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Governments block the web because they know it can make the world a better place (Video)

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Dan Biddle Dan Biddle | 13:30 UK time, Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Aleks Krotoski's blog post about nation states and the web outlined the difficulties the web presents to governments and nation states; be that in the issues of free flow of data that may challenge or undermine the state from within and without, or as a source of unchecked and unwelcome in-flowing ideologies.

Bill Thompson presented his views on the web in the context of the nation state at the Web at 20 event:

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So, does this ring true? Is the web a revolutionary tool that allows us to watch the watchmen?  Or are governments able to thwart Bill's vision of the open and critical eyes on their actions?

The programme team are looking for examples of the web being blocked and undermined: specific instances; links to stories; personal experiences of being censored or suspended by the powers that be - and how that affected you.

Transcript of Bill's presentation:

The web, I think, counts as one of the most important things we've managed to do as a species. And whilst at the moment it's only really available to the twenty per cent of the world that Tim [Berners-Lee] referred to, many of us in the privileged Western world, who have easy access to these technologies, we can still see that it has a long way to go, but it is changing things. So it's no wonder therefore that many people around the world and many governments around the world want to control it, because they see it as being a threat.

They see it as being a threat. We see the governments of China, of Saudi Arabia, of Iran and Burma and Guatemala, and of course those great democracies, the United States and the United Kingdom, working as hard as they possibly can to manage and control and corral the web and indeed the wider internet, to try to put it under their control so they can stop it challenging their boundaries, because when Tim built the web he built http not to respect national boundaries but to work over the internet, which is, thanks to TCP/IP, a profoundly international and global network.

They want to put blocks in place, they want to spend money with companies like Cisco to buy firewalls and routers that will monitor traffic and filter it off to their police and to their secret services, and they want to do everything they possibly can to take this enormously creative medium, this enormously creative technology, and block it and limit its potential, because they know that it can make the world a better place.

I remember interviewing Tim for the Guardian, it must have been about 1996, 1997, and he said to me then that one of the reasons that he valued what he'd done, that he thought it was worth building the web in the first place, was it would allow people to find out more about their neighbours, that if, he said, we knew more about the people next door, the people in the next country, we might want to kill them less often. Sadly, and I really am sad about this, that does not seem to have happened. We still do want to kill our neighbours far too often. And we need to find something, a way to do something about that. But thanks to the web it's much harder to get away with killing your neighbours, and that makes the world a better place. It is harder to suppress information.

The web provides ways for data to get out, to tunnel through. The people who created it, the technologists, the programmers, the developers, find ways to get through those barriers. And as long as that happens, as long as the spirit of the web is about that, is about openness, then I think it will continue to grow and thrive and help us all.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    "If , . . .we knew more about the people next door, the people in the next country, we might want to kill them less often." "'..make the world a better place."
    I'm sure some thought the same when radio or televisions were introduced.

    "One of the most important things we have done as a species."

    Arguably the printing press was a much more significant innovation, without printed material then there was no incentive for people to become literate, to develop a hunger for material to read, to distribute information and knowledge, to communicate, to develop ideas.
    Without the literacy that developed from this the Web (if invented at all, for our history would have been very different without widespread literacy) would be useless to the majority.

    The printing press seriously challenged the authorities at the time (it still does). For example, as the Roman Church was the dominant ideological power in Europe in that time; the printing and distribution of the Bible, in a language common people could understand, seriously challenged the authority and power of the Church, who hitherto had read it aloud to people in Latin. People no longer needed the Church to act as intermediaries between themselves and God.
    The printing press has been a driving force behind all major changes (good and bad - see below) that have developed Europe to what it is today.

    But bring people closer together, stop them killing their neighbours? It could be argued that the printing press accelerated the process of war and conflict.
    Two books that had immense impact on the 20th century were Hitler's 'Mein Kampf' and 'The Communist Party Manifesto' (Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao etc.); it can't be claimed that either brought neighbours closer together in peaceful co-existence.

