Beware the surfer stasi

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How free is the internet? Many of us perceive it as a new universe of possibility and cultural expression where we can do as we wish, oblivious to the threat of our movements being monitored. It may surprise some to find out that the internet is largely controlled from one building in California, and that a rising number of countries is seeking to restrict the access of their citizens to it. The world wide web is at risk of becoming territorialised despite its ethereality, and the cultural revolution involved could be being denied to millions.

Amazingly, until 1998 one man, Jon Postel, a computer science professor, controlled the internet from his office in The University of Southern California. Then came the explosion in online access, followed by the dot.com boom.  The US Government switched Internet control rights to an NGO called ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). The government still has a controversial influence over ICANN; its chief reports to the Attorney-General of California. Many other states have come to see this as just another extension of American ‘neo-colonialism’, but President Bush, ignoring mounting international pressure, particularly from the UN, made the defiant announcement in 2005 that America would control the internet for the indefinite future.

All of this is vitally important to cultural expression. On the face of it, US belligerence is easily criticised in a world where burning Bush effigies are a resident feature of the current affairs landscape. However, we should be thankful that the internet has been controlled from the USA, and lassez-faire Americanism is embedded in its development. The idea of decentralising internet control, something that would allow each country far greater ability to dictate what its citizens can do on the web, whilst logical, is incompatible with the American ethos. So the internet has grown up as a sprawling, unrestricted mass of indeterminate proportions. There are statesmen around who would like to see it mature into something far more definable.

Because of those same American values, so often bemoaned for their global influence, the internet has become the world’s new cultural hub. People dream of achieving near-instantaneous stardom not by being spotted at a small club or a film festival, but through their work being discovered by and spread among internet users. But some countries, China in particular, have made repeated calls for an international agency to be set up to control the internet, that would probably become part of the UN ‘family’ of institutions. This would give states other than the USA a much bigger say in how the internet is run. In other words, those countries wishing to suppress cultural freedom would have greater power to do so; you only have to look at the lengths some are already going to in order to prevent free expression online.

In 2006, Reporters Without Borders listed 13 ‘enemies of the internet’, these being countries that strongly suppress online freedoms. The number is set to rise with the power of internet expression dawning on further authorities.Take Syria as an example. In the last month it has introduced new legislation requiring all internet cafes to keep a log of who uses a computer and when, creating an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. Some Syrians have been imprisoned for posting writings critical of the Syrian regime on internet forums, and to date, 153 websites have been officially blocked by the government, including Facebook, Youtube and Blogspot. A similar trend can be spotted in other countries. The ‘Great Firewall of China’ or Golden Shield Project (its official title) attempts to block all websites deemed inappropriate by the government. Emails sent by the Chinese public are scrutinised by over 30,000 government agents.

The disconcerting truth is that the internet is far from an unmonitored realm, even in the western world. Every computer has a unique number which allows internet users to be tracked wherever they go and traced to a home address. All of these numbers are stored by the ICANN and every visit made to a website is logged. People are already suffering at the hands of web-surfing Stasi; if this information became available to repugnant regimes, the consequences would be atrocious. Currently, the web is very hard to control because of its sprawling nature, but data that ICANN have on record is the type sought after by many a secret police chief.

It is a shame that in some countries, the world wide web cannot be utilised to encourage expression through new media. There are already numerous figures in the arts who were either inspired by things they saw on the internet, or were able to hone their talents or be discovered because of the networking and creative opportunities it offers; we can even become our own record label or film studio. The internet has encouraged many millions to delve into new artforms: uploading photos onto Flickr, showcasing your band on MySpace, writing whatever you like on Blogger; the possibilities are endless.

Take Diablo Cody.  A literary manager contacted her after stumbling upon her blog (The Pussy Ranch) about her experience as a stripper. Impressed, he encouraged her to write a book, and then a screenplay, which culminated in an academy award for Juno. Cody is one of a new generation of internet-inspired rags-to-riches stories. The ‘net sometimes receives criticism for playing host to amateurs attempting to make art, as it embraces mediocrity. I’m not suggesting that Youtube is a repertoire of high-brow art, just that it makes people think in different ways and gives them the impetus to attempt new things. It might be the case that to find the gems, you have to surf through a sea of the substandard, but what is the harm in people trying to create something, even if they have the sum talent of a Cheeky Girl?

At a time when there has been an upsurge of homogeneity in the content produced by artists, when the independent has been ousted by the commercially minded, the internet has been vital in championing diversity. Instead of being forced to change their style to meet a brand image, artists have been able to gather a following online, showing the money men that there is a market for material that would otherwise never have appeared on the market. MySpace is often lamented for being at the axis of an emo generation; true, there are legions of fifteen-year-old girls trying to look sincere whilst pouring out their hearts through My Chemical Romance lyrics, but it also propels quality music that might otherwise go unheralded into the mainstream. Last year, Koopa made UK chart history by becoming the first unsigned band to have a top 40 single, which wouldn’t have happened without the online promotion power of MySpace.

The paradox for people living under oppressive rule is that many have the less desirable aspects of western culture forced upon them. For instance, KFC, the embodiment of American over-consumption, has over 1000 outlets in China; meanwhile, people are denied access to Western websites, inventions that could inspire rather than impair. The current situation of maintaining the internet from under a single roof in California is untenable: things will change. Let’s just hope that power will not be handed down to regimes that seek to control online expression.

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