Engagement of minds & independence of thought

Careful not to be caught out by the critics of techno-utopianism, even Hillary Clinton’s ‘web evangelist’ and senior Advisor for Innovation Alec J. Ross qualifies his genuine enthusiasm for the possibilities of the internet.

“I don’t think you can just sprinkle the internet on a problem and we all grow up to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise,” he cautions, “but I do think that there are things that we can do using technology that weren’t previously possible.”

What could be possible? A coordinated effort to use communications technology to challenge censorship and free expression rights abuses in new, more accessible and effective ways.

Phone text messaging is being used to rally activists against unjust evictions in South Africa’s Western Cape. In Northern Mexico an impromptu phone and online network keeps communities informed about the moving threat of drug gang violence. A New York workshop last month showed how data analysts and civil society groups could use City Hall records to better inform the public.

Both governance and politics can become more transparent and objectivity reinforced as the media and advocacy groups alike find their arguments tracked back, sourced and independently tested by their critics.

It may even breathe new life into democratic engagement and energise an indifferent electorate. Years of cronyism, corruption and plain incompetence has cut voter turnout in half in many countries in a decade, north and south. Yet a campaign to win over digitally savvy young Colombians transformed the election battle between Antanas Mockus and his Green Wave supporters and Juan Manuel Santos, intended successor to then outgoing President Álvaro Uribe.

It is exciting, not as shiny toy technology, but as a change in the “procedures” of politics, the mechanisms by which politicians and citizens can exchange and debate ideas, as Yochai Benkler of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society puts it.

Politicians, their media allies and state ‘establishments’ no longer exclusively mediate. It promises a power shift from the nation state to individuals and networks of individuals. Ross: “Not from West to East or North to the global South; but a far more significant shift in power that’s taking place is from hierarchies.”

Alec Ross

Alec J Ross: Wikimedia Commons

Nation states – and the global corporations who play those nation states’ hierarchies of influence – are strongly resisting this loss of power. Benkler calls it “a battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment”.

They work on through hierarchies where they still retain influence. The US and the West seek control through their courts and via global trade fora such as the WTO & OECD. The emerging ‘BRIC’ states, Brazil, Russia, India & China, work through an acronym soup of UN mandated channels, the WSIS, IGF, ITU, UNCTAD and more, in what is seen as a bid to put governments in control of the internet’s development.

Yet it’s almost a traditional art to circumvent these kinds of controls online, part of the DNA of a medium specifically designed to route information round obstacles.

When a court ordered the ISPs serving 94% of British citizens to block access to The Pirate Bay illegal file sharing site, within days the ‘pirates’ rebranded as The Hydra Bay, after the mythical monster that grew two new heads for each one cut off. They made a mockery of the copyright barons and the law, added 12 million more visitors to its sites and further spread use of anti-censorship VPN and proxy techniques.

Meanwhile citizens from the UK to Belarus to Venezuela often see their mainstream media as part of the problem of failing democracy. Citizen confidence in social media generated information is growing. So is their preference for it over the mainstream media agenda, and their will to defend it online and in the real world.

It’s an unsettling time for forces that rely on means of controlling distribution – whether of copyrighted content or dissident opinion – to maintain their market dominance or political advantage.

It’s also a transformative time for human rights groups. We have been slower than the mainstream media to adopt new techniques of investigative journalism, social engagement and online organisation. Others bring new causes to the attention of new audiences, in particular young people, raising funds and awareness as they go.

Media analyst Charlie Beckett cites the Kony2012 campaign, which for all its well-documented faults, was a pointed challenge to the old-style advocacy strategies of mainstream human rights and humanitarian NGOs. WikiLeaks has raised a range of ethical and political issues around the means and ends of communication online.

They may yet come to be seen as the flawed beta versions of online rights activist groups yet to come, built like social media start-ups, spinning out campaigns as ‘iterations’ and ‘minimum viable products’ – but for the purposes of conflict reduction and political accountability rather than entertainment or commerce.

The free expression rights mission remains unchanged by technological opportunity; that of the authoritative moral voice speaking truth to power. Mainstream rights NGOs once did that on behalf of others, just as mainstream media once did.

But unlike mainstream media we have been slower to understand that this is no longer our exclusive responsibility, let alone our exclusive right.

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