    True, the Web extends the process of communication etc, but a computer screen is essentially just an electronic blank page.
    If this century or the next produces its own version of Hitler, Lenin or Pol Pot then they'll publish on the Web, post speeches on YouTube, and their acolytes will develop a network of sites, argue in blogs and attempt to organise via the Web, as in the real world.

    "If we knew more about the people next door, the people in the next country, we might want to kill them less often."
    Of course that's a nice idealistic (and naive perhaps) thought, but I'd question what foundation that springs from? Neither literacy nor any technological innovation, no matter how great, changes human nature.

    "Sadly, and I really am sad about this, that does not seem to have happened. We still do want to kill our neighbours far too often."
    It could be argued that the more we find out about our neighbours the more we dislike them; the greater the dislike as the greater the differences between us and them become. (We also do not like to admit the extent to which people are tribal.) A study of history shows that this is likely.

    To quote from C. G. Jung. [Civilization in Transition]
    "We still attribute to the other fellow all the evil and inferior qualities that we do not like to recognize in ourselves, and therefore have to criticize and attack him, when all that has happened is that an inferior "soul" has emigrated from one person to another. The world is still full of bete-noires and scapegoats, just as it formerly teemed with witches and werewolves."

    "Governments block the web because they know it can make the world a better place"
    I think that headline projects its author's own desires onto the motives of governments.

    I suspect that most governments genuinely believe that the world's best interests are best served by their actions. (There are exceptions, the most cynical and corrupt gangster states that fully realise they're in it for themselves only and the population is just there to enrich them.)

    Much of the Web you and I surf is in the English language, how much is in other languages? A majority? How many people feel the need to learn another language (e.g. Chinese) when their needs and wants on the Web are catered for in their own language?
    Large swathes of humanity are still separated by (amongst many other things) different languages.

    PS. Dan: I like the idea of collaboration for your project, one reason I look in here quite often. Are you putting these posts into Digg etc. You might get more responses.

  • Comment number 2.

    Re Digg, it's something we'd love people to use and promote (digg) our content with and within, but we don't want to be seen as trying to game the system. Do you use Digg actively?

    I suppose we should Delicious our content at the very least on our own Delicious page.

    We're entirely about the collaboration, though I think we'd admit we're not quite all the way there yet. But we're working on it. I think it's fair to say the production team are immersed and enjoying the content the blog is producing from bloggers and the community, such as yourself - whose input is MUCH appreciated. And the debate, links and suggestions have proved very enlightening (hopefully I'm reflecting that in the Friday round-ups).

    Re the web vs print, I agree, though I think the interactivity and connectivity of the web is the transcendent factor.

    I whole-heartedly recommend a listen to Luciano Floridi's recent discussion of the Fourth Revolution on the Philosophy Bites podcast. His argument is that this 'digital revolution' has more interesting effects in terms of humanity's evolution of self. (It touches upon the role of print in this.)

    The Revolutions:
    1 - Copernicus (the universe doesn't revolve around us)
    2 - Darwin (evolution and the origin of the species)
    3 - Freud (the ego, id, the untransparent-self...)
    4 - the Internet / web (so Tim Berners-Lee?) - we are data, shared and spread - genes, memes; we are information.

    I'm going from memory, so am unlikely to do the theory justice. Worth a listen.

    Dan

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Dan: Floridi's interesting, but I wasn't convinced by his argument that this is a '4th revolution' on par with Galileo, Darwin and Freud. They heralded completely new ways of looking at the world and pioneered new ways of researching and understanding our world.

    I don't see that with the Web; it makes existing knowledge more accessible to people, if they want it but the only wholly 'new' field is in the computing and technology that builds the platform and infrastructure of the Web, not the content.
    Gutenberg's printing press, as seminal invention that it was isn't considered as significant as the intellectual paradigm shifts that Galileo, Darwin and Freud introduced.

    So, Tim Berners Lee as on par Frank Whittle perhaps? Not as a Wright brother (i.e. the first - computing and the Internet - existed before Tim BL) or a Newton who came up with theories regarding gravity, motion, trajectories etc. TBL followed on from the early pioneers of computing, both practical and theoretical.

