Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Should the Internet be regulated?

By Andre Vltchek (China Daily) Updated: 2012-09-19 08:09

Should the Internet be regulated?

Could the Internet be totally free and should it be? The recent turmoil in the Arab world caused by a contentious video denigrating Prophet Muhammad shows the United States, which is busy promoting global Internet freedom, has paid a huge price with the lives of its diplomats.

The US ambassador to Libya was killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi last week. Protesters have also stormed the US Embassy in Tunis, capital of Tunisia, and held violent demonstrations outside US posts in Egypt and Sudan. Hundreds of Afghans burned cars and threw rocks at a US military base, and thousands of Pakistani students and teachers protested against the video.

In an unregulated cyber world, calumniation, fraud, violence, pornography or rumors can bring serious consequences.

Last month, in India, the "largest democracy", rumors of ethnic violence spread like a virus across the country, sending about 300,000 people fleeing from south to northeast of the country. Social media and text messaging played a crucial role in accelerating the flow of rumors and inflammatory images. The doctored images and videos showing the anti-Muslim attacks that hadn't happened at all created panic among the people and caused great chaos. The November 2008 attacks on Mumbai were coordinated with the help of the Internet and mobile phones.

India and many other countries across the world are periodically suffering from "rumors" spread by the Internet and social media.

In Mexico earlier this month, rumors led to a similar dramatic panic. The Associated Press reported on Sept 8, 2012: "Mothers rushed to pull their kids out of school, shopkeepers slammed down their metal gates and bus drivers radioed one another about streets to avoid after false rumors of shootouts and gunmen traveling in a caravan in Mexico City suburb began circulating on social networks. The false reports of violence and impending attacks in Nezahualcoyotl soon included nearby suburbs and at least one borough in the capital, spreading panic and prompting police to take to the streets in force while officials turned to Twitter, television and even hand-distributed flyers to deny the rumors."

The US-led West always promotes Internet freedom and refutes any regulation as censorship, but it should think twice if it calculates the heavy price that has been and has to be paid for "free Internet".

Moreover, even if the Internet in the West appears to be free, with no obvious interference and no censored sites, isn't the structure of the main pages already manipulative, with selected press agencies and sources occupying clearly dominating positions?

Speaking at the Auckland University in New Zealand (Pacific Media Centre) recently, I argued that the mass media consolidated its control over people's minds using "front pages" and homepages of the search engines and the most visited sites.

Of course any "diligent searcher" can find diverse information using the Internet, even countless "alternative" opinions and sources of information, but such a search would take great knowledge, determination and skill; the person would have to know exactly what he or she is searching for.

In summary, in the West, the Internet helped destroy many traditional and unconventional newspapers and magazines (printed media) while failing to "feed" the majority of the population with alternative views. Arguably, the conventional reader is now less inquisitive and critical of the arrangement of the world than in the days preceding the Internet. Now there may be more sources of information than before, but there are just a few leading ones and they are from camps with similar political viewpoints.

Of course, it is not only its structure that makes the Internet "controlled" in Western countries and elsewhere. On Aug 22, 2012, Cyber Media News wrote: "In 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the world to respect Internet freedom when the US Justice Department targeted WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange."

There is plenty of hypocrisy, naturally. The true intention of the US in promoting so-called global Internet freedom was actually to help people get around barriers in cyberspace and inform them with the kind of "bad news" about the rivals in the US eyes.

It's true, on the other hand, that in the West, it is only the Internet that keeps true opposition to the existing world order alive, through electronic periodicals such as "CounterPunch" or "Z". And for those who indeed carry out research and know how to search, the Internet is the unlimited source of information, data and in-depth analyses.

The Internet has also helped fight injustice, expose excesses and unveil corruption in places so far apart as Indonesia, China, India and Latin America.

But the Internet could be extremely damaging as well. Various racist or separatist organizations are using their Internet sites to fan passions. Those who are spreading hate are frequently using the Internet as their tool. No country can afford to make the Internet absolutely free.

The question is how to keep free flow of information uninterrupted while protecting children from pornography, common citizens from vicious rumors and countries from unfair and damaging propaganda attacks. And who sets the limits.

The conclusion is that there will never be a perfect system. Every country will have to develop its own system, based on its culture, social milieu and the degree of danger it's facing. In the meantime, it would be useful to realize that the West is hardly the one to be the vanguard of objectivity and free flow of information.

The author is an American novelist, documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist.

(China Daily 09/19/2012 page9)

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