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Alejandro Navas, Professor of Sociology, University of Navarra, Spain

Power doesn't trust the internet

Fri, 16 Jul 2010 11:37:46 +0000 Published in Heraldo de Aragón

"With iPods, iPads and Xboxes, information has become a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment rather than an instrument of training". These words were not uttered by some old dinosaur, unable to make himself position aware of the importance of the Internet and new information technologies, but by Barack Obama himself, when he recently addressed students at Hampton University. Both active politicians and communication experts are exhaustively studying the revolutionary use that candidate Obama was able to make of these technologies and the social networks that emerged around them. And once installed in the White House, the new president continued to opt for these channels, to the detriment of the traditional media, to reach the nation with particularly relevant messages. How can this surprising change of attitude be explained? What is the reason for this unexpected break after such a promising honeymoon?

On this point, as on so many others, Obama has gone through a common experience in politics: it is not the same to be on civil service examination as in government. The contrast is even more striking in his case, since a good part of his program had consisted precisely in the promise of a new -and inconcrete- way of doing politics, in the recovery of dialogue and illusion. The clash of this pretension with the demands of Realpolitik was a foregone conclusion. The subsequent disappointment is punctually registered in its decreasing indexes of acceptance by the citizenry.

But I want to focus on the Internet. Once again, it is clear that transparency and freedom of expression bother even the most democratic governments. By its very nature, the Internet is difficult to control, and when traditional media are subject to government supervision, network becomes the last refuge for criticism of unsavory political actions. Unfortunately, current events provide us with plenty of examples.

In France, Sarkozy and his party are facing a possible corruption case with all the ingredients of the spiciest soap opera. The affair was not uncovered by the traditional media, despotically controlled by the president himself, but by Mediapart, a digital publication. It was there that the interview with Claire T., Liliane Bettencourt's accountant, which brought the affair to light, was published. The reaction of Sarkozy himself and his minister of work and party treasurer, Eric Woerth, is guide: these statements are simply slanderous, and it is high time for the media to deal with the real problems affecting the country and not with trifles. However, the public prosecutor's office is preparing new proceedings and the atmosphere is one of crisis.

Let's go to the other end of the Mediterranean, to Egypt. Last June 6, in Alexandria, a group of plainclothes policemen, group , took blogger Khaled Saeed out of the "Cleopatra" Internet café and beat him to death in the middle of the street, in full view of passers-by. It seemed that this crime would go unpunished, like so many others by the security forces, but this time the Mubarak regime was wrong. The civil service examination has been mobilized through the Internet, with bloggers playing a leading role, and as there are already fifteen million Egyptian Internet users, an opposition movement has been set in motion which seems unstoppable. The effervescence on network has been followed by street demonstrations, which the police dare not repress with violence. Some of the most prominent bloggers have been imprisoned, but this has only fueled the civil service examination movement, which has found in el-Baradei a prestigious and internationally recognized leader.

Despotic governments also learn to use the Internet to serve their repressive policies, as we have seen recently in Iran or China, but network remains the last refuge for freedom fighters.