Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Social protest, civil disobedience and discerning the boundaries of the acceptable

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on August 23, 2011

I have been writing to this blog for most of two years now, and one of the major themes I have been developing is the way that boundaries and the potential for them are melting away, and with that largely driven by our increasing capacity to reach out to each other and from anywhere to anywhere, and for business or more personal and social purpose. That, of course includes the creation and co-creation of views and actions, and an increased capacity to more globally reach out and connect with regard to essentially any other area of human endeavor that can be driven by or at least enhanced by information flow. I have been organizing much of this area of my blog into a specific directory: Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and I write this posting for that directory too. And I write this with a very specific area of social and societal interaction in mind – the increasingly involving and magnifying effect of our emerging ubiquitous computing and communications on social activism and civil disobedience.

I find myself approaching the topic of this posting with a sense of uncertainty as my goal is to try and shed some light on an area where people of good will and intent can and do frequently find grounds for disagreement and if not in general as to basic enabling principle, then most assuredly for any particular example that might be sited. In a sense I leave my comfort zone with this, but my intent is to raise an issue that virtually by definition falls outside of most all of our comfort zones – and that is why we need to more effectively address it. And I begin with a scattering of issues that I would present as working examples of the issues at stake here.

• Chinese citizens seek to bypass state sponsored censorship as exemplified by, but not simply limited to their government’s Golden Shield Project – the so called Great Firewall of China. And they specifically violate assiduously enforced Chinese law in doing so.
Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks publish vast amounts of private, confidential and government classified documents, and a 22 year old, low level US Army intelligence analyst with a great deal of information access turned a vast trove of these documents over to WikiLeaks in violation of US law, making a great deal of that initiative possible.
• Much of the recent and still ongoing Arab Spring with its civil disobedience and activism in search of democratic freedom has been empowered by the collection and sharing of information online, and usually in defiance of the laws set up to maintain the governmental regimes these people would challenge.
• Groups and organizations, and lone individuals worldwide go online to connect with others, and both to share their stories and to organize with others to meet social and political ends – and sometimes in the face of fundamental disagreement with legal authority and with fellow citizens in their countries as to what types of behavior are and are not legal or ethical, proscribed from doing or required of them.

And I assembled my examples list, above, with an intention of crossing some of those lines of disagreement for many of my readers, where one example may be viewed as representing the laudable and even heroic by some but not others, and another may be seen as representing true wrong doing and even evil extremism and once again by some but not others. And there are those who would praise and others who would condemn the actions taken and represented by each of the above bullet pointed examples of activism. And I continue here by further developing one of these points, selecting a example that is very polarizing in the United States, and where the US government has taken action.

Bradley Manning is currently in a maximum security prison, held on charges that could very well keep him imprisoned for the rest of his life for leaking documents to WikiLeaks. A principle argument given for this response to his actions, is that his leaks compromised the security of the United States and endangered the lives of informants and others who had taken risks in providing the US government with sensitive information – which in some cases they had in turn acquired by means that other governments would see as illegal if not treasonous.

When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times that threw a very bright and even searingly intense spotlight onto the decisions and the more covert actions of the Vietnam War and both there and as it spilled across borders into neighboring countries. Ellsberg was viewed as both hero and criminal and even as a traitor by some. There were, among other responses to those leaks, very genuine concerns raised that some of them compromised US national security and even endangered lives.

There are those who see the Bradley Manning leaks as aiding and abetting international terrorism, and the forces of violence that carried out the 9/11 attacks, among other assaults. Others see those leaks as having shed light on special and very questionable deals made by the US Military and other government services with private contractors to their personal enrichment, which the public previously had only known a little about if anything.

Consider by way of previously partly known example, Halliburton’s role in Iraq after the US led war there commenced. They were awarded billions of dollars in noncompetitive contracts. And the then US Vice President was a recent former president of that company and a principle sponsor for brokering those deals. But perhaps more tellingly, those leaks also revealed compromising information about a great many events that the public did not know anything about and that it could be argued they needed to know. But real harm was still done too, as real lives were specifically endangered by some of these leaked documents as well. This, I add only touches on a small part of what even just the initially online-published documents showed.

I have been writing for what will soon be two years now to my Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time directory and about how barriers of separation are disappearing for so many of us and for so many circumstances. In a real sense we are all in effect coming to live and work in a single large, ubiquitously interconnectable community. And as we move in that direction our differences as to what is and is not acceptable online and in information sharing become crucial. And the consequences of actions taken, laudable or otherwise become more pressing and much more immediate.

I am not writing this posting to stake out a position as to the legality, morality or justification of any particular action or event. My goal, rather, is to at least briefly touch on the fact that there is a gray area between social protest and laudable civil disobedience on the one hand, and action that crosses the line into the unacceptable and illegal on the other. The true measure of the complexity and importance of this issue is that people of good will can and will see the exact same actions and come to radically different conclusions as to their merits. And that shapes their responses and creates opportunity for further disagreement and discord.

Any valid analysis of how our increasingly global society is being shaped has to include a discussion of activism and civil disobedience as made possible by our every more interconnected information systems. And that, of necessity means discussion of alternative interpretations and reactions to actions taken from others, governments included. I will be coming back to this set of issues as this is one that cannot and will not simply go away. I am going to follow up on this posting with another that will look into ethical and legal standards and with a goal of offering at least some basic criteria for developing a common ground we can work together from, in deciding when an action is positive social activism and when it is not.

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