Constructive Activism, Part I: Freedom Isn’t Free

Internet | Access/Network
Regrettably, I do not have a channel tuned to alerts about human rights violations; so I rely on the pinball nature of news to get them to me. Normally one could find them through the blogs, though, I remain overwhelmed by the overall mundanity have stopped reading many of them regularly. Only by the grace of perusing Seth Finkelstein’s Infothought last week did I learn about the jailing of Egyptian blogger Alaa Ahmed Seif Al Islam.

Alaa had won an award last November by Reporters Without Borders for his Drupal site, an aggregator Egyptian blogs. He was participating in ongoing protests for an independent judiciary, when he was arrested along ten others; Now a mighty wind had blown across the the plains of the blogosphere to raise support for one of their own. The wind also carried seeds of activism: as a protest measure, bloggers were invited to link to the new Free Alaa website, but using the link text Egypt. Doing so, on a massive scale, was supposed to effect a googlebombing.

There were other aspects to the campaign that I didn’t learn about right away, just as protests an the Embassies and Consulates of London, New York, Chicago, Washington, and an online petition/letter effort. At the time, I thought I’d try to understand this googlebombing tack a bit.

The objective of “googlebombing” is to influence how the popular search engine ranks its pages for a given search term. Several years ago, enough people linked the words miserable and failure to the official White House biography for George W. Bush, tipping the algorithmic scales so that it came up first in the Google search. Other world leaders have been handed similar dubbings: (e.g., liar leads to Tony Blair), using this formula an uncommon, negative phrase would be linked to a page about a well-known individual.

This case was almost the very opposite: a common word, Egypt, would be associated with a relatively unknown (in the grand scheme of things) cause. Seth didn’t think that the googlebombing would work here, as he suspected that there were just too many sites which already linked to Egypt, but perhaps the act itself was useful for the publicity value.

I happen to trust Seth’s intuition,as it was his experience and writings which led me to form the New Gatekeepers hypothesis a year ago. To wit: if you can’t get a message passed the “old gatekeepers” (newspaper editors, television producers, PR flacks, and, in many countries, government censors) you otherwise need to appeal the “new gatekeepers” (email list owners, popular bloggers, search engines, PR flacks). There’s many more of them now, and the way to get one’s message out through them is not so clear-cut as it was with the old gatekeepers. If it weren’t for the Googlebomb ruse, the story may not have reached Seth or me so soon.

Seth had written his post on Sunday, referencing Jon Lebkowsky, who had been written about a press release the previous Friday. The press release came from Mary Joyce, a Fulbright scholar who stayed in Morocco after her research grant completed, promoting digital democracy through the Demologue project. On Monday, May 8th, the day after Alaa was arrested, Mary and Haitham Sabbah, a Bahrain-based blogger, and Mustapha of BeirutSpring came up with some advocacy tools. They created a central website for Free Alaa (ironically, choosing Google’s Blogger service to do so), and also for creating graphic badges for people to put on their blogs. They helped promote it through the Global Voices blog network, which I know about through the efforts of Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon at the Berkman Center at Harvard.

By the time I learned of it, the campaign had been underway for a week, so I ran a Google search on Egypt. The Free Alaa page was not in the top spot, nor was it in the top ten, nor was it in the top 150, whereupon I stopped counting.

It seemed to me that if people wanted to get an item in the top listings for Google, there’s a more direct path: money. Google sells AdWords to advertisers who wish for their links to come up on the side for a given term. I had a look at the ads for Egypt. The top one, most of the time, was for National Public Radio’s Middle East coverage. Other links were for tourism services, a link for the “The Cursed Mummy” from Walmart, and a assorted spam and pyramid link schemes, one of which enticed the readers with “Pictures of Sexy Girls” (you click and end up at… another page of Google ads).

The use of Google AdWords for activism is not without precedent. One of the items listed for Egypt was — only after clicking it did I realized it was Bono’s DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) organization. Other links pointed to the Foster Parents Plan NGO and, which billed itself as a human rights-sensitive travel guide. Searching on other African troublespots– Sudan/Darfur, Niger, Zimbabwe– I found ads for reliable aid organizations. Yet a quick tour around mere human rights violators– Cuba, Nepal, Burma/Myanmar, Turkmenistan– brought up nothing special, just generic ads.

Who would put up the money? Two days into the campaign, Mary noted in her reflective post that she was quite proud of the fact that it had cost zero dollars. Such an approach seemed to me a bit too skinflint. Let me put it this way– if you were ever sent to jail, would you be happy if your friends took pride in not spending a penny to bail you out? Why do grassroots activism campaigns have to be so damned proletariat? Only a few weeks earlier, Curt Hopkins had folded his 16-month old nonprofit group, the Committee to Protect Bloggers, because “despite repeated appeals for funding and help, neither was forthcoming in the necessary volume to continue the activities of the Committee.” (Hopkins remained confident that larger organizations were starting to pick up the cause.)

So maybe a little money doesn’t hurt after all.

Certainly, there was nobility in having a large group of people join the campaign, and not asking for money is an easy way to do that. But, conceivably, just as large a group of people can contribute small amounts which could be used together. Suppose that any of the familiar aid organizations– Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Sans Frontieres– had bundled together money to support an ad. If they did, I felt I’d feel a little more encouraged to contribute to them.

Then I wondered, why trouble with the middleman at all? Anybody can purchase Google’s AdWords, no questions asked. I considered some of my recent outlays since returning from San Francisco: some $200 on pots and plants for my balcony; $50 contribution towards a breast cancer fundraiser party. Later that evening I would spend $62 on dinner for two on Newbury Street. It seemed like $30, which I thought could last me a month, and certainly a week, would be reasonable.

I didn’t mind spending the money here. Professional reporters spend their publisher’s money on incidentals like this all the time. Furthermore, recalling the tawdry assortment of ads, I figured I had an obligation to society (or Google users) to clean up the ads. Think of the children— well, those doing research, who deserve some better ads for their searching efforts. Also, as much as I knock them around, I don’t mind paying El Goog a bit a tribute– I’ve been using it for free for enough time. Someone’s got to pay the piper, so why should it be fly-by-night Internet businesses and the pyramid-link schemers?

Before I left the office Monday evening, I put these ideas together and sent a note to Mary, Ethan and Alaa’s wife, Manal. I supposed that if anybody else were doing something else, they would know about it; and furthermore, if they had any tips on other activism projects I should know about. They both gave me their blessings, and gave me some input on the wording, so I set to create my first international ad campaign.