On Wednesday we featured an RSAnimate video about mutual knowledge as an essential element of dissent, as demonstrated by Wikileaks. Today we feature an RSAnimate on how authoritarian regimes can leverage dissent on the Internet for their own end:

The speaker, Evgeny Morozov, notes a few phenomena of interest. First, in China, how blogs critical of local governance are useful to officials by:

  1. Notifying the cloistered bureaucracy of corruption counterproductive to the regime
  2. Providing a pressure valve for discontent in the populace
  3. Increasing the government’s overall legitimacy by allowing criticism and even acting on concerns

A more sinister example comes from Thailand, where in 2009 the website “Protect The King” was launched so citizens could submit URLs of websites critical to the monarchy for blacklisting. 3000 websites were blocked within 24 hours of Protect The King’s debut.

This matters because applications like Twitter and Facebook provide tools for expression but also collect information that can be used to track down networks of activists. The data collected is not limited to the content we intentionally send, and hiding in plain site only works until…well…you’re spotted in plain site.  Morozov introduces the terms “digital renegade” and “digital captives” to describe different states of agency for Internet users. “Digital Renegades” are intentional about how securely they access the Web and to what end. “Digital Captives” do not examine the terms of service of applications and networks and their rights and privacy are constantly at risk.

Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed is a fine start for would-be Digital Renegades, as is the ongoing advocacy of Free Expression Network member EFF.