I was planning to write about the rivers of blood that are running through world stock markets. Paper losses of $4.5 trillion have a way of drawing the eye and demanding an explanation. But the world intervened. (Devoted cybernauts may get that column yet; stay tuned, kids.)
Instead of the disappearance of virtual profits, I’m going to focus on virtual bribes; instead of red ink, you get real blood. The last two weeks have served up two reminders of just how powerful the Internet can be, and why the forces it has unleashed are doing strange things in strange places — and won’t be crammed back into any bottle, no matter how ugly those revelations are, and how uncomfortable they make the powers that be.
In India, a Net news channel has broadcast video footage of politicians and defense bureaucrats accepting what appear to be bribes. Tehelka.com, “India’s most exciting news-views portal,” set up the sting, disguising two of its reporters to approach the sticky-fingered sorts and request their help getting a contract from the government to buy their equipment. The pols willingly obliged, apologizing all the while about the high cost of “dealing with obstructions” in India.
Among the video stars is the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the current 19-party ruling coalition, and the president of the Samata Party, to which the defense minister belongs. (Both presidents and the defense minister resigned after the tape was aired.)
At virtually the same time, the Chinese government received its own taste of what the Net can do. Two weeks ago, an explosion ripped through an elementary school in the village of Fanglin, which killed 42 people, most of them young children. Initially, the government tried to blame a suicidal madman for the explosion.
Unfortunately for Beijing, the truth wasn’t so easily managed. Although the city was sealed off after the blast, enterprising reporters managed to talk to the families of victims and doctors in the village. They reported that, contrary to the official version, the children had been assembling fireworks at the school for three years, often during lunch, but even during school hours. Despite parent’s complaints (both to stop the hazardous activity and to pay the kids if they were being forced to work), the practice continued — with deadly consequences.
As usual, China’s first reaction was to deny the reports and attack the foreign press for slandering the country. But then Internet chat rooms and newsgroups within China picked up the reports and gradually substantiated that version of the truth.
Then a truly stunning thing happened: Premier Zhu Rongji publicly disavowed the official story last week. After apologizing to the families of the victims, he pledged a full investigation.
Welcome to the wired world. Just as Matt Drudge did his best to upend the management of the news in the U.S., determined reporters and citizens are asserting their own views elsewhere in the world.
Before readers move on with a “been there, done that” nod, remember: We’re talking about China and India — neither of which is among the leading wired, affluent countries.
In Malaysia, Malaysiakini, or Malaysia Now, has exploited a loophole offered by Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir to serve up unprecedented criticism of the government. (Mahathir tried to entice foreign companies to his high-tech corridor by promising not to censor content on the Net. To his credit, he has kept his word — albeit reluctantly.)
Malaysiakini has been a big hit. It claims to have more than 30,000 hits a day and won the International Press Institute’s 2001 Freedom Award.
Unfortunately, success has a price: After reporting on race riots last week, police said they would call editors in for questioning, warning ominously that rumor-mongers could be charged under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial.
Malaysiakini is only one example of how the Net undoes a government’s standard operating procedures when it tries to manage the news. Last week, Malaysian distributors complained that two magazines — Asiaweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review — were being held up by censors. A few years ago that made sense: A diligent Information Ministry could cut off the magazines’ local subscribers (roughly 25,000 and 15,000, respectively).
But now that 8 percent of Malaysians are online — 1.76 million people — blocking paper copies doesn’t make sense. In fact, I’d say it’s counterproductive. People who once read the magazine and let copies pile up in the bathroom will now go to the Web site, and those stories will be a lot easier to forward than those in the paper version. It’s quicker to push a couple of buttons and leave the dissemination to the Net than make copies and hand them out personally.
Or go to the Philippines. Net penetration may be lagging, but the digital revolution is doing its work there, too. The mass protests against former President Joseph Estrada were moved and sometimes directed by means of pocket messaging systems. It might not have been as glamorous as i-mode, but it did the job superbly.
As the Malaysian case makes abundantly clear, governments have a fateful choice. They can opt for information dominance, which they have enjoyed in the past, or they can choose economic modernization. The communications networks that are the backbone of a functioning economy just cannot be controlled.
Which is, come to think about it, sort of the point I was going to make in the original column. Forget the red ink, forget the paper paupers, the dead.coms; the markets’ vicissitudes may move wealth around, but the forces that drove the Net revolution are with us still. And they won’t be going away.
Brad Glosserman (firstname.lastname@example.org)