NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT - Russia’s recent declaration that it is prepared to operate its own internet should the West cut off access has struck some observers as more Putinesque bellicosity, which indeed it might be. But Moscow’s desire to build a web it can control is the dream of authoritarians everywhere. And not all the authoritarians are in government.
Regulating the flow of information has been the goal of every tyrant since Emperor Qin Shi Huang burned the books in 213 B.C. in the hope that later generations would believe that history had begun with his reign. Nowadays one country after another wants the ability to control its own intranet — or at least to throw a kill switch.
Shutting off the web has proved easier than many imagined. When Hosni Mubarak’s regime ordered Egyptian telecoms to close down their internet service during the Arab Spring of 2011, traffic slowed to just about zero. Nowadays China’s Great Firewall is the best-known effort to restrict what a population can find online, but countries around the world are doing their best to follow Beijing’s example.
Consider Iran. In addition to construction of the so-called halal internet, which would be entirely domestic, the Islamic Republic has cracked down on its enormous blogosphere and is pressuring its content providers to host their sites on servers within the nation’s borders. The regime has also raised the prices and slowed the speeds of internet connections, all in the hope of keeping its people away from the flow of information the government doesn’t want them to see.
North Korea solves the problem by keeping its people offline almost entirely: Only about 4 percent of the population has internet access. (But for that small number, the regime is beefing up broadband capacity.) Cuba, where all online traffic must pass through a tiny number of carefully screened government portals, now faces a U.S. State Department task force aimed at prying open the flow of digital information — a development to which the Cuban regime has reacted with fury. The examples go on and on, but none of these nations would say that they are engaged in censorship. All would say that their restrictions on access are for the public good.
What’s the effect of all this? In economic terms, it depends on whom you ask. The Great Firewall has been credited with boosting the huge profits earned by China’s online commerce companies, mainly because it limits where people can make online purchases. Good luck finding Amazon. Silicon Valley giants Google, Facebook and Twitter are essentially absent in China. No Snapchat. No Pinterest.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dream is presumably to build something of similar force and exclusivity. But the plan faces major challenges. In the first place, Russia may not have the commercial and technological infrastructure to spark companies as vibrant and exciting as Alibaba and JD.com. Moreover, even in China, the internet restrictions operate essentially as a tariff, and, like any tariff, are probably hindering the nation’s commerce more than they’re helping it. A 2016 study from the Brookings Institution estimates the annual worldwide losses due to government disruptions of the internet at $2.4 billion.
In the United States, we like to pretend we’re better than all that. But of course we’re not. True, we don’t shut down the entire internet. We just restrict access to sites with the wrong politics — sort of like China. The only difference is that we leave the decision about what information should be available to private corporations rather than government bureaucrats. Internet companies are (on this issue anyway) liberal heroes. In contemporary entertainment, an entire genre — The New York Times memorably calls it “Yay, rich jerks!” — is devoted to the idea that billionaire techies really ought to be making behind-the-scenes decisions.
If we had genuine competition in search or social networking, this state of affairs might constitute an improvement. As a practical matter, however, ideologically driven choices by dominant internet corporations offer little improvement on ideologically driven choices by government agencies. That internet companies suffer no significant market costs for their decisions about whom to serve and whom not to suggests that the public nowadays has little taste for free speech. But that’s exactly when protecting speech assiduously is most important.
At least in the case of government censors, the courts — in theory — would provide a restraint. But this game of “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“Who will guard the guards themselves?”) can go on any number of cycles, and, in the end, provides little reason to prefer government regulation of content. The bureaucracy has not been born that doesn’t grab for more power whenever it can.
The Russian government is spinning its effort to build an internet it can control as a tool of self-defense, in case the West should decide to cut off the nation’s web access. But there’s always a reason. The Iranian regime says it’s protecting the nation’s culture. The Chinese government has cited among other things national security. And the enthusiastic censors in the U.S. say they’re preventing the spread of hate. Always a reason but always the same mischief. Fundamentally, all these efforts to control what’s available online proceed from mistrust — mistrust not of the providers but of the people who might otherwise have access to the forbidden information.
Censors, whether official or unofficial, always believe that they know best what others should be permitted to consume. That we’re talking about the internet rather than books doesn’t mean they’re not still wrong.
Stephen L. Carter is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His books include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” “Civility” and “Integrity.”