MERA SZENDRO BOK:
New Media Rights Group Hosts Drumbeat-S.D. February 5
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
As writers from George Orwell to George Lakoff have told us, what we think we know about something — anything — depends largely on the words used to describe it. Language can be used as a tool to communicate meaning or to conceal it; to open minds to new ideas or to close them and keep them stuck in old thought patterns. The dramatic emergence of the Internet as a new mass communications medium in the last 15 years or so has created a similarly divided set of possibilities. With its freewheeling, anyone-can-publish ethos, the Net has the potential to broaden the range of information and perspective available to ordinary people around the world — but it’s also become a major profit center for media companies and other large corporations who like the world just the way it is and want to make sure the Internet reinforces rather than challenges pro-corporate and pro-capitalist thought patterns.
Mera Szendro Bok is a San Diego-based activist, a recent transplant from New York City, whose organization, New Media Rights, exists to preserve the Internet as a bastion of individual freedom and liberty and protect it from government or corporate control. Her group’s latest big local event is Drumbeat San Diego, part of a nationwide mobilization of individuals and organizations working to give ordinary people the tools they need to use the Internet to spread their messages effectively — and the training to act politically to protect their rights to use the Internet to obtain and publish information.
The local Drumbeat event is part of a nationwide movement founded by the Mozilla Foundation, described on its own Web site as “a non-profit organization that promotes openness, innovation and participation on the Internet.” Best known as the developers and sponsors of the Firefox Web browser, the Foundation called Drumbeat “to spark a movement … to keep the Web open for the next 100 years.” According to the event’s Web site, http://www.drumbeat.org
, the event is designed to help preserve the open Internet by developing and supporting “practical projects and local events that gather smart, creative people around big ideas, solving problems and building the open Web.” In this interview, Szendra Bok discusses how her group plans to fulfill the Drumbeat mission locally and talks about some of the threats she sees to the openness and freedom of the Internet.
Drumbeat San Diego takes place Saturday, February 5, 1:30 to 6:30 p.m., at Queen Bee’s Arts and Cultural Center, 3925 Ohio Street in North Park. Admission is free, but since the space can only accommodate 100 people, New Media Rights asks that people who want to attend register at http://www.newmediarights.org/drumbeat/register
. The group is encouraging people interested in helping shape the event to join the ongoing planning process; for more information on Drumbeat or New Media Rights, call (619) 591-8870 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Zenger’s: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into this issue?
Mera Szendro Bok: I was originally raised in New York. When I came to San Diego, I was really interested in uniting San Diego and bridging different activist groups, and also engaging on media issues and media reform. I am very interested in getting local activists’ voices, and a diversity of voices, access to media; sharing stories; fighting media consolidation; and fighting for an open Internet.
New Media Rights is an organization that offers one-on-one free legal assistance to people on copyrights and online publishing. We plan to have a public media studio that is free — camera, lights, green screen. We got involved in Drumbeat San Diego because I worked on a similar event called One Web Day. Both were localized events, part of a global movement to make people aware of the importance of an open Web and get them engaged on technology projects. We figure that by working on projects that impact the local community and engage diverse communities, we will be able to make a global impact.
Zenger’s: I thought that Drumbeat was an event your organization actually started, but you’re now telling me it wasn’t. Was it something you came on board as a coalition partner, because it’s on the same wavelength as what you’re doing?
Szendro Bok: The call actually came from the Mozilla Foundation. I think Firefox is really interesting, and how do we make sure that ideas and innovative non-commercial Web projects like Firefox continue in the future. There are a lot of threats to the open Web right now. I’m very concerned about those threats. New Media Rights is very interested in bridging communities; getting filmmakers, Web developers and Web designers in the same room; and building projects.
So I got word from Mozilla Foundation that this was happening and they wanted me to be the lead Southern California organizer, and it just seemed like an organic partnership that Mozilla and New Media Rights should work together. Drumbeat San Diego is a coalition of tech groups, activist groups, and art groups coming together. We’ve been meeting and building this event for about six months now, and we’ve definitely tailored the event to San Diego’s needs. Mozilla does not have a heavy hand on what this event is going to accomplish.
Zenger’s: What are some of the other local groups involved?
