Samizdat and the Internet - a comparison


Although the characteristics of samizdat can be difficult to define, those of the Internet are even more difficult to grasp. For this reason, perhaps the best means of making comparisons between the two is to compare the Internet with respect to the various characteristics of samizdat outlined in the first portion of this paper.

The first characteristic of samizdat discussed was that it did not refer to one specific genre or one specific subject. It is clear from even the most cursory of glances at the Internet that it exemplifies this quality to the “n-th” degree. The Internet is a haven for all sorts of materials, from e-mail messages to chat groups, scholarly papers to computer games, electronic greeting cards to graphic pictures, songs to political tracts, personal biographies to on-line auctions. And the list goes on. Indeed, if one re-examines the brief list of types of samizdat materials from page five, it is clear that all of these types of materials, from novels and poetry to official documents and minutes can be found on the Internet. With samizdat, anyone who had the equipment, materials and know-how, and something to say could (and did) publish in samizdat, just as with the Internet anyone who has the equipment, materials and know-how and something to say can (and does) publish on the Internet. There is, however, an important difference between samizdat and the Internet in this respect. That difference is that all of the samizdat material could not be issued by official or traditional means due to censorship. With the internet, although much of the material could not be issued through traditional or official channels, much of it is simply issued via the internet because of the personal choice of the author and not because of any form of censorship.

A second characteristic of samizdat discussed earlier is that it is difficult to determine what samizdat was read and by whom. With the Internet this, also, is a defining characteristic. Indeed, one can post items on the Internet and never get even a rough sense of who (if anyone) is reading your materials and what portions of it in particular. There are, however, a few possible means of tracking to some degree who is reading what. For example, one can have a counter to count the number of times your site is “visited”, which can give a rough sense of the readership. As another example, many commercial sites use “cookies” (tags) to track the Internet patterns of those people who visit their sites, which can again give a rough sense of the readership. As well, guest books on Internet sites allow authors/creators to gain a sense of those who are accessing their material (only those, of course, who choose to “sign” the guest book). However, these and other methods are not very effective in gaining a truly good sense of who is reading what on the Internet.

In the earlier discussion of samizdat it was also mentioned that there was really no one place where readers could go to find out what was available and so much such information was derived from informal networks. This was, of course, a result of the unofficial and clandestine nature of samizdat. Again, the Internet is very similar to samizdat in this respect. Although there are more and more search engines and such that attempt to find and categorize what is out there, they cannot keep pace with the rapid growth of material on the internet. Thus, again, much of what is known about what is out there is learned through informal networks and serendipity. While the Internet is similar to samizdat in this respect, the reason is quite different. With the internet, the lack of sense of what is available is due not to the clandestine nature of the internet, but rather to the fact that there are literally hundreds of millions of items on the internet, and each day thousands more are added or removed. Thus the difficulty in determining what is available on the Internet is more a factor of size than of politics.

Samizdat, as mentioned previously, also varied a great degree in its quality. And the Internet, again, is very similar in this regard. Just as samizdat was not controlled with respect to quality and accuracy, neither is the Internet controlled with respect to quality or accuracy. As mentioned earlier, anyone with the equipment and know-how can publish on the Internet, just as they could in samizdat. Ayres notes that “while there is little question of the Internet's ability to quickly disseminate information, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the value of this information. That is, much of the material available on the Internet is often unreliable and clearly unverifiable. Impressions, fears, opinions, and conclusions are all traded equally on the net”. The notion of quality is a serious issue for groups such as academics. A University of British Columbia report (13) on the future of electronic scholarly publishing warns that “blackboard publishing, in which submissions are posted without review and then perhaps claimed as the equivalent of scholarly papers in peer-reviewed journals” is a serious concern for academics in all fields.

An aspect of the Internet with respect to quality of materials that differs from samizdat deals with the ethics of publishing. While samizdat acted as a forum for expression of ideas and discussion of views, there were few or no problems with the debate over free speech versus censorship within samizdat itself. All samizdat publishers were fighting outside censorship and were concerned with providing materials of social, political and cultural importance. However, with the Internet this is not always the case. The Internet is seen as a forum for free speech and expression and, as yet, it faces little or no outside censorship. Because of the freedoms available to the majority of internet users (who are in North America and Europe) there is less need to devote much publishing effort to items such as lists of censor cuts or court proceedings. And so what is a major issue with respect to the Internet is the debate over freedom of speech and individualism on the one hand and censorship and ethics on the other. Krol (40-41) notes that individualism and the right to expression are paramount with Internet users. However, “individualism is a two-edged sword. It makes the network a nice place for finding diverse information and people, but it may tax [our] liberality. People have many differing opinions about acceptable behaviour”. This issue is brought home every day with discussions about the danger of Internet materials, from those that provide false information to those that include pornographic pictures to those that promote hate toward particular races or cultures. This is a serious issue for all network users and particularly for parents, teachers and librarians, who want information to be available but who want to ensure that it is valuable, truthful and not harmful. The University of British Columbia report cited in the previous paragraph mentions this issue as one of the most serious today. “Networks provide facilities for the exchange of information in a variety of ways. The vitality and usefulness of these systems depend upon an open and free exchange of information. However, on occasion [materials] carried on existing networks have been deemed offensive by some. There are a number of problematic areas that raise issues around free speech and censorship. These include: pornographic stories and pictures; offensive sexual, racial, or ethnic postings; court-ordered restrictions; threats; spamming (flooding a large number of systems with the same message); and confidential information” (24).

