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Friday, August 14, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Globalism and Censorship

In which two or more of our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
Two legal rulings I came across this week have implications not just for this blog, but for all Christians on the internet.

The first is a ruling from European Union regulators that internet users in its member states have a “right to be forgotten”. Google has complied by instructing all its Blogger users worldwide to post a notice giving EU users information about the use of cookies on blogs originating in Canada, the US and everywhere else. In Europe, 90,000 requests for the removal of links and stories are already being processed and European regulators are now arguing the removals should be global, not just in Europe.

The second ruling is Canadian. A British Columbia court has instructed Google to remove all links to a website worldwide.

Policing the Virtual Globe

Tom: So, Immanuel Can: if, in order to continue selling their products in various countries of the world, tech providers accept the responsibility of policing the internet, global censorship is here. The implications are staggering. For instance, for Google to operate in Russia, they may be told to shut down all sites run by homosexuals worldwide. For Google to operate in Iran, they could be told to shut down all sites run by Christians, and so on.

We could go from Coming Untrue to Coming Nonexistent overnight.

Immanuel Can: I don’t think we have to fear that — yet. I think what we’re seeing here is a modern nation state trying to apply modern legislative means to a global situation. My guess is that it vastly underestimates the influence of the internet and absurdly exaggerates the capabilities of the nation state. There is tremendous commercial and public will against the contracting of the internet, but since it hasn’t hit most people, we’re not seeing that exercised yet.

Contracting Internet Freedom and the Public Will

Tom: I totally agree with you that there is tremendous public will against the contracting of internet freedoms, but what we may be missing here is this: it doesn’t ultimately depend on public will. We are all in the thrall of Microsoft, Google, PayPal and Apple. The multinationals control all the tech we use and all the platforms we use it on. It is their financial interests that will ultimately prevail here, since they are rarely ideological, and when they are, ideology comes a distant second to the bottom line.

But back to the public and their will: given the choice between abandoning iPhones, Macs, Blogger, Chrome, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on, on the one hand, or dialing back the rhetoric just a notch and compliantly deleting a few posts, what do you think most people will choose?

IC: I agree with you about ideology and the multinationals. But behind the multinationals are the advertisers and data users, and behind all that, the consumers. In my experience, the consumers have an ideological prejudice: they passionately believe the internet is a kind of “wild west” that is rightfully open to whatever they want to do. And it will be interesting to see if they take a dim view of attempts to rein it in.

The Need for a Christian Internet Presence

But all this is speculative. More interesting to me is this: how important is it for Christians to have an internet presence?

Tom: On one level, not at all. We have the church for the building up of believers and the worship of Christ. We still have word of mouth as well as print and other media for disseminating the gospel. But the internet presents a unique opportunity to reach people all over the globe in real time. It would be regrettable to lose it, but not critical to Christian testimony.

For us, we could be shut down tomorrow and it wouldn’t hurt us in the slightest. I think the actual out-of-pocket costs of running ComingUntrue.com are $12 a year or thereabouts. We didn’t exactly start this to build an empire and if we had, I’d say we’re going about it all wrong.

But I’m thinking it would be a bigger hit for those Christian organizations with a considerable financial investment in the Web; those that depend on sales and advertising revenue that could go away overnight. It could also affect Christian organizations that move funds around the world in the interest of advancing the gospel.

IC: Very much so. On a mass-ministry level, it would seem to be a considerable impairment … perhaps the end of the line. But I wonder if there isn’t another dimension in which Christianity would flourish: that is, we’d stop looking to the internet as a resource for our Christian practices, and perhaps stop spending time on internet exercises of dubious spiritual value. Certainly the line would be more starkly drawn between who we are and who the managers of the global net are. Can you see an upside, Tom?

The Upside of Being Outside

Tom: Oh, I think there are a few positives. We need constant reminders in this affluent society of our status as “sojourners and exiles”. Nothing is quite so refreshingly stark as being summarily dumped out of the mainstream. Abraham looked forward to “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God”, but he did it while residing in tents. I don’t think it would hurt Christians at all to learn to work off the grid. That’s not a knock on the internet. As I say, it’s a great opportunity to expand our reach, and we should be happy to use it as long as we can, as long as there’s no compromise involved.

