Global Voices Summit Public Day 2: Equality and Dissent Online

Today was the closing day of the Global Voices Summit, and one that continued to bring new challenges, ideas and individuals to our attention. Our first early-morning session including a presentation about what GV is doing to protect endangered languages. A speaker of Aymara from Brazil was there to tell us about the ways that her work with Global Voices Lingua is helping to revive and protect threatened languages of the region including her own. You can check out GV’s Aymara page to get a sense of what they’re doing.

Rebecca MacKinnon

From there I headed to a panel led by Rebecca MacKinnon on Internet governance. She familiarized the crowd with the major organs of Internet governance, including ICANN, and some of the controversies surrounding the organization, including charges that it is dominated by Western (particularly American) interests. A panelist from Kenya spoke about how because ICANN is a volunteer organization that meets three times a year, you have to have loads of money to travel to their meetings, something that again privileges richer, Western actors at the expense of the developing world. MacKinnon reiterated some points she made in Consent of the Networked and argued, “We don’t have a lot of clear solutions, but the current model of governments representing everybody doesn’t work very well unless governance improves.” The word “multi-stakeholder” was used at least 100 times but what was clear was that some stakeholders have bigger stakes by virtue of geopolitical and economic power. The issue of access and equality for all the world’s citizens, when combined with the opacity of many corporate actors and government determination to censor, is likely to be one of the great emerging issues of the Internet in years to come.

In a breakout session led by Matisse Bustos Hawkes of Witness, participants engaged in a fascinating discussion about the ethics of using and posting crowd videos, in light of the many cases of governments using videos and pictures to identify participants. One of the participants argued that people participating in a protest have to assume that their actions are public, and I replied that in fact, many people assume they are anonymous in crowds, particularly in contexts where battles with security services are not routine or expected. The new technologies of facial recognition raise important and very difficult questions of ethics not only for participants but also for the journalists and bloggers who cover them. Several participants also gave the group a demonstration of ObscuraCam, a handy-dandy app that instantly obscures faces and strips data out of photos and videos. Hawkes gave some advice to organizations seeking to use video to document atrocities, arguing that personal stories of victims and their families are ultimately more useful in creating change than videos of the horror itself (which is more useful for evidentiary purposes). “People get exhausted watching graphic imagery,” she stated. Hawkes’ presentation reinforced a message I’ve heard from our own Mary Joyce, who emphasizes the need for organizations to highlight people and their stories, with imagery, on their web sites.

From there I headed to a session led by Danny O’Brien and Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists. O’Brien was quite honest about the difficulties of sorting out who is a journalist and who is arrested for something else but just happens to have a blog. Tom Rhodes of CPJ remarked, “I stretch the definition of journalist to its very limits so that we can help as many people as possible get out of dangerous situations. I’ve had many occasions where I’ve had to say I can’t really help you because this is not journalistic work.” The panelists also relayed the dispiriting news about Ethiopian blogger Eskinder Nega, who has been given a long prison sentence for his activities. Rhodes remarked, “It breaks my heart because I’ve known this guy for years and I’ve known his family for years and they moved him to another detention center and we don’t even know where he is.” CPJ does vital but rather depressing work, and highlights the ongoing reality that bloggers in authoritarian regimes, while they remain crucial conduits for information and dissent, very often pay an extraordinarily high price for their courage.

One particularly interesting exchange took place between the Consul General of Estonia and the panelists. She argued that sometimes the “name-and-shame” campaigns to release imprisoned journalists are not helpful because they interfere with back diplomatic channels and face-to-face negotiations. She said she just got someone out of an 8-year prison sentence in 3 months in Kenya. The problem was that it was not entirely clear that she was speaking about a journalist or perhaps just an ordinary citizen who had run afould of Kenyan law. Finally, panelists and participants talked about the importance of protecting your data. For bloggers, as O’Brien argued, this might mean having a “buddy system” for electronic data – a friend who knows the password to your site or Facebook page in case you are arrested and security officials try to extract that information from you. It also means avoiding “stupid tools,” as O’Brien called them, like Skype or Yahoo! Messenger which are not encrypted. Failing to protect your own data, they emphasized, can put others at risk.

