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Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman

Why the Internet is a double-edged sword Add to ...

Who knows," Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio told the Swedish Academy when he picked up his 2008 Nobel Prize for literature, "if the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler's criminal plot would not have succeeded - ridicule might have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day." So do the dramatic protests in Iran, dubbed the Twitter Revolution by some, make the French writer a prophet in his own time?

There's no doubt that cyberfreedom's promise is limitless, its palpable impact truly global. Evidence: Blogger Xeni Jardin, who visited a remote Guatemalan village without television or telephone land lines but with a few cellphones and a nearby Internet café. Village elder Don Victoriano absorbed the news of Barack Obama's presidential victory over his Hotmail account: "If a black man can enter the Casa Blanca, maybe a Mayan person one day can become president of Guatemala."

In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan trumpeted the emerging "global village" in which "the medium is the message." Today, it still is for those who see the Internet as the herald of a new interactive politics of citizen activism via social networking, e-mail petitions, virtual town meetings and online organizing. Those who viewed Mr. Obama's campaign as the coming of age of "the Net generation" also point to other global manifestations - from Ukraine's cellphone-driven Orange Revolution to South Korea's "mad cow" protests against tainted meat imports orchestrated by text-messaging teenagers.

In terms of historical hypotheticals, it's possible to imagine digital technologies - from websites to cellphones and text messaging - making a real difference. Just think if these options were available to Soviet dissidents and refuseniks who, back in the 1970s, were limited to communicating by handwritten samizdat. Maybe glasnost and perestroika would have come a decade earlier. Or just possibly there would have been a different outcome in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had Chinese protesters been able to communicate - and organize - instantaneously.

Or maybe not. It remains to be seen whether real tanks or thuggish shock troops such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Basij militia can be ultimately trumped by virtual protests. Would YouTube posts from inside the Munich beer hall where Hitler launched his abortive 1923 putsch have made the Nazis look ridiculous - or, more likely, created a cult following among young people in search of a strong leader? Would smuggled cellphone videos from Auschwitz have horrified and mobilized the German public or world public opinion to stop the factory of death? Not likely, given that the images of mass murder actually sent back home by Germany's "willing executioners" failed to change anything.

There's little reason to believe the Internet could have stopped genocide in 20th-century Europe any more than it has in 21st-century Africa.

In 2009, regimes such as Myanmar nip the problem of potential protest on the Internet in the bud by outlawing the Web: no medium, no message. But others, from China to Iran, take a more sophisticated approach. The Chinese government, with the complicity of gatekeepers such as Google and Yahoo, has found ways to squelch Internet dissent even while economically exploiting the Web. Beijing is forcing Internet cafés to switch to state-controlled Red Flag Software, ostensibly because "it makes sense for Internet cafés to use [Red Flag]because of their high user traffic and the system's safeguards against viruses." The "viruses" that can be screened out extend to the Guns N' Roses album Chinese Democracy.

Tehran seems to be going further. Finnish-German telecom equipment maker Nokia Siemens has been criticized for selling eavesdropping technology to Iran that Iranian authorities allegedly used to track online dissent during the recent postelection protests. And they are using Internet technologies to confuse tweeters with disinformation, a campaign that even extends to denying the martyrdom of Neda, the symbol of Iranians' civil outcry.

As Big Brother regimes manipulate the Internet, extremist movements strive to exploit it. In 1995, when the Simon Wiesenthal Center began tracking online hate, there was one hate website. Today, there are more than 10,000.

Let's face it: From the invention of the printing press to the telegraph, to radio and television and to the Internet, innovation has always been a double-edged sword. Contrary to the technological utopians, there is no such thing as an invention whose potential for good cannot be perverted for evil.

The upbeat age of Obama, unfortunately, is also an ominous era of Internet hatred. Marshall McLuhan's "global village" has indeed arrived - but it's populated by the good, bad and ugly of humanity. Mr. Le Clezio, the Nobel laureate, should stop hyping technological bells and whistles and stick to writing books that appeal to our better angels. Technology will never deliver us from evil. Only decent people can.

Let's all commit to helping Tehran's tweeters survive the high-tech inquisition that's being implemented by reactionary mullahs armed with cutting-edge tools Hitler never dreamed of.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant to the centre.

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