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On The Horizon: The Slingshot Of Information Freedom

David Post
Bradford C. Brown

When the Chinese government recently fired Zhang Wenkang, its minster of health, for lying to the public in an attempt to cover up the scope of the SARS outbreak, a small but significant milestone in political history and the history of information was passed. Perhaps you're too young to remember a time--and it was not that long ago--when lying and covering up information was an essential part of the job description for most high government positions in China and other Communist countries. One can only imagine Mr. Wenkang's reaction to the news that he was being sacked: You're firing me for what!?

We thought of this episode while looking over a new Carnegie Endowment study by Shanthi Kalathil and Taylor Boas titled Open Networks/Closed Regimes. Kalathil and Boas take on what they call the conventional wisdom, the "blind optimism" that links technological advances, in particular the rise of the Internet, to democratization and the fall of totalitarianism. Through eight case studies--China, Cuba, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt--the authors attempt to show that the "widespread belief in the popular world that the Internet poses an insurmountable threat to authoritarian rule" is incorrect. They conclude that while "certain types of Internet use do indeed pose political challenges to authoritarian governments," other uses "reinforce authoritarian rule." Several of the authoritarian regimes in their study were "proactively promoting" the development of tools designed to let them control and manipulate Internet use by their citizens, to allow them access only to "an Internet that serves state-defined interests rather than [one] challenging them," as Kalathil and Boas say.

We're all for challenging conventional wisdom, even when it's set up as something of a straw man. But the observation that totalitarian regimes will try to exert control over the information their people receive from, and communicate to, the outside world isn't exactly "Man Bites Dog." While we applaud Kalathil and Boas for examining and cataloging these efforts to subvert the open and decentralized character of the global network and turn it to certain governments' self-serving ends, their study hardly answers the question about whether they will succeed in that effort.

The answer, we think, is no as it relates to the Internet alone, or, at the very least, too soon to tell. Information has always been harder to control than physical, tangible things, and it has gotten a lot harder over the past 20 years. Just ask Mr. Wenkang. He was fired because of the revolution of which the Internet is an important part, because the velocity of information exchange has accelerated dramatically in recent years, and because the Chinese government recognized that it's no longer business as usual when it comes to information.

In June 1989, Ronald Reagan said, "Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders. ... The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip." He just might have been right.

David Post is a Temple University law professor and senior fellow at the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at postd@erols.com. Bradford C. Brown is chairman of the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at bbrown2@gmu.edu.

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