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Monday, April 25, 2011

The liberating power of technology by Ruby Gropas

‘Digital democracy’, ‘Cyber-Activism’, ‘Twitter Revolution,’[1] ‘Facebook Freedom Fighter’[2] – such phrases have flooded news reports, commentaries and analyses over the past few weeks.
Everyone seems to agree that social media are shaping global political action in new ways and, that information and communication technologies (ICTs) are altering the dynamics of the public sphere. This is by no means a new phenomenon. Over the past centuries, the printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the television, have each contributed to changing, shrinking or “flattening” the world; it is now the turn of the ICTs. ICTs are increasingly being referred to as “liberation technologies” since they have become powerful tools through which to facilitate the flows of ideas and information in authoritarian contexts and beyond, at a speed never before experienced by humanity.
Examples have been multiplying: from the case of Sun Zhigang in China in 2003 and the weiquan movement,[3] to the role of the Internet newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda in the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, to the role the internet played in informing the world of the violent government crackdown against the Burmese Buddhist monks in 2007, to the dynamic turn of events leading to Iran’s Green Movement or election-related political unrest Kenya in 2009, and the recent popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and across the Middle East in 2011. In all these instances, many have declared the amazing ability of “liberation technology” to empower individuals and strengthen an emergent civil society.
So what is ‘liberation technology’? How has it actually empowered civil society? And, what are the challenges ahead?
Defining liberation technology
Liberation technology is any technology that transmits political information, that is accessible to a large segment of the population (or at least to a segment of the population that is large enough to be able to function as a critical mass), and that allows for private un-traceable use in order to maximize activist safety and minimize surveillance capacity.
In practice, it is all modern, interrelated forms of digital ICTs; it is the internet, computers and mobile phones mainly. The rise of Internet-enabled smart phones however has taken it all to another level and has gradually opened new possibilites as the advantages of mobile phones are combined with the capacity of computers and with instant audio-visual and text connection with the global community. These devices are easily accessible and affordable and offer activists a greater capacity to use digital infrastructure for their goals of political and social change.
How has it empowered civil society?
ICTs have offered a powerful tool to civil society actors that has been used in multiple ways and for multiple objectives: they facilitate independent communication; provide a platform for free speech and political criticism and opposition; act as instruments for transparency and accountability; enable easy documentation of abuses of human rights and democratic procedures; facilitate immediate and real-time international visibility of these abuses; challenge electoral fraud; mobilize protest; and, maintain an information lifeline with the outside world.
In short, liberation technologies challenge authoritarian regimes’ control over information and political debate in the public sphere, and make their repressive techniques and actions visible both within the country and internationally.
The internet, SMS messaging, blogging, Twitter, Youtube and other new media platforms are being used by NGOs, civil society actors and simple citizens – or ‘netizens’- in increasingly creative ways. They provide a growing generation mainly under the age of 35 who are technologically savvy, with the tools to coordinate their protests, attract support (both domestically and internationally), voice alternative opinions and dissent, and circumvent censorship in authoritatian regimes.
Human rights abuses have been filmed on mobile phone cameras and immediately posted on YouTube; Facebook has been used by online activists to launch campaigns against police brutality with truly global outreach, such as with the ‘We are all Khaled Said’ Facebook page; crowdsourcing (combining SMS text-messaging, emailing and other forms of online communication) is being applied by grassroot organizations like Ushahidi[4] to map protest, electoral fraud, or human rights abuses. Tellingly, Wael Ghonim, Google’s Marketing executive who was arrested during the protests in Egypt, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “If you want to liberate a government, give them the Internet.” A comment streamed on Twitter last week summarises it all: “A revolution is tweeting soon to a tyranny near you…”
What are the challenges ahead?
Now that the potential of social media outlets and information technology is evident, authoritarian regimes are developing impressive means to filter and control the Internet and mobile phones, censor web-content, monitor cybercafés, identify and punish internet-based dissenters and activists.
Against this background, we are faced with two core sets of challenges for active citizens in authoritarian contexts and for policy makers in democracies.
The first involves how citizens and groups in authoritarian states can get around state censorship and monitoring? And, how can they turn their mobilization into democratic change? Social media and ICTs can be valuable tools in mobilizing citizens to protest, to express dissent and to defy authoritarian rulers. As Gene Sharp has argued in an extraordinarily influential manner, if people can develop techniques of withholding their consent –particularly non-violent techniques – and gradually of expressing disobedience, then dictatorships loose their grip over the people they govern and regimes will eventually crumble.[5] Thus, for change to materialize, smart civil resistance strategies need to be formulated and implemented. Activists must organize themselves in order to be able to offer political choices to citizens once mobilization starts rolling into liberation in order to avoid that the opportunity for change is ‘hijacked’ by populists or illiberal actors.
The second set of challenges involves the role of democracies. How can democratic states react against authoritarian regimes’ attempts to restrict and punish the use of ICTs for political purposes? What ought democratic states do?
As a first response, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the US would put up 45 million dollars in a venture-capital style approach to help technically-savvy activists fight internet repression.[6] In addition to providing funding a lot more needs to be done in terms of securing freedom of access to ICTs, providing technical assistance, and developing an international regulatory framework.
The transformative potential of liberation technology is significant. Indeed, the new technologies that are available today (or that are in the making), offer new possibilities for human freedom and for political action. ICTs can expand freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, they can promote knowledge, transparency and the pluralism of ideas, they can contribute to deepening democracy and improving governance, they can empower civil society actors and enhance economic development. There are of course limits and costs. As Larry Diamond has pointed out, there: “There are fine lines between pluralism and cacophony, between advocacy and intolerance, and between the expansion of the public sphere and its hopeless fragmentation.” [7]
Nonetheless, if liberal democracies support internet freedom then tough choices lie ahead in order to develop more effective, more intense and more elaborate policies to stand up for the protection of activists and citizens who turn to the internet as a tool through which to fight for their freedom and democracy.


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