Twittering to End Dictatorship: Ensuring the Future of Web-based Social Movements

Update: this post was originally posted in June 2o09. With the current events in Syria, it is important that we keep pressuring Western corporations not to sell surveillance technologies to these regimes. I have not updated the original post so might be a bit outdated.

People around the globe have been moved by the bravery of the Iranian people in their demand for an honest election. They have woven together Ghandi’s non-violence, the religious activism of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and Web 2.0 tools to organize, strengthen and coordinate massive popular demonstrations. In doing so, they have inspired and touched people around the globe.

Not everybody will like what they see. The Iranian people are sending a chilling signal to oppressive governments around the world. They have demonstrated that there is no way to censor the Internet: an electron is just too small for governments to block.

The End of Censorship

For centuries, governments have worked to isolate their territory from the influence of outsiders, blocking their citizen’s free access to information, opinions, and ideas from the outside world. The notion that a country can be fenced off, that information flow can be prevented, is increasingly obsolete. Social movements, like multinational corporations, are no longer contained by national boundaries. Activists ally themselves with peers around the world using Web tools, both first generation tools like email, and 2.0 tools like Facebook and Twitter. In Iran in June 2009, every person has become a broadcaster, uploading video, short messages, and photos to YouTube, Twitter, and Flickr. Web 2.0 allows us to be witnesses of resistance and suppression in real-time. It creates new allies and activists. This regime can slow the information flow within Iran and deport foreign reporters, but it has no tools to fight the armies of cell phone users arrayed in its streets. Information is still flowing in and out of the country.

This is very bad news for governments which depend on their control of mass media to restrict access to the information. Their days are now counted.

Unless, that is, such regimes begin to control the design, sale and dissemination of bandwidth, hardware and software. If they can control technology, instead of controlling the media and those information flows, they will be able to maintain control over their people.

This scenario is less unlikely than it seems.

The Role of Technology Firms:  More than Market Actors

The events in Iran make it starkly evident to anti-democratic rulers that their continued existence depends on restricting access to the Web. To gain control over the enormously distributed functions of the Internet, they will need to require that all corporations seeking access to their markets adapt the hardware of cell phones, hand-held computers, and PC’s in ways that will enable such regimes to continuously monitor their use. Companies that do not comply with such demands will not get access to lucrative markets.

The biggest demands for changes to soft- and hardware are already coming from China. For example, China is demanding the source code from hardware manufacturers as an “obligatory accreditation system for IT security products” and it is drafting technical standards to “define methods of tracing the original source of Internet communications and potentially curbing the ability of users to remain anonymous”.

These demands put companies in a difficult spot: any support of democratic ideals pits the interests of shareholders against the interests of their customers in states without functioning democracies. Seldom have corporations sided with their customers. For example, American telecommunication companies, including AT&T, collaborated with the American government to build a surveillance system that used wiretap domestic and international communications without a warrant. The program might still run. More recently, Western governments are proposing laws that would significantly increase the ability to track and trace their citizens. For example, Canada has proposed warrantless searches, Germany proposed Internet censorship, and Australia has had plans to block BitTorrent.

Big Brother Free

We owe it to the Iranian people to insist that our technologies remain neutral, that our corporations do not give in to the demands of oppressive regimes by embedding remote control and tracing capabilities. We need to demand that the technologies that we use are and remain Big Brother Free.

The most powerful weapon against totalitarianism is not the gun but the cell phone. We must ensure it  can be used.

This post was written by Alison Kemper and Diederik van Liere.

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