Gotham Gazette

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Earth Day for the Internet

It was one of those moments when you get afk (away from keyboard) and meet irl (in real life).

On Saturday, September 22, a crowd of 150 or so people gathered in rain-soaked Washington Square Park to celebrate the Internet and raise awareness of the threats to its future.

This was One Web Day in New York. Susan Crawford kicked it off by talking about the threats to the Internet posed by government censorship in countries like China and by unchecked telecom monopolies in the United States. Crawford is a law professor who sits on the board of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which coordinates addresses on the Internet. She founded One Web Day last year as "a global Earth Day for the Internet," as she puts it, "to make sure that everyone understands the threats to our shared online future."

In battling those dangers to the Internet, One Web Day's philosophy seems to be that a good offense is the best defense.

Earlier in the day, New York University's Home Interactive Telecommunications Program had offered free classes in how to use online tools like Wikipedia and ShiftSpac -- which lets users modify any webpage through their browser and share the modifications with other users, so people can use it to customize, contextualize or improve anything they find online. Later, there would be a party at For Your Imagination (FYI) with Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, as the guest of honor. (The not-so-secret password for the event: IRL.)

A Worldwide Event for the Worldwide Web

There were related but autonomous celebrations around the world: In Ethiopia and Benin, cybercafes and universities offered free or discounted Internet access along with tutorials to get more people online. Many chapters of the Internet Society, an international professional membership association that establishes standards for the Internet, organized local events in Israel, India, Ecuador and elsewhere.

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards released a statement in honor of the event emphasizing the need to close the digital divide and preserve the democratic nature of the Internet.

Probably the largest 2007 One Web Day event was in Berlin, where a reported 15,000 people marched to protest proposed government data retention policies. The new measures would shift Germany from being country with a constitutional right to “informational self-determination” to one with extremely aggressive surveillance measures, giving the government access to all communication and travel records, people’s biometric data and personal computers, even in the absence of a crime.

The policies are very broad, endangering doctors and journalists specifically, as well as the average German citizen. According to one of the few English language reports on the event, protesters chanted, "We are all 129a," referring to the expansive "Anti-Terror Paragraph" of the German Criminal Code. People held banners saying "Freiheit statt Angst" ("liberty instead of fear") and wore t-shirts with the face of Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister pushing the measures, over the phrase "Stasi 2.0," a reference to the old East German secret police.

One American observer described the German reaction to this kind of government overreaching as visceral. The protests against the measures, organized by the Working Group on Data Retention, have grown from just a couple of hundred at the first rallies a year and a half ago.

Promoting Awareness

Despite recent revelations about U.S. phone companies’ secretly collecting data on individuals at the federal government’s behest, things weren't quite so spirited back in overcast New York. Still, the speakers caught the attention of various passers-by.

While Dana Spiegel, executive director of NYCwireless, was speaking about his group’s efforts to hook up various city parks with wi-fi, an NYU student stopped to inquire what the event was about. She turned out to be a member of the campus chapter of Amnesty International, which is focusing on Internet censorship this semester. She had not heard of One Web Day before, but got instantly excited about it and starting collecting contact information.

Birju Pandya talked about his lighthearted efforts to promote goodwill with technology through Andrew Baron spoke of the inspiration to start Rocketboom, one of the earliest video-blogs on the Web. I was there to announce the Digital Expansion Initiative, a community-led research effort to assess the barriers to Internet access in New York City.

There was nothing fancy about any of the speeches – no Powerpoint or flashing lights. But having it in the park definitely attracted attention. While Jimmy Wales was speaking, five women who appeared to be from three generations of the same family passed by. "That's the founder of Wikipedia," one of the younger women said. "You know Wikipedia?" The grandmother nodded.

Setting an Example

The city government has been holding public hearings into the state of Internet access for New Yorkers, with one in the Bronx in March, another in Brooklyn in May and additional ones planned for the other boroughs before the end of the year. They have had attracted a turnout comparable to that at the One Web Day event, but awareness of these Broadband Advisory Committee hearings across the city is appallingly low. (As part of the Digital Expansion Initiative’s citywide phone survey, researchers at NYU have been asking people if they've heard anything about it; so far not a single person has.)

Perhaps that's because the Broadband Advisory Committee has held the hearings in very official, but cloistered auditoriums during the day on weekdays. And the primary mode of announcing the events has been through email. In neither case are you likely to attract working folks who lack computers. The committee should be out in Washington Square Park (and Marcus Garvey Park and Maria Hernandez Park), especially considering that they're not just celebrating the Internet, but debating concrete proposals for local action to shape its future.

Crawford points out that Earth Day really took off because people had a picture of the Earth from space. One Web Day is trying to make the Web visible and tangible in the same way. "Being outside is important is because the point is to show that the Web is made of people," she says.

Crawford and her growing network of supporters and volunteers are already making plans for September 22, 2008. They hope to get schools and students more involved and to strengthen connections with groups like the Internet Society and the American Library Association. Like any good Web project, they are at once trying to strengthen the One Web Day organization and yet decentralize the organization's activities.

So, can we expect to see a 15,000-person protest march in New York City next year like the one in Berlin? Crawford says maybe: "We'll see things like that in the U.S. when we wake up."  

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