16 May 2010

BBC journalist describes online border

I was watching a television show this morning called BBC Click. It's a charming show that does a good job reviewing consumer information technology, mostly online services.  (In a spirit of full disclosure I said some negative things about one of their episodes last year.)

Today's Click programme was a special filmed in Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates. The presenter, Spencer Kelly, showed us what happened when he attempted to connect to a few well-known web sites. Nothing outrageous. I think he mentioned Flickr and a few others.

The camera focused on Mr. Kelly's screen displaying a friendly-looking cartoon character and a warning in both Arabic and English. I did not get the full text, but the "gist" of it was something like: "The Internet is a wonderful tool for research and communication, but you have attempted to reach a web site which includes content that is forbidden by the law of the United Arab Emirates."

What I find most interesting was the matter-of-fact way that Mr Kelly reported the UAE system. (Although he then went on to make a short negative reference to China, which I think added nothing to his reportage on the UAE.)

What Spencer Kelly saw (as a matter of technology) was a government agency blocking domestic attempts to connect to certain foreign web sites. What I saw (as a matter of public policy) was a government agency patrolling the Internet Border on behalf of its sovereign country.

As a macro issue, journalists, businessmen, and technologists all now seem to accept that Internet Borders exist and are a part of the natural order of things. But for some reason we persist with the myth that the Internet has "no borders".

In the past few hundred years the human race has organised itself around the idea that the world is divided into geographical sovereign states. We understand and accept that border guards can deny entry to people, can search luggage, can seize contraband, and can refuse admittance. We should not expect the Internet to be treated any differently.