The news from Syria is hard to follow. Not that its difficult to track what is going on, who the players are or the international stakeholders, but the very real, very specific civilian death, injury and destruction. I know some people in our local Syrian community and it’s very hard not to see their faces in the images on Al Jazeera English.
I am starting think that Syria may help decide the fundamental direction of our global society for the next thirty years. Here’s why.
The Arab Spring was possible in part because of the information stream going in and out freed people of their isolation. The world was watching. So even if the government shot them down in the street someone would find out about it, someone would be accountable. Cold comfort if you are the one dead in the street, but if what you are fighting for is worth dying, for at least you will not be invisible.
Now the Chinese are using weibo to protest. And getting away with it if they are taking on the provincial or municipal government. Not quite Twitter, the Chinese micro-blogging has more than 300 million users. That’s a lot of messages to filter for “human rights”, “democracy” and “Tienanmen”. I was reminded how many layers there can be in Chinese communication when I heard last month that the Chinese government blocked Ai Weiwei’s “Gangnam Style” video because the homophones he uses in the parody are roughly “F**k your Mother” (the Communist Govt). And its got a good beat.
So what does this have to do with Syria? In the midst of the Internet and cell phone black out the Syrian government has imposed across the country, the UN is working on an International Internet Treaty. Who owns the Internet. The answer to this question will be our future.
Formerly the Age of Information, in the new Age of Participation when we are all citizen journalists and a Twitter alert can cause a riot, who controls the flow of information controls the world. If the UN decides that each Government has to have the right to shut down Internet and cell phone usage (like Syria is doing) at their discretion, then we are headed for a Sci-Fi future that is anyone guess. The pressure is coming from (surprise) China, Russia, Iran and other Arab countries.
The UN should focus on creating some treaty that calls for checks and balances in times of turmoil (like Google & Twitter providing dial-up numbers to Syrian activists) so every member nation has to adhere to information protocols like the Geneva Conventions. Hell lets just add it to the Geneva Conventions since these situations will always come up in times of war/coup.
This is really the final frontier for free speech. If we do not make a global commitment to ensure globally diversified Internet access we have chosen our future. The fewer telecommunications providers the easier it is to flip a switch.
Decisions are being made. Attention must be paid.