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This is Africa. Should I be shivering?

(There’s only one building on campus where we have connectivity. It closed at 5. There’s a few of us sitting outside, checking email and shivering. Who knew South African spring was roughly as cold as May in Massachusetts?)

Today’s final panel helped drive home the point that this isn’t a “bloggers conference” so much as it is a “conference about blogging”. Civil society representatives were invited to talk about ways blogs create a space for civil society online… though the presentations had more to do with meditations on what civil society actually is, as well as an excellent and funny presentation on copyright and copycatting.

Fackson Banda, on the journalism staff at Rhodes, spoke about the complexities of defining civil society. By asserting that civil society is associational, we make assumptions that it’s going to be organized. But some of the most important aspects of civil society are emergent and spontaneous – if we emphasise the associations, they can become too hierarchical. He emphasizes the idea that the technologies we’re exploring can be used both to empower and to disempower civil society, both to open and close public spaces.

Ashraf Patel, my colleague at Open Society Institute Southern Africa, argues that the emergence of the information society has altered the concept of civil society. It’s restructured politics, economics and public participation. This, in turn, leads to debates about digital divides – if you need to be online to be politically present, does this represent a new form of engagement or of exclusion.

Leaning on his background in community media, Ashraf points out that South Africa is a nation transformed by community radio. Used for political organizing, community radio pioneers became important voices within media regulators. And yet, the internet and bandwidth costs in South Africa are some of the highest in the world, and mobile phone costs are arguably the highest. (I’m guessing Ashraf never had a contract with Verizon.) While democracy may be maturing in South Africa, civil society impact might be lessening.

Andrew Rens, the legal advisor for Creative Commons South Africa somehow got through his presentation without mentioning civil society at all. (I’ve officially awarded him a gold star for this.) He uses the recent “Deutsch Est Geil” scandal (where right-wing Germans ripped off an image from a porn site to advertise the idea that German women are hot, but accidently choosing a Czech girl instead.) What I hadn’t realized was that the story was broken by a blogger, then picked up by Der Spiegel, which failed (initially) to credit the blog for breaking the story.

Andrew uses this as a way to discuss copyright and community norms. While we’ve established what constitutes fair use (or “fair dealing” under Roman Dutch law) for print, what constitutes plagarism in the world of blogging? His advice to us: Attribute, attribute, attribute…

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