    I think also that there are also other contenders for any '4th revolution'; neuroscience and genetics (e.g. human genome project) in particular.
    For your series it might be worth talking to a neuroscientist, such as Baroness Susan Greenfield, about how she sees our relationship with the Web and if there are any similarities with the human mind.

    It's interesting that Floridi's examples don't include any previous philosophers. Descartes, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (and many of those that followed) introduced new ideas and concepts as to the nature of reality, truth and how we could explore and develop those.
    I don't see a similar paradigm shift with the web; it makes much information more available, but doesn't alter how we filter, absorb or use it.

    Floridi talked a lot about 'Intractability' and Avatars, in particular in regards to virtual worlds such as Second Life. Interesting, but by no means unique to, dependant upon or originating with the Web.
    The PC games industry is huge and all games invite players into a virtual world to become different personas.

    Floridi makes a case that virtual worlds have "transformed the nature of what we are"; possibly - but those that immerse themselves in such games are:
    A) A minority [e.g. I've never been attracted to play.]
    B) By using their time this way shutting themselves off from the other knowledge opportunities on the Web.
    C) It could be argued they are also avoiding interacting with both the real-world and engaging with the real opportunities for self-improvement and social interaction the Web offers.
    D) And games, avatars etc are not limited to the Web, the games industry developed in parallel to the Web, and would exist without it.

    Is a blurring of the perception of what is real and what is fantasy a good thing? Especially is some were to become unable to make that distinction?

    Floridi also talked about 'running shoes that would know what [mood] music to download and play to us'; doesn't that just indicate that we are becoming more technologically cosseted? It is not an intellectual paradigm shift.

    People are using the Web to form communities based around mutual interests, it does widen the opportunities to do that. However, many people stay within their comfort zone and only visit sites and look for material that re-enforces their existing world view. In theory mass air travel should open people up to new cultures and experiences; sadly many English (for example) prefer to go to resorts along with people of the same demographic, eat English food, drink in 'English pubs' and so on; the same happens on the Web, people remain inside the same enclaves.

    One issue that might be worth exploring is what effect the Web is having on our notions of self and sanity? There are so many views available; from the orthodox to the wildest fringes, and all claiming to be 'truth'. Is this causing difficulties for people in arriving at their own definition of what is 'truth' and trustworthy.
    Those with an existing secure sense of self probably will feel able too; but those without could become psychologically incapable of such filtering.

    I sometime see the Web as representing humanities 'collective insanity', people very quickly realise that everyone thinks differently - who can be trusted? How do we filter and decide? That brings me back to neuroscience; is too much information, too many 'truths' to believe good for us?

    As a 'for example': What is someone with no science or history background to make of climate change, when there are so many competing claims. They can't all be true, how does someone with no background knowledge make sense of this? Can they? (The same is true of many other fields.)

    Does the Web end up making some users feel more insignificant and incapable? Does it damage their sense of self and perception of the world around them? Does information overload cause its own problems?

    And is the Web making people more isolated and building barriers rather than tearing them down. Is tapping a keyboard the same value as face to face interaction?

    One issue I find with the Web is the amount of time I have available; is the Web taking away from us other opportunities and the time to pursue them? For every benefit there is a downside.

    Digital Revolution is raising some very interesting points. I doubt you'll find firm answers to many, but the programmes might prove very intellectually stimulating for an audience by simply raising these as questions and viewpoints.

    I used Digg when it fist appeared, but dropped out as the novelty wore off. You could immerse yourself in it (I hope your programme looks at addiction, over-dependence and over-reliance in relation to the Web.) but there are other sites, interests and there are still only 24 hours in a day.
    I'll post this thread into Digg, just to see if it ups the number of responses. (Knowing Digg I can't vouch for any quality.)

  • Comment number 4.

    @shefftim I think also that there are also other contenders for any '4th revolution'; neuroscience and genetics (e.g. human genome project) in particular.
    For your series it might be worth talking to a neuroscientist, such as Baroness Susan Greenfield, about how she sees our relationship with the Web and if there are any similarities with the human mind.


