A plea to the blogosphere helped free a young Belarusian activist, demonstrating the Internet's power to promote rights and make collective action more effective
While much has been written about the effect of the Internet on politics, scant attention has been paid to the potential of the web to rectify human rights injustices.
The 28-year-old Belarusian political activist Denis Denisov has a long list of people to thank for getting released on bail after two months in jail: his family, friends, and, surprisingly, the Belarusian blogosphere.
When most Belarusian and international human rights organizations turned down requests to help fund the bail, it was the blogosphere that helped to raise more than half of the money needed to set him free again.
Denis's story is typical of a young democratic activist from an authoritarian country: He was arrested in February while helping to install the banned white-red-white Belarusian flag in a local park and distributing flyers that called for non-violent protests against the regime.
Before long, the authorities launched a criminal case against him, quoting his involvement in "public manifestations, which disturb public peace and possibly endanger the general public." After some time in hiding, Denis was eventually arrested on a train bound for Russia. When about a month ago one of Denis's friends posted a message to a popular local online community asking for help in raising funds for his bail, many bloggers immediately voiced their skepticism.
After all, authoritarian Belarus is a country where activists go to jail on a regular basis. Raising money there is hard, as both online and offline bank transactions are burdensome and can put potential donors at risk. Finally, there is always a question of what would happen to the bail fund if Denis were acquitted.
BLOGGERS TO THE RESCUE
In this particular case, good intentions defied conventional logic - and, with a bit of luck, the Belarusian bloggers won their first major battle. The moment the friend's plea was out in the blogosphere, it reached hundreds of people, many of whom volunteered to help: some with money, others with advice or free time. Remarkably, virtually all of them did so openly, without hiding their identities or real names.
One of the most active new supporters was a young man by the name of Andrej Nicolaev. Andrej has been disabled for 10 years and cannot move, but the Internet has opened up a whole new world for him. His frequent and engaging blog posts about the injustice brought down on Denis played a major role in collecting the sum of money needed to release him.
Despite its seemingly local focus, this moving story contains quite a few serious lessons that need to be learned by all of us, not just Belarusians.
First of all, the very fact that a disabled person in an authoritarian country can now suddenly fight the system, raise funds, mobilize whole communities - and win in the end - is indicative of the sea change that the world of activism is undergoing with the help of technology.
Today, citizens have a vast arsenal of tools and mechanisms to defend their rights. Above all, with the help of the Internet they can mobilize in groups and take collective action much more effectively. In fact, they can hardly dream of better times to be born in: a blog with 10 readers could potentially get them further in 2007 than a petition with a million signatures could in 1967.
Not surprisingly, some authoritarian countries prefer to play it safe and block major Internet sites and even mobile phones, regularly or just at anxious times like elections. It's not so much the online opinions expressed using this technology that bother the authorities. Rather, it is civic action in real life - which this technology has greatly facilitated - that they fear. Yet, many small initiatives, like the one that raised money for Denis, will still be able to bypass most barriers created by governments.
There is some hope that the global situation will get better: as technology and broadband Internet spread around the world, we'll see more and more case studies where professional or amateur activists use online tools to get engaged with the offline communities they belong to by checking on their governments, organizing protests, and raising funds for important causes.
Most importantly, by closely studying cases like Denis Denisov's, bloggers and activists in developed countries can suddenly take note of how much innovation is happening elsewhere today that is powered by the Internet - but, paradoxically, is unseen by most of its users.
Those of us who pay minimal attention to web developments outside of our national web communities tend to forget that a lot of the so-called Web 2.0 is driven not so much by promising business opportunities as it is by basic human needs and aspirations, be they freedom, democracy, or merely the need for socializing.
While many of us lose track of the most exciting developments in our blind devotion to the worlds of MySpace, Second Life, or the newest toy in town, Twitter (or some combination of all three), the tiny activist minority is constantly proving that the Internet can be a tremendous force for good - and not just for dating, flirting, or cyberbullying.
Yet most of these activities - which constitute the Internet's other side - remain unseen. Take "Vote Different," the most talked-about video of the past two months, which remixed a talk by Hillary Clinton with the chilly footage of Apple's 1984 commercial launching the Macintosh computer.
How many of us knew that the Tunisian democracy activists remixed the very same video - of course, in the Tunisian context - to encourage their fellow citizens to boycott a presidential election back in 2004, three full years before the infamous Hillary video?
Many such innovations from the developing world still pass unnoticed, as the predominantly Anglophone global blogosphere keeps suffering from its own unique type of attention deficit disorder, which gleefully puts posts about American Idol's Sanjaya or Paris Hilton next to pleas for a bloggers' code of conduct or for detailed analysis of the situation in Iraq.
However, we should not worry too much: The web already contains most of the remedies for its worst diseases, and it's not going to be long until the online activists tackle the "online" part in their name too, making their efforts useful for those of us outside the blogosphere.
In the meantime, let's hope that the Belarusians will soon need to find a way to return all the contributions they received when Denis is formally acquitted. After all, despite the excitement about the Internet, the final word is still with a real-world judge.