The Berkman Center has gotten a lot of love from the mainstream media this weekend. My Global Voices co-founder, Rebecca MacKinnon, has spent the past few weeks making noise about MSN’s censorship of Chinese dissident Zhao Jing, aka Michael An Ti. Between America’s Sinophobic mood, the web’s distaste for Microsoft, and the importance of the issue, Rebecca’s post on An Ti on January 3rd has gotten an enormous amount of attention from the blogosphere.
Now major newspapers are waking up. Editorials in the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune this weekend address issues of US corporate participation in online censorship, referencing recent recomnmendations from our friends at Reporters without Borders on Internet freedom of expression. The Globe editorial, which quotes Rebecca, isn’t bad, but reinforces the highly debatable notion that the Internet will threaten repressive governments – I find Rebecca’s argument that the Chinese government is succeeding in turning the Internet into a medium for entertainment by encouraging de-politicized blogging pretty compelling.
Jonathan Mirsky’s editorial in the IHT, which quotes Rebecca and our colleague John Palfrey, is a bit breathless, opening with a fairly major exaggeration: “Chinese searching the Internet for key, or ‘black’ words are likely to be arrested, tried and imprisoned for up to 10 years on charges of subversion, revealing state secrets or spreading propaganda injurious to the state.” While there are (many) cases of Chinese cyber-dissidents and independent reporters finding themselves in jail for publishing stories or posts about subjects the authorities found too controversial to print, it’s not clear to me that people are being arrested for searching for information. Indeed, if it were “likely” that searching for information on Falun Gong would land you in prison, Chinese search engines wouldn’t need to filter their results, as Chinese internet users would be smart enough not to search for these terms. The fact that search engines and blogging platforms block searches and posts containing certain words reveals that very few Internet users find themselves in prison for searching the web.
Exaggeration and errors aside, it’s clear that newspapers are increasingly fascinated about the ways the Internet can be used for political purposes in an international sphere. The cover of the New York Times today features a story on the emergence of the Internet in Bahrain as a space for political debate. (While it features BahrainOnline.org, it doesn’t mention Global Voices regional editor Haitham Sabbah or Bahraini superblogger Mahmood Al-Youssif… which is too bad, as their English-language blogs would be a great resource for Times readers.) And Emily Wax, writing in the Washington Post, quotes yours truly in her article “African Rebels Take Their Battles Online”, which looks at ways dissent and rebellion is finding itself online in Sudan, DRC and Ethiopia.
I suspect some of my Berkman colleagues are periodically bemused with the fact that Berkman’s increasingly identified with inquiry and activism around blogging – there’s terrific scholarship taking place at Berkman around internet filtering, copyright and intellectual property reform and other key topics. But hey, blogging is one of the most visible manifestations of the most important trend in the Internet – the ability of individuals to create their own content, called “generativity”, by our colleage Jonathan Zittrain.
I’m happy that we’re getting recognition for the work we’re doing at Berkman from mainstream papers. I’m even happier that we’re finally beyond the question of whether the Internet and blogging are important and deep into the debates about how we protect the Internet’s most powerful feature – the ability to give anyone online a voice.