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May 29, 2008

Filed under: politics»the_new_protest

Where They Cut

In our technology story arc meetings at CQ, we've tried to find ways of looking at the direction of ICT, particularly for hotspots like open access or network neutrality--so for example, maybe you look at it as "new vs. old business" or "content providers vs. network providers." A frame that I've found particularly helpful is to look at these controversies as two basic philosophies: software people and hardware people.

Software people are Google, Microsoft, NBC, etc. They want to sell you information, with or without DRM, but when push comes to shove they are probably more likely to say that information should be "free." They only care about the network insofar as it can move content. On the other side are the hardware people, like Comcast or Verizon. The hardware people want to sell you physical objects, or hook you up to physical networks, through which you will be connected to content at the hardware provider's whim--and when push comes to shove, they will prioritize the health and performance of the network (such as it is, in the case of US broadband) over the intangible information inside it.

These aren't hard and fast categories--some hardware people want to be software people, and vice versa--but it helps me, at least. It applies the old question of "What would you rescue from a burning house?" to the actors in this drama: would they save the content? Or will they save the pipes?

If you're a dissenting voice using new media, I suspect the question is similar, but it's not about what they'll save. It asks "where will they cut?" Ultimately, that's the bottom line.

Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody offers an intriguing glimpse of Internet-enabled political protest, with examples of flash mobs in Belarus and twitter-enabled dissidents. It also explores, to some extent, the possibility that police or counter-movements can eavesdrop or disrupt (through firewalls and censorship) those tools. These are the software problems.

In 2005, Nepal's president took power, cutting off phone lines and Internet connections as he did so to silence and disorient dissenters. In 2007, during a vicious crackdown on protestors, the Burmese government shut down all Internet traffic for several days and did not fully restore it (for certain values of "restore" that include censorship and firewalling) for almost two weeks.

Those are the hardware problems. All the proxy servers and chat rooms in the world won't help when the phones are turned off. It's something I want to keep in mind while I'm looking up cool examples of technology and political/social movements: above all, when the movement becomes too much of a nuisance to the powers that be, where will they choose to cut it off? Ignorance of this point is a profound failure of the rhetorical strategy.

Future - Present - Past