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Guest Voice

The Web Won't Set Us Free

By Antony Loewenstein

During China's milk powder crisis, with tens of thousands of babies affected by the contaminated goods, the country's blogosphere railed against corrupt officials.

One outraged blogger wrote: "What are the people in the Government doing? They just want mistresses, they want cash, but out here we're dying!"

Another said: "When they tell us some official is sacked, they are just giving us part of the story. The rest isn't reported. They just move on to other jobs."

It was the kind of brutal honesty that the internet has brought to the world's largest online market. Millions of angry netizens were openly questioning the regime's ability and willingness to manage the crisis. As it did after May's Sichuan earthquake, when thousands of citizens used the web to organize protests against shoddy builders, the web is slowly democratizing information flow in the Communist State.

It has become almost accepted wisdom that the web is an automatic democratizer, but I never accepted this doctrine.

That freer flow of information is one of the main reasons the country has implemented The Golden Shield over the last years, the most effective web-filtering program in the world, ably assisted by Western multinationals such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. Despite the explosion of views on topics as diverse as sex and economic development, the system allows the regime to eavesdrop in ways that were simply impossible before the net's development.

It is, as Canadian writer Naomi Klein explains, "McCommunism", a "potent hybrid of the most powerful political tools of authoritarianism communism - central planning, merciless repression, constant surveillance - harnessed to advance the goals of global capitalism."

It's not just China. My on-the-ground investigation of the blogging revolution and its influence on the relationship between the West and the rest took me in 2007 to Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China. In these countries I met writers, bloggers, dissidents, politicians, journalists and average citizens. I wanted to gauge how the web was changing lives and how little we understood about their worlds.

Blogs offered a window into mainly middle-class segments of societies rarely examined in the West. What does a Saudi Arabian woman think about her country's adherence to Wahhabism? How does the average Egyptian web user cope with the ever-increasing number of arrested online activists? What is Cuba's likely future under Raul Castro?

In China, where the vast majority of web users are far more interested in entertainment than politics, blogger Mica Yushu told me in Shanghai that most of her financially comfortable friends didn't crave political change. "We use the internet mostly for entertainment, sharing information, earning money or other fun," she said. It was a similar message in many states deemed "enemies" or "allies" of the West.

Take Iran. The Islamic Republic, routinely demonized in the Western press as the center of world terrorism, has arguably the healthiest blogging scene in the Middle East. As one blogger explained to me in Tehran: "Most of the people (I know are) in favor 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.

The presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has undoubtedly tightened the screws on political dissent, but despite onerous, Western-assisted web filtering, robust online debate continues. An editor of a leading youth magazine told me that he was constantly amazed that his Iranian friends were blogging about their exploits with sex and drugs. Life goes on in even the most challenging societies.

One point that resonated with virtually every person I met was how it was impossible to generalize about the web's influence. In Egypt, the U.S.-backed dictatorship is struggling to manage a well-organized insurgency from web-organized activists and Muslim Brotherhood members. Syria increasingly blocks opposition websites, despite the fact that the groups themselves enjoy minimal support in the country itself.

U.S. 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 find online the words of indigenous communities in Paraguay, dispossessed voters in Fiji or imprisoned bloggers in Morocco.

Ultimately, it is the Western media's responsibility to engage new voices that are not simply "official" sources. The internet can never on its own bring freedom or Western-style democracy - nor should it. It is the job of reporters to listen to and appreciate the perspectives of individuals with messages that may be unappealing to our ears. The online world is just one way to enter this universe.

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney-based freelance journalist, blogger and author of The Blogging Revolution (2008) and My Israel Question (2006).

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Comments (10)

LSW:

I agree with the final point: the web is starting to get socially interesting. Here's just one example, a site that gives space to voices of people from Latin America and how they are affected by the United States.

www.democracyctr.org/voices/

Truth hurts:

I could not disagree more. In the remote valleys of Afghanistan people have only been a few miles from home, and know nothing of the outside world, and not much of what goes on in their own country. If people the world over could see what is going on, and what other people enjoy in certain places, it would be a powerful tool.

Alan Browne:

What a silly premise for an article. Some journalists can find nothing to write about so they imply a goal and then shout about its failure.

The web was not invented and put into motion to promote democracy. It was invented to improve and automate computer communication between people and organizations.

Of course communication is an important tool in democracies and in fostering democracy. It is a tool, not a goal. The printing press was no different (but did, like the web, have profound effect on government ... but that was not its goal).

