First World Problems

Every now and then, our favourite sites go down. Completely off the grid. And when they do, we lose it. We hop on Slack and ask our colleagues if they’re experiencing it too. Just to confirm, for sure, that Facebook is down, we might even step outside our office to check that’s it not just us, that we’re not losing our minds. Of course, by today’s standards, we’re not losing our minds. It’s completely natural for us to have a casual freak out when the Internet breaks. For better or for worse, we’re hooked. And why not? There’s literally a world of information, distraction, and entertainment available to us at a swipe of a finger or a click of a button. It’s empowering to know that whenever we need an answer to something—anything— we can whip out our smartphone and find it, pretty much instantly. We do it so much and at such high frequencies that the moment the Internet is down for a minute, we’re completely thrown for a loop. We panic. We get frustrated. We seek confirmation. And if it progresses beyond 5 minutes, we look at our screens with a blank stare, waiting – waiting for it to come back on so we can get our daily fix of our friends’ photos, see how our stocks are performing, and read the latest celebrity gossip rags. The Internet puts us in control; when we don’t have it, we’re at a loss.

It’s a luxury, and it’s one we take for granted. In too many countries, however, this feeling of being out of control or disconnected from the rest of the world is a regular occurrence. I’m not talking about remote places with bad connectivity (I’ll save that for another day). I’m talking about geographically accessible countries where governments use every tool at their disposal to throttle access to the Internet. I was recently reminded of this reality when I participated in the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Digital Public Square (DPS), which brings together leading digital experts to help address sociopolitical crises around the world. DPS tackles these challenges because, increasingly, people turn to digital platforms to express opposition or support for their government and policies, engage in online discussions about their country’s future, and self-organize around sociopolitical challenges.

This week, we highlight one of these stories on the Political Traction podcast. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I highly recommend it. My colleague Allie McHugh walks us through the fledging citizen movement in Lebanon that is using digital technology to call for change because of a problem most of us in Canada consider routine : garbage collection. It’s a fascinating story, and one that showcases how powerful the Internet can be. These activists are using it to rally people around a common cause, and mobilizing these people to take real-world action. This is a major crisis for Lebanon, and activists are using digital platforms in smart ways to reach people and circumvent repression through mobile apps that let people communicate, even when the government tries to limit connectivity and shut down the Internet. Unfortunately, the ability to self-organize, even if it’s under difficult circumstances like in Lebanon, isn’t an option in too many places.

In countries like Iran, North Korea, and Russia, people face significant barriers to civic engagement, both in the public and digital space. The simple right to express one’s own opinions, exchange ideas, and talk openly about the future of the country is denied. No venues exist to facilitate these conversations. Repressive regimes recognize the inherent capacity the Internet has to empower people. So, these regimes do what all brutal regimes before them have done: they actively monitor, filter, and block content to deny people the ability to share dissenting opinions and debate issues. Their targets—their citizens—are unable to create spaces for expression or institutions and policies that represent their interests. They deny them any semblance of control over the national dialogue, and replace it with repression, censorship, and exclusion.

The Digital Public Square is helping open up this dialogue back up. This crackpot unit (and I use this term affectionately—these guys do amazing work) is building new platforms to create safe digital spaces for people in repressed countries to freely exchange ideas, participate in open political discussion, and engage fellow citizens.

Those who know me well know I’m partial to the work DPS does. I helped initiate this project when I worked for Foreign Minister Baird.. In partnership with the Munk School of Global Affairs, we established platforms and tools that reached 4.5 million unique people inside Iran. On the heels of this success, we announced the government would provide an additional $9 million for the DPS project. It was a no-brainer — few initiatives use the power of digital technology in a way that brings people together to provide an outlet to express dissent against repressive regimes.

Because so much of our free time is spent exploring the Internet, we tend to forget how much of an impact it can have. We use it for fun – so sometimes we forgot the importance of its function. Today, only about 40% of the world has an internet connection. Furthermore, almost 75% of Internet users are from the top 20 countries, the other 25% is spread out over 178 countries that represent less than 1% of the global total. Plus, for many of those with Internet, that connection comes with a number of conditions.

Most of us take the Internet for granted the same way we take garbage college for granted: we assume it’s a standard part of the basic infrastructure we are awarded in our society. Although I worked on the initiative in the first place, revisiting DPS humbled me all over again. It was a reminder that my Internet worries extend, at most, to a few hours without email. A lot of our online expression is wrapped up in Facebook statuses, tweets, and…a (perhaps slightly preachy) blog post. But I don’t know how else to say it — a lot of people don’t have this tool at their disposal, so it isn’t a missed email or not being able to Google a fact that puts them at a loss; it’s a much more frustrating fact. There is literally a world of information, distraction, and entertainment available, but only a small portion of us actually have it at the swipe of a finger or a click of a button. For us, limited connectivity is often a break from being constantly in contact. For others, it’s a break of a much different kind, that extends well beyond an instant message or five minute YouTube video and right into their governing infrastructure and an entirely different perspective on what’s ‘standard.”