Communication technology has long been commonplace in political protest movements. American colonists used committees of correspondence and broadsheets to voice displeasure and organize against the British. Fax machines were used by opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement. And cell phone-initiated smart mobs are thought to have played a role in the downfall of Philippines’ president Joseph Estrada. How far such efforts might go are limited only by the availability of technology and the imagination of participants.
Consider the most recent use: an adaptation of Google Docs and Google Maps to organize virtual protests. The responsible parties are from Turkey, and are protesting Turkey’s draconian Internet censorship policies. The Turkish government tolerates dissent much like the Chinese, and blocks sites deemed offensive, including YouTube, Last.fm, and Google Sites (formerly Google Pages).
Opponents are responding by using a Google map of Istanbul, which can be edited using Google Docs’ “anyone can edit” function. Protesters are asked to ‘meet up’ in Taksim Square. And, upon reaching a critical mass, they will perform a virtual walk to the Turkish capital of Ankara, bringing their protest to the parliament house. (The current map shows ‘protesters’ moving eastward from Istanbul along highway E80, about a quarter of the way to their destination.)
For the organizers the more, the merrier. They'd like to reach a total of one billion protestors, in the hopes this will persuade Turkish officials to roll back their censorship. Jolie O’Dell, writing for ReadWriteWeb, is optimistic “this seemingly simple stunt will send a strong message to governments that restrict their citizens’ web access.” I’m not so sure. It’s one thing for government officials to look down upon a sea of real protesters and another entirely on a sea of virtual protesters. The former can’t be easily ignored. The latter can be easily unplugged.