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The Virtual Future For Virtual Freedom

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Freedom was once the absence of chains and manacles and the end of the slave culture and economy of humans. Mr. Lincoln even brought some to America. Freedom has broken some chains of European hatreds and African genocide. Check out Hotel Rwanda for a view of evil and of the goodness that we call "righteous".

Freedom is a fragile, butterfly wisp of an idea that is so easily thwarted that the butterflies are always in danger of dropping from the sky. The Lady carries a hefty torch to make sure there is a place for Liberty to stand. Authority sits squarely on his throne, looking grim. Justice is blind, it is said.

Now we have the blogosphere and the opportunity for individuals to make their thoughts known to the world from blog, website, and video — welcome to the vlogosphere, grab a podcast. The question of “globalization” became an answer rather than a question when protesters all had cell phones and Internet connections.

The same altruistic young minds that told us the "revolution" of the 1960s would free our souls and bring the Viet Nam debacle to a close now say that access to a spider web of electronic impulses will maintain freedom in the 21st century. All those words and ideas and pictures floating free could even control an out-of-control administration in places like Washington, Beijing or Moscow.

Why is it not happening that way?

The Iranian blogosphere is not functioning to protect the freedom of the people from censorship by the government. James Smith and Anne Barnard of The Boston Globe wrote of the problems of Internet censorship in that unstable place. The problems with expressing oneself on the Internet there have become sufficient to make Farsi (Persian Farsi, I have been told) suddenly one of the ten most prevalent languages in which blogs are written.

Alireza Samiei is one of the Iranian bloggers said to be pushing the envelope of governmental tolerance or intolerance on the Internet. He writes (his day job) of banking and insurance issues then spends his nights writing about socio-political issues in his country. The governments is not being tolerant.

The new web social sites are, not coincidently, the most recent target of the government. Thousands of websites have had access denied to them as they might "… threaten Iran's Islamic revolution, including the BBC's Farsi-language site." In October of this year the government cut high-speed Internet into private homes. (Can you not be subversive at dial-up speed?) YouTube is another casualty of the censorship drive, although that hardly seems a great loss for any culture.

The international group Reporters Without Borders has named Iran one of the thirteen countries that are "enemies of the Internet." Iran countered by banning the group's site. The government filters and the bloggers evade the filters by wandering around them. Samiel says, "They block us and we evade the blocks… It goes on every day. They code, we decode."

Government supporters say that they are trying to control pornography on the Internet. To prove it they filtered out the keywords "sex" and "hot". That took out hotmail for a while. My guess is that sex is here to stay.

State control of the more easily controlled and visible media such as newspapers like Shargh has created a vacuum into which journalists with their own blogs and new citizen-bloggers have rushed to fill. Mohamed Atrianfar, editor of Shargh, was quoted as saying, "Websites and blogs have real impact… They have been very powerful in forming a word-of-mouth culture, especially for those between 17 and 35." It should also be noted that the president of Iran, that same Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who wishes to keep a tight rein on words, pictures, satire, and thought, maintains his own blog.

It is a set of PR and propaganda articles (there is, wisely, an English language version). His presidential site is in Farsi but there is also an English translation. There you get to read the Iranian Presidential address to the American people which includes the following:

Both our nations are God-fearing, truth-loving and justice-seeking, and both seek dignity, respect and perfection.

Both greatly value and readily embrace the promotion of human ideals such as compassion, empathy, respect for the rights of human beings, securing justice and equity, and defending the innocent and the weak against oppressors and bullies.
We are all inclined towards the good, and towards extending a helping hand to one another, particularly to those in need.

Ain't propaganda fun? Let this be a lesson to you to not believe everything you read.

Amazingly, there is also a published comments section which on 21 December included what purports to be a comment by a Fred Thornton from, the flag tells us, the US, who wrote, “Great site. Thank you very much Dr. Ahmadinejad for standing up for the truth and for standing up to evil and as a white male in the U.S. I give my full to you your country and i (sic) send you many blessings.” Which does not sound as if it was really written by an American but there are some amazingly illiterate and semi-literate people on the Internet.

A separate site in English chronicles the speeches and appearances of the Iranian President. They may not like what is being written or filmed, blogged or vlogged but they have embraced the same technology to work for the Administration.

