A world wide web of change

First published in Issue 435 of New Internationalist Magazine.

The fundamentals of digital activism are little different from its analogue ancestry, argues Adam Ma’anit.

I can remember clearly the first time I ever used the internet. It was on my Commodore 64 – one of the earliest mass-market consumer PCs – and I had just received my shiny new whizz-bang modem. It was a beastly thing – one of those old-fashioned devices that you had to physically put the telephone receiver into like in the 1983 Hollywood film WarGames. After what took an age of bee-ooh-wee ssshrzzkkk dialling noises, I would finally be connected to what we might now think of as more like the British television-based Teletext information system than the modern Web. In fact, back then there was no such thing as the Web and in order to move between ‘sites’ in a world without internet routers you had to redial a new computer. Pages filled with monochromatic text and graphics made using carefully positioned letters were the order of the day. Download speeds were glacial, and often times you would be paying for long-distance calls if you wanted to connect to anything of interest. But it was from these humble roots that the Web began to take shape.

I was too young to really understand the significance of what I was participating in. Like the lead character in WarGames (played by a young Matthew Broderick), all I was really interested in at the time was to find cool games to play – though, perhaps fortunately, I didn’t have the skills to hack in to the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s mainframe and virtually nuke my hometown of Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. No doubt some budding hackers there are still trying…

By that point, the protozoan Web was already some way along its evolutionary path, with several commercial ‘portals’ and services offering news and chat forums competing for market share of the burgeoning online e-conomy. These were largely ‘walled gardens’ with very little possibility to peer into the neighbouring portal’s virtual backyard.

There were, however, alternative and free services such as the famous Bulletin Board Services run by enthusiasts from machines in their own homes. Connections weren’t always reliable but the sense of community was strong, with various individuals pitching in to expand the service offerings, run particular enthusiast forums and discussion boards and manage community news information. You had the feeling that you were part of an élite club of people using the latest cutting-edge technology. Floppy disks were actually floppy, ‘hard’ drives were on flimsy cassette tape, and tapping out commands on the clickety-clackety keyboards provided an audible reassurance in common with the typewriters of yesteryear. But it was thanks to the modem that you could reach out across decades-old telephone wires to others who shared your passions – be they for simulated war games or otherwise.

It is this very real sense of community that is perhaps one of the most enduring emotive drivers behind the growth and evolution of online technologies. You only have to look at the dizzying success of ‘social-networking’ sites like Facebook and Twitter to see how powerful the desire to come together remains – even if it does sometimes seem to be more motivated by self-aggrandizement than egalitarianism. It is through these very forms of digital community that so-called ‘online activism’ is also at its most effective. And therein lies an important consideration when thinking about digital advocacy – there is not much that is particularly unique to the medium that isn’t part and parcel of any genuine movements for change. The fundamental need for human agency and transformational imperatives endure. The means, speed and expediency of communication and the tools may be different; perhaps, too, the cultural norms and practices of the medium itself. But these differences are not as chasmic as they might, at first glance, seem.

Thanks to the Web, it is now easier to build diverse communities; easier to communicate with potentially massive audiences; and easier to subvert the traditional control structures that imposed – at times arbitrary, at times ruthless – limits on human expression.

I say this not to belittle the truly exciting possibilities that the digital revolution offers, but because at times there seems to be an almost reverential mystique surrounding online trends and technologies that exercises some journalists’ penchant for hyperbole. Those of us not hip to the latest developments may feel equal parts bafflement and awe, perhaps garnished subtly with a fresh-plucked sprig of e-fear. After all, the technology changes so rapidly that it is hard for many of us to keep up, and yet those changes can have enormous impacts on our lives. And because of the pace of change – and crucially, the culture – of the technologies in question, there will always be something new coming down the pipes that could force the next sea change in how we interact, communicate and advocate online. These changes can have dramatic impacts offline as well.

