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Reflections on the cyberdissidents event

My impressions of Monday’s meeting at the Bush Institue are somewhat pointillistic – I’ve ended up having interviews and conversations throughout that have kept me from blogging the blow by blow. And personal events have meant that this summary isn’t posted until 48 hours after the end of the conference. Still, there were fascinating ideas expressed, so here’s my set of impressions, rather than a narrative of the latter half of the day:

Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, gave a talk that expressed healthy skepticism about the power of the internet for social change. His best line – “With Twitter, you can start a revolution, but it doesn’t teach you how to govern”, or to build the institutions you’ll need once you’ve taken power. He concludes that the Internet deserves two cheers, not three, arguing “it’s still all about the content”.

(You might expect me to take up the typical internet versus old media argument and defend the honor of our interactive media. But I agree with him that we need to use new media to build participatory public spaces, not just to try to lead revolutionary movements… and I’m deeply skeptical that these tools are really all that useful for leading rebellions.)

Ernesto Hernandez Busto, a Cuban dissident and blogger living in Barcelona, notes that citizen media’s value in his country is reportorial, not organizational. Stories like the death of patients in mental hospitals through freezing to death would never have been reported in state-controlled media – to the extent that the internet creates an alternative media space, it’s the most important space for journalism.

– Rodrigo Diamante is trying to turn his struggle against the Venezuelan government into a broader movement with “Un Mundo Sin Mordasa” – a world without censorship. Diamante sees constraints on television and other media in Venezuela as signaling a possible movement towards internet censorship. It’s a neat example of a proactive, not reactive, movement to online filtering, as Venezuela isn’t currently controlling net traffic. And it’s intriguing to think about whether Venezuelan and Cuban dissidents could collaborate.

Oleg Kozlovsky, an activist with the Oborona youth movement, gives possibly the bleakest vision of online repression. He explains that Russian bloggers are increasingly facing arrest, usually charged with “extremism”. The control over traditional media has led opposition voices to the online space, but that space may be increasingly controlled through traditional application of force.

Arash Kamangir, appearing under his “nom de blog”, has been very open about his open questions about appearing at this event. He asked his blog readers whether they thought it was a good idea for him to appear at the George W. Bush Institute – roughly 40% of his readers urged him not to attend; 20% said he should attend but demand no preconditions, while 40% encouraged him to simply come and represent himself. In the same spirit of challenging some of the framings offered today, he reminds us “you can’t export revolution or democracy either.”

– Oscar Morales, an organizer of the Million Voces Contra Las FARC is now a fellow at the Bush institute. His laudable success in bringing millions of people into the street on February 4, 2008 is namechecked by virtually everyone who takes the stage (myself included.) He’s asked a great question – “Did marching actually influence the FARC? Would marching influence Al Qaeda?” He ducks the second question (understandably) and makes the case that the march was important for the morale for prisoners of the FARC held in the jungle, who were allowed to listen to the radio. This expression of solidarity and support is very important to Morales, and there’s an undercurrent throughout the conference of the importance of public displays of support for dissidence, even if that support doesn’t have a direct path to change.

– Dr. Peter Ackerman of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict doesn’t address Morales’s statements on solidarity, but he offers a tough challege for those of us who celebrate social media for change: technology needs to follow strategy. If a movement doesn’t have a strategy for creating change, they’re unlikely to find a way to use technology effectively to build a lasting movement.

– David Keyes, co-founder of the new Cyberdissidents.org project, explains his agenda: he wants to make dissidents very famous. He’s worked closely with Russian refusenik and later Israeli politician Natan Sharansky, and took as a lesson from Sharansky’s work and life that dissidents who aren’t known suffer in silence, while those who are famous have their struggles publicized and escape some harm. He suggests that social movements like the April 6 movement in Egypt need to be less about the movement, and more about individual actors.

(Commenting on Keyes and the new organization, one of my correspondents wondered if the people Cyberdissidents is featuring want to be featured. It’s possible that being celebrated by a service associated with a right-wing Israeli leader could be dangerous for activists, leading either to more government persecution or to suspicion from fellow dissidents. I had breakfast with Keyes on Monday and came away with the impression that he was a very smart, well-intentioned guy working on a project that has a very different valueset than my projects do – specifically, he’s interested in amplifying a subset of middle eastern dissidents who espouse a specific philosophy of democracy, open governance and a rejection of violence, while projects like Global Voices focus on amplifying all voices, taking care that our platform not become a space for incitement to violence. But I thought this pushback on Keyes’s work is a concerning one, and I look forward to asking friends in the middle east – some of whom are currently featured on the site – what they think.)

Adrian Hong, noted North Korean activist, asks a question none of us can answer: “What happens if Iran had turned off the internet” in the wake of the green revolution protests? The importance of this question for North Korea is incredibly clear, and none of us have a good answer for him.

