Posted by: njs44 | March 31, 2010

Free cyberspace

Although I haven’t blogged for a while, I have been building up a list of ideas to raise, and hope to be a bit more regular in future. One thing that has been exercising my thoughts a little is the way the internet can be used for good, as well as for bad purposes. I like to think that the blogs of ordinary, amateurs like myself, are an example of true free speech. I am not paid to write, can write what I like, comment on what I observe going on in the world, and readers are free to agree with me or not, as they choose. In some ways the internet can be like Speakers Corner, but without the risk of heckling.

In today’s Guardian, Aditya Chakrabrotty writes about the disappointment that the Internet has not brought democracy to the whole world. He talks about ‘cyber-utopians’ who thought that the freedom of speech the internet affords would mean an end to tyrannical regimes, because the word would get out about them and their evil deeds would be quickly discovered. He reports that Evgeny Morozov, a US academic, who came originally from Belarus, has studied this topic extensively.

Now an academic in the US, he has plenty of examples of how Beijing, Tehran and Moscow are adapting the internet for their own purposes. He quotes the example of the “Fifty-cent” bloggers in China, so called not because of their fondness for over-muscled American rappers but because of the money they earn for each pro-government blog they post on internet forums. He describes how the clerics of Qom in Iran are now recruiting and training religious bloggers; while the secret police in Tehran find Twitter and Facebook very useful tools for keeping tabs on dissidents.

New means of communication usually excite heady talk about how they will bring about big social changes. As Tom Standage observes in his book The Victorian Internet, the fact that the telegraph allowed people in different continents to communicate almost instantaneously gave rise to predictions that there would never be another international conflict. There then followed two world wars.

Developed in California, the web is often seen as the repository of similarly sunny liberal values. This paper’s coverage last week of the Google case ran under the logo “CHINA V THE WEB” – as if the internet were a sovereign state or a moral philosophy rather than a technology that people use to download porn, or watch videos of a cat playing the piano.

Like all mass technologies, the web is a force for change – primarily because it makes it cheaper and easier than ever before for people to communicate with each other. But there’s nothing that says the change has to be good or bad, or how far it needs to go. The answers to those questions won’t be found on Google.

Full text at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/30/freedom-not-found-online-internet

So here I am, collecting examples of the internet being a force for good. I will write about some of them over the coming days, and would be glad to hear of some more examples if anyone cares to comment.

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