It’s a long post, but Eph Ethan Zuckerman’s work on censorship and the evolving uses of technologies is worth a read. He was the first “tech guy” for Tripod, the webhosting company that started in Williamstown, and still lives in the Berkshires. A few quotes to whet your appetite:

Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers.

Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats.

I had a front-row seat for this transition, working with Tripod. We sincerely believed that the purpose of the web was to give college graduates helpful information about renting apartments, applying for jobs and investing their money. Our users rapidly told us that what the web was really about was publishing their own information… which left us with the difficult challenge of figuring out how to make money off of people’s collections of cat pictures.

Based on my Tripod experience, I’d offer the hypothesis that any sufficiently advanced read/write technology will get used for two purposes: pornography and activism. Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media – it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test – if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable.

In late 1996, we noticed that Tripod was receiving a great deal of traffic from Malaysia. Searching through the server logs, we found lots of pages in Bahasa Malay talking about “Reformasi” and “Anwar Ibrahim”. I had to visit the Political Science department at Williams College to figure out that we were apparently hosting much of the Malaysian opposition political movement, dedicated to helping deposed and imprisoned deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim return to power.

Blocking banal content on the internet is a self-defeating proposition. It teaches people how to become dissidents – they learn to find and use anonymous proxies, which happens to be a key first step in learning how to blog anonymously. Every time you force a government to block a web 2.0 site – cutting off people’s access to cute cats – you spend political capital. Our job as online advocates is to raise that cost of censorship as high as possible.

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