Update: An account of Wednesday's protest has been posted to mediasphere.In some parts of the world, such as the United States, the Internet is a relatively safe means to communicate and discuss controversial or unpopular subjects. Unfortunately this isn't the case in all countries, and journalists, activists, and other outspoken individuals continue to be threatened and imprisoned at an alarming rate.
According to Reporters sans frontieres (Reporters Without Borders), there are 63 people around the world who are currently in prison for using the Internet to exercise their freedom of expression. Forty-nine of the imprisoned cyber-dissidents are from China; seven are from Vietnam, and two are from Syria. Libya, Jordan, Egypt, and Burma are each holding one person for online speech activities.
In an effort to "denounce government censorship of the Internet and to demand more online freedom," Reporters Without Borders is organizing a 24-hour online demonstration on Wednesday and officially recognizing the date as Online Free Expression day. The protest will begin at 3:00 a.m. PT; those in attendance will be invited to build an avatar, write a message for their virtual picket sign and descend on one of nine "Internet enemies" (Burma, China, North Korea, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam).
In conjunction with the protest, Reporters Without Borders will release a new version of its Handbook for Cyber-dissidents, and an update to the organization's list of "Internet enemies." Though it wasn't made clear on the site, it seems this updated list would likely correspond to the nine targets announced for the protest.
I'm a strong supporter of Reporters Without Borders. In the interest of full disclosure, the organization has been a strong advocate on my behalf in the past, but I have to question the effectiveness of this particular campaign. I highly doubt the Internet enemy countries will be moved by the demonstration, and few people outside those participating will ever even know about the protest, so I'm unsure who exactly Reporters Without Borders hopes to sway by this initiative.
One of the primary purposes of a traditional protest is to educate the general public about a particular injustice or situation of concern. People along the street who aren't involved in the demonstration are exposed to the chants, literature, and picket signs, and are forced to think critically about an issue they may not otherwise be focused on. News of the cyber-dissident demonstration will likely only travel by way of those who chose to report on it.
If the 24-hour online demo had an embeddable component that visitors could post on their own blogs and profiles, then it seems like the campaign might stand a better chance of influencing more people and catalyzing some form of real change.
A similar event was held last year and attracted 40,000 participants. Though I'm not very optimistic about how effective this protest will be, I do plan to take part in this year's demonstration and will provide an update from the virtual protest Wednesday.
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