Shutting down a physical protest is easy, just apply pepper spray liberaly and arrest anyone that can't run away. Shutting down online protests with democratic overtures is an entirely different matter. And that has oppressive regimes around the world very worried.
Almost six months to the day after the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a small protest of roughly 150 people formed in the middle of Tunis.
"We are all Samir Feriani," the protesters chanted, brandishing photos of the forty-four-year-old police officer. Feriani had been arrested two weeks previously after writing to Tunisia's interior minister, naming several high-ranking ministry officials who he said were responsible for killing protesters and committing other human rights abuses during the Tunisian revolution. In one of the two letters published in a local magazine, he further claimed that ministry officials had been destroying sensitive archives since Ben Ali's ouster, including archives of the Palestinian Liberation organisation (based in Tunis from 1982 to 1994), which he said documented Ben Ali's relationship with Israeli intelligence. Feriani was charged with "harming the external security of the state," "releasing and distributing information likely to harm public order," and "accusing, without proof, a public agent of violating the law."
Tunisia's twitterati clamored to support Feriani, dismayed that elements and behaviours of the old regime lingered on in the new Tunisia. "Where are our journalists, the civil society and the political parties?" asked a Twitter user called @emnamejri. On Facebook, people created pages calling for his release. They posted pictures of protests, links to news about his case, and aggregated reactions of citizens around Tunisia. They circulated the condemnation by Human Rights Watch, which summed up many people's feelings about his arrest: "At a time when many Tunisians believe that the officials who terrorized people under Ben Ali remain strong within the security establishment, the provisional government should be encouraging whistle-blowers, not using the ousted government's discredited laws to imprison them."
At a conference in New York about the Internet and politics that same month, somebody asked Riadh Guerfali-the activist who made the 1984 Ben Ali mash-up back in 2004 -- whether he was worried that the Tunisian revolution would not end well. "I am optimistic that we will win this battle," he said. "At the present time there is still lots of trouble," he continued. "But public opinion is here." Despite the steep uphill battle, the difference between then and now is that Tunisians have carved out a space in the media and on the Internet for discourse and debate that is vastly broader and more accessible than under Ben Ali. "If we can say, this is wrong, we can say the person responsible must resign," that is the first step, Guerfali told the room full of young American political operators, bloggers, journalists, and techies. "Things never ever, anywhere in the world, change by itself. It takes the pressure of public opinion."
This truth applies to everyone, everywhere. Democracy will not be delivered, renewed, or upgraded automatically, like the latest Netflix blockbusters through our broadband connections and smart phones. The future of freedom in the Internet age depends on whether people can be bothered to take responsibility for the future and act. Just as our individual actions and choices as citizens, parents, teachers, employees, managers, and government officials combine to shape the kind of world we live in, the actions and choices of each and every one of us are shaping the Internet's future.
Elements of a transnational movement to defend and expand Internet freedom have begun to emerge. Like the Internet itself, this movement is decentralized, loosely if at all coordinated, and driven often by groups and individuals at the edges reacting to specific problems. For now the movement is neither sufficiently broad nor sufficiently powerful to keep the abuse of power by governments or corporations systematically in check. But the revolutions, and attempted revolutions, of early 2011 have jolted many more people around the world into becoming actively engaged with the power struggle for freedom and control of the Internet.
What should this movement be aiming for? Establishing some sort of global UN-like uber-government to manage and restrain cross-border digital power is neither realistic nor desirable. Nor is Robin Hood–style cyber-vigilantism and digital guerrilla warfare. Given human nature and the realities of today's world, it is also inconceivable to expect to start completely afresh with some sort of utopian digital democracy in a pristine and politically unspoiled frontier of cyberspace.
A more realistic and democratic approach is to build and strengthen alternative netizen-driven institutions and communities that can exist alongside existing ones, eventually shifting the balance of power both online and off. At the same time, we must devise more effective and innovative ways to constrain all forms of digital power within reasonable limits, whether that power is exercised by governments, corporations, or activist hacker networks of varying ideological and religious stripes. The first step is to build much broader public awareness and participation. People need to stop thinking of themselves as passive "users" and "customers," and start acting like citizens of the Internet-as "netizens."
Excerpted with permission from Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, by Rebecca MacKinnon. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.
Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom is available from ConsentoftheNetworked.com