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.