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The unknown promise of Internet freedom

by Peter Singer

MELBOURNE, Australia — Google has withdrawn from China, arguing that it is no longer willing to design its search engine to block information that the Chinese government does not wish its citizens to have. In liberal democracies around the world, this decision has generally been greeted with enthusiasm.

In one of those liberal democracies, Australia, the government recently said it would legislate to block access to some Web sites. The prohibited material includes child pornography, bestiality, incest, graphic “high impact” images of violence, anything promoting or providing instruction on crime or violence, detailed descriptions of the use of proscribed drugs, and how-to information on suicide by Web sites supporting the right to die for the terminally or incurably ill.

A readers’ poll in the Sydney Morning Herald showed 96 percent opposed to those proposed measures, and only 2 percent in support. More readers voted in this poll than in any previous poll shown on the newspapers’ Web site, and the result is the most one-sided.

The Internet, like the steam engine, is a technological breakthrough that changed the world. Today, if you have an Internet connection, you have at your fingertips an amount of information previously available only to those with access to the world’s greatest libraries — indeed, in most respects what is available through the Internet dwarfs those libraries, and it is incomparably easier to find what you need.

Remarkably, this came about with no central planning, no governing body and no overall control, other than a system for allocating the names of Web sites and their addresses. That something so significant could spring up independently of governments and big business led many to believe that the Internet can bring the world a new type of freedom. It is as if an inherently decentralized and individualist technology had realized an anarchist vision that would have seemed utterly utopian if dreamed up by Peter Kropotkin in the 19th century. That may be why so many people believe so strongly that the Internet should be left completely unfettered.

Perhaps because Google has been all about making information more widely available, its collaboration with China’s official Internet censors has been seen as a deep betrayal. The hope of Internet anarchists was that repressive governments would have only two options: accept the Internet with its limitless possibilities of spreading information, or restrict Internet access to the ruling elite and turn your back on the 21st century, as North Korea has done.

Reality is more complex. The Chinese government was never going to cave in to Google’s demand that it abandon Internet censorship. The authorities will no doubt find ways of replacing the services that Google provided at some cost and maybe with some loss of efficiency — but the Internet will remain fettered in China.

Nevertheless, the more important point is that Google is no longer lending its imprimatur to political censorship. Predictably, some accuse Google of seeking to impose its own values on a foreign culture. Nonsense. Google is entitled to choose how and with whom it does business. One could just as easily assert that during the period in which Google filtered its results in China, China was imposing its values on Google.

Google’s withdrawal is a decision in accordance with its own values. In my view, those values are more defensible than the values that lead to political censorship. Who knows how many Chinese would endorse the value of open access to information if they had the chance?

Even with censorship, the Internet is a force for change. Last month, when the governor of China’s Hubei province threatened a journalist and grabbed her recorder after she asked a question about a local scandal, journalists, lawyers and academics used the Internet to object. A Web report critical of the governor’s behavior stayed up for 18 hours before censors ordered it taken down. By then, however, the news was already widely dispersed.

Likewise, in Cuba, Yoani Sanchez’s blog “Generation Y” has broken barriers that conventional media could not. Although the Cuban government has blocked access to the Web site on which the blog is posted, it is available around the world in many languages, and distributed within Cuba on compact disks and flash drives.

The new freedom of expression brought by the Internet goes far beyond politics. People relate to each other in new ways, posing questions about how we should respond to people when all that we know about them is what we have learned through a medium that permits all kinds of anonymity and deception. We discover new things about what people want to do and how they want to connect to each other.

Do you live in an isolated village and have unusual hobbies, special interests, or sexual preferences? You will find someone online with whom to share them.

Can’t get to a doctor? You can check your symptoms online — but can you be sure that the medical Web site you are using is reliable?

Technology can be used for good or for bad, and it is too soon to reach a verdict on the Internet. (In the 18th century, who could have foreseen that the development of the steam engine would have an impact on Earth’s climate?)

Even if it does not fulfill the anarchist dream of ending repressive government, we are still only beginning to grasp the extent of what it will do to the way we live.

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include, most recently, “The Life You Can Save.” © 2010 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)