The ‘Mighty’ Pen’s Journey From A Sword To A Swiss Knife

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Online censorship – the new wave of repression!

Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer-prize winning foreign affairs columnist, examines the newest stage of globalization’s evolution in his latest book, The World is Flat. Friedman defines ten "flatteners" that he sees as levelling the global playing field for enterprising individuals who look beyond limitations of race, geographic location, or language. For Friedman, the ‘Internet’ is the agent that renders inevitable a transparent, democratic, decentralized, and market-based society.

This dream of a flat world through cyberspace is now convoluted with the restrictions imposed by various governments across the world. A case in point being the Chinese laws and regulations with regard to online search results. By filtering and controlling access to information, the world ceases to be flat for over a billion people in China. Online censorship is the ‘virtual’ Great Wall of China.

To comply with China’s censorship rules, the search-engine giant launched Google.cn, a version of its search engine run by the company that self censors content that is considered illegal from its search results in China. However Google’s decision to self-censor Google.cn attracted significant ethical criticism on how it clashed with the company’s most basic values.

I believe that we are distracting ourselves from the genesis of the problem. The point of worry here is not how global companies are changing their system to ensure continuity in one of the most populated nations. It just makes business sense to be present in countries like India and China where achieving “critical mass” is easy.

The point of concern is how consumer experience and privacy is compromised on humanitarian grounds, no matter how bureaucratic they maybe. The biggest oxymoron is the attempt to achieve a fine between local rules and regulations and upholding the ideals of freedom of information and exchange.

There are three sides to this story – the governments, global companies and the consumer. Bureaucratic governments will continue with its totalitarian mentality with respect to political speech and Internet communications and companies will have to learn to work around these.

For the Internet consumers across the world, the online medium is much more than a source of information; it is the new digital playground. It is emerging as an ‘entertainment hub’ and a popular destination for serious content research and creation. This apart the new age citizen is looking at the internet to increase political transparency (Anna Hazare), to start revolutions (Obama’s Change campaign) and dethrone autocratic regimes (Egypt and Libya).

To engage with this new age citizen more and more brands are moving online. The differentiator between a “brand” and a “loved brand” will be focus on the consumer and all else will follow.

However Internet censorship is as much a social and political problem as it is technological. So will citizens and policymakers come together dethroning governments with autocratic mindsets? Will every country rise to be the next Libya or Egypt?

And in this flat world, this is a dream that can be lived – the onus is on us.