(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Can freedom of speech and participation be actually practiced?

You may have heard of absolutely ordinary people, with no special talent or worthwhile stories to tell, keeping an online diary. The original name of these personal online journals was “web log” but, since the original form is so long and hard to remember, the name was shortened to blog.

This kind of “publishing” is the latest fad made possible by the abundance of relatively cheap computers, software and Internet connectivity. This has three big effects at the social and cultural level.

The first is the reality show of your worst nightmares come true: billions of terribly written (but in real time, mind you!), extremely boring web pages. Apart from how much this stuff pollutes the result of Internet searches, ignoring them is very easy.

A second, more serious problem, is how easy it is today for people to hurt themselves or harass others on a large scale, violating privacy or damaging one’s reputation. We have already seen how this is not a theoretical risk, but something which requires both technical and non technical solutions.

The third, large scale consequence, which makes it worth coping with the first two problems, rather than just giving up the whole concept of personal computing, is very simple to describe. For the first time in history, freedom of speech and efficient civil action are easy, inexpensive (if one can afford a computer, of course) and everybody can practice them for real. What was, until today, a right written into some Constitutions but not a practical possibility is now actually feasible: everybody can denounce wrongs, start a political party or a civil rights campaign reaching many thousands of people with very little money.

Consumer revolt

A good reason to have a home computer and above all to learn how to use it properly is the possibility of having much more control than in the past on how much money others can force you to spend. This happens when many thousands of people coordinate their actions through the Internet, and is not a theoretical possibility: in the United Kingdom alone, 4 million householders have dumped their utility suppliers and found better gas or electricity deals after an Internet-led consumer campaign. British Gas, for example, slashed gas bills by 17 per cent and electricity bills by 11 per cent in February 2007, after losing more than one million customer in the previous year, thanks in no small part to such pressures. Large scale civic actions on everything, from planning applications for superstores in sensitive areas to excessive bank fees, are already managed in the same way, with the smallest possible amount of money and time for all the campaigners.

Of course, the Internet itself isn’t enough to make such things happen. One real, hand signed letter or fax, not to mention face to face meetings, can still accomplish more than one thousand email messages, but computers and the Internet make immensely easier to collect the necessary information and coordinate the individual efforts of many people. The sooner all parents start to use a home computer in this way, the better for their wallets and their children.

(this chapter continues here)