I would say that it was almost inevitable. To live and work in a country, as democratic as it seems, where the interdependent rapport between politics and mass media is much tighter than in any other country in the world (excluding those openly totalitarian regimes that we mentioned for example in last month’s Persepolis 2.0 article, of course) and does not allow for libertarian utopias of any sort if they discuss any subject that is a fundamental part of democracy, like the freedom of the Press, the right to an opinion, the freedom of thought.
To think that the Internet, Blogs, P2P and Social Networks could be exempt from censorship and restrictions from the government, to hope that they would continue to be completely free territories forever, was absolutely naive in my opinion: there are many negative accounts of this, on a national and international level, some of which have been discussed in Digimag during the past few years.
Regarding these themes, the Italian government seems to have already triggered an unprecedented control and restriction policy in the Western “democracies” and that, as the guests of this interview Alessandro Gilioli and Derrick De Kerckhove emphasise, could bring up a series of amendments and decrees that constitute as a dangerous precedent to be imitated by other “democracies” all over the world. In fact it seems that in Italy, the freedom of the Press as we know it, is a right that exists merely on paper and much less in practice: how to interpret the latest masked government action against the freedom of thought and of the Press, the Alfano decree on wiretapping, which has in fact “muted” a whole series of bloggers on the Net, threatening them with legal action and hefty fines? If the so-called obligation to rectify, thought of 60 years ago for the Press, is imposed on all blogs (even amateur ones) with the foreseen hefty pecuniary fines, it would actually put a silencer on online conversations and freedom of speech.
In a government obsessed by controlling the mass media, intent on putting a silencer on every possible voice of protest, fundamentally ignorant to social and economical dynamics that make up the Internet, P2P, Open Sourcing and Social Networking, it’s almost inevitable to be afraid of that which you cannot control, of the so-called “word getting out” that could slip through the small mesh of an online community, as small as it can be, that has the potential to grow and could soon become politically important (if well-represented, of course).
Therefore in protest against the Alfano Decree, on the 14th of July a virtual strike took place, a strike on the main Italian blogs. This happened thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Gilioli (Journalist, writer, Editor and blogger of “L’Espresso” with his Piovono Rane feature), and the collaboration of bloggers from all political areas (and non-political areas too) and representatives of various parties and associations, the initiative asked Italian blogs to just post the logo of the protest online, with a link to the statement for the Diritto Alla Rete: http://dirittoallarete.ning.com. The Social Networking platform worked as a collector of posts and free opinions, as well as a container for the images of all the bloggers who gagged themselves by taking part in the protest. The project also involved a sit-in and meeting in Piazza Navona in Rome, at 7pm on Tuesday, the 14th of July, and a symbolic gagging of the bloggers that were present as well as the statue that represents the freedom of speech, the statue of Pasquino.
The initiative inevitably caught my attention, be it for the objective importance of the theme in question, the fact that Digimag naturally tends to want to know about projects done by the vivacious voices of its guests (that can be artistic and of protest), be it for the opportunity to be able to confront myself with a free-thinker whose activity and presence on the Net, in my opinion, are very important for our country, for the distribution of a “new” form of hybrid journalism between the traditional form, connected more closely to Print and TV and to the dynamics of classic editorials, and what the media have erroneously crowned as being “citizen journalism” (which I prefer to call “free journalism”). Derrick de Kerckhove (whom I thank dearly) also answered my questions, an essayist who needs no introduction, an opinionist, Director of McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology and Professor of the Department of French of the University of Toronto, who in someway has been closely following the evolution of Alessandro Gilioli’s project.
Marco Mancuso: I would like to begin this interview by asking you to give me an initial overview of the initiative of the “blog strike” that took place on the 14th of July after the creation of the platform The Right to Net. Personally I consider this initiative to be an important step toward the use of the Net as a real platform for discussion, thought, gathering: for example The Right to Net has united many informative blogs and this is very useful for all those people that wish to find their way through the (hopefully) free and independent universe of information from the bottom, that was quickly labelled Citizen Journalism by the media. At the same time I ask myself, and ask you, aside from the act of protest and strike that were absolutely legitimate and justified, what practical and concrete effects has the initiative been having on a social and political level, that I presume is still thriving, and what effects can it have in the future? And more generally speaking, in what direction, in your opinion, should work be done so that protest and gathering initiatives on the Net can have a real and efficient fall back in the real world of our lives?