Bob Boorstin

With that the summit came to a close. As Google’s Bob Boorstin noted yesterday, there are enormous problems of scale in governing and using the Internet. With 2 billion people online, 196 sovereign countries and tens of thousands of organizations and individuals using the Internet for reporting, information, advocacy and entertainment, all of these issues have become even more complex than they were just a few years ago. It is extremely difficult for any individual to have their voice heard at the level of state or corporation in this environment in order for the Internet to remain a relatively open platform for all participants.

This is complicated by the fact that, as one participant noted yesterday, governments do have some legitimate reasons to engage in surveillance, such as combating attempts to hack into banking systems, and companies have an interest in monitoring at least the volume and types of data that are being transmitted. The ideal of an authority-free Internet as declared long ago by John Perry Barlow in “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” is something of a dream, and all of these stakeholders must work together to make sure that it is not the interests of authoritarian regimes or regressive corporations that carry the day, but rather that the online world is managed in a way that forges compromises between these actors and does not compromise core interests. In order for digital activists to continue doing the work that we study here at MAP, NGOs, governments and companies will have to forge new bonds and networks designed to protect the ideals of freedom, openness and transparency that remain under constant threat.

GV Citizen Media Summit: Public Day 1: Let Me Google That For You

For the second straight day, my GV day started out a bit inauspiciously. I came to the main gate to get my bag of goodies, which included the GV t-shirt (which I would pay for but miraculously was free for us) and asked for a large. The woman handing out shirts looked at me and said, “You need an extra-large. They run small.” I was like, “small” or “European H&M malnourished model” small? Crestfallen, I considered my gym regimen, my diet, and finally, accepted the bag. The shirt fits just fine, and I don’t know quite what that means. I slammed double-instant-nescafes all day, replete with sugar and cream, so that probably didn’t help. I’ve noted this elsewhere, but the fact that we aresucking down instant coffee in Kenya of all places is a bit bizarre.

blogger-cum-parliamentarian Mong Palatino

The coffee seemed a bit irrelevant after the quality of the first panel, which featured Philippines blogger-cum-parliamentarian Mong Palatino, Matisse Bustos Hawkes of Witness, Bahraini blogger Amira Al-Hussaini, and Pakistani digital activist Faisal Kapadia. Matisse walked us through some fascinating new initiatives to protect the identities of video bloggers fighting for change in authoritarian societies. Noting the Iranian government’s successful efforts to use activist videos to identify individual dissidents and arrest them, Hawkes unveiled initiatives like ObscuraCam, which as she says, “identifies faces in photo and video and strips out the meta-data” and thus protects activists from authoritarian surveillance. Her presentation seemed particularly relevant in light of the many cases of authoritarian regimes using activist videos against their authors. Palatino detailed some of the newest activist stories from Southeast Asia, including a mass planking protest. The Pakistani activist Faisal Kapadia told us that “I’m mostly known in Pakistan as FK which is a synonym for what I want to say to our politicians.”

Fred Petrossian speaking with Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman

One can only be in so many places at once, and there were multiple simultaneous panels today, so I can only relay notes on what I saw. GV has its own recaps of each session on the site, so check them out if you’re interested. After the opening session, I attended a fascinating discussion about digital diaspora communities, featuring bloggers from Zambia, Kenya, Iran and Cuba. One of the persistent themes of this panel was the idea of representation: who has the right to speak on behalf of a community? A Kenyan or Zambian or Cuban abroad, or those living, struggling and fighting within the home community? The panel featured a contentious exchange between a Kenyan blogger living in Kenya who argued that Kenyans abroad are not accepted as representative voices and a diaspora writer who asked the panelist “not to use generalizations like this.” Other panelists, including the Cuban academic and blogger Elaine Diaz, who argued “it would be extremely difficult for Cubans living on the island to accept as a representative voice someone living in the diaspora.” Interestingly the panel was balanced with two diaspora bloggers including Iran’s Fred Petrossian. Petrossian argues that diaspora digital activists can serve an important role but not always. “The virtual world is the extension of real life,” he said, “and the diaspora outside country cannot really create a movement in country when there is no motivation, when people don’t have the will to go to demonstrate. You can fill the whole Internet with messages, but when the heart and soul isn’t in the country it doesn’t move.” The panel highlighted the tension between diaspora and local communities, and there were, frankly, no easy answers.

