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."
George Orwell published 1984 at the dawn of the Cold War, as a warning about the totalitarian possibilities of a modern industrialized state that combines centralized power, utopian ideology, and electronic media. The struggle for freedom in the Internet age is shaping up to be very different from the ideological struggles of the twentieth century. Today's struggle is not a clear-cut contest of democracy versus dictatorship, communism versus capitalism, or one ideology over another. Human society has acquired a digital dimension with new, cross-cutting power relationships. The Internet is a politically contested space, featuring new and unstable power relationships among governments, citizens, and companies. Today's battles over freedom and control are raging simultaneously across democracies and dictatorships; across economic, ideological, and cultural lines.
Internet platforms and services, made commonplace by companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, along with a range of mobile, networking, and telecommunications services, have empowered citizens. They have empowered us to challenge government, both our own as well as other governments whose actions affect us. But the Internet also empowers governments themselves -- or at least the growing number whose police, military, and security forces understand how the Internet works and who have learned the value of employing computer science graduates. All governments, from dictatorships to democracies, are learning quickly how to use technology to defend their interests.
Apple's dramatic 1984 Super Bowl ad notwithstanding, in reality the interests and loyalties of corporations are divided. On the one hand are the customers and users -- also citizens of polities -- whose trust is required for long-term business success, and who themselves hold a range of often-conflicting beliefs and values. On the other hand are governments, whose approval and regulatory support is critical if the corporations are to run profitable businesses or gain access to lucrative markets, and who are often important customers themselves. In an ideal world, the government would serve citizens' interests and ensure that their rights are protected. In the real world, we are not so naive as to assume this is the case, certainly not in authoritarian dictatorships and, depending on one's political viewpoint, not always in democracies either.
The problem is that our ability to organize and speak out is shaped -- often quite subtly -- by the Internet service providers, email services, mobile devices, and social networking services. If our communications and access to information are manipulated in ways we are not aware of, and if these companies' relationships with government are opaque, our ability to understand how power is being exercised over us, and our ability to hold that power to account, will be eroded in a more subtle and insidious manner than Orwell ever imagined.
In the Internet age, the greatest long-term threat to a genuinely citizen-centric society -- a world in which technology and government serve citizens instead of the other way around -- looks less like Orwell's 1984, and more like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World: a world in which our desire for security, entertainment, and material comfort is manipulated to the point that we all voluntarily and eagerly submit to subjugation. If we are to avoid this dystopian fate, political innovation will have to catch up with technological innovation.
Excerpted with permission from Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom (Basic Books, 2012).
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.