7 June 2011
As has been noted by other commentators, the French government has a problem with the internet, and endeavours to stave off its impact with ill-timed, and ill-thought out regulation. Of course, as a national government, they can try to build a digital Maginot line around France; they’re always doing that and as Santayana said, having failed to learn from history, they persist in repeating it.
One can only hope that such efforts will not be copied by other governments and certainly be given short shrift at the European level.
History shows that efforts to build up walls such as these are doomed to failure. Brute force, smarter opponents, and new technologies prevail in the end. France, regretfully, seems to prefer to hide behind its social-cultural rhethoric rather than deal with the opportunities that the internet offers, by fearing it more than understanding it.
The internet is not just a telecommunications novelty to send emails, view your vacation pictures, or keep in touch with friends. It is has become a digital glue that binds communities and nations together in a way that international treaties have failed. It could be seen as the ultimate success of the internationalisation of societies in a way that brings with it greater understanding and peace. Indeed, why do autocratic governments, usually just before they collapse, try to shut down the internet, for it, like the photocopier in what was the Soviet Union, represents all that they fear: openness, liberty.
Efforts to counter this new technological force of nature are at root authoritarian. They say the government in power knows better than individuals. Francis Bacon wrote in 1597, “knowledge is power” [Meditationes Sacrae], certainly not anticipating the internet, but deeply understanding that control of knowledge (or information as we think of things today) gave those who controlled it power. From this come cartels, censorship, autocratic governments, and authoritarian regulation from fearful democracies.
The former US Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis, is famous for saying that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, and today the internet is the best disinfectant there is, for it is revealing where injustice lies, and uncovering official hypocracies. It is laying bare the landscape of opportunities for all, and not just a privileged few.
But some fear this for it also reveals where the internet challenges past comforts, vested interests, and the quiet whisper in the ear.
And so this digital maginot line that some countries are trying to build will fail, and fail for all the right reasons, as we don’t live in that kind of world anymore, and governments, both national and at the EU level need to grasp that as the internet changes everything, it also changes the very logic we use when we govern.
In a frictionless internet I can eliminate fr, .de, .uk, even .eu, with a mouse click, erase them from my universe more thoroughly than the thundering barbarian hoards.
Or I can make them the centre of my world.