Yesterday’s news out of Beijing—that reporters covering the Olympics will not have access to an uncensored Web—should come as no surprise to cause-wired social activists everywhere.
To be sure, as more nonprofits turn to social media to organize citizen support for social change, more groups are being pulled—like it or not—into the escalating battle over Net censorship around the globe.
In recent weeks and months, authorities from Burma to Brazil to Belarus to the Sudan have been blocking the digital flow of information on issues ranging from child pornography to genocide to human rights abuses to global aid shipments. YouTube, the video-sharing site, has been blocked in the Sudan and in at least nine other countries by authorities. China’s efforts have included a crackdown on Twitter.
But rather than silence calls for social change, the battle against Net censorship is giving many Net-wired groups of all stripes some new opportunities to energize supporters and recruit more of them into the fold.
Consider Amnesty International. The human rights group whose core mission is to free political prisoners around the world, is using the censorship war to boost its own visibility, dust off its image, and add younger members to its membership roster. The group’s new Uncensor Web site, has named July 30, a Day of Protest against Internet censorship in China. The Uncensor campaign is a joint fundraising effort with an Australian Facebook Cause group and organizers hope the partnership will last well beyond the Olympics.
The assault on free speech by Net-fearing regimes also is helping nonprofits that were born digital to widen their fundraising nets. Global Voices Online, founded in December 2004 during an international blogger’s meeting held at Harvard University, seeks to aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online, shining light on places and people other media often ignore. Thanks to new outbreaks of Net censorship around the world in recent years, Global Voices formed an activist arm, Global Voices Advocacy, which held its first worldwide anti-censorship summit last month in Budapest. Besides citizen journalists, attendees included technologists, nonprofit activists from public health and anti-poverty advocacy groups, among others, and blogger/philanthropists. Conferees spent both days analyzing the assault on free speech and discussed the formation of new global partnerships to thwart censorship near and far.
Indeed, for most global advocacy groups—whether their mission is to work for better public health, population control, improved access to the arts, more food for the hungry, or women’s empowerment—somebody somewhere is using the Net (or not using it) to keep those in power from doing more for those in need.
Thanks to the rise of social media as a new tool for social change, transparency is becoming the “new black” in advocacy today. Indeed, Net freedom is now everybody’s business and should be part of everyone’s battle. Still not convinced? Go ahead. Re-read your mission statement and take it global. Can’t do it offline anymore? Welcome to the war.