Home Slacktivism What Makes a Liberation (or Repression) Technology?

In my last post I presented a new framework (left) that places digital repression and digital activism along a continuum of tactical advantage. Here I’d like to build on that by identifying the characteristics of a liberation technology or a repression technology.

One of the things that the tactical framework makes clear is that many technologies (like Facebook) can benefit activists (by facilitating mobilization and collective action) and repressive governments (by facilitating surveillance and counter-strategy). An application is not fundamentally a liberation technology or repression technology, it depends on how it is used. Blending recent observations with social movement theory, I see four requirements for a technology to be a liberation technology:

1) It must transmit POLITICAL INFORMATION.

Philip N. Howard and I developed this idea while talking about an article he is writing. We were wondering what it is about the internets in China, North Korea, Cuba (and, to a lesser extent, Venzuela) that makes them relatively ineffective as liberation technologies.

The idea that the technology must transmit political information is a clear factoring limiting the liberation capacity of the Chinese internet in particular, which has a sophisticated filtering system that blocks political information generated outside the country and political content generated internally by Chinese citizens.

In order for the Internet to be a liberation technology in China, Chinese activists would need to find a way to access and distribute political information. The access issue is addressed by the many proxy and circumvention technologies used in (and in some cases created for) China, like Freegate, Ultrasurf, and Tor. The distribution challenge is met by the many homonyms and codewords for political speech on the Chinese Internet, like “grass-mud horse” (a profanity) and “river crab” (a cynical take on “harmony”). These words are used to sneak political meaning in through the back door of seemingly apolitical words.

2) It must be ACCESSIBLE to a large segment of the POPULATION.

North Korea and Cuba have a different strategy for limiting the liberation capacity of the internet: don’t let people use it. According to Harvard’s Open Net Initiative:

Government restrictions on online content and connectivity render the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) a virtual “black hole” in cyberspace…. Pyongyang has opted for an isolated, domestic intranet consisting of approximately thirty Web sites approved by the government and available only to a privileged minority.

Cuba has a similar though slightly more permissive strategy. Again from the Open Net Initiative:

Internet use is severely restricted in Cuba. A combination of Cuban government policy, the U.S. trade embargo, and personal economic limitations prevents the vast majority of Cuban citizens from ever accessing the Internet.

This trend is also visible in Venezuela, though for economic reasons rather than conscious political strategy. Says ONI:

Internet use is strongly concentrated among young, educated city residents, with… more than 60 percent of users coming from Caracas. Approximately 26.0 percent of Internet users log on daily. These users tend to be upper-class individuals using home connections for educational or work research and downloading.

Social movement theory tells us that a key requirement for effective collective action is a collective identity based on shared grievances. In order for these grievances to be aired and shared using the internet, a substantial portion of the population must have access to this medium. If internet use is limited to the elite, this group can be effectively be passivized and co-opted by the repressive regime using a “divide and conquer” strategy of patronage and special privileges.

UPDATE: Discussed this with Phil Howard yesterday and we decided on a more precise definition than “a large segment of the population.” Since social movement theory defines elite defection as key in bringing down authoritarian regimes, then it is this elite that would need to be connected via the technology, not

3) It must allow for EFFECTIVE UTILIZATION.

This is a fancy way of saying that it is not enough to be able to access an online (or mobile) application, that application must be functional. One of the most innovative censorship methods, used by Iran among others, is keeping the Internet on but choking off bandwidth so that loading and uploading rich content like images and videos is prohibitively slow.

4) It must allow for protection of PRIVACY.

One of the great benefits of social media to repressive regimes is that the public organizing that occurs on them is an excellent opportunity for surveillance of political opponents. For this reason, a liberation technology must allow for private un-traceable use to maximize activist safety and minimize surveillance capacity. A recent announcement that an https version of Facebook is now available in the Sudan is a step in the right direction.

Conclusion

If these are the requirements of a liberation technology, a repression technology requires the reverse. It is an application that does not permit the transmission of political information, allows access only to a small elite, is not fully functional, and maximizes the government’s capacity for surveillance. It is important to note that most digital technologies (like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the internet itself) started out as liberation technologies in that that are content-agnostic and designed for easy functionality (though with less respect for privacy). It take the explicit action of a repressive government to block (or, in the case of China, replace) these liberation technologies with ones that are apolitical, inaccessible, un-usable, and preventing anonymity.

In pursuing its Internet Freedom strategy, the US government (and other friends of liberation technology) should focus on ensuring that national internets have the four characteristics of transmissability of political information, broad access, usability, and privacy protections, rather than promoting internet access broadly-writ.

11 replies to this post
  1. > It must transmit POLITICAL INFORMATION.
    I disagree on that one: Even if the transmitted information is hardly political, it can have an liberating effect on society. For example, repressive regime throughout history have often baned unwanted cultural goods, such as the ban of jazz and swing music in nazi Germany or the ban of rock ‘n’ roll in eastern Europe in the 1950s. By allowing the propagation of such goods, a technologies could undermine the cultural ban and thereby change the political climate to a more free society.

    • You make a good point, Schlafwander, but I would argue that cultural information that has a political effect is political. Cultural information is indeed the narrow edge of the wedge, but if it has a political effect then it falls within the definition of political (or politically relevant) information.

      • You can define political information in that way, but that would make requirement 1) completely pointless, because all information can have a political effect (which may not be visible by now and can remain hidden for a long time). For example, western TV commercials had a subversive effect on the east block population by demonstrating the different life standard and rendering all propaganda about the efficiency of the ‘socialistic’ planed economies useless. The same can be argued about the effect pornography might have on societies with strict sexual regulations such as Iran. Even online games and other stuff might have a political effect on the long run that we do not know about.
        If you include all this in your political information definition, it effectively means nothing.

        • So perhaps the definition of what information needs to move throughout the network needs to be broader. This is only a draft proposal, to be refined over time.

Leave a Reply