Arabloggers 2011 – Day One, Part One

I wasn’t able to liveblog the first few panels due to limited connectivity, but we’re now fully connected, and I’ll do my best to round up each session thus far, and liveblog those to come.

Session One: Rebecca MacKinnon

The inimitable Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices and free expression expert in her own right, opened the day with a talk not all that dissimilar from her recent TED talk. The premise of Rebecca’s talk–as well as her upcoming book–is the fight for a citizen-centric Internet, rather than one controlled by governments. She, like I, has particular focus on the role of companies (Rebecca is also a founding member of the Global Network Initiative), and today discussed the role Tunisians–whom she says have just hit the “reset” button–could play in introducing new and innovative regulation that is citizen-focused.

Session Two: Tweeting the Revolution(s)

The second panel featured Ahmed Al-Omran (@ahmed), Hisham Al Miraat (@__hisham), Manal Hassan (@manal), @RedRazan, and was moderated by Nasser Weddady (@weddady). I unfortunately was unable to connect to the Internet during the panel, but @nmoawad, @techsoc and others did a great job of live-tweeting in English.

The main premise agreed upon by all panelists was the role that Twitter was less an organizing tool, and more a tool to allow users to draw a bridge between journalists/mainstream media and the people/citizen journalists. One major point worth noting, and agreed upon by Manal and @redrazan, is in respect to objectivity: citizen journalists, they emphasized, need not be wholly objective. They’re involved, it’s only natural that their views and reports will have a slant.

I can’t emphasize this point enough: I often hear MSM mainstays claim that to be the problem with the blogosphere; on the contrary, I believe that no one is truly objective, and that I would rather see an admittedly subjective player reporting his/her surroundings than a Tom Friedman sputtering bullshit without knowledge of the country he’s in. Of course, there are wonderful mainstream journalists–I’m not a hater, so to speak–but citizen journalists provide a complementary view. Both MSM and citizen journalism are needed in the ecosphere.

Session Three: Moez Chakchouk, President of the Tunisian Internet Agency

“Even if we wanted to censor, we’d have to consider the court decisions – there was a court decision in an appeals court without any prior references. We need to change ATI, make it an IXP, and provide more transparency.” — Moez Chakchouk, President and CEO, ATI

Moez Chakchouk is the president of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI). I recently interviewed him for a forthcoming piece, and his talk today was within the same framework: how to build up the ATI as an Internet Exchange Point (IXP) whilst ensuring that the ATI is neutral and free of censorship. He offered considerable detail on the goals and accomplishments of the ATI thus far (which I’ll spare you here, as it’s included in my upcoming piece – well, and because I couldn’t see the slides well enough from my position in the back row!)

Moez also, as Nasser Weddady put it, “[blew] a huge hole in tech companies’ claim that their equipment sale to repressive regimes [are] in good faith.” Tunisia long used SmartFilter (owned by McAfee/Intel) to censor the Internet and continues to do so (though at a very different level: see my post here). Slim Amamou (@slim404) commented afterward on the sale of surveillance and censorship equipment by American and European companies to foreign regimes, particularly Tunisia.

A little background: The ATI was long an enemy of Tunisians; charged with censorship and surveillance under Ben Ali, it was a feared agency, its practices referred to widely as “Ammar 404,” in honor of the 404 error users received when trying to access a blocked site. Post-revolution, the options were to shut down Ammar 404 and the ATI, or leave the ATI open as a semi-government agency, charged with being Tunisia’s IXP. Moez and others have faced several attempts to shut down the Internet, but continue their fight for an open and neutral Internet.

Session Four: Zeynep Tufekci on Networked Activism and Democratic Transitions

Zeynep, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and fellow at the Berkman Center, is presenting on the role of networked activism post-revolution.

“How did these regimes remain in power for decade after decade despite opposition?” Zeynep asks to start. She notes the struggles faced by long-term activists, as well as the perception that regimes cannot be brought down. “Once the floodgates open, as they did in Tunisia,” she says, “People realize they can bring a regime down. Revolutions can happen.”

Zeynep recognizes the years of preparation by both Egyptians and Tunisians, but explains that everyone here understands that and that, rather, she wants to bring experiences from other post-revolutionary states to Tunisia. She notes the utility of the new media ecology in expressing the unknown; like Sami Ben Gharbia has said, Tunisians were aware of corruption and human rights violations, but leaks and activism confirmed it.

“How does new media play a role in organizing a new society?” Zeynep asks. “More participation and more democracy are not identical, and new media can even increase polarization, create more conflict. Free speech doesn’t automatically translate into other values.”

If you start with free speech, Zeynep notes, it’s only the first step – there are complications and expression is not a magic wand. She takes us through the post-revolutionary processes in the French Revolution, as well as in Iran and Eastern Europe, noting that in all cases, transition was not straightforward and often took years, or even decades. “Sometimes you have to keep going back, back, back. Revolutions are not moments.”

“The biggest danger facing us is a failure of imagination,” she concluded.

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