Alessandro Gilioli: We’ll see the “specific” results of the protest later on: if and when the “blogkiller” enforcement will be thrown out by Alfano, as we hope. It’s being discussed, there’s an amendment that will probably be voted for: I am probably “rashly optimistic” on the hypothesis that the specific objective will be reached. But two results have already been obtained. First of all, the initiative has brought the question of communication “from the bottom” in Italy (and the ignorance of our politicians) outside the self-referential circuit of blogs. Dozens of Italian and foreign newspapers (like El Mundo) and TV stations (from Sky to the BBC) have talked about it – so that they could dissent from it. A lot of politicians and actors in politics asked themselves for the first time, “what are these blogs and why are they so pissed off”?, which is something. The second result was the fact of getting the blog sector to discuss and think about its own role and (why not?) its responsibilities. In particular the passage from a phase of simple “defensive rejection” against stupid laws (D’Alia, Carlucci, ddl Alfano, etc.), to a phase of “purposeful counterattack” to stimulate the legislators to produce laws that keep in mind the different dynamics of online communication from the bottom compared to the vertical journalism of Print, to be inspired toward opening, innovation, sharing and neutrality of the Net, instead of the “terrorised prohibition” with which they’ve made their moves so far.
Derrick de Kerckhove: The extension of news from the official press, the Twitter-like usage, the use of defensive technology, and contributions of Italian intelligence. What fall back can be produced by protest initiatives on the Net is an interesting question. It’s true that only now are social networks beginning to generate some effect; citizen journalism through social networks involves increasing amounts of people and not only on blogs but also other forms of communication. It could have a very strong effect on the government, despite its dependence on the number of people who are connected, and the ratio between the number of people on the Internet and the actual population. I think for example that Italy will find its point of maturity on the Internet in the future just as America found its own with the election of Obama, the highest moment of mass distribution of the force of the Internet compared to that of classic media. It means that strategies can be found to greatly augment the impact of social networks, which have an influence on political power, a power that we can call ecological. Politics should be ecological. Another aspect is the impact that such a law has on people’s lives, that represses the freedom of expression. Let’s hope that we will not see a competition in Italy between the organisation of a Network that defends itself and the organisation of a government that attacks it. The contributions of Italian intelligence are clearly and heavily threatened if such a situation arises, the emancipation of Italian minds must not be blocked.
Marco Mancuso: On the basis of the recent government anti-blog orders, as for example the Alfano decree this past July, what are, in your opinion, the actual and potential risks that the Internet faces, concerning freedom of thought but also free circulation and sharing of files, ideas and materials, movements of protest and gathering and autonomous processes of creation of new professions and economies, of the defence of one’s own privacy and personal data? In other, words, how long will the Net remain a free territory as we have known it in the past 10 years and how dangerous could the illusion that it will always be a marginal territory in contemporary society be?
Alessandro Gilioli: In Italy the danger of the Net comes from a combination of intolerance, fear and ignorance of politicians, especially those of the PDL and UDC parties. Intolerance: Berlusconi can’t stand hostile media in general, he tells people to not advertise with them, he dreams of an Italy of Minzolini communicators. Fear: politicians do not know the Net but can suss how little it can be controlled compared to mainstream media, in other words that if a piece comes out on the Net that embarrasses them they don’t have a editor they can call the next day to ask for “compensatory” articles, they don’t have a reporter from the Palazzo that they can walk arm-in-arm with along the Montecitorio Transatlantic, they don’t have any kind of blackmail power that they have always had over editors. Ignorance: most politicians don’t know what horizontal communication is, the insertion of content in blogs or social networks, and mechanically tend to apply laws that were thought up 60 years ago for Print. Faced with all this, the way in which the Italian Net will live in the next few years depends mostly on us, that is to say, those people who want it to be free and plural: how we will know how to move and influence the Palazzo, giving up on isolated and snobby positions and facing the reality out there. But also avoiding vanity and personal ambitions, with every person working at the service of everyone
Derrick de Kerckhove: The problem is in the fact that the Italian law does not constitute as the exception but is the norm. Right now the tendency toward the norm is visible, predictable in many details, in China, France, Italy and in Iran. The next law will require the creation of an internal department of defence (like the Basso fortress in Florence, built by the Medici, non to defend the city but to defend themselves from the city). The danger does not solely exist for Italy; the danger is that every conservative government can imitate the Italian example at any stage. At this time it’s clear how the governments are tempted, and one is going beyond temptation, the Italian one, to control people in an absolute way. It’s a new and innovative way to control the population.
