nations not only lack the infrastructure to benefit from end-user computer applications, but very often have governments not known for free elections, to say nothing of accountability for funds received. And naturally, the leaders of those poorer nations, however they came into office, found it appropriate to demand that they be granted shared control of the Internet.

The Post noted, “Many delegates want an end to the U.S. Commerce Department's control over the assignment of Web site addresses”, but also observed “The reformers' argument is attractive in theory and dangerous in practice.” The Post observed, as an example, that any nation or authority which controls Internet names and domains can prevent ‘undesirable’ groups or individuals offline, or charge varying rates to show preferences where they please.

Of course, the Post did not get the story completely right. The Post contended that governments “can order Internet users in their territory to take offensive material down. They can order their banks or credit card companies to refuse to process payments to unsavory Web sites based abroad. Indeed, governments' ample ability to regulate the Internet has already been demonstrated by some of the countries pushing for reform, such as authoritarian China. The sovereign nations of the world have no need to wrest control of the Internet from the United States, because they already have it.”

And there lies the hidden threat. The best reason for American control of the Internet, is that little thing we call the First Amendment. Yes, it allows for the Nazi Party, the Hell’s Angels, and the Democratic National Committee to say all manner of malicious and false things, but it also protects minority viewpoints which would otherwise simply disappear. The same Internet that allows for pornography and propaganda, also allows any individual to have their voice heard, and for any argument to have a chance to stand on its own merit. Recent years have shown that network and cable broadcasts have just as much offensive material, and arguably the pursuit of ratings and sponsors makes them less act less responsibly than a website which exists or fails on its own accountability to its audience. The same Internet that drives radical malice like the Dean Campaign in 2003-4, also provided for a critical watchdog which tripped up a fraudulent attempt to influence the campaign with forged documents. There is even reason to believe, that the oppression of certain minority groups in other parts of the world is restrained by the knowledge that a webcam makes it possible for the word to get out to the entire planet. The Internet is a wild territory, but compared to other mediums for news, entertainment, and opinion, it is far more effective and honest than anything else available.

Naturally, this sort of honesty scares bureacrats, which has led to attempts to regulate political speech on the Internet. And there is already history on the books, showing that political speech is not always given protection by the Congress or the Courts.

It’s easy, in between elections and with so much other noise going on, to miss something this quiet and this subtle. But it’s important to remind folks, that for all the value blogs provide, there are many people who hate them, and would like very much to see them shut down, even as they deny their intent.

1 comment:

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