This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine
Trading in the online currency Bitcoin has just gone the way of most things the Chinese government fears or doesn’t understand (they’re not the only ones) and been banned in the mainland after huge demand there saw it surge in value. The news also came fast on the heels of reports that the so-called Great Firewall of China is under attack from uptake of a new software programme that allows users to get round web censorship: Lantern.
It may well be that by the time you read this Lantern – which has already been put to the test by dissidents in Iran – will have had Beijing’s hose turned on it, but its emergence demonstrates that rearguard attempts to wage war on internet activity are likely doomed to failure. Because the thing about the web is that there’s always a workaround. The technology it has spawned and put at the world’s disposal already outstrips the might of governments to control it. It’s about time they realised this.
It’s not just the Chinese and the Iranians (and the Russians) – all of whom seem to think a closed, national “intranet” model is possible – who don’t quite seem to get it, though. British Prime Minister David Cameron keeps talking about being able to turn off the tap of online pornography. Does he really believe any “fix” his taxpayer-funded IT wallahs can come up with will be any match for internetland’s plumbers? If governments can’t control things like porn or copyright, what hope have they of reining in alternative currencies, or thought?
East and West alike seem to fear “the dark web”. We learn that it’s a nasty place, one where people sell drugs and plan terror attacks and eat babies. But actually it’s just a way of connecting to the world with anonymity. No wonder it’s the new bogey man.
As the efforts of the NSA to be the world’s listening post (its priest, if you will) have shown, at considerable cost to America’s soft power – attempting to master the web is a losing game. If there’s a war going, the geeks have already won.