The pros and cons of worldwide net activism

I also posted this at the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate. I serve as Senior Policy Analyst for Technology for the Institute.

As new tools of civic and civil protest evolve – as in Iran, where protesters are using social networks to keep the rest of the world apprised of the response to that country’s recently held elections – they present both new opportunities and new challenges for freedom of speech.

Protesting using Twitter

Protesting using Twitter

Twitter has been singled out as the key communication platform for protesters and those watching them since last week’s election. It has enabled people around the globe to read real time accounts of the happenings.

It has also enabled people around the globe to participate in the protest in ways some have never seen before.

Such armchair activism has included setting up proxy servers to help Iranian tweeters get around government blockades of the site.

Another example was the attempted DDOS attacks on Iranian web servers from abroad (DDoS stands for Denial of Service, a method of hacking that involves sending lots of web requests every second with the hopes of overloading a web server and rendering a website unusable/unavailable).

Principally, the inclusion of non-Iranians in these protest efforts is a good thing. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. However, these particular actions raise serious ethical and legal questions that must be thought through.

As interested activists and citizens, we must be prudent in our actions to ensure they help more than hurt.

For instance, are we comfortable with the idea of private citizens using private networks to engage in network “warfare”?

By doing so, do we make our civilian network infrastructure a valid target to an adversary? What risks are associated with a group of private citizens sending an unintended message to a potential adversary in the form of a coordinated network disruption?

Perhaps we are, but I don’t think that’s the case.

Earlier this year, Russia basically did this to Georgia, and caught a lot of flack for it. This sets a precedent that is dangerous, especially if we don’t understand its consequences.

Another question: if the attacks were actually successful, wouldn’t we be destroying the only portals we have into the very place we’re so interested in?

After all, foreign journalists have been banned from covering the demonstration, and many have been jailed and/or beaten. To choke off an authentic supply of information would be strategically foolish.

Technology is an increasingly powerful and important part of our society and our culture. As it expands to touch more parts of our lives, we must be ever-mindful of its drawbacks as well as its benefits.

One Love. One II.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora and am a National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I currently live in Washington, DC with my beautiful wife Ellen. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. Today I work at the crossroads of traditional political organizing and online activism. I speak before diverse audiences on empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation though emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet.

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