It has been said that the “best thing about the Internet is anyone can use it” and “the worst thing about the Internet is anyone can use it.”
While this extraordinary communication system has altered world affairs, it is true that “fake news” is often prevalent and distinguishing between wheat and chaff is not easy.
Nonetheless, we as Americans are blessed with the openness of communication, notwithstanding those moments of frustration and bafflement.
For a significant segment of the globe, tyrannical governments determine what is permitted on communication networks. This is the world of Big Brother. Fearful dictators control the Internet with sophisticated firewalls.
Of course, there are always a few who penetrate the artificial blockage, but these few are the equivalent of contemporary Samizdat distributors.
Imagine, however, a world where these artificial Berlin Walls are lifted, a world in which the imams of Iran are obliged to confront local dissidents and Prime Minister Xi must explain his control to the Falun Gong. Open discourse is the disinfectant for politically charged propaganda.
Moreover, it is instructive that free exchange of information is precisely what tyrants fear.
Yet it is also notable that our agencies capable of circumventing foreign firewalls are fearful of doing so. The Chinese government may be offended or the Iranians could pull out of the nuclear deal. It could disrupt other foreign policy options. After all, a few dissidents shouldn’t be responsible for foreign policy decisions.
This matter of openness, as I see it, transcends policy and enters the realm of principle.
Are people entitled to free expression regardless of the government in which they find themselves? Are there matters that are more significant than specific foreign policy options? And can those options still be considered against a backdrop of electronic openness?
Radio Free Europe is an example of a communication link that gave hope to Russian dissidents during the height of the Cold War.
At the risk of appearing ethnocentric, there is much the world can learn from the American experience and the best of our culture. So often what we deliver is an embarrassing menu of debased artistic material and hard core political diatribes. But suppose for a moment we offered what is true and beautiful in internet systems unfettered by government control.
Suppose, as well, a significant portion of the world’s population rose to admire and emulate the U.S. model. Would the world be more safe than it is at the moment or more disruptive?
The answer to this question is “both.”
Of course, any change as significant as this one would cause anxiety for dictatorships. But it would also represent the voice of people in ideological chains. It would be the sound of fury resonating through the corridors of coercive power.
For the foreign policy pragmatists who worry about genuine openness, think Wilberforce and the eradication of Western slavery. He became a model that transcended practical political decisions.
Federalist 28 states:
“Power being almost always the rival of power, the General Government will at all times stand ready to check the usurpations of the state governments; and those will have the same disposition towards the General Government.”
In breaking down artificial communication barriers, the will of the people becomes an antidote to tyrannical authority. It is a rival of arbitrary power.
Perhaps Jean Jacque Rousseau said it best when he noted, “A little bit of agitation gives motivation to the soul, and what really makes the species prosper is not peace so much as freedom.”