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The year of the freedom technologist

[This is an invited post by John Postill. John is a Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, in Melbourne. He is currently writing a book titled Hacker, Lawyer, Journalist, Spy: Freedom Technologists and Political Change in an Age of Protest. He blogs at media/anthropology.]

Two and a half years ago, TIME magazine declared 2011 to be The Year of the Protester. From the Arab Spring or Spain’s indignados to the Occupy movement, this was undoubtedly a year of political upheaval around the world.

But 2011 was also an important year for a new global vanguard of tech-minded citizens determined to bring about political change, often in connection with national crises. Let us call these citizens, at least for the time being, freedom technologists.

Consider, for instance, the loose network of freedom technologists who spearheaded the Tunisian uprising. On 28 November 2010, after long years of struggle under one of the world’s harshest regimes, the lawyer and blogger Riadh Guerfali created the site TuniLeaks. A WikiLeaks spin-off, this site released US diplomatic cables that were highly embarrassing to Ben Ali’s autocratic regime. These leaks helped to prepare the protest ground. The trigger came through the actions of another freedom technologist, veteran activist Ali Bouazizi, who recorded on his smartphone the self-immolation of his cousin Mohamed, a street vendor. He then shared the video via Facebook, where it was picked up by journalists from Al Jazeera – barred from entering Tunisia – and broadcast to the whole nation (and the rest of the Arab world). Al Jazeera’s freedom technologists relied on blogs and social media to bypass the official restrictions and report on the fast-moving events on the ground. When the government censored Facebook, the transnational online group Anonymous launched Operation Tunisia, carrying attacks against government websites via dial-up connections provided by Tunisian citizens.

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