Monday, February 7, 2011

Wake-Up Call

Efforts by authorities last week to shut down the Internet in Egypt should serve as a "wake-up call" to citizens everywhere that social media are not free from government and corporate control, Web and foreign policy experts warned today at two separate Social Media Week gatherings in Manhattan.

"I don't worry about social media so much as I do about corporate and government attempts to shut them down," Micah Sifry, Executive Editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, told a mid-day panel hosted by Wired magazine at Google's New York science hub. Social media companies, he said, will do what is in their best interests -- and not always what's best for free speech, privacy and the security of citizen activists.

"...I'm terrified that we are relying on corporate entities to enable" citizen organizing over Facebook, Twitter, email and cellphones in one country after another, Sifry said. "I think it's very dangerous, as there's really no reason that social media companies have to be socially responsible at all. Their responsibility is to the bottom line." [See Portable Propaganda in CauseGlobal, about Vodaphone's Feb. 3 accusation that Egyptian authorities were secretly using its network to send anonymous, pro-government propaganda to protesters.]

Sifry, author of the recent book, Wikileaks and The Age of Transparency, also said he worries about a lack of transparency by social media companies when it comes to their policies governing user privacy and security. He said social media platforms "have become ubiquitous ... yet we as users have less rights on them than we do walking into a shopping mall." Sifry added: "I don't think that these [social media] companies will be good global citizens" in the years ahead. Typically, "the government asks for your data and companies hand it over," he said. "...This is a great wakeup call for citizens to fight for something better, and to ask themselves, What are our rights? How do we enforce them in this space?"

Later in the day, author Evgeny Morozov told a panel hosted by the Open Society Institute that "governments everywhere are looking for an Internet kill switch" now that social media are making it easier for activists to organize faster and in higher numbers than ever before. Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, said the Utopian vision of the Net that most people shared a decade ago -- the notion that dictatorships would collapse under the onslaught of social media -- doesn't square with today's world. The Internet, Morozov argues, "is an uncontrollable and inherently political medium that will frustrate those who believe democracy can be promoted with the push of a button."

He said he wrote his book to help people understand that while social media can accelerate social movements -- these movements will not occur the same way across the globe, nor have the same outcomes, due to differences in local cultures and aspirations. Case in point: the failure of a Facebook campaign in Syria last week and separately, the recent use of blogs and other forms of social media by Sudanese authorities to disseminate false information in an effort to ferret out and arrest anti-government protesters.

For more on the subject, see the February 5 CNN Opinion article, "Internet is easy prey for governments" by Douglas Rushkoff, and "Caught in the net" -- a review of Morozov's book by The Economist magazine. See also "Voicing Opposition" by Sarah A. Topol in Slate.

Do you agree or disagree? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration: Miroslaw Pieprzyk)

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home