The events in London over the past few days have been deeply interesting in the wake of last month’s conversation on mobile and online activism during and after #ArabSpring. In this case, the actors are different, but the response patterns are similar - the embattled government pushing on technology providers to share private data or turn off mobile messaging services. In this case, it’s RIM/Blackberry in the middle, with calls from MPs to “curfew” Blackberry messaging, and RIM itself offering to help policy by sharing message contents. This promptly led to the Blackberry site being hacked, with the hacker posting:
"We have access to your database which includes your employees information; e.g - Addresses, Names, Phone Numbers etc. - now if u assist the police, we _WILL_ make this information public and pass it onto rioters ... do you really want a bunch of angry youths on your employees doorsteps?"
Obviously, that’s not a very nice thing to do, particularly considering it’s unlikely any of these employees had much to do with this decision in the first place.
The lines are not quite as clear as one would like, though. All protests are messy, and it’s rarely clear who is in the right. Many countries claim to be representative democracies of one flavor or another. If youth were protesting a regime in yet another Middle East/North African country, we would be globally shaming RIM/Blackberry for cavorting with the government. Of course, in the case of London, it seems to be more a gang of thugs and looters than a political statement.
The challenge, of course, is that the technology vulnerabilities might be useful to authorities during a riot, but are also useful to authoritarian governments in squelching a revolution. Not unlike wikileaks, you don’t get to pick and choose who benefits from the technology, or who is made vulnerable by it.
Ashoka Changemakers is hosting a competition supported by Google to source innovative ideas in the Citizen Media space solving some of this tension around privacy, speech, and trust. There’s some amazing thoughtwork in the space getting recorded at the Ashoka News and Knowledge blog.
All of that is a long introduction to the better-late-than-never summary of the July ICT4D Meetup. You know that it’s a good technology discussion when it turns into a people discussion, and so went our conversation around Online Activism after #ArabSpring : What’s Next?.
Our panelists discussed the strange role of being an Egyptian following along from abroad via social media, the roles of traditional and new media in civic engagement, and examples of online activism around the world, from Azerbaijan to Spain.
The core topic we kept coming back to was that the excitement around new technologies was justified, social media is a tool, not a movement. So while a cat-and-mouse game around technology will likely continue, the core of any social change is the people involved, not whatever tools they are using. Check out the twitter stream here.