Friday, July 15, 2011

The Internet is its biggest enemy

We lived in a new, unprecedented era. An era where Internet is considered by some the most powerful weapon against an oppressive regime. Like Wael Ghonim said, "If you want to free a society, just give them Internet access". If you wanted examples of this, you need only to look at what happened in Egypt, Libya and Syria. But why, you ask. After all, the Internet is merely a communication tool. We've had communication tools for centuries. True. However, you have to remember that communication in the olden days are slow and unreliable. Today we communicate almost at the speed of light and while traditional media like newspaper, magazines and news program can be censored, on the Internet, the more you try to censor something, the more it could backfire, provided the situation is right. This phenomenon is otherwise known as the "streisand effect".

Today, many scandals are being exposed because of Internet. And as companies like Sony, Apple and Microsoft knows all too well, once a bad story turns up on the Internet, there is no going back. You can't take something down on the Internet. Took down one web page and a thousand sprung up. Once an image is tainted, it is really difficult to repair. Of course, this is mostly good for consumers.

In this day and age, it is getting harder to keep secrets. Especially so for secrets that has a profound impact for citizens of a country or consumers. The rise of whistleblower sites like wikileaks would not have been possible without the Internet and an anonymous communication tool such as Tor that allows you to surf the Internet anonymously. Additionally tool like Tor disable an oppressive regime's ability to censor anything on the Internet, not unless the Internet is shut down completely. Even so, the U.S. is working on what they call "Internet in a box" as a way to counter that.

Hence, by now, you must be tempted to think that this is a great era. A great era for freedom. A great era for society that wants to be just and fair for all. However, as great and wonderful the Internet is, it turns out to be its own biggest enemy. Because of availability of anonymity on the Internet, the Internet is filled with rumors, lies and propaganda propagated by irresponsible parties. It is becoming more and more difficult to believe something you read on the Internet and harder still to separate the truths from the half-truths. It is for this reason that most people (older generation perhaps) these days tend to believe what they read on newspaper and/or TV rather than something being forwarded by E-mail, for example.

To give an example, if a particular news that negatively portrays the leader of a particular country has surfaced on the Internet, even if it's the truth, could be rendered (mostly) useless if the people was made to believe that the it was artificially made up by the opposition with ill intentions. The situation is made more futile if no one claims responsibility for spreading the news in the first place. When there is anonymity, there would be no accountability. And the truth is there are people out there that would do all sorts of crazy/illegal things if total anonymity is guaranteed - that is, he/she would not be able to be held accountable, for whatever he/she did. However, in this case, anonymity is the reason the news surfaced at all, because if you know something that could potentially threaten some very powerful people, it is very likely that you would preferred to be anonymous for obvious reasons.

Henceforth we are faced with a difficult situation: we can keep the Internet anonymous and lose accountability, or destroy anonymity of the Internet and lose freedom on the Internet. It would seems that we just can't have it all.