The right to blog: freedom’s next frontier

Evgeny Morozov
30 June 2008

Many of the bloggers who gathered on 27-28 June 2008 in Budapest, Hungary for a Citizen Media Summit organised by Global Voices Online had at first glance an unlikely appearance. These representatives of a growing worldwide network of citizen journalists and digital activists looked rather studious, a touch morose, even - to many bloggers themselves a key marker of social distinction - uncool.

Evgeny Morozov is a technology and new-media expert and independent consultant. His website is here. One of his current initiatives is Polymeme.com

Evgeny Morozov is reporting on the Citizen Media Summit, organised by Global Voices Online, held in Budapest on 27-28 June 2008

Moreover, these idealistic people did not talk much about gadgets, fashion, or campaign-financing; nor rush to praise or scorn Barack Obama or John McCain; nor fret over the latest celebrity-hunt or political trick in the style of Gawker or the Huffington Post. Instead, they got into heated discussions (often in heavily accented English) over a different set of topics: internet filtering, human-rights violations, and the future of freedom of expression.

This, then, was a different kind of blogger and a different order of reality. The background of many of the participants told the story: for in their countries of origin many at the Budapest gathering sustain their blogs in face of the threat or reality of arrest, intimidation and beating from the authorities. Their enemies are real, not imaginary. Their blogs are exercises in courage.

Some of the Global Voices bloggers based in the middle east, for example, were not able to travel to the conference because of their previous association with the organisation; others might face trouble on their return home. Yet they are willing - even eager - to take the risk of putting the problems of their countries and communities on the global agenda.

The sheer diversity of countries represented at the Budapest summit - with bloggers from places as diverse as Mauritania, Colombia, Bangladesh and Tajikistan - suggests that the phenomenon they represent is indeed genuinely global. Even in places with low internet penetration, blogs can still have a significant impact in creating channels to voice dissent and influence wider media networks. Kenyan bloggers, for example, have built synergistic relationships with the country's radio journalists, who have come to rely on blogs for materials for their programmes, thus making blogs accessible (albeit indirectly) to virtually anyone in the country.

The dissident ethic

The Budapest gathering represents one of the major benefits of today's internet revolution: the radical democratisation of the global flow of ideas. The technology, the ideas and the processes that have made possible blogs, social networks, and collaborative projects like Wikipedia also give many unconventional thinkers previously consigned to the margins of public life a platform that enables them to be heard by a dedicated (if often tiny) audience. The academic, blogger and pundit Daniel W Drezner has called this new generation - free from the usual constraints of the academia, self-employed, and armed with Google search - "Public Intellectuals 2.0".

Also in openDemocracy on journalism in the age of new media:

Sidney Blumenthal, "Walter Lippmann and American journalism today" (31 October 2007)

Philip Bennett, "The media and the war: seeing the human" (20 November 2007)

Tony Curzon Price, "The blind newsmaker" (26 January 2008)

Catalina Holguín, "Colombia: networks of dissent and power" (4 February 2008)

Charles Leadbeater, "Democracy in the network age: time to WeThink" (5 March 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Charlie Beckett, "SuperMedia: the future as ‘networked journalism'" (10 June 2008)

But is it "Public Intellectuals 2.0" or "Dissidents 2.0"? The Budapest experience suggests that the movement slowly emerging on the margins of the blogosphere shares much in common with an older generation of those who sought to "speak truth to power". The city's mayor Gábor Demszky - a communist-era dissident - was one of the first people to welcome some Global Voices bloggers. The early stencils used to copy anti-government materials in east-central Europe, now housed in the Open Society archives in Budapest, add to the sense that there are similarities between blogging and samizdat. It may be just a matter of time before an Apple or a Lenovo laptop belonging to a Belarusian or an Uzbek dissident-blogger finds a well-deserved placed next to these stencils.

The shifts in the technology of dissent pose new challenges to those who would suppress the emerging new voices. As costs of producing, storing and distributing digital content sharply fall, Xerox machines and stencils give way to desktop publishing. Most state authorities, to their great discomfort, have not yet figured out how to make dissidents register their blogs with police (as Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania, for example, did in relation to those owning typewriters). It's not surprising then that so many traditional funders of "democracy-promotion" - the very ones who used to fund the distribution of Xerox machines in east-central Europe - are now investing in blogging and new media to spread democracy in Asia or the middle east; one funder present at the Global Voices meeting even floated the idea of setting up a dedicate fund for cyberactivism.

At the same time, the vulnerability of some of the bloggers committed to democratisation of the flow of ideas in their own backyards means that the timing for such a proposal - along with a rapid-response legal team - may be propitious. The ubiquity of the internet - accessible via computers or mobile-phones in almost any corner of the planet - is being matched by the growth in explicit and implicit restrictions on free speech.

These parallel trends reveal further connections between bloggers and past advocates of free speech and a free public space. In the pre-internet age, most governments employed cumbersome but effective methods of suppressing and silencing dissent - prison, asylum, exile, execution. All of these were intruments to diminish or extinguish the influence of domestic critics. The internet has enabled an enormous power-shift, by allowing dissenters to publicise their voices and report events on their blogs while remaining anonymous, and continue to exert influence at home even when in exile (see "Blog standard", Economist, 26 June 2008).

Cute cats and non-aliens

It has taken time for authoritarian governments to wake to the challenge. Many were happy to regard blogging and the wider social web as a trivial pursuit of people content to post pictures and videos of their pets, relatives and holidays. They did not realise that a small but significant minority would use the same tools to push for social change by (for example) posting images of policemen taking bribes or beating up prisoners.

When that started to happen, governments began to grasp the scale of the threat presented by the internet. Their response was to block access to "dangerous" sites and blogs. The technological problem was that to block the 1% of social-activist content would entail preventing access to the 99% of everyday "safe" content. But bloggers too share in the fallout of this indiscriminate strategy, for (as Ethan Zuckerman, Global Voices's co-founder, wrote in a blog post): "Every time you force a government to block a web 2.0 site - cutting off people's access to cute cats - you spend political capital".

Both some governments and some bloggers are prepared to spend their respective (albeit very different kinds of) political capital here, in circumstances where the pursuit of the dissident minority also constricts the freedom of the "cute cats" majority. Each side shares tricks and techniques among its members; the transfer of expertise in state monitoring, control and surveillance in the interests of closure is countered by the work of organisations like Global Voices Online in spreading anti-censorship and anti-surveillance advice using smart web tools like Tor or Psiphon.

The long-term balance of forces in this contest is poised. If not all governments have the time, money, or patience for systematic censorship, they may resort to an easier and cheaper way to collect a person's email password: imprisonment and, eventually, torture. Today, the greatest threat to freedom of expression online is not web censorship but mistreatment of bloggers. This trend again connects bloggers both with their antecedents in the communist-era dissident movements and their fellow-citizens living under authoritarian rule. In facing the threat, many bloggers share the same complex of emotions and reactions (including fears, doubts, and the self-censorship that often follows) that haunts other citizens. This reality was reflected in a recurrent theme of the Budapest conference: "bloggers are not aliens".

Amid the clear and present danger to bloggers' civil and human rights, the need to defend their voice and the phenomenon of open-access media they personify is vital. The Citizen Media Summit raised the idea that the equivalent of the Reporters without Borders group - a "Bloggers without Borders" - might be created to lobby for bloggers' release from jail and right to speak freely. But would bloggers get the same protection as journalists and political prisoners; could traditional groups expand their role and make such a new organisation unnecessary? Such are the questions that western governments and many traditional human-rights organisations - as well as bloggers themselves - must answer as soon as possible.

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