Going online in repressive regimes

My following talk was presented today to a full room at Harvard University’s Berkman Centre:

Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society
Luncheon Series, 25 November 2008

The Blogging Revolution: Going online in repressive regimes

Antony Loewenstein

Internet censorship is something that only happens in non-democratic states. Regimes that want to crush free speech routinely employ automated and human-directed methods to silence dissent and politically uncomfortable material. Jails are filled across the world with bloggers and dissidents who challenge authoritarian rule. These voices are rarely heard in our media, especially if they are critical of Western foreign policy dictates.

If only all this were true.

The Australian government, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is currently proposing the imposition of a mandatory filtering process to “protect Australian families and kids from some material that is currently on the net”, namely child pornography and ultra-violent sites.

It may sound benign enough, but the country’s leading internet service providers, free speech lobbyists and independent parliamentarians have all responded with outrage that such a proposal might be implemented. Aside from the question of current technology being incapable of monitoring the long list of websites that could allegedly breach Australian law – around 10,000, according to the government – there is the freedom of speech angle.

A number of politicians have advocated blocking online gaming sites, general pornography sites, euthanasia sites and pro-anorexia sites. What next?

It is not hard to imagine a push to block sites that supposedly “support” terrorism. Take Hamas, the democratically elected party in Palestine and yet regarded as a terrorist group by much of the West. For many individuals around the world, myself included, Hamas is not a terrorist entity and should be engaged. But will over-zealous politicians make it illegal to view the organisation’s websites?

The militant Shia political group Hizbollah may find similar problems in years to come, as could Islamist organizations that challenge American foreign policy. These are political freedoms extinguished under the guise of protecting society from terrorism.

Despite these ominous possibilities, Australia is not one of the world’s worst internet freedom abusers. For my book, The Blogging Revolution, I travelled in 2007 to Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China to examine the role of the web in repressive states and the involvement of Western multinationals in assisting censorship. Most importantly, I wanted to challenge the thesis that the introduction of the web automatically brings Western-inspired, democratic ideals to a society. This is, of course, deluded fantasy and wishful thinking propagated by conservative think-tanks in the US.

I spoke in these nations with writers, bloggers, dissidents, politicians, citizens, men and women, activists, conservatives and liberals. How did they view their relationship with the ruling elite? How representative were their voices in the society and how possible was it for minorities to be heard? What was their attitude towards the Western powers, especially America?

In Egypt, for example, the country receives the second highest amount of US foreign aid annually after Israel – money that is predominantly spent on “security” to monitor and subdue the rising Muslim Brotherhood political insurgency – and many bloggers told me they resented this money being given to repress them.

President Hosni Mubarak is highly unpopular yet remains on the White House Christmas list. This is unlikely to change under President Barack Obama. Simply put, true democracy in the Middle East would likely see the election of Islamist parties in virtually every country, hostile to the US and Israel. For this reason alone, the maintenance of the status-quo – dictatorships that provide the West with stability and energy reserves – will continue. Blogger anger towards this Faustian bargain was palpable.

September 11 should have been the perfect opportunity for the Western media to hear the grievances of the Muslim world. With notable exceptions, indigenous voices were excluded then and still remain largely absent from the pages of the world’s leading papers. The underlying belief, rarely acknowledged but undoubtedly true, is that many Western editors only want to hear foreign news reported through a Western lens. Underlying racism? Yes. Unless a place or event is seen and heard by a Western reporter it isn’t legitimate and therefore unprovable. When was the last time we read regular reports from on-the-ground bloggers in war zones or difficult to reach areas, rather than the occasional dispatch from a visiting journalist? It happens all-too-infrequently.

The general consensus across the globe was that political and military meddling by Washington and London was making the job of real democrats much more difficult. Democracy was a term defined differently in every nation, but virtually nobody shunned the idea of more freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of the press.

As one blogger told me in Tehran: “Most of the people I know are in favour of reform, not revolution, because people are too tired to experience another revolution.” I found the same message echoed throughout the countries I visited: the desire to experience incremental change without foreign involvement.

I was reminded of a comment from leading Middle East journalist Robert Fisk who told Australian television in 2005:

“The Arab world”¦would love some of this shiny beautiful democracy which we possess and enjoy. They would love some of it. They would like some freedom. But many of them would like freedom from us – from our armies, from our influence. And that’s the problem, you see. What Arabs want is justice as much as democracy.”

And we don’t want to give it to them.

In every nation I visited, however, bloggers were starting to unpack issues that remained largely hidden from public view. Women in Egypt were campaigning against the tradition of female genital mutilation. Activists in Cuba were highlighting the repressive nature of the Castro regime and the counter-productive policies of the US administration towards them. Opposition figures in Damascus were blogging about state-imposed web filtering. Saudi Arabian women, blocked from driving or working in the US-backed dictatorship, were using the web to express a desire for greater human rights. Iranian hip-hops were distributing their banned beats via file sharing software. Chinese dissidents were protesting the role of Western multinationals, such as Google, Cisco, Yahoo and Microsoft, in the dubious role of assisting state censorship.