    Baroness Susan Greenfield is part of our activities. Russell and team were discussing running experiments (MRIs etc.) on people to test effects of the web on young people's brains as part of the programme.

    One issue that might be worth exploring is what effect the Web is having on our notions of self and sanity? There are so many views available; from the orthodox to the wildest fringes, and all claiming to be 'truth'. Is this causing difficulties for people in arriving at their own definition of what is 'truth' and trustworthy.
    Those with an existing secure sense of self probably will feel able too; but those without could become psychologically incapable of such filtering.


    Which again, brings us to the questions Baroness Greenfield is asking. In her speech at the Web at 20 event she pointed to the example of Pre-schoolers being taught Google skills. "What," she asks. "Is a three year-old going to search for?" Her worry appears to be less about the adult web-user with analogue frames of reference (though these brains may be changing with prolonged exposure to the web), but for the child being raised immersed in the web.

    All of which we'll be tackling in programme four - How the web is changing us.

    ***

    A Digg is much appreciated. Anything that can spread the word and so attract interested people to the project is most welcome.

  • Comment number 5.

    You're well ahead of me :-)

    "Her worry appears to be less about the adult web-user with analogue frames of reference (though these brains may be changing with prolonged exposure to the web), but for the child being raised immersed in the web."

    On a related topic (you've probably go this on your list too) it might be worth exploring the impact of widespread pornography via the Web on people. e.g.

    Porn everywhere, what's a child to think?
    http://www.smh.com.au/news/Opinion/Porn-everywhere-whats-a-child-to-think/2005/05/20/1116533538023.html

    The Sex Education Show Vs Pornography
    http://sexperienceuk.channel4.com/sex-education

    Is porn altering how males and females relate to each other?
    http://www.time.com/time/2004/sex/article/the_porn_factor_in_the_01a.html

    Is porn damaging your emotional health?
    http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/relationships/article6027904.ece

    How internet porn is damaging relationships
    http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/article6027924.ece

    How porn is wrecking relationships?
    http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2007/05/25/1179601669144.html?page=fullpage#

    Personally, am fairly libertarian and not anti-pornography per-se, but there are pros and cons to all things.
    PS: You're now in Digg's technology section.

  • Comment number 6.

    The porn thing. Yes. I'm not sure where we went with that line of enquiry. I know we discussed it at several points in the early days of development, but it never seemed to quite fit the thinking of any of the programmes (despite, arguably fitting into all of them in some way). Certainly there's the click farm / captcha equation that spambots exploit which fits with programme three's issues of privacy. So maybe there's good cause to revisit this (if only to remind me of why we decided to set the porn aside.)

    The history of the web is in some ways indebted to the porn industry. It monetised, popularised, scandelized to a successful degree pretty early on (and remains a massive player online, I believe).

    Your links all work well with the programme four frame of mind; I'll flag to Molly Milton (director of prog4) and get some thoughts back to you.

    Thanks,
    Dan

  • Comment number 7.

    Episode 4: What impact is the web having on who we are?

    You can't avoid the hard issues, it's too easy to just look at the 'positive' factors and ignore the less positive.

    (Though not everyone would agree that the web is a boon; I'm an IT trainer and most of the people I work with - late adaptors, mainly elderly, find the Web an impossibly confusing world; it's not like being taught how to read a book, and there's a lot to memorise. Every website is different, and you're expected to learn by trial and error on many etc. Perhaps the digitally 'excluded' or 'self excluded' should also be included in your series. [I do believe that the web isn't for everyone - discuss.] )

    Pornography is a difficult subject; the point of it is that it's a secret; sex and sexuality talk to our most intimate selves; most men - or women - won't openly admit to watching it, or how much. Arguments and feelings about sex amongst couples are also largely kept private.

    True, the porn industry has always been innovative in how it exploits the Web; in monetisation (Though that seems to becoming more difficult given the amount of 'free porn' that's now available.), technologically and psychologically. They also have been more determined than any other businesses to advertise, attract customers and innovate technologically.

