Friday, June 26, 2009

Free speech & the Internet

The news media loves showing how "hip" they are these days by constantly talking about Twitter. It's kind of funny actually, because we almost don't need the news anymore since you can track current events and memes in the blogosphere and twittersphere. Yesterday Michael Jackson died, and within minutes the tag "#michaeljackson" was at the top of the website's Rising Trends list.

The Internet changes the world in a lot of ways. It really is revolutionary if you think about it. I would compare the Internet to a technological catalyst such as the printing press. Gutenburg invented the printing press in 1445, allowing the collective knowledge of humanity to be spread throughout the masses. The Dark Ages was a time known for repression by religious dogma and despotic rulers. Literacy took Europe out of the "Dark Ages" into the "Renaissance" (roughly the 14th - 17th centuries) where culture, science and philosophy expanded. Martin Luther sparked the protestant revolution by nailing his printed 95 Theses to the doors of churches in 1517. Our founding fathers were inspired by the printed pages of thinkers before them like John Locke and Thomas Paine, who supported inalienable rights and representative government.

The Internet multiplies the spread of ideas. We may be on the cusp of a second renaissance, which will be fueled by 1) unlimited access to information by all, and 2) "crowd-sourcing" becoming the new efficient standard for growth of ideas. Youth in Internet cafes around the world now have Google and Wikipedia, which can provide a better education than most U.S. public schools. Interest groups organize and communicate instantly. Ideas aren't merely filtered by a news network of talking heads, instead they spread virally across blogs, tweets, and Facebook networks. Sure, there is a lot of crap to sort through... like inane blabber about reality TV - but that's just muck in the sea of diverse ideas. The Internet's potential resides in it's unfettered openness.

Now, here's the scary part. The Internet is a new phenomenon, which makes it a prime target for bureaucrats and statesmen who are eager to control it. The FCC already has it's regulatory tentacles wrapped around traditional media - censoring what can be said when & how. Thus far, the Internet is the wild west... pretty much anything goes. Americans may not be surprised when oppressive government in China filters internet use, but most people don't realize so-called 'free states' in Europe are also creeping this direction... just look at France and Germany. Politicians will of course use a premise such as "child pornography" or "homeland security" to justify these intrusions, but what most non-techie people don't understand is that ISP filtering gives government a censor button for the entire Internet (a dangerous level of power).

We may not have to worry here in the USA right? We all trust our government implicitly to not violate this power. Well, history should always be a gentle reminder to cozy Americans that eventually... the State and the People tend to disagree. Let's check out a few current examples where the Internet is already becoming a game-changer:

First, there's this guy, Rodrigo Rosenburg. He was assassinated by the Guatemalan President.... he just had someone post-humously post his testimony on YouTube. This incident triggered huge protests in Guatemala. Someone was even arrested for Twittering.

Also in the news this month, huge protests in Iran over election fraud. SMS (text message) networks mysteriously shut down during the election, perhaps a way for the State to squash any attempts at flash mob rebellion. Yet, they couldn't be quieted with alternatives like Twitter and YouTube available. The world gets an inside look at Iran's oppression, which must make the regime quite uncomfortable.

These examples demonstrate the Internet empowering the People. This is why it's critical that we protect it's openness, and prevent any kind of ISP filtering or censorship. This month in South Carolina, the Governor skipped town to visit his Argentinian mistress, while the Attorney General attacked Craigslist for it's sexy ads. Should we allow these people to control our choices? I've come across observations that the Internet is highly libertarian - perhaps because more intelligent people comprehend the economic and moral value of liberty, and also recognize that the Internet is a means to fight for liberty.