by Mary Joyce
Famed sociologist Jürgen Habermas likes to do civic participation with the lights on. According to his theory of the public sphere, societies benefit from having a space where citizens can “discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment”. The classic analog example of a public sphere is the coffee house. Professor Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law School then applied this idea to the Internet with his theory of the networked public sphere, in which this civic space exists online and is mediated through digital tools. This public ideal of digital participation and activism is born out in fact: most of the digital tools used for activism, like blogs and social networks are extremely public. Recent design changes, like the loosening of privacy by Facebook, have made digital activism on those platforms even more public.
In repressive societies, the public nature of these popular technologies soon brought grief to activists. Once authorities figured about that activists were using these tools they could simply check an activist’s Facebook profile page (as they do in Iran) to see who their likely co-conspirators are or arrest visible online organizers (as happened in Moldova) when seeking the leader of a protest. The Russian government has gained increasing influence over the popular social blogging platform LiveJournal, probably also in an effort to monitor member’s actions. Vietnam and China have gone so far as to hack seemingly private applications, like Gmail.
Not surprisingly, the increasingly danger of using public technologies to mobilize in repressive regimes has drawn responses from activists, such as Sami Ben Gharbia of Global Voices Advocacy, who has cautioned activists in repressive states not to use Facebook. Jillian York of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society has also been analyzing the effect of reduced privacy on digital activists. Critics like Evgeny Morozov see the increasing savvy on the part of repressive governments as further evidence of the danger of digital activism.
Yet this is overstepping. Public digital platforms are becoming ever more dangerous to activists in repressive regimes, yet they are still useful to activists in freer societies. Also, to use the danger of public platforms to condemn all digital activism tools as dangerous is inaccurate. There are many digital tools that actually help digital activists to operate in the dark.
Rather than eschewing digital tools entirely, it may be safer for them to use encrypted digital tools rather than offline alternatives. Pidgin is an encrypted chat client, that allows activists to communicate without the government listening in. Guardian is an encryption client for Android mobile phones that allows for encrypted SMS. Wikileaks passes uploaded documents through several national jurisdictions to protect its right to publish and the leaker’s anonymity. Tor and Ultrasurf route Internet traffic in a similar (though more complex) system, to hide the Internet activities of users and allow they to bypass censorship. Proxy servers, though less secure, perform a similar function. Though its security system requires several steps, Hushmail, allows users a less hackable form of email.
Critics who use the danger of public platforms as an excuse to denounce digital activism are doing activists a disservice. It is better to inform activists of more secure online options than to simply push them back into the offline communication tools that repressive regimes have spent generations learning how to crack.
image: xJasonRogersx / Flickr