Friday, March 27, 2009

The Spinternet

In the mid-1990s, people began realizing the Internet would transform the world—but the prevailing wisdom at the time was that it would be mostly for the better. One of today's panels of thought leaders at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford agreed it's time to take another look at that assumption.

 Charles Leadbeater, a social entrepreneur and author of We-think: the power of mass creativity, said the Internet has, indeed, given more people access to knowledge [and will continue to do so, through such sites as Ushahidi,, the new Wikimap Aid, and M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money exchange service in Kenya]. It's also clear, Leadbeater said, that the Web has begun to topple the top-down, Industrial Age way of managing people and projects into more level, lateral types of conversations, relationships and collaborative teams. "I also think the Web has huge potential to allow knowledge to be deployed in different ways which are not determined by profit," he told Skoll conferees.

Panelists also agreed that the Web—particularly cellphone video-sharing—is empowering many people to hold their leaders accountable for bullying: Executive Director Yvette Alberdingk Thijm shared citizen videos that her nonprofit either helped to produce or took viral on the Web in an effort to stop human rights abuses. This mobile phone video, about a California man shot and killed by police, led to the arrests of two officers after it went viral shortly after the incident. [Note the irony of the "danger" sign on the closing door of the subway train that appears at the end of the clip.] Another video, shot on a Flip video camera by Yemeni activists, showcases the six-year-old daughter of Yemeni journalist Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, and her recollections of the day authorities broke into the family's home, beat her father unconscious, and imprisoned him for his pro-democracy views. uploaded the video and took it viral; a screen shot of that video, emblazoned with The Hub's logo, was then published by an Arab newspaper. A public uproar ensued and led to the release of al-Khaiwani last September. "Once a story is out in the public sphere, it cannot be removed from public consciousness," Alberdingk Thijm said.  "The Web can help shift the dynamics of power."

But citizens, beware. It's getting harder to use the Web for social change. Challenges to the Web's potential for democracy and freedom are growing quickly now, panelists agreed. "The enemy is getting just as smart in using these same tools to silence people yet again," said Evgeny Morozov, a Belarussian journalist who is writing a book about censorship and the use of the Internet by authoritarian states. 

Morozov cited a half-dozen examples of government and corporate "Net-cleansing"—including cases where companies are hiring "reputation cleansers" to bury Web references to poor corporate track records on Web search engines, while nationalist groups in Africa and the Middle East are using Google maps to mashup census data, so as to better pinpoint minority neighborhoods for targeting. Crowdsourcing also is being used by the governments of Thailand and China to drum up lists of Web sites and blogs critical of the current regimes; the Thai government, Morozov says, asks citizens to nominate Web sites to be blocked for content that offends the king; in China, a "50-cent Army" of some 200,000 or more citizens is paid to post pro-government comments on blogs critical of Beijing authorities. Morozov also says denial-of-service attacks are emerging as powerful tools for silencing political dissent in Georgia, Burma, Russia—and the United States. [During last year's debate in California over the controversial Proposition 08, Morozov says, denial-of-service attacks were used by proponents of the anti-gay proposal to stem the ability of gay and lesbian nonprofits and political action groups to fight the measure.]

 "We tend to assume the Net is going to be helping [civil rights advocates] and not the dictators," Morozov says, "but repressive groups and regimes love the Internet, too, and are figuring out how to use it to control others." When asked by moderator Andrew Zolli which side is winning—citizen civil rights activists or the dictators—Morozov said: "Both ends of the spectrum are expanding, but it's very hard for me to deliver an argument that the Net benefits one political side more than the other."

For more on the 50-cent Army and Internet censorship, see Peep Show, an August post on Cause Global about online censorship around the world.  

The Skoll World Forum 2009 ends today.

(Illustration by

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Anonymous Norm Blondin said...

Hi Marcia,
This is very informative. When you think of it, you find that the internet is only a mirror of what is actually in the world. It is a virtual mirror, if you like. But the old struggles do not go away. I think the call on each individual remains. Will I take my responsibility and will I manifest 'my' truth. As each person does that, I believe, the world will change. Social media is a medium that is helping the individual find his or her voice. The question is, as I said, will each one take up the call?
I hope so. As each person takes his or her power, outside authority will automatically loose its power. It seems to me this has always been the issue throughout history. Will we get to the tipping point? is the question.
Thanks for the info

March 29, 2009 at 9:32 AM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Norm, for your thoughts. Yes, the Net gave us the opportunity to create something different; it's fascinating to see the early signs of struggle. I'm optimistic, however, that some of the same new opportunities for public accountability will be used to evolve the technology. Thanks for writing.


March 29, 2009 at 4:18 PM  

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