If Not Orwell, Then Huxley: The Battle for Control of the Internet

Our online freedoms are on the verge of being eroded in ways more subtle and insidious than Orwell -- or Apple's marketing department -- ever imagined.


On Super Bowl Sunday, January 22, 1984, Apple ran one of the most famous TV advertisements of all time. It opened with a gray theater full of people with shaved heads, wearing gray jumpsuits, staring expressionlessly at a large screen. From the screen, an Orwellian "Big Brother" intoned, "We are one people, one whim, one resolve, one course. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we shall bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail." As he spoke, an athletic young blonde woman in a blinding-white tank top and bright orange running shorts ran into the theater and down the center aisle, carrying a sledgehammer. She threw it at the screen, and the screen exploded. An off-camera voice declared, "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984." Today, more than two decades later, the message remains tremendously powerful: innovative technology in the hands of brave people can free us all from tyranny. Apple updated the commercial for its January 2004 MacWorld Expo, adding an iPod and earbuds to the outfit of the sledgehammer-wielding athlete.

The following month, a Tunisian lawyer and human rights activist named Riadh Guerfali, known publicly before his country's 2011 revolution only by his pseudonym, Astrubal, uploaded a mash-up of the ad onto the video-sharing platform Dailymotion. He replaced the onscreen Big Brother with video of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. After the athlete sledgehammers the screen, the screen goes white and the video cuts to a Tunisian girl with her eyes shut. She opens her eyes, as if waking from a bad dream. The video ends. Guerfali's video was part of a broader digital activism campaign that he and a group of Tunisian activists launched in 2002, before YouTube was invented and before Facebook and Twitter were even twinkles in their creators' eyes. Their strategy was to counter the constant stream of government propaganda with clever antigovernment "propaganda" of their own.

In response, the Tunisian government developed the Arab world's most sophisticated censorship regime. But censorship was not the only way in which the Tunisian people's digital rights were regularly and systematically violated. Digital surveillance in Tunisia was even more pervasive than in Egypt. Progovernment hackers attacked dissident websites with aggressive "denial of service attacks" and took them offline. Government-controlled companies that provide Internet service to offices and homes used "deep packet inspection" technologies to track and filter everything passing through their networks. Government-employed geeks hacked into activists' computers and stole information, intercepted and even altered people's emails, and took over activists' Facebook accounts by intercepting their passwords.

After the revolution, several former dissidents and government critics were brought into Tunisia's transitional cabinet -- including the dissident blogger Slim Amamou, who had spent the final weeks of Ben Ali's reign in jail for his digital activism. But arguments quickly arose over exactly how free Tunisia's information networks ought to be. Less than a week after the new post-Ben Ali government had formed, Tunisian State Secretary Sami Zaoui announced that the government would continue blocking websites deemed to be "against decency, contain violent elements or incite to hate." In response to fierce backlash by the Tunisian free-speech movement, he retorted on Twitter, "Wrong! Even the countries that are most evolved when it comes to freedom block terrorist sites." Five months later, the government blocked a number of Facebook pages and groups, citing concerns over inflammatory and offensive speech. Amamou resigned in frustration. Guerfali commented philosophically, "Before things were simple: you had the good guys on one side, and the bad guys on the other. Today, things are more subtle."

Presented by

Rebecca MacKinnon is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She is the author of Consent of the Networked: Worldwide Struggle of Internet Freedom.

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