December 2, 2012

Information Making Itself Free

“Information Wants to Be Free” is the oft-heard rallying cry of the Internet cognoscenti. Pick up the paper over the last few days, read about the Syrian government’s shutdown of the Internet and mobile networks, and a story begins to emerge as to just how far technology has come in making information free.
            This graphic from Internet delivery network Akamai tells the story of old information control techniques applied to the new uprising in Syria. On November 29, at 10:30 in the morning, the Syrian Internet was shut down.

              The Syrian Minister of Information blamed “terrorists” for disrupting service. Another official blamed unspecified “technical problems.” The prevailing assumption, however, is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered the shutdown in an effort to deny opposition forces the ability to coordinate their activities and keep the outside world informed. Such a shutdown was possible by simply altering the routing tables handling connecting traffic. Mobile phone service was also shut down in selected areas.
It is a tried and true approach to controlling government opposition. Both Moammar Gadaffi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt shut down mobile and Internet service as they struggled to cling to power. But as Egypt and Libya both proved, it is a 20th century response whose effectiveness is limited by the multiple paths of 21st century technology.
            Shutting down access to information is a response as timeless as repression itself. During the original Information Revolution of the 15th century the Church tried to throttle printing in order to stop the spread of the Reformation and the Renaissance. The practice continued as technology introduced new networks into the centuries that followed.
During the Cold War the control of information was essential to Soviet domination of the people. Over 20 years ago, in the office of the president of MTV Europe, I saw a photo on the wall that graphically illustrated this reality. In the picture a Soviet tank stood in front of a television station in a Soviet republic. As the Iron Curtain fell, the struggle for control between pro and anti-Soviet forces in the republics often revolved around who controlled the broadcast airwaves. The photo of the tank in front of the TV station was inscribed by the ultimately successful insurgent leader – who became the republic’s president – to the effect that even a tank couldn’t stop the people’s desire for freedom of information (in this case he tongue-in-cheek joked it was  “I want my MTV”).
            In retrospect such repression seems so simple as to be almost quaint. Prior to digital networks mass communications was a one-way street and controlling the flow of information was as simple as a few soldiers and a tank at the TV and radio station.
            Today everyone with a smartphone is a potential TV station. The ability of individuals to create both video and text commentary has eliminated message control. While it may be possible to shut down some of the networks that allow the insurgents to communicate, access to multiple pathways makes total information control significantly more problematic. The nature of information control has thus evolved. Controlling information dissemination Soviet-style is ultimately futile when information proliferates from a universe of interconnected users.
            Key to the irrepressible multiplicity of information creators is a similar multiplicity of pathways. In the analog days the pathways were limited; control the printing press and the airwaves and you controlled the vast majority of information movement. The ongoing experience in Syria demonstrates, however, that, even when the Internet and terrestrial mobile networks are taken down, technology opens other pathways.
“To get around a near-nationwide Internet shutdown, rebels have armed themselves with mobile satellite phones,” the New York Times reports. For months, in anticipation of just the kind of shutdown now being experienced, the opposition has been smuggling in satellite phones and alternative communications equipment. Even old dial-up modems are being pressed into service to exploit the landline network.
The digital explosion of information creators and distribution networks is the continuation of a 500-year odyssey. It has been over half a millennium since Johannes Gutenberg picked the lock that had kept ideas sequestered and controlled. In the intervening centuries the struggle for control of information has been a constant. What we are seeing in Syria is the further stretching of the continuum that dates to Gutenberg. It is a heartening manifestation that as information pathways proliferate the flow of ideas and information cannot be constrained.

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