Freedom to Connect

By Jerry Edling

“You will not be able to stay home, brother.

You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.” — Gil Scott-Heron, From the album “Small Talk at 125th and Lennox” (1970)

“The revolution will not be televised…but it may be tweeted.” Posted on

January 28, 2011

Freedom to ConnectIn some ways, Gil Scott-Heron’s song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was ahead of its time. The lyrics were recited rather than sung, accompanied by congas and a bongo drum, making it either a vestige of beat poetry or one of the first examples of rap. His point, which must be understood in the context of domestic unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the U.S., was that the revolution was not a pre-packaged bit of pop culture, sanitized for your protection and brought to you with minimal commercial interruption by Xerox. The revolution, in his opinion, was real; or, as the final line of the song reads,

“The revolution will be no re-run, brothers; The revolution will be live.”

Little did he know that in the 21st century a revolution of a different sort would be live and it would be televised. And yes, as the quip on vividly notes, it would be tweeted. As of this writing, the Biblical land of Egypt is illuminated with cell phone lights and fireworks as mobs with no definable leaders spill into the streets to celebrate the resignation of Hosni Mubarak as president after weeks of protest and unrest. The revolution was televised, and the power to bring those images to the world was in the hands of the revolutionaries themselves.

In a sense, two different revolutions are ongoing in Egypt. One is a struggle for power, which led to Mubarak’s resignation. The other, broader revolution is a transfer of power that puts media in the hands of the people and allows individuals with nothing more than a cell phone to publish, broadcast and tweet to the world in real time. It is a paradigm shift that also provided the underpinning of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, which sent the president into exile, and the demonstrations surrounding the election in Iran, which led to a crackdown that was leaked electronically to the world.

“There’s somethin’ happenin’ here/What it is ain’t exactly clear…” — Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth,” 1967.

The communication revolution in the 21st century has often been compared with the invention of the printing press. Both developments allowed the average person access to a quantum leap of information and furthered the process of democratization. The invention of movable type put the Bible in the hands of the individual, eroding the power of the Church hierarchy. Similarly, the Internet and the cell phone have put the virtually the entire wealth of human knowledge and the ability to share thoughts with the world in the hands of the individual. The difference is that today, the ability to tap into that power depends on access to cyberspace. Literally and figuratively, the switch must be on and the batteries must be charged for this extraordinary ability to communicate with the planet to be enabled. So it is no wonder that when Egypt wanted to defuse the political revolution, it simply pulled the plug on connectivity.

That’s why a new freedom is needed. The events of 2011 demonstrate very clearly that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights needs to be amended to include the freedom to connect. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alluded to the need for such a universal right in her speech at the Newseum in January of 2010. She defined the freedom to connect as “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the Internet, to websites or to each other.” She continued, “The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together and hopefully cooperate.” Like the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, it recognizes that the freedom to exercise one’s political rights has at least two components: freedom of expression and freedom of association. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights links these two as well. According to Article 19, “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” According to Article 20, “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” and “[n]o one may be compelled to belong to an association.”

It could be argued that Articles 19 and 20 are enough. But when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, no one knew that more than 60 years later, there would be an entirely new medium that served as both a repository for all of human knowledge and a megaphone to most of the planet. Cyberspace is unprecedented. It is both the Royal Library of Alexandria and the village square. To be excluded from it is to be isolated from the human community.

Some may argue that any form of regulation, even the sort that guarantees freedom, is anathema to the spirit of the Internet. That’s a point well taken. Part of the attraction of the Internet is its Wild West quality. Indeed, the Silicon Valley geniuses who created the cyberscape grew up in the turbulent era that inspired Gil Scott-Heron and infused it with the same spirit of revolution and entrepreneurship. But there is a sort of Alice in Wonderland logic to the argument that a global agreement guaranteeing information freedom would restrict freedom. Using the same logic, Article 19 impedes a government’s freedom to censor, and child labor laws restrict corporations’ freedom to hire the personnel they want and conduct business as they see fit. A codicil to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing the freedom to connect certainly would not be the beginning of a slippery slope to government regulation. On the contrary, it would help preserve the robust and free-wheeling spirit of this community without borders by ensuring that the cyber-community is, in fact, the entire human community.

The freedom to connect affects more than the freedoms of expression and association. It also has an enormous impact on the freedom from want, one of the Four Freedoms coined by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt in his 1941 speech. In developing nations, the Internet and mobile phone technology have become essential tools for survival. Mobile banking has become a real boon to people in developing nations. In 2008, Informa Telecoms & Media predicted that revenues from mobile phone sales would grow at nearly seven percent annually through 2013, with most of the growth driven by emerging markets in nations such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. Mobile banking has exploded in some of the most impoverished nations, enabling people to receive remittances from relatives in developed nations, pay bills without standing in long lines and receive wages without dealing with potentially-corrupt officials in manual pay systems. In 2010 the BBC World Service Trust announced that the mobile phone service Janala had delivered one million English lessons in Bangladesh. A mobile health project in South Africa uses cell phone text messages to encourage people in remote parts of the country to get information and counseling on HIV/AIDS. Under an initiative launched by the Department of State, text messages remind people in sub-Saharan Africa to take HIV medications, and emails and text messages warn of attacking rebels. All of these potentially life-saving applications can be foiled by governments that interfere with the ability to connect.

At the onset of Operation Desert Storm a CBS News military consultant, in describing the initial tactics of the allied air assault, spoke of the need to “draw an electronic curtain around Iraq.” His point was telling: the most important priority at the onset of battle was to destroy the

communications infrastructure that enabled Iraq’s armed forces to command and control. 20 years later, an electronic curtain that frustrates the ability of the peoples of the world to connect with information and connect with each other is potentially even more destructive than the Iron Curtain of a previous generation. It takes away the peoples’ ability to command and control their lives.

Alec Ross, Clinton’s Senior Adviser for Innovation, says, “If Paul Revere had been a modern day citizen, he wouldn’t have ridden down Main Street. He would have tweeted.” Denying the people of the world the ability to connect is akin to robbing Paul Revere of his horse and soundproofing the homes of the people he passed on Main Street.

The village square has become a virtual meeting place. It is time for the world to recognize that all are welcome to gather there.

Jerry Edling is an editor, producer and writer at KNX, the CBS Radio all-news station in Los Angeles. He has been nominated for three Writers Guild Awards, three Emmy Awards and a Mark Twain Award for his work in radio and television. Jerry is also a candidate for Master of Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California and a student in Matt Armstrong’s Public Diplomacy Course at USC.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.

3 thoughts on “Freedom to Connect

  1. For my part I’m pleased to read an argument that addresses a “communication revolution” rather than an information revolution — and a writer who distinguishes clearly between the social process of communication and the technical process of information control and delivery. It’s also refreshing to see the term “media” used in the plural of “medium” as a reference to the means through which we communicate with one another rather than the mainstream singular “the media” as the entity that communicates at the public.

  2. The author’s premise is sound, and is reflected in the new and very loud calls by the Obama administration and US State Department for unfettered Internet and communication access worldwide. As were fax and photocopy machines behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, social media will be a transformative factor in the undermining of oppressive regimes and the exposure of nefarious government activities everywhere.

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