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Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2009 - Day Four

The challenge posed by many of today's panelists: activism transfer. How do you get people communicating via Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks to take to the streets? Because that's where the real impact is.

How little things have changed since 1994, my first year at CFP, when Simon Davies dressed up as the Pope, read from the Book of Unix, and told everyone that if they wanted governments to listen they needed to stop sending around email petitions and organize at the grass roots level. In India, explained Gaurav Mishra, this meant getting people to vote instead of complaining that the system was corrupt and staying home.

Use online tools to build offline institutions, he concluded. "Real social change will not happen online."

But today's China panel - probably the best of all this year's offerings - made the point that although we have tended to assume that the Internet will bring democracy and light to anywhere it penetrates, China shows that the Internet can also be used to spread propaganda. You'd think this would have been obvious, but policy has tended to assume otherwise.

Said Rebecca MacKinnon, who is writing a book about China and the Internet, "It's true that China has shown that authoritarianism can do a lot better in the internet age than a lot of people ever expected."

China has implemented several different elements of control: many overseas sites and services are blocked (so many blogging sites are down "for maintenance" on this 20th anniversary of Tiannamen Square that there's a joke about China Maintenance Day). There is some change, but it's a slow evolution: "The Internet may be liberalizing people to some extent, but on the other hand, we're not going to see any kind of regime change." The liquid metal man in Terminator 2 only becomes a threat when the little blobs of metal flow together; you can let little local pockets of increasing liberalization occur as long as they never join together to become national.

In a later panel on taking Tweets to the street, Ralf Bendrath recounted creating a 75,000-person demonstration against surveillance and in favor of privacy in Germany starting with little more than a wiki. But, he noted that individual liberals are not the only voices who will be able to use these tools.

"We celebrate Obama's use of these tools because we believe in his ideology," said Mishra, going on to point out that in India a right-wing party that wants to restrict women's movements is at the forefront of using Twitter, Facebook, and blogging. "As much as I hate to say this, very soon we will find enthusiasm for these tools being tempered by realism that anybody can use them." The tools by themselves do not give us more power.

"Use online tools to build offline institutions," said Bendrath. "Real social change will not happen online."

Over and out. Anyone with ideas for next year should submit them not at www.cfp2010.org. Have a good year, folks!

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter or email netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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