The governments around the world are reacting the exact same way today as they did when the printing press arrived 500 years ago. There isn’t really anything new under the sun.
Then, as now, they were used to telling people what was true and what wasn’t, telling whatever story that fit whatever it was they wanted to do.
“Cannabis is dangerous. Tobacco is not harmful at all. Oh, and there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
When police troops in Ferguson launched tear gas grenades at a television team from Al-Jazeera, that is a symptom of the exact same thing as web censorship: governments are losing control of the story. Governments can no longer invent whatever truth that fits what they want to happen. Police firing at press is actually something very rare – even in the worst of war zones, it’s a rare occurrence that press teams are deliberately targeted, and yet, this was precisely what happened in Ferguson, USA.
The reason is the exact same as for web censorship and mass surveillance:
The governments and the people working for them are attacking anybody who exposes what they do, using whatever power they have to do so.
Tear gas grenades against a TV crew may have been both overviolent and counterproductive, but it’s still the same thing. It’s exactly what happened when the printing press arrived, and the penalties for using a printing press – thereby circumventing the truthtellers of that time – gradually increased to the death penalty (France, 1535).
Not even the death penalty worked to deter people from using the printing press to tell their version of events to the world, which more often than not contradicted the official version. The cat was out of the bag. As it is now. Governments and police still don’t understand that everybody is a broadcaster – attacking a TV crew was futile in the first place.
During the initial, hopeful months of the Arab Spring, a lot of photos circulated of young people gathering for protests. What was interesting about the photos were that they were taken with mobile phones, but also that they showed a lot of other people at the protest taking photos of the same crowd at the same time with their own mobile phone. Thus, the photos of the ongoing revolution contained instructions in themselves for how to perpetuate the revolution – take pictures of crowds defying the edicts and dictums.
This is why it’s so puzzling that the police even bother to give special treatment to people from television stations and newspapers. Strictly speaking, they’re not necessary to get the story out anymore, even if they still have some follower advantage for the most part.
“Police are being transformed from protecting the public into protecting government from the public”, as @directorblue just tweeted. That could be said about pretty much anything concerning the net, too — from oppressive applications of copyright monopoly law to strangling net innovations or giving telcos monopolies that prevent the net’s utility.
The attacks on the public by police troops in Ferguson, attacks from the copyright industry against those who want a free net, and web censorship by governments are all different sides of the same story. And all of this has happened before. Last time this happened, it took 200 years of civil war to settle the dust and agree that the printing press may have been a nice invention after all.
Can we please not repeat that mistake?