by Mary Joyce
In many universities, technology conferences, and blogs there is now an active debate about the role of digital technologies in the global fight for human rights, democracy, and social justice. A few people are strongly positive, a few are unflinchingly negative, but most are cautiously optimistic. Still, the question is debated: Can the Internet fix politics? How does the Internet influences democratic norms and modes?
But what questions are they asking? What questions are being asked in the corporate PR firms? In the Interior Ministries of a dozen repressive nations? They are not calmly debating the case studies. They are not listening to a range of opinions. They are figuring out how to use these new technologies to their own advantage.
It is through this spur to action that the Russians are co-opting tech entrepreneurs to help them censor the net, that the Vietnamese are deploying malware to take down anti-government sites, that a certain unnamed corporation enlisted mommy bloggers against an environmental campaign in California to ban single-use plastic bags in supermarkets.
I thoroughly believe that greater study of digital activism is necessary so that we may understand its true mechanisms. But the purpose of this research and analysis is not academic; it is not to settle the current debate. The goal is to give the proponents of social justice and human rights a better understanding of the digital arsenal in order to further these ideals.
Activists around the world are experimenting with these new technologies; intellectuals in the field must commit their thoughts to action as well. The Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford is already doing this. Others should follow.
We should not limit ourselves to unwinnable debates of how digital technology is currently expanding or restricting human rights or democracy. We must ask – with great rigor and seriousness – how can we better use these tools to our advantage in pursuing our goals? These are the questions that our opponents are already asking.