“It’s not to control, but to protect the citizens of Singapore. In our society, you can state your views, but they have to be correct.”
Ernie Hai, co-ordinator of the Singapore Government Internet Project
I thought about some recent attempts to regulate/censor the Internet, mostly in Germany. I had trouble writing a blog entry about it, I couldn’t grasp the topic. Then it hit me: What’s really annoying me is that these attempts are thinly concealed attempts to enforce national values (in the form of local regulations) on a body that is distinctly international.
The Internet is not part of one nation. There is no German Internet, no Chinese Internet, no American Internet. These terms make no sense. Users switch rapidly between servers that stand in different countries — USA, Japan, China, Germany, England, France, and many more. In a way every Internet user is a citizen of the world. He or she can come in contact with people from different countries, with different values and goals. And many of the large websites are shaped by people from all these different countries: Wikipedia, Facebook, Flickr. People are working together and discuss ideas, no matter the country. It’s like a layer above a political map in one color — all countries are one on the Internet.
However, governments try to enforce their values on the Internet, or at least on the computers with which their citizens enter the net. They cannot control the Internet, so they (try to) control what is entered and retrieved. The Western World points to China and Iran and their censorship measures, but in truth, the Western World is no different. Attempts to regulate (censor) the net are also made in the Western World, under the veil of protecting children — either from abuse (child pornography) or from seeing things that they should not see (age checks).
While I am all for persecuting criminals, it should be for things that are crimes in each and every country of the world. Child pornography and terrorism would probably be on that list, but probably not much else.
And there shouldn’t be. In some countries it is illegal to make jokes about the king, in others you may not question local history, in others images of a religious leader is illegal, etc. These “laws” should not apply to material on the Internet. The Internet is an international territory, it transcends local laws. But whenever something is illegal in all countries it should be illegal online too, and given that all countries agree that it is illegal, it could be quickly removed and those responsible could be persecuted. And that’s a hell of a difference between censoring material by trying to prevent the access to it.
Working out these regulations would provide an interesting test of a world government. It would still allow for a free discussion of ideas online, because there will be countries where certain ideas are permissible, but some ‘very evil’ things will be forbidden. It will force unreflected issues into the open, make them available for discussion and analysis. It will confront people with other perspectives, different values — and those are worthy and necessary to discuss in our world.
It probably will not happen, because the politicians in every country would have to give up control and power, and no politician would do this. They would make themselves vulnerable to critique on the Internet and it would not be regulated by them or their proxies, and that scares them (and I mean all of them, including the most democratic politician). But it’s worth a thought (or dream). Perhaps the Pirate Party will try to implement this, but unless they become a major movement (like the green party in Germany) and can keep their supporters, I do not see much hope for this vision.
But I can finally grasp what bugs me about the Internet regulations of my government.
P.S.: There is one dystopian future associated with this view: A world where each government controls its local section of the net, where countries regulate every switch between servers in different countries by checking the digital passport of the user, where websites in a country are not available between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. local time where the user is if the websites contain material unsuitable for minors, where every bit of data is logged for decades for later inspection, etc. pp. This world will be on the brink of a violent revolution — because one day people will perceive that they are controlled and have no freedom, and they will rebel against that. And without other options they can only choose violence. And until that time comes it will be no place for creativity and innovation, because controversial subjects will be banned and everything that is immoral will automatically be illegal or simply impossible to find.