Regular readers have likely seen me write this so many times that you may be rather sick of it by now: "Public is public."
The concept is simple enough. Pretending that information already public can be somehow clawed back, the genie returned to the bottle, is foolhardy, inane, and subject to various impolite invectives as well.
As we've seen again and again ... and yet again ... attempts to block information that has already been widely seen on the Internet will nearly always fail, as the associated data will have been mirrored in so many locales that efforts at retroactive control will only trigger the dreaded "Streisand Effect" -- drawing far more attention to the information in question than would otherwise have been the case. (The Streisand Effect is named after efforts years ago by entertainer Barbra Streisand to suppress posted photos of her Malibu mansion, which resulted in far greater dissemination of those photos as a presumably unintended consequence).
But there's a corollary to my "public is public" axiom that is much less frequently quoted. Even though attempts at Internet censorship will almost all fail in the end, governments and authorities have the capability to make groups' and individuals' lives extremely uncomfortable, painful, or even terminated -- in the process of attempts at censorship, and equally important, by instilling fear to encourage self-censorship in the first place.
We might expect variations of this behavior from China, North Korea, and other totalitarian states with entrenched censorship mentalities, but now comes a startling example from France, the traditional land of liberté, égalité, fraternité itself.
The details are quite breathtaking for their broader implications.
Last month, the DCRI -- pretty much the French equivalent of the British MI5 internal security organization -- asked Wikipedia to remove an article concerning a French military communications facility, an article apparently based entirely on public sources. This piece had apparently been present on the French Wikipedia version for several years.
When Wikipedia asked for justification to remove the article, DCRI reportedly provided none, and the article stayed available.
Late last week, DCRI summoned a French Wikipedia volunteer with article deletion privileges, who had no prior association or even knowledge of the article, and demanded that he delete it. DCRI apparently threatened to hold him in confinement and prosecute him if he did not immediately comply.
Despite his protests that Wikipedia did not operate in this manner, the volunteer was justifiably terrified, and deleted the article.
The aftermath was easy to predict. The original French version of the article was restored by other Wikipedia editors. That page became the most referenced page in the French Wikipedia version over the last few days. And the page has now been translated into various other languages in other Wikipedia editions.
Streisand Effect fully engaged.
But it would be an enormous mistake to assume -- as many observers are doing -- that this incident was simply the result of "fools" in the French intelligence apparatus who "don't understand how the Web works."
Or to put it another way, it isn't always clear if we're dealing with a bumbling Inspector Clouseau or an incredibly dangerous Maximilien de Robespierre.
The clowns represented by the former need not greatly concern us. But the latter are underestimated at our extreme peril, especially since they may believe in a twisted way that they're actually on the side of the angels.
Around the world, governments are attempting to remake the Web and the greater Internet in their own traditional images.
They have significant resources that can be brought to bear, especially when they succeed in redefining Internet-based freedom of speech as national security risks. Shackles, cells, even firing squads and other lethal methodologies are at their disposal.
Increasingly, we see vague and often highly suspect claims of "cyberwar" being bandied about as a predicate at least for vast diversions of power and money to the "cyberscare-industrial complex" -- and even as potential justifications for cyber or physical retaliations against the designated enemies of the moment.
We see this same class of fear tactics being deployed to justify government scanning of private computing and communications facilities, demands for purpose-built surveillance of encrypted communications systems that actually make these systems more vulnerable to black-hat hacking, and a range of other demands from authorities. Since the big cyber-security bucks are now in play, it's understandable why authorities would prefer to concentrate on theoretical computer-based infrastructure risks, rather than the very real risk of explosives in some empty desert area being used to bring down critical high voltage transmission towers.
With cybersecurity as with so much else, "money is honey."
In context, it's obvious that whether we're talking about overbearing government security services apparently using China and North Korea as their new operating paradigms, or the 21st century version of traditional power and money grabs via fear tactics deluxe, we can't help but return to the fact that governments are trying on various fronts to maintain their old authoritarian models of security and censorship in the new world of ubiquitous Internet communications.
And while today's story involved France and Wikipedia, these are only really placeholders of the moment that can be easily substituted with other countries and other organizations -- or individuals -- going forward.
The best of times, the worst of times. We dare not permit the distraction of seeming clowns in the foreground to blind us from the sharp and shiny falling blades of censorship and surveillance lurking just behind, aimed directly at our figurative (and in some horrific cases perhaps quite literal) naked necks.