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The vision of freedom has become one of repression

IN 1994 I invited Tim Berners-Lee, then a fairly obscure technical geek, to deliver the closing keynote speech at an international technical conference I had organised. A few of us knew him as the inventor of a new electronic publishing system — the World Wide Web — which looked set to revolutionise the use of the internet.

 

Tim was then moving to Boston to set up a new organisation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to regulate the future direction of the web.

 

We speculated on what effect the web might have on society as it rolled out around the world, for the first time creating an instant publishing mechanism, open and available to all. I asked him what he thought might be the web’s most enduring legacy and his reply surprised me. He believed that it might break down political barriers and make it more difficult for repressive societies to keep information away from their citizens. Free and unfettered access to information on a global basis would surely create a new transparency making it more difficult for totalitarian regimes to control dissidents.

None of us had reckoned with the ability of technologists to reintroduce barriers and controls.

 

The huge US-based networking technology manufacturer, Cisco, has been accused of being the main supplier to what has been dubbed the “Great Firewall” of China. Internet users in China find that many international websites are routinely blocked to them and suspect that the more tech-savvy users who know how to get access to such blocked sites are being monitored and their activities reported to the authorities.

 

According to Rebecca MacKinnon, of Harvard University’s Center for Internet and Society Cisco has been responsible for supplying the technology that enables much of this, using equipment that may be in breach of US government legislation against supplying technology to repressive regimes.

 

Cisco maintains they do not participate in the censorship of information by governments and that they comply with all US government regulations which prohibit sales of their products to certain destinations.

 

And it’s not just Cisco. Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have been accused of co-operating too closely with the Chinese authorities. For example, searches on MSN’s blog site for phrases such as “human rights” and “democracy” are routinely blocked. Many websites that might be critical of the Chinese government simply do not appear on Yahoo directory searches.

 

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, Winston Smith worked for the Ministry of Truth, where the actions of ordinary citizens were monitored and dissidents were identified for ‘vaporisation’. In today’s China, the modern-day equivalent of Smith doesn’t have to collect clippings sent via pneumatic tubes, he simply uses the web.

 

MacKinnon says the Chinese filtering regime is “the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world” and the censorship of web logs, search engines, chat rooms and e-mails is implemented on a massive scale.

 

It seems ironic that the web, which Berners-Lee thought would make life easier for political dissidents, has actually made it easier for the authorities to repress their citizens and surprising that major US-owned technology suppliers have led the way.

 

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