Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spinternet: the Future of Internet Censorship?

The "Spinternet" is a term coined by Evgeny Morozov, a Belarussian journalist who has written extensively on the politics behind Internet censorship. It refers to the shift in tactics used by governments trying to censor the Internet. In the past, Internet censorship was straightforward and, to a degree, transparent: governments blocked websites, manipulated search engines, and harassed dissenting bloggers or reporters. However, Morozov states that the increasing ease and speed of Internet communication has made these methods ineffective. Blocking a website only draws attention to it and motivates Internet users to find ways to get around the block, which has the counterproductive effect of increasing the popularity of the website. Similarly, it is impossible for governments to block all the blogs that censored opinions or information can quickly spread to.

Thus, governments needed to find a new way to control Internet content. Many have turned to attempts to create a "Spinternet," a version of the Internet in which the government "spins" dissenting users' views to align with the government's views. This spinning of opinions is done secretly, by people hired by the government in question. Let me list a few notable examples. In China, there is the 50-Cent Party, composed of nearly 300,000 Chinese citizens who get 50 cents for each comment they post online, if it steers the discussion in a way that is favorable to the Chinese government. In addition, recently it was revealed that there is a plan in Nigeria to mobilize selected individuals to create seemingly credible online forums that would be used to (presumably falsely) attack the Nigerian government's online critics.

Analysis:

One may wonder at the effectiveness of this new approach to Internet censorship. After all, in the case of Wikipedia, companies and individuals have not been able to significantly "spin" their information pages to their preference. Wikipedia's restrictions contribute to this. However, even in the case of comments on blogs, companies and individuals have still been unsuccessful at steering the discussion into their favor. The difference between these cases and the government creating a "Spinternet" involves two factors: power and scale. Governments have a much more powerful influence on what citizens of their country can see on the Internet, and they have the option of prosecuting Internet users whose views pose a serious danger. Also, the scale of the methods that governments are using to spin views is enormous. Governments have the funds to accomplish this, as opposed to companies and individuals.

In addition, the new techniques for Internet censorship used by governments give the impression of unfairness. There is nothing remotely transparent about hiring people to give the impression that most of the country's citizens support the government's views. Such tactics will surely generate suspicion towards governments and towards the opinions available on the Internet.

The movement towards a "Spinternet" forces us to reconsider what Internet censorship truly involves. Internet censorship of the future will be significantly different than Internet censorship of the past. It is more sneaky, as well as more effective. As governments discover the effectiveness of spinning opinions, as opposed to trying to eliminate every single dissenting website or blog, Morozov's "Spinternet" will become more of a reality. What is most frightening is that there is no way to effectively stop this from happening, since if everything goes according to plan, we (everyday Internet users) will not realize this spinning of opinions is happening in the first place. Thus, it will be up to the individual to constantly have to decide whether the opinions they are reading on the Internet are legitimately held by some person, or whether they are essentially elaborate ads paid for by some government.

39 comments:

  1. Good post. Did you hear him at the Liberation Technology seminar? I don't remember if you were at that one.

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  12. We should not tolerate any government who are planning to censor the internet. As a subscriber of an Australian internet service provider, I believe the internet should be accessible to all.

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