”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
These are the words with which Charles Dickens begins his “A Tale of Two Cities”. The book was first published in 1859. I can not help thinking that it is also a true description of our own time. We are at a historic crossroads. We have two choices.
We can chose the road that leads us forward, or, we can chose the road that brings us back into the darkness of history.
This is a guest article from Anna Troberg, leader of the Swedish Pirate Party.
Something historic is currently taking place in the Arabic world. People go out on the streets and demand a more democratic rule. Tunisia’s former president Zine El Abdine Ben Ali was forced to leave his country. In Egypt, president Mubarak first tried to replace the government in a desperate attempt to please the masses, but was finally forced to step down. In Libya, Gaddafi is brutally striking out against his own people, but he cannot do it unseen. In all three cases the uprisings have spread like wildfire because people have been able to communicate with each other over the Internet. It is also because of the Internet that all of us that are not there to see the events unfold first hand can keep up to date.
The inherent democratic values of the Internet have of course not gone undetected by questionable leaders around the world. During the past weeks, various leaders of Western countries have been falling over each other to get on TV to publically condemn the former Egyptian president Mubarak’s decision to shut down the Internet and the mobile network in Egypt in an attempt to stop the people’s possibility to express themselves, mobilise, and communicate with the rest of the world.
Mubarak’s actions were deeply undemocratic and detestable, but were they in any way unique? He is hardly alone in thinking that people in power should have an information monopoly. Less than a year ago Israel tried to stop information leaking about the events surrounding the Ship to Gaza incident.
Six months ago, senator Joe Lieberman suggested that the American president, Barack Obama, should be equipped with a “kill switch” to the Internet. The idea being that the president in a case of national emergency should be able to shut down the Internet to protect USA. From what and who is not quite clear, but one can assume it has to do with those who dare to say unpleasant truths about the USA, like WikiLeaks.
Hillary Clinton recently vowed that the US will continue ”to help people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online.” It is an odd statement considering the fact that the US is themselves one of those oppressive Internet environments. However, it is probably fair to assume that Clinton does not want to help all net activist working for democracy. For instance, the US appears quite adamant in their pursuit of WikiLeaks. The freedom Clinton speaks of is of course only reserved for those net activists who choose to turn a blind eye to American indiscretions and focus solely on the indiscretions of US’s not so good friends and enemies.
The Swedish EU commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, wants Sweden to work together with NATO to solve what she diffusely calls “cyber crime”. This, despite the fact that democracies traditionally, and with good reason, are very careful to always separate police work from military work. However, there seems to be something about the Internet that makes it extra dangerous in the eyes of the people in power.
Politicians’ fervor to control the Internet in different ways does not seem to know any boundaries. It is not hard to see why Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi all chose to limit the people’s possibilities to communicate with each other and the rest of the world. They were all afraid of their own people and with good reason.
If people start to talk about their everyday lives under an undemocratic rule in in an arena that the people in power does not control, the events that take place in the Arabic world are sooner or later inevitable.
Leaders that fear their own people have always, and will always, try to limit the people’s ability to communicate. Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi chose direct and drastic measures that we are right to protest against. But, just because our own leaders chose to express their fear of the people in more subtle ways, it does not mean that their attacks on our right to communicate freely with each other are any less despicable.
Our right to communicate freely with each other and the world is constantly under attack from politicians and multinational companies who want to monopolise the information flow.
The Internet is not a technology that you can just shut off as it pleases you. The Internet is the sum of all the people that use it, and the experiences they share with each other. You cannot shut these people off. They will always find ways of communicating with each other. Our leaders may fear it, but it is the path to a better and more democratic future for all of us.
Party Leader of the Swedish Pirate Party