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The Three Different Meanings of "Internet Activism"

BY Nick Judd | Friday, January 4 2013

In an article for its upcoming print edition, the Economist discovers the politics of the Internet. In an extended primer appearing in its Jan. 5 print edition, the venerable magazine explores the world of Internet freedom activists — people who love the Internet as it is and view the fight to preserve freedom of information as political trench warfare across multiple theaters: before state regulators, in corporate boardrooms, in Congress, in the court of public opinion, and in the design of the hardware and programming of the software that keeps the Internet running.

The piece is worth a read, but the Economist has trouble sussing out two or three different forces at play when it comes to "Internet activism." The main focus of the article, and a new and interesting thing that's really worth noticing, is the way that people who are very much "of the Internet" have demonstrated a new political consciousness. We've covered this internationally in our exploration of the German Pirate Party's "Liquid Democracy" collaboration platform and domestically by exploring the open-source fundamentalism of certain Occupy Wall Street activists. These people are political, and the way the Internet has worked up until now is baked into their politics in a fascinating way.

A separate but related issue is the ongoing political fight for control of the Internet, or control over certain aspects of how the Internet works. The Economist might frame this as something new, and certainly it has gained importance as the Internet has become more central to business and global communication, but it is as old as the Internet itself. Even the primacy of TCP/IP — the communications protocol that underlies the Internet — had to be decided in the marketplace of ideas. It had competition at one point in its history. Similarly, the politics of the Internet are more complicated than closed versus open. There are constituencies against copyright and for it; broadly for freedom of political speech and against it; for centralized control of some parts of the Internet and against it. But there are also regional constituencies. Your First POST editor noted last month that ongoing dust-ups over whether the United Nations should have a greater say in determining standards and regulations for the Internet also reveals that the people who figure out how to upgrade the network's technical underpinnings have not done very well in serving users in the developing world. The "multi-stakeholder" model — an alphabet soup of organizations that are mostly independent of any state control, and promote voluntary standards for how the Internet should work — is not representative of the Internet's newly intercontinental user base. African and South Asian countries are underrepresented at meetings and in discussions. So there is also a global South/global North divide, at least for now, and people inside that multi-stakeholder model are working to make it something people in the global South will campaign to protect as much as the American and European users already on board.

The third force is activism enabled by the Internet, which is not necessarily related to the previous two. To a certain extent, the work of the Pirate Party counts here, as does the work of Internet freedom advocates around the Stop Online Piracy Act at the start of this year. But having a global, instantaneous communications network that can also use software to help hundreds or thousands of people cooperate efficiently on a single task has absolutely changed the dynamics of politics. A thousand or a million people with no more political clout than Internet access and an hour to spare are more politically potent now than they were ten years ago in any context. True, and worthy of note, but certainly not a surprise: It was true in 2004, it was true in 2012, and it will continue to be true from here on out.

A slightly shorter version of this piece first appeared in Friday morning's First POST.

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