July 5, 2009

Tech’s Repressive Dark Side Threatens Us All

ObamaSymbolGreenDamChineseSoftwareGraphic0709Khamenei0609Note: This originally appeared at Pajamas Media and was teased at BizzyBlog on Friday.

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What do Iran, China, and the U.S. have in common? More than you might think.

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How’s that “The Revolution will be televised, blogged and twittered” thing going in Iran? Or the “Web 2.0 will us set free” mantra?

Oh. I see. Not so well.

Supreme Leader Khamenei, who really runs everything in that country, and his pseudo-”elected” lackey, Mahmound Ahmadinejad, have gained a firm upper hand in putting down the Iranian resistance to the rigged election in particular and its repressive society in general.

It turns out that the bad guys know technology, and, when threatened, can be particularly adept at thwarting their opponents’ use of it.

The first and most obvious strategy is to keep pictures out of the news. The Associated Press reports that “Iranian authorities have barred journalists for international news organizations from reporting on the streets and ordered them to stay in their offices.” Another tactic is to hinder the opponents’ organizing efforts. While Iran’s opposition leader and putative election loser is putting on a brave face, the Supreme Leader’s thugs “have arrested most of his inner circle and made it progressively harder for him to communicate with his followers.”

Meanwhile, the death of Neda has been swept from American and world viewers’ short-term memory banks, replaced by almost pathologically obsessive coverage of the death of “Nada,” (as in, “nada in the way of meaningful musical accomplishments since 1982“).

Perhaps President Barack Obama, assuming he even cares, is among those swept up in the absurd notion that solely with the help of technology, oppressed people will rise up, throw off their shackles, and be free, while all we have to do is watch. If it were only that easy.

Take China. For decades, the elitist notion has been that if the Chinese get a taste of and grow to relish the benefits of economic freedom, they will also clamor for and achieve personal and political freedom. The Chinese Communist government will simply one day capitulate, and all will be sweetness and light.

The government has had a different very different idea. There has been no significant sign of a legitimate change in outlook since Tiananmen – which, by the way, was also televised, with little real-world effect.

Its economic model is decidedly not based on free markets. In publicly traded Chinese corporations, the government is almost always the dominant or by far most influential owner. It is naïve to believe that the Party isn’t making or approving the vast majority of meaningful decisions at these enterprises. Oh, and by the way, they sort of own us, and they’re starting to throw their weight around.

Meanwhile, the Party has “progressively” tightened its grip on information. Since 2005, outrageously assisted by U.S.-based high-tech companies, the government’s smiley-faced police-state apparatus has clamped down on blogs, Internet news, web sites, hosting companies, and search engines. Yahoo!, Google, MSN, and others filter searches at their Chinese affiliates. Google’s agreement to censor Chinese search engine results in early 2006 ended the credibility of that company’s signature claim that it would “do no evil.” Additionally, companies like Cisco and Fortinet have helped the government prevent access to disfavored sites.

The tech-sector protested at the time that the government’s controls would gradually go away as China’s economy and the people’s desire for freedom grew. Several years later, it’s clear that this is not happening. Instead, the government has intensified its demands for further controls. Though its plan to require the installation of censorship software on every new computer has been “delayed,” there’s little doubt that it will continue to pursue the effort. With the precedent of the search engines’ sellout, it’s hard to have any confidence that Dell, HP and others will resist.

Well, what about Web 2.0? Won’t that get around the statists in Iran and China? The Financial Times summarizes the grim situation:

That (government) stifling of web freedoms that many people around the world take for granted are being accompanied by more novel means of combating cyber opponents. Those methods range from directing stealthy technological attacks that shut down dissident websites to unleashing swarms of paid commentators to argue the government position on supposedly independent blogs.

Both carry the added attraction of deniability: many regimes are employing advanced repressive techniques that are hard to identify in action, let alone circumvent. At a time when new communication technologies, from text messaging to Twitter, promise to put greater power in the hands of the individual, these techniques are having a chilling effect. Internet experts from more open societies fear that this will lead to greater self-censorship by organisations and individuals, which they see as the most effective tool of all.

If some of the techniques described seem strangely familiar to some U.S. readers, it’s probably because they’re here – and not necessarily always in light form.

Isn’t a leftie troll in a do-nothing government job or on a “community organizer’s” payroll, with plenty of time to comment or blog, for all practical purposes a de facto “paid commentator”?

Isn’t taking in millions in small, deliberately untraceable contributions during a presidential election campaign, in clear violation of established laws – contributions that arguably enabled that candidate to drown out his opponent — eerily close to an “advanced repressive technique”?

Finally, our president and Congress are clearly attempting to move the U.S. economy sharply away from our leaning-towards capitalist model –- never mind that it is the one that it has rewarded innovation and enterprise, and has been, for all its faults, the greatest wealth creator and living standard-raiser in human history. Instead, the Obama economy is evolving into one of “gets vs. get-nots.” It benefits soulless glad-handers who can work a government-dominated patronage, grant, loan, and reward system through personal connections and/or payoffs, to the detriment of those who simply want to make a better mousetrap and better serve customers. The get vs. get-not model is one that is all too often divorced from the need to actually accomplish or build something of value. The money keeps flowing, and the accomplishment seldom if ever arrives.

As the get vs. get-not model becomes more dominant, one’s very success, failure, or even existence in business will become ever more dependent on the whims of the visibly powerful, as well as their invisible bureaucrats and apparatchiks, any one of whom might be offended by someone’s expressed opinion, political preference, or even their personal acquaintances. Isn’t the prospect of “greater self-censorship” in the name of continued business just around the corner?

Americans, and especially their political leaders, need to remind themselves that freedom isn’t free; that its triumph and preservation are not guaranteed; and that technology isn’t automatically going to make getting or preserving it any easier.

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1 Comment

  1. In regard to the premise that the Iranian Hitler and his cohorts(from Korea to China and everywhere in between) have co-opted tech to impose their evil designs, it is interesting to note the following – many of their tech savvy mischief makers learned their crafts at US universities.

    One has to spend ample time at two premier science/engineering tech powerhouses in the US-MIT & Caltech-to understand what opening up US schools has wrought.

    As a mom who has spent many a day at both universities when visiting my sons, I do not exaggerate when I state that there are many Middle Eastern, South Asian(think Pakistan) as well as Chinese students roaming the campus, particularly in the grad science/engineering programs.Many have access to research facilities, the likes of which are so advanced that a person with evil intent can create havoc on an incalculable scale.

    Comment by Medicineworld — July 6, 2009 @ 6:01 am

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