It’s also interesting to see to what point the image of Italy, that is not seen under the best light right now with Berlusconi’s government, will continue to get worse to the eyes of the whole world with this new law. This is not a positive example for a country whose inspiration tends to reach toward an openness that is very similar to the American standard. The American way means an openness that is under surveillance, but with a sense of free space, this sense can also be classified as ecological. It gives the population the possibility to live with breathing space and I think that in Italy, to have a reputation similar to that of China on the Internet is not becoming.
But the other aspect that worries me is the tendency that the right wing governments have to research a sort of absolute control over people, to be carried out in many ways. If the Italian “experiment” (that I hope will never come to be) becomes a model for other governments in the rest of the world, if that should really happen, we will be lost
Marco Mancuso: There’s an interesting post on The Right to Net concerning a comment of the lawyer Guido Scorza, an judicial IT expert, who talks about the risks that channels like Youtube are facing. In the light of the previous question don’t you think that it’s increasingly necessary to create an open and possibly shared discussion with those very people who can illustrate, clarify and eventually legally help all those people who work, express themselves and communicate on the Net and through Social Networks? Don’t you think that in this sense, a platform like The Right to Net should discuss this deeply, clarify as much as possible and eventually help to create a legal case history that can constitute as a reference point for all those people who find themselves in dire straits in the future?
Alessandro Gilioli: Scorza is doing a great job, be it in terms of judicial information be it concerning the project for the literacy of politicians. The Right to Net is just one of the many platforms where action can begin. To me it seems useful that the debate and eventual “political” initiatives are as flexible and plural as possible, even when offline. Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking of the Net as a problem that only regards bloggers. It’s an issue that concerns all citizens, as an open democracy.
Derrick de Kerckhove: The question is very interesting! I absolutely agree with the request to create forms of information, discussion and assistance for all those people who are in difficulty concerning the problem of the forms of control. In Piazza Navona the people present at the event were less than those who had taken part online, this probably depends on how the news about the strike action was distributed but also depends on the novelty of it…. I hope that the number of Italians capable of expressing their consent/dissent to these laws increases greatly because it is their right as well as their duty, in other words the more people participate the more they create/whip-up a case of legal interest… finding a way to protect this “Right to Net” with international laws.
For example, in part of the decree by Alfano there is a constitutional illegitimacy in relation to the art.21, what are we waiting for to denounce this in uproar? A thorough juridical study would be best, to guarantee this “Right to the Net”, to “build”, through a scientific committee made up of Italian jurors, substantial legal support, with great visibility on the Net, that underlines the contrasts between ddl Alfano and the Constitution
Marco Mancuso: Social Networks and virtual/real identity. How can the project “The Right to the Net” be compared to the universe of Social Networks, how do they or will they use dynamics of integration with platforms like Delicious, Twitter and Facebook (I don’t mean integrating videos from Youtube, Vimeo or Digg, that is commonplace now), ad most of all how will the unsolved dilemma of giving a face, a body, a physicality for action to that virtual identity that exists behind every account that participates to your initiative? What dynamics should be used as leverage? I ask you because you had the courage to face this topic, in the moment when you asked people to participate physically in Piazza Navona on the 15th of July while doing the “blog strike” online at the same time.