Szendro Bok: We have S.D. Tech Scene. We have people in the tech community who go to events like Ignite and Barcamp. Who else? We’re working with Media Arts Center. We’re working with the Fab Lab. We’re working with people like Xavier of CPI [Center on Policy Initiatives]. All of these partnerships are active partnerships and take different form. We have about 10 to 15 volunteers who help out.
Zenger’s: Exactly what’s going to happen at this? If people come, what can they expect?
Szendro Bok: A lot of networking opportunities. We’re going to be featuring projects, but there are also going to be ample opportunities for people’s passion projects to grow. In the beginning, we’re going to have an introduction. We’re going to have a “geeking session,” which is kind of like speed-dating, only it’s speed-geeking. So you kind of travel around to different projects and see what they’re about, and see if you want to be a part of that.
We’re going to have a Human Spectrogram, where we’re going to pose different questions about an open Internet and privacy, and see how people feel about the state of the Internet right now so we can get a sense of where people’s opinions are. It’s going to be an ice-breaking exercise.
The main thing is going to be the Drumbeat Projects. There’s going to be the Open Data Project, the Eat Good Food project, Citizen 2.0, and an open-source music and experimentation project. During the last two or three hours, people are going to engage in building these projects and decide how these projects can really meet San Diego’s needs.
Zenger’s: A lot of these sound pretty vague.
Szendro Bok: I can give you some examples. The Open Data Project is the project of the Watchdog Institute and a group called Open San Diego. The Watchdog Institute analyzes data, and Open San Diego is fighting for more open data in San Diego. They will be examining data of 911 phone calls compiled over a one-month period, and diverse participation will be included in examining the stories within the data, which would help [create] effective narratives for journalism stories.
They’ll also be talking about how journalists can get access to data; a workshop on how to develop a meaningful and useful data visualization; a discussion on the best ways to make data more available and useful to people.
The Eat Good Food project is a bit different. It’s going to be a Web site or a phone app where people can look at their local farmers’ markets, see where they are, see what the food options are at local farmers’ markets, see what the featured vegetable is. So they’re going to be building a Web site on what’s available at your local farmers’ markets, and then allowing people to add content to the Web site about, “Look, I took this photo at my local farmers’ market,” “I made this dish with local vegetables.” It’s like a farm-to-table resource for people.
Ray Lutz’s Citizen Oversight Project is going to encourage open government by fostering active citizens to attend and monitor local government meetings. He has a Wiki up on his site where he shares information and action on often-overlooked actions of local governments. You can also learn about your rights to access public meetings, ask questions about successful online open-government projects, and we want more people to go to public meetings and be part of that.
Part of that process is asking San Diego what’s going to get you there, and asking diverse communities about their interest in it. A lot of these projects are about building, and a lot are simply about engagement: engaging diverse communities to find out what their needs are.
Zenger’s: So if it seems incredibly open-ended, it’s because it is. You’re hoping not just to put out information but to get input from the people who come to the conferences. You’re hoping for a dialogue, rather than just a series of lectures.
Szendro Bok: It isn’t a series of lectures. The time is allotted for open discussions and networking. It’s a highly participatory event. But there is a level of structure to it. People will know what’s available to them within a timetable.
Zenger’s: What are you hoping that people will bring out of it?
Szendro Bok: We want diverse communities to network. Recently we showed a movie called Ten Tactics, about how activists around the world are utilizing technologies to better their communities. We recognize that by cross-pollinating skills, projects will grow stronger and they’ll also meet San Diego’s needs. We also want people within the activist community and the arts community to see technology as a tool and not a burden.
Zenger’s: That’s one of the contradictions in the whole arena of communications technology and Internet politics. On the one hand, the Internet promises to be this great leveler, where anybody can communicate with anybody. At the same time, it’s also in some ways a very capital-intensive business, and one that the traditional big-media companies are moving to control. What do you think are the biggest threats right now to the open Internet?
Szendro Bok: The main threat that I’ve been concerned with is companies trying to kind of chop up the Internet and sell it their own ways, including ISP’s [Internet service providers] using discriminatory practices against users. I think Net neutrality is very important, and what we see coming out of the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] is a convoluted, oftentimes confusing [set of] rules that will really only allow lawyers to make a lot of money for deciding whether it was lawful content or unlawful content, or whether it was a discriminatory practice or not. I think the FCC has to improve a lot on their stance on Net neutrality.