IC: Yes, but I mean even more than that. Is much of what we do, or much of what we get done, by internet so astonishingly wonderful? Do we even need its help to be godly in the present age? Is not a lot of what we do online ultimately rather trivial … and a huge time-sucker to boost? Wouldn’t we all be wise to review how important it is for our church to have a website, or for us personally to have a Facebook page? Call me a Luddite, but I guess I’m just not convinced that all of what we do is godly gain.

Tom: Let’s see … no, no, yes, yes and … I totally agree.

IC: And I don’t think that internet openness is a particularly Christian cause.

The Coming World Empire

Tom: Agreed. There’s another interesting aspect of this, though, and that’s the increasing push for globalism, which may remind us of a certain coming world empire symbolized in Daniel 2 by ten toes of iron and clay and in Revelation 13 as the beast with seven heads and ten horns. Now I’m not about to get paranoid or start picking out times and dates, but this felt need by nation states to exercise some sort of control over the internet is just one of dozens of perceived problems (like the interdependence of national economies, climate change and so on) that globalists will point to as evidence we need a single world government.

IC: Well, if this isn’t the moment when a world government starts to look unavoidable, then we can be sure one will come. But given the low success level of things like the UN, I think the moment will have to be attended by such a terrifying economic or political crisis that people will actually welcome the increased control. But I can’t see that this is that moment.

Tom: I agree. I think it’s just another step on the road there.

IC: If national governments feel some need to clamp down on certain kinds of internet content, I think we’re still a million miles from capitulation to totalitarianism. And I don’t see that the public is ready for that sort of massive change yet. They will be, but not now.

Tom: A million miles? I guess I’d disagree mildly in the sense that I think the fallout from the recent plebiscite in Greece (not to mention a few of the unilateral moves made by the Obama Democrats in the U.S. in recent weeks) is suggestive that we’re a lot closer to totalitarianism than we may think. Totalitarianism is not necessarily obvious until the National Guard is standing armed in the street in front of your house, but the pieces are being moved into place rather inexorably. But that’s neither here nor there since whatever happens will not be up to us.

Getting Off the Train and Staying Uninvested

These are interesting times. Have you any practical advice for fellow believers?

IC: Well, the first thing is this: it’s been very easy for Christians lately to take their pace from the world around them (minus the obvious sins, of course, but plus any borderline ones, at least). If the whole system’s going the other way at some point — which we have to believe it is, according to prophecy — at some point you’ve got to get off that train. Don’t expect that “get off” point to be obvious, or to declare itself in advance, because it’s likely to be a product of gradual decline rather than instant crisis. Make up your mind right now on your firm walk-away point. Then, when the time comes, walk away, even if you think it would be possible to ride the train for another stop or two.

That’s my first. Tom?

Tom: For those of us using technology for outreach and building up our fellow Christians, don’t get too invested, financially or emotionally, in any one way of doing things. For one thing, it’s not all that necessary with the free tools that currently exist to spend a fortune on maintaining an online presence. And if this particular set of warning signs is not the beginning of generalized censorship, it’s coming down the pipe one of these days. As long as we keep the perspective that the internet is only one of many means to get the word of God out there, we’ll be just fine when we have to abandon it. It wouldn’t hurt to have a backup plan for original Christian content that lends itself to reuse in some other form.

Too Much Information

IC: That’s practical. Third thing: as a Christian, be sensible about what you put online. I don’t mean about the gospel, I mean about yourself and other Christians generally — personal stuff, for example. The time may soon come when people will be searching out Christians, and not for good purposes. Let’s not make their job too easy.

Tom: That is so sensible, and so little understood. Given the tracks we’ve all left on the Web over the last couple of decades, the NSA (or their Canadian equivalent) will identify and locate all Christians in their jurisdictions within seconds by running the simplest of search algorithms — and I’m fine with that. I don’t see government in and of itself as an enemy of the faith. Believers have always been faced with the legitimate expectation of being dragged before governors and kings for the sake of the Lord’s name. What I’m not good with is unnecessarily making myself the defendant in a nuisance civil lawsuit filed by some meddling social justice internet presence simply because I shared more information about myself than I needed to and didn’t have a clue when to button my lip about where I live and with whom I associated.

IC: Yes. Too many people assume that just because they WANT the internet to be free when they want and private when they want, that if they insist on treating it like it is both free and private then it will be. As natural as that may be, it’s also completely untrue. The internet is public at all times, and is only “free” until the powers that be clamp down. We do well to remember that.

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