Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Democracy, dissent & internet censorship

One of the things that is often touted about the internet is its democratic, egalitarian nature. I can start a blog and express my opinions. People can read newspapers from all around the world. Information is at our fingertips - we can make more informed decisions, we can organise protest, action, and so on. Now I laud all of these things. Cyberspace is yet another way in which people can be informed, make decisions, etc.

However, the internet is often a bunch of facts, and facts to be verified, strung together to make a story, a way of viewing the world. They also need to be found. It is true that the best search engine is the brain, sorting the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff. However, it is also hard to find some information at times, spending many hours with a search engine. And here is the rub. There are some countries who are not interested in democracy, or the liberation of information - countries like China for example. And internet companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco Systems are more interested in profits and cuddling up to governments like China. "The firms were asked to attend the February 1 briefing by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus following uproar caused by search giant Google's decision last week to censor websites and content banned by China's propaganda chiefs. " ABC News Online, Sunday, January 29, 2006. 1:16pm (AEDT).

This is a worrying trend. The internet isn't democratic or decentralised when a few companies control the information - indeed Alan Jacob's in his book Shaming the Devil many sites are written only for IE, and look like crap with other browsers. If these companies can do this so easily, maybe it is time for alternatives? Think of a search engine that only contains webpages with dissenting information - not as a free for all for any racist or xenophobe, but for information that challenges government and big business disinformation.

In a "free" country like Australia, it is certainly easier to get access to alternative sources of information via the internet, but this isn't the case for other countries. One of the mixed blessings about a liberal democracy is that we can openly criticise it, although one can be labeled un-Australian, un-American, etc... often by governments. The last thing one would ever want to see is a return to the McCarthy era - though if one is Muslim these days, I wonder if the racial profiling that is likely to occur is something of a return to this? It is a difficult situation.

It is our duty to keep our governments accountable. In Quarterly Essay Issue 20 A Time for War: The Rebirth of Australia's Military Culture, John Birmingham contends that this openness is a good thing, and that for example, criticism of Vietnam lead to a change for the better (well, more efficient killing).

Let's keep the net free for all, keep the information flowing to those who need it, and use it wisely.

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