I think another threat to Net freedom, from a global perspective is countries filtering. There are over 40 countries filtering, and they do this through technical ways, commonly using techniques to block access to Internet sites: IP blocking, DNS tampering, URL blocking, search result removals. There’s also undue self-censorship: we see a lot of countries where there are social norms and other informal methods of intimidation. That’s certainly an issue.
We work on a lot of cease-and-desist letters [sent by attorneys from major corporations threatening to sue individuals and small businesses if they don’t immediately remove allegedly copyrighted material from their sites]. That’s one way that there’s definitely censorship: unfair cease-and-desist letters.
Net freedom is a really big topic right now. We’ve seen, in the case of WikiLeaks, how much control corporations have through their terms-of-service agreements [to keep people from accessing or donating to WikiLeaks], and we definitely want to make sure that in the future people can use the Internet and effectively pressure companies to have more clear and fair terms.
Zenger’s: I have a roommate who constantly listens to Right-wing talk radio, and they’ve presented the current proposals at the FCC, however weak we might find them, as a direct threat to liberty and freedom and the First Amendment and all of this. Part of this comes from the Right’s belief that if you have more money, you should be able to dominate communications, and politics, and everything else, because by having more money you have more of a stake in society, and therefore you should have more power.
Szendro Bok: Communication is the lifeblood of our society. I’m not in this field because I just love analyzing law. To me, the policy level is important in creating effective change, but making sure that people, citizens, can share their stories, can communicate effectively, can have some consensus on what is really happening in the world so that we can have creative solutions.
We’ve definitely seen in the last couple of years that media consolidation has pushed a lot of strong language to either the Left or the Right. Communications narratives are on two parallel tracks. I think a lot of Americans are in the middle, but are definitely being pushed to one side or the other. The reality is that we, as citizens on the ground, should be discussing what is it that we’re seeing, and what are the problems, and how can our local legislators and representatives really serve the public interest, which is their job?
Zenger’s: So far, at least, in this country the courts have ruled that ISP’s can pretty much do whatever they want in terms of allowing or suppressing information and tiering the Net [giving users faster access to large corporate media sites than individual or small-business sites]. One thing the FCC did do to try to block this was thrown out by the courts. Given the tremendous power of Big Money over our political system, how realistic is it to hope that we will continue to have a truly free Internet, and not just a medium that’s yet another transmission belt for the corporate message, like all other mass media in this society?
Szendro Bok: My goal, and our hope at New Media Rights, is that we can offer information to citizens in a way that they understand that communications policy and media law really decide the ways that we can interact and communicate as individuals, and that is the most important human function in order for us to evolve. As far as us interacting and working as a community, it’s vital that our communications media are there to be utilized by everyone.
When people realize how important intellectual property law, media law and keeping the Internet open are to their daily functions, to making money, to innovating, to educating themselves, to communicating with each other, meeting up with each other and building community, that’s when we’re going to have a realization of how critical it is for us to advocate for public-interest media law. But until citizens understand what we’re doing here, we’re only going to have a small segment of the population really engaged in these battles.
Zenger’s: What do you think it’s going to take to build that awareness?
Szendro Bok: I certainly feel called to work on advocacy campaigns. I think that if we create campaigns that are engaging, campaigns that invoke language that this is a right of ours, the people will hopefully move quickly to protect their rights. Certainly we’re at a precipice, where we’re seeing the importance of utilizing the Internet for education, for innovation and for communication; and we’re also seeing that there’s a threat to our ability to fully utilize the Internet. Hopefully people feel a sense of action, that there’s a real threat.
I would hope that now more people are buying tools and technologies —creating podcasts, creating video, creating media and using the Internet. New Media Rights hopes to offer free legal assistance to [overcoming] many of those barriers when it comes to online publishing, and when it comes to dealing with larger corporations and not getting anywhere.
So I would hope that communicating with your community is not something that’s happening “out there,” but you’re doing it, and if you’re feeling like, “Well, I can’t go downtown and go on Fox News. I can’t go to my local radio station and just say what I want,” then that’s something you need to consider. How can you advocate for a better communications policy that will give you outlets for your message?