Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Blow to Internet Freedom

Those counting on the internet to be the driving force behind social change may be forced to reevaluate their positions as new internet legislation out of China demonstrates that the paradigm of dominance remains as the determining factor in socio-politcal structures.


The Revolution Machine by Todd Berman (Creative Commons)

The new legislation in China requires internet service providers takes steps to ensure that users are registered using their true identities. Given the timing of the legislation, following rising online criticism of the Chinese government the motivation behind this legislation seems undeniable, and will therefore not be discussed here. Instead I would like to set this in the context of the role the Internet and social media tools play in revolution.

What this demonstrates is that the internet in itself is not a road to freedom from dominance.

Technology and social media advocates we elated with the role these played in the recent Arab Spring uprisings, and it would be difficult to argue against the notion that these were very positive tools for change in the hands of people fighting for greater freedoms there. The danger arises though with the idea that these tools are themselves the catalysts for change.


Raphael Thelen (Creative Commons)
A quote from the Revolution board on Reddit in response for a user post asking how we can go about starting a revolution:
"It is already happening. Just more slowly than you would like. Its an information revolution. No more secrets, lies get exposed very fast"
There is of course some truth to the response, however the implication is also that we only need wait out the course of events currently underway and a true cooperative society will arrive on our doorstep.

Not only does this deny the massive effort by those on the ground in those Arab countries, taking real risks for their beliefs, but it also gives and easy opt-out for non-participation in forcing through change.

The situation in China demonstrates that in better organized countries, with greater control over their internal systems and infrastructure, those tools become much less meaningful. A major difference between middle-eastern countries and China, is the former's lack of such elaborate controls. While some Arab countries were able to maintain repressive regimes, they were still in a much more chaotic state with more porous societies, leading into the uprisings. Every attempt to block internet communications, could be countered with users jumping to the systems of nearby countries, and the same efforts and investments in technologies and policies to control online information had not been made.

Compounding these factors are also China's relative geographic isolation. A look at population distribution shows the majority of the population clustered along the coast towards Russia (itself constructing a Great Firewall), North and South Korea, and the pacific ocean.



This is mirrored in the way that the internet traffic flows through to Asia in general as was demonstrated dramatically following the aftermath of the HengChun earthquake. Several major submarine communication cables connecting Asia to North America were damaged or severed causing massive disruptions in internet communications.

To what extent these policy changes will dampen criticism of the Chinese national government online is hard to predict. Access to proxy servers, and other methods of masking online activities remain readily available, and while the extent to which these will be adopted by greater numbers of people is impossible to say, it is a reasonable conclusion that the more access is limited the less people will access it.

The most subversive part of the legislation is that it places responsibility on the internet service providers for collecting and verifying identification of internet users. This places these businesses in the position of supporting would-be government critics by actions now outside the law, or supporting the government in their efforts to monitor and control internet criticism. Most likely this means that internet service providers will be co-opted into being defacto government agencies, given that they risk their ability to continue to operate should their users attract the wrong kind of government attention.


What should be taken away from these developments is that where revolution is concerned humans will remain the dominant agents for change. To claim that technology itself will be the force behind toppling dominant governments is to embrace a structuralist mentality that views individuals as the products of the systems they live within, whereas the reality is much more complex. New technologies will transform society, especially those that influence mass communication, but transformation is by itself a neutral process. For transformation to be positive will and effort on the part of human agents will always be required.

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