A few years ago we heard that SMS text messaging brought about the Orange Revolution in Ukraine; in 2009 Twitter apparently fuelled the youth-led ‘Revolution 2.0’ in Moldova; and Barack Obama was propelled to victory by the digital tide of his groundbreaking and deftly managed e-campaign machinery. You’d be hard-pressed to come across a story on last year’s protests in Iran without the obligatory mention of Facebook and YouTube.

Ghost in the machine
The implication of course is that somehow something special about the technology, the software, or that nebulous entity we call ‘The Web’ itself is behind it all… that some sort of online insurrection is usurping the waning power of the offline élite and that its agency is not people, but programs. Because the reporting of these sorts of phenomena tend to focus on the technology and less on the people behind it, we are left with the impression that some cold calculating machinery is driving the process – like the artificial intelligence machine HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 placidly asking us how we are feeling as it shuts off our ship’s life support systems. If you believe in the possibility of such a capricious ‘code d’état’ of sorts, then you could see why some journalists and pundits have a slight quiver in their voice when reporting on the latest anecdote of digital dethronement. Not only are there forces hurtling through cyberspace with such disruptive power and speed, there doesn’t appear to be anyone at the helm – at least no-one recognizably human. How are you feeling, Dave?

But to ascribe so much power to the technology in and of itself is not only to misunderstand its nature, it is also to undermine the hard work of the millions of committed activists around the world struggling for social change and taking advantage of the best features of the online spaces they in part help to create and develop daily. At worst this shallow technofetish may in fact engender a wave of reactionary technopanic in response – and with it, greater government and corporate control of the web and the resultant erosion of digital freedoms upon which activists, and society as a whole, increasingly depend.

A blog is just a blog. There’s nothing inherently disruptive or revolutionary about it until someone like Egyptian journalist Wael Abbas decides to use it to highlight sexual harassment of women, workers’ strikes or police brutality – issues that were not being covered by the mainstream media. Through his blog, Abbas recorded these stories, backed up by documentation from fellow activists on the ground who would send him their photographic and video evidence of horrendous torture and other human rights abuses often committed by the police. According to Abbas, Egyptian activist bloggers provide, ‘a small spark to start the oven’. Often openly critical of some human rights NGOs and civil society groups for their lack of diligence, he and fellow activists help keep up the pressure for change, often at great personal risk.

‘The good thing about the spark,’ says Abbas, ‘is that it has high voltage.’ But he stresses that it doesn’t obviate the need for the less glamorous work on the ground. ‘We [bloggers] cannot do the whole thing. Civil society has to wake up and do their job. What we do is make it easier for them, by exposing something and making the whole society react to it and then as a result force the government and civil society to interact, to do their job, to solve the issue. Because now people know and they have to do something about it.’1

The Web isn’t powered by fairy dust and wishes. It’s powered by people – people who write code, create art and design, make videos and music, share stories, knowledge and information. What’s changed is that thanks to the Web it is now much easier to disseminate that information than it used to be. Cue technology writer Clay Shirky: ‘The new communications infrastructure did not cause the uprising [in Iran]. What caused the uprising was political discontent. It’s just that when people in their moment of need wanted to do something co-ordinated, they could suddenly lay their hands on these tools, in a way they hadn’t been able to before.’2

Thanks to the Web, it is now easier to build diverse communities; easier to communicate with potentially massive audiences; and easier to subvert the traditional control structures that imposed – at times arbitrary, at times ruthless – limits on human expression. In geek parlance, the Web ‘scales’.

Threats to digital freedom
This ability to scale-up human expression means the potential to scale-up dissent, democracy and digital rights as well. But repression can scale up too. Many governments and corporations would like to have more control over the internet itself, in part because of fears – both misplaced and real – of the Web’s unrestrained anarchic and emancipatory potential. The corporate titans of the Net, such as Google, Facebook, Ebay, Amazon, Paypal and Microsoft, are already being described in terms of the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the past with their comparative dominance over vital parts of the infrastructure of the digital economy, just as the robber barons of old controlled critical rail and steel industries. Andrew Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy, agrees that we are already in an age dominated by these virtual robber barons. ‘You see with the internet, a very pure manifestation of the way in which power works. It lends itself to oligarchy, it lends itself to very narrow élites, and the internet is a perfect reflection of that.’

