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Information is a revolution if handled with tact: Internet stalwarts

Speaking at the 10th India Today Conclave, Sir Tim felt it was increasingly the need of the people across the world to consider access to the Internet a right as much as any other civil right. "Already, Finland has accepted the right to the Internet as a human right, as has Estonia," he said.

Joel Rai   New Delhi     Last Updated: March 19, 2011  | 20:16 IST

It did not require theoreticians to answer the questions whether access to information can lead to a revolution or is a revelation.

At the India Today Conclave 2011 session, Wael Ghonim, the Internet activist who rallied the tens of thousands that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, had one emphatic answer: information is a revolution. And he said this with the assertion born in the actual cauldron of revolution in Egypt.

Corroborating this view, with caveats, were the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners Lee, and technologist-hacker Joshua Klein.

Over video from Cairo, Ghonim recalled how technology not only provided a platform for millions of Egyptians at a time when they wanted their voice heard, but also catalysed a social unity that eventually ended a three-decade-old regime under which people lost their rights and dignity.

"Even before Tahrir Square, we all wanted change, but we disagreed on how to go about achieving this. Facebook gave us a platform on which we began with one simple idea of marching together silently in black for one hour." In the event, miles-long queues formed and the revolution was well underway. "But we also used Facebook to democratize the movement," added Ghonim. "We shared ideas, discussed programmes and voted on how and when to do things."

Ghonim, who headed Google's marketing in Egypt, felt that the single most important lesson from the events at Tahrir Square was that technology ensures that voices are heard. It allows communication between masses and between individuals. "There is no mainstream media," he said, "the media is the people."

Asked by Sir Tim how the Egyptians were using the tools offered by technology to strengthen their new-found democracy, Ghonim first thanked Sir Tim for inventing the WWW that facilitated the revolution. He then pointed out that the new leaders in Egypt, namely the Prime Minister, the Attorney General and the Army Supreme Council all had Facebook pages. He remarked cheekily that the regime itself had announced the ouster of several ministers of the time on Facebook.

"The government is now communicating online with the people. The common man is in a position to give feedback to the government, while 1.5 million people have submitted ideas on development and economic initiatives  post the revolution," he said to applause. He added that the Internet was a tool that facilitated the collection of ideas and increased political awareness.

While appreciating how the Internet was a tool of empowerment, Sir Tim talked about two issues that were crucial to the future of digital information. He said that while online data and access to it would bring about transparency and could curb government corruption, he also said that it was important to progress towards the idea of the Internet as a neutral media that was not controlled by large corporates or governments or an international court. The Net allowed the user to be anonymous and this was important for a society. "Whistle-blower rights are important for democratic functions," said. However, the same right to anonymity could also be abused and used for spying, to control and for commercials gains.

Sir Tim felt it was increasingly the need of the people across the world to consider access to the Internet a right as much as any other civil right. "Already, Finland has accepted the right to the Internet as a human right, as has Estonia," he said.  But he also stressed that the debate of how much and who should control the Net must continue since he had no definite answer to those questions at the moment.

Joshua Klein, with a reputation for being able to break down anything and redesign it, spoke about how the digital information came coded with democracy. The Net allows a two-way communication, but when this flow was impeded by governments or companies, hackers stepped in to destroy such walls, he said. While also warning that anonymity on the Net can be anarchic, he said that "despite these frightening trends, there is a huge opportunity of governments and leaders to leverage technology for the good of the people".

He pointed out how data made available over the Internet can become the bricks for public service edifices, as happened in New York's subway system. The company that runs the city rail had no resources to create a system of alerting users to train timings or the expertise. But once it opened up its data online, several applications were created using this information.

Klein was emphatic that spying on the Net and audience intelligence gathering was worrying, but he chose to turn the argument on its head. "They can profile users, but they themselves can also be profiled," he said. Profiling , therefore, can also be used positively.

The Internet compiles information and shares this indiscriminately, said Klein. And its reach can be used to take specific services to data groups that required them.

Also referring to the issue of invasion of privacy, Sir Tim said, "I am okay with my agent spying on my needs and acts, but when someone else, a third party, accesses that information, I am definitely not okay with that."

Asked how technology can be leveraged to resolve social challenges, Sir Tim said that choosing what to do with technology was a crucial decision. Different places need different answers to how to employ technology for development, he said, citing the example of farmers in Sahel who used information technology to learn how to green their desert fields instead of being herded as a group in a truck to an urban location for training in farming.

Sir Tim brought the debate on whether the Internet should be controlled and by whom to a conclusion by saying that decentralization was the best way forward. Control can be advantageous or a bane depending on the impetus for it, he pointed out. Don't forget, control can often lead to the nabbing of the "bad boys", he said. But eventually a system of checks and balances in a decentralized set-up was what would help the information revolution bring about positive changes in the world, he said.


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