Few would now deny the growing power of the internet and its appeal to younger readers who are turning their backs on mainstream media in favour of online content, especially blogs.
Antony Loewenstein, Australian journalist and author of My Israel Question, has just launched his latest book The Blogging Revolution, a revealing account of bloggers around the globe who write under repressive regimes.
Loewenstein decided to check out how these bloggers fared, gathering his material at private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, the homes of Cuban dissidents and newspaper offices in Beijing.
Here he discovered how the internet is threatening the rule of governments and how bloggers are leading the charge for change.
“It was an amazing trip. In every country I visited, except Cuba, the online community is vibrant,” Loewenstein said. “Most countries saw the internet as economic development. It was not seen as a political threat but over the last year governments have noticed and a trend of censoring and blocking websites has emerged.”
He acknowledges his book is critical of the west.
“I wrote it because I sensed in much of the western media a tendency to grossly oversimplify things, to push an unquestioning official line and to see everything through the prism of terrorism. I thought the best thing was to go to these countries and check it out for myself.”
What he found surprised him.
“There was more debate, both online and off, than I had expected, even in places like Iran,” he said. “Iran is amazingly liberal online, and there’s a lot of criticism of Ahmadinajad. Despite censorship and control there are debates going on, some liberal, some conservative, that are more robust than what you get in the west. But yes, there are many blocked sites deemed pornographic or political.
“Saudi Arabia is arguably the most oppressive country in the world but surprisingly, the web is generally unfiltered. There are lines that can’t be crossed but a growing number of Saudi women are going online which is incredibly empowering – one woman has a blog talking about enjoying buying lingerie for her partner.”
And China, which tops the world in internet usage with 250 million people online (the US is next with 230 million) has been opening up in the last five years.
“You find people discussing corruption online. In the cities and in rural areas you find campaigns and public protests against local officials,” he said. “Bloggers have started public online protests which the regime has allowed.”
Loewenstein says the strength of blogs is it allows people to be engaged politically.
“Do blogs change elections? No. Do they have input and influence on what is discussed? Yes,” he said. “Elections are so stage managed. Both political parties have ‘embedded’ journalists so citizen journalists who can write about what they are seeing can be helpful, despite the idea that if a mainstream journo doesn’t write it, it isn’t true.”
And Loewenstein says Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have all been willing to censor their search engines, and Yahoo and Microsoft have even handed over information about users who have then been jailed.
“Look at how some of these companies have operated, how they’ve excused it, posting photos of wanted Tibetans on the yahoo.china homepage. Yahoo US said it had nothing to do with that, so where does responsibility lie?”
In the US and the EU there are now moves to implement some agreement regarding companies like Google to specify that if they operate in countries with authoritarian regimes they don’t have to abide by local laws.
So has the internet advanced the march of democracy?
“Yes and no. The problem is you can monitor what people say online so it makes Big Brother more effective but it also challenges authoritarian regimes and gives people more of a direct voice.”