We take modern communications so much for granted that it is hard to remember how recently things were very different.
In the early 1990s, I was absolutely thrilled to receive a comment from someone in Australia shortly after posting an idea on an internet forum. Surely, it seemed to me, this amazing new technology would bring the world together into a single communications network and help overcome the misunderstanding, alienation, and hatreds that drive international relations.
The theologian and political analyst Reinhold Niebuhr argued that all power is morally ambiguous — usable for good purposes and also for bad purposes. It soon became apparent that Niebuhr's idea was true even for a hopeful technology like the internet.
Terrorists opposed to modern ways were all too willing to use the internet, cell phones, jet airliners, and other products of the modern era to attack modern arrangements. The internet has also amplified internal animosities inside many countries, allowing people to attend to news and to ways of thinking about things that exclude conflicting views and reinforce their existing preconceptions.
Governments were originally blindsided by this new communications technology. They left cyberspace to be largely ungoverned, a "wild west" if you please. But more recently governments have updated themselves and gotten into the business of "regulating" it. Some of this regulation has understandably aimed at preventing terrorists from using the Internet to recruit new enthusiasts into their ranks and to communicate with each other. But massive governmental regulation of the internet may also reduce its ability to bring about good developments.
As we saw when the internet so quickly emerged, big changes can take place very quickly. But this is true not only of good changes, but also of bad ones. The golden age of the internet may already lie behind us.
A recent trip to Europe drew my attention to some of the dangers now threatening the internet's potential as a universally accessible forum.
Having suspended my subscription to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the local paper in Corvallis, Oregon, where I live, I figured I could keep up with Corvallis news from Holland and England by reading the local Gazette-Times on my phone. You can imagine my astonishment when I discovered that the Gazette-Times couldn't be accessed from any countries in the European Union, which until Brexit is consummated includes England.
Of course I realized that regimes like China and Iran censor the internet to prevent information and ideas that might undermine their regimes from being seen by their citizens. But I was in the European Union, which engages in little internet censorship.
However the European Union had recently enacted "privacy protections" threatening dire penalties for anybody violating them. This threat has credibility since the Union has been going after big companies like Google and slapping huge fines on them. A number of American newspapers, fearing that if people could read them from Europe they might inadvertently incur immense fines, have made their web pages unavailable in Europe while they look for less drastic ways to avoid liability. It is not as if today's newspapers are so loaded with money that they can afford to take chances!
The Los Angeles Times, when I tried to see it, gave the following message:
"Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries. We are engaged on the issue and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to the EU market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism."
This is a sad situation. Countries pursuing a theoretical threat to a greatly exaggerated problem of "privacy" are now creating an all too real threat to the free exchange of information and ideas around the world.
Although the European Union countries are not themselves censoring incoming information, they are creating circumstances where publishers feel compelled to "censor" themselves, which has very much the same effect as actual censorship. When information is transmitted along a chain, it does not matter where a link in that chain is broken.
One can only hope that civil libertarians, once they realize the side effects of the EU's unwise privacy legislation, will demand that it be repealed or fine-tuned to undo the damage.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.