In 2011 I asked an Iranian human rights activist in Tehran to search some simple terms, part of a test for Internet filtering. I forget it now, but the term was something like “American football”. He replied that he was scared. He couldn't do it.
But aren't you curious?, I asked. No. Not any more. I'm not curious at all. I don't ask questions. I don't even ask questions about things I want to know. It doesn't matter. That time is past.
And he disconnected. We never spoke again.
I began studying Internet censorship in 2009. Since that time much has been made of the lost revolutionary stifled by online censorship or the opportunities for political and social change that are lost when the Internet is controlled. This idea drives millions of dollars in funding, documentary films, and countless articles in global media each year, all of which envision the Internet as a vehicle for freedom of expression, an opportunity to express ourselves and know others and in doing so to create meaningful political change. But my friend's last words show there is someone missing in this story, and it's not the political activist or democratic idealist. The person missing has little to do with politics. His last words forced me to ask myself: Who do we lose with Internet censorship?
In 2006, the personal search histories of more than 600,000 AOL users were leaked. The search history of one of these users, number 711391, became the subject of a fascinating series of short films titled “I love Alaska.” The search queries of a lonely, religious, married woman in the American south are the central narrative of the films. She searches for personal meaning, desperately seeks intimacy in her marriage, and ventures into infidelity, with sojourns through regret, Internet addiction, and a longing to escape her life and move to Alaska.
The films pull the viewer away from the “big data” lens. Instead, we see a human being exploring parts of herself in one of the few intimate environments in which we can be utterly ourselves: the Internet. Removed from social pressure and the judgment of others, user #711391 reveals how the Internet allows us to engage in a mode of self-exploration and research, a way to wrestle with the parts of ourselves that we may be scared to explore with others — parts that we feel safer in exploring through an anonymous search engine. User #711391 had no sense that the Internet she knew was censored, monitored, or controlled. She felt able to ask questions of an intensely personal nature in place where she would find no judgement. Some of her searches:
2006-05-09 i thought i could handle an affair but i couldnt
2006-05-09 god can heal affairs
2006-05-12 i feel so damaged inside from an affair i had
2006-05-15 how can you tell if your spouse put spyware on your computer
2006-05-16 how to get him back
For my friend in Tehran, Internet control paralyzed any sense of self-exploration – he wouldn't ask any more questions about anything that could get him in trouble. A deep and unknown part of his self would lay hidden. How much of a young man in his twenties still remains undiscovered and unknown to himself? While certainly there are other means to explore ourselves, not all questions can be explored openly, especially those with strong social or cultural taboos. Perhaps some of these questions are familiar: Am I homosexual? Does God exist? Am I a bad person? Is there anyone else like me? Is it okay to be myself? Why does my partner hit me?
There are those of us who ask these questions through the Internet, using search engines to ask the same questions we may have once privately asked of a god. But we ask these questions of ourselves, to seek out connection and understanding of who we are and to understand our place on earth, especially when such understanding is absent in our daily lives or societies. For a brief moment, finding some small element of self-acceptance or understanding online can be the difference between a life of vitality and spirit and a life of bare existence. And a life of spirit is nourished through regularly knowing one is accepted and loved precisely for who they are.
Through Internet censorship and control we lose an ability to be our own secret human – the one we are when nobody is around, sometimes late at night before we go to bed – and the type of human we are entitled to be by simple virtue of our birth. We can be within our existence and within our world most fully when we are most ourselves.
In an ideal scenario, this should carry no limits. One might be interested in learning more about a prohibited religion, their eternal questions unsatisfied by what they have access to. Perhaps another person sees something metaphysical rather than political in democracy, a form of self-liberation rather than political liberation, but will never know it because the word “democracy” is censored. It could be that an “indecent” photograph would be part of someone's journey to heal the wounds of domestic abuse, or that they could search about domestic abuse in the first place, but any avenue to explore and make peace in private is utterly shuttered, controlled, and monitored.
I spoke with an Iranian activist refugee in Amsterdam later that year. I mentioned the fear of the Internet. I didn't need to say more, as she understood immediately. She said I couldn't understand it, but I was on to something. It was scary to wonder and ask. Not worth it. Even in Europe she had blocked off parts of herself which yearned to be known through Internet searches: uncertainty about her sexuality, her marriage at a young age to a man she barely cared for, and trying to reconcile her religion with human shortcomings.
But after the 2009 protests and Internet clampdown she became scared of searching for an answer – she knew the government was monitoring the Internet. Our last coffee together was heartbreaking: she was too far committed to the person she had invented as a means of survival to change. She had become the undiscovered person through an internalized fear of self-exploration.
For some, Internet censorship and control is a political tragedy, one that represents the stifling of the democratic dream by building walls in the global flow of information. But it also builds walls inside ourselves, against ourselves. For me, Internet censorship has brought an undue end to the time for self-wonder, replacing it with a new era in which we ask no more questions about ourselves because the risk is just too great. This is the great personal tragedy of Internet censorship and control: young men and women who believe the time for questions has passed.
How we learn to relate to and explore ourselves doesn't end when our geography or circumstances change. It has been learned and adopted through being instilled with varying degrees of fear and terror, something which can take a lifetime to face.
The last time we spoke, the young refugee in Amsterdam taught me how these learned behaviors follow us wherever we go. She looked at me, speaking in a voice which sang beyond herself and her time and said: “I want to fly out of this life. Fly out of Amsterdam, out of everything. But I can't. I wanted to learn this, but in some way I forgot how.”
Cameran Ashraf is an Iranian-American digital rights activist and social entrepreneur who is currently completing his PhD at UCLA on the geopolitics of the Internet. This essay won first prize in the #GV2015 Summit competition, “How Do Internet Policies Affect Your Community?”