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The Internet – Freedom or Oppression? February 21, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Last weekend’s Wall Street Journal included a major feature attempting to refute the growing consensus that the Internet is a tool of freedom and democracy.  This feature, entitled The Digital Dictatorship (one of the few features in WSJ that is not behind the paywall, so go ahead and read it), by Georgetown University fellow Evgeny Morozov, focuses on the growing trend of US foreign service bureaucrats to count on social networks as a force for change for the better in other countries.

For all of their impact on our lives, and for all the importance that various journalists and other pundits ascribe to it, it is true that social networks are at the very least in their infancy, and its not at all clear what kind of relevance they will have in our lives.  And it’s anyone’s guess what impact they will have on political or social action.

What social networking tools manage to do is to bring together people based on shared interests, experience, or beliefs.  It’s not based on geographical location, as it has often been in the past.  Yet by the very nature of governments, there are expectations of turning online interaction into geographical action.

It turns out that at least some of what the US State Department would like to do is to participate in or even advise those who are leveraging social networks to organize resistance or protest to closed systems of government.  Morozov points out that it’s not particularly easy to use Internet tools to coordinate like-minded individuals into a coordinated action.  It’s easier to discuss online than take action, and squabble among small differences than unite against a common danger.  He also points out that governments can use the Internet (or in this case, GPS receivers) to track the activities of its citizens, making it at least as powerful a tool for oppression as freedom.

He’s right.  But that’s not the value that the Web brings to those who seek more freedom of thought and expression.  It’s more information, neutral or not, true or not, that drives freedom online.  The less those in authority tell people what they should think, the better job they will do thinking on their own.

The true threat online to oppressive governments is information, not organization.  And that’s not to be harnessed through social networking tools.  The fear (or opportunity) that governments may leverage social networks for their own purpose is almost certainly overblown, because unlike governments, social networks know no geographical bounds.

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