As globalization morphs rather seamlessly into google-ization, the corporate behemoths must still rely on the apparatus of state to help design the global architecture and rules that permit such huge accumulation of wealth and power. The major film and music industries are pushing hard for an Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) that, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ‘would require surveillance and censorship of the internet’. ACTA is being negotiated in secret between supposedly democratic entities like the US, Canada, Japan, the EU, Korea, Australia, New Zealand/Aotearoa and Switzerland; and while some cursory information has been released, there is still concern over the substance of the negotiations and the lack of public debate and scrutiny over some of its more odious details.3 These include granting copyright holders swingeing powers to pursue alleged violations, restrictions on technology that in some way enable copyright violations to take place whether by design or accident, and curbs on freedom of expression through so-called ‘fair use’ provisions whereby people may use copyrighted works for certain non-commercial purposes in the public interest. The irony, of course, is that those same governments negotiating ACTA routinely criticize countries like China for imposing restrictions on digital freedoms. By their actions it would seem that they are really just rather envious of the so-called ‘great firewall of China’.

The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 being debated in the US Congress proposes to give the President the ability to ‘declare a cybersecurity emergency’ and shut down or limit internet traffic ‘in the interest of national security’. Of course the exact conditions for what would constitute such an emergency and how the ‘interests of national security’ are determined are left hopelessly vague. In Britain, the rather creepily entitled Intercept Modernization Programme proposes to expand the government’s ability to snoop on web users at will and to store all individual users’ web-surfing habits in a centralized database – to help combat ‘crime and terrorism’, of course.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority is proposing a mandatory internet censorship filtering scheme and also threatening website owners with exorbitant fines merely for linking to ‘banned’ websites, including important online resources such as the transparency initiative Wikileaks. Ironically, Wikileaks – founded in-part by Chinese dissidents seeking to circumvent restrictions on free access to information in China – is on the blacklist in Australia for publishing the Danish government’s list of banned websites. ‘The first rule of censorship is that you cannot talk about censorship,’ observed Wikileaks in response.4

Thanks to Wikileaks, and its facility to enable anonymous and secure uploading of sensitive documents from anywhere, we have documented evidence of: friendly fire and civilian casualties in Afghanistan; political assassinations carried out by members of the Kenyan police; insider trading from a major Icelandic bank just before its collapse; details of toxic dumping by Trafigura in the Ivory Coast; telephone intercept recordings of Peruvian politicians and lobbyists colluding to win contracts for a Norwegian oil company, which ultimately brought down the government; and the membership list of the Far Right British National Party.

For many activists dependent on the free and unrestrained internet, the fight to defend digital freedoms is therefore critical. Movements such as the Creative Commons are working to provide a legal basis for open exchange and sharing of information through the use of licensing models that fit the reuse and remix culture of the web. Civil liberty groups such as the previously mentioned Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Britain’s Open Rights Group actively campaign against attempts by governments and corporations to enclose the digital commons, increase Big Brother surveillance of ordinary people, and privilege corporate interests over those of citizens. EFF founder John Perry Barlow – in an effort to articulate a vision of a new social contract for the internet – once wrote A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in response to concerns about government and corporate enclosure of the digital commons, in particular the controversial US Telecom Reform Act of 1996:

‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather… Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here.’5

The struggle between the quintessentially horizontal and libertarian spirit of the web against the more commercial and nationalist moves towards greater centralization and control is what technology writer Aleks Krotoski calls the ‘arms race between the citizen and the state’. And guess which side of the conflict has the bigger guns…