Therein lie our questions and the searching of our political, social and technological souls for this piece of time until newer technologies take over to provide more and better protection for freedoms or novel ways to squash them. What can be allowed? What should be allowed or controlled? Who will do the allowing or the controlling?

If Yahoo and Google cannot be expected to stick to the simple and effective promise of “do no evil” then who or what will protect speech? Even if there is a lot of it and the blogosphere continues to have at least 50 million blogs, 100 million websites, will that open the world to communication? Will we be free or will we have a screenful of videos mindlessly mashed up together and millions of blogs full of Mel Gibson fans, girls who no longer hide their diaries under the mattress and both George Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad telling us what they think we want to hear?

Gutenberg transformed the means of disseminating information in the 15th century. Samuel Morse allowed the Civil War to be reported directly to the tall man in the White House. Navajo speakers confused the enemies during WWII as volunteers who spoke to each other in a language that no one else in the war could possibly understand.

In Iran the bloggers come and perhaps they will make a difference, perhaps the news will be reported, divergent opinions aired and the wannabe dictator controlled. Or, perhaps, the presidential blog will win and keep other views under control. The President's speeches to the UN, his complaints about Zionism, and his hatred of the Western way of life will be the success story of the world of blogging – which would spell the death of this new way to communicate.

Here in America, the assistant features editor of the Wall Street Journal, Joseph Rago, has written on "The Blog Mob". "Written by fools to be read by imbeciles," he labels us. It is not such a pretty picture of our new social, technological manner of expression. He mentions both the fact that the Iranian President has a blog and that “Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM (mainstream media) like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps.”

There is enough of that and the local blogger is not the disciplined Woodward and Bernstein hopping in the Volvo to check out Deep Throat's ability to cut Nixon down to size. That does not necessarily mean that blogging shows that “the inferiority of the medium is rooted in its new, distinctive literary form. Its closest analogue might be the (poorly kept) diary or commonplace book, or the note scrawled to oneself on the back of an envelope…”

He does finally admit that “of course, once a technosocial force like the blog is loosed on the world, it does not go away because some find it undesirable. So grieving over the lost establishment is pointless, and kind of sad.”

We could see a new kind of world with conservatives dominating the blogging lanes, the MSM (perhaps we will call it “real journalism”) still dominating the news dissemination just as it always has — but finding itself too easily attacked by its own errors and frauds, gained on by new hybrid papers and blogs that have shamelessly mated. Web 3.0 may bring some real challengers into being out of the mouths of programmer-babes in the silicon woods. What new digital communication will sweep the world for a few minutes? Will the newspaper and news magazine, the TV report and the cable channel continue to provided what is to be expected as truthful and reliable reports? Or will the bloggers have it covered or be covered over or covered with co-optations where the “real media” allow “citizen journalists” and blogging links?

What will happen in this new century with some Google-sized jumps soon to come? What will 50 million blogs find to say and how will they be filtered down to us by then? Even if they become professional, trustworthy, edited and accurate, how much information can this new age of information handle? How many sites and how many dedicated bloggers will give up their lives trying to make their own magazine? Or will amalgams of bloggers band together with editors and designers and do something like Blogcritics and Desicritics?

Today, as the new year and new versions of expression loom, the question is the message. What will free access bring to the developing world and will they continue to find ways to have free access to the technologies that are changing our lives and, perhaps, a few of our thoughts?

The First World may have 6MB broadband and wired schools, book stores, and malls; but the Third World can hardly hold back those millions of young people from big families aching for a computer in their backpack, WiFi, and Xboxes. They will pay their pesos to access the Internet in the new mall or the village shack, but access it they will. He got it prophetically right again — the times, they are a-changing.

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About hfdratch

  • Citizen journalists are indeed the best hope for freedom in repressive countries like Iran where there is no press freedom. But increasingly the bloggers, too, are in grave danger. I have asked Michael Dell to champion citizen journalists with an international freedom award. for more on this, see my blog

  • Howard, this is an important issue indeed. I remember how dismayed I was to find that major search engines had compromised with China to censor some sites, but I suppose the money involved was too much to resist. Perhaps even a bowlderized internet is better than none at all for these oppressed countries.

    On a more trivial note, the other day I tried to revive my account with BlogExplosion, which I joined long ago but rarely utilized. Apparently they have changed owners, and my blog was rejected because of the “profanity” in the title (Shithouse rat). That was a bit of a shock to me–though they welcomed me to resubmit my site if I changed the title. I think not….