The Internet is the ideal channel through which to publish and circulate photos and videos of atrocities, and it is a place where citizens can organize to better resist and overthrow their oppressors — that is, provided they can gain access to the Internet. Enter Facebook and Google, which are working independently on two similar projects to enable free, uncensored Internet access from the sky.
If the role played by Facebook in the Arabic revolutions was widely exaggerated, as Facebook Co-Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself acknowledges, nobody disputes the important part the Internet nonetheless played.
The Internet also provides access to unfiltered information. It enables users to understand what is happening on the other side of the “wall,” and it reveals how much a government is robbing its people. As an example, the Internet enabled Bahraini citizens, using Google Earth, to measure to what degree their rulers were monopolizing the lands to their detriment. The Internet is therefore a key part in the toolbox of freedom, as were clandestine radio programs like Radio London during World War II in France or those that popularized Western culture and rock music in the former U.S.S.R.
Internet Access Is Essential
Internet is provided in each country through infrastructure controlled in one form or another by state departments. In authoritarian regimes, leaders have a huge incentive to simply block implementation of such infrastructures, as is done in North Korea, or to control and prohibit access to certain sites deemed subversive — like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter — as is done in China. An example even closer to us is in Turkey, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently brought back the good old days of the Ottoman Empire, similar to when Sultan Bayezid prohibited the use of the printing press in 1485. While Europe became enlightened thanks to this new invention, fewer than 25 books were printed in the Turkish Empire before 1797.
The falling cost of smartphones replete with sensors and ever-increasing photo resolution has resulted in the worldwide spread of technology at an unprecedented speed. (Only “dumb phones” have spread more quickly up until now.)
What good is this if the only platforms upon which to publish compromising photos are censored by the government in real-time, like Sina Weibo in China?
Why are there not more videos of atrocities committed in Syria, when many people there own cell phones with cameras? Simply because the Internet is not readily available, or in zones where it is, it is heavily filtered by the Bashar al-Assad regime. The insurgents’ only option is to circulate USB keys. It is reasonable to assume that the international community would be more easily mobilized if everyone in Syria could immediately post, without restraint, photos and videos of abuses that are committed.
Today, the Internet is easily accessible in most countries. And even in the most remote corners of Kenya, for example, you can find a farmer with more computing capacity in his pocket than the president of the U.S. had 20 years ago. But the cost to access mobile Internet considerably limits their potential.
If virtual-private-network use, despite a few frictions, may help overcome the issue of filtering, the lack of infrastructure and the prohibitive cost of the Internet are the major remaining obstacles to the spread of enlightenment; obstacles that today’s last oppressors would like to maintain for as long as possible.
How Do We Stop This Vicious Circle?
The answer will come from the sky: Facebook and Google are working independently on two projects to enable free Internet access. The first project deploys drones as internet transmitters, and the second uses balloons. Both fly about 20 kilometers above the Earth, which is twice the altitude flown by the airlines.
These outlandish projects aim to offer free, uncensored Internet to these silenced populations, with all of the benefits highlighted above. This could represent an unprecedented step toward freedom and equality on this earth, and might eventually prove to be a more significant development for humankind than the invention of the printing press itself.
This Internet revolution from the sky should lead to the dramatic fall of the remaining dictators, but in a more gradual and less telegenic way, it will also accelerate democratization of our world, day after day, one revealed scandal after another.
I would venture to predict that Facebook’s approach is probably more viable for countries at war, as a drone is likely stealthier and more difficult to shoot down than a balloon, but anyway, the race is on for the greater good of all, and I can’t wait to see it unfolding.
Thomas Jestin is a co-founder of KRDS, a social media and mobile marketing agency and part of Facebook’s Preferred Marketing Developer program. At the 2013 PMD Innovation Competition, KRDS was the only non-American contestant to have won among the 260 agencies. Jestin is a digital strategist and has been helping brands leverage social media since 2008. He has spoken at many conferences throughout Europe, and he is currently based out of Singapore overseeing KRDS’ expansion in Asia.