Alessandro Gilioli: That’s the point. To make the issue of the Net in Italy come out of the closed circuit of bloggers and Net-Fans is fundamental. You need to work at it every day. Every person must, with his or her own means – in order to create a civil battle for everyone. It’s also an economical battle: the innovation of Italy – is very slow and scarce compared to other countries, not just European ones – and does not just pass through the widening of the band, but also through the widening of collective consciousness. A virtual reality that distinctly sets against physical reality no longer exists (if it ever did): the virtual is a part of the real – and an important part too. The “Physical” encounter in Piazza Navona had a symbolic value. In this, I believe that whoever has acted on the Net for many years must step forward, avoid feeling snobby and part of a “different and more advanced world”, face themselves and get their hands dirty with topics like literacy and distribution.
Derrick de Kerckhove:…e must persuade the mainstream media in Italy to join in.
Marco Mancuso: You are an affirmed journalist of a large editorial group, but at the same time you are also one of the most renowned bloggers on the Italian Network. On more than one occasion you did not hesitate to take an activist stand and you presented your blog Piovono Rane (It’s Raining Frogs) to the defence of cases like, as I can recall, the case of the raid on the Community Centre Cox18 and the Calusca Archive. How do you conciliate your role as a journalist for the editorial group “L’Espresso” with your role as a blogger online: in other words, how much does the Net (as a mass medium considered to be of little impact compared to newspapers and TV) still allow for a margin of free activist action to professional journalists like yourself, and how much will it increasingly become a balance between the will of the individual professional and the ontology of the Press. And how big is the risk of the proliferation of blogs that express precise opinions and assume certain positions with the purpose of collecting users (and therefore readers, or potential electors) from social areas that are more extreme (be they left or right wing)?
Alessandro Gilioli: Personally I am lucky to work for a newspaper that has a long tradition of civil battles and so I have the possibility to “use” blogs quite freely for that which you cal “activism”. Blogs allow for a margin of autonomy and independence that – if managed with responsibility and awareness – is much greater than that of a printed newspaper (which is still a collective product). The balance between personal activism and the position of the newspaper has many variables though and must be measured with intelligence every day. It’s obvious that in my blog – which is a part of the website of the “Espresso” – I have greater responsibility and constraints compared to another hypothetical personal blog outside the website of the newspaper. But it’s worth it, because being a part of the “Espresso” you also have an audience and greater feedback, which makes it easier to defend those cases that you speak of, and eventually get to activism. In other words, it means you can move better – for the results that you want to obtain – in the “balance” between positions of the newspaper and personal freedom.
On the other hand, here luckily the funny but golden rule that the BBC gave as a unique policy to its journalists-bloggers: do as you like, but use your common sense and your head. Which isn’t bad as a margin for freedom. As for the proliferation of blogs that take extreme positions or super assertive “to the sole purpose of attracting users”, I don’t see anything wrong with that or anything “risky”: everyone must have the right to do the blog he or she chooses, with the purpose that they want, and it will be the users – the readers – who will give them credibility and authority.
Derrick de Kerckhove: A healthy relationship between the press and the networks is essential for the well-being and the openness of society. Every government experiences the temptation to control the media, every newspaper at times experiences nervousness at publishing risky reports. The condition of freedom, not only of people´s expression but also of their movement rests largely on an open relationship between government, mainstream media and the network. The network is not a new underground, it is the ground itself. People have to be able to express their opinions and desires and see them reflected in the media when they pertain to social well-being as in the case of Iran.
On the other hand, the presence of mainstream journalists who are also credible in the world of networks is part of the public image of great editorial groups. There is, in Canada, the principle of “arms length” between the government and the media, that is, they are inevitably closely related but manage somehow to maintain their independence mutually. A journalist with a blog establishes the liaison between the world of individual opinion and information to the world of media consensus. It requires, of course someone capable to maintain a quality blog.
An “arms length” agreement” between government and the press on the matter of reporting is thus necessary. By which I mean, that a respected newspaper should never be refrained from reporting on public opinion for fear that the government will retire its support. And a respected journalist like Alessandro Gilioli should never have to fear the consequences on his honest reporting in blogs as well as on the paper.
Internally the editorial board may not always be ready to take risks. But, in many newspapers of international reputation such as le Monde in France, The New York Times in the US, and La Repubblica in Italy there is enough professional honesty and standards to tolerate a critical attitude within their midst. The association creates a greater sense of trust among the papers´ readers.