A panel on the Arab uprisings featured Amira Al Hussaini, as well as Tarek Amr, Hisham and Sami Ben Gharbia. Ben Gharbia laid out a conceptual map of four different kind of digital networks – what he called “hyperlocal” networks, national, regional and international. He argued that both offline networks (of student activists and labor organizations) and online networks were important but that “without the online networks that were built during the last decade, we couldn’t imagine a successful revolution in Tunisia.” Amira Al Hussaini gave a rather dispiriting rundown of what happened in Bahrain, where she told the audience, “When the people went out and started chanting ‘the people want to overthrow the regime,’ the regime did not chant that but it made sure it overthrew the people.” Leila Nachawati gave a fascinating rundown of what is transpiring in Syria. She emphasized the importance of revolutionary art, and then laid out how activists are sharing video in the face of censorship: “We are seeing a lot of contact between old school activists from the 80s leftist mainly, contacting young people about how to face violence, nonviolent resistance, what they call flash demonstrations, one minute, two minute demonstrations in very central parts of the city. Enough to make lots of videos photos – someone makes it viral without getting killed.” In perhaps the funniest moment (although tragic), Tarek Amr likened the Egyptian uprising to an Egyptian movie. “It was this bad guy, he killed the family of the Egyptians, so they took revenge. When SCAF took power it was an Indian movie. SCAF and Mubarak are two twin brothers from different mothers. Now it is like Inception, in our case it is a nightmare inside a nightmare.” The takeaway: there is a lot of work still to be done in all of these places.

Max Shrems goes after Google

I doubt that the organizers planned it this way, but themost contentious panel of the day featured Bob Boorstin of Google (a major GV summit funder) and several activists and academics including Ramzi Jaber and Max Schrems. Internet privacy and corporate responsibility has been a major theme of this conference, I’m sure in no small part because of Rebecca MacKinnon’s important Consent of the Networked, but also due to the many emerging issues involving corporate and state policies that seem always to privilege certain communities at the expense of others. Schrems went hard after the “Internet giants” and their behavior even in the democratic world. As he argued, “Even in well-developed democratic situation like the European Union, the rights we have are not enforced.” Boorstin then made the interesting move of blaming these troubles on governments. “If governments all over the world, weren’t putting us in the position of forced compliance we might not be sitting here talking about these issues.” He told us about Google’s “data liberation” unit, which makes it possible for users to pack up all their data and move it somewhere else. Boorstin really hammered this theme that users are free to move to other platforms (actually he used the term ‘consumers,’ which drives me crazy but that’s a personal thing) and that therefore these continuous attacks on Google are misguided.

When Jaber and Schrems kept pursuing Google on the point of having a process whereby people whose pages or videos are taken down, Boorstin admitted that it’s simply not possible to do this “because of the scale of the Internet.” He said that citizens are free to challenge Google through legal channels. Of course, this left the question of what people in non-democratic countries are to do unexamined, or even in democratic countries where you cannot exactly take Google to court. He concluded that it is up to us to hold Google accountable. “The most important thing you can do is to work with us when we do and to make suggestions about how we can fix them.” This led to the evening’s testiest exchange, when Schrems threw up his hands and said that “I am sick of this” idea that it is citizens who have the responsibility of holding huge companies accountable.” Boorstin remained calm and collected, and it was good of Google to face this audience, which was not entirely friendly, even though they are a major GV funder. At the same time, some of the answers left the audience puzzled or unsatisfied, particularly this idea that companies will continuously run afoul of the law and that rather than regulators or the state enforcing it, citizens must remain constantly vigilant.

