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Will The Web We Wove Protect Us From Evil?

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The Internet, which began as a U.S. military construct for global communications, quickly became the international communications utility. Today, it is the globe-eating spiderweb of consumerism, expression (free and otherwise), love, hate, politics, and religion. Perhaps it will be a protector of free expression and defense against closed, authoritarian governments and oligarchies. Or it will be another force for censorship and control.

At the end of the '90s, the New York Times writer, Thomas Friedman predicted in The Lexus And The Olive Tree that "…two great democratizing forces — global communications and global finance — will sweep away any regime which is not open, transparent and democratic." Global finance surely has not. Global communication in the rapidly expanding and evolving Internet is the great hope. Like many of man's inventions that promise to raise our freedom and equality, the promise may not be fulfilled. Forces are even now gathering like Ghost Busters' demons over a Manhattan condo to use the 'Net to control and censor. We are at a crossroads and the future is unclear.

We now have a global network of inter-connected servers that create a spiderweb (the Quechua word of Peruvian/Bolivian Indians for the 'Net) of access in which the world has now become dependent. It has, in much of the world, become part of our lives, totally necessary for the economies, governments, businesses, and banking systems that connect our world. It is a fragile web (when will the terrorists target the linked servers and what Google calls "server farms"?) but we believed it to be the means to democratize and free the world. How, after all, could the dictators not fall and societies not become open and free with information and communication so easily accessible?

The Lumeta Corporation has been involved in the mapping of the virtual web that is the Web. The image included with this piece is a detail of one of the maps of the Internet Mapping Project of Lumeta.

The Global Policy Forum, a group whose stated mission is "to monitor policy making at the United Nations, promote accountability of global decisions, educate and mobilize for global citizen participation, and advocate on vital issues of international peace and justice," tells the story of Shi Tao, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison last April in China. The crime was "providing state secrets to foreign entities". According to the report in the Forum , he gave the Asia Democracy Forum and "Democracy News", a website, information about an order for censorship in China. One group, "Reporters Without Borders" (RSF) found themselves surprised by the facility with which the Chinese authorities had apprehended Mr. Shi Tao. He had carefully used an anonymous Yahoo Mail account to send the emailed information.

RSF managed to get a translation of the Chinese verdict and found the answer and the fault in the argument that "global communications … will sweep away any regime which is not open, transparent and democratic." Yahoo, it was noted in the verdict, provided the authorities with his 'phone number and address. Handing out information that we assume to be secure is not high-tech magic. Some things — snitching, for instance — never change. Yahoo ratted the man out. There goes the idea of the Internet as a force against which no dictator can stand.

What are the major forces against the Internet as a high-pressure wash of freedom over the world? Number one and, in the end, always the prime mover in plays of power, is the self-interest of those who rule. That some rule from raw power or demagoguery and others from networks of the wealthy who act to maintain their wealth and will bow to the desires of the powerful because that makes money.

Thomas Friedman wrote, "Thanks to satellite dishes, the Internet and television we can now see through, hear through and look through almost every conceivable wall. …no one owns the Internet, it is totally decentralized, no one can turn it off …China's going to have a free press… Oh, China's leaders don't know it yet, but they are being pushed straight in that direction." Having witnessed people in Iran watching Baywatch he predicted that "within a few years, every citizen of the world will be able to comparison shop between his own… government and the one next door".

The New York Times just reported M.I.T and the University of Southampton (UK) announced they are opening a joint department for the study of "Web Science". It will be an academic program (but will probably have great impact on web businesses) investigating the social networks and human interactions that the Web has created.

The program director is to be Tim Berners-Lee who the Times reports "… invented the Web's basic software… An Oxford-educated Englishman, Mr. Berners-Lee is a senior researcher at M.I.T., a professor at the University of Southampton and the director of the World Wide Web Consortium, an Internet standards-setting organization." Steve Lohr at the Times elicited this from Professor Berners-Lee, “The Web isn’t about what you can do with computers…" “It’s people and, yes, they are connected by computers. But computer science, as the study of what happens in a computer, doesn’t tell you about what happens on the Web.”

In the late '80s, I was photographing a lecture at Bard College by a political scientist from a prestigious, Boston university. He spoke of the coming break-up of the Soviet Union that would, if it happened, be caused by global communication systems. The fall of that wall was no more surprising than will be the fall of the Bush Wall on our Southern border. The Soviet Union was pulled like Lenin from its' pedestals by more than just the emerging PC and the phone and fax but by its' own incompetence. Higher technology communications just got the word out better.

