The Need for Unfettered Flow of Information and Knowledge

A somewhat detailed & rather fascinating account from +David Amerland  who has recently experienced China's throttling of the internet for a week or so can be read below. Incidentally, he has also had a glimpse of how, in cities like Shanghai & Beijing, the not-so-fortunate and the ones who rather mar China's dazzling success story have been swept out of visibility or largely brushed under the carpet.

But let's get back to the throttling of the Internet. There are pundits who will eloquently argue that while Google may be throttled, Baidu is serving the information needs of the local populace well and again, while Facebook & Twitter may be absent, Sina Weibo & several other local networks more than fill up that space, so all this griping and bickering is symbolic of the frustration some of the U.S. MNCs are experiencing because they have been denied access to such a huge market. Also, some of this can be circumvented using VPN, they would say. They would be missing the point by a mile.

Let's take a step or two back and get our perspectives right. The internet is a path-breaking technology that enables the flow of information, news, data, photos and much else, near instantaneously, across the globe. Social media is a Cloud based network which enables its users to share information, updates, photos, games and much else that they may like (or dislike in certain cases ) with their friends or other users of the network. Because of the sheer number of users on popular social media networks, a good deal of the internet traffic and activity currently happens across these networks.

Did you notice an important qualifier missing in the rather simplistic definition of the internet, above? If you haven't caught on yet, the operative word is 'free'. No doubt the Internet is like the Wild West and all kinds of information & content can be hung on its peg by virtually anyone & everyone. No doubt some of this content can be misleading, patently false, mischievous, hateful or revolting even. It is precisely for this reason that Authority, Trust, Veracity and Author Rank have become key parameters used by Search & Semantic Search to rank Sites and Pages. These and many other quality criteria for Sites are being constantly refined and tweaked and for those interested, the post below provides a great many details about the process. However, to get back to the central point of this piece, 'free' automatically implies the lack of filters or censorship of any kind. And therein lies the problem that was highlighted right at the beginning of this piece.

While the net is heavily throttled in China, with Baidu filtering out all results which the authorities deem unsuitable for the user to view and a popular network like Sina Weibo engaging over ten thousand human scanners, at last count, in addition to a host of bots & filters, to sieve and further examine content that the authorities may deem undesirable, seditious, insightful or just worthy of further investigation for a whole host of reasons determined by them, many other governments across the world have woken up to the fact that the internet in general and social media networks in particular, are excellent platforms for snooping on the unsuspecting masses.

The Edward Snowden revelations have been aired in great detail by sections of the mainstream media, so I shall not dwell on them any further here. Instead, let us take a look at some other direct as well as roundabout ways of controlling the flow of information by countries in Europe which proclaim themselves to be bastions of democracy and human rights.

The two instances I would like to highlight are the controversial 'Right To Be Forgotten' ruling handed out by a EU court sometime back and the whole debate about how 'Search Results' should be displayed, reopened again by a European court recently.

Some of the issues regarding the 'Right To Be Forgotten' ruling are highlighted well in this post.

The issues regarding how 'Search Results' should be displayed are ongoing ones and, despite an apparent agreement on this vexatious issue sometime back, it has been reopened again for a number of political reasons and due to lobbying by interested parties like news channels, commercial sites and competitors of the currently dominant player in this domain.

Take a look at the screenshot below and notice the search string which brought about this result directly from Google (and not from any portal or site)

Certain sections of the concerned authorities are of the view that a search for Flight 'SQ 321', for example, should bring up certain commercial or government sites which provide this information, rather than the flight information itself as the first piece of information on the SERP (that's Search Engine Result Page for the uninitiated ).

Check out my observations in a recent Social Media post, sharing a detailed article in +The Guardian on this issue.

Ironically, when HR professionals fall back on Social Media networks in a major way to mine information that users have shared about themselves, often unwittingly, to determine the suitability of candidates initially shortlisted for an assignment, no one even sees it as an issue fit to discuss or debate. In another instance of corporate throttling, an executive concerned with ensuring the internal security of the IT infrastructure in India of one of the Big Four accounting & consulting firms, boasted to me recently how they had ensured already that no one could access any social media network worth mentioning on their workstations and how they were close to finding ways of jamming the smartphones & tablets of all employees so that they can't access any SM network on their mobile devices from their workplace, either. I was tempted to suggest to him that he and his colleagues should next figure out innovative ways of gagging the trading of office gossip & politics during visits to the office coffee vending machine or to the office lunchroom for that matter. What's sauce for the goose isn't quite sauce for the gander, it would appear.

The Indian authorities, have, for quite sometime, merely tolerated blogs and social media networks and have clamped down on them, on a whole host of pretexts, time and again, over the years. The Central Monitoring System or CMS, unhindered and unchecked by regulatory or Parliamentary oversight, has been snooping on a major scale on Indian citizens and residents for quite sometime now The state of affairs can be visualized from the tweet just below by the +Centre for Internet and Society and this post of mine, sometime back.

Sadly, given the very many other pressing problems India's citizens have to grapple with, this pervasive surveillance continues to fly largely under the radar as it were.

It is ironic that in the Knowledge Economy of the 21st century, governments around the world are engaged in throttling the flow of information or snooping on content because of their cynical, short-term and self-centred objectives largely. The gag on information can only be overcome by the free-flowing dissemination of unhindered and unfiltered information and data.