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Why we must fight tooth and nail for our right to connect with others

Manila during the EDSA Revolution. Photo: Creative Commons

In 2001, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila to protest the corruption of then-president Joseph Estrada. The capital paralyzed, citizens peacefully overthrew Estrada in three days.  

Last summer, international news media was able to cover the aftermath of the Iranian Presidential election despite the best attempts of the Iranian government to stop them, including censorship of major news agencies, clogged cell phone connections, and even the brief shutdown of the Internet.  

And in January, amidst the decimated infrastructure of a decimated nation, people in Haiti were able to tell their harrowing stories, their blurry photos and video airing before millions on CNN and the BBC.

The common thread connecting these three events is the fact that  they all captured worldwide attention through today’s new, global society. News agencies’ “iReports”, forums where the average citizen can send photos and video from cell phone cameras, played an integral part in building the Haiti story. Neda Agha-Soltan became the face of the 2009 Iranian protests when her death captured the world’s attention on YouTube and news media were able to tell her story, one tweet at a time. Mobilized and organized by text messages, the Filipino masses still refer to the 2001 Estrada overthrow as the “coup de text”.

Today’s technology gives people unprecedented ability to connect with one another: to share information, discuss issues, and, indeed, unite for a common goal. The power of human connectivity circumvents censorship, obscurity, and national boundaries.

In Gordon Brown’s opinion, this technology gives humanity “the first opportunity as a community to fundamentally change the world.”

“Foreign policy can never be the same again,” the former British Prime Minister said at a conference in Cambridge, England. “It cannot be run by elites; it’s got to be run by listening to the public opinions of people who are blogging, who are communicating with each other around the world.”

Evidently, some governments have also keyed into technology’s growing clout on the world decision-making stage. But instead of embracing a new way to affect global change, the elites are shutting down the blogs and communication that demand their governments listen to public opinion.

In October, the United Arab Emirates will stop service for Blackberry’s Messenger, email, and web browser services. The UAE, like China, is a country that censors what their citizens can see on the air, in the papers, and online. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discern why the government would single out Blackberry, as opposed to other carriers. Blackberries have unprecedented privacy software that can encrypt messages sent to and from smart phones.  What the UAE government can’t read, they won’t let their people send.

This is just the most recent installment in the long story of government repression.  Technological connections like text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs have given average people the ability to reach beyond borders. Indeed, the very platform on which you are reading this message is proof that anyone, even a kid, can project ideas, so long as there are people who are interested in reading them. We no longer need permission, producers, or plane tickets to report on issues we deem important. All we need is 140 characters and a connection to our friends who are interested in what we have to say.

Some governments fear these connections because they allow ordinary people to topple leaders, mobilize masses, and expose the truth. A global society connected by technology unites people, regardless of state boundaries, skin colour, or socioeconomic status.

These days, the average Joe in Vancouver can network with a like-minded person in Sydney, discuss issues with peers in Toronto, and post opinions on a D.C.-based news blog. He or she can affect change, hold governments accountable, ask questions and capture the world’s attention.

Disappointingly, not only the UAE, but also Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and India, are ready to pull the plug.  

“The thing that scares them, really, is you and me talking, exchanging ideas on our own terms,” Rachel Maddow said on her show last week on MSNBC. “That is becoming the most dangerous thing in the world.”

Which is why we must cherish this technology and realize that it makes us more active and aware citizens, regardless of whether or not government wants us to be so. We must realize that this forum for any opinion, no matter who you may be, allows anyone to contribute to the building of a better planet. Indubitably, a global society wired by cell phones, news blogs, but most importantly, the freely-flowing discourse of the people, is a necessity for a truly democratic world. 

But clearly, the global society we have built through innovation and belief in humanity’s ability to affect change, is at risk. We must fight back.  

Should anyone try to take away my links to the online global forum, rest assured I will take to the airwaves to fight for my right to speak. Indeed, this may be the only way to preserve our places in the global forum, wired by technology and social media: by taking to this forum and broadcasting our concerns to the most powerful community in the world-- not a nation, state, or group of elites-- but the global society we reach through our computers, the gigantic group of people from everywhere who  can challenge the status quo, lift up the proverbial rug, and inspire millions for a common cause.

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