March 12, 2010 was marked by Reporters Sans Frontières as World Day Against Cyber Censorship.
A few months ago, at the height of Typhoon Ketsana, Rep. Juan Miguel “Mikey” Arroyo proposed regulating the Internet in the Philippines – Facebook and blogs among others – as they are susceptible to abuses. We laugh and scoff at that idea because we think it’s impossible: either the Government lacks the technical skills necessary to control the medium, or that the Internet “cannot be controlled.” Yet if Ella Ganda and the Pangandaman-Dela Paz issues prove anything, it’s that the enemies of free expresssion do not need to respond to online dissent with online methods: that offline repression works perfectly as an apparatus to control the Internet, and to silence dissent.
If a segment of the Philippine blogosphere would be up-and-arms over the matter of comment moderation, then it should highlight how nuanced freedom of speech is. More than that, it should highlight how important those nuances are, and how important the whole is and should be. If the many small things we bicker about in the grand scheme of Internet usage – slow connectivity, blocked websites, cyberbullying, and so on and so forth – would add up to a profile of how the Internet in the Philippines works, then we are definitely anything but free.
Free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny, as Pravin Lal says in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. In many ways the free press – along with a free blogosphere – has prevented subjugation and domination by giving a voice of resistance and dissent. Never mind that there are many of them; never mind that we may not agree with all of them every time. Never mind that the impact they make in real life is negligible. Blogging – and social media at that – is a safeguard to free speech: it is an avenue that allows people to discuss openly, freely, as long as they can, in whatever way they want. Granted that it can be a very hot and uncomfortable place to be in, but it sure beats the alternative: cold silence.
The enemy of free expression on the Internet in this country is not found online, but offline. Hacking, filtering, and blocking may not be the tools used to control and stem the free flow of information in the Philippines, but it would be found in harassment, libel cases, and the threats and calls to regulate the Internet for the sake of the people who cannot cope – and refuse to cope – with free speech and expression on the Web.
Now more than ever, there is a need to defend the Internet from those who seek to control and censor it. The solution is not regulation, but active engagement. Democratizing the use of the Internet – to assure the people of access to information – is to open up everyone to a mutual dialogue. Those who seek to control and censor content on the Internet should instead seek to engage it: to develop their own content, to participate in discussions and conversations, and to keep information flowing. To censor and to regulate is to act like a dam; a dead-end that waits only for that time where the mechanism fails.
If the simplest act of best practices – like comment moderation for example – would instigate the first accusations of censorship, then what more for the attempt to completely regulate it? What more for the next netizen to be sued for libel, to be harrassed online or in real life, because of the space created for the free exchange of information and ideas? If the channel that allows us to freely communicate and exchange ideas is censored and controlled, where else do we make ourselves heard?
The Internet, for all its failings and limitations, best represents what most of us truly desire from a free society: a place to talk, a place to engage, a place to discuss and create avenues for change. We should not allow those freedoms to be challenged, tied onto a leash, and controlled by those who seek to silence discourse, conversation, discussion, and most of all, dissent. That the first of business for any netizen to prevent cyber censorship is to keep the conversation going, to continue to express freely, and to resist against those who seek to control it.