Posts by Rebecca MacKinnon

Global Voices: International Bloggers Start Connecting the Dots

December 15, 2004

Rebecca MacKinnon

The Iraq war was the first war to be blogged. Salam Pax was the war’s most celebrated blogger. Blogging pseudonymously during the last days of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the young Iraqi architect sent his readers’ hearts into their throats as he described the dread of a city’s citizens waiting to be bombed. We shuddered as he described what it feels like to be bombed. Salam Pax’s personal experience of the Iraq war gave us a perspective that no professional journalist could possibly give us. Thanks to an easy-to-use, free weblog service hosted on a server in the peaceful Western world, he could share his life with us in a way that hadn’t been possible before.

The Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan (a.k.a. "Hoder") wonders whether that war could have been avoided if there had been a lot more Salam Pax-es, circumventing their own government-controlled media as well as the Western media, talking directly with the outside world. "Bush and Blair would have had a harder time convincing their own population that we have to attack these people," Derakhshan says. "Because blogs are providing a unique human voice to the people of these countries. That these are the same as us, they have many of the same needs, the same values. They’re not different. They probably need something else than being attacked as a way of being liberated."

Derakhshan, now living in exile in Toronto, intends to harness the power of the young, tech-savvy, reform-minded "Iranian blogosphere" to help prevent a U.S. attack on Iran, among other things. A new breed of global cyber-activist, he is largely responsible for the fact that there are now 75,000 Persian blogs inside Iran, with more than twice as many authored in both Persian and English by members of the Iranian exile community around the world. Iran’s conservative leaders have tried to shut them out of Iranian politics and media. But despite efforts to block websites and arrests of several bloggers, the mullahs have been unable to wipe out the new virtual space in which young Iranians can converse with each other and let their elders know what they really think and feel.

"They are providing a relatively safe space for a public discourse that the regime has effectively prevented during the past couple of years by shutting down opposition parties and newspapers, and intimidating journalists, and activists," says Derahkshan. These young people are also the best hope for eventual democratic change in Iran and are eager to engage with the U.S. and the rest of the Western world. But "Hoder" strongly believes that if the U.S. were to pursue military action – even against a government they didn’t elect and whose policies they often don’t agree with – these young people would turn against the United States and the chances for democracy to emerge in Iran would be greatly reduced. He hopes that through reading his blog and the blogs of other Iranians writing in English, Americans will realize that "they have to let Iran go by its own natural speed and capacity."

Building Bridges and Spreading Tools
Derakhshan, along with the Iraqi brothers Omar and Mohammad of Iraq the Model, Malaysian blogger Jeff Ooi, China’s Isaac Mao, Kenya’s Ory Okolloh, India’s Rashmi Sinha, and Japan’s globetrotting cyber-man Joi Ito, were among the many stars of Global Voices Online, a daylong workshop within the larger Internet & Society conference held last week by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. My co-organizer Ethan Zuckerman and I have both been following the growth of the international blogosphere as part of our work as research fellows at the Berkman Center. (Ethan blogs about Africa and is founder of an organization called Geekcorps. I am a former foreign correspondent and blog about North Korea, among other things.) We organized the Global Voices workshop because, as Ethan said in his opening remarks: "Something really big is starting to happen… What I’m really curious about is whether to some extent we find ourselves becoming a movement."

By the end of the day, most in the room agreed that we are indeed a movement: a movement not only of bloggers, but also of wiki-builders and users of other kinds of social or peer-produced media who want to build a better global conversation. People who believe in free speech, free access to information and a fear-free internet for all people on this earth. People who believe that conversations and peer-to-peer sharing of creative works between ordinary citizens in cyberspace isn’t just "cool." It isn’t just another business opp. It’s vital to improving the state of the world.

