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People have always lived with contradictory ideas. However, the gap between the elated notions literate citizens of Western democracies have of their freedom to think and write and the cowardice and prejudice that characterise the exercise of their freedom is now dizzying.

Officially, we are living in a golden age of information exchange. Everyone says that the internet has brought a revolution as great as that brought by the invention of the printing press. Breathtaking technological advance is, they say, moving us into a new democratic era, which in the words of the American media commentator Clay Shirky will ensure that "anyone in the developed world can publish anything anytime, and the instant it is published, it is globally available and readily findable". Just as Gutenberg deposed the monopoly of the medieval scribes who copied manuscripts by drastically lowering the cost of printing, so the internet is breaking the monopoly of book and newspaper publishers, which had used the high cost of production to confine publication to privileged professionals with hidden agendas. The defining polemical form of the new medium is "Fisking", named after Robert Fisk of the Independent whose articles on the Middle East and Afghanistan were taken apart by bloggers after 9/11. The ubiquity of line-by-line assaults the first Fiskers pioneered, not just on blogs but on newspaper comment pages which are merging into the blogosphere, brings with it the promise that the lies and evasions of cosy political clubs will be subject to merciless scrutiny as outsiders challenge easy assumptions and begged questions. 

Meanwhile, we are promised that the ability of courts and governments to censor will vanish as prohibited material shoots away from their blue pencils to find a home on websites beyond their jurisdiction. In 1996, the Electronic Freedom Foundation encapsulated the libertarian enthusiasm the internet had generated when it responded with imperious disdain to an attempt by the US to control web porn. Its Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which tens of thousands of websites endorsed, roared, "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."

Before going any further, I should say that I do not dispute that the internet is revolutionary. Nor do I doubt that it has vastly expanded the amount of information available to casual and serious users, who would never have had the time to search it out before, or known where to look for it in the first place. If, as is possible, properly funded journalism collapses because media managers cannot find a way to make it profitable on the web, we may indeed look back on the first decade of the 21st century as a golden age. Never before had so much information been freely available and because of this, the quality inevitably declined. Finally, I happily concede that some of the most interesting British commentators around write for blogs. They don't just produce brilliant political and economic analysis but authentic accounts we would never have had before of what life is like as a police officer in a northern town or a target-battered doctor in the NHS. The internet, like book and newspaper publishing before it, has helped promote a few good writers, many bad ones and a range of writers of varying degrees of talent in between appealing to specialist audiences from friends reading blogs on their lives to fellow devotees of their hobby or specialism.

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Anonymousforsafety
December 8th, 2009
3:12 PM
Nick, you're pushing the issues to extremes of simplicity that are not realistic. Perhaps there are rosy eyed internet utopians. I haven't come across them but if their claim is that the net is creating a genuinely new type of sovereignty they are plain wrong, so obviously so as to not need comment. But looked at in more sensitive terms, the net comprises ~ ~ planned censorship (like China); ~ wealth censorship via distribution (any big well funded business site that can pay muscle to climb up google); ~ government or commercial misinformation via planted articles/ advertorials etc ~ pressure group misinformation AND corrective truths ~ media distortions due to stereotypes/ elite owner policies/ sloppiness etc AND media exposures/whistecblowers ~ neighbourhood fence tittle tattle rubbish AND some gems of loosely networked blogosphere exposes and campaigns ~ well organised networks /campaigns AND limp amateurish collapses/ control freaked failure projects/ woolly idealists and cranks/ infiltration steering or failures ~ fast shared info by blog/ email/ chatroom/forum to steer campaigns, pressure groups, to educate, inspire and activate AND crass fundamentalist propaganda. ~ SPEED - of rumour/ expose/ networking/ controls and all Much of that is no more than a mirror of older offline versions. But the difference is the sheer quantity. As you said never before have we had access to so much information both useful and useless. Discrimination skills are of the essence, the Delete button is a cult object. What is different perhaps is the sheer speed by which a governmet or commercial diktat can be countered. Many of "our masters" have not caught up with that. Of those that have the "database State" phalanx is a glaring example. As ever, as Gareth Williams so sensibly points out, the technology can be misused as much as well used. My delight in the last few years is to see how at last people are em,erging from the shock of the Thatcher/ Bush/ Blair axis, to criticise and campaign. I believe it will have to go far beyond blogging and the net, into a lot of street violence - look at Greece right now. "Our masters" have been preparing to defend their trough, with police tazers, CCTV, the database state, creeping criminalisation of all citizens, and dumbing down education. This isn't going to be nice, but the net is one of the best tools we have. Don't trash it so enthusiastically and blindly or I'll have to think you're acting in service to those who want us to despair.

