From Russia, where winters are cold and vodka is the best-known potato product, came news earlier this month that authorities there had cracked down on an environmentalist group, Baikal Environmental Wave, on the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software.
The Putin government — which is apparently unfamiliar with the concept of Glastnost, or openness, introduced by then-head of state Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s — has reportedly been using the excuse of concern about software piracy to attack outspoken advocacy groups and opposition newspapers over the years.
Microsoft lawyers in Russia had apparently backed the authorities.
As technology spreads across the world, so does it raise new political problems and change the face of political involvement.
Here, There, Everywhere
In China, the government has cracked down on Internet access and has decreed that all new computers sold in the country be equipped with the Green Dam Web-filtering software package to protect children from online pornography, a move that, together with Beijing’s blocking of access to Google in the country, sparked a war of words with Washington.
In the United States, travelers crossing the U.S. border can have the contents of their electronic devices, including laptops, dumped into Federal databases for scrutiny. Further, Google reports that the number of U.S. government agencies’ requests to the Internet giant for data between January and June totaled almost 4,300 — 20 percent more than the nearly 3,300 requests they made between July and December 2009.
The Google figures don’t include information on how much data the U.S. government forces Google to turn over on individuals outside of the U.S., or requested through National Security Letters, or national security wiretap and data request warrants to combat spies and threats to national security, known as FISA warrants.
Governments can, and do, use digital data that’s been collected to monitor and spy on their own citizens, and where they don’t it’s because of strong opposition from members of society.
Take a Walk on the Bright Side
Technology doesn’t just expose us to greater harassment or political oppression, however; it can also be highly liberating.
The world learned about protests against the 2009 election of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from Tweets and online videos, despite Teheran’s insistence that everything was hunky-dory.
Earlier this month, the poor of Mozambique were spurred to protest against sharp increases in the cost of living through an anonymous SMS message that was widely distributed on cellphones. The message called for protests against price increases for energy, water, transportation and bread, and led to three days of unrest.
What’s heartening about this is that Mozambique is a poor nation — 65 percent of the population lives in poverty. However, 25 percent of the country’s 20 million people have cellphones. That’s about twice as many people who have access to electricity. It’s the widespread ownership of low-end cellphones that let the populace organize and make demands on their government, which eventually backed down on some of the increases.
Such protests would have been difficult to organize without SMS technology, as protest organizers going door to door to plead their cause may have been arrested because of their high visibility.
The New Face of American Politics
In the United States, both the Democratic and Republican parties are turning to Tweets, Facebook pages and YouTube, as well as widgets and other new electronic technologies as they gear up for the November Congressional elections, according to Mashable.
That could lead to greater involvement of people in the elections in a country where voter apathy is rife.
However, turning to these new technologies may also have ramifications neither party has considered.
It’s one thing to hear about voter dissatisfaction from surveys you have commissioned, or once every two or four years at the polls, depending on whether it’s a Congressional or presidential election. It’s quite another when voters can openly express their dissatisfaction through Tweets and on social media sites.
If a voter is annoyed by a candidate or an incumbent in office, for example, he or she might create a Facebook page expressing dissatisfaction and that may pick up enough followers within a very short time to lead to changes. And nothing makes a politician more aware of voter anger than receiving hundreds, if not thousands, of tweets within a short period.
So, will technology be a blessing to politics or a curse? That will probably depend on whether the candidates or the government does indeed carry out the will of the voters. The one thing we can be sure of is that technology makes it easier than ever before for voters to express their opinion and that the silent majority is, perhaps, a thing of the past.
TechNewsWorld columnist and reporter Richard Adhikari has been writing about high-tech since the mid-1980s, when he was editor of Computerworld Hong Kong. He was editor of Direct Access (now Computerworld Canada) and InfoCanada. He was senior writer at Planet IT and wrote extensively for Information Week, the IW 500, Software Magazine, Client-Server Computing, and Application Development Trends, among other publications. He wonders where high-tech is going but loves it anyhow.