Now, Mr. Lowenstein, go find something useful to write about.

daryl:

Loewenstein is right. The web will not set us free. Only the truth can do that for us. For the same reason, the web cannot enslave us. Only a lie can do that to us. However, the web is a disinterested purveyor of both. And I can tell you--based on a cursory glance at the human condition alone--which vastly outnumbers which. For government by the self (I.e. democracy) never works without the government of the soul.

GW:

Provocative to show how the Net and Web can bring freedom by saying in the headline it won't. Dismiss the new publishing technology as usual as something less than the last great invention. The points about spying are important. That's the struggle we're in, but says more about the regimes themselves, including the Bush regime, than the technology.

http://blog.locustfork.net/

Chuck Vekert:

When Gutenberg began setting type on his bible, few people had actually seen or read the book. Hand written bibles were just too few. Within a century all literate people in Christendom were reading it and had their own opinions on Christian doctrine. The 1500 year monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church on theology and morality was broken forever. Ideas of all sorts became the common property of all literate people.

When I worked in my college library during the late sixties I was in charge of the xerox machine, still a relatively new invention. One day a professor of Russian history, who had spent years in that country, looked at me thoughtfully and said: "You know, you would need a special license in the Soviet Union to run that machine." The Communist Party, rightly, considered a machine that could easily make copies of forbidden books a very dangerous machine. Never the less books and essays were laboriously typed by hand with as many carbon copies as possible, a reversion to pre-Gutenberg, but still better than the medieval monk and his quill pen. Enough information circulated that the Soviet Union lost all legitimacy and ultimately collapsed like a house of cards, so fast that all the world was shocked, especially the CIA.

Al Gore (just joking) completed the revolution that Gutenberg began. Now information, ideas and criticism can circulate instantaneously. Repressive governments can slow down but not stop the flood. Governments that are not responsive to the needs of their people and that try to repress thoughts and actions simply lose their legitimacy. And once legitimacy is lost, it is just a matter of time.

Judy Breck:

The Web will not set "us" free. It sets one-by-one of us free individually. Clay Shirky and others are profound in their insight into the ways the Web affects groups and creates community. But the most potent freedom in human history is given to the individual who has in his/her hand a mobile connection to everybody else and all the world's information. Broadcast like Hitler used is replaced with interaction. The masses Stalin oppressed have become 3 billion and counting free nodes in an open network. The truth will make them all free. The Web delivered through an individual device offers education and participation -- and as Jefferson would say, the pursuit of happiness (whether it be porn or physics or politics). My GoldenSwamp.com blog is about this point of view.


faithfulservant3:

In many ways technology gives lazy reporters the easy way out. They don't have to go out and actually report the news anymore. They just wait for the press releases, contact the people that they carry water for to get quotes, and quote web sites.

They are part of the problem not the solution.

petruss maximus:

Excluding peanut butter and jelly, the W.W.W. is the greatest human achievement. Ands that's just the beginning of all the great things to say and read OTW (on the web).
Lots of folks value their web time so highly that they mostly concentrate on entertaining themselves and others. Better to save the human condition discussions for a rainy day.
Maybe that's why the folks in Iran still put up with that Ach-Mad fellow; they're just happy to be having a good time. They seem to be saying: "we got the net, it's fun - so why rock the boat?" Anyway, everybody knows - deep in their collective souls - that pretty soon one the day will come and one of those modern-day heroes will hack away all those stupid government filters and then we'll have even more fun and porn. Are we all being spied upon? You bet! And we spy back - even more fun. And you can google up just about anything you need to know. Even a good joke to pass around. It's getting to the point that a million people might be laughing out loud (lol) at exactly the same moment. Just like radio or TV, except a lot more channels.and much harder to censure. Starting to look like entertainment is a powerful force for change. That's why we're so confident - and not shouting in the streets "freedom, freedom!" The world is a changing before our very eyes, joke by joke, picture by picture. No one can stop it: if the government tries to turn it off - the whole country will grind to a halt. Nowadays the dictators are very careful. There are no secrets. We're calm now. Dictators will come and go, and ever the more polite. Our children's future and freedom gets closer everyday. In the meantime, nothing wrong with a little entertainment.

Arthur Edelstein:

Mr. Loewenstein's strictly correct statement that "the internet can never on its own bring freedom," obscures the fact that the internet is a very useful tool for people working to bring freedom -- just as other communications technologies, such as printing presses, radio, television, and cellphones have proven to be useful tools. Nonviolent struggle is the major way that people have achieved freedom in countries with repressive political systems, and communication technologies are an essential part of those struggles. See for example, the chapter on communications in Brian Martin's book, "Technology for Nonviolent Struggle," http://tinyurl.com/4nd9ae

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