The Internet: Tool of tyranny or democracy?

“Is journalism so last century?”, asked British governance expert Andrew Puddephatt at the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression 2009. His question was prompted by extensive discussions during the Oslo event about the Internet and how it changes the opportunities and challenges for individuals and organisations to make their opinions heard.

Not at all, was the response of Andrew Keen, author of the controversial 2007 book, Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing our Culture: “Curated media is a good thing,” he exclaimed in defence of conventional press. “It’s a good thing to have an elite controlling the media’s content.”

Slipping into the role of the agent provocateur, Keen observed that the US blogosphere actually does not appear very democratic. On the contrary: It rather shows the signs of an oligarchy, driven by a happy few self-appointed opinion advocates who just happen to be able to afford being bloggers in their leisure time. He illustrated this with the influential Huffington Post, operated by an independently wealthy owner who does not pay the writers despite major audience reach. The incentive to contribute to the website is not to earn money with a well-researched and well-written article, but promotional value for the authors and their issues.

Keen, who directed his criticism at the United States and some Western countries, yet expressly acknowledged the quite different role of blogging under autocratic regimes, particularly focused on the fact that hardly any citizen journalism venture has a viable independent business model. Without such, he implied, blogs could not be serious media, but were merely playthings for rich socialites.

Many speakers agreed, at least in principle. We cannot responsibly take traditional media out of the mix just yet, said South African mobile expert Emma Kaye. Several recent studies show that when in doubt, new media audiences still turn to trusted professional sources such as the BBC, CNN, or the websites of renowned newspapers, but not to blogs.

In any case, added Puddephatt, journalism today is merely one of several conduits of free expression. While it is still arguably not the least of those, it has lost a considerable amount of impact since the arrival of ubiquitous online and mobile media. The guardianship of freedom of expression has shifted, he elaborated. It is no longer owned by a select group of specialised actors such as reporters, publishers, parliamentarians or, indeed, governments, but by all of us.

Yet this development has created a gap: No particular institution vouches for the quality and integrity of information any more. How is a citizen supposed to find out whether a news item is true or distorted, whether a piece of information is benign or determined by particular interests or even propaganda?

This dilemma is not only about media content. Even technology itself turns out Janus-faced: Mobile phones are everywhere and relatively cheap and can serve as a grassroots communication device in regions with otherwise weak infrastructure; on the other hand they can also quite easily be censored, switched off by the authorities, be used to spread the wrong values, or incite violence. The Ethiopian government, for instance, has disabled the text message function in the country’s mobile networks because it was used to alert people to come to demonstrations. In Kenya, texts were employed to spread hate messages to the population.

The Internet is even worse. Helge Rønning, professor in media studies at Oslo University, called it “the most perfect surveillance machine of all time”. Speakers from Tunisia and Pakistan as well as audience members from a plethora of other countries then proceeded to paint a grim picture of Internet censorship and oppression. While even in Western countries, control of online communication is being massively extended as a matter of routine, the governments of Tunisia, Yemen, China, among others, have apparently now perfected their crackdown on the Internet in a fashion that approaches George Orwell’s dark prophecies. Tunisia, for example, was reported to block some 200 websites each day and to exercise complete control of Internet access, web surfing, and email. China even exports its know-how for web censorship to like-minded countries, as one participant observed.

But there are also encouraging examples. In what is really best described as a perpetual cat-and-mouse game, Yemenite IT engineer and freedom of opinion activist Walid Al-Saqaf clearly enjoys outwitting censors in Yemen and other Arabic countries by coming up with ever new and increasingly sophisticated ways to circumvent access-blocking measures against independent news websites.

With the help of specialised tools and cleverly using Internet infrastructures, he makes sure that blocked portals remain available for the interested public. Now, while waiting for the censors to catch up with him again, he plans to further develop his technology to show statistics of Internet censorship by country, and to eventually offer a dedicated navigation tool for accessing content the respective governments would like to suppress.

The Internet, including blogs and citizen journalism, offers great opportunities for people to exercise and advocate their human rights – particularly under circumstances adverse to freedom of opinion. It can, however, still be very dangerous and take a lot of courage to use.

This calls for advanced capacity-building initiatives: As Al-Saqaf’s example shows, the more tech-savvy you are, the safer you can use online media and try and navigate around political barriers and surveillance measures. Otherwise, well-intentioned journalists as well as human rights activists make themselves too easy targets.