Online protest rallies free-speech supporters around the globe

Reporters Without Borders declares Wednesday as the first Online Free Expression Day. CNET Blog Network contributor Josh Wolf checks in on the demonstration.

Josh Wolf first became interested in the power of the press after writing and distributing a screed against his high school's new dress code. Within a short time, the new dress code was abandoned, and ever since then he's been getting his hands dirty deconstructing the media every step of the way. Wolf recently became the longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history after he spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate. In Media sphere, Josh shares his daily insights on the developing information landscape and examines how various corporate and governmental actions effect the free press both in the United States and abroad.
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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 I wrote about the event Tuesday. 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).

Reporters Without Borders

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.

Reporters Without Borders
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.