While the ease of availability and access to information is being enjoyed worldwide, the same could expose some sensitive information that was not meant for public consumption, at least in the view of the authorities concerned with that information.
The prevailing situation places information to be a ground for contestation whereby any affected parties would seek for censorship of such information while other interested parties would be fighting to gain unhindered access and seek leverage using the controlled information.
This has been the case, for example, between governments and anti-government organizations of criminal and non-criminal nature, including the infamous Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda and the ISIS, to name a few, whereby access and control of information translates to the control of power in a given locality.
The control of information is temporary and naturally swings between the concerned and contesting parties, a situation making power to also swing between those parties seeking control of the required information.
This situation agrees with the old saying that ‘information is power,’ especially when such information is of value and, as a result, is highly sought after.
With the rolling technology and heightened battle over information control, no wonder that its regulation has been changing shape, going toward the stricter side now that its access, possession, and distribution is highly monitored despite much of it slipping outside the hands of the law.
Domestically, of late the passing of Tanzania’s Access to Information Act in 2016 could then be argued as representing such efforts to align with the ongoing global trend of supposedly attempting to centrally control information, irrespective of the value attached to such an attempt, including the possible benefits in terms of crime mitigation and general citizen protection.
The ongoing trend may suggest that while strict control of information reigned throughout, a short-lived deregulation was seen after the post-war era up until the late 1990s, and especially after the year 2001 when terrorism became more pronounced following the attack on the US World Trade Centre.
The anti-terror era can be seen by some circles to have subjected information to the kind of control that equals dictatorship in the interpretation of many holding the view and fighting for its otherwise horizontal availability.
In the wake of anti-terrorism efforts in most countries, several legislations have come to bolster the already acts restricting information production and distribution including the National Security Act in several countries, including Tanzania, that prohibits certain actions in information gathering and dissemination.
In the strictest interpretation of the discourse of ‘press freedom’ and ‘freedom of expression, the phrases generally contained in almost all country constitutions yet controversially applied throughout the globe usually in favor of the state, information access is at risk for the reason that most governments seem to resort to acts aimed at gaining an absolute upper hand in the production, distribution and consumption of information.
This difficulty makes information a scarce and highly sought-after commodity, prompting some technology-savvy individuals to continuously make efforts at infiltrating some highly secured systems and databases in the quest to obtain the kind of information hidden from the public for whatever reason or purpose.
On their part, most governments have built and enjoy access to a number of databases and profiles available on various repositories due to the centralization of communication in various countries.
There could even be reasons for people who are less informed about technology to trade some doubts regarding the origins of information control by governments: maybe there exists some kind of collusion between most of the popular social media forums and world governments, authoritarian states included.
Lay persons in the area of information technology would unquestionably wonder how can governments be able to shut down Facebook or Twitter in times of crisis involving state legitimacy as it was the case with such attempts by the administrations of Egypt’s embattled Hosni Mubarak!
The same kind of information control attempts happened in Tunisia and other despotic countries gripped by the now-fading Arab Spring.
However, some leading democracies, including the USA, also flexed their muscles in curtailing the spill-over effects of their citizens’ dissatisfaction voiced through the 2012 Occupy Wall Street movement with the demonstrators facing the iron hand of the federal government.
To be precise, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators whose agenda included a fairer wealth distribution in a country with the highest GDP were faced with police beatings and teargas the same way that their country condemns the brutal treatment of demonstrators in what would be branded as less-democratic nations.
Moreover, several legislations at the country level were made to counter people’s attempts at potentially widespread violent expression of their displeasure.
These include the failed attempts by the United States asking the Congress to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) which request was declined by the law-making body during the Obama era.
Nevertheless, evidence shows that with the advent of the internet and other technologies, nearly all states have the capabilities of surveilling on the lives of their own citizens and other interested individuals, including leader of other nations.
This is especially true with the developed nations whose security budget comes in huge sums every passing year. The developing nations have also been following suit.
With the internet having spread worldwide and its performance improving on a daily basis, the mega infrastructure for accessing information has been created and taken after by most capable governments as a security strategy.
Furthermore, with the daily strengthening of internet capabilities, and of course the fluid definition of ‘defense’ and ‘offense’ in the field of security studies, the state acts of controlling information flow to the people and surveilling on them has in many instances been equated to authoritarian rule.
It is for such reasons that the world’s probably most famous hacker and founder of the world’s leaks website, The WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, rather compares state internet use with an in-built machine necessitating and facilitating authoritarian rule.
With this status, internet activists of Mr. Assange type and style are unsure of the liberation powers vested in the internet technology given the abuse and misuse of the technology by the world governments.
The activists claim that with the prevailing over-regulation of the internet, governments have been robbing off their people of the information freedom that the technology is ought to provide.
Therefore, the world is leaning toward becoming more totalitarian than libertarian in its orientation should the state-level internet control – which compromises the people’s access and distribution of information – be allowed to continue.
With the state-individual competition over access to information, it all boils down to the question of balance as to determining the extent at which information should be released and controlled to avoid infringing on the people’s right to be informed and to protect them from harm; and on how such information rights could be used constructively in the interest of the state and the welfare of its people.
Francis Semwaza is a Dar es Salaam-based development communications consultant. E-mail: [email protected]; Phone: 0716 466 044.