The right to blog: freedom’s next frontier

A summit on global citizen media highlights the experience of activist bloggers under authoritarian regimes and raises questions about how best to champion their work, says Evgeny Morozov.
The shifts in the technology of dissent pose new challenges to those who would suppress the emerging new voices. As costs of producing, storing and distributing digital content sharply fall, Xerox machines and stencils give way to desktop publishing. Most state authorities, to their great discomfort, have not yet figured out how to make dissidents register their blogs with police (as Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, for example, did in relation to those owning typewriters). It’s not surprising then that so many traditional funders of “democracy-promotion” – the very ones who used to fund the distribution of Xerox machines in east-central Europe – are now investing in blogging and new media to spread democracy in Asia or the middle east; one funder present at the Global Voices meeting even floated the idea of setting up a dedicate fund for cyberactivism.

At the same time, the vulnerability of some of the bloggers committed to democratisation of the flow of ideas in their own backyards means that the timing for such a proposal – along with a rapid-response legal team – may be propitious. The ubiquity of the internet – accessible via computers or mobile-phones in almost any corner of the planet – is being matched by the growth in explicit and implicit restrictions on free speech.

These parallel trends reveal further connections between bloggers and past advocates of free speech and a free public space. In the pre-internet age, most governments employed cumbersome but effective methods of suppressing and silencing dissent – prison, asylum, exile, execution. All of these were intruments to diminish or extinguish the influence of domestic critics. The internet has enabled an enormous power-shift, by allowing dissenters to publicise their voices and report events on their blogs while remaining anonymous, and continue to exert influence at home even when in exile (see “Blog standard“, Economist, 26 June 2008).