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The web: from democracy to tyranny

Today brought the news that the developers of the Haystack project - which sought to enable Iranian citizens to use the web anonymously, have had to halt the project due to a security review. It appears from news reports that the project was never safe in the first place and may have placed Iranians more at risk for using it than if they had not used it at all.

In Britain, a 17 year old who launched an abusive email to President Obama after a night of drinking, was tracked down by police, photographed and informed by the US government that he is barred from setting foot on US soil for life.

Without noticing, we have moved from a period in which we regarded the internet as the ultimate tool of democracy, allowing anyone anywhere to read and make the news, to a period in which the internet seems like the ultimate tool of totalitarianism.It keeps an indelible and unforgiving record of what we are doing and thinking. This record is available to just about anyone, while governments and security forces are able also to trace us through IP addresses and scrutinize internet traffic. Some countries demand complete access to all information, including cellular telephone records, as came out in the recent fracas between RIM (makers of the Blackberry) and the Indian government.

We have come accustomed to surrendering information that is used by companies in order to make us more suitable targets for their marketing. We provide the tools for social network analysts to measure our level of influence based on the number of followers and friends. New location technologies and simple social network updates announcing our whereabouts add another level to the way our privacy is compromised.

The end result is that while the internet indeed allows us to read and express almost anything, the consequences are dire, and not only in countries with repressive regimes. We expose ourselves not just to the whims of government officials but to potential employers, insurers, lenders, landlords - anyone with an interest in learning all about us. Every petition we sign, every blog post we write, every link we share, every forum discussion we take part in, every political or religious opinion we express, every status update we unthinkingly splurt out, every compromising or unflattering photo in which we are tagged, shows up in search engines and remains there for years. The end result is that if we value our personal freedom, the internet has become a dangerous place to hang out. And this only stands to get worse.