One takeaway from this conference is that Global Voices is so much deeper and more complex than I ever imagined. As someone who has been focusing on Egypt and the Middle East for years, I’m sorry to say that I did not appreciate GV’s comprehensive coverage of the rest of the world, and their initiatives like Lingua, which seek to bring foreign-language content to the global community, from Malaysia to Germany to Portugal. At the same time the organization is clearly struggling with a problem of scale – how to maintain early deliberative and inclusive practices when the group has grown so large that even three large Kenyan hotels cannot hold everyone. At the same time, this is clearly an important way for the writers and activists to get together and share stories, ideas and best practices. Leila Nachawati told me at a break that GV is “like therapy for me.” This is something I heard repeatedly from the writers and translators, that this opportunity to take a break from what is sometimes depressing work is critical. The Internet remains the default mode of resistance to all kinds of repression and injustice, and the GV community is a critical network hub in this broader effort. At the same time, many of these panels have really highlighted the increasing challenge of surveillance and the corporate-state nexus that threatens all of this work.


GV Disruptive Publics/Summit Day 2: Questions and Answers

Day two of the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit (together with the “Disruptive Publics” academic summit”) got off to a bit of slow start, as some of us waited at a hotel for a late shuttle. We finally decided simply to hike over ourselves (probably only 4 km or so but over rough road terrain that makes Cairo look like a pedestrian paradise). On the way we passed the road to the Ministry of Roads; the road was closed. It was not, however, a harbinger of the day to come, as the academics spoke productively and had a number of meaningful interactions with the Global Voices community, most poignantly at the end – more on that later.

I’m not sure the academics have quite as diverse a group as the larger GV community, but we still have a geographic and field mix that is much more diverse than most such gatherings. The 30-person “disruptive publics” group includes scholars from Ethiopia, Kenya, New Zealand, Australia, the U.K., Germany, Slovenia, Turkey, Morocco, the Netherlands, Denmark. In the morning we went around the room to say one thing we think we know about digital media, which was a question that was interpreted somewhat differently depending on where you sat. I can’t recap them all but wanted to offer a smattering of ideas — Rob Faris of the Berkman Center (no relation, as we discussed in the hotel lobby on the first night) said that we should be focusing more on incremental changes rather than the big events that seem to constantly draw media attention. Tessa Houghtondrew our attention to the possibility that “chains of publics” may be created a “network of publics.” Nina Grønlykke Mollerup argued that “mediated & face to face communication are part of the same complex media sphere.” Marcus Michaelson argues that the Internet has allowed “new layers” of activists to get involved in politics. Tanya Notley pointed us to the increasing opacity of devices and platforms, and of the ways in which our data is being used. Melissa Tully argues that there is no such thing as a direct network effect, but we keep acting as if there are.

The academic round-table continued with some brief research presentations, of which I’d like to highlight a few (and let me say that I’ve got hours and hours of work to do updating our resources page after this conference). Enrique Armijo presented a disturbing picture of recent digital/mobile free speech issues in the United States, including the shutdown of the BART subway mobile network in advance of a planned protest (sound familiar, Egyptians?). Rob Faris detailed a number of Berkman projects, including one that uses word similarity analysis to map framing in the American and Russian blogospheres and traditional media. Interestingly, he concludes that in the U.S., broadcast media and the digital public sphere are largely talking about the same issues (if not always using precisely the same terminology) while in Russia the two spheres are engaged in entirely different issues and agendas. Christopher Wilson of the Engine Room laid out his organization’s plan to study how civil society organizations in 7 countries “relate to and use technology.” Again, I wish I could do this for everyone.

