Interview with Geert Lovink

On Internet Censorship

KC: I was very interested to see Michael Costa’s attempt to use the Federal Internet censorship legislation to shut down WTO protest sites last year. What is your reading of the uses and effects of Australia’s net censorship regime to date, and do you think its focus is changing?

GL: For years the Australian ‘censorship’ situation has been characterized by installing a regime of fear, which resulted in a fuzzy climate of self-censorship, caused by common distrust and outbursts of paranoia. There are very few cases of actual censorship known in Australia. How come, if the laws are so tight, as civil liberty critics rightly say so? The problem is, that Australian way of censoring is not visible, not even on informal email lists or in chat rooms, let alone websites. This means that it is sufficient for authorities to threaten with legislation. Costa’s attempt you refer to is a classic case. In the end people are getting scared to be dragged into court. Perhaps not in this case of the WTO protest but at some point in the future. The defamation paranoia, for example, is enormous and effectively stops any serious online debate. If I would criticize you on a list you can sue me, pretending that what I held against you damages your reputation, etc. End of story for Internet culture, I’d say. It’s a situation comparable to the public liability drama. It leads to a culture of petty consensus, silence and backroom politics. In that sense it is worse than the USA where people at least fight for free speech, and honestly believe in that constitutional right, and therefore say whatever they want. They take much larger risks, even though there are similar laws in the USA. In Australia that’s not the case. Here censorship gets internalized and has become an integral part of the culture. The tight media control has indeed had an effect on the people–a negative one unfortunately. Instead of open resistance there is wide spread complacency. The only way out is to radically open up the media landscape. The libertarian left should understand that media control, which presents itself so worthy as anti-corporate (read: against Murdoch and Packer), ultimately backfires against those with dissent points of view.

KC: You have argued that Gilmore’s theory, that the net can route around censorship, “no longer works.” At what point in the Internet’s history did this theory hold true, and why is it no longer the case?

GL: Gilmore’s law might was in place until the mid-nineties when the Internet was by administrated by a by and large homogeneous IT engineering class, a hackers culture if you wish, that could fool around and pretend it operated in a ‘post national’ environment. That’s no longer the case. Governments are not basket cases, as many cyber libertarians would love to portray them. The fact that the ‘routing around’ theory no longer works has got to do with the shift from absolute to relative forms of power. As we all know filters are not perfect. However, Chinese authorities are happy when 98% of the Internet culture cannot read certain sensitive information on the web. If 2% is indeed capable of receiving ‘dissident’ information, then that’s their problem. Because how are they going to reach the other 98%? That’s something Gilmore’s law is not dealing with. You can ‘rout around’ as much as you can but if cannot (re)distribute vital information within your own country, it gets stuck. Filtering is all US-American technology, by the way and IBM and others are more then willing to assist the Chinese authorities in their censorship efforts.

KC: Given the recent ruling in the Gutnick defamation case, and the increasing use of the copyright provisions of the DMCA in the US to shut down sites, it seems that the instruments for controlling speech online are multiplying and gaining force. Do you think copyright and defamation will become increasingly prevalent tools for censoring the net?

GL: Each nation and culture will deal with these issues in a different way. There is no global Internet culture. We are already seeing the emergence of largely separate ‘net clusters,’ which are primarily language based, such as a Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and German Internet. Remarkably English is no longer the majority language used on the Net. The cultural segmentation, or rather ‘plurification’ of the Net is an important factor if you want to understand how authorities are trying to control this medium. The stronger regional net cultures become, the harder it will be to enforce ‘global’ legislation, enforced either by US-American courts or international bodies. This by no means results in more cyber freedom. With this tendency comes a diversification of control mechanisms. What is defamation in Australia is filtering in China, lengthy censorship court cases in Germany, crackdown of the Internet as such in Arab countries, economic battles in Latin America, etc. There won’t be a global copyright regime any time soon. Agencies such as the WTO are rapidly losing legitimacy in the current political climate. More and more people are questioning the agenda of government backed corporate globalization, and that rising climate of uncertainty has now reached the level of the transnational elites as well.

KC: What impact (if any) has the so-called War on Terror and its attendant rolling-back of civil liberties had on the general information flows of Internet and its communities?

GL: That’s hard to measure at this stage because we’re in the middle of it all. One has to, again, become more specific, more regional. Are you referring to the situation in the USA? Europe? Asia? Signals coming out of the USA are mixed. On the one hand there is indeed more control, but people from other, let’s say more authoritarian countries, would still consider that a joke. On the other hand we see the emergence of a strong anti-war movement, growing out of anti-globalization struggles, but certainly going beyond that. On a technical level too there are interesting long-term ‘post dotcom’ developments that should encourage us, such as the proliferation of free software, peer-to-peer networks, wireless technologies and weblogs. There is a growing coalition in the US that questions existing copyright enforcement. In general we see controversies on the rise, which is such a good thing after all the organized optimism of the dotcom age. I am not saying that all the battles will be won. All I am saying is that the Internet is alive and well and is by no means a passive victim of ‘evil’ post-911 legislation.

KC: You have written about the need for a sophisticated form of   “negative pragmatism” that remains “friendly to the virtual open spaces that are being closed everywhere.” This sounds like a compelling approach. How could this be used as a tactical response to increasing online censorship, where open spaces are rapidly closing up? Or, to put it another way, what is to be done?

GL: My advice would be: do not get distracted too much by what’s going on at a global level and do your thing. It’s fairly easy to draw up a gloomy picture, but that’s not how I see it, even though I am considered to be a professional pessimist. Maybe that’s because of my anti-cyclical belief system and lifestyle. I am completely revitalized in times of crises and get depressed when ‘prosperity’ hits the fan. I always see crisis as an opportunity. It creates space to regroup and rethink strategies. To be honest, I do not believe in the thread of Internet censorship, at least not in Western countries. We have to be cautious but there are still so many opportunities that I would to focus on those instead of joining this ‘culture of complaint’. So what needs to be done is setting up independent Internet infrastructures, software, communities and content. Do not depend on authorities, be it universities or corporations or NGOs. Another virtual world is possible!