Thus, there ought to be a mutual support between network, citizen journalists and the mainstream media. Long before blogs were invented, the collaboration has begun dozens of years ago, with England´s Daily Telegraphy taking the lead in the early nineties, by seeking the opinions of people on line and offering special services. Media began to act as accelerators of pertinent citizen news. Artists -artisvist- groups in Italy, such Taziana Bazichelli´s AHA or Alessandro Ludovico´s NEURAL have shown the way. The idea has always been to help the main media, not to ut the then down. The consequence should be that the main media recognize the value added service provided by responsible reflexive hacktivism, and citizien, eyewitness journalism. If we want to still talk about democracy in the next few critical years, networks and media must work together to advise and dissuade governments from silly or dangerous impulses to block free expression of the public. Governments, after all, are not a private profit-oriented businesses, they belong to the people who vote for them and the electorate should be able to expect the services it has paid for.
Marco Mancuso: I’ll ask you a question that I asked the authors of the graphic novel Persepolis 2.0 last month, an artistic project of re-editing of the graphic novel Persepolis that traces an artistic and narrative parallel between the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the protest movements of 2009. My thought, and that of the authors, is that from the moment that the protest of young people in Iran of the past few weeks was repressed by violence, and causes the simultaneous closure of Networks and a hunt for bloggers and all those from Iran who were “guilty” of having communicated with the rest of the world by reporting the violence that was taking place, the great mass media (but also online) did not cover or emphasize the situation, abandoning the Iranian population and leaving it to its destiny. In other words, it’s evermore evident that the Net (as the mass medium that it now is) has an enormous potential in keeping the attention on certain political situations in the world and consequently has a growing responsibility (be it ethical or professional) concerning its potential and its shortcomings. When the Net, the countercultures on the Internet, the initiatives that are concerned with freedom of expression online, websites like Reppublica or L’Espresso, blogs, do not use their potential (or only do so for short periods of time and only connected to the “hottest” news bulletins), you ask yourself how much are we who work on the distribution of news and culture on the Net responsible of some shortcomings or hypocrisies. What do you think? Don’t you think that at times the Net falls into professional dynamics that are too similar to those of common mass media, therefore slowly losing part of its revolutionary force and its propulsive dynamics, as naive as they may be?
Alessandro Gilioli: Perfection is no one’s and nobody’s, not even the Net’s. But on the Net there are “long lines” and retrievals, and niche websites that don’t “let go” of a topic such as Burma or Iran just because current affairs has. So things are better than they were 20 years ago, when there were just Print newspapers and so consult archives you had to go to the public library, or if you wanted to know what was happening in a far-off country that was ignored by the newspapers you had to walk around various associations in a City. For example, for personal reasons I follow the Burma situation closely, but I cannot do a daily post of Burma because if not I will have lost dozens of readers: which would not be useful for the distribution of other important news. At the same time, when I see something new or strong about Burma then I gladly put it in there. Once again, for a journalistic-generalist website or blog it’s a question of balance and good sense.
Another issue for blogs and niche websites, naturally, is that are like online data banks that are perpetually updatable and consultable. In other words, I wouldn’t get too paranoid about “Journalist logic” of online activism as a negative dynamic: the important thing is that there’s a plurality that is as free as possible and contains as many voices and topics, battles and elaborations as possible
Derrick de Kerckhove: I don’t think so, because I think the problem lies elsewhere and is much more dangerous, as that quoted of the repression of blogs in Iran. The accessibility of anybody on the Net creates conditions for absolute control. There will be a great temptation in many countries, like Italy (and perhaps even the United States in the next Republican “reign”) to experiment a kind of “electronic fascism”.
