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The great firewall

At a time when it is believed that the Third World War would be initiated — if not fought — in the virtual world, every government has a right to be cautious of its people’s browsing habits, writes Rajiv Arora.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2009 01:08 IST
Rajiv Arora
Rajiv Arora
Hindustan Times

Power’s a powerful addiction. Be it a dissident, an establishment figure or an outlaw, once one tastes power, the craving for expanding one’s authority seldom gets satiated. A power struggle begins only when these different domains overlap, disturbing the balance.

That may explain why when the first visuals of the Uighur violence were Twittered, the Chinese authorities shut the internet and blocked websites like Youku and Fanfou (Chinese versions of Youtube and Twitter) and the media industry blog, Danwei. But this wasn’t the first time the Chinese State had reacted to such an ‘indirect’ form of information-sharing, especially one that wasn’t meant to leak out to the rest of the world. Around June 4, while observing the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square violence, foreign websites like Flickr, YouTube, Bing and Twitter were blocked days in advance. Even the two blog hosting sites and — known for their anti-establishment content — were made inaccessible.

At a time when it is believed that the Third World War would be initiated — if not fought — in the virtual world, every government has a right to be cautious of its people’s browsing habits. But when restraint transforms into authoritative prohibition, it raises all sorts of whats, whys and hows on the need for secrecy and instils a desire to break open locked doors.

By March 2009, an estimated 1,596,270,108 people had access to the internet. The numbers are growing fast. In this age of rapid content-sharing, the concern is not about what is being passed around, but how it is being interpreted. Take the case of the first-ever Twitter conference held in June to promote the social networking cum micro-blogging website as a business model. But who would have thought that debates on the Iranian elections and protests that followed would take centrestage in such a geeky affair?

People expressed their opinions on the alleged fudging of votes by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and it made headlines the world over. The purpose had been achieved -- people had made out of Twitter what suited them best. Soon enough, and as expected, murmurs of banning Twitter in Iran could be heard. The United Arab Emirates allegedly ‘banned’ Twitter just after a year of its inception for its content not being in line “with the religious, cultural, political and moral values” of the country. A host of other nations — Iran, Morocco, Brazil, Thailand and Australia — have intermittently denied their citizens, or parts of their populations, access to YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and Orkut.

As part of its day-to-day screening process, the Chinese authorities are famous for acutely moderating online space, which experts refer to as the Great Firewall of China. Any website that could potentially criticise or question the government is filtered before being made available for public access. Or it’s an outright ban.

Technology has blurred the barrier between news-providers and audiences. The internet has become one large medium neither controlled nor influenced by a single entity or organisation or political unit. So anyone who tries to arrogate this no-one-man’s territory should realise that he is only trying to clutch at grains of sand. The virtual world has become powerful because there are no power divisions. It’s a platform that gives the same treatment to a nobody and a somebody. Perhaps that’s why it becomes imperative to maintain this ‘balance-lessness’ and let the internet flourish with minimal restrictions. In any case, the behemoth won’t allow any other way.