Home Slacktivism From Our Book: Utopia Meets Reality for Digital Activists

The final section addresses both the intended and unintended consequences of digital activism. Simon Columbus’ chapter on the persecution of digital activists explicitly addressed those unintended consequences and presents an exhaustive analysis of how political bloggers are persecuted around the world. In this introduction, Simon contrasts the utopian vision of the Internet in the 1990’s to its fraught present.

Simon blogs at i like patterns, where he’s also set up a dedicated page for our book.

The book is available for free download here and for hard copy sale here.

….When the Iranian authorities arrested Sina Motallebi in 2003 for criticizing the government in his blog and speaking with foreign journalists, the young Iranian blogosphere was alarmed. Repressive regimes have always moved to silence those who express themselves freelyso what made this arrest more shocking than earlier arrests of those critical of the regime? Motallebi’s arrest was one of the first instances of a growing trend in the political persecution of bloggers, and a direct challenge to the cyber-utopianism of the 1990s. Although the Internet allows activists greater access to the tools of mass communication and coordination, it does not protect them from persecution.

The Internet initially carried the promise of a space for free expression and communication, where individuals and groups from all over the globe could voice their opinions and concerns to a worldwide audience. This ideal was exemplified by the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, penned in 1996 by John Perry Barlow, a respected Internet theorist and a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In it, Barlow declared the Internet free from the restriction and repression of offline political spaces:

Governments of the Industrial World . . . I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. . . . Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. . . . We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

This was the promise of a new frontier open to those who crossed into it first. But just as the Wild West has today come under the rule of law, the Internet was soon targeted by law enforcement officials. Now, although we are mostly free to visit sites run by citizens of all nations, governments decide what we are allowed to see and, more important, to create. Motallebi’s arrest signaled the end of an era of political promise for bloggers in Iran and in other countries as well. It was one of the first signs that the Web was not detached from the politics of real life but intimately connected with it….

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