We also held a number of “breakout” sessions, including ones on censorship, online-offline interaction, generalizing from case studies and more. The notes on those are a bit spottier but I can get them to you if you’re interested. At the end of the day, the GV folks were kind enough to bring us together with the community and to allow us to introduce ourselves and our work. We then asked members of the Global Voices community to tell us the kinds of research questions they’d like to see taken up by academics. Nathan Mathias of the MIT Citizen Media Lab has actually put together a comprehensive list of those questions, and we’re working on crowdsourcing answers in the form of some of the research that does exist. A reporter for Central America pleaded with the crowd for more research on the region and decried the kind of work that goes on there. “People go and don’t speak the language and just read the other gringos in the country.” Another asked for an academic database that analyzes Global Voices content. There was a invitation for research about how authoritarian countries learn from one another about best censorship and filtering practices. Rebecca MacKinnon asked for comparative research about how states deal with hate speech – what works and what doesn’t. One participant wanted to know if there is research about how violent videos affect us. We were asked for information about how companies violate privacy and about particular data mining practices and their consequences. Jillian York asked if there is empirical research to support the common contention that bloggers are safer if they write in English rather than local languages. And one participant wondered if there is comparative research about the impact of digital diaspora communities. We were really overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the sheer volume, thoughtfulness and importance of these questions, again not all of which I can reproduce in this short post. Nathan Mathias (who has done amazing work taking notes on our sessions and who is also doing fascinating work as a grad student at MIT with Ethan Zuckerman) has taken the liberty of setting up an Etherpad page where we have all committed to linking to relevant research which answers some of these questions.

The Global Voices folks also let us sit in on some of their internal meetings, and since I only was able to get to one of them, I’m hoping some other academics might add comments about what went on in the comments here. One pertinent question pertained to transparency within the organization, with participants in one session pushing for GV to release an annual report. Other participants discussed issues of language, which have seemed to come up a lot – should authors write in local languages, and if so what should be the status of those posts, and how should they be handled in Lingua? The sense I get from these internal meetings is that GV has grown so fast and become so vital to so many people that folks are struggling with how to make sure that the organization remains as participatory, transparent and open as is possible given the magnitude and difficulty of the work they are doing. Also: they need more authors.

That’s all for today – Day 3 was kind of an off-day before the public summit, so I’ll try to update after the first day of that tomorrow.

GV Summit Day 1: War of Positions

So I’m here in Nairobi, Kenya for the 2012 Global Voices Citizen Media Summit. The wrinkle this year is that a group of about 30 academics has been invited to hold a partially parallel conference and to talk about things — ontologies, assemblages, performativity — that will either make you want to impale yourself on an elephant tusk or get you running to the computer to download the latest issue of Journal of Theoretical Politics. But it’s actually a big, gift-wrapped piece of dream candy for MAP – the opportunity for activists and reporters to share information, perspectives and ideas with the academics who study them, and vise versa. Continue reading

Tom Friedman and the Revolution

Tom Friedman, delivering more insights from taxi drivers and luxury hotel staff

The chorus of pundits gleefully declaring the end of the “Facebook Revolution” continues today, when none other than Thomas Friedman gets in on the action. Friedman does little other than recapitulate Francis Fukuyama’s piece from last week (and at least admits that this is what he is doing). But that doesn’t mean the argument is any more coherent.

Three points are important to consider: Continue reading

Blaming Facebook For Egypt’s Elections

This repugnant Mark Steyn op-ed is merely the most open elaboration of a new meme travelling through the American punditocracy, namely that because an Islamist and a remnant of the Mubarak regime finished 1-2 in the Egyptian presidential election, Facebook has been proved useless (and of course, Egypt is lost to the “Shariah-enforcing, Jew-hating, genital-mutilating enthusiasts of the Muslim Brotherhood”). While the matchup of Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi and former Muberak PM Ahmed Shafiq is hardly ideal, it also not yet a foregone conclusion, as there is a pending court case against Shafiq’s candidacy that may yet disqualify him. There are also credible rumors that Shafiq was illegally assigned 900,000 votes, vaulting him ahead of the third-place candidate, Hamdeen Sabahy (Abel Moneim Aboul Fotouh did not finish third as Steyn mistakenly asserts in his article). Continue reading

Converting Online Commitment to Offline Action in Cairo

If You Flash It, They Will Mob

A Thursday flash mob in Cairo’s Ramsis Station has been drawing some press attention, as reporters seem determined to figure out what the purpose of the event was. As usual, reporters try their hardest to emphasize the pointlessness and essential frivolity of any kind of digitally-organized gathering.

