I have been thinking a lot lately on the topic of the free flow of information on the internet — what kinds of tools are available now and in the future for governments (especially repressive ones) to control content, isolate their people and keep any contrary viewpoints censored.
I had an interesting conversation with a Practice Lead from IFTF.org. The Institute for the Future (IFTF) is a California based independent, nonprofit research group with 40 years of experience in identifying emerging trends that will transform global society. We were talking about another topic and eventually veered into what kinds of things are happening now to enable potentially repressive governments to have an even stronger stranglehold on the flow of thoughts and ideas into and out of their societies. Turns out they are quite concerned about the fragmentation and control of the Internet as well. But will it be an inevitability?
Some disturbing trends I see are the rise of nationalism which seeks to venerate one form of culture while potentially isolating itself or isolating others. The word "separatist" has crept into our lexicon — think "Tamil Separatists" in Sri Lanka, "French separatists" in Quebec. This can happen geographically too. In Iraq, the cradle of civilization once marked by its multi-cultural makeup, has degenerated into a patchwork of geographic "strongholds" — Sunni and Shiite and Kurdish and on and on. Yet another example is the former multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia, which ceased to exist as of February 2003, and is now comprised of a six nation state, yes six! The breakup has been attributed in large part to ethnic tensions and nationalism. And lastly, another trend I see, which when combined with linguistic and geographic nationalism can help repressive governments get a better stranglehold of their people is the trend towards censorship and even cyber-warfare helped of course by advances in technology. Almost every week, there is something in the news about it, saying for the most part that censoring and filtering is quite rampant, thank you very much!
So what if you put all the three trends together: rise of nationalism (both geographic and linguistic) and technical advances, you see a pattern emerge: the very same governments that are often cited for repressive controls, are the very same ones who are demanding their very own internationalized Top-Level Domain (TLD), and very soon. (See this story for instance.) The repressive governments have succeeded in clamping down on traditional media, but online content is far harder to filter, if the operations running the resolution are not within your control. It is one thing to burn the books one by one, but another to control the distribution plant. In fact the above article states the following about the possible misuse of Internationalized domain names (IDNs):
"Some in the industry have though raised concerns that it could allow the state to control more of the content in a sphere that has remained a relatively free forum for dissent at a time when traditional media have become subject to tighter control."
So — what controls or questions are we — the Internet community — putting on the process? Sadly, very little. See our letter to ICANN laying our concern. In it, we express our concerns that the rights and needs of the end-users are taken into account and that we ask the question — "Is this right for the welfare of the Internet user?"
Are we willing now to ask these tough questions and think about the implications of our actions in 10 to 20 years? Let's hope so…
By Alexa Raad, CEO of Architelos. Architelos provides consulting and managed services for clients applying for new top-level domains, ranging from new TLD application support to launch and turnkey front-end management of a new TLD. She can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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