June 11, 2014
Only 25 years ago, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev decided to deregulate the use of photocopiers as part of the glasnost policy of political openness. Until that point, the Soviet Ministry of Interior Affairs carefully tracked the use of copiers out of fear of the “prolifiration of undesirable texts.”
On Monday, Marc Andressen tweeted a link to the LA Times article from 1989 which reported this development. He also posed an interesting question:
1/How important is new communication technology both to maintenance of state control & subversion of state control? http://t.co/mpxdNs0dzf
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) June 9, 2014
Soviet fear of free-flowing information from copiers is comical when viewed through the lens of 2014. We can only postulate how the Soviets would have approached today’s technology, specifically, communication networks. Since the Iron Curtain has long since fallen, presumptions can only be gleaned from the newest attempts made by authoritarian regimes to suppress their population:
1. Following the coup last month, the Thai military blocked access to Facebook as part of a greater effort to filter internet access in an attempt to quell protests.
2. This week, the government of the Central African Republic banned all text messaging as a response to a mass text calling for a general strike.
3. Censorship monitor GreatFire.org has called China’s ban last week of content on WeChat and Google the “strictest censorship ever deployed.” The ban came in preparation for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
Each of the above examples are only the most recent to join the list. Bans and restrictions in Serbia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are well known.
Why they would view communication tools as a threat is plainly obvious from recent history; public demands for change in Iran, Ukraine, and throughout the Arab world sprouted and materialized through social networks.
Indeed, new communication technology is public enemy #1 of dictators everywhere. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem as if any tyrannical governments have used these technologies towards maintenance of state control.