Wednesday, January 19, 2011

the internet: totalitarian tool?

Wired | Cold War baggage severely limits the imagination of do-gooders in the West. They assume that the Internet is too big to control without significant economic losses. But governments don’t need to control every text message or email. There’s a special irony when Google CEO Eric Schmidt suggests—as he did in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last November—that China’s government will find it impossible to censor “a billion phones that are trying to express themselves.” Schmidt is rich because his company sells precisely targeted ads against hundreds of millions of search requests per day. If Google can zero in like that, so can China’s censors.

Calling China’s online censorship system a “Great Firewall” is increasingly trendy, but misleading. All walls, being the creation of engineers, can be breached with the right tools. But modern authoritarian governments control the web in ways more sophisticated than guard towers.

This isn’t just theory. The Kremlin is allegedly soliciting proposals for data-mining social networking sites. The police in Iran and Belarus reportedly browse such sites in order to find connections between opposition figures and dissidents. China tried to launch Green Dam, a technology that studies the browsing habits of its users before deciding to block access. And contrary to what Eric Schmidt believes, authorities do have the ability to locate and monitor mobile phone users, as well as censor their messages.

Why all the tricky techniques? Superpowers like China have to engage with the global economy. So for them, the best censorship system is the one that censors the least. Millions of people already disclose intimate social data on Facebook, LinkedIn, Delicious, and their Russian and Chinese alternatives—and that’s all the data governments need to pick the right target. Online friends with an antigovernment blogger? No access for you! Spend most of your day surfing Yahoo Finance? Browse whatever you want. Satisfied Chinese investment bankers will have access to an uncensored web; subversive democracy activists get added to the government watch list.

Can the Internet empower dissidents and pro-democracy activists? Yes. But it can also strengthen existing dictatorships and facilitate the control of their populations. Washington’s utopian plan to liberate the world one tweet at a time could also turn American innovation into a tool for the world’s subjugation. Fist tap Nana.