– Daniel Baer, the deputy assistant secretary of the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor at the State Department (who memorably quipped that your importance at State is inversely proportional to the length of your title) did a great job of identifying the underlying tensions in this field:
– Do we value privacy over security, or vice versa? Sharing versus property? Freedom of expression, versus the capacity to express and incite hate? His takeaway – the tech is new, the values are old, and old in the sense that Article XIX of the universal declaration of human rights is old.

A final, personal takeaway: I had some misgivings about speaking at the George W. Bush Institute. I didn’t support the Bush presidency, I recognized the irony of a conference about undermining government surveillance hosted by a president who sharply increased US surveillance of domestic communications, and I worry about a framing of internet freedom that suggests that freedom can be exported. I’m really glad I came. The people I met were smart, engaged, willing to teach, learn and accept critique. I felt like 80% of the conversation of the day could have happened in an event held by a group with a sharply different political stance, like my friends at Open Society Institue, and the 20% which was different was fascinating as well. I’m grateful for the opportunity and for the warm reception Hal and I received from kind and thoughtful hosts. Monday’s meeting was a great reminder that it’s worth seeking out smart people you disagree with and looking for common ground – hope to do more of that sort of work.

14 thoughts on “Reflections on the cyberdissidents event”

  1. Ethan,

    I had the privilege of attending the conference and must thank you for your presentation. While I was aware of most of the issues and items you discussed – been blogging for about 7 years now – I think your excellent presentation taught many in attendance quite a bit. And your style was excellent.

    With regard to this excellent post, I pretty much agree with everything youve brought up with one exception – I dont happen to agree with Arash’s statement on the “exporting of revolution or democracy.” As proof that it can be done, one need only look at venezuela and other latin American countries. fidel castro fulfilled his dream of exporting his revolution quite perfectly.

  2. I wonder if the American fascination with revolutions that are supposedly precipitated by the latest communications technology is a bit of romanticism of a piece with the American conviction that an armed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny?

  3. Val, thanks for the kind words. Just to be clear, I don’t necessarily agree with everything – or anything – portrayed here. I just did my best to document what others said. That said, I share Arash’s skepticism about the idea of exporting revolution, your excellent Castro example to the contrary.

    Johne, your observation is a fascinating one. I tend to think that Americans are obsessed both with revolution and with technology – I think the idea of technology leading to revolution is an irresistable fantasy for Americans who want to fight against closed societies.

  4. Johne, interesting point about American romanticism about revolutions. It’s certainly true of such deeply American figures John Reed on the Bolsheviks and Steven Soderbergh on Che. On your linking it to another American conviction.. I would suggest that you read any of the tragic accounts of the post Civil War “reconstruction” in the South, when advocates of a closed society who had been defeated in formal war reimposed their will on the African American community in the southern states. The history teaches at least that an unarmed citizenry (as the freed slaves were in fact)had no defense against tyranny. Reading the detailed histories of how reconstruction was overturned certainly made me less quick to sneer at those who share the conviction you find so risible.

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  6. I don’t find the idea that an armed citizenry is a defense against tyranny particularly risible, but I don’t find it particularly convincing, either. It may have carried a great deal more weight at the founding of the country, though it didn’t much help the armed yeomen who supported Shay’s Rebellion. And I question whether blacks were entirely unarmed during the Reconstruction Era — I’d be interested in any data that exists on that question.

  7. The Conference on Cyber Dissidents: Global Successes and Challenges.
    Es interesante este evento en el Metroplex…., esto es Dallas-Fort Worth. Es precisamente en esta zona donde se editan cuatro de los Blogs más antiguos de la Blogosfera cubana a saber:
    BuenavistaVCuba Weblog (antes BuenavistaVCuba en Blogcindario), Medicina Cubana, Religión en Revolución y El Café Cubano.
    Estos Blogs en su momento fueron seleccionados entre los 20 mejores Blogs cubanos.
    En el año de 2006, en lo que resulta el primer ataque “oficial” a la Blogosfera cubana, los Blogs: Medicina Cubana, Religión en Revolución y Thoughts about Cuba (este editado en Miami) fueron descalificados por una funcionaria académica cubana, en un extenso articulo que puede encontrarse en la Red con el título: “Blogs Cuba: identidad atrincherada”.
    Es bueno señalar que una excelente pagina cultural en Internet: La Habana Elegante, también se edita en Dallas.

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  11. Ethan,

    As this topic comes up repeatedly, I think it would be good to ponder what your position on violence really is *specifically*.

    Your ambivalence here about cyberdissidents helps set up the smear that later Sami Ben Gharabi indulges in, so I think it’s good to revisit this issue in a broader context.

    You say:

    >specifically, he’s interested in amplifying a subset of middle eastern dissidents who espouse a specific philosophy of democracy, open governance and a rejection of violence, while projects like Global Voices focus on amplifying all voices, taking care that our platform not become a space for incitement to violence. B


    I guess I’m having a problem seeing what’s wrong with David Keyes’ approach. If anything, his approach seems broader to me than the narrow subset of “progressives” and anti-Americans that you select to amplify, while remaining colour blind on the violence issue. But I’m not interested in picking at this or that blogger; I’m interested in hearing your fundamental, principled positions.

