Dissidence and Cyberspace Freedom of Expression event

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Hari Kunzru, Janne Teller, introduced by Andrew Franklin
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After some fumbling with the sound system, Andrew Franklin
introduced speakers Janne Teller and Hari Kunzru. Asked if he thought whether
the internet presently increases or decreases our capacity to dissent, Kunzru
wondered whether the glass was half full or half empty - because of the
diversity and complexity of expression on the internet, we have no way of
really assessing the strength of political challenge as opposed to political

It is easier to share information using the net, but it is also easy
to monitor this sharing. Teller agreed with this, asking whether the net subtly
drowns out real debate through over-simplification. She noted the conclusions
of the recent book 'Thank You For Not Reading', and a trend toward seeking
security through a more carefully monitored world.

Kunzru asked what were the
'market forces' which supposedly drove the internet? Although many bloggers
(notably in China, Iran and Egypt) challenge state and party lines, governments
can still control the flow of information and internet service providers often
prove willing accomplices to human rights abuses. In Egypt, there has been an
increase in the numbers of bloggers under thirty (now over 10,000). These
people are not homogenously liberal-minded - a number are Islamist in sympathy
- but the Egyptian government has nevertheless been keen to shut down and out
all non-government sources of information.

However, government interference is
not the only threat to freedom of expression. Business news is now the only
growth area in commercial news provision, and what may happen to small
independent sources as costs rise and band-width once again is squeezed,
remains a very open question.

Teller felt that bloggers were being drowned out by
propaganda, whether government or otherwise directed, and that the internet had
lowered demand for factual analysis. Kunzru noted there was a problem of
quality control; newspapers were no longer trusted, but trust in the internet
could be misplaced - sites which are more visible tend to be those which are
most frequently visited, and high ranking on internet searches can be purchased
or created (the /. phenomenon).

Teller observed that trust is always a
reflection of our prejudices, and the creation of internet 'communities' is in
part a result of this and of marketing strategies. Kunzru noted that choice is
devalued by our current emphasis on it. We are encouraged to 'customise' to fit
our preconceptions, and that while TV has in the past given us a shared, albeit
separate, set of experiences, the internet has helped create partitioned-off
'communities' susceptible to differing forms of marketing.

He quoted Barbara
Bush, mother of the current United States President, who when asked to comment
on reports of atrocities in Iraq, responded 'Why would I want to sully my
beautiful mind with thoughts about that?' Kunzru suggested that such attitudes
have become increasingly prevalent.

Teller, however, saw the internet as a means of breaking
through censorship barriers, and of newspapers using their own sites to provide
additional or specific comment and information. Kunzru raised the question of
offensive publication, particularly in terms of religious offence.

responded that the cartoons of Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper were a
crisis, not only of freedom of expression, but also of Danish politics; they
were published in a particularly right-wing newspaper representing what had
until then been a minority party in Denmark. Muslims represent 3% of the Danish
population. Since the publication, Danish political opinion has moved to being
considerably more right-wing - there remains a question both of freedom of
expression and of freedom of minorities to express themselves, and a question
of freedom of expression carrying responsibilities as well as rights.

Teller also spoke of diaspora as 'dream factories of
discontent' - the glamour of an imagined place/culture/community is created
as a defence against an intrusive, unappealing reality. Kunzru pointed to
hacker culture as an example, also pointing out that hackers see censorship as
an 'engineering problem' - rooted in technology they rarely have the kind of
ethical understanding which enables them to face the moral problems and choices
thrown up in a global village.

The result tends to be that the technically
savvy don't get censored, but the rest of us do. Hence it is possible to
construct 'the Great Firewall of China' and for government and major
corporations to conduct relatively untroubled lives.

Teller doubted that the
internet is sustainable in its present form, and that those presently charged
with maintaining its political and commercial independence may not be able to
do so in the future.

Kunzru reiterated his concern that functionalism continued
to edge out ethical considerations. The motto of Google may be 'Don't be evil,'
but living ethically appears to be beyond large corporations.

What may be taken
from this valuable and timely discussion is that although each of us
individually can do nothing to alter the internet's onward march, in the
meantime at least we can be 'ethical shoppers' using technology which does not
have as much taint - freeware is available which can make its users independent
of the main suppliers.

If we choose not to use Microsoft, Google, et. al, and
use their competitors, it may send a message to even the most ethically
insensitive of providers.

Time: 7.30pm 18 August

Copyright Bill Dunlop 2007. Published on EdinburghGuide.com, August 2007