For years, security experts have warned of the danger of cyberwars. By attacking critical computer systems a nation can be brought to its knees by disrupting the power grid and financial, transportation and communications systems. It’s not as far-fetched as you may think.
Recently a computer virus forced Iran to delay the launch of a nuclear power facility. Iranian security experts have charged that the Stuxnet worm is a state-sponsored attack that may have originated in the United States or Israel. More disturbing, however, is a growing movement by governments to ban the spread not of viruses, but of ideas–ideas that they claim threaten their very survival.
Lead by Russia, a group of countries that includes China, India and Brazil, wants to combat “information wars” — ideas used by one country to destabilize the government of another. Russia has introduced a resolution in the United Nations that would ban state-sponsored “information terrorism.” For instance, under the resolution, promoting the idea of democracy in North Korea would be banned. I suppose that promoting capitalism in China would also qualify as “information terrorism.”
According to James Lewis, an adviser to the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research, “An official from one of those countries told me [that] Twitter is an American plot to destabilize foreign governments. That’s what they think. And so they’re asking, ‘How do we get laws that control the information weapon?’ ” Fortunately for those who value free speech, it may not be so easy.
The other night I went to see “Howl”, a film that tells the story of arguably the most famous poem of the 20th century written by its most influential poet, Allen Ginsberg.
In 1957, a small San Francisco publisher, City Lights Books, published “Howl and Other Poems” by the then obscure poet. In an attempt to ban the sale of the book, the city of San Francisco prosecuted the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, alleging that the poem was obscene.
Although the prosecution objected to certain “dirty words” contained in the poem, it was really trying to suppress the ideas expressed by the rebellious writer. “It was that it was a direct attack on American society and the American way of life,” said Ferlinghetti. Sound familiar? Not so different than the argument now being made by Russia and China.
More ominously, if the case against “Howl” was successful, the censors had other books in their crosshairs. The trial was just the opening shot of a culture war.
In a landmark ruling Judge Clayton Horn dismissed the charge, ruling that “Howl” had “redeeming social importance” and was therefore protected by the First Amendment. In an ironic twist, the failed prosecution of “Howl” not only made Ginsberg famous, but paved the way for the publication of other books that might have faced similar charges. The floodgates had opened, affirming Americans’ right to uncensored information.
Will Russia’s attempt to control the Internet backfire as well? Only time will tell, but I bet that right now, there’s some ingenious teenager working on the next Twitter–a technology that will terrify and subvert the established order.
For another perspective on the power of new media, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”