The Net Interprets Censorship As Damage and Routes Around It

Howard Rheingold? John Gilmore? Michael Sattler? Philip Elmer-DeWitt? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Modern communication systems are designed to distribute messages even when some connections and modules are damaged. This resilience inspired an adage in the 1990s about the suppression of information. Here are two versions:

  • The net views censorship as damage and routes around it.
  • The internet treats censorship as a fault and reroutes around it.

Nowadays, the official and unofficial strategies used to impede the dissemination of information (and misinformation) have grown in scale and sophistication. Country-spanning data firewalls, court-mandated removal of webpages, social media deplatforming, and denial-of-service attacks have all been employed.

Yet, censorship is rarely completely successful. Would you please explore the provenance of this 20th-century adage?

Quote Investigator: Cultural critic Howard Rheingold penned influential early descriptions of online communities such as The Well, Usenet, and MUDs. In September 1993 he published “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier”. Rheingold attributed the adage to prominent techno-activist John Gilmore. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Information can take so many alternative routes when one of the nodes of the network is removed that the Net is almost immortally flexible. It is this flexibility that CMC telecom pioneer John Gilmore referred to when he said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” This way of passing information and communication around a network as a distributed resource with no central control manifested in the rapid growth of the anarchic global conversation known as Usenet.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Net Interprets Censorship As Damage and Routes Around It

Notes:

  1. 1993, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier by Howard Rheingold, Chapter Introduction, Quote Page 7, First Printing: September 1993, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts.