In 2000, the World Wide Web was in its infancy: wireless internet had not hit the mainstream and the rise of social media was at least seven years away. In PEN’s Spring 2000 newsletter, Evan Solomon wrote on “The Power of the Internet” – and while that phrase may seem dated, the ideas he presented foreshadowed many of the realities of today from privacy concerns raised by mass surveillance, to human rights campaigns carried out over social media. Solomon’s piece from our archives, serves as a reminder of the power of the Internet as well as a reflection on the new threats that have come along with it.
There is a prescient scene in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre Dame de Paris, where the scholar marvels at the sight of his first printed book. Turning away from his manuscripts he holds the book up to the light and looks over at the monolithic cathedral, exclaiming: “Ceci tuera cela.” This will kill that.
In that single instant, the scholar apprehends the implicit power afforded by the technology of the printing press. Once access to information is democratized, he realizes, once it can flow freely, even the most powerful institutions are not safe.
This is the very kind of thinking behind PEN Canada’s effort to harness the power of the Internet. Like Hugo’s scholar, PEN believes that shared information has the power to break down walls, if not of cathedrals, at least of prisons. To that end, PEN has recently partnered with Hewitt and Johnston Consulting to create a password protected bulletin board that will allow the PEN board of directors to share and communicate information more effectively and more efficiently.
The Internet can be of great help in galvanizing the support of global citizenry and lobbying governments on behalf of imprisoned writers. If used well, it can enable us to fulfill our mandate more effectively.
But this is only the first step in a strategy to use the Internet in a more sophisticated way. We want the PEN Web site to be a national discussion forum about issues concerning freedom of speech. Soon a new topic will be posted regularly on the site and a discussion generated. The ongoing Sharpe