Welcome to the goldfish bowl

May 4 2014 Text: Ola Larsmo Illustration: Jesper Waldersten

It has been obvious for some time now, perhaps 20 years or so, that the struggle for the freedom of speech is being waged in the digital world. What we see happening today, however, is yet another shift in the digital balance of power.

It was in the 1990s that digital freedom of speech was first debated, and the emergence a new medium produced a number of rather too optimistic future scenarios.. It was claimed that this new decentralised communication network would be impossible to control; totalitarian states would be overrun by the freedom of information. It is important to note that many of these developments really were cause for optimism. One of the reasons that the Soviet Union rotted from the inside out was their prohibition of personal computers and restrictions on computer use. During the “Velvet Revolution” in what was then Czechoslovakia, the democratic opposition used simple computer modems to spread information over the telephone network. The security services were never able to understand that the digital birdsong they heard on the wire signalled the downfall of the dictatorship. For a decade or so, the situation was resembled the great breakthrough for the free press in the 18th century. Governments could no longer control the new medium, the inexpensive book or website fulfilled the same function with more and more people gaining access to information.

But eventually there was backlash, as in the wake of the enlightenment. The Chinese began to methodically develop new censorship techniques, which essentially put the entire country of China behind a second great wall. The world's major telecommunication companies, including Siemens and the Swedish Telia, shamelessly assisted dictators in countries such as Iran or Belarus by monitoring and mapping dissidents. It was as if an iron curtain once again had descended on the world.

Perhaps we are still on the crest of the third wave. As you can read in many of the articles in this issue of The Dissident Blog,—which is wholly dedicated to the struggle for digital freedom of speech—internet-censorship has reached such a level that it is now threatening economic development in some countries. The flow of global information has quite simply become a driving force behind rapid economic expansion and when this flow is halted, as in China, the country is left straggling. Not to mention the vibrant global debate on environmental destruction and subsequent effects on society—which is completely dependent on people having the ability to talk about the issue. Isaac Mao looks further into the paradoxes of censorship in one of his articles.

Fortunately, there are several signs that the supporters of freedom of speech are beginning to gather online strength following these early setbacks. The importance of the whistle blower Edward Snowden in these matters cannot be overstated. Thanks to him and other digital dissidents, we now know that even democracies abuse the flow of information to monitor, control and manipulate their citizens. Until recently, this took place in secret, or at least without the general population knowing anything about it. Of course, now that people know more about what is going on, there is an increased risk  of self-censorship, a gnawing sense of suspicion and silent threats—even in societies that claim to have sworn themselves to the principles of modern democracy. And yet, the opposition against these developments is mounting, not least thanks to the increasingly user friendly digital technology wielded by activists to defend the rights of the individual citizen to secure knowledge and take part in the debate without fear of retaliation. We present this technological toolbox in its entirety, in this very issue. Linus Larsson and PEN's Deji Olukotun explain the kind of self-help for dissidents that can be found behind acronyms such as TOR, TAILS and PGP.

Of course, despite technological developments, not everything has changed since eras past. We wish to remind you that the Swedish PEN publishes The Dissident Blog for the specific purpose of supporting the Swedish freedom of the press act that has its roots in the world's very first press freedom regulation, first introduced back in 1766. However, it is not for nothing that PEN International, at its congress 2012, signed a manifesto for digital rights. This is one of the guiding documents for those who seek to defend the basic principles of democracy in the digital era. The digital age does, after all, bring about a fundamental shift in human society. As we speak, the boundaries between the private and public spheres are being renegotiated, as is the very meaning of personal integrity. Boundaries we have taken for granted for 150 or 200 years are being redrawn. We do not know where the roulette ball will land, whether these developments will end up being a threat to democracy, if they will finally strengthen it, if they will save our freedom of speech or curtail it. We can all expect to live in a goldfish bowl, where we cannot know what others know about us. Bruce Sterling, one of those writers who, in many articles and novels, has described global digitalisation, allows us to glimpse this future in his fictional account of how the dissolution of a private zone could be both a threat and a promise of a new freedom. What will all the world’s spies, paparazzi and rumourmongers do with themselves if each and every one of us is our own Wallraff?

Everything is up for grabs and we can follow the fight for the future of democracy online. From now on we intend to make this a part of The Dissident Blog's watch—in every issue from now on, you'll find a dispatch directly from the frontline of the struggle.