Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

As social media spread, Big Brother gets tech savvy

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No matter however often you might "flog the dolphin" in Pakistan, you can't talk about it on your cellphone and you definitely cannot tell a friend in a text message that you have done so. If you do, you risk going to a jail where flogging the dolphin will be a fond and distant memory.

The government of Pakistan has released a list of words and phrases that cannot be used in text messages and "flogging the dolphin" is one of them.

Pakistanis can, apparently, continue to talk about "spanking the monkey," but they need to be careful; their phone calls and text messages are being monitored by their carriers on order of their government.

Personally, that doesn't matter much to me. I have never had occasion to use either phrase on the telephone, let alone something as high-tech as text messaging, and I have no clear idea of what they even mean -- perhaps it has something to do with vegetarianism.

Perhaps if I were more caught up in the cellphone culture this would all be clearer to me, but I don't much like that culture. Even so, it is hard to escape.

On Friday, so eager was I to get to work and take my small part in the production of this great newspaper, I forgot my cellphone at home. As I write, it is sitting there still, wasting electricity, since by now it is fully charged, and leaving me feeling like an escaping convict who is stuck half-way between the bars, unable to get out to an only imaginable freedom where once you leave home you are footloose and fancy-free, and unable to wiggle back into the more comfortable captivity of being at the beck and call of your wife or your boss -- is there a difference? -- whenever they think a cell-count is necessary.

I never wanted a cellphone, but my wife bought me one so that she could keep track of me. It's as much a leash as it is a communications device, but so dog-like are husbands that on the rare occasions that I don't have it with me, I feel kind of lost, like a dog that suddenly finds itself unleashed and is too dumb or too disciplined to know what to do with its new-found freedom.

Cellphones don't allow for much privacy and the more sophisticated they become, the more open your life becomes to your spouse, your house or your boss. GPS devices are the coming rage for cellphones, so that little lie you tell -- I didn't hear the phone, Dear, I was on the bus -- won't work anymore. Everyone will know where you are at any given time.

As difficult as this may be in domestic situations, it is even harder in democracies or in nations that aspire to democracy. Almost every Canadian has watched enough bad movies and worse television to know that there is nothing confidential about a telephone conversation if Big Brother wants to listen in.

The so-called "social media" -- Twitter tweets, cellphone calls and videos and texts -- have played an important role in social and political revolutions around the world.

Celebrities from NDP MP Pat Martin to movie star Mel Gibson continue to embarrass themselves through the easy access to the world that these devices provide, but in other places around the world, where life and what one says about it are still taken seriously, what you chirp on your cellphone, or text on your keypad or tweet on your Twitter can have enormous consequences when the wrong person gets access to it.

Dictators particularly like this technology. China has used it to effectively shut down the Internet as a free medium for exchanging information. Even pseudo-democracies such as Pakistan can interfere with people's conversations, monitoring what they do say and dictating what they can say.

The Pakistani government recently released a list of more than 1,000 words and phrases that cannot be used in cellphone text messages.

They are mostly a matter of morals and etiquette -- "pocket pool" and "flatulence" are among them -- but they just as easily could be political; "democracy" and "freedom of speech" spring to mind.

Pakistan's constitution, much like Canada's, affirms the right to freedom of speech, but according to the government's and the Pakistani courts' reading of that freedom, it is "not unrestricted."

The list of banned words and phrases isn't finished yet, and authorities say that social media providers will be fined for every use of a banned word that slips through.

That means the providers will eventually cancel the accounts of people who persist in talking about flogging the dolphin, or perhaps, a little bit down the road, persist in criticizing a government that barely pays lip service to democracy.

The downside of cellphones is that your spouse can usually track you down and if she can't you got some explaining to do. Big Mama is watching.

That's a minor inconvenience, considering the upside, which is the way in which social media can truly help to liberate people who live in circumstances far worse than ours. Unfortunately, in China and Pakistan and in who knows how many other countries, governments have twigged to the mortal danger that the free exchange of information via the social media poses to them. Twenty-seven years after 1984, Big Brother is watching more vigilantly than ever before just because he has to keep ahead of the technology of freedom.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2011 A18

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