Friday, December 17, 2004

Blogging and Freedom (again)

The blogging and freedom theme is revisited by Dan Henninger in this morning's WSJ. He does it best, so here it is:

December 17, 2004


"Here's One Use Of U.S. PowerJacques Can't Stop"

"We see where a curator at France's Pompidou Center says his museum is opening a branch in Hong Kong, because 'U.S. culture is too strong' there, and 'we need to have a presence in Asia to counterbalance the American influence.' With the Pompidou Center?

"'American influence' is the great white whale of the 21st century, and Jacques Chirac is the Ahab chasing her with a three-masted schooner. Along for the ride is a crew that includes Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Vladimir Putin, North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, Kofi Annan, the Saudi royal family, Robert Mugabe, the state committee of Communist China and various others who have ordained themselves leaders for life. At night, seated around the rum keg, they talk about how they have to stop American political power, the Marines or Hollywood.

"The world is lucky these despots and demagogues are breaking their harpoons on this hopeless quest. Because all around them their own populations are grabbing the one American export no one can stop: raw technology. Communications technologies, most of them developed in American laboratories (often by engineers who voted for John Kerry), have finally begun to affect an historic shift in the relationship between governments and the governed. The governed are starting to win.
Not that long ago, in 1989, the world watched demonstrators sit passively in Tiananmen Square and fight the authorities with little more than a papier-mâché Statue of Liberty. Poland's Solidarity movement had to print protest material with homemade ink made from oil because the Communist government confiscated all the printers' ink.

"In 2004, in Ukraine's Independence Square, they had cell phones.
Using the phones' SMS messaging technology, demonstrators sent messages to meet to 10 or so friends, who'd each SMS the message to 10 more friends, and so on. It's called 'smart-mobbing.'

"Meanwhile, community Web sites in Ukraine would post the numbers of tents on the square where medical help was needed, or the sites would recruit people with specific TV skills needed at Channel 5, the lone independent TV station. The Ukrainian Supreme Court's historic Dec. 3 decision, declaring the election a fraud, was streamed on the Internet live from a Kiev courtroom and watched real time in London, New York, Washington and Toronto, sent out on e-mail distribution lists so the next steps could be discussed by the reform network and put in motion within an hour.

"Until recently, one-party or no-party governments had a standing list of answers for people with a different notion: a) we don't care what you think; b) shut up; c) we kill you. There's no sure cure for c, but Plans a and b are becoming obsolete. Once impervious political authorities must now face the possibility of having their information monopoly hammered by an array of mostly American-engineered technology -- smart cell phones, communication satellites, e-mail, Web logs (or 'blogs') and a seemingly endless stream of information-sharing programs whose arcane names (RSS, Atom) hide their great power. The mass-market power of the older media -- radio, TV, print -- is also being integrated with the precision targeting of new technologies.

"This past weekend, a few hundred of the people creating and driving these things gathered at a conference organized by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. It included individuals who are proselytizing the new communications technologies to Iran, China, Iraq, South Korea, Malaysia, India, Western Africa and even the U.S. military (individual GIs are running an estimated 100 Web logs).
Isaac Mao, a Chinese entrepreneur who runs a blog-hosting service, reported that in two years the number of personal, Chinese-language Web logs has grown from 1,000 to 600,000. Many are run by English speakers, who import, translate and distribute material from outside China.

"Anyone want to guess the third-most used language on the Web, behind English and Chinese? Farsi. Iran now has about 75,000 individual Web logs. That's because a young, Toronto-based Iranian journalist who publishes as Hoder created tools in Farsi to make it possible. Only 10% of the Iranian blogs could be called political; most discuss music, movies, poetry and Iranian or Western culture. 'Iran's most interesting political conversations take place in taxis,' said Hoder.

"There's more coming. Developers from California at the conference introduced the first Arabic-language blogging tool. Created with support from Spirit of America, it will be used now in Iraq. The Fadhil brothers of plan to assemble 25 Internet journalists to report the Jan. 30 election. This effort will be patterned after, the influential South Korean Web newspaper.

"China uses up to 40,000 bureaucrats to police its explosion of blogs. We'll no doubt find out how many anti-Web divisions Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has. (One provocateur at the conference plausibly suggested the greatest opportunities for these technologies lie with one of the world's most monopolized precincts -- local U.S. politics.) In Africa, by contrast, the best political communication occurs outside cyberspace, on talk-radio. The most interesting is Ghana's JoyFM (it maintains a lively Web site of Ghanaian news at

"There is no need to oversell the power of these technologies. What happened in Ukraine won't happen in Cairo next month. But unless Hosni Mubarak and Vladimir Putin can come up with a way to shut down every engineer and programmer in America who is inventing new ways to output/input ideas and tweaking the ones we already have, they've got a problem.

"Their problem -- and the promise here -- is that this stuff is moving the world's people, and fast, toward the one American product that governing elites really need to fear: free speech. Some at the Berkman conference worried this still isn't enough to change things. Jeff Jarvis, one of this movement's most intelligent thinkers set them straight: 'This is not about causes or organizing people. It's about us creating these tools and then simply having faith in people who use them elsewhere to do good.'

"Even the Pompidou Center won't stop that."