Tibet, Technology & the Future of Freedom

by on March 18, 2008 · 2 comments

Can technology really help liberate repressed populations? I’d like to think so, although there are times when I’ve had my doubts. When it comes to speech controls and political repression, the David-vs-Goliath / cat-and-mouse interplay of citizens versus the State is an intriguing thing to study. I talked about how “technologies of freedom” are helping to slowly liberate citizens in some countries, and here’s a new story today from VOA about China struggling to cope with criticism before the Olympics.

The Washington Post’s outstanding columnist Anne Applebaum also has a piece today along these lines that discusses what’s happening in Tibet right now. She notes:

Cellphone photographs and videos from Tibet, blurry and amateurish, are circulating on the Internet. Some show clouds of tear gas; others, burning buildings and shops; still others, monks in purple robes, riot police and confusion. Watching them, it is impossible not to remember the cellphone videos and photographs sent out from burning Rangoon only six months ago. Last year Burma, this year Tibet. Next year, will YouTube feature shops burning in Xinjiang, home of China’s Uighur minority? Or riot police rounding up refugees along the Chinese-North Korean border? That covert cellphones have become the most important means of transmitting news from certain parts of East Asia is no accident….

This is encouraging, and let’s hope it continues. Despite the considerable energies that repressive states bring to bear on human communication and expression, new technologies are making it increasingly difficult for them to restrict the free flow of information. In their important new book Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering, Jonathan Zittrain and John Palfrey note that:

“As the web grows in scope as well as form, it is likely that states with an interests in filtering will attempt to develop or obtain technology to automatically review or generalize about the content of a Web page as it is accessed, or other Internet communications as it happens. The Web 2.0 phenomenon only makes this challenge harder, as citizens have the ability to publish online content on the fly and to syndicate that content for free.” [p. 36]

Indeed. More importantly, the sheer volume of all that content, and the means of replicating it, are growing at such a phenomenal rate that it will be increasingly difficult for repressive state censors to keep tabs on it all. It’s like a never-ending game of regulatory Whack-a-Mole; you can hit it one place and it just pops up somewhere else.

And remember, a huge chunk of the world population isn’t even online yet. With each passing day, we see more people come online and more technologies of freedom put at their disposal. It will be interesting to see how this helps facilitate regime change in the future.

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