My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. Here are the highlights from the Global Internet Freedom (GIF) Consortium’s opening remarks along with my critiques:
- The Internet censorship firewalls have become the 21st century Berlin Walls that separate our world. Amid the darkness of the Internet censorship in closed societies, a thread of light still remains. It is the Internet life lines offered by the anti-censorship systems like that of [GIF], which has been providing millions in closed societies for free access to the Internet for years.
- It is our firm belief that free flow of information is the most effective and powerful way to peacefully transform a closed society and promote human rights and civil liberties.
- During the Saffron Revolution in Burma, in late August 2007, we experienced the three-fold increase in average daily traffic from Burma. Many Burmese use our system to post photos and videos of the crackdown to the outside blogs and Websites. The Burmese government had to entirely shut down Internet to stop the outflow of information about the oppression.
- Perhaps, the best example of the role of GIF software was during the Iranian election this past June, when our traffic from Iran increased by nearly 600 percent in one week. On the Saturday of June the 20th, an estimated 1 million Iranians used our system to visit previously censored Web sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google. The Iranian users posted videos, photos and messages about the bloody crackdown.
- Internet freedom has the potential of transforming the closed societies in a peaceful but powerful way that must not be underestimated. The operation of our system is very efficient. It only needs a few dollars to support a user in closed societies for an entire year. Moreover, for every dollar we spent, China and other censors will need to spend hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars to block us. The information warfare over the Internet has now boiled down to the battle of resources. We have technology and the commitment.
Me: This is spot on. I have often described the situation as an “Information Race” with dynamics that hark back to the arms race of the Cold War. So the conclusion that it all boils down to the battle of resources is fascinating—especially since one of Reagan’s strategies was to bankrupt the Soviet Union with the arms race.
What the panelist should have added is that time is money. And the issue of time is central to the field of nonviolent action. Each side, citizens and repressive regimes have equal amounts of hours available to them. But regimes are by definition composed of elites, i.e., a minority, whereas citizens will always form the majority. This suggests that citizens have an inherent advantage if they know how to manage their time and remain on the offensive.
- With a modest amount of resources, there is capacity to tear down the 21st-century Berlin walls. When Congress passed the Internet Freedom Provision in the fiscal year 2008 appropriation act, it declared that, quote, “ensuring the freedom of Internet communication in dictatorships and autocracies throughout the world is a high and critical national interest priority of the United States,” end quote.
- And I really like the idea of using citizen observers and giving them the tools and technology to sort of go out there and report things on election day, but –and I know that they’re– the missions do go out there and observe any sort of foul play beforehand, but is there planning to do any activities or any ongoing activities right now to sort of utilize the same sort of strategy before the elections?
Me: This is an important question and one that I and colleagues are right now addressing vis-à-vis several upcoming elections.