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The Internet is a low cost instrument of social advocacy

A tsunami eyewitness participated in the relief efforts by providing SMSs to a blogger in Mumbai, who posted them on the Internet, writes Radhieka Mittal.

india Updated: Nov 27, 2006 03:04 IST

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster was documented in an emotional and compelling way by citizen journalists equipped with mobile phones and cameras. A tsunami eyewitness participated in the relief efforts by providing SMSs to a blogger in Mumbai, who posted them on the Internet.

Bloggers also used the web to coordinate relief and round up charities. The WorldChanging blog reports that within 12 hours after the tsunami disaster, a communications consultant in India worked with Indian bloggers to create The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog. This was a blog for resources, aid, donations and volunteer efforts. The blog reported over 21,000 visitors and 30 contributors in just 24 hours.

In recent times online lobbying has played a vital role in changing legislation. For instance in UK in 2002 a campaign objecting to the government's so-called e-snooping bill began online. Thousands of the British sent faxes to their MPs registering their disapproval. Within 48 hours the government had abandoned the plans for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

The spread of computer and net culture has led to the growth of online activism and citizen intervention. The paper 'Appropriating the Internet for Social Change' by the Social Science Research Council clearly shows through examples of online publishing, online collaboration and online mobilisation that civil society is moving beyond borders with the help of networked technologies. Organisational, cultural and geographical borders have been crossed, with data, ideas and emotions flowing fluidly through cyberspace. Electronic networks have become the platform through which civil society operates.

There are many factors that make the Internet attractive for campaigning. These include its speed, global and local reach to numerous users, low publishing cost, and round the clock access. The information available online allows the public to be more informed and articulate in expressing their views about public affairs, and more active in mobilising community affairs.

The famous World Trade Organization (WTO) protest in Hong Kong in 2005 is a successful instance where online activism complemented street protests. Many Indian NGOs like ActionAid India present there provided the latest news from Hong Kong through their websites. This facilitated a diversity of opinion amongst the protesters. The web and e-mail were used to build up a corpus of research, criticism and opinion about the WTO.

According to a study 'Democratic Divide?' by Pippa Norris from Harvard University the Internet will reconnect people to the political process by helping them become more informed citizens, by helping representatives become more responsive to citizens, and by engaging more people in public policy debates.

The Internet also plays an important role in challenging authoritarian regimes as it tends to break down barriers erected by government censors. The book Networks and Netwars states that 45 countries restrict their citizens’ access to the Internet by forcing them to subscribe to state-run Internet service providers, which filter out objectionable sites. However this has been only partially effective, and activists have found ways of slipping information past the controls.

Internet has emerged as an effective tool for activism, especially when combined with other media, like broadcasting and print. It benefits individuals, small groups as well as well funded organisations. With more than 60 million Indians online and growing, e-activism is entering a vibrant stage in India and is here to stay.