There can be no doubt that the Internet has been the most revolutionary invention of the 20th century. Never before has a human invention given so much freedom to so many people: digital access to information of all kind everywhere in the world. Today, more people get their news from the Internet than from newspapers; young people are watching more online video than broadcast TV; everyone can develop their own blogs and let the world know abut their lives, thoughts and opinions.
However, it seems that the Internet as we know it today has its days numbered. Over the next few years we are going to witness several attempts to gag the Net. But, wait a second… We live in a free world, don’t we? Well, sort of, given that if you want to start your own radio or TV station you will have to ask your government for the corresponding license. And yet, today anybody can create a blog, or start an online radio or TV station to voice their opinions without needing to ask anybody’s permission… Isn’t it just intolerable?
But there is more… People are using the Internet to coordinate protests against repressive regimes, and social networking sites like Twitter show the power of the Internet, a place where you can hear other people’s voices and they can hear yours.
Governments are scared. Very scared. Traditional dictatorships have always known how ‘dangerous’ the Internet is, censoring its contents. However, other so-called ‘democratic’ governments famous for shutting down critical radio and TV stations sometimes opt for more subtle methods: for example, the gag law passed in December 2010 by the Venezuelan parliament to restrict, limit and criminalize contents and the free exchange of information.
In 2011 we have seen many examples of governments’ attempts to eradicate this problem once and for all like, for example, when former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak shut down the country’s Internet connection and mobile phone network. A few days later he was forced to step down as president. Even some Western governments have started to consider the possibility of having a ‘kill switch’ to shut down the Internet at will, with the excuse of protecting the country against cyber-attacks.
The issue of freedom vs. security is in everybody’s mouth, and a majority of people believe it is worth giving up some individual rights in exchange for security. Benjamin Franklin expressed his view of the issue many years ago:
“People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both”
Today many people unfortunately don’t even know who Benjamin Franklin was. What’s more, many of them are very happy to trade their own freedom in exchange for a certain sense of security (whether real or not, the important thing is to think that you are safe). Moreover, if those taking your liberties from you have been democratically elected, then people are more than happy to accept it.
Governments even go as far as saying that any limitations on people’s liberties aren’t actually that, but they are giving citizens more liberty by protecting their security. This is nonsense. However, anybody that listens to 100 99 percent (let’s keep the hope alive) of politicians, however democratic they may seem, will see that their strategy is always similar: They all try to justify themselves by stating that they restrict our liberties to give us more freedom.
On February 15, 2011, Hillary Clinton gave a speech on the Internet, freedom and security at George Washington University. She praised the steps taken to protect global Internet freedom against its enemies -expressly mentioning countries like China, Vietnam, Burma, Egypt, Tunisia and Iran-, and explained how people in those countries were using the Internet to fight their authoritarian governments.
She also reaffirmed the U.S government’s will to defend Internet freedom, and pointed out the following as well:
“Terrorists and extremist groups use the internet to recruit members, and plot and carry out attacks. Human traffickers use the internet to find and lure new victims into modern-day slavery. Child pornographers use the internet to exploit children. Hackers break into financial institutions, cell phone networks and personal email accounts.”
She then went on to say that Internet freedom was a foreign policy priority, although a balance had to be found between liberty and security, this being one of the most important challenges to face over the next few years.
Once we have reached this point I think it is a good idea to quote Lenin’s opinion about freedom in order to avoid past mistakes:
“It is true that liberty is precious, so precious that it must be carefully rationed.”
And that’s exactly the key point. We must stay forever vigilant in preserving our liberties from politicians wanting to control them in the name of security.
If we say that the Internet has no frontiers and laws are designed to prevail over the concept of territory, we are not saying anything new or original. But if we combine those two ideas together and try to apply laws, regulations or any other system that limits or restricts access, freedom of speech or opinion exchange on such a democratic and egalitarian entity as the Internet things start to get complicated.
Besides, it doesn’t work. If authorities temporarily shut down all Internet access in a country, it will only cause more information diffusion and virality. Therefore, if they gave it a second though, they would realize that these measures are actually counterproductive.
So, while governments waste their time worrying about people posting negative comments on forums and online communities or uploading videos to YouTube, citizens have to deal with real problems like online fraud, and thousands of cyber-criminals make a fortune thanks to the lack of any cooperative efforts to uncover and arrest them.
It would seem that governments’ main concern is to limit Internet freedom in order to protect us… Well, really? I am absolutely convinced that that is NOT the case.
All this will eventually change the Internet as we currently know it… for worse at least when it comes to freedom of speech. In a few years’ time, besides protecting ourselves against cyber-attacks we will also have to look for mechanisms that guarantee our rights against government abuse of power. Some people are talking about the introduction of “Internet passports” to identify Internet users. This idea, widely applauded by some security experts, is sincerely nonsensical if not completely ridiculous. Does anybody really think that the existence of passports actually prevents crime, or that not having a driver’s license is going to keep some people from driving? The aim of this measure is to have people under control at all times.
Today our fight for freedom is more important than ever. Nobody should have the power to limit our freedom in the name of security. Whether I am right or wrong, what I truly want is to have the right to choose freely, even if it is just to make a mistake.