Can the Internet really be blocked?
I was always under the impression that the Internet was a free, open, global network that had the potential to connect anyone to everyone. Knowledge flowed through it; people logged on to it and communicated across it. To me, Cyberspace was always this cultural Leviathan floating behind the visible field of reality—there but not there, like the force. Only, unlike the force, you could get inside it, it wasn’t inside you. Cyberspace seemed to be everywhere, all around us at all times, unable to be touched or smelled, but certainly able to be seen, heard and embodied. It was thestuff of non-space.
Then SOPA and PIPA turned my Facebook newsfeed upside down and I began to scratch my head with uncertainty. How can something that is by its very nature unlimited be limited by a government? How can access be denied to a territory that has no definite boundary, no actual place, border, or barrier? How can you lock a door made of light and sound? It appeared as if the US government quit taking its medication.
An hour later, I read John Palfrey and Jonathon Zittrain’s chapter in Access Denied. “Few would condemn all those who would seek to filter Internet content; in fact, nearly every society filters Internet content in one way or another…The perspective in support of state-mandated Internet filtering is straightforward….The Internet is not exceptional” (p. 43-44). Following a rich analysis of data gathered to elucidate the filtering trends of a myriad of non-Western countries, they expose the complex layers of Internet Filtering as a geopolitical and socio-economic issue. They voice concerns regarding the collaboration of state and private agencies that restrict citizen access to specific content and whole web domains deemed sensitive or inappropriate. Pornography, political propaganda, and personal blogs are just a few examples of content that falls outside of the purview of cultural values and spiritual/social traditions of regions controlled by authoritarian regime leaders, many of which believe they are protecting the interest of their people and insulating cultural values from Western imperialism.
I guess I was wrong. I guess my image of a free and open Internet was nothing more than a romantic fantasy.
Michael Heim discusses romantic thought about the Internet. In Virtual Realism, he describes a proverbial battle between “naive realists” who forget that virtual worlds creatively enhance human social living and “network idealists” who forget that the “as if” quality of virtual-anything often has real consequences in the corporeal world. As Heim traces the genesis of these positions to their philosophical roots, his text embodies the struggle over control of virtualizing technologies. This struggle has resurfaced in the present as Netizens find themselves in the center of the dangerous intersection between Wall Street and Pennsylvania Ave.
Palfrey and Zittrain’s exegesis on Internet blocking has come to the fore in the SOPA and PIPA debacle, and Heim’s Virtual Realist perspective, which navigates the middle of the road without careening users into privacy rights and crashing navigators into the contextual gates of ownership, authority, and personal freedom, would help both concerned citizens and politicians direct online traffic safely.
If politicians did their homework, learned a bit more about the nature and history of the virtual world, took a virtually real position about “rights” and “freedoms”, and considered the cultural context of Internet sharing, they may find a way to write laws that are both necessary and welcomed by the masses, as Palfrey and Zittrain claim they could be. We do need a digital ethics, but as Switch from The Matrix states before she’s unplugged from the virtual world and killed the real one, “Not like this…Not like this.”