Digital and analog politics; Getting it right

Paul Bograd

Posted on July 2, 2009

Let’s not get too George W. Bush about this issue. It is not a simplistic good and evil choice. It is complex and the stakes are quite high.

My colleague Mike Hamlin had a terrific filing about Twittering Regime Change; and he his right on target. He uses a number of examples that are visionary, inspired and even heroic.

Ok. Ok. Maybe not visionary, inspired and even heroic; but at least interesting for a quiet Saturday morning. Consider the example of David Cohen, a former Bush administration official in the Department of the Interior, posting a status update on Facebook Monday morning Manila time urging Twitter users to set their locations to Tehran and their time zones to GMT +3.30. The reason? “Security forces are hunting for bloggers using location/timezone searches,” Cohen wrote.

“The more people at this location, the more of a logjam it creates for forces trying to shut Iranians’ access to the Internet down. While not as dramatic or as impactful; Cohen’s act is a kind of “no risk” cyber version of Raoul Wallenberg heroically and fatally rescuing Jews from the Nazis in Hungary. And the example of 75,000 Philippine internet users signing into a “protest” site against changing the constitution is kind of a “no risk” and light-weight cyber version of the genuinely courageous and legitimate use of “people power” street protests of EDSA 1 that removed the Marcos dictatorship and cleptocracy.

I would like to build on what Mike started writing about. There is a dark side to all this. The same cyber and digital enabling of these 75,000 online petition signers also abetted the mob rule of EDSA 2 that led to the military removal of the only Philippine President elected without controversy or allegations of election fraud since the 1960’s. The same cyber and digital enabling of these 75,000 online petition signers also enabled the mob rule, military and judicial coups and economic blackmail that removed the thrice democratically elected Thaksin Shinawatra and two of his democratically elected successors.

I guess that my conclusion is that cyber and digital enabled communications presents a whole new set of paradigms and conundrums for the political mind; What Responsibilities Do the Carriers of cyber and digital enabled communications have in this? Isn’t Twitter “in effect” conspiring with the Iranian Security and Cyber police when they allow searches by location and timezone? Isn’t Google abridging my right to free speech and thought when they allow the Chinese government to censor the Google platform? If a computer manufacturer installs the “mandatory” censorship chip that a few governments are considering; is that manufacturer a human rights violator?

And what about my political and Intellectual Property rights when my name or image is used without permission in a medium (the Internet) that is largely beyond my access to legal recourse? Is someone who hacks into Google to stop its self censorship software in China an evil “cyber criminal” or are they a cyberworld freedom fighter? Isn’t the mobile phone carrier responsible for an SMS system that allows anonymous threats and enables illegal or unethical behavior? Are not Twitter and Google just as responsible as the banks that enabled the Nazis to conduct their genocide?

Obviously I may be taking this to its emotional extreme, but I don’t think so. In its own way the IT enabled politics of this century may have greater potential for evil than the firearm, truncheon, nuclear and muscle enabled “Analog” politics of the past 1,000 years. The visionary George Orwell novel 1984 described this IT or “Digitally” enabled political and sociological horror with more power and eloquence than I am capable of.

My last thought about this is to be clear. The answers to the questions I have raised are NOT to in any way abridge IT enabled politics, or impose any form of censorship or denial. The answers lie in finding the political, legal and technical will to impose on IT enabled politics the same set of protections for the individual and the same set of institutional responsibilities that that we have been trying to impose on the “Analog” politics of the past 1,000 years.

Let’s not get too George W. Bush about this issue. It is not a simplistic good and evil choice. It is complex and the stakes are quite high. IT and “Digitally” Enabled politics is not some “Nerd” powered open source exercise that can be controlled by a self selected user group. IT-enabled politics is likely to be more powerful and socially and politically definitive than the past 1,000 years of “Analog” enabled politics. And no one with a stake in the political nature of man should sit by idly and allow the implications of IT-enabled politics to unfold without their active participation in that politics.

In my opinion the developing nations of Asia with their weak and “legitimacy challenged” political institutions and the cultural avarice for the Digital have the biggest stake of all in getting the “Digitally Enabled” Politics right.

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