During the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2008–sponsored by Harvard University and Google in Budapest, Hungary, in late June, and attended by over 200 bloggers, human rights activists, writers, journalists, hackers and IT experts from every corner of the globe–one participant joked that it was worthwhile buying domain names for dissidents likely to be imprisoned. “Just get them with ‘Free (insert name here).com,’ ” he said.
A recent University of Washington report found that 64 people have been arrested for blogging their political views since 2003. Three times as many people were arrested for blogging about political issues in 2007 than in 2006. More than half of the arrests since 2003 were made in Iran, China and Egypt. Internet censorship has become a cause with global relevance.
I was invited to present a paper at the two-day event that covered the research for my forthcoming book, The Blogging Revolution, on the Internet in repressive regimes, plans by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to combat Internet child pornography, and my work with Amnesty International Australia on its campaign against Chinese web filtering, Uncensor.
The goal of Global Voices, started in late 2004, is to provide insights into non-Western nations to Western audiences through country-specific blogs. The last years have seen its agenda expand to include a translation service for multiple languages, Global Voices Lingua , support for minorities in developing nations (the Rising Voices project) and Voices without Votes, the chance for global citizens to comment on the 2008 US presidential election campaign in every country except America.
The Budapest summit featured bloggers and activists from places as diverse as Madagascar, India, Belarus, Kenya, Pakistan, Singapore, Bangladesh, Armenia, Egypt, Iran and China. It was constantly stressed that although the Internet can’t bring democratic reform on its own– only citizens of a country have the right to determine a political system, not outside forces–it is allowing on-the-ground organizations to challenge corruption, fraudulent elections and police-led torture. Populations are being empowered.
Although everybody I met came from varied backgrounds, from the elites to indigenous communities using new technology to find a voice in a country like Bolivia, the sense of community was palpable. What can an Australian journalist like myself really understand about democratic struggles in Iran and Bangladesh? By sharing stories, it soon became clear that many speakers related to others on the opposite side of the globe. Tools such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, e-mail, FeedBurner and text messaging were common denominators used by a minority online community to challenge state-run, media lies.