Vinton Cerf, one of the so-called ‘fathers of the internet’, senior VP and ‘Chief Internet Evangelist’ at Google, has written this article warning humanity at large about what he sees as a concerted effort by governments around the world to stop the net being free and open to all (he has also posted on the same subject on Google’s official blog). Now about this I am in two minds, not least because it seems to me to be yet another attempt (and by someone representing a very powerful private profit-making organization with its own axe to grind) to portray governments (and more generally, all forms of authority) as fundamentally hostile to human freedom and welfare.
When I think of all the enormous benefits that the internet has brought to mankind in just a little over two decades – not only all the new jobs and businesses it has spawned or enabled to grow big but miracles like email and Wikipedia and YouTube and blogging and online banking and ticketing etc etc – I agree almost without reservation (were it not for the ‘copy-paste’ culture it has encouraged among all sorts of people from schoolkids to post-doc scholars) that the internet has been a Good Thing on a gigantic scale, and I would most certainly like to see it keep growing and developing in myriad hitherto undreamed-of ways. However, when I hear of fears that governments are secretly hatching dark plans to hobble and enslave it, I cannot help wondering, for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, despite Mr. Cerf’s pretensions to historical wisdom (he is a techie, after all, however rich and famous), the fact remains that governments have neither always determinedly fought against progress nor generally succeeded – at least, not for long. To take just two examples from a vast range of choices available to any educated person, slavery could never have been abolished, nor measures of public hygiene for the masses (including everything from networks of regularly cleaned underground sewers to vaccination) would ever have been possible without large scale government support and involvement anywhere on earth: and no one in his right mind will argue that these were not major progressive steps in human development. Mr. Cerf writes correctly in the last lines that ‘within decades of Gutenberg’s creation, princes and priests moved to restrict the right to print books’; what he omits to mention is that they failed despite their best attempts, and the printed word managed to spread fast and wide enough to bring about events as momentous as the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Governments are nowhere and never all powerful; resolute people with clear aims and visions will find ways out of their muzzles and dragnets. Scare mongering of this sort, therefore, might be in the nature of dishonest hyperbole, and we should stop to wonder why it is being done, whose interest is being served in reality.
Mr. Cerf has also been careless enough to let slip his opinion that the inter-governmental organization called the ITU is not wholly a Bad Thing, since it has greatly helped the net to multiply quickly, smoothly and seamlessly through global cooperation; only, his gripe is that governments alone have a right to vote in it; ‘engineers, companies, and people that (sic) build and use it have no vote’. He may have a point there (though it is also true that engineers and companies are not traditionally asked to vote on the need to build bridges and cities, either – that kind of decision making has always been the preserve of governments, for the simple reason that nobody and nothing else has been found to represent the ‘general public interest’ better than governments do, all except the very worst of them anyway). So it may be okay to demand that the deliberations of this meeting being held today at Dubai be made public knowledge, and that governments do not take draconian measures without informing and consulting their respective peoples, but it is absurd to say that governments should not hold such meetings at all!
Then there is this matter of there being so many governments which block the services of Google and other companies either temporarily or permanently, and that being portrayed as a very Bad Thing. Sign the petition at once, don’t stop to think, the article and the blogpost are telling us with shrill urgency, otherwise the sky is going to fall on your head. It is at such times, when howling mobs instigated by wily and ruthless manipulators with hidden agendas call for bringing down all kinds of established standards, norms, conventions and institutions (the trials of Socrates and Joan of Arc, and the effect of Mark Antony’s speech at Julius Caesar’s funeral are telling cases in point) that people who value reason, balance and fairness need to hold on most tightly to their sanity and their own right of judgment, whether they are private individuals or people in positions of public power. Yes, okay, many governments do monitor, filter and even ban many kinds of content – so what? Doesn’t every sensible parent do it with their child’s range of internet access (and don’t give me the corny crap about adults being in general more mature and knowing what is good for them – remember that most adults would rather watch dancing girls or go to kitty parties than attend learned seminars, remember Auden’s apocryphal ‘unknown citizen’, who ‘held the proper opinions for the time of year/ when there was peace, he was for peace, when there was war, he went’; remember the inimitable Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister demonstrating with panache how ‘public opinion’ can be manufactured at will by any sufficiently cunning and powerful authority…)? Doesn’t Google do it itself (how many outside posts criticizing their policies have they put up on their own blog)? I know a little bit about my own country, and the kind of things our government has occasionally banned or blocked – personal abuse of high level politicians, for example, and vicious and completely irrational hate mongering websites vilifying certain religious communities, designed to raise tempers and provoke barbaric riots – have been found to be okay by most level-headed citizens; occasions when governments went too far have been quickly remedied (as with the recent Facebook incidents in Maharashtra and West Bengal), so where is the terrible urgency to remove all powers of supervision and censorship from the hands of governments?