Blogging is not in itself revolutionary, but the act of self-expression online can be. Although the vast majority of bloggers in non-democratic nations are not dissecting politics – due to disinterest or fear of being caught – I was fascinated to hear why certain people courageously risked their scalps to challenge the iron-will of dictators. Like dissidents in the former Soviet Union – who only had limited resources and reached a fraction of the people bloggers can affect – online activists find the medium intoxicating because of its reach and global impact.

Many bloggers I met were conscious of a local and international audience. They wanted their own regime to feel pressure and change policies but also generate noise around the world. It was a realisation that outside influence can, if used judiciously and respectfully, be invaluable in supporting democratic movements in repressive regimes. For example, many bloggers in Saudi Arabia, desperate to convince their own citizens of the benefits of a moderate, political Islam, are using the web to slowly pressure the fundamentalist state to not fear democratic elections and a free press. It’s an uphill struggle, not helped by a Western world determined to keep the oil pumping.

Barely a week goes by when the media is not filled with stories of bloggers being imprisoned by unsavoury regimes. Take the Burmese blogger Nay Phone Latt, who recently received over 20 years for possession of a banned video and having a blog to express his concerns about the increasing difficulty of Burmese people in voicing their opinions since the massive protests in 2007. The regime, in a desperate move to stop images and news of abuse leaking to the world, regularly shuts down the entire web system for days on end, effectively cutting off the country from the outside world. This is only possible in places where the internet isn’t central to the running of an economy, like China. Instead, the powers in Beijing have instituted the Golden Shield to filter out unwanted material.

With the collusion of Western companies such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others in China’s Great Firewall, the role of these multinationals is largely ignored in the Western media. In my book I examine the various excuses, justifications and defences offered by them when explaining their actions in the quasi-Communist state. The real reason is clearly the fact that there around now over 250 million web users and growing at six million every month. Such potential profits make ethical considerations seem quaint in boardrooms across the world.

However, the recent launch of the Global Network Initiative – a code of conduct for corporations on privacy and free speech created by a coalition of human rights groups, media development, research organizations, internet and communications companies such as Google to ensure that companies acknowledge their “responsibility to respect and protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users” – will be a test of necessary transparency. It is no longer acceptable for web companies to claim they are merely complying with laws in a particular country. International laws and norms must be applied, with the pressure from the US Congress, if necessary.

Recently in Melbourne, Australia, a number of individuals gathered to consider a proposal to design an ethical labelling system for media distribution. Ellie Rennie, research fellow at Melbourne’s Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research, said the following:

“If you think of Fair Trade coffee for example, we know that behind Fair Trade coffee there’s a very elaborate and trustworthy system of workers’ rights, of ethical farming. So this is similar, in that we need the label on that media in order to determine what kind of media we might be using in the same way that we buy Fair Trade coffee, because we believe in what it stands for.”

Could such standards be applied to web companies operating in authoritarian regimes? While we all rely on Google and related companies, how often do we consider their actions in non-Western nations? And as importantly, is the knowledge they are gaining in such lands likely to be implemented against us some time in the near future?

Aside from the issue of oppressive censorship, my work acknowledges that blogging culture cannot be seen to represent societies as a whole. In the main, they are middle class men and women with access to information and technology far above the average citizen.

One of the dangers with my kind of work is the presumption that repression only occurs in authoritarian states. Increasingly, Western governments are attempting to monitor and filter information on the internet. Politicians in Britain recently announced plans to give security agencies and police unprecedented and legally binding powers to ban the media from reporting matters of national security.

In Argentina since 2006 over 100 people have successfully secured temporary restraining orders that direct Google and Yahoo Argentina to erase the results of search queries. Judges, public officials, models, actors and world-cup soccer star and national team head coach Diego Maradona have used the law to silence criticism.

US Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman this year successfully pressured YouTube owners Google to remove videos from “Islamist terrorist organizations”.

A recent article in the Economist magazine attempted to explain the fall of independent blogging. The medium, the magazine stated, “has entered the mainstream, which—as with every new medium in history—looks to its pioneers suspiciously like death”:

“Gone, in other words, is any sense that blogging as a technology is revolutionary, subversive or otherwise exalted, and this upsets some of its pioneers.”

Alas, this thesis may be partly true in the West but utterly inaccurate for the rest of the world. Heralding the death of blogging is both premature and ignores the vast importance of online media in developing nations.

US writer Clay Shirky explains in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organising Without Organisations that “communications tools (such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and blogging) don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring”. In other words, it’s only now becoming possible to see and hear online the words of indigenous communities in Bolivia, dispossessed voters in Kenya or sex workers in India.

Letting people speak and write for themselves without a Western lens is one of the triumphs of blogging. Its culture is unlike that of any previous social movement. Disjointed and disorganised, its aims are proudly vague. While many want the right to be critical of the media and political dysfunction, others simply crave the ability to date and listen to subversive music. That in itself is revolutionary for much of the world.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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