The Financial Post
Saturday, January 3, 1998

Fighting to control the demons in cyberspace

by Maryanne McNellis

Information is power. That's precisely the reason why totalitarian regimes have always tried to enforce a government monopoly on information.

Keeping a tight lid on information was relatively easy to achieve until this century. Then the march of technology became a dictator's nightmare. Travel became easier with the advent of the car, train, plane. The spread of broadcast media from radio to subversive western carriers like CNN meant that almost anyone, anywhere could listen to outside views. Computerization and miniaturization were next.

But it's the Internet that may finally kill any possibility of information control.

We are only at the beginning of cyberspace. Reach out and e-mail someone in Afghanistan or Australia. It's all so simple.

News, sports, and entertainment sites are attracting more followers every day. Universities and libraries now find the Internet indispensible. Pornographers, who have long been forced to be innovators, have already staked out their sites. Businesses are only beginning to explore what can be done in cyberspace.

And as a political tool the Internet is unsurpassed by anything in history.

China seems to have clued in to that one. Last week the Chinese government announced a package of new legislation designed to curb use of the Internet. It's now illegal to criticize government agencies on the net. It's also illegal to promote separatist causes (hear that Quebec?) or to divulge state secrets. Hackers are out, so are pornographers.

Fines and 'criminal punishment' are promised for anyone who violates this new code.

But curbing the Net is a Sisyphean task -- one that even the Chinese government might find too difficult to accomplish. Hundreds, if not thousands, of new sites are added every day around the globe. Simply monitoring every new site and deciding which ones are seditious would be a daunting challenge.

It might be simple enough to decide that a site called or should be banned. But you can call your site pretty much anything you want.

A site could be labeled or something equally innocuous and contain all sorts of anti-government material. To ferret out what's really in every site some government drone would have to go into every site, every day, to monitor content.

And even if you monitored every site on the web, e-mail is another octopus. E-mail lets anyone who is plugged in 'talk' to anyone else around the globe who has computer access. E-mail doesn't have to be sent to one individual, it can be simultaneously sent to thousands of people. This is a handy feature for people wanting to cover their trail.

If a pro-democracy message was sent from the North America to several thousand Chinese net addresses who gets the 'criminal punishment?' This, by the way, is already happening. There's an electronic magazine called Tunnel that is being electronically mailed from Silicon Valley to thousands of e-mail addresses in China.

China could totally ban the net, or computers for that matter. They could simply execute anyone caught with a computer.

But China wants to modernize. It wants economic growth. Banning the computer or the net is, in reality, an impossibility if China wants to move forward.

One of the ironies of civilization is that politics and economics are irrevocably intertwined. China cannot really leap forward economically if it does not open itself to new ideas and new technologies. But with them come 'dangerous' political ideas.

The Internet is here to stay, even in China. You can't go backwards.

Copyright © 1998 by The Financial Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.