The point of this post is not to decide whether or not the flash mob constituted street art or some other political protest. It is to try, once again, to complicate our understanding of what constitutes success and failure in digital organizing. Continue reading

Is Facebook Forcing Our Journalists to Make Lazy Generalizations?

This month’s Atlantic cover story is called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonelier?” and features an arresting image of a couple embracing in an electronic glow, while the man looks at his smartphone. It’s unquestionably a great cover, but it’s also a profoundly bad article. In it, Stephen Marche argues that “we have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier.” He lays the blame, unsurprisingly, on Facebook. The only problem withwith Marche’s thesis is that it is wholly unsupported even by the studies he cherry-picks for his article. Continue reading

Egypt and the Arab Spring +1 Year

Tahrir Square, January 25th, 2012

As hundreds of thousands throng Cairo’s Tahrir Square today in celebration, remembrance and continued vigilance, it is worth thinking through the implications of these remarkable events for our understanding of digital activism. My book on the Egyptian revolution is forthcoming, but if I could distill 5 important takeaways, they would be this:




1. If this wasn’t a social media revolution, then there is no such thing.

The role of online organizations (or organizations that began online) such as We Are All Khaled Said and the April 6th Youth Movement is well-documented. In discussions with activists in Cairo this past summer, individuals were quick to point out that “this wasn’t a social media revolution.” This line was so default that it was almost like activists had gotten together and agreed on the spin. It is certainly true that most Egyptians took to the streets because their friends and neighbors had done so, and probably never saw the clarion calls on WAKS. But all agreed that it was social media that issued the call, and in the words of the activist Amr Gharbeia, “We created the crisis.” The idea for January 25th originated with organizers who met and did much of their important work online. Of course that work had to be paired with street organizing and innovating tactics, but the reality remains: there would have been no revolution on January 25th without Khaled Said and April 6th and the dedicated efforts of their members. It might be better to call this, as I do in a forthcomingPolitique étrangère article, a “networked revolt” than a social media revolution, since it avoids loading all causal responsibility on the technologies and allows us instead to take true stock of how those technologies contributed to the mobilization.

2. Social media activists have not inherited the political empowerment of the revolutions.

In both Egypt and Tunisia, the immediate political beneficiaries of the revolutions have been political Islamists, the long-banned Nahda in Tunisia, and the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Pessimists have been taking to the media and declaring the revolution a failure, or more pointedly, “doomed.” This is as predictable a narrative as one can imagine in the modern world, since observers on the global right have been suspicious of the revolutions from the very beginning as detrimental to U.S. security interests. This discourse overwrites the broad consensus in places like Egypt – from liberals to reactionaries like the Salafist Nour Party – against actually existing U.S. foreign policy and the complicity of local governments in the repression and dispossession of the Palestinians. In fact, anger about local and American foreign policies was one among many long-held grievances in these body politics, and the digital activists who failed to see their achievements embodied in parliamentary seats in fact share the broad antipathy toward American policy that is expressed by Islamist groups. Many of these activists are quite young, and WAKS and the April 6th activists are in fact more emboldened than ever, and are embarking on a political transformation they themselves know to be futile in the short run but critical in the long-term.

3. Digital activism remains a critical tool for those seeking to push long-term change.

In spite of having been written off by observers and lambasted for their year-long presence in Tahrir Square, digital activists have been at the forefront of all the major challenges to Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as the activists seek to build a broad-based movement meant to challenge remaining elements of authoritarianism. Thus it was activists, still putting out their calls to demonstrate on Twitter and Facebook, who succeeded in pushing presidential elections forward to June, altering the electoral system, and instigating the first, albeit tiny, steps toward reforming recalcitrant security behemoths. Many of these activists are quite young, just out of college or in their mid-to-late 20s. It was simply unrealistic to expect these groups to suddenly descend like some deus ex-machina and snatch power away from groups like the Brotherhood, who have been organizing in Egypt for over 80 years and maintain strong public support through their social service networks. “We Know the Way to Tahrir” is still the rallying cry of activists who, while dispirited about the Islamist wave and angry at the obstructionism of the SCAF, still believe in the spirit of the revolution, and plan to use their whole toolkit – from digital organizing to street politics – to press whatever authority replaces the SCAF on issues ranging from military trials to the state of emergency.