The revolution will be open source
Attempts to close-off the Net with the electronic equivalent of concrete, razor wire, landmines and tollbooths flies in the face of the fact that much of the very infrastructure of the internet is built on the grassy green fields of open source code. More than half of all websites are served up by software that is freely available to download, run and modify. A huge proportion of email is similarly routed, using free open source software. The web addressing system known as Domain Name Service is too. The operating systems that many of the highest trafficked websites like Google use are not running on Windows, but open source operating systems such as Linux and FreeBSD. The open source movement is more than just a practical way to share the source code of programs so that other developers can make improvements and bug fixes. It’s also a philosophy that posits the notion that the free exchange of information and ideas is the best way to improve society as a whole. Where would we be in terms of scientific progress if Einstein had refused to disclose his formula for energy-mass equivalence (you know the one I mean) citing intellectual property concerns… or if Marie Curie’s discoveries about radiation could only be revealed to a researcher if they signed the sort of Non-Disclosure Agreement commonly used in the proprietary software industry? Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation – a leading digital freedom advocacy group currently headed up by former New Internationalist co-worker Peter Brown – explains what’s at stake: ‘Control over the use of one’s ideas really constitutes control over other people’s lives; and it is usually used to make their lives more difficult.’6

Deus ex machina?
There are some who cling to the belief that e-activism is possessed of some innate technical juju that makes it more powerful than its offline or ‘old world’ ancestry. Perhaps it’s because we want to believe that social change can be made easier somehow. That with the click of a button we can end poverty, stop climate change or revitalize democracy all while still in our pyjamas. Unfortunately, there is no such ‘killer app’ for change. By and large the same rules apply in the digital world as they do in the analogue. Identify a problem, determine its cause, be strategic about targets, mobilize action, build community, generate media, engage, confront, challenge, garner political support, maintain and build momentum, build viable pathways for change, broaden and deepen that change, guard against threats, share knowledge, listen, empower and enable others to continue and advance the cause. Wash, rinse, repeat. Pyjamas are optional. Let’s not delude ourselves that any of this is easy.

The reality is that there is no secret ingredient to cooking up social change online. The recipe is still largely the same, only the oven’s been replaced by a microwave and more people can smell if you burnt the soufflé.

Ushahidi – ushahidi.com
Ushahidi (Kiswahili for ‘testimony’ or ‘witness’) was set up in the wake of the political crisis in Kenya after the controversial 2007 elections. Co-founder Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan activist and lawyer, proposed the site when she realized that ordinary people with mobile phones were able to report developments in their communities faster and more accurately than the mainstream media could. Using Google Maps – a free mapping tool – Okolloh and colleagues set about updating their custom map with time- and location-sensitive information about political violence from all sides, sent to them by people using simple SMS text messaging and email.

This novel combination of ‘crowdsourcing’ of information combined with geolocation software, and the ease with which ordinary Kenyans could participate via commonly used mobile phones, proved highly effective at documenting the violence and responses and holding the government and various parties to account for their actions. The software the group developed was later used to document anti-immigrant violence in South Africa, collect eyewitness accounts of the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008-09, and is currently being used in Haiti to assist with the emergency work there.

Websites
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Open Rights Group
Free Software Foundation
Creative Commons
Tactical Tech
Wikileaks
Wael Abbas
Global Voices
The Virtual Revolution
The NI Blog
The NI Website

Adam Ma’anit is a former NI co-editor and web manager and is currently baking soufflés at London-based arts and social justice charity PLATFORM.

  1. Wael Abbas interviewed by The Hub in Budapest, Hungary 2008, bit.ly/daSyG9
  2. In the case of China, for example, Krotoski notes that there are an estimated 30,000 people employed purely to spy on the web-surfing habits of their fellow citizens and report suspicious activity. As quoted in Aleks Krotoski, ‘The Virtual Revolution: How 20 Years of the Web Has Reshaped Our Lives’, bit.ly/bK18qy
  3. The latest leaked draft of ACTA can be found at: bit.ly/cGTSZ4
  4. wikileaks.org
  5. John Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace bit.ly/9cvqlH
  6. Richard Stallman, ‘The GNU Manifesto’ bit.ly/dxhQD3

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