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Essay: Sanne Stevens – Delete control: join the fight for netfreedom

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Syrian activists harnessed Facebook and Twitter to criticize the regime and rally protesters. Though Syria still has one of the most regulated internet and telecoms sectors in the ME, demonstrators could take shaky footage on camera phones, once an expensive gimmick but now cheap and ubiquitous, and upload for free onto video-sharing sites. Images could be instantly shared with the world.”
-From: The Battle for the Arab Spring, Lin Noueihed/Alex Warren

The internet’s emancipatory potential is unmistakable. The role of bloggers, tweets, videos and Facebook during the Arab Spring has once again made this abundantly clear. Criticism of regimes found its way through online channels, helping populations find out they were not alone. It inspired people, encouraging them to take to the streets and gave the world at large an incredibly diverse impression of what was going on. In Syria activists not only monitor the repression and enable people to view the protests they also post really satirical, humorous videos that reveal the uprising’s creative side.

Of course the internet is not a panacea. It primarily facilitates change and emancipation and can also be used as a tool of repression. As was made apparent by the many bloggers who disappeared, were arrested and murdered during the Arab Spring. Users are all too easy to hunt down online, every action leaves digital traces. Regimes are becoming increasingly good at censoring, blocking and spying using new media. They are getting smarter. For example, in Syria, a virus was used that passed all sorts of data from the user’s computer on to the security services: passwords, contact details, etc. The dastardly thing about it was the fact that it masqueraded as software aimed at securing connections against spyware!
Iran has been developing its ‘Halal Internet’ for years now. No more online contact with the rest of the world, no more variety of sources of information, no more the ability to blog about everyday niggles that are, for some reason, viewed as sensitive issues. The Iranian people are being cut off from the World Wide Web and will only be able to access a local, supervised internet.

While governments learn to use software to repress their people and deprive them of their freedom of speech, dissidents are learning how to use software to beat the repression. There is digital arms race underway with the regimes engaging supported from specialised Western software companies and the bloggers and activists creating networks, exchanging tips and tricks and supporting one another. A new generation of activists has arisen with their own flourishing infrastructure of smart activism, with a network like Global Voices Advocacy, which provides, among other things, a manual for anonymous blogging with WordPress. Work is also underway on inventive, smart solutions in the field of online video. The video for change organisation Witness has developed the ObscuraCam. An app for mobile phones which makes it easy to anonymise faces in videos. If necessary, this allows the identities of those involved to be protected in videos posted online. These small, practical tricks and tools make a world of difference. They are as easy to use as possible, very low threshold and anyone can use them, not just geeks.

These small, practical solutions created by innovative bloggers are crucial to allow voices to flourish online. Especially at this time, it is very important for people to have the means to arm themselves against censorship and control, to be able to reclaim their space online because if the regimes in Syria and Iran have their way there will be no more demonstration videos or satirical productions on YouTube. That would be bad news particularly for the younger generation as, among other things, they found out they were not alone online. They sent messages to the world that touched people in ways reports on the nine ‘o clock news never can. If the governments and companies get their way we won’t hear much anymore from Syrian or Iranian bloggers or civilian journalists and that would be a damn shame. Not just for them, but also for us.

It is for all these reasons that Hivos supports initiatives such as Global Voices Advocacy or Witness, blogger conferences and training sessions, and we would like to call on every internet user to support bloggers around the globe. Join the fight for net freedom – Delete Control.