The limits of online freedom and activism?

“Citizens now have much greater control over how and when they receive information and, much more than ever before, they can react to it if they choose, they can participate and they can be active towards it,” said Timothy Balding, CEO of the World Association of Newspapers, which organized the conference in Paris with the World Press Freedom Committee and UNESCO.

“On the negative side, the internet has opened up extraordinary new possibilities for the widespread, damaging and sometimes dangerous manipulation of information which is difficult if not impossible to stem,” he said. “In my view, this phenomenon will increasingly place a heavy responsibility on professional journalists to maintain high standards of fact-checking, honesty and objectivity. The very fundamentals of our societies and democracies will be lost if we are unable any longer to distinguish between true and false in terms of information.”

New media increases freedom but holds dangers, conference told

As the dotcom boom and bust fades into history, the business press is again celebrating the revolutionary potential of a wired world. The discomfort of the mainstream media is just the start of it, they argue. The net is humbling big business as consumers compare the price of everything from gas to bank interest rates and take their custom to the corporations offering the best value. Meanwhile, doctors face patients who can find out if the NHS’s treatments they are offered are the best available and politicians must cope with an electorate that can investigate the claims of soundbites and manifestos with a click of a mouse.

The cheerleaders are right in many respects. The net is changing the world, but not all of it. Contrary to the optimism of the Nineties, that it would allow oppressed peoples to escape censors and read forbidden opinions, the net is proving surprisingly easy for dictatorships to control.

A connected world proves no threat to tyrants

The first excerpt, from an international conference on the press freedom dimension of new media at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, succinctly articulates a position that is increasingly finding favour with many web and online activists – that the advent of new technologies, in and of themselves, are liberating or empowering, and that dictatorships and repressive regimes often use these very technologies to further stifle dissent and rights. I fall squarely into the camp of cautious optimists who recognise the power of new media to challenge governments and States which seek to curtail fundamental rights and democratic dissent. However, living in a country that is increasingly intolerant of those who articulate human rights concerns, I am deeply aware that the fate of an Egyptian blogger of late, despite the growth of online activism in the Middle East, may well be a trend that we see increase in the future around the world.

The second excerpt, and one that has generated a number of interesting comments, is from Nick Cohen in the Guardian Unlimited. Nick’s point is simply that dictatorships and repressive government will always have the power to block and limit access to the web. As the Human Rights Watch Global Report 2007 points out:

The “war on terror” did not cause, but did exacerbate, the trend towards restriction of the internet and the proliferation of surveillance through modern technology. Governments that once invoked child pornographers as a good reason to censor internet publications shifted emphasis to terrorism as a rationale. Corporations became willing assistants in the fencing and filtering of access, even while justifying their cooperation with repressive governments in terms of expanding public access to information (and of course, their own access to markets). Surveillance and data collection grew exponentially, not only because developments in modern technology made such practices more economically feasible, but also because security fears made them more politically palatable.

Nick’s point is a shade too simplistic and ignores the point that the world over, bloggers and mainstream media are equal in their condemnation of the Egyptian’s regime action to jail a blogger and act against the freedom of expression. Before the advent of the web and internet, news of such blatant displays of repression would have taken weeks, or even months, to get global attention. And while attention itself may not prevent or in any way convince governments to stop acting against the rights of citizens, the global scrutiny afforded by the web – in the form of text, audio and video – is in itself a powerful case for the power of new media to bear witness to the gross abuses of power and the use of terror tactics the world over, be it by a State, a repressive government, a local law enforcement authority, or by terrorists.

Technology may not be neutral, but its progressive use can help shape democratic dialogue and citizen driven activism for human rights and peace with justice, bridging local initiatives to international rights campaigns. While it may be the case that the same tools we use as rights activists are used by governments for diametrically opposite ends, by exposing the criminality of corruption, nepotism and the seedy underbelly of governments who violently silence their opponents whilst purporting to uphold international human rights norms, those who use technology to secure and strengthen rights & democracy will always hold a slight edge that cannot be erased completely even by the most vicious government.

Somehow, from somewhere, the news will always trickle out. A single photo taken on a mobile phone or an SMS is all it takes.

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