The American Internet

Nancy Scola uses Iran’s recent ban on Gmail as an occasion to say this:

I’ve been squawking recently about the rising time of anti-Internet rhetoric that is at its core anti-American Internet rhetoric, and how that’s something that those of us who love the Internet should perpare ourselves to deal with. We saw it with China, when they responded to a possible Google pullout by complaining that the World Wide Web is hopelessly flooded with American content, and we see it again and again in Cuba, where the Castro regime argues that the content on the Web is so skewed toward American interests that they just don’t want it for their people. From the perspective of Beijing or Havana, it’s as if you turned on a TV in New York City and 470 of 500 channels were running Latin American telenovelas. More local, non-English content would be good for everyone involved.

Maybe this is a nit, but I’d say it’s more “anti-American internet rhetoric” than “anti-American internet rhetoric.” After all, the internet isn’t like turning on a TV in New York and getting mostly non-English channels. My bookmark bar includes the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and McClatchy because I chose them. And I chose them because I’m an American who wants English-language news. They aren’t forced on me. If I were Chinese and wanted Chinese-language content, I’d go out and find it, and that’s what my browser would be filled with.

Likewise, taking the Cuban government at face value when they say the Web is skewed is pernicious. Their problem isn’t that there’s no Cuban content on the internet, their problem is that given a choice, Cubans apparently like American content better than that of the Castro brothers. But that’s a problem with the Castros, not the internet. Ditto for Iran. Gmail doesn’t have an American viewpoint. It’s an email service. Its content is only American if you use it to send email to Americans.

Scola’s concern is real: more local content is good, and complaints about how the internet is run have to be taken seriously. But a lot of it is just posturing by authoritarian regimes. As Scola says, “This can’t be just about Google, and the hope is that a defense of the global web will emerge as a core value held by freedom-loving people everywhere, that OneWebDay, will emerge as the same sort of global celebration as EarthDay has become. The battle lines are pretty quickly being drawn.”