Recently, we've started to see a lot of publicity about access to all kinds of 'dangerous' information available to people on the Internet. Recently it's been about those unfortunate people we call paedophiles. And around the world we've seen a number of governments attempting to or actually passing laws that restrict or in some way control, access to different kinds of 'dangerous' or 'illegal' information on the Internet. How can information be illegal I wonder?
There are two issues here; one concerns our right to access information and the other related issue of whether or not any of these laws are actually enforceable. In reality of course, there are other issues involved, including the role that corporately-owned media play in boosting certain kinds of stories over others, notably stories which are sensational which then become 'news'. Finally, there's the role of the state and of ideology in the flow of ideas, but these are issues that are rarely dealt with in these terms, especially by governments, anxious to defend themselves from attack, real or otherwise.
So what's the deal here? Why is it that the Internet has caused such an outcry from certain sections of society and from particular, if not all governments? Perhaps we should look at some contrasting examples to get a handle on what's at stake.
On the one hand, we have Western societys' criticising the Chinese government's (futile) attempts to control the flow of information over the Internet, it deems critical of itself and on the other, we have the French government's attempt to force yahoo.com to restrict access to sites that sell Nazi memorabilia because it contravenes French hate crime laws?
Or, to take a couple more examples, the UK just passed a very controversial law (which would almost certainly be considered unconstitutional here) that forces Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to install some kind of 'Black Box' that will allow MI6 and other state agencies to monitor ALL electronic traffic over the Internet. By comparison, every attempt to a priori regulate and monitor content on the Internet in the US has been declared unconstitutional. Although this doesn't mean that in the US and elsewhere, there isn't covert monitoring taking place.
I called this essay; 'The right to own the means of communication' and with good reason. Until the arrival of firstly, Desk-Top-Publishing and then the World Wide Web, owning the means of communication was largely restricted to governments and big business. Firstly through the way media and communications laws were formulated and the second through ownership or access to, Capital.
Okay, small presses, community radio stations, independent film-makers and so on, do exist but they rarely have access to mass markets, nor do they have the same 'clout' to influence the way people think about things. Essentially these all constitute 'exceptions' to the normal state of affairs, where the dominant culture shapes opinion in a million, subtle ways.
But when the WWW arrived, everything changed. Now anybody could publish pretty well anything which can potentially reach anybody with access to the Web. That's millions and millions of people around the world and growing continuously. Okay, not everybody speaks the same language but in spite of this, the Web has enormous potential to challenge the hegemony of the dominant culture by presenting alternate interpretations of reality.
For business, this wasn't really a problem. Already by the 1980s AT&T for example, had realised that owning the information highway had to be matched by ownership of the content that flowed along it. After all, the cost of making a phone call or sending an email has dropped almost to zero, so where's AT&T to make its profit from? By combining ownership of ISPs with content, big business is able to dominate access to Web and to shape its 'look and feel' through advertising or indeed the kinds of technological innovation that takes place. For business then, the Web is not a threat but an opportunity.
But for governments, the Web is an el grando headache of mucho proportions! The state's relationship is determined a number of factors:
Enforcing existing laws eg on pornography, terrorism or 'race-based' laws such as hate crimes
Protecting the state ie, protecting its data and by implication, its institutions
Responding to 'public opinion' (see big media above)
No doubt there are others but these seem to me to be the major areas. At the end of the day however, most of the issues which governments get caught up in revolve around the protection of people from exposure to 'damaging information' of some kind such as 'pornography' or in the political arena such as the right to access "The Anarchists Cookbook" where you can get recipes for making Molotov cocktails etc.
In both instances, government would seem to be trying to protect us from damaging information, or access to information which could be used to damage someone else. But the Anarchists Cookbook has been available in printed formats for decades, long before the WWW was a gleam in the eye of some teenage nerd in California. There's nothing in The Cookbook that anybody with a high school knowledge of chemistry couldn't duplicate. In any case, if I want to blow up something badly enough, I'll find a way. (Hopefully, we'll see just how good this global monitoring system is, as no doubt it will pick up my reference to blowing something up.) And does this mean that we should also restrict access to high school chemistry books as well?
The Web also challenges the fundamental notion that underpins all modern, so-called democratic governments which is that their business is protecting ourselves from ourselves. All have an essentially paternalistic approach to the relationship between the state and the citizen. The 'We know best' syndrome.
But at the end of the day, all attempts to control access to specific kinds of information, except in special circumstances, have failed miserably and not just for one reason but often for a multitude of reasons. And aside from anything else, the shit is just moving too fast.
Perhaps I should end this now, just in case I'm giving you information deemed to be dangerous by some state agency or other, or perhaps I'm corrupting someone's moral values by challenging the accepted orthodoxy. In my next piece, I'll explore code words and privacy on the Internet. All in code of course.