Wednesday has been announced by the French organization Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) as the first Online Free Expression Day. In recognition of its announcement, the group has initiated a 24-hour online protest going on now in nine virtual countries that have been labeled Internet enemies by the international press organization.
I stopped by the protest earlier Wednesday morning and found the demonstration to be similar to what I expected when. My primary concern with the protest was that it would be relegated to a dark corner on the Internet, and that does indeed seem to be the case (though the demonstration does provide a means to automatically e-mail friends about the event).
Once inside, I was greeted with a menu of Internet enemy countries that I could virtually visit to protest their legal policies. I started at the top and decided to venture to Burma as the first stop on my tour. After arriving in Burma, I was given an opportunity to identify myself and to choose from five ready-made slogans. After confirming my selection, I was transported to a crowd of anonymous looking avatars. Some of ghost figures held picket signs and some did not; those with signs represented real people who could be identified with a click, and those that did not were apparently there for visual effect.
In traveling to each of the nine countries, I discovered that China had attracted the most visitors with 3,664 people in attendance at 9:30 a.m. PDT; Burma was a distant second with 1,541 protesters on hand. All together, approximately 10,000 people were credited as being participants in the protest at the time.
As a Flash application, the protest is quite slick and well designed, but I still have doubts as to how effective this approach really is. The campaign has generated significant attention from the mainstream media, and it certainly isn't a bad way to highlight the organization's new list of "Internet Enemies" and an update to its Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents. Still, as protests go, this strikes me more as a completely sincere and well-intentioned publicity stunt than a true protest designed to mobilize the masses and catalyze change.
The last words of the organization's press release seem to indicate exactly that: "The cyber-demonstration was devised and produced by the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency." It's hard to know what to think about an advertising firm devising a protest for a press freedoms organization. At least Reporters Without Borders elected to disclose it in its press release. I doubt many other groups would so freely acknowledge that their protest was anything but organic and that does deserve credit.