This blog is about the relationship between freedom and morality. If I’ve posted often on the death of news, it’s because of the connection to this theme.
Here I intend to make the connection explicit – first, with a little history, and second, with a current example, that of China.
The history is one of monopolies in decline. Scarcely two decades ago, the power elites around the world were sitting pretty. They controlled the flow of information, and set the boundaries of acceptable debate. They owned the TV stations, newspapers, and book publishing houses, and could outspend – and, if necessary, outmuscle – any would-be interloper to chase him out of the club.
The only points of view they heard, consequently, were their own, which they came to identify with all that is morally good and right. This was as true of the US as it was of North Korea – though the volume of information available, and access into the elites, obviously differed in the two countries.
The ideology and style of news favored one-way, top-down, authority-to-mass public communications. Walter Cronkite wasn’t Kim Il Sung but in many respects the assumptions of both men were similar. They knew, while others didn’t. They told their fellow citizens what was important to know. They didn’t expect anyone to talk back.
For this reason despots and elites everywhere have found the death of news hugely problematic. The digital big bang multiplied information for practical purposes to infinity, making sorting and control impossible. Access was free. Borders were penetrated. Message senders could be anyone, good or evil. Message receivers could talk back.
Bred to the ideology of news, elites found the promiscuous spread of information immoral. Free news was like free love, and they reflexively sought to combat it. The truly amoral content of the new information – the pornography, slander, vituperation – gave a cover of legitimacy to self-appointed guardians everywhere.
The strategic question was how to impose control.
The short answer is you can’t, at least not entirely. But degrees of control can be enforced. A nation’s grid can be disconnected from the web, for example. Information then stops at the border, creating a scarcity of the stuff inside. Of course, information poverty means the same for the economy. North Korea and Cuba – a pair of economic basket cases – have embraced this strategy.
A more sophisticated approach is to go after the mediators: the infrastructure companies, service providers, search engine sites. Regimes which depend on growing economies, and understand the power of information to generate wealth, have take this approach. Their goal is a “just right” level of information control: sufficient to smother political and social deviance from elite standards, but not enough to slow the economy down.
Middle Eastern countries like Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, have tried different versions of “just right” censorship. But the undisputed champion of the method is the People’s Republic of China.
The death of news presents an existential crisis for the Chinese ruling elites. Members of a Marxist-Leninist party running a cowboy capitalist economy, they are caught in a contradiction which must, sooner or later, render them superfluous to their own people. The only way to buy time is to grow the economy – but the only way to do that is to throw wide the doors to education, information, and innovation.
Today the online population in China is larger than the entire population of the US. Most of these web dwellers are focused on work and entertainment. But occasionally they gather in “human flesh search engines” – online mobs which track down and ruthlessly harrass individuals, including arrogant officials, perceived as wrongdoers. And occasionally, too, they mock their rulers’ attempts at censorship: any who doubt it should look up “grass mud horse” in wikipedia.
The Chinese regime has a reputation as the cleverest and most sophisticated information guardians in the digital age. It’s undeserved. The “great firewall” is a massive investment to limited effect – tech tricks for anxious totalitarians. Even the famous “internet police,” supposedly 40,000 strong, seems to me an indicator of fear and loathing rather than cleverness. Elites unsupported by any logic or legitimacy are terrified of what might happen if deviant ideas are allowed to spread.
That is the background to the quarrel with Google.
Google is a creature of the death of news – it arose when information escaped the grasp of “authoritative” mediators like government censors, TV anchors, and newspaper publishers. It has itself become a gigantic global mediator, but of a different kind. Google is driven by the information needs of its customers, and relies on its customers to find this information. It’s the opposite of authoritative – it’s vulgar.
Because the company’s motto is “don’t be evil,” Google was mocked when it negotiated a form of censorship with the Chinese, to be allowed into that enticing market. For once it yielded to authority in a grab for money. Yet Google gave away far less than other US firms, and I thought at the time the agreement could turn out to be morally defensible (“trying to minimize its evilness” is how Rebecca MacKinnon put it).
In mid-December of last year, the company was subjected to an attack from Chinese hackers, which resulted in the “theft of intellectual property.” Gmail addresses of activists in China and their correspondents were also compromised. The regime was on an informational warpath. It meant to make Google into a tool of control rather than a pathway for deviant information.
Such episodes are business as usual in China. The unusual twist is that Google pushed back. It decided to not be evil by yielding in silence to a sinister regime. In January, the company went public with its complaint. In March, it ceased all censorship on its Chinese search engine, routing users to servers in Hong Kong.
At present, Google and the People’s Republic are in a state of cold war. Google has called for US government support – and, indeed, Secretary of State Clinton gave a rousing speech criticizing China and advocating online freedom of expression worldwide. But there’s little our government can do. We won’t stake our relationship with China on the matter, and their hackers, I’m reasonably sure, are better than ours.
Nothing human is irrevocable, but certain choices determine others. The ruling elites of China will win their war with Google, but the real choice is whether they wish to sustain prosperity and growth. Since this is a political imperative, they will be compelled to allow volumes of information far beyond their ability to control. Other paths to deviancy will found by the Chinese people after Google has been defeated.
The consequences are impossible to predict. Information isn’t revolution. Despite the hopes of well-meaning people, the internet isn’t democracy. If the political heirs of Mao Zedong were overthrown tomorrow, it is possible, even likely, that they would be replaced by an even worse crowd.
My aim was to show that the death of news involves – more accurately, is a symptom of – a fundamental conflict about freedom and morality. One-way, top-down communication is the way of the elites, and when this breaks down the reaction, predictably, is moral outrage. Whether the breakdown will entail an increase in freedom and honesty, and a better way of life – this, too, is a choice, not a given.