    So are you saying that Global Voices doesn’t reject violence and doesn’t refrain from promoting undemocratic writers, exactly? Unlike David Keyes, who does feature writers that do promote democracy and reject violence — and for that reason isn’t too your liking and makes you uncomfortable, which you describe as “not being inclusive”.

    Are you saying that you are open to “amplifying all voices”, including those that espouse philosophies like armed struggle, or “defensive jihad” as an abstract notion, but that you sort of, on a case by case basis, take a look and see if in fact there isn’t really a call to incitement, as in the Supreme Court test of “incitement to imminent violent action”?

    Or…just exactly what *are* you saying?

    Are you saying you want to posture and appear more “inclusive” than David Keyes, regarding the set of dissidents you publish (which is “all”), but then you also want the moral luxury of ducking from actually having to confront what it means to be open even to Hamas or Al Qaeda and their supporters?

    It seems to me that you are, not only in the name of open spaces and free speech, but in the name of leftist progressive beliefs and opinions, making a tacit support of armed revolutionary struggle or even “terrorism as defensive jihad”.

    Could you give us an example of any “incitement to violence” on Global Voices you stopped?

    Because that’s the question. The task isn’t for us to go hunting for “terrorists” on GV, the question is to see if you have a moral and articulated policy.

    I don’t think you do. I think violence is to be condemned, that there is nothing radical chic or cool about being coy with regard to the jihadists, and posturing around that to enable yourself to keep Arab street cred isn’t defensible.

  12. Catherine, I sense that this comment is the extension of a debate taking place on other blogs, and I suspect you’d do better to more directly address those authors. To the extent that this is a debate with Sami ben Gharbia, I encourage you to engage with him directly.

    As regards your comment: I think you’re framing the question in a way that misunderstands what Global Voices does, and compares Global Voices with Cyberdissidents.org in a way that’s not fair to either organization.

    As I understand Keyes’s Cyberdissidents.org project, it’s focused on promoting a set of dissidents in an attempt to raise their profile and protect them from abuse at the hands of repressive governments. When I discussed the project with him at the Bush Institute event, he made clear that he would not support dissidents connected to movements he considered opposed to his organization’s set of values: the promotion of democracy, an emphatic rejection of violence. As a result, he’s unwilling to support individuals associated with Hamas, Hezbollah and – I asked him explicitly – Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and other pro-Islamist movements.

    Global Voices is focused on amplifying voices from around the world. We link to more than five thousand bloggers (and Twitterers, Facebookers, videomakers, photographers) in an average year, the vast majority of whom are not political dissidents. Our linking doesn’t constitute endorsement of the positions those individuals are expressing. Much of our best work points to a variety of offers who have differing, often contradictory points of view. That’s because our job isn’t to advocate for specific political agendas – our job is to broaden the conversation by bringing more voices into it. This isn’t always easy – our Iran correspondent is, personally, an opponent of the Ahmedinejad regime. However, during the Green Revolution, he linked to posts both from protesters and from Iranians who opposed the protest and believed the elections to be legitimate.

    We have certainly quoted and linked to people who Keyes would be unlikely to support with his project. We’ve reported at some length on Muslim Brotherhood bloggers in Egypt, as they are a major voice in the local blogging scene and our core mission is to offer an overview of what’s going on in those conversations. I believe that it’s important for people to understand the dynamics of conversations taking place online, and Global Voices works to make these conversations more visible, whether or not we agree with positions expressed. In that sense, our work most closely parallels what LinkTV’s Mosaic project, which translates excerpts from television in the Middle East to give English speakers an understanding of stories being broadcast in Arabic, Hebrew and Farsi.

    While our job is to amplify conversations, we recognize the danger of our platform being used to incite violence, in posts or in comments. We have team of editors who work closely with our correspondents to balance the challenge of reporting a wide range of voices and ensuring that our platform is not used to promote violence. We handle this by focusing on the text, not on the individual. We’re not equipped to make a judgement about whether an individual blogger is sympathetic to the Brotherhood, Hamas or Al Qaeda – we make a judgement about the text we’re linking to, and we don’t link incitements to violence.

    You’ve asked for a “moral and articulated policy” regarding how we handle issues of incitement to violence. We handle this as an editorial issue, on a case by case basis, rather than by choosing a subset of bloggers we focus on. Those editorial decisions are made by regional and language editors, reporting to our managing editor. While I have been involved with discussions at the board level about our policy, I am not involved with editorial decisions, so I’ll have to defer to Solana Larsen (managing editor) or Amira Al-Hussaini (Arabic and Middle East editor) for specific cases where we’ve chosen not to link to posts or articles.

    I hope that answers your questions. I suspect, from our previous interactions, that it probably will not

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