Are the Internet and Social Media ‘Tools of Freedom’ or ‘Tools of Oppression?’

The role of the Internet and social media in what has been described as the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the rest of the Middle East is one of the hottest topics in technology and foreign policy. Ever since the #IranElection hashtag first gave the world a look at social media as forum for information exchange about civil unrest outside of state-controlled media, there has been a huge explosion oof forums and op-eds exploring the question of whether YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, cellphones, crisis mapping and other technology platforms were creating the conditions for revolution — or acting as an accelerant to the embers of revolution. The State Department’s “Internet freedom” policy has come into conflict with both autocrats whose iron rule has carried over from the 21st century using Facebook and mobile technology to track down dissidents and Western democracies seeking increased electronic surveillance powers over the network of networks that now spans the globe.

As with so many other communications tools, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the connection technologies whose use has rapidly brought more of us together can be used in both positive and negative ways, much in the same way the printing press, radio or television changed the distribution of ideas and news in past centuries. Cellphones equipped with cameras and connected to the rest of the world have become the eyes and ears of young people in the Middle East. They can also be used to track them.

In a year when the leader of Libya mentioned Facebook by name and Egypt shuts down the Internet, it would be easy to simply celebrate the role of people power accelerated by social media. Not so fast. These social media platforms of 2011 can and will be used to people, governments and covert organizations to greenwash, astroturf or distribute propaganda or misinformation. This reality has been articulated by Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion and emphasized again in a commentary today on the role of social networking in the Arab Spring. While Wael Ghonim said that without social networking, this wouldn’t have happened, Morozov emphasizes that it took the bravery of millions of young people to show up in real life in Tahir Square in Egypt or in the streets of Tunisia for this to become a reality.

Smarter social networking” in the service of the ends of dictators and autocrats can and will happen, along with so many other spheres of public life. As Ben Scott, innovation advisor of the State Department acknowledged at an AMP Summit in D.C. on social networking and Egypt last month, it is happening, with more use of tools for negative purpose to come. “The question is no longer does technology matter,” he said. “It’s how, and in what ways.”

“Network effects are politically agnostic,” said Scott. These connection technologies are not causing revolution. “They’re accelerating them.”

The question of whether these connection technologies are by their nature aligned with greater freedoms has also, literally, been up for debate. When it comes to a bigger question — whether connection technologies are more useful for democrats or dictators — Scott said that on the whole, he thought the proliferation of connection technologies is good for democracy. The online audience in a recent debate at between Stanford’s Evgeny Morozov and Harvard’s John Palfrey decided by a narrow margin that the Internet is “inherently” a force for democracy. The full dialogue between the two men is well worth reading in its entirety.

Whether that view or this architecture of the Internet itself persists has other members of the academy concerned as well. As Harvard computer science professor Jonathan Zittrain observes in the Scientific American, keeping the Internet open, distributed and free is not a certain outcome.

Attacks on Internet sites and infrastructure, and the compromise of secure information, pose a particularly tricky problem because it is usually impossible to trace an attack back to its instigator. This “attribution problem” is so troublesome that some law-enforcement experts have called for a wholesale reworking of Internet architecture and protocols, such that every packet of data is engraved with the identity of its source. The idea is to make punishment, and therefore deterrence, possible. Unfortunately, such a reworking would also threaten what makes the Internet special, both technologically and socially.

The Internet works thanks to loose but trusted connections among its many constituent parts, with easy entry and exit for new Internet service providers or new forms of expanding access. That is not the case with, say, mobile phones, in which the telecom operator can tell which phone placed what call and to whom the phone is registered. Establishing this level of identity on the Internet is no small task, as we have seen with authoritarian regimes that have sought to limit anonymity. It would involve eliminating free and open Wi-Fi access points and other ways of sharing connections. Terminals in libraries and cybercafes would have to have verified sign-in rosters. Or worse, Internet access would have to be predicated on providing a special ID akin to a government-issued driver’s license—perhaps in the form of a USB key. No key, no bits. To be sure, this step would not stop criminals and states wanting to act covertly but would force them to invest much more to achieve the anonymity that comes so naturally today.

