For cause-wired advocates this week, there’s been no missing the irony of China’s Olympic slogan, One World, One Dream. The aggressive push by China’s 30,000 cybercops to continuously monitor and control the information that citizen advocacy groups are able to send in and out of China is only boosting the perception of this year’s Olympics as a qualifying heat for one of the biggest contests of the coming decade—the battle between an expanding, cause-wired citizenry and governments around the globe who would block the free flow of information. (For a comprehensive overview of the battle, click here.)
Indeed, like the athletes competing for Gold in Beijing’s Water Cube, China's censors have wasted no time showing off their speed and muscle: their moves to censor Twitter, crack down on video-sharing sites (both YouTube and a Chinese version of it called 56.com), and make it hard (if not utterly impossible) to load some Web sites such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters sans Frontieres from inside the Foreign Press Center remain firmly (and predictably) intact as of today.
But what's happening this week in China, despite the widespread use of beefed-up, anti-censorship software by those would not be bowed, is more than simply an internationally-broadcast dust-up over who gets the last word (or the first online).
Internet censorship is on the rise in many countries, partly a reaction by nervous governments to the rapid and growing use of social media by citizen activists around the world. John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, says there has been a surge in the scale, scope, and sophistication of Internet filtering. In the past five years, he says, "we have gone from a couple of states doing state-mandated Net filtering to 25."
But there's another big reason for social-change advocates to pay attention to Net censorship. The issue isn't just about the type and number of Web sites accessible to Netizens at home and abroad. It's also about what a free flow of digital information enables people to do. Social media, unfettered, change the way people in society organize themselves to get things done. Such things as mobile phones, Twitter, video-sharing services, and social networking sites make it really easy for people to self-organize into groups from the ground up rather than to be organized by others from the top down.
New media expert Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody, a new book on the impact of social media on society, says this Net-driven social revolution (with a small "r") won't be occurring at the expense of existing institutions (like governments or nonprofits, for example). But it could, he says, provide compelling alternatives that may, over time, weaken them considerably.
And that's mostly what's making officialdom from Beijing to Washington really nervous lately: this Web-enabled shape-shifting is already starting to happen. "Newly capable groups are assembling," Shirky puts it, "and they are working without the managerial imperative and outside the previous institutions and structures that bounded their effectiveness in the past." (Quick—remember that panel you missed at the last Net conference you attended about the waning influence of government? Odds are, they weren't talking about George Bush.)
For now, the information war has no definitive winners or losers: governments, as seen in China this week, are winning some rounds; citizen activists are wracking up other wins elsewhere, as in Burma during last fall's Myanmar revolt and again in May, after Cyclone Nargis. But Net activists fear that sooner or later, governments could get the upper hand—and they've been using China's Olympian censorship efforts to get everyone into the pool. (Amnesty International’s new Uncensor Web site named July 30 a Day of Protest against Net censorship in China. The Uncensor campaign is a joint fundraising effort with an Australian Facebook Cause group and organizers hope the partnership will last well beyond the Olympics.)
Not sure you're ready to jump in yet? Go ahead. Re-read your mission statement. Take it global. Welcome to the war.
(Illustration: Copyright2008 by Cathy Gendron for theispot.com)