P J Manasseh
December 8th, 2009
2:12 PM
Surely the worst problem with an identity data base is it will be relied upon despite other more appropriate means of identification and information. Since humans make mistakes any system which does not allow correction is bound to be imperfect. A database cannot be 100% safe nor 100% accurate so if it is relied on there will be problems. There is also the opportunity of an identity theft based on hacking into the database providing a much more information making the theft easier. If a mailing list for a magazine is full of errors it may affect a few people but if lives. jobs and safety are dependent on a database watch out. Oh and loss of the freedom to change and improve oneself after a shaky start in life one could go on and on....

Carl
December 5th, 2009
6:12 PM
"most of he tracts that have led to oppression have been distributed on paper..." That is until, I suppose, you came along Paul.

Rylan
December 4th, 2009
10:12 AM
Laud would loathe d'net.

Gareth Williams
November 28th, 2009
8:11 AM
Isn't it an observable fact that the internet has permitted more views to be propagated and more detailed criticism to be undertaken than could be done before? If you subscribe to an Open Society analysis this is surely a good thing. However, I don't see how any technology can abolish stupidity and partisanship. Anyone who did make this claim is foolishly utopian. Similarly is it really news that bad people also use technology for their own ends? (In fact, is there a straw man sitting on the other side of this debate?) There are certainly plenty of problems and imperfections inherent in the internet - but then it's a human artifact. An inability to be perfect shouldn't discount a contribution to what's good. Isn't Guido Fawkes positive political position (libertarian) implicit in everything he writes? And more than occasionally quite explicit? Finally, I think your history is a bit mechanistic and literal. No printing = no Reformation which means no Enlightenment. Also wasn't absolutism a progressive force in the dialectic (not that it succeeded for long in England, with ideas propagated by paper being a major contributor to its destruction)?

Alexander Melea...
November 27th, 2009
6:11 PM
Davie, Go back, sit down, and read the schools funding story again. The 'allegations' were by no means false. On second thoughts here, let me make it simple for you: it is a FACT that schools run by Hizb ut-tahrir (i presume you know who they are)have received £113,000 in public funds and the tories were right to point that out. Here is where the 'false' part comes in, and it is no more than a technicality: David Cameron's researcher jumped the gun and said the source of these public funds was the Preventing Violent extremism Pathfinder fund, this is wrong, the public funds came from a different Pathfinder fund. In future, read up properly on stories before you start throwing 'allegations' around. I have also blogged this info here - http://standpointmag.co.uk/node/2479

Anonymous
November 27th, 2009
11:11 AM
Nick, Your hatred of the Left, as well as your conversion to the Right has been patently obvious over several years now. But the following is a low blow: "More liberal-leftists than care to admit it now rooted for al-Qaeda and the Saddamist militias as they slaughtered "the powerless" and tried to overthrow the elected Iraqi government". Where on earth did you get such a speculative factoid??? I don't recall any writer in the pages of the Guardian, Observer or The Independent rooting for rooted for al-Qaeda or the Saddamist militias... Please don't try to pass off such statements as fact. Leave the dirty work to Cheney, Rove and Fox News

davie
November 27th, 2009
11:11 AM
Cohen says: "The overwhelming majority of political writers on the internet do not fact-check allies". This in an article published the day after Cohen uncritically reproduces the utterly false allegations made by David Cameron about schools in Slough! Whither the fact-checkers now...

Guido Fawkes
November 27th, 2009
7:11 AM
Is paper a tool of tyranny? After all, most of he tracts that have led to oppression have been distributed on paper...

Anonymous
November 26th, 2009
3:11 PM
The internet is neither 'good' nor 'bad' for freedom or democracy. Like nuclear weapons, free markets and a whole host of other such things, it is something that can be both good or bad, depending on what humans make of them.

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