The Looming Destruction of the Global Communications Environment

6 June 2007
by Ron Deibert, Director, The Citizen Lab, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto


Ask most citizens worldwide what the most pressing issue facing humanity as a whole is and they will likely respond with global warming. However, there is another environmental catastrophe looming about which citizens are only just beginning to learn: the degradation of the global communications environment. The parallels between the two issues are striking: in both cases an invaluable commons is threatened with collapse unless citizens take urgent action to affect environmental rescue. The two issues are also intimately connected: solutions to global warming necessitate an unfettered planetary communications network through which citizens can exchange information and ideas; the loss of the latter will undoubtedly impact the former. To protect the planet, we need to protect the Net.


Just as evidence of threats to the global natural environment can be found in seemingly unrelated local events – deforestation here, a loss of wetlands there – so too can threats to the global communications environment. In Belarus, for example, access to opposition websites was disrupted during 2005 presidential elections, and then restored immediately afterwards. In Cambodia, the government shut down the use of text messaging over cellular networks two weeks prior to national elections. In Pakistan, inept attempts to block access to blogs containing imagery satirizing the Prophet Muhammed resulted in the collateral filtering of an entire blogging service, including those in support of the ban. Thailand blocked access to YouTube in objection to a few videos posted on the site satirical of the Thai king.

These and hundreds of other examples from the OpenNet Initiative’s latest research are but a few pieces of evidence of what has become an alarming trend: motivated by short-term security and cultural concerns, dozens of governments are carving up and corralling the once seamless Internet environment.

Like any other commons, the global communications environment is a finite public good whose maintenance as a valuable resource depends on sustained contributions of individuals worldwide. And yet citizens are having their legitimate contributions stifled by fickle governments who are threatened by freedom of speech and access to information.

Fortunately, there are many ways to begin to rescue the global communications environment. We need to encourage the research and development of tools (like the censorship-evading software psiphon) that support the Internet’s open architecture. We need to put pressure on governments that censor and the companies who assist them, promoting laws from the domestic to the international spheres that restrain their shortsighted motives. And we need to raise global awareness that if we, citizens of the earth, are ever to solve our many shared problems successfully, we need an unfettered planetary communications environment with which to do so.

Ron Deibert is speaking on Wednesday 6 June at “Some People Think the Internet is a Bad Thing: The Struggle for Free Expression in Cyberspace”, an Amnesty International event sponsored by the Observer. The event examines the future of free speech online - governments’ attempts to restrict expression and information on the Internet and how web users are harnessing the power of the internet to resist them. It is webcasted live here.

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