The electricity didn’t go out in Kashmir, a disputed region of India, but something almost as vital was turned off over the past summer: the internet.
In a preemptive move to assert political control, the Indian government shut down internet service, as well as phone service, in the Kashmir region. No email. No Google. No texting. No digital businesses in operation. No news beyond state-sanctioned outlets. It was censorship in extremis, resulting in a loss of freedom.
Eventually most mobile phone service was restored, but the World Wide Web has stayed dark for months. “The government’s control over the flow of information has made journalism nearly impossible in Kashmir, and is a humiliation of Kashmiri journalists,” the Telegraph, an Indian daily, reported.
The internet came to life 50 years ago when a Defense Department communications network transmitted a one-word message “login” from UCLA to Stanford University. The internet has risen into a global information and communication system that continually transforms human society. People can debate whether individual aspects of the digital realm cause harm (loss of privacy, Twitter shaming), but there is no diminishing the extraordinary impact of being able to instantaneously share speech, images, data and ideas planetwide. Consider the learning, the commerce, the ultra-efficient interaction of every type, the rise of Silicon Valley as America’s hub of innovation — all thanks to the creation and spread of digital technology.
The internet is a marvel of democracy in the broadest sense, meaning it eliminates barriers to entry. Merchants can sell goods without the need to open a physical store, while political activists can circumvent government controls to spread their messages. And we can transmit our journalism to places where our delivery trucks can’t go.
The internet derives its power from openness and connectivity, and that is also why the internet was shut down in Kashmir: because the web represents a threat to governments seeking to control or repress information.
“People always had this simplistic view that technology could only be used in one way — that it was this great tool for democracy,” Kuda Hove, a digital rights researcher at the Media Institute of Southern Africa, told The New York Times. But after Zimbabwe’s government turned off the internet during a political crackdown, Hove said, “it dawned on them that the government could use technology against the people.”
Some anti-democratic countries, notably China, recognized early on that the internet could pose a potential threat to ironclad political control. To quash dissent, the Chinese leadership erected a high-tech censorship system known as the Great Firewall of China that blocks all content and conversation that could challenge government authority. China’s internet looks a lot like the West’s internet, without Facebook, Wikipedia and other freewheeling information sites.
Technology and information spread across the globe, but so do dangerous notions. In recent years, foreign governments have looked at the power of the internet to disseminate ideas and recoiled. Freedom House, a watchdog group, looked at the current state of internet freedom in 65 countries and found that law enforcement in 47 countries arrested people for posting political, social or religious speech online.
To see the internet shut down and misused as a tool of government repression hurts the causes of freedom and progress. Akash Kapur, a senior fellow at the GovLab at New York University, characterized the rise of “digital nationalism” as a threat not just to democratic movements in disparate countries but ultimately to the internet’s existence as a unified global infrastructure.
The more countries take control of digital content, the more likely international access will be denied. “The great risk is that digital nationalism will Balkanize the internet, breaking it up into a patchwork of incompatible and irreconcilable fiefs,” Kapur wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “The prospect of a technical ‘Splinternet’ is no longer as inconceivable as it once was. In the decades ahead, we may look back wistfully to a time when data could move freely across the globe, without virtual customs or immigration checkpoints.”
If the web continues to fracture, the loss will be profound. When governments place limits on internet access, the spread of knowledge is stifled. Important ideas are not shared. Business development is stunted. Societies suffer.
Western democracies need to cooperate to manage and protect internet openness. There will be no easy way to convince or coerce paranoid governments to release their grips on the web, but that’s no excuse to quit trying. The more that American government officials, business executives and advocates push foreign governments to release control, the more likely progress will happen.
The internet might seem ubiquitous, but its long-term viability isn’t assured.
— Adapted from the Chicago Tribune