4. An open Internet remains the world’s most potent macro-tool to challenge authoritarian regimes.

We all know the many ways that authoritarian regimes have adapted to, co-opted and rolled up digital dissent from Russia to China and Iran. But we should not confuse these short-term set-backs and authoritarian victories with the bigger picture – with an open Internet and an evolving toolkit of circumvention devices, digital activism remains the only real choice for many activists toiling under tyranny and hoping to build long-term movements to challenge authoritarianism. From Russia to Tunisia, the networked revolt has become the de facto choice of publics fed up with authoritarian excess and seeking to capture the spirit of Tahrir at home and internationally. Companies that supply authoritarian regimes with surveillance and blocking software should be called to the carpet in the global public sphere, as campaigns like Access Now add to the pressure on Internet-filterers and their apologists. No one can say that these campaigns will be successful in places like Syria, where authoritarian rulers maintain an edge in arms and resources, but digital tools are still one of the primary weapons of the weak even where service is cut off and disrupted, web sites filtered and attacked and activists are murdered in the streets. Without the open Internet, we would not know what was happening in the streets of Homs like we do, and the documentation of these brave activists will continue to provide an unfolding record of the cruelty and savagery of their tormentors.

5. Arab digital activists have increased the sum total of freedom in the world.

Again reactionaries lament the results of free elections, as do some activists, but the truth is that we now have real politics in parts of the Arab world, with more on the way, and those victories can be traced to the efforts of the digital activists. There will be temptations in policy circles to tamp down on our efforts to promote digital freedom and activism, simply because these revolutions brought to power groups whose interests clash with Washington. In the long run, however, the activists took a crowbar and wrenched open the door to democracy in this region, and their efforts should be applauded and appreciated. Policymakers, academics and international organizations should always side with freedom against tyranny, and furthermore, understand that digital tools will be one of the primary paths of resistance to any renewed authoritarian politics in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. The tsunami of dignity and courage unleashed by April 6th, We Are All Khaled Said, and Tunisia bloggers like the administrators of Nawaat cannot be reversed permanently, and in fact, activists all over the region now know that the formula for success includes a role for digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter. We must not confuse short-term policy disagreements with the long-term benefits of global democratic politics. Digital activism is the only way forward.

A year ago today Egyptians inspired the whole world, from the Occupy Wall Street protests to the Wisconsin occupations, and reminded us of the power that ordinary individuals can harness through the ordinary digital tools they carry around in their pockets. Yes there will always be corporate and authoritarian threats to those tools, and no they will not always or even usually succeed. But the networked revolt is here to stay, as are the activists of the digital world. And don’t be surprised if in a decade or two, they do indeed belatedly inherit the beautiful revolution they authored.

Rosenberg Misunderstands the Egyptian Revolution

If there is one piece of discourse I would love to retire from the public sphere, it is the “There is no such thing as a Facebook revolution” column. Internet skeptics get more mileage out of this straw man argument than Honda Civic owners get out of their cars. The latest entry is the New York Times‘ Tina Rosenberg, who argues against no one in particular that Egypt’s revolution depended not on Facebook but on careful organizing of the on-the-ground protests themselves. She even closes by basically borrowing Malcolm Gladwell’s analogy to the civil rights movement:

“What made Tahrir Square successful, in other words, were the same factors that made the Montgomery bus boycott successful 55 years ago: careful strategy, meticulous planning, strict nonviolence, unity.”

What I would love is for Tina Rosenberg to find someone who studies digital media and thinks that street tactics were unimportant in the Egyptian revolution. Continue reading

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