For the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, issued a letter of light against the dark. Despite rising doubts about whether digital systems can still be a force for good, he wrote on March 12 that it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume the web “can’t be changed for the better in the next 30 [years].”
As if on cue, the people of Algeria showed this week how all things internet – from social media apps on phones to the web on desktops – surely are a force for good.
For the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of Algerians collaborated on Facebook and in other ways to hold protests that, on March 11, forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to announce he would be leaving office after 20 years in power. The netizens had found a freedom of conscience in virtual space and, in connecting to every stripe of person across society from judges to unionists, created a real bud of freedom.
The internet helped break a “wall of fear,” as one demonstrator put it. On social media, people were advised to show up with “love, faith, Algerian flags, and roses” (the latter for soldiers). They spread the word to avoid violence and take their litter with them. “Silmiya, silmiya,” (peaceful, peaceful) chanted the protesters.
The young people of Algeria, writes novelist Kamel Daoud in The Guardian, had grown up with the freedom of social media. “Today this freedom has sprung from screens into the street. The internet has been the great giver of freedom of speech in Algeria and the regime has realized it too late.”
“Algerians – hyper-connected – found out that they could have not only a Facebook page but a country,” he wrote.
One poster captured the inner liberty that the people felt at the protests. It showed the house-elf from the Harry Potter series who wins his freedom. “Algeria has no master! Algeria is a FREE country. – Dobby,” it said.
The power of the web, says its inventor, lies in its universality. It broadens thought to encompass ideas that help bind people to each other. Even with dictatorships trying to restrict access to digital tools, Mr. Berners-Lee says there are alternatives. One, he suggests, is to decentralize the internet, allowing for smaller groups to communicate. The point is that people now realize the internet is not a physical thing but an idea of a “space” for closer collaboration. They will find a way.
Algerians still have far to go to overturn a corrupt and powerful elite. A new constitution must be written. Free elections are still not assured. But in a country where rulers have little history of yielding power, the people now realize a capacity to tell the truth over the internet. Freedom lies first in demonstrating freedom of thought. Digital tools like the web only help make that possible.