Written by Linda Musita
Freedom of expression on the Internet was the topic of discussion at the US Embassy tent on Sunday, the 18th of September 2011. Ahmed Salim, Jonathan Ledgard, Susan Pointer, Basil Ibrahim and Njeri Rionge were the panelists.
Pointer who works at Google was quick and happy; to rightly say that the best thing about the internet is that one does not have to seek permission to put their views online. Social media has democratized access to information and that is a good thing. However this freedom makes governments and politicians nervous and sometimes they go as far as shutting down websites or user generated content on You Tube, for instance and even blocking access to various sites. She acknowledged that some people take the freedom too far. However it falls back on personal responsibility not to abuse the freedom
Ledgard gave an example of Ethiopia where internet access is so expensive making it less of a priority for the majority. This is a clever way of restricting the peoples’ access to information and protecting the government from the possible revolutions that can be sparked by social media. Also in Ethiopia, the person in charge of the ministry that deals with information and communication is also the boss of the national intelligence service. That cannot be a coincidence.
What the politicians do not understand according to Pointer is that the internet is not a threat to them; it is an opportunity for them as well. An opportunity to connect with their people and find out what is working and what is not working. That in away makes it a tool that can counter or prevent and make revolutions such as the one witnessed in Egypt unnecessary. Being active online will also help governments create practical regulations on internet use because they will be doing it from an informed position. Presently, the laws and regulations are made by the wrong people who keep forgetting that the internet is global and not national.
Basil Ibrahim, on regulations, insisted that as much as Parliament makes the laws, the citizens also have an open responsibility to read that legislation and give feedback to the legislature before the bills are passed. It beats logic to complain about laws that you had an opportunity to rectify but chose not to.
Rionge asked the panelists to talk about online experiences that changed the world. Salim mentioned the Egyptian revolution. It did inspire many Africans; Kenyans included who wanted to copy and paste the concept. His argument however was, that was an Egyptian idea that worked for them, in the same way that the Walk to Work campaign was a Ugandan thing that at the time was relevant and applicable in Uganda. Kenyans then, if they wanted a ‘revolution’ had to come up with their own original idea that matches their situation and was likely to solve their problems.
Salim is the brain behind two initiatives that were born, so to speak, on the internet, moved to the mainstream media and by default to the wider population of Kenyans that are not online. The first one was the United Kenya Campaign that started during the Constitution Referendum period which carried the message of peace during the voting process. The second initiative was Feed Kenya. He used the internet to urge people to skip a meal and send Kshs.250 directly to the Red Cross number t help feed the hungry in Northern Kenya. His target then was10, 000 Kenyans.
Ibrahim put a wet blanket on the rampant nationalism online. The internet is a global entity and revolutions should go beyond one nation; just like they did before. Ledgard, pointed out that tribalism is also driven on the internet. There are instances where a Kalenjin will decline a friend request from a kikuyu or a Luo will decline a friend request from a Kalenjin or a kikuyu. There are also groups that are more or less tribal exclusive clubs and they may be ignored now but they have the potential of going out of control. The same thing with religion ; Muslims against Christians and Christians against Muslims.
Lucy from the audience took the conversation to the dangerous type of socialization that social media represents. For instance people only interact with people who think like them or behave like them. They will not follow or make friends with people who have different opinions or come from different cultures. How then do they learn new things or develop independent opinions? She grew up in a different socialization. People talked, travelled, got out of their houses and saw things differently almost on a daily basis. It was not a ‘my world’ society.
She also noted that the internet and its constant interruptions in the form of messages and notifications interfere with work. It has made people move away from ‘silence’ when in fact “Great work and good creativity are created in silence”. Here Rionge agreed that the society is moving away from the original community based thinking to a more selfish individual way of living. The mind has shifted gears to “Everything I need to know is online. What do I need human interaction for? “
Another discussion was on privacy. What if the information that a person puts online, while exercising that freedom of expression is used negatively? Pointer said that people will intrude into the cozy ‘my world’ and challenge the comfort and complacency. However we should not be naïve to the various ways of protecting privacy, one of them being the Google Privacy Dashboard.
Most importantly the internet is a good thing but we should not take it for granted that it is here to stay. We have to work hard to ensure that it grows and remains a permanent aspect of world history.