Back in March 2010, Learn the Net posted an article about internet activism, stating that despite criticism, e-activism “isn’t going to disappear.” The closing line of that article was: “Often it takes more than a few words on a blog or an e-mail to make a difference, but it’s a positive start.”
Fast forward a bit to December 2011, which saw a bitter debate erupt around the world over concerns that proposed U.S. legislation would potentially put too much power into the hands of the U.S. government to censor the Internet and bring many information sharing sites to a swift end. That legislation was introduced as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate.
The ruckus culminated in a massive Internet-based “blackout” on January 18, one that saw thousands of websites go dark in protest of the legislation. In fact, over 75,000 websites participated in a blackout through SOPA Strike, one of many online activists groups that tried to rally people to protest.
Many people were surprised to see the likes of Wikipedia, Google, and Craigslist either go dark or include website content that made users keenly aware something was not right. Many even stated they didn’t know what SOPA and PIPA were until they visited websites participating in the online protest, if nothing else proving that awareness was raised by the event. And Internet users shouldn’t be surprised to see similar actions (though perhaps on a lesser scale) in the future.
“Technology has grown as a part of our lives, and the companies now have something of value that they can withhold in terms of services, which is a shift in the overall political landscape,” Colin Gillis, a technology analyst at BGC Financial, told the L.A. Times. “Is this spawning a new level of activism? I’d say absolutely yes.”
While citizens continue to find new and interesting ways to better protest using the Internet and technology, it’s worth noting this “new level of activism” seen last week didn’t exclusively take place on the Internet. Protesters wrote letters to, called to, and even visited the offices of their representatives, frequently doing so on multiple occasions over a prolonged period of time dating back to 2011. Activists even pulled together to participate in rallies in San Francisco, New York, and other major U.S. cities, adding an additional discontented presence to the masses. Two days later, voting actions on the SOPA and PIPA bills were postponed indefinitely by House and Senate leaders for further discussion.
While it’s easy to argue whether or not this is truly an end to the legislation, what’s difficult to argue about is the role the Internet itself played in bringing the votes to a halt. Not only did activists use the Internet as a tool, but they also were essentially fighting for their right to continue to protest online without fear of having their voices censored. And while last week’s blackout wasn’t the first time hundreds of thousands of people have took to the Web during times of dissent, the blackout stands out as a sort of “high water mark” for what can be accomplished using the Internet.
It may be a while before we see online activism in such capacity again, but be certain that it will happen. As the concept of social networking continues to change and draw in new Internet users, new methods of bringing information to people from all walks of life will certainly appear. Additionally, as an increasing amount of business is performed and information is exchanged over the Web, look for online businesses and other entities to become more vocal, using their clout to help shift political and social thought. With them will come a continuing evolution in how people communicate, learn, and protest.
Photo via mangtronix, Flickr Creative Commons
The short answer is “you are”–you and the 2 billion other people who use the Internet. More on this in a moment.
There’s also another “anonymous,” an amorphous group of people around the world who claim they’re fighting for free speech. Because of their cyber-attacks on targets as diverse as Sony’s PlayStation Network (Anonymous denies stealing any customer data) and the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, Anonymous has been branded as criminals. But depending on your point of view, this rebellious band can also be seen as Internet freedom fighters.
According to their YouTube manifesto published last December, “We are not a terrorist organization as governments, demagogues, and the media would have your believe. Rather, Anonymous is a spontaneous collective of people who share the common goal of protecting the free flow of information on the Internet.” Anonymous has compared their actions to those of American Civil Rights workers of the 1960s.
Members of the collective reportedly include software programmers, professionals and IT types. They take down websites by using denial-of-service attacks. Anonymous harnesses an army of zombie computers to direct simultaneous service requests to a website, causing the server to overload and then crash. They claim, “We do no damage to the computer hardware.”
Anonymous attacked Visa, MasterCard and PayPal when the companies stopped processing donations for Wikileaks. The group crashed Egyptian government websites in retaliation for taking the country offline. More recently, they embarrassed HBGary, a computer security firm with numerous high level government and corporate clients, by hacking into its network.
In many ways, the Internet remains a new frontier. There’s a certain romance to a band of outliers who pledge to protect free speech by challenging multinational corporations and governments. Of course the targets of the attacks hardly see it that way and are actively trying to round up these outlaws. Will they succeed?
Being anonymous is one of the great strengths of the Internet. We don’t hesitate to research subjects online that might prove too sensitive to discuss face-to-face with a research librarian. We buy products online that we might be too embarrassed to purchase in a retail store. Then there’s the porn industry, which makes billions of dollars from its anonymous clients. Concealing one’s identity has advantages.
The only way to unmask Anonymous is for all of us to reveal ourselves as well. The question is, are we ready to pay that price?
In the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of debate in the media about the effect the Internet has had on the recent uprisings in the Mideast. Some credit social media tools like Facebook and Twitter for fomenting the turmoil. Others say that the conditions already existed and social media had little to do with it. While you can argue it both ways, the fact that the Internet has helped get the word out is undeniable.
For instance, in Tunisia, it was no secret that the former government of president Ben Ali was rife with corruption. When Wikileaks revealed cables from U.S. diplomats that documented this corrosive environment, it provided Tunisians with tangible proof, adding fuel to the fiery rebellion.
In Egypt, the recent uprising began when a young man, despondent over his hopeless condition, set himself on fire in front on parliament. A Facebook page, We are all Khaled Said, spread the word about his horrific personal protest. A few days later, people took to the streets. During the 18 days of protests that lead to the departure of President Mubarak from office, Facebook and Twitter informed Egyptians about street protests.
The government was so concerned about the Internet, that it shut it down for a number of days. International outrage and pressure eventually restored service.
Fear of the Internet has now spread to Algeria, where citizens, emboldened by events in Tunisia and Egypt, have taken to the streets demanding change. According to news reports the government has blocked Facebook and ordered an Internet shutdown.
Regardless of whether the Internet provoked the uprisings (certainly the underlying conditions were already there), clearly governments are afraid of it. China has censored the Net for years, but now repressive regimes are going further–taking their countries offline. But how long can a nation disconnect from the flow of information? Is it committing political and economic suicide? As discontent spreads across the Mideast and disenfranchised citizens take to the streets, we’ll find out the consequences of these information revolutions.
As quoted in the New York Times, Shawki al-Qadi, an opposition lawmaker in Yemen said, “The street is not afraid of governments anymore. It is the opposite. Governments and their security forces are afraid of the people now. The new generation, the generation of the Internet, is fearless. They want their full rights, and they want life, a dignified life.”
“Power to the People” was a much used slogan during the 1960s, but today it’s taking on a whole new meaning.