A key theme of 2012 will be freedom and control on the internet. As demonstrated in Egypt, social media can be the most disruptive of revolutionary tools. But as we have seen in Iran, it is also a potent mechanism of state repression. The battle between digital liberation and autocratic limitation is playing out today around the globe – in Syria, in Cuba and, most crucially, in China and Russia.
Never have individuals and small groups had such potential for political leverage – something apparent to followers of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Twitter account, Alexei Navalny’s blog about Russian corruption, or the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page that became the staging tent of Tahrir Square. This is not to say, though, that the wired activists are destined to triumph.
The technologies of tracking and control, often supplied by western companies, are aiding dictatorships in their own innovative efforts at cyberwar, surveillance and censorship. The coming year is sure to see new showdowns, with outcomes shaped in part by the policies and practices of international technology companies.
In the west, the conflict revolves around a different set of issues – piracy, privacy and monopoly. It pits the giants of technology against the creators of media, who are demanding stronger protections for their intellectual property. Facebook, whose business model lies in the collection and use of personal information, will continue to push the boundary of acceptable snooping against the notion of a “right to be forgotten”. In Brussels, Google faces an antitrust investigation into whether its domination of internet search has led to favoritism toward its own properties. Wrapping it all up is the broader societal question of whether we are approaching media nirvana or filtering ourselves into solipsistic oblivion.
The chief factions in this struggle are not a conventional left and right, but three groups that can be drawn from either side: the digital utopians, the cyber-sceptics, and the techno-peasants. The digital utopians expect the internet to cure all of society’s ills. The cyber-sceptics see it making all of our familiar problems even worse. The techno-peasants watch bemusedly as technology remakes our world in ways they cannot understand.
The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of ‘The Bush Tragedy’