Antony Loewenstein is giving a Berkman Center lunchtime talk on “The Blogging Revolution: Going Online in Repressive Regimes.” He begins by reading a short paper. [Note: I'm live-blogging. Getting it wrong, Missing stuff. And this comes out far choppier than the actual discussion.]
In the paper he says that bloggers are at risk of being silenced in repressive regimes In Antony’s home, Australia, the PM is proposing filtering child porn and “excessively violent” sites. There has also been talk of blocking euthanasia and pro-anorexia sites. Wha next? Block Hamas sites? (Antony does not consider Hamas to be a terrorist group.) Despite all this, Australia isn’t one of the more repressive regimes when it comes to the Net. Antony’s book looks at bloggers’ attitudes toward their governments. E,.g., bloggers in the Middle East generally are angry at their governments for repressing the rise of Islamic government. There is a widespread desire to make incremental change without government involvement. Bloggers everywhere are unpacking issues governments would rather hide from view. “Blogging is not in itself revolutionary but the act of expressing yourself online can be.” Many of the bloggers he met with were aware of their international audience and hoped that would bring pressure on their regimes. They are also angry at global companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google in enabling the restrictions on the Net. “International laws and norms must be applied.” We need ethical labeling on media, as we have Fair Trade labels. And it’s not just other countries that we need to worry about it. Sen. Lieberman pressured YouTube to remove videos from supposedly Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Blogging lets people write and publish without a Western filter.”
Q: [ethanz] In your book, you look at how the rest of the world gets filtered by the Western media. You say that the blogosphere lets people see the world unfiltered. But, people aren’t queueing up to read international blogs. There isn’t enough demand for it. What’s an ideal relationship among the people raising their voices — probably not in English — and the people around the world who could change policy and structure?
A: The bloggers I met with have very popular sites within their own country. Part of my job as a journalist is to talk with other journalists and tell them they ought to be paying more attention to these voices. It doesn’t mean that they will, but it’s likely these people will have an effect. During the Olympics, over Tibet, bloggers on both sides were shouting across each other. For one thing, language is a key problem. On the positive side, newspapers ran what Arab bloggers thought about the election.
Q: [ethanz] But wouldn’t the old man-on-the-street interviews be more representative than a handful of bloggers?
A: We need both. You, Ethan, may be underestimating the effect bloggers are having on journalists.
Q: [me] Do you have examples of blogging affecting repression?
A: Egypt. Bloggers filmed torture and rape. It was distributed via mobiles. Eventually the government was forced to respond. Police torture still goes on, but now people talk about it. Also, in Iran there are far more discussions of issues such as women’s rights, religious affiliations, the Iraq War. I don’t want to overplay that, but that is going on.
Q: The effect of Al Jazeera?
A: Major. Satellite is having more effect in many ways than the Net. It reaches more people.
Q: Yes, Western media ultimately turns everything into what’s about “us.” Western media define Arabs in light of the geopolitical struggle. The press reduces my identity to whether I’m pro or against Hamas. What is a positive message we can get out about working the system to get them to report on the real cases happening on the ground?
A: The Western media sense is that the Israelis are good and the Arabs are bad. Almost all Western journalists are based in Israel. That biases them. Not every story about the Middle East has to be focused through the terrorism prism.
Q: [jillian] What about Syria? Why didn’t you write more about that?
A: I don’t the Syrian blogosphere as having as much impact on that country as the Iranian and Egyptian blogosphere does on those countries.
Q: I was born in Poland and saw the Solidarity movement go from tiny to 1/3 of the population supporting it, in just a couple of months. It was so successful not because the NY Times supported it (which it did). I haven’t seen similar movements come about through the Net or cell phones. Why is it that even though we have all of this beautiful technology, we haven’t seen anything like Solidarity happening?
A: Blogging communities generally don’t have massive mainstream support. Many of the bloggers are not dissidents. E.g., Iranian bloggers are frequently pro-regime. Blogging plays one role among many. Bloggers on their own won’t bring down a regime. Frequently the reforms are old school. It’s not easier to get people on the streets to protest. No one I spoke to is looking for a violent revolution.
My understanding is that with the advent of the Net in Islamic states, people are finding new channels to discuss their questions about Islam, instead of going to the religious authorities or your family. This is eroding the authority of traditional religious authorities. Have bloggers in Islamic states mentioned this to you?
A: Even those who criticize the state still want an Islamic state.
You say a great deal of speech comes out of the Moslem Brotherhood that represents the people better than the Egyptian government does. What should those bloggers be doing to have a bigger influence nationally and internationally?
A: There’s a struggle within the Brotherhood between moderates and hard-liners. The old guard doesn’t like showing these internal struggles. It’s not about the Brotherhood changing their message to make the West happy. To bring about greater engagement means putting a Western-friendly face on.
[From the IRC comes a strong recommendation for this post by Roland Soong about Chinese blogging.]
Q: Technology backbones?
A: Facebook and Twitter are being localized. YouTube.
Q: Should YouTube block particular videos that offend, say, the Thais. Or should they just pull out of Thailand? If they block the particulars, is that collusion?
A: I think it’s inappropriate to do this without transparency. I’d rather have them block a few sites than block all of them, but what happens next?
[I had to leave at this point ...]