January 24, 1996

Information Wants to Be ... Inescapable?

By J.D. Tuccille
ZD Net Associate Editor

William Safire isn't a popular guy in Singapore. In fact, Safire is so unpopular that his writings on Singapore's political shenanigans have caused the Singapore government to restrict the circulation of newspapers that carry his column. The International Herald Tribune and the Asian Wall Street Journal have occasionally been reduced to nominal scatterings of copies that would barely serve the needs of one Singaporean bird cage.

I know how offended the good people of Singapore are by Willam Safire because I read their newspapers on the Internet. The Singapore Business Times and The Straits Times have very attractive Web sites where editorialists clearly state their support for Singapore's Confucian tradition of tough spitting bans and political highjinks against the decadence of Western freedom.

And there's the rub.

You see, the rulers of Singapore don't intend to follow anybody's lead into the promised land of the information age; Singapore will enter as an equal at least, or a leader if possible. That's why Singapore is embracing the Internet as quickly as it can. But in embracing the Net, Singapore embraces such decadent Western influences as porn, dissent, and, gasp, the Wall Street Journal.

It used to be that authoritarian rulers just whacked anybody who spoke ill of the king. Printing presses were trouble, but licensing and restricting presses and newspapers kept the circulation of nit-picking op-ed pieces to a minimum. Radio caused real problems, but Voice of America could be jammed and the BBC was often staffed by KGB University grads who turned a favorable eye to third-world dictators. But what's a thoroughly modern strongman to do about the Internet?

The first option that comes to mind is to simply shut the Net out. China is trying that, with the exception of selected benign mirrored sites devoted to crop rotation and U.S. military secrets. But Singapore is devoted to being modern and prosperous, and as the millenium turns that means open access to information.

Well, how about licensing Internet Service Providers? After all, it worked with newspapers. Well yes, you could make sure that only friendly cousin Lee gets permission to set up in business (whoops, here's where Safire got into trouble); in fact, that's what Singapore is doing -- Internet access is a licensed business. And ... that's where it stops. Licensing requirements probably mean that Internet access costs another buck an hour more than it should, but subscribers can still surf Playboy or peruse the Journal.

How about requiring ISPs to screen "undesirable" sites? Well, that's what Germany, in one of its periodic authoritarian tantrums, required of CompuServe in regards to the racier Usenet newsgroups, and what some members of the U.S. Congress would like to impose on Americans. CompuServe succumbed to the German demands and blanked out access to 200 newsgroups worldwide. This set off an international furor that leaves observers wondering if the CompuServe brass have more political savvy than first appearances indicated. Besides, as CompuServe readily admits, the move was only a band-aid. Users immediately traded ideas for bypassing the blockade and the Boston Globe (among others) ran a virtual how-to story for one simple strategy on the front page of the December 30, 1995 Business section.

And that leaves you with ... huh. I'm out of ideas. If the Lee dynasty and its cronies want to lead Singapore into the information age, their people will need access to the full breadth of the Internet. And if you want to control the information available on a borderless world-wide network, then good luck King Canute. Somewhere along the (on)line, Singapore surfers (a tough virtual gang of the future -- trust me) are going to read the evil Western press and anonymously post nasty jokes about fearless leader.

And so too it goes for the Malaysias and Brazils of the world -- countries that seem to want to treat the future as a special order. "I'll take a free market economy please. Could you stir in some 17th century mercantilism? And hold the political dissent." And it applies to the U.S. and other nations of the free world that sometimes need a prod to remember their limited-government roots.

Of course, there's no inevitability to the on-rush of the future. Some traditional tin-pot dictators will bypass the whole problem by keeping their countries safely ensconced in the late stone age. After all, editorial opinion doesn't mean much when your people are saving up to buy a smuggled transistor radio. One hundred years from now, peasants in rice paddies will probably gaze in awe as NPR reporters dictate glowing stories on pastoral life into their thumbnail wireless PCs.

But that's the sort of worst-case scenario that isn't solved by a glowing box and fiber-optics. Short of a new stone age, the only alternative for today's enlightened dictator is to convince every Net-connected jurisdiction in the world to adopt Singapore's vision of the good life. And if that ever happens, the last item on the list of worries is William Safire's unemployment compensation.

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Copyright (c) 1996 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and Iíll use your polished skull as a beer mug.