Another important aspect of samizdat was the heterogeneity of its readership. It is generally agreed that its readers spanned all classes and all geographic locations, and all read different materials and for different reasons. And although the readership of the Internet is just as difficult (if not more so) to gain a sense of than was the readership of samizdat, it is generally accepted that the readership of the Internet is also very heterogeneous. The Internet is a truly global phenomenon and, as such, spans the entire world, from the cities to the remote country villages. While it is not at all truthful to claim that the entire world is “wired”, the Internet spreads further every day and the readership grows in geographical diversity with every shift. As well, the readership of the Internet spans many classes. Although the middle and upper classes are more likely to have easier access to it and to make greater use of it, initiatives in schools and libraries make it more available than ever, as do initiatives whose goals are to bring the internet to remote locations and developing areas. Lastly, the readership of the Internet spans all ages, from kindergarten children “surfing the net” to seniors joining Internet classes at the local drop-in centre. And so the Internet and samizdat are similar in their appeal to various groups within society.

One important aspect of samizdat is that it was not driven at all by commercial considerations. Samizdat publishers made their materials available because they believed that they had something important to share with others. To a degree, this is also true of the Internet. The majority of materials available on the Internet are not designed to make money for their creators or for others. Most internet publishers use the internet because they feel that they have material that may be interesting and/or useful to others out there, and hope that by doing so they can share with and learn from others with similar interests, beliefs, etc. However, there is another side to the Internet, which is purely commercial in character. For example, many companies use the Internet to advertise or sell their products or services or do so for others who provide products or services. Indeed, it has been stated that the second most common use for the Internet, after e-mail, is commerce. And as more and more companies and organizations realize the benefits of using the internet, the importance of this aspect of the internet can only be expected to grow. (It should be noted, however, that “there is still a lot of sentiment on the Internet against blatant commercialism. The Internet culture isn’t necessarily opposed to advertising, but it demands that you view advertising as an information service” (Krol 42-43)).

An important aspect of samizdat that was discussed at some length in the first portion of this paper is that it was a multi-step process. The steps, in brief, were authorship, production, distribution and reading. Interestingly, the Internet works in a very similar manner. For example, a certain user named “Bob” decides that he wants to write a short story. He proceeds to write it and then goes through the “production” stage of making it available on the Internet. Once on the Internet, the short story can be distributed to (or obtained by) any and all who wish to have it. As well, items can be changed, either purposely or inadvertently, during the process of transfer, and so the Internet is also subject to inaccuracies and the growth of “families” of versions. Thus the Internet and samizdat are similar in their quality as processes of creation and sharing. However, the Internet is also quite different than samizdat because of the very nature of the technology that lies at its foundations.

While samizdat had to be retyped or written out by hand or photographically reproduced, the Internet is much easier. Once information is on the network, it can easily be downloaded or copied onto disk or hard drive. This means that the quality of the reproductions is much better than was that of samizdat materials. As well, the speed with which materials on the Internet can be distributed is millions of times faster than the time it took for samizdat materials to be distributed. Thus while the processes of both samizdat and the Internet are similar, the Internet makes the process easier and quicker.

Another important characteristic of samizdat was the lack of a connection between author and reader. This was due, in large, to the clandestine and unofficial nature of the process. Interestingly, this is an issue also with the Internet. Much of the material on the Internet has no source and provides no means of contacting the creator, and so there is a sense of disconnection between author and reader. And, much as with samizdat, a reader can perhaps only put some of his/her own materials on in hopes that it will eventually be seen by the intended recipient. This is due, largely, to authors not thinking or, often, desiring to have their identity known. However, there is a large amount of material on the Internet that does provide sources and means of contacting the creator. And while some samizdat did allow for connections to be made if authors and/or readers desired to, it was not possible or taken advantage of to the same extent that it is on the Internet.

The last important characteristic of samizdat discussed earlier in the paper is the fact that the authorities attempted to control it, because “the power to control the dissemination of information is the power to influence the beliefs and actions of human beings” (Lippard). As was discussed, however, the authorities were not at all in agreement over what exactly samizdat was and what was allowable and what was not. And so the methods of control were not at all consistent. The same can be said for the Internet. As was the case with samizdat, the Internet as an entity and as a process is not strictly illegal or forbidden. Nevertheless, various authorities have concerns with two aspects of the Internet: the materials that are available and the ways in which the Internet is used.

