Firewalls to Freedom

As contemporary authoritarian regimes learn how to manage and engineer information flows, promoting and protecting free speech in places like China and Russia is no longer a simple matter of circumventing formal censorship. As often as not, Big Brother takes the form of a shadowy cyber-attack or a government-paid Web commentator steering the discussion in a chat room.

NEW YORK – Even the most cold-hearted realists would agree that the failure of Communist censorship played a role in the collapse of the Iron Curtain: Voice of America, the fax machine, rock ‘n’ roll, and the lure of Western capitalism helped to win over the people of the Soviet Bloc.

Today, similar hopes are often vested in the Internet, with high expectations that the wealth of online information might trigger the same kind of censorship failure in contemporary authoritarian states that we saw in Eastern Europe – and with the same results.

Such expectations are not entirely unfounded, because most Internet censorship systems are not perfect. But, while anybody with a little know-how can figure out how to circumvent, say, the “Great Firewall of China,” Internet filtering is only one layer of Chinese Internet censorship. It is also supplemented by an increasingly sophisticated system of manipulation and spin.