In the mid-1990s, people began realizing the Internet would transform the world—but the prevailing wisdom at the time was that it would be mostly for the better. Last Friday, panels of thought leaders at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford agreed it’s time to take another look at that assumption.

Charles Leadbeater, a social entrepreneur and author of “We-think: the power of mass creativity,” said the Internet has, indeed, given more people access to knowledge [and will continue to do so, through such sites as Ushahidi,, the new Wikimap Aid, and M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money exchange service in Kenya]. It’s also clear, Leadbeater said, that the Web has begun to topple the top-down, Industrial Age way of managing people and projects into more level, lateral types of conversations, relationships and collaborative teams. “I also think the Web has huge potential to allow knowledge to be deployed in different ways which are not determined by profit,” he told Skoll conferees.

Panelists also agreed that the Web—particularly cellphone video-sharing—is empowering many people to hold their leaders accountable for bullying: Executive Director Yvette Alberdingk Thijm shared citizen videos that her nonprofit either helped to produce or took viral on the Web in an effort to stop human rights abuses. This mobile phone video, about a California man shot and killed by police, led to the arrests of two officers after it went viral shortly after the incident. [Note the irony of the “danger” sign on the closing door of the subway train that appears at the end of the clip.] Another video, shot on a Flip video camera by Yemeni activists, showcases the six-year-old daughter of Yemeni journalist Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, and her recollections of the day authorities broke into the family’s home, beat her father unconscious, and imprisoned him for his pro-democracy views. uploaded the video and took it viral; a screen shot of that video, emblazoned with The Hub’s logo, was then published by an Arab newspaper. A public uproar ensued and led to the release of al-Khaiwani last September. “Once a story is out in the public sphere, it cannot be removed from public consciousness,” Alberdingk Thijm said. “The Web can help shift the dynamics of power.”

But citizens, beware. It’s getting harder to use the Web for social change. Challenges to the Web’s potential for democracy and freedom are growing quickly now, panelists agreed. “The enemy is getting just as smart in using these same tools to silence people yet again,” said Evgeny Morozov, a Belarussian journalist who is writing a book about censorship and the use of the Internet by authoritarian states.

Morozov cited a half-dozen examples of government and corporate “Net-cleansing”—including cases where companies are hiring “reputation cleansers” to bury Web references to poor corporate track records on Web search engines, while nationalist groups in Africa and the Middle East are using Google maps to mashup census data, so as to better pinpoint minority neighborhoods for targeting. Crowdsourcing also is being used by the governments of Thailand and China to drum up lists of Web sites and blogs critical of the current regimes; the Thai government, Morozov says, asks citizens to nominate Web sites to be blocked for content that offends the king; in China, a “50-cent Army” of some 200,000 or more citizens is paid to post pro-government comments on blogs critical of Beijing authorities. Morozov also says denial-of-service attacks are emerging as powerful tools for silencing political dissent in Georgia, Burma, Russia—and the United States. [During last year’s debate in California over the controversial Proposition 8, Morozov says, denial-of-service attacks were used by proponents of the anti-gay proposal to stem the ability of gay and lesbian nonprofits and political action groups to fight the measure.]

“We tend to assume the Net is going to be helping [civil rights advocates] and not the dictators,” Morozov says, “but repressive groups and regimes love the Internet, too, and are figuring out how to use it to control others.” When asked by moderator Andrew Zolli which side is winning—citizen civil rights activists or the dictators—Morozov said: “Both ends of the spectrum are expanding, but it’s very hard for me to deliver an argument that the Net benefits one political side more than the other.”

For more on the 50-cent Army and Internet censorship, see “Peep Show”, an August cross-post on SSIR from Cause Global about online censorship around the world. 

imageMarcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.