As for the worry that several regimes want a ban on anonymous posts, I happen to hold very strong views in favour of it, from my own experience on the net, especially with blogging. Somebody on my blog has sought to justify it on the grounds that a lot of people like to post anonymously – I hope I don’t have to belabour the point that that is one of the stupidest arguments in favour of doing or not doing something. My experience is that only ignorant and unreasonable people who want to abuse me out of pure personal spite (and know that very well themselves, and are therefore scared to expose themselves to the same kind of abuse!) as a rule feel the need to send anonymous comments to my blog: no friend needs it, and no civilized critic does, either. Blogger itself (a tool owned by Google) currently offers a facility to block anonymous comments, and I have availed myself of it after enduring for many years the ‘comments’ of vulgar cowards whose real problem was a lack of education coupled with envy and having very little work to do. No man who has a real opinion and courage of conviction, I shall maintain this to my dying day, will be afraid to put his name to it – Luther wasn’t and Gandhi wasn’t, I myself have never felt the need for it, and the ‘opinions’ of the faceless crowd should never be given an overblown importance, otherwise there is the end of competent government and decent social life. Besides, why doesn’t a writer who insists on the importance of ‘transparency’ to the net fail to notice the basic contradiction with the position that anonymous posting/commenting is okay? You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Mr. Cerf!
Concerning the fear that governments are planning to impose some kind of toll on content providers and other net users for reaching out to audiences beyond borders, well, what is so novel or wrong or traumatizing about the idea? Governments need money to make vast outlays on providing many kinds of services to people which the latter may imagine to be free – piped and chlorinated water to many homes in India, for example – and so they try to impose tolls and taxes. People speaking for vast corporates like Google are usually committed to the ideology of the ‘free’ market when it suits them (where, ironically, all things should be priced for them to be produced and distributed ‘efficiently’); when it doesn’t, they scream blue murder. People pay computer hardware- and software manufacturers and internet service providers for accessing the internet, so why shouldn’t they also pay a little to governments which protect them (as with anti-cyber crime laws)? The fact that most net users have gotten used to accessing virtually everything on the net for free (except porn – for which millions pay gladly, a very telling point) is not an argument to justify that this should go on forever, else the net is doomed. Speaking for myself, I am quite willing to pay a toll for net usage of the kind which I find useful, so long as it is small and fair, in the sense that I willingly pay tolls for the use of the national highways, but find it objectionable that someone driving a small hatchback is required to pay as much as someone driving a top of the line BMW.
And finally, look at the cartoon on top of the article. One banner says ‘Fear me, I am free’.Talk about mindlessness having a field day. These are the same people who want to be free of the fear of government. I don’t want to rub it in, but what kind of ugly-minded pinhead can say that since everybody has a right to be free, someone needs to fear him so that he can be free of fear? For the reader who finds that flying over his head, here’s something simpler to think about: if you found an alligator or a tiger on the road holding up a sign like that, wouldn’t you ring at once for someone to come rushing and put the beast in a cage? Remember, then, that humans can be far more annoying and dangerous than any dumb animal…