Monday, August 2, 2010

Can't stop the flow

Authoritarian leaders have tried for years to block the flow of information to their citizens -- Dubai is but the latest example with the announcement that web service, e-mail and messaging on Blackberry devices will be cut off starting in October. To make matters worse for those doing business in the emirates, the ban will affect tourists as well as those who receive their service through the government's cell provider.

In the old days it was fairly easy to cut off the flow of information -- erect a wall around the town and restrict access to the inner city. Since news traveled by word of mouth, the residents of the walled city had no access to the outside world.

The East German government tried to emulate the ancients by constructing a wall around East Berlin. That kept news from the outside inaccessible for a while, but walls can't block radio waves. Eventually the people behind the wall found out what was going on on the western side and decided they had had enough. When the wall came crashing down it was a reminder that barriers to information were doomed to fail.

The North Korean and Chinese governments have also put forth their best efforts to prevent their citizens from finding out what's happening outside their walls. The Chinese government realized the error of their ways when citizens were accessing the internet through Google's portal in Hong Kong (which was not censored) and threatened to cut off Google's access to the country if it didn't kowtow. Google, putting profit before right, then bowed and kissed the emperor's feet.

And now the government of Dubai has decided that not having access to the encrypted messages sent and received on Blackberry devices makes it harder for them to limit the flow of information in and out of the country. The solution? Cut it off.

When will the dictators learn that the flow of information is something that can't be stopped. Radio waves, television signals and satellite reception don't stop at artificial borders drawn on maps? Not only has technology made it easier to communicate (remember mailing letters), the barriers that limited the number of information-providers have crumbled, increasing the supply of information. Cable news networks, the internet, blogs, cell phones with internet access have made it easier both to receive and to supply information.

The same problem presents itself in the courtroom when a judge admonishes a jury not to do any research on their own -- the panelists have cell phones, internet access and television.Telling them not to use those resources to find out more about any given case is the modern-day equivalent of the Maginot Line.

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