The Guardian provides an example in the story of a 2002 promise in writing by Yahoo to the Chinese to follow "self-regulation," declaring it would not allow the Internet publishing of "pernicious information that may jeopardize state security". In 2005, Google admitted to not allowing links to banned materials by their servers in China. The writers of messages including the words "liberty," "democracy," or "human rights" receive a warning that their message contains "forbidden language," which they must delete.

In the wake of the Tianaman Square massacre in Beijing in '89, the focus word of the demonstration was "democracy". They even sculpted a make-shift Statue of Liberty (while America considers melting the real one into border walls). Many said without access to copy machines, PCs, and, especially, fax services, the democratic movement and the world's knowledge of its violent end would not have been possible. My photograph here is from a Chinese-American demonstration in a Hudson River city in memorial to the slain and imprisoned demonstrators staged during the days of, and surrounding, the episode.

A second Internet weakness is what the OpenNet Initiative published recently. They showed that the Chinese government is succeeding in censoring the Internet. They control the companies that control the routers and, with filtering systems — which they are reporting now as increasingly sophisticated in China and in Viet Nam — messages containing certain words can be blocked. "We had the dream that the Internet would free the world, that all the dictatorships would collapse," opined Julien Pain of Reporters Without Borders. "We see it was just a dream."

The OpenNet site offers PDF and HTML reports on its findings. Bulletin 012 is frightening enough in its description of new rules for Internet use, which starts with the reasonable requests (not spreading false rumors) and heads toward the monitoring of communication and news gathering. Blogcritics Magazine would not be welcome under these regulations.
China has "the most extensive and effective legal and technological systems for Internet censorship and surveillance in the world." The new Internet news regulations make several specific regulatory changes that strengthen China's grip on news media. More broadly, the regulations demonstrate a continued determination on the part of the Chinese state to align the content of the Internet with official views and policies. While the long-term implications of the regulations are not yet clear, Chinese citizens and organizations involved in Internet news, analysis, or commentary will likely continue doing so warily, if at all.

It was also reported the Chinese have made a new word, "egao," which is used to make satirical references to "social phenomena" using media clips. "Mash up" is our new word for it. Fines of what would be large money in yuan ($600+ US) could be levied for anybody on the 'Net satirizing others, especially using video clips.

The issue of the nature, the freedom, and the future of the Internet is being discussed this week as Internet experts meet in Greece. This is to be the first Internet Governance Forum (IGF) sponsored by the U.N. A major topic is going to probably be "grumblings" about America's dominance of the 'Net as it is presently organized. This is a four day affair in Athens.

A number of countries, like China and Iran, complained about "… having the key Internet systems managed by the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organization under tender from the US Department of Commerce." The meeting will have "…major industry players including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, Fujitsu and Ericsson."

The question, now that study about the Internet is entering the world rather than being a question of just those who study, design, and play with computers and networks, is about the nature of human actions, reactions, and interactions. It is becoming a question of individual freedom, freedom of expression, proliferation of hate sites, and of the hate for pornography that has blossomed on the once military web.

It is a complex and frightening web we have woven around our world. It seems both too strong and too fragile and has also become too indispensable for the modern world. Will it sweep away the chance of autocracy and censorship? Will it remain a Western, industrialized artifact or be taken over by the developing world that is so quickly, astonishingly quickly, absorbing it and learning to rely on it. Here in Mexico, it seems like the status of telephones when we came here ten years ago. The wiring of America pretty much completed in the 1930s and after the War in the U.S. did not happen in Mexico. In 1996, we arrived and were surprised to find the cell phone had leaped into dominance. The cell phone is changing the nature of many less-developed societies. Here, we have phone poles now and phones in the house as well as broadband service (about four months ago). The world is being wired now and becoming more wireless. We found some villages well into the backcountry near the Guatemalan, Belize borders where a pole held a public cell phone with a solar panel at the pole-top. Hello, Central. The centers of little villages change. Powerful cities change. The globe sports this new spiderweb and it remains to be seen what the spider will bring with it.

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About hfdratch

  • Bliffle

    Naaah. As a user of the internet (originally called ARPA when it was just mimeographed synopses and abstracts of various grad student papers mailed among grad schools), and a technical implementor of several proprietary networks such as IBM SNA and DECnet, I’m here to tell you that circumvention of attempts to control and stifle “internet” activity are doomed.

    Why? Because the underlying technology is decentralized. Anyone with primitive internet TCP/IP on their PC is capable of hooking into an underground secure network through a shift-register modulated spread spectrum broadcast system which is not only data secure but undetectable! All one needs is a simple modulator/demodulator for an RF network that could, for example, exploit the 2.4ghz cordless phone band. Childs play.

  • Ummmm…Wow. Is dilithim involved? Anywhere?