Black Hole, Green Hole, One, Two, Three


Reporters Sans Frontiers (Without Borders) held protests in Paris and New York to call attention to the “Thirteen Enemies of the Internet” — countries, including China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia, — that selectively block access to information and imprison people who post articles that go against the ruling interests.

In addition to decrying the actions of what protesters called “the black holes of the Internet” (“Les trous noirs du web”) the protests singled out Yahoo! for its complicity in helping the Chinese government imprison blogger Shi Tao.

The basic issue of Internet blocking, in which U.S. firms like Google have already played an enabling role, is not a new story.

Less known is why Yahoo now finds itself the target of this latest protest — and why anyone should care about Shi Tao. An October 18 Financial Times report fills in some of the blanks. According to the FT:

“Mr Shi was jailed for 10 years in April, apparently for revealing information about a media crackdown by party propaganda officials.”

In the same report, the FT says:

“Veteran dissident Liu Xiaobo, in an open letter to Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, accuses the US company of betraying its customers and supporting dictatorship by providing information on journalist Shi Tao to Chinese authorities … Yahoo yesterday refused to comment on the contents of the letter. A company spokeswoman at its base in Silicon Valley said it only released information to the authorities ‘when legally compelled to do so, and then only in a way that complies with both local laws and our privacy policy’.”

British-born, U.S. blogger Tom (SiliconValleyWatcher) Foremski recently remarked on the incident:

“This kind of behavior will not fly. Yahoo management made a serious error in judgement and so has that of Google, which also hands over such information to Chinese and other government authorities.”

In addition to applying the critique, Foremski suggested that Web vendors could launder personal information that pertains to traffic on their sites so as to be able to honestly be able to tell government authorites — sorry, we don’t know who posted that.

It’s always difficult to explain why those of us who may be sitting in a comfortable office or scanning articles at home should care about what big companies do with foreign nations that may or may not involve the unjust imprisonment of some guy we’ve never met.

But let me try and make it personal.

We are currently wiring the planet and plugging people into the Web as fast as humanly possible. We are being encouraged to put our lives online — everything from our correspondence with friends, to our personal financial, to our dreams and hopes. We’re buying and selling things. And with each digital “sound” we make in this new medium, we leave a traceable trail. And the great ambition of Web companies is to assemble these traces, calls them pixels if you will, into a picture of who we are and what we like. Because then the Web vendors will be able to apprach, say, Johnson & Johnson one day to say something like this:

“Tom Abate’s favorite color is blue and he purchases dental floss on a regular basis. So let’s team up to offer him a blue dental floss “subscription” which will enrich his life (blue floss would indeed make me feel happier while promoting dental hygiene). And if we are able to sell him this product directly, we can disintermediate WalMart and create a small annuity cash flow that we can split.”

Of course that same tracking capablity and behavioral profiling is exactly what a government might need to find and jail a dissident. So the question becomes do we, as citizens, as ‘netizens, accept th potential risk of political repression in exchange for the unarguable convenience of things like Amazon’s suggestion engine (if you enjoyed reading “Big Brother” you may want to buy “Brave New World”)?

At this point, all the oomph is behind the information-collection impulse. There’s just too much money to be made in that direction. And to most people, quite frankly, freedom means the ability to choose and purchase a variety of consumer products at attractive choices.

So the civil libertarians, the politcal activists, the French organizers of Reporters Sans Frontiers and the Britsh press that have focused on the Yahoo-Shi Tao story as a poster child for Web censorship — well, they’re facing an uphill battle to overcome indifference.

I have often poked fun at the French and the British. It’s so easy and in the United States it’s good sport. And here I think there is a very human and understandable reason for their willingness to criticize the Web powers — most of them are based in the United States. And, outside the U.S., poking fun at the Ugly Americans is also good sport.

Of greater concern to me as as an American who is sometimes ashamed of what our country does, but who is always proud to believe that we indeed have as our national mission the advancement of political freedom and human rights, is why web censorship and the complicity of U.S. firms in it, doesn’t make our blood boil.

And here again, I see a very human and understandable reason for out relative lack of interest.

Our economy isn’t bad but it isn’t booming. And we have in our memory the great days of the boom, which was followed by the house price boom, and now I get this sense that even the secularists among us are down on our hands and knees, praying: Dear Lord, please let the good times roll again. And our best hope of that at present is the potential for a boom in social networking. So do we really want to criticize the goose that might lay the next golden egg?

The French worry about the Internet falling into a black hole. From where I sit at the edge of Silicon Valley, I think it’s more likely we’ll all march willingly into a green hole, lured by the color of money.