Marco Mancuso: I would like to conclude this interview by trying to reflect on a point that I think is important: the very existence of this interview! Aside from the obvious and right dynamics of the younger professional who interviews the expert, of the counterculture website like Digicult that is interested in the activities of a journalist of an important national Newspaper and a great editorial group, I ask myself whether this interview signals a certain weakness in the project The Right to Net. In other words, don’t you think that there’s the risk that these initiatives are perceived as vertical initiatives, directed by an intellectual elite that despite everything doesn’t speak the same language as the new classes of professionals and intellectuals that have been created in Italy in the past decade, that despite everything remain too far away from the common people, from young people who do politics on the Net, from the activist countercultures that animate it? I’m sure that, and luckily may I add, the initiative was a success and I’ve seen that many people participated in the platform The Right to Net, but at the same time, by reading a few posts here and there, I’m still struck by certain messages like: “The initiative has seen participants and bloggers from every political area (but also non-political areas) and representatives from various parties and associations. Some of the participants: Ignazio Marino, Vincenzo Vita, Mario Adinolfi and Francesco Verducci (Pd – Democratic Party); Antonio Di Pietro (Idv): Pietro Folena (Party of the European Left); “Amici di Beppe Grillo” (Friends of Beppe Grillo) in Rome, Calabria and Taranto; Articolo 21; Sinistra e Libertà (Left and Freedom); Per il Bene Comune (For the Common Good); Partito Liberale Italiano (PLI). On an individual level other people have participated such as Giuseppe Civati, Sergio Ferrentino, Massimo Mantellini, Alessandro Robecchi, Claudio Sabelli Fioretti, Ivan Scalfarotto, Luca Sofri, Marco Travaglio and Vittorio Zambardino. Some parliamentarians from the ruling party (like Antonio Palmieri and Bruno Murgia), even if they won’t be in the piazza, have expressed their opposition to the “Net-Gagging” law in the Alfano decree…. in other words, the introduction into “new” environments is not underlined in traditional politics and in the dominant intellectual society, as much as the classes and groups and people who think they can represent a “guide” but that perhaps many people on the Net or people who do politics through new technologies, are no longer perceived as real “alternatives” from a political point of view. What do you think about this?
Alessandro Gilioli: I don’t want to repeat myself, but it’s still a question of balance. If the participation in a battle of people who are stimulated and considered authoritative for different reasons is useful for the result of the battle itself, this should be communicated and valued. If I had written: “My grocer Gino participated too, as well as my doorman Guido, my cleaner Luz and the neighbourhood officer Erminio”, I would have been more horizontal and more democratic, but a little silly too. The important thing is that when the initiative takes place, everyone mixes up the same way, without verticality or leadership (for this reason in Piazza Navona I avoided getting up on a stage and talking, leaving the speeches up to a judicial expert such as Scorza and a Network expert such as De Kerckhove). If hundreds of “unknown” blogs hadn’t participated in the strike, it would have been a failure. But in the moment of preparation the participation of “authoritative” characters was useful so as to involve the “unknown” blogs. In other words, we try to avoid ideologies and to be pragmatic: it’s right that there are no leaderships and personal interests, but it’s also right that authoritative characters “spend their time” if this can be useful to the positive outcome of the initiative. It is strenuous to find the right balance between the two each and every time.
Derrick de Kerckhove: I don’t know Italian politics well enough to be able to answer this question, but I will say that whatever the quantity – be it homeopathic – of the representation of the critique of power, the effect is believable, if it does not touch the masses. This means that there are people circulating on the net that are capable of having a believable and authoritative position, in the sense that Social Networks are a pertinent world of connections: person to person, group to group, they become a fact… like a Press Release…. It has happened in other historical situations. Think of the voice of a person who lives outside his or her country and conditions an ever-growing network of people in the rest of the world.
It’s an interesting thing; it means that it’s perfectly possible to find a reference on the Internet that comes at light speed to the right person. I think that this is the great power of the Internet, from a small dosage of information that becomes important, that circulates at light speed and allows people to “do things”. As Mc Luhan says: “light speed is the maximum function of speed not the quantity of information, it’s the speed of access that makes the mass, it’s a mass of real time, a mass that is built up and broken down. Information works that way, it’s a different way with respect to traditional strategies of the so-called mass media”.
Having said that, I continue to sustain that in order to make a positive action of persuasion on the government, a union of all the official Press is preferable, if they accept to take a stand on this topic… and I think that the Union of the Press would be essential in the future of political decisions. This in my belief and must be the effect of other initiatives of “The Right to Net”.
The stimuli and pressure come from the Internet, from Social Networks, from blogs, and are released into reality, into the media, the mainstream, because the Internet is underground.