The cheerleading surrounding the transformative power of the new communications technologies, or “Web 2.0,” is masking an unacknowledged reality: The majority of men and women using them wish for free speech to extend only as far as themselves and no further. Blogging, podcasting, file sharing: all of it, they believe, should be in service to their specific ideologies and sensibilities and should be denied to others. Despite the rosy glow of the possibilities of the new technology, the same old countervailing forces are at work. In fact, the trend is against individual liberties. Governments and their supporters worldwide describe free speech as a right when it pertains to their supporters and no right whatsoever when the speaker has an opinion counter to the government’s or to the “sensitivities of a community.”
One example of this was my dealings as the director of the Committee to Protect Bloggers with bloggers and blog-readers in Malaysia over the issue of racist speech on two blogs and a bulletin board. I was asked over and over, “You don’t believe in free speech about anything, do you? Not about any topic at all? You must have limits when free speech goes against social values.” No, I don’t have limits, not in the sense that I believe government should step to end speech, regardless of the topic. No, I really do believe anyone should be able to say anything about Mohammad they wish—and yes, against Jesus, or Moses, or America, even against apple pie—without being arrested, imprisoned, tortured or killed by, or with the connivance of, a government.
Where I live, in the U.S., for years the current (now past, Bush) Administration has consistently rolled back free speech guarantees and civil liberties. And its actions have been supported, either actively or passively, by the overwhelming majority of Americans, citizens and politicians both; this in a country whose identity, in large part, depends on its dedication to political and civil liberties.
Technology is pushing more and more toward enabling speech and amplifying audience. The mass of men, lead by (or leading) their governments, is pushing back. The U.S., the U.K., Australia, China, Iran, Malaysia, Bahrain, Egypt, Zimbabwe and many more are all engaged in some form of curtailment of speech with government power as its instrument. No technology can triumph over the collective will of the people.
I am pessimistic. I think too much cheerleading about this technology has in part led to dissembling and to outright self-deception. I do not have a solution to this problem other than, first, to acknowledge that the problem exists. Most of the bloggers around the world reading this, blinded by faith in the new technology which they are using and drunk on self-regard, will not want to admit it. They will state, categorically, that their political opponents or religious competitors are guilty of it in spades, but that they are not, have never been, never could be.
Unfortunately, 20-year-old kids still keep getting sentenced to state-sanctioned beatings and citizens still keep getting imprisoned extrajudicially, tortured and even killed.
So, what’s to be done about it? Holding hands and “creatively visualizing” a sea-change in the this ego-driven, tribal way of living? Or, alternatively, perhaps we can bomb the evil out of the world? Neither of those approaches has worked out too well so far.
I have only one concrete action I can recommend as a partial corrective to this: Actively disseminate the maximum amount of information on how to express unpopular ideas without being apprehended by misguided authorities. Provide this material especially to those with whom you do not agree. It’s that simple.
Tools and sites like BlogSafer are a start.
The Committee has agitated for fundamentalist Muslim, anti-U.S. Iraqis; for secular Egyptians critical of Islam; for racist anti-Islamic Malaysians; for left-wing Frenchmen and many others. We made a point of pride in defending people who have fallen afoul of governmental power regardless of whether or not we agreed with them; and we provided them, as much as we could, with information and strategies for avoiding the inappropriate attentions of their governments, their employers and the “decent people” surrounding them who would strip the skin from their backs because they indulge in any of a dizzying host of constantly shifting un-orthodoxies.
Regardless of the rah-rah for tech, the vast majority of governments, citizens and societies are against free speech and against the sharing of information that offends its political, social or religious sensibilities, and they have repeatedly proven themselves willing to encourage the improper use of government power to punish those who offend them. These people are in Iraq, Egypt, Iran and China—and they are reading this post right now.
Mirror photo from Geograph