The War for Internet Freedom Has Just Begun
I have heard it said many times over the years that President Bill Clinton and his inner circle were apprehensive about the rise of the internet right from its infancy. While university clubs and lonely tech pioneers were generating public excitement by connecting people all over the planet, Clinton and his crew feared the internet for what it signified: an end to the government's monopoly over information.
If just any old citizen could broadcast news to the world over cyberspace, none of the government's traditional methods for regulating knowledge would continue to work. Having a White House press corps, after all, has always had little to do with keeping government power in check and an awful lot to do with keeping potentially damaging information in house, supervised, and under control. What better way to monitor and shape the news of tomorrow than to stuff all the White House correspondents into one small space for direct and easy manipulation? Should CBS or NBC or The New York Times stumble upon a story too embarrassing for those in power, there is always some bargain to be made or some threat to be leveled that can keep that information bottled up.
The "free press," in other words, has always been filled with information "gatekeepers" no less corruptible than any other humans and just as capable of intentionally keeping the public in the dark as they are of letting in some occasional light. For what it's worth, Clinton's worries were warranted, and a complete unknown named Matt Drudge nearly took down his presidency with a story about a stained blue dress that several prestige news outlets had refused to cover. The somewhat secret war over information would never be the same.
While we watch government-induced censorship increasingly squeeze the free flow of information today, it is easy to throw up our hands in despair and presume that the light of freedom will inexorably dim. I encourage you instead to see government-engineered threats to free speech as further evidence that both totalitarianism and freedom are on the march. Powerful institutions do not work this hard to silence voices unless they are deeply afraid. The push for control is inextricably linked to the perception of fear. The harder that authorities push to control what we say, the more clearly they reveal their own fear. This is a sign of weakness.
Consider what has actually transpired these last three decades as the internet connected billions. By any measure, freedom of speech expanded greatly, and the spread of information transformed the world. Not only did a virtually unregulated internet provide a brand new canvas for the expression of ideas, but also the traditional "gatekeepers" who had long claimed the authority to deem what is "newsworthy" lost their inherent power. The news cycle is no longer controlled by three or four nightly news anchors all echoing similar talking points in similarly stern voices. A handful of editors, producers, and publishing houses no longer exclusively decide what the public should know. In the Wild West of the internet, information has been abundantly available, and the people have decided what information matters most. Far from the Washington Post's self-serving braggadocio that it is in the business of saving "democracy" from darkness, it is the internet that has usurped powers once miserly hoarded by the Post and delivered them to the people.
Notice that two interlocking public revelations naturally emerged from the rise of the internet: (1) an open community of free citizens proved it had a tremendous amount of knowledge to share, and (2) this flood of information proved how effectively traditional news "gatekeepers" had always quietly exercised power over citizens. People who had watched nightly news all their lives started to see for the first time the subtle and not-so-subtle biases of the news anchors who controlled the spigots on the flow of information. It became possible for ordinary people to understand that news broadcasts and printed stories were far from purely objective presentations of facts. It became clear that the stories told by well known reporters often came packaged with personal and political agendas meant to shape minds and shift opinions. The internet's fertile territory for free speech awakened a lot of people to just how much they had always been deceptively controlled.
Now, the story could have ended there. One day, most publicly available information was controlled exclusively by a cabal of bureaucrats, politicians, academics, newspaper editors, and reporters, and the next day, a kind of democratic revolution in the free flow of information forever changed the world. Walls and protocols, gatekeepers and specialists, all came crashing down or disappeared in the wake of a new technology that both ran on and promoted personal liberty. Nearly all knowledge ever written down anywhere in the history of the world became obtainable and eventually accessible from tiny pocket computers that also served as decent phones. A triumph for "democracy," right? An unbelievable achievement for the West's millennia-long advance toward protecting individual freedoms, expanding public education, and respecting free will, right? The internet changed the world and while doing so became a first-rate repository for posting funny pictures of cats!
It's that last bit that guaranteed that the story would not end there — not the cat pictures, but the "changing the world" part. You cannot unleash a new technology that affects the geopolitical balance of power without expecting a reaction from stalwarts of the old system who stand to lose everything. Now given that the internet emerged at the tail end of the Cold War and perfectly encapsulated the triumph of American freedom over Soviet tyranny, it is perfectly understandable to assume that the old system being replaced was State-centric communism, and that the new system spreading around the world was classical Western liberalism. That is, after all, how the internet was trumpeted for years — as a means to break down the remnants of the Soviet system and as a way to penetrate through the closed-off, one-party State of the communist Chinese.
In reality, however, internet freedom didn't pit Western liberals against totalitarian communists; it pitted the world's governing "elites" against ordinary citizens. Long-held powers used to control and manipulate information have been up for grabs for thirty years, but only now have governments succeeded in creating the kind of online infrastructure sufficient for reclaiming all they've lost. Without Google, Facebook, and Twitter to corral free thoughts, they could never push censorship so openly. Without the creation of Apple's and Microsoft's controlled digital marketplaces, viewpoint discrimination would not be possible. Without the increased monopolization of internet service providers, cloud computing facilities, and online banking and commerce giants, regulatory agencies could never throttle the free flow of information so unabashedly. For thirty years, governments and institutions have slowly constructed a crystal prison of sorts — a beautiful digital world that draws the masses in only to control them. It's a system designed behind the alluring façade of freedom, yet ultimately grounded in the centralized government of suffocating tyranny.
To be sure, many people will gladly accept their new chains. They will hand back their internet freedoms and free speech for as little as a shiny new phone and promise never again to question what they're told. Yet hundreds of millions — if not billions — of people have learned to think more independently than ever before these last three decades. They have seen past the curtain of controlled speech and know that corrupt government actors manipulate their thoughts from the other side. And now that they know what they know, a great many of these people will obstinately refuse ever to be lulled back to sleep. The internet helped free the world. Governments want that freedom back. What happens next is for the people to decide.
Image via Pxhere.