    There are arguments that opening up sexuality and breaking down repressive boundaries can only be healthy and good (and there is value in that argument); but the evidence is that mainstream porn also has a dark side when it comes down to relationships; particularly when it involves those brought up with the Web. (Possibly linked with the current cult of celebrity, celeb mags with an emphasis on how slim such-and-such a female celeb is, who's put on weight etc?)

    However, to try and provide a positive, alternative, view of discussing sex and sexuality on the Web I'll offer two popular and very different, (US) bloggers. Wikki links - you can find their bogs from there.

    Regina Lynn: Writes on sex and technology. Author of: The Sexual Revolution 2.0.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regina_Lynn

    and

    Dan Savage: Openly Gay, defender of 'non-vanilla' sexuality and a libertarian advocate. Also 'savagely' funny in his syndicated sex and relationships advice column, for all sexulalities.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Savage

    That's it, I've raised the issue. I'll move on now.

    Thinking about it; your episode 4: What Impact Is the Web Having on Who We Are? is the crunch topic.

  • Comment number 8.

    I think I have to disagree with SheffTim:
    TBL followed on from the early pioneers of computing, both practical and theoretical.

    I think also that there are also other contenders for any '4th revolution'; neuroscience and genetics (e.g. human genome project) in particular.

    Newton stated that he was standing on the shoulders of giants, or building on the work of others before him. Neuroscience and genetics are all about the coding of information, which is what TBL keeps banging on about. As Dan said:

    4 - the Internet / web (so Tim Berners-Lee?) - we are data, shared and spread - genes, memes; we are information.

    All aspects of an information revolution, or a connecting of information in a way that was never possible before.

    I'd agree with the rest of it though.

  • Comment number 9.

    [I do believe that the web isn't for everyone - discuss.]

    That's like saying that books aren't for everyone. It's true, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't teach people to read or show them around the library. Are the digital self-exclusers genuinely illiterate, or are they simply confused by the new alternative to the Dewey Decimal system?

    As a teacher myself, I would say that the problem is one of making the web relevant and useful to people, not one of technical training. Netrefuseniks don't need to be taught how, they will figure that out for themselves or ask questions. The promise of free porn was probably one of the driving forces behind most people's early experimentation with the internet. If you can come up with destinations or projects that are of interest to your refuseniks than maybe they'll be more excited about getting online.

    After all, any 80-yr old with children living overseas is going to be pretty excited by the possibilities of free telephone calls, video streaming, email, etc. You just have to make the technology accessible, and someone somewhere recently pointed out that it's all designed by technologically-savvy young men who never hang out with the fogeys and don't understand their perspectives.

    On the other hand, anyone of any age who turns their back on the net without finding out what it can do for them is either being turned off by the way it is presented, or has some other psychological 'block'. After all, if grandfathers in Nairobi are getting online for their own reasons then it's not age that is the problem. The problem is motivation.

    My job as a teacher is to help people get excited by what they can do, before going into trainer mode and telling them how to do it, and the usual block is fear of feeling inadequate. People won't get over that fear unless you give them a good reason to do so, and just telling them that they should is not a good reason. It's the same as telling them that they're inadequate.

    It's a catch-22, similar to a situation I heard Douglas Adams describe on one of my first forays into the internet, years ago. (I think it was a BBC radio show.) At that time, the internet was 'an American thing' and there was not much there of interest to the average Brit because it was all written by Americans. (Generalising, I know.) Today, it's all written by young people and there isn't anything there that's interesting for the oldies. Douglas Adams' solution at that time was for everyone who was tired of reading American websites to contribute something of their own that would make the web more truly international. Ten-plus years on, that's what we have.

    Getting old people online isn't a technical problem, the problem is social. There's nothing there of interest, as far as they know, until you give them a chance to get involved on their own terms.

    Having said that, some people are probably never going to change. So the web probably isn't for everyone. People who don't want to play online will be ostracised along with the folks who don't like mobile phones or the ones who think cars should be banned, etc.

 

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