A Banner Year for Censorship


By Samuel Greengard

The IEEE Computer Society forecasts that 2013 will be a banner year for Internet censorship and control, as well as a "battleground for technical, social, and political control." The organization predicts that escalating battles will revolve around "filtering vs. circumvention, surveillance vs. anonymization, denial-of-service attacks and intrusion attempts vs. protection mechanisms, and online and offline persecution and defense of online activists.

In other words, the Internet has pretty much devolved into a three-ring e-circus that serves as a microcosm for global conflicts, scorched-earth politics, and the ongoing battle for control of hearts and minds. Once upon a time, circa 1995, the idealists and utopians of the world predicted that the Internet would crumple dictators and spread democracy across the planet. The free exchange of information would end tyranny forever.

Unfortunately, reality soon interceded. Today, China blocks many social media programs and makes news articles about sensitive issues vanish on demand. Iran aggressively filters content and engages in a purported cyber-war with U.S. banks and other institutions. Let's face it, governments are all spying on other governments, and hacker groups like Anonymous regularly take down sites based on their own moral system.

Meanwhile, the world isn't any freer.

The ugly truth is that human nature is human nature, and any positive achievements that we can accomplish with technology can also be undone with the same technology. Over months or a few years, technology can tilt the equation in one direction or another. But eventually, the situation reaches homeostasis. It is, after all, the physics of the Internet … and the universe.

A more disturbing thought is that the exchange of free ideas on the Internet may not result in any better outcome for humanity. The most recent presidential election led to a level of rancor that hasn't existed in most of our lifetimes. A Google search reveals no shortage of loopy conspiracy theories, racist and misogynic rants and half-baked ideas about everything from presidential birth certificates to a woman's ability to prevent pregnancy during rape.

Alas, too much of this imbecilic garbage slowly and steadily gains credibility as others forward emails and post their own kooky comments on discussion boards. At some point, extreme ideas seem reasonable and normal to quite a few people.

This is progress?