Will the new revolution be fought with weapons, or technology? A look at how the internet can be used as a revolutionary tool.
When Gil Scott Heron sang, “You will not be able to stay home, brother . . . because the revolution will not be televised . . . The revolution will be live,” he envisioned a revolution that belonged on the streets of the urban city, the opposite of the passive TV watching masses, a visible, loud, angry change. Little did he know that less than four decades later, a brother staying at home could have as much, if not more, power and affect as much change as Martin Luther King, Jr., Che Guevera or Mahatma Ghandi did in their lifetimes.
About 1.2 billion people, or 20% of the world’s population, are connected to the internet; this is a two-fold increase from the year 2000. The internet, originally designed as a military application to prevent a nuclear attack from wiping out US communications infrastructure, is now a part of everyday life in the western world. The wi-fied home PC in Europe and North America has become as commonplace as the television. The internet has opened up a world of choice to anyone who can access it. The freedom to gain fast access to information from a variety of sources, to choose what price you pay for things, or even if you pay at all, makes it a democratic space, governed by the needs and demands of the people. The very qualities that make the internet a democratic space, its openness, its participatory nature, and the distribution of authority and accountability, make it the ultimate space for revolution.
Revolutionary activity looks different according to one’s point of view. Opening a newspaper in Europe or North America, you would be forgiven for thinking that the internet is far from the egalitarian symbol of empowerment and free speech and closer to a breeding ground for the next generation of paedophiles, terrorists, and happy slappers. It is repeatedly stated without question that terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda use the internet to disseminate information both within and without its members, whilst still evading capture and retaining their anonymity. Consequently, it has become a given that before the AK-47s and bombs come computers, phones, and video equipment. However, a search on Google for Al Qaeda only brings up anti-Al Qaeda sites such as internet-haganah.us, which boasts of the number of terrorist sites they have infiltrated and shut down. The combination of media hysteria based on an invisible reality brings a doubly problematic result; either the web sites don’t exist, or the virtual world of the internet is not as free and open as it first seems; it is actually mediated and sanitised to allow only one point of view. Whether due to the agendas of custodians of social welfare or anti-terrorist propaganda, the potential for the internet as a site for revolutionary change is clearly under threat.
In January 2002, Colonel Timothy L. Thomas, an analyst with the U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office, wrote an article entitled ‘Information-Age "De-Terror-ence”’ for the Military Review Journal. In it, he highlighted the characteristics of web-based communications notably, the ability to connect disparate groups, global freedom, publicity and anonymity as the very tools of the terrorist extremist.
The first points, global freedom and the ability to join disparate groups, are particularly relevant in the case of the 7 July bombing in the UK. The suspects were characterised as “locally rooted, globally inspired,” gaining access to extremist ideology not from their local area, but through extremist content accessed on the internet. Such characterisation of the 7/7 bombers, in addition to the proliferation of images of police investigators clutching computer hard-drives from the homes of suspected terrorists and the media’s consistent reference to Al-Qaeda activity on the net amounts to an implicit justification for increased surveillance. As Colonel Timothy L. Thomas puts it, these “challenges to civil liberties should be expected since heretofore restricted investigative tools associated with the Internet are required,” an explicit statement on the belief that the liberties associated with the internet should be strictly mediated by authorities. The reality of this Big Brother-esque surveillance was recently brought closer to home by the media coverage of the conviction of Samina Malik in the UK.
Last month, 23-year-old Samina Malik became the first woman to be convicted under the Terrorism Act. The self-titled ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ allegedly downloaded extremist material, attempted to donate to a terrorist organisation, and wrote poems on her desire to become a martyr. That Samina posed little threat is clear from the judge’s decision to release her on bail pending sentencing. The case is important more because the freedom that Samina associated with the internet was shown to be false. Samina’s activity on the net was actually being closely monitored by the MI5. While some level of surveillance is undoubtedly justified, the prosecution of Samina, a young bored Muslim woman playing out a foolish fantasy, sets a worrying precedent for the future of the openness and transparency associated with the internet. If these ideals are threatened, the democratic ideals on which this technology is based are also under threat.
In 2005, the Safe Democracy Foundation held an International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security. One of the panels was dedicated to the subject of “Democracy, Terrorism and the Internet” and one of the chief concerns regarding the stricter controls in the internet due to alleged terrorist activity, was the effect that such measures would have on emerging democracies. Martin Varsavsky, an Argentine/Spanish entrepreneur and writer, pointed out that while “anonymity may not be so relevant in democracies, it is certainly relevant in countries where if you speak up they kill you.”
Speaking out had grave consequences for newspaper editor Wu Xianghu, who was beaten to death by Chinese police in 2006 after he published an article on police brutality. China, which ranks 159th out of 167 countries in a survey of press freedom carried out by the Paris-based international rights group Reporters Sans Frontiers, has a long history of attempting to harness or suppress the power of the print media. More recently, they have become increasingly more sophisticated at controlling web content. Their efforts to mediate what Chinese internet users see online has earned them a place on Reporters Sans Frontiers 13 Internet enemies list, which brings together the countries that have the worst record in using censorship on the net.
China’s level of censorship may seem a million miles away from controls sought by European and North American governments, but Liu Zhengorong, Supervisor of Internet Affairs for the Information office of China’s Sate Council, claims it is based directly on the West’s precedent. “If you study the main international practices in this regard you will find that China is basically in compliance with the international norm. The main purposes and methods of implementing our laws are basically the same.” He denies that China suppresses criticism of Bejjing’s policies or political leaders, despite Right Groups’ findings and court documents to the contrary. The comparison to western policies is relevant because stronger controls serve as a justification for less freedom of expression in parts of the world that have little to begin with. The example of China’s sophisticated control over its web content is important also for its exemplary power, say Reporters Sans Frontiers: “Just five years ago, many people thought Chinese society and politics would be revolutionised by the internet, a supposedly uncontrollable medium. Now, with China enjoying increasing geopolitical influence, people are wondering the opposite, whether perhaps China’s internet model, based on censorship and surveillance, may one day be imposed on the rest of the world.”
That the internet is a powerful revolutionary tool is clear from its potential in countries where press freedom is suppressed and democracies are emerging. In Vietnam, the pro-democracy movement is currently using the net to recruit, organise and circulate independently sourced news reports. The lack of paper trail and the very invisibility afforded by the net allow such activity to flourish and make impact. However, the qualities that allow such revolutionary activity to go on, the ephemeral nature of the net and the perceived lack of accountability, along with increasingly sophisticated methods of monitoring activity, also make it a powerful propaganda tool for governments and other groups wishing to justify aggressive foreign policy and encroachments on civil liberties.
1st December 2007