NetHui 2011 - Session 3 - The Internet as a revolutionary tool

posted 28 Jun 2011, 21:59 by James Williamson

The Internet as a revolutionary tool.


  • Gradual slide of the internet towards corporate and government control

  • Concern is about control of content, rather than infrastructure (which probably needs to be controlled to some extent).

  • Don't want the internet to turn into TV. Allowing freedom of choice based on individual preferences is important. Anti-censorship, software freedom, cultural freedom – founding principles of the internet should not be allowed to be captured by governments or corporations.

  • Traditional revolution, e.g. Egypt and the "Arab spring". Not entirely grassroots – US government interests have funded opposition in order to try overthrow governments, so that US corporations can go in and make money. USA has a history of doing this – helps to provide internet infrastructure to groups within oppressive regimes to help them overthrown their government.

  • Non-traditional revolution – Tor, bitcoin and bittorrent. Anonymous communication, alternative currency based on cryptography, free file sharing that is difficult to track. Silk road – people buy and sell illegal drugs using bitcoin so the buyers and sellers are anonymised. Wikileaks – has revolutionised the nature of "whistleblowing" and the concept of official secrets.

  • Examples of things that people have created which have revolutionary potential. Created for the purpose of existing outside control structures imposed by governments and corporations. Used by people who want to be anonymous – governments do not like this as there is a presumption that people who want to be anonymous are likely to be doing something illegal, evading taxes, selling banned goods etc.

  • Should the government be able to turn these things off? What can we do to ensure that human communication remains uncapturable, by either government or corporate interests.

  • What is your bottom line. How far will you have to be pushed before you take action – top 3 activities that NZers use the internet for are banking, product information and paying bills. Political activism is easier in general here, so there has been less of a tendency for dissidents to congregate by preference in online forums.

  • Mainly adopted by people who have motivation for using them – bittorrent became so popular due to the slowness of record labels to develop systems for distributing digital content at a reasonable price, Tor is used mainly by political activists in repressive regimes, but in western nations is often used by hackers, drug dealers and child pornographers. Bitcoin is used mainly by people who want to sell banned or restricted goods without being identified. So while these are an essential counterbalance to the increasing tendency towards control of the internet by government and corporate interests, they also attract negative publicity because of how difficult it is to provide free and unmonitored exchange without also facilitating illegal activity.

  • The internet is not separate from the "real world", it is just a means of communicating between people who all live in the real world. So the responsibility of governments to protect people in everyday life also extends to the internet, but a balance must be struck between this obligation to protect people, and the creeping tendency to restrict freedoms by protecting people from themselves for ideological reasons, when they neither want nor need protecting.

  • The three key wars of ideology – war on drugs, war on terror and war on (some kinds of) pornography are all fought online to as great an extent as in the "real world" – however in the online world where there is free exchange of information, wars on ideology struggle to sway public discussion. All three of these "wars" are largely pushed by the religious right-wing elements in the USA, who are threatened by the largely liberal left-wing bias that pervades much of the internet – so the internet itself is seen as a tool that is aiding "the enemy".

  • Transparency is important for legitimacy, but this can be hard to balance with anonymity – example of bitcoin where both the buyer and seller have identity concealed by encryption, but the actual transfer of funds is fully transparent, so if you know your own encryption key you can always track where your money is going.

  • Revolutionary change is dangerous especially when there is no clear plans for what happens once "the dust settles" as it were. A better approach is often evolution, where a stepwise and progressive change happens over time with extensive public consultation and feedback, so dramatic revolutionary change and unintended consequences can be avoided.

  • Huge amount of information available, but a general lack of information literacy, people often lack insight into where the content they are reading comes from, and hence what limitations there may be on its validity, or what inherent bias may be present. Similar problem is the tendency of people to seek out and read things that agree with their pre-existing views and beliefs, so people tend to ignore evidence that doesn't fit their world view and consequently always feel like what they read online supports what they believe already.

  • Open communication is a good thing, between both individual people and between people and governments. Conflicting principles between openness and anonymity, the more that people can communicate in a way that mirrors the way the internet works, while conversely bringing their real world views and ideals onto the online world, the closer the two mediums will come.




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