The history of the introduction of new communication tools is a reminder that most disruptive technologies have dual uses. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge was the first President of the United States to make a radio broadcast from the White House. A decade later, Hitler and Stalin were using the same tool to spread a different kind of message.

Nearly a century later, the current occupant of the White House is using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, apps and live video on to communicate with citizens, both of the United States or in other countries. While the White House can claim some open source cred for running on Drupal, much of the rest world has long since becoming aware of the disruptive nature of a more wired society that is connected to the Internet.

The debate about the role of connection technologies in Internet freedom spans many audiences. Last month, the discussion came to the Cato Institute, where a debate on social media and revolutions was moderated by Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at Cato. The discussion featured Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato Institute, Tim Karr, Campaign Director, Free Press, and this correspondent.

The same platforms that can and are being used to transmit breathtaking moments of wonder,
hear digital cries for help or lift up the voices of the citizens in oppressed societies to the rest of the world will also be used against them. Palfrey has further explored Middle East conflict and an Internet tipping point for the Internet at MIT’s Tech Review. His conclusion is worth sharing again:

Today, we are entering a period that we should call “access contested.” Activists around the world are pushing back on the denial of access and controls put in place by states that wish to restrict the free flow of information. This round of the contest, at least in the Middle East and North Africa, is being won by those who are using the network to organize against autocratic regimes. Online communities such as and peer-to-peer technologies like mesh networking provide specific ways for people to get involved directly in shaping how these technologies develop around the world.

But it would be a big mistake to presume that this state of affairs will last for long, or that it is an inevitable outcome. History shows us that there are cycles to the way that technologies, and how we use them, change over time, as Timothy Wu argues in his new book, The Master Switch. The leaders of many states, like China, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan, have proven able to use the Internet to restrict online discussion and to put people into jail for what they do using the network. We should resist the urge to cheer the triumph of pro-Western democracy fueled by widespread Internet access and usage. The contest for control of the Internet is only just beginning.

As the rest of the world watches the changes sweeping the Middle East through snippets of cellphone video uploaded to YouTube and curated by digital journalists like Andy Carvin, connected citizens have unprecedented capacity to drink from the firehose of revolutionary media. The role of the Internet as a platform for collective action is growing. The challenge is what people do with it.

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Platforms for citizensourcing emerge in Egypt

As people watching the impact of social media in the events in Egypt know, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube played a role. Today, Microsoft’s director of public sector engagement, Mark Drapeau, sent word that the Redmond-based software company’s open source ideation platform, Town Hall, has been deployed at to collect ideas.

The highest profile implementation of Town Hall to date was for crowdsourcing ideas in Congress for the incoming Republican majority in Congress at “America Speaking Out.

This Town Hall instance and others show how citizensourcing platforms can be tailored to channel feedback around specific topics, as opposed to less structured platforms. As governments and citizens try to catalyze civic engagement using the Internet, creating better architectures for citizen participation will be critical. Clay Shirky’s talk about the Internet, citizenship and lessons for government agencies at the Personal Democracy Forum offered some insight on that count. Using taxonomies to aggregate ideas instead of a single list was a key takeaway.

To date, the Egyptian citizensourcing site has logged a few dozen questions and votes. Whether usage of the site will grow more or not is up for debate. The network effect may working against it. As ReadWriteWeb reported last week, Egyptians are using Google Moderator to brainstorm Egypt’s future. Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who played a role in Egypt’s recent revolution, started a Google Moderator page for Egypt entitled, “Egypt 2.0, what does we need? What are our dreams?!.” To date, the Moderator instance has logged 1,361,694 votes for more than 50,000 of the ideas submitted by nearly 40,000 users.