Following on the heels of my last post about the problem of sorting factual from dubious sources of information on the Internet, there is another pervasive myth about the World Wide Web – that it represents an exemplar of free exchange of ideas and is, potentially, an engine for world democracy. It ain’t necessarily so.
A few months back I had posted links to two videos of interviews with former US President, Bill Clinton. Several of my readers outside the US told me they were unable to view these – access from outside the US was being blocked.
In the uproar over the recent Wikileaks controversy, Reuters reported that “The U.S. Air Force has blocked employees from visiting media websites carrying leaked WikiLeaks documents, including The New York Times and the Guardian…” Note – it was not access to WickLeaks that was being blocked but access to public news sources where one could find articles about WikiLeaks.
Yes, the Air Force, like any employer, does have the right to control how their “employees” use their information technology. But the blowback against Wikileaks has been quite revealing. The entities controlling their domain registration and web hosting, bowing to outside pressure, pulled the plug effectively shutting down the site. PayPal and Amazon discontinued their financing connections making it difficult or impossible for Wikileaks to receive funding.
China, a huge engine for emerging Capitalism, has reminded us that they are also still a totalitarian state. Propaganda minister Li Changchun, after Googling his own name and finding information he didn’t particularly like, forced Google to shut down their China based servers. It has long been known that Chinese citizens are unable access information about Chinese dissidents, pro-democracy sites or even accessing any information about the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
Google “Internet Censorship” and one can find any number of organizations deeply concerned freedom to access the Internet. But censorship, control and manipulation of the Internet is not solely a government intrusion. The private commercial companies who provide access, connectivity and content have a strong hand in what flows through the web. The issue of “Net Neutrality” has been lobbied and debated in the halls of Congress. Business interests would dearly love to institute tiered charges for access, promote favored products and services over less profitable, or even completely block or deny access to information they deem for whatever reason.
The technology enabling censorship is remarkably simple. Having been a network technician in my previous occupation, I know how, with simple mouse clicks within Firewalls and Routers, how to divert, block and reroute information traffic. It is common practice now to routinely obtain your precise geographical location from the IP (Internet Protocol) address of your computer or phone.
Google, of course, has made billions of dollars by charging for prioritizing search results using applications such as AdWords and AdSense which offer pay-per-click services to businesses.
Can you trust that what you search for on the Internet today return the best possible results? The answer is No. There are growing numbers of entities with vested interests to protect and the means for controlling what we are able to access. The issue surrounding the controversy about WikiLeaks is but one example. The more frightening prospects are the censorship we don’t know about.