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Can internet activism turn into a real political movement?

 

WHEN dozens of countries refused to sign a new global treaty on internet governance in late 2012, a wide range of activists rejoiced. They saw the treaty, crafted under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), as giving governments pernicious powers to meddle with and censor the internet. For months groups with names like Access Now and Fight for the Future had campaigned against the treaty. Their lobbying was sometimes hyperbolic. But it was also part of the reason the treaty was rejected by many countries, including America, and thus in effect rendered void.


The success at the ITU conference in Dubai capped a big year for online activists. In January they helped defeat Hollywood-sponsored anti-piracy legislation, best known by the acronym SOPA, in America’s Congress. A month later, in Europe, they took on ACTA, an obscure international treaty which, in seeking to enforce intellectual-property rights, paid little heed to free speech and privacy. In Brazil they got closer than many would have believed possible to securing a ground-breaking internet bill of rights, the “Marco Civil da Internet”. In Pakistan they helped to delay, perhaps permanently, plans for a national firewall, and in the Philippines they campaigned against a cybercrime law the Supreme Court later put on hold.

“It feels like when ‘Silent Spring’ was published,” says James Boyle, an intellectual-property expert at Duke University, North Carolina. The publication of Rachel Carson’s jeremiad on the effects of pesticides in 1962 is widely seen as marking the appearance of modern environmental awareness, and of the politics that goes along with it. Fifty years on, might the world really be witnessing another such moment, and the creation of another such movement—this one built around the potential for new information technology to foster free speech and innovation, and the threats that governments and companies pose to it?

The new green

Debate and dissent over the issues raised by the spread of information technology are not new. In the 1990s civil-liberties groups, including the pioneering Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), campaigned against the Communications Decency Act, part of which was eventually overturned by America’s Supreme Court. Today every corner of the digital universe has its own interest group: consumer groups defend online privacy; hackers reject far-reaching software patents; researchers push for open access to scientific journals online; defenders of transparency call on governments to open their data vaults—or take the opening into their own hands.

As Mr Boyle’s analogy suggests, there was a similar diversity in early 1960s environmentalism. Some sought to clean the Hudson river, some to stop logging in Tasmania, some to ban nuclear tests. But as the late American environmentalist Barry Commoner put it: “The first law of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else.” As it was with the environment, so it became with environmentalism. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s disparate concerns were tied together into a single, if far from seamless, movement that went on to wield real power.


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The internet is nothing if not an exercise in interconnection. Its politics thus seems to call out for a similar convergence, and connections between the disparate interest groups that make up the net movement are indeed getting stronger. Beyond specific links, they also share what Manuel Castells, a Spanish sociologist, calls the “culture of the internet”, a contemporary equivalent of the 1960s counter-culture (in which much of the environmental movement grew up). Its members believe in technological progress, the free flow of information, virtual communities and entrepreneurialism. They meet at “unconferences” (where delegates make up their own agenda) and “hackerspaces” (originally opportunities to tinker with electronics); their online forum of choice will typically be something such as a wiki that all can contribute to and help to shape.

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