While the first tweets scroll across the screen in the background, Frenk van der Linden pops up in a feisty floral print shirt. He will be moderating the evening. Frenk asks the audience: ‘Will free information lead to free people?’ The room is split evenly between those in favour of and those against, but when Frenk dives into the audience to offer us some freedom of speech, most hands go down again. The one or two people who are prepared to explain their position say: It’s a start!’
After this warm-up, Leon Willems, Director of Free Press Unlimited, is handed the floor, and of course we already know what he is going to say: ‘It’s a new medium that will have a strong impact on the world. For the first time, there are as many people broadcasting as there are receiving; everyone can take part in the debate and take in information from afar.’ He is referring to – indeed – radio. Excuse me? ‘This text is 110 years old; an enthusiastic ode to radio. But then government regulation kicked in and radio was also used as a propaganda tool, for spreading false information and even creating fake identities.’ It’s easy to see the connection with what is currently being said about the Internet. ‘But,’ Willems says, ‘having said that, I am still very impressed by certain things that are achieved with the help of the Internet. It took a Moroccan blogger three months to collect 100,000 responses to the text of the new constitution. This led to amendments that were actually submitted to the government.’
Frenk introduces Evgeny Morozov, the author of ‘The Net Delusion’ and as such the star of the evening. After an initial attempt to portray Morozov as a technophobe, Frenk is forced to acknowledge that he is off the mark. On the contrary, Morozov is extremely active in the digital arena, travelling across the Caucasus to preach the digital gospel, but he has since developed from a participant in an analyst. With his book, he primarily aims to raise policy-makers’ awareness of the fact that by now, repressive regimes are also making clever use of the Net. For a long time, the popular conception was that repressive states do nothing more than track down, block or remove undesirable information. In that case, the solution would be to keep facilitating as many resources as possible to help the activist (or freedom of speech). But those in power haven’t been sitting around doing nothing. They recognise that the Internet has developed into an important public space – a space that they can use for their own purposes.
In Egypt, the secret police have managed to intercept Skype conversations by installing spyware on the callers’ computers. Skype is a technology that up to now was generally considered impossible to tap. Philosophy is illegal in Saudi Arabia, so someone has made a blog about it. This blog was repeatedly shut down by the government, so that eventually, the Internet provider was no longer willing to host it. This shows a major pitfall of the Internet: webhosts are often commercial US companies that are not necessarily interested in matters like activism, freedom of speech or privacy: after all, their bottom line is profit, and ethical issues are of secondary importance. Morozov points to Hillary Clinton’s speeches about Internet freedom. A lot can be said about these speeches, but for the moment, Morozov emphasises their historical rhetoric. When she starts to draw comparisons with the Berlin Wall, Clinton seems to lapse into the language of the Cold War – giving the citizen a view of the Net that is far from realistic or up-to-date.
Geert Lovink enters the stage. The activist stood with several others at the cradle of Press Now, one of the predecessors of Free Press Unlimited. The two gentlemen immediately become embroiled in a lively debate: Lovink states that Morozov has left much untold in his book and that he feels that it did not relate to his activities as an activist. An amused Morozov: ‘It’s not offensive enough? You feel left out, because you’re not offended?’ Lovink persists: on the contrary, the world is seeing a new political awareness that is accelerated and facilitated by Social Media. He believes that the book’s perspective on this process is too limited. Morozov acknowledges that a lot of good things are happening, but that too much attention is paid to activist success stories. His book was written for policy-makers: ‘It was my job and my mission to complicate their thinking.’ Meanwhile, Frenk van der Linden is making frantic efforts to get a word in: ‘Gentlemen, don’t forget the audience!’ Someone from Netwerk Democratie asks what to think of US politicians’ response to WikiLeaks. ‘Hypocritical!’ says Morozov, and after this brief intermezzo, Lovink and he continue to squabble about ‘The Net Delusion’, which supposedly left out all sorts of information. Until finally, Morozov exhorts Lovink: ‘Write the book!’ He turns out to be doing exactly that: it’s called ‘Networks without a cause’, and the manuscript has just been submitted.
Three new speakers are intended to bring the gentlemen to heel: Ivan Sigal from Global Voices, Ot van Daalen from Bits of Freedom and Niels from Free Press Unlimited. Sigal relies on a network of volunteer bloggers and translators to bring unheard voices into the limelight. ‘A medium is not a solution, it’s a means: everyone knows that things will remain difficult even when you’re using a new medium. Governments start from a position of power, and you want to do something about this: it’s a race, and it will stay that way in every country.’ Van Daalen indicates that he was affected by Morozov’s book: ‘I’m an Internet enthusiast: it has become far easier to organise, far easier to mobilise, but this book has strengthened my paranoia antenna. Censorship is so much more advanced than one would initially think!’ Niels says that this kind of censorship has been going on for years via other media, and that he fails to understand why this now has to be emphasised in relation to the Internet. When Frenk asks whether the revolutions in the Arab world would also have occurred without the Internet, Niels states: ‘There will always be revolutions! During the French Revolution, people used pamphlets, Solidarność used mimeographs, and now we can use social media: people will use whatever medium is available.’
Frenk van der Linden has safely shepherded us through the evening. The conclusion is that it’s time for a realistic view of the Internet. The Net offers numerous advantages, particularly in terms of speed and costs, but like any other medium, it can also fall prey to censorship or be used by repressive regimes for their own ends. In the wave of enthusiasm that still surrounds the medium, this is still an eye-opener for many of us, and as such is a relevant insight. Facebook will sometimes save your ass.