The Internet is a powerful vehicle for expanding freedom of the press. Whether this vehicle is driven successfully in the right direction, however, is not inevitable. Even in the age of high-speed Internet and always-on mobile devices, the expansion and protection of press freedom requires specific political, economic, and regulatory conditions.
Invented 25 years ago by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web is the common interactive “language” upon which revolutionary applications and interactive platforms have been built: first personal website-hosting services in the 90s, then blogging software in the early 00s, followed by social media like Facebook and Twitter. The Web has democratized and decentralized the function of “press:” One no longer needs substantial economic resources in order to share information or perspectives that have at least a small audience, somewhere.
When I joined CNN in 1992, if a person living in Kenya or Tunisia or Cambodia wanted the world to pay attention her story, she had to capture the interest of journalists working for a major news outlets like CNN or the New York Times or Newsweek magazine, whose editors would then decide whether and how they wanted to tell it. By the time I left CNN in 2004, that same person could create her own blog without needing specialized technical training. She could report her story directly onto the World Wide Web where it could be shared globally without relying on powerful media gatekeepers.
During the 2013 protest movement in Turkey which started in Istanbul’s Gezi Park before expanding nationwide, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci documented how demonstrators relied on Twitter as their main news source. Turkish mainstream news outlets were kept too tightly under the thumb of Prime Minister Erdogan to report on a movement that was directly critical of his government’s policies. “I knew there was censorship on TV,” she quoted one demonstrator in a recent article for Matter, an online magazine of science and technology. “But it wasn’t until Twitter came along I realized how bad it was.”
Digitally networked technologies certainly make it harder for governments to perpetuate blatant lies for very long. That is not the same thing, however, as having a free press.