Dissidents must be protected from internet censorship, argues Hari Kunzru in an essay for a PEN anthology, Another Sky.
Saturday March 31, 2007
"Sometimes the 'Don't be evil' policy leads to many discussions about what exactly is evil. One thing we know is that people can make better decisions with better information. Google is a useful tool in people's lives. There are extreme cases, we're told, when Google has saved people's lives." Sergey Brin, Google founder, interviewed in Playboy, September 2004
As the internet enters its second decade as a mass medium, it's worth looking back at one of the old saws that was bandied around in the covered-wagon days, when Californian sages made gnomic pronouncements about the future and the rest of the world repeated them at dinner parties. "The net treats censorship as damage and routes around it." These are the words of John Gilmore, radical libertarian, Sun Microsystems employee number five and bona fide west-coast guru-gazillionaire, and for much of the last 10 years they've been repeated as part of the founding story of the internet, along with a gloss about the net's inception as a military communications network designed to withstand partial destruction by nuclear attack.
In a technical sense, Gilmore (who was talking to a Time magazine journalist in 1993) has been proved right. The internet has provided an efficient conduit for people to share all manner of information other people don't want them to, whether those people are government whistle-blowers, child pornographers, political dissidents, intellectual property pirates or terrorists. From the Drudge Report to beheading videos, censorship is being successfully circumvented around the globe. Looked on from the neutral standpoint adopted by network engineers, this is proof of a robust system. Ethical or political judgements about the content of the information flowing through the networks aren't relevant. It's all data. We should celebrate.
However, around the world, people have also discovered that, despite the abstractions of network architecture and the nostrums of boosters who predicted a "new economy" free of material constraints, the internet is also a physical thing, which has its existence on real telephone lines, internet service provider (ISP) routers, undersea fibre-optic lines and hard drives humming under tangible desks. And it's used by people sitting in real offices with real doors that can be broken down by all-too-real police if the information they're sharing contravenes local laws - and in some cases even if they don't, but some foreign power strong-arms their government, as happened in Sweden in May 2006, when US diplomats incited a police raid on an ISP hosting a popular file-sharing service called the Pirate Bay. The internet's ability to route round censorship has the character of an ideal rather than a reality, a theoretical property.
No one understands this better than the Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who in April 2005 received a 10-year prison sentence for "divulging state secrets abroad". A translation of court proceedings showed that Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong), a subsidiary of the American search corporation, had given information to Chinese state investigators allowing them to link him to re-postings on foreign-based websites of an internal message the authorities sent to his newspaper regarding coverage of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
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