A DANGEROUS PATH
Jamshed Avari | 27 December 2011
A DANGEROUS PATH
Hot on the heels of last month’s news that Pakistani officials were trying to ban text messages containing words that had been deemed offensive, come reports that our own government has decided that Facbook, Twitter and other social networks must proactively censor anything that might be offensive. Putting aside for the moment that anything anyone says that is critical of anyone else is often deemed “offensive” and used as an excuse for petty violence, one has to wonder who the arbitrator(s) of the entire nation’s status messages, blog posts and photos will be, and what criteria they’ll use to judge offensiveness. Will all criticism of politicians be magically erased from the Internet? What about satire, or hard-hitting news articles?
We’re heading down a dangerous path. If—and this is a big if—some technological means of pre-screening each and every online activity is put into place, what’s to stop it from being misused on the whims of the country’s next self-appointed moral guardian or “offended” politician?
At least we’re not alone in the world. Kazakhstan is the latest in a long line of countries to have cut its citizens’ Internet connections, this time over fears of growing labor unrest. The UK made noises about censoring social media following riots there a few months ago, and even the US appears to be placing commercial interest above citizens’ freedoms, with proposed legislation like the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT-IP Act, which would allow private parties to block entire websites without any due process merely on the suspicion of copyright infringement. China, once criticized by the world for attempting to control the Internet and silence dissent, is now somehow a role model.
We need to question our policymakers’ motivations when they make such demands. Are they afraid that the free flow of information will somehow diminish their power? Do they have vested commercial interests? Have they been deliberately mislead, with facts being obscured by technobabble? Are they apathetic or indifferent to things they don't personally use? Do they have fundamental misconceptions about how the Internet—that wonderful "series of tubes"—even works?
Regulating every single message sent via every possible communication medium would be a ridiculously complicated and resource-intensive undertaking. It isn't strictly impossible, but there will always be enterprising people who develop workarounds and alternatives. It might be scary to imagine such a future, but if we don't keep these incremental erosions of our freedoms in check, we might not even notice when such a system is the norm. The way things stand right now, governments can block Internet access for flimsy reasons. Tomorrow, entire communities could be made to disappear because of one stray link or comment. Only awareness and the exercising of our democratic rights will protect the Internet from those with vested interests.