And no, we did not sing "kumbaya"…

In fact, the room at Harvard Law School on that Saturday held a wide range of political viewpoints. Omar and Mohammad of Iraq the Model support the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Before flying into Cambridge, Mass., they were feted in Washington’s halls of power, and even had an audience with the President. (Buzzmachine’s Jeff Jarvis blogged about it here.) Omar and Mohammad believe that ordinary Iraqis are more supportive of the U.S. presence in Iraq than the Western media portrays. They also believe that the Iraqi media does not give a voice to ordinary Iraqis who, they say, want democracy to succeed. They hope the spread of blogs will help people circumvent the media and talk to one another as well as the outside world.

In order to make this possible, Spirit of America, an organization founded to support U.S. troops and their humanitarian projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, has sponsored the development of an Arabic language blogging tool. The plan is to give free hosting to blogs in Arabic by people who declare themselves to be “friends of democracy.” According to Spirit of America’s CEO Jim Hake, the definition of an "FOD" will be very broad, including pretty much anybody who is not advocating violence and terrorism. Still, many attendees of the Global Voices workshop voiced skepticism at any attempts by an organization to determine who has the right to a free blog and who doesn’t.

Despite such disagreements, Jeff Jarvis pointed out that we all shared a common belief in empowering individuals: "Put these tools in the hands of citizens, and expect them to want this power. Good things will come of it." The hope is that empowering ordinary people to express and publish their views to the web in a completely unmediated fashion makes them less susceptible to manipulation by anybody.

Helping citizens converse across borders is not easy. Machine translation tools are inadequate for all but European languages. The workshop devoted a great deal of time to discussing ways to help bridge the language divide through the development of better open source translation tools and volunteer translation communities modeled after wikipedia’s highly effective peer-translation system.

New Forums, Freer Communities?
A problem faced by bloggers in non-democratic societies like Iran and China is that these governments not only block web content they find threatening, but authors of politically critical content can and do go to jail. The Global Voices movement is committed to helping citizens in such countries achieve greater freedom of speech on the net – or at very least, helping them get around government filtering and evade arrest for speaking their minds in cyberspace. Chinese bloggers like Isaac Mao hope members of the Global Voices movement will help him and his compatriots develop more sophisticated blogging tools in order to make speech "safer." One possible idea is to combine blog-publishing with online social networking, so that more controversial blog posts are published only to groups of trusted peers. "Today’s blogging is not a very mature format," says Mao.

Despite the challenges, China now has over half a million bloggers, blogging in Chinese on Chinese servers and ISP’s, using local-language blog tools including one that Mao developed. In order to stay out of trouble, Chinese blog hosts censor their users and users censor themselves. Even if censorship were loosened or if it became easier to circumvent it, Mao does not believe that freer speech in Chinese cyberspace will spark a democratic revolution. But at a time when the Chinese government has been cracking down on more reformist viewpoints in newspapers and books, the blogosphere does offer a new alternative forum for idea-sharing, personal expression and community building.

Then there are the challenges of the digital divide in places like Africa. Kenyan blogger Ory Okolloh doesn’t expect Africa to be transformed by blogging any time soon. Bridging the digital divide is perhaps the least of Africa’s many problems. Nonetheless, she thinks blogging is important – if not transformative – for the small number of Africans who do blog. "For young people, we have not been heard, we don’t have a space in Africa within politics or in other arenas to express ourselves," Okolloh says. "I think it could provide a forum for young people to create their own space. I don’t think it will change politics per se or determine an election but I think it can breed community in ways that have not been able to take place before."

The Global Voices movement hopes to support the growth of such communities everywhere, and to help them cross geographical and linguistic divides to build bridges of conversation between each other. As Malaysia’s Jeff Ooi puts it: "we are looking to connect all the dots around the world." Exactly what will come of this in a geo-political sense is not clear, but it can’t be bad – and it might be powerful.

Rebecca MacKinnon is currently a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Previously she was CNN’s bureau chief and correspondent in Tokyo and Beijing. She blogs at www.RConversation.com and www.NKzone.org.

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