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Technology and Democracy

posted Oct 21, 2011, 9:20 AM by   [ updated Oct 21, 2011, 10:33 AM ]

How does the Internet work, anyway?

Technology as a Human Right

In June, the United Nations released a report saying that Internet Access should be considered a basic human right.   

Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all States.

Most of the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have to do with speech, movement, religion, detention, property, health and living standards.  This is something new.  They've never considered access to other technologies, like water purification, TV, toilets, or books, to be rights.  

Discuss: What is it about the Internet that makes it different from other technologies? Try comparing books to web sites, TV to Youtube.

What does "Democratizing" Mean?

Democracy is all about equality.  Think of democracy as a continuum:

Something that is "Democratizing" is anything that pushes a society to the right of the continuum.  
Discuss: Where do you think America today falls on the continuum, and why?  What are the barriers to democracy in our society?

How can new video technology and the Internet affect how democratic a society is?

A few weeks ago this video of the Occupy Wall Street protest went viral on Youtube:

This is the kind of evidence that emerges in our modern world, and it is completely different, in many ways, from what was possible just 10 years ago.

  • The majority of cell phones in use now include video cameras, so many people carry a video camera everywhere they go.
  • Streaming video sites like Youtube (founded 2005) make it easy for anyone to upload and share a video to the world in minutes.
  • The spread of mobile data networks and broadband internet allow people to connect their content to the web from most places in the world.

Here are some questions to think about:
  • Who owns the channels of communication on the Internet?  Who owns them for TV?
  • What does it cost to get your message on the Internet? How much to get it on TV?
  • How far can a message travel online?  How far can it travel on a TV station?
  • How long does it take a news story to break online?  How long would it take to get a news story on TV?

Who's afraid of the Internet?

Read this statement from the United Nations Report:

The vast potential and benefits of the Internet are rooted in its unique characteristics, such as its speed, worldwide reach and relative anonymity. At the same time, these distinctive features of the Internet that enable individuals to disseminate information in "real time" and to mobilize people has also created fear amongst Governments and the powerful. This has led to increased restrictions on the Internet through the use of increasingly sophisticated technologies to block content, monitor and identify activists and critics, criminalization of legitimate expression, and adoption of restrictive legislation to justify such measures.

Some countries are worse than others about controlling Internet access: China, North Korea, and Iran put a lot of energy into monitoring and restricting Internet traffic.
Discuss: Where are these countries on the continuum?  What is the government of these countries worried about?

Revolution! Technology in the Arab Spring

How can we be better, more involved Internet users?
First, we need to be good at navigating the web. See if you can complete this challenge: Super Web Navigator