Samizdat was, by definition, material of all types that was unacceptable to the authorities because of its subject matter. And much of the concern with the Internet arises because the authorities dislike the content of some (though generally not all) of the materials. For example, authorities at schools attempt to control the Internet by filtering out materials that they deem offensive or harmful to children, such as pornographic materials or hate materials. Such control is deemed by the majority of society to be acceptable because the benefits outweigh the costs. However, other controls are not so acceptable to society at large. For example, a January 2000 issue of “Index on Censorship” mentions a case of government censorship of Internet content because of a dislike over ideological/political content. “The arrest of two university students trying to launch a website to combat normalisation [of relations with Israel] has important ramifications for our society. It is somewhat worrying that the authorities were not more forthcoming in describing the nature of the students’ offences in creating the website. We hope that this is not Jordan’s first attempt to censor the Internet” (97). Thus the Internet, like samizdat, is targeted for control because of its content.

Just as samizdat was also controlled because of the ways in which it was used, namely to spread ideas unacceptable to the authorities and to unite people in opposition, so too is the Internet controlled because of the ways in which it is used to spread ideas that may be unacceptable to government or other authorities and to unite people in opposition. These controls are a result of the recognition that “the Internet is giving wired activists of various political persuasions the capacity to bombard government agencies and congressional offices with political e-mail messages. It also enables interest groups with modest budgets to become influential by helping them to quickly launch large-scale advocacy campaigns, raise money, mobilize support, and become better organized” (Johnson). Thus authorities around the world are seeking to control the Internet because of its use in uniting people in opposition. For example, Indonesia is attempting to gain some control over the Internet after student pro-democracy leaders who were linked by the Web mounted mass protests that eroded government authority in 1999. China is also seeking to control the Internet after 10,000 members of the secretive Falun Gong religious sect suddenly showed up for a protest outside the government leadership compound in April of 1999. As well, in the U.S. the government is working toward some sort of control over the Internet as citizens become more and more alarmed by Neo-Nazi groups’ use of the Internet to organize rallies and events.

What is important with respect to control of samizdat and control of the Internet is that while samizdat was difficult to control, the Internet is infinitely more difficult to control. The nature of the technology and its widespread use are such that it is extremely difficult to control. For example, the number of computers and networks is so large in most places that it would be impossible to seize them all. As well, the material on the Internet is digital and is not essentially housed in one physical location, which makes it difficult to seize. Control over what material can be accessed is also rather ineffective, as there are always ways around these restrictions. For example, Engardio notes that “so far, cyberactivists have found ways around every hurdle governments have put up. Take China. While police have hunted down and jailed dissident Webmasters, new sites proliferate. With threats to revoke licenses of Internet service providers operating in China, Beijing has gotten the industry to self-censor by blocking sites with content that departs from the party line. But skilled surfers can gain access to anything they want by tapping into offshore servers and dissident sites”. Khazen, writing about the role of the Internet in the Arab world, also notes the difficulty of controlling the Internet. “Controlling access to the Internet is very difficult, if not impossible, even in the Arab world. Even if there is no local service provider, subscribers who can afford the telephone charges can use a provider in another country. Some Arab countries felt threatened by the advent of fax machines some years ago and went to great pains to try to keep track of who had them. The Internet is much less controllable. Of course, only a limited number of people in the Arab world have access, but it is spreading in homes, university departments, and in the "cyber cafes" that are springing up in several Arab countries”. The Internet, in a sense, is “invisible” and can be difficult to monitor and control, as authorities are quickly discovering.

Also important with respect to samizdat and control over it by the authorities was that even the authorities were unsure of what was and was not allowable and thus were inconsistent in asserting control. And, indeed, the authorities are having the same difficulty with controlling the Internet. Because the Internet itself is not illegal it is difficult for authorities to make arguments for controlling it. As well, the laws regarding hate material or pornography, etc. are very difficult to interpret with respect to traditional formats, let alone with digital formats. Also, the notions of freedom of expression and freedom of speech very often come into play because the majority of Internet use is at a personal level. In addition, the technology is so new and is changing so rapidly that it is almost impossible for authorities to keep apace. Gage notes that “the conjunction of cheap, distributed innovation has occurred so rapidly that those institutions and forces most concerned with control and least capable of being distributed--in a word, governments-have had little time to react to its effects. But the reaction is coming. For older, control-based institutions, this revolution is being taken as a threat to the foundations of order”.

It is also interesting, however, that users themselves are involved in controlling the Internet, mush as users of samizdat were involved in controlling it. It was discussed earlier how samizdat publishers and readers were always uncertain of what could happen and were afraid of potential punishment and so they almost controlled themselves. This is true, also, of Internet publishers and users. Many avoid posting and/or accessing materials which they fear may be unacceptable or potentially dangerous and in this way engage in a form of self-control. For example, Einhorn notes that in China “net companies know that if they violate certain taboos, they will get a visit from unfriendly Public Security Bureau agents. So most dot.coms have censored themselves”.


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