Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Weekly Sneak: Keeping the Internets Free

One of my greatest passions is under threat. So I wrote about that in The East African this week:

"My biggest fear is that SOPA could amputate the Internet, thereby restricting the best mechanism humankind has come up with yet for sharing knowledge, cutting off flows of information which Tanzanians should be benefitting from as much as possible. Also, it is an alarmingly imperious bill. If the land of the not-so-free is keen to start policing the Internet just because Big Business told them to, who is to say that other governments- which have a woeful habit of copying American trends- won't start getting ideas? The mechanisms that would enable SOPA to function would also be very useful in monitoring activists and intellectuals and dissidents around the world. Even as far away as a sleepy backwater emergent economy like Tanzania, which frankly needs to ignore as much intellectual property rights bullying as possible at present to survive."

I fell terminally in love with the internet in 1999 on campus when two things happened: I could afford my first ever personal computer, a boxy little Compaq, and I had 24 hour unrestricted access to a Local Area Network (LAN). Prior to this the only contact I had had with the internet in Dar es Salaam had been disappointing: seedy cafes with sticky malfunctioning keyboards, the half-hour wait just to read a five-line email, the (expletive deleted) cafe attendants who have perfected the art of driving me batshit crazy with their rolling eyes and complete. effing. disinterest.

Ah, but 1999. The power of that dormroom PC and free high-speed LAN went straight to my head, literally. Online, a body can research anything she wants to know without the restrictive "guidance" of third-party gatekeepers. Surfing the net became my favorite transcendental activity- I would regularly lose myself for entire weekends online playing games, reading about subjects both taboo and mundane, and discovering just how vast the human store of knowledge is even if only a fraction of it lives on the 'net. I blissed out, regularly, and still occasionally do.

Which is kind of why I am a wee bit of an internet activist- this is a personal crusade. Development work here, especially in the NGO world, is focused on maximizing utility and ethical/moral karma points for every action, which means tallying the numbers of people for whom you do good. Why work with the internet when people (or victims, or actors, or whatever you call them depending on your cause/arrogance) don't have water/goats/food/latrines/insert specialist concern. The I'm-so-nationalist-my-blood-is-green-gold-blue-black windbags like to point out with great satisfaction that Mtanzania wa Kawaida doesn't even have access to the internet so this is a minority bourgeois preoccupation that has no place in The Building Of This Great Nation.

While, of course, Tweeting their opinions.

Which is why I want to address issues of power viz the net. If knowledge is power, and one believes in empowering people, doesn't it make sense to push as many people onto the internet Ark as possible? Yes it is expensive in terms of access, but the net can provide you with an education that is comparatively cheaper and certainly broader than conventional schooling in some instances. It is also a wonderful way to remain a perpetual student. Who can afford the kind of library you need to read all the topics you can get for free online, fully stocked with the latest cultural products, intellectual discourses, professional and amateur journalism, conversations around innovation etc? Besides, with time and greater adoption the internet will become an even more accessible and affordable place and only those lacking in imagination believe otherwise.

Which is why it is important to support the free sharing of knowledge through the best platforms available. I believe Tanzanians should be literate in the sense of reading and writing and computing so that individuals can discover for themselves the vast potential of human intellectual life and creativity. Training, social inculcation, employability... etc. these are all secondary considerations to me. Empower people with as much knowledge as they can stand by any pacific means necessary, I say, and then we can talk about informed choices and agency and active citizenship and designer democracy. And the Internet, as free and egalitarian a space as we have ever come up with to date, is crucial to that endeavour.

As nature dictates, where there are freedoms there are parties interested in curtailing them. The latest threat to the Internet in America is unfortunately targeting the whole world. I don't think that SOPA will pass, at least not in its current format, and I am not yet sure what it would do to TZ's blogosphere if it does. However I am desperately opposed to state censorship and control of information and so must throw my hat in. The last time we slept while the Americans were legislating with an eye on them strange and foreign peoples, Tanzanians ended up with biometric passports.

A note on Intellectual Property Rights: because this discussion wouldn't be truthful without one. Basically I am not a fan of the extreme neocolonialist form, which is what the US is promoting. I won't bore you with the details, but if you have time Malcolm Gladwell wrote a very accessible piece about IPRs that kicks the legs out from under them in his recent book, 'What The Dog Saw.' And because this is one of those Great Unresolvables since it deals with the battle between Good and Weevils, Yin and Yang, Chaos and Entropy, here's a link that summarizes-slash-discusses the concept without necessarily agreeing with Malcolm.


  1. worth checking out Jon Stewart's show from Jan 18 to get a sense of the legislators reviewing this and what their level of knowledge re such matters is. Not pretty


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