How Bloggers Defy Despots

One unmitigated good that's come of the lawlessness of the Internet is that it's allowed daring bloggers in third world countries to flout their authoritarian regimes (Kos and HuffPo just like to think they do the same). Egypt, China, Iran, and Pakistan have all jailed online diarists and tried to block the rest of the population from even accessing international media. All have failed for the same reason samizdat entered the lexicon in the cold war: dissidents are more enterprising than their persecutors. (At left, activists demanding the release of Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer, who was sentenced to four years in prison and then became a cause celebre).

Case in point: In November 2007, Tunisia tried to bar its citizens' access to YouTube and DailyMotion, fearing (correctly) that these sites carried devastating information about Tunisian political prisoners that would stoke popular protest. The result, according to the Economist, was that "Tunisian activists and their allies organised a 'digital sit-in', linking dozens of videos about civil liberties to the image of the presidential palace in Google Earth. That turned a low-key human-rights story into a fashionable global campaign."

How Bloggers Defy Despots

It's called the "Streisand effect" after Babs tried suing websites that posted pics of her Malibu beach house, which no one cared about until she asked for $50 million to have them removed. See how that works. The Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov (pictured at right) tried the same gambit with Britain's notoriously plaintiff-friendly and border-hopping libel laws when he threatened former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray for blogging not-nice things about him after Usmanov made a pitch to acquire a larger stake of the Arsenal football club last year. The mere hint of a civil suit so terrified Murray's service provider that it pulled the plug on not just his blog but on a whole slew of other blogs hosted on the same server (newly elected London Mayor Boris Johnson was one of the victims). The tactic, again, backfired deliciously. Whereas no one had ever heard of Usmanov before, now his name and puddy visage bombinated throughout the blogosphere, which declared immediate and unwavering solidarity with Murray. Dictators, take note:

Some countries still think that the benefits of censorship are worth the opprobrium. China unabashedly blocks foreign news sites, with state-financed digital censors playing an elaborate game of cat and mouse with those trying to elude them. Saudi Arabia makes a positive virtue of the practice, warning those trying to access prohibited websites of the dangers of pornography: sources cited include the Koran and Cass Sunstein, an American scholar who argues that porn does not automatically deserve First Amendment protection.

Sunstein's currently dating the once and future Obama adviser Samantha Power, who probably doesn't need the further aggro of being even two degrees of separation removed from a Wahhabist Koran. But the more urgent point is that a hacker in Beijing can share his new software to skirt the censors with a fellow hacker in Riyadh, whose government has just purchased the already outmoded censoring technology from China. (What will become of the Potemkin Communist country once the global media spotlight of the Olympics is trained on it?)

The digital underground remains ahead of the curve.

[The Economist]