In this great game of the early 21st century, we see three major kinds of player: states, companies and netizens. It’s not just authoritarian states that have problems with the free flow of information; democratic ones do too. Companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft themselves have big questions to answer about the way in which they select, handle and sell the vast information resources at their disposal. I can’t help wondering where Google would be today on the China issue if one of its founders, Sergey Brin, had not been shaped by his parents’ experience in the Soviet Union. And Microsoft might be in a morally better place if Bill Gates had grown up in, say, Poland.
…In thinking about the way information is supplied to us, we have, it seems to me, four possible approaches: (1) the state I live in decides what I can and cannot see, and that’s OK; (2) the big companies I rely on (Google, Yahoo, Baidu, Microsoft, Apple, China Mobile) select what I see, and that’s OK; (3) I want to be free to see anything I like. Uncensored news from everywhere, all of world literature, manifestos of every party and movement, jihadist propaganda, bomb-making instructions, intimate details of other people’s private lives, child pornography – all should be freely available. Then it’s up to me to decide what I’ll look at (the radical libertarian option); (4) everyone should be free to see everything, except for that limited set of things which clear, explicit global rules specify should not be available. The job of states, companies and netizens is then to enforce those international norms.
At the moment, we have a combination of (1) and (2). Developments in technology will give us more of (3), whether we like it or not. (4) currently looks like a pipe dream. Nonetheless, it is to (4) that we should aspire.