Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Freedom in the Internet Age

Independence Day is a time to reflect on the status of freedom in the USA and around the world. Many people argue that one agent in the struggle for democracy and human rights is the Internet.

I'm not convinced. In fact, recent history suggests that far from being a promoter of freedom, the Internet has, more often than not, constricted or even abolished freedom. Don't get me wrong, the Internet is a wonderful thing, but it's not a champion of freedom. 

There have been many promoters of the Internet as an agent of freedom, including Hillary Clinton and journalist Andrew Sullivan. In the case of Mr. Sullivan, he stated during the failed Iranian revolution of 2009, "[t]he revolution will be Twittered." Yet for all talk, the Iranian government was able to use the Internet and social networks to infiltrate protest groups and track down protesters. In the end, because of its vast resources, the Iranian government was able to spread its own propaganda and smash the revolution. 

The idea that the Internet will bring about an "cyber-utopia," a belief that the culture of the Internet is inherently emancipatory is laughable, so says, Evgeny Morozov, in his book, The Net DelusionMorozov warns that unless we are careful, the power of the Internet will not bring democracy but an entrenchment of authoritarian regimes. He cites the failed Iranian revolution of 2009, the use of the Internet in China, Russia, and Venezuela to promote their own regimes, and the ever increasing use of the Internet by western governments to access private information about their citizens. 

We forget, that for the most part, the Internet is a commercial concern. It's more about making money than spreading freedom. It's telling that both Twitter and Facebook have refused to join the Global Network Initiative, an industry wide pledge to behave in accordance with the laws and standards covering the right of freedom of expression and privacy embedded in internationally recognized documents, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So today, while we reflect on the freedoms we often take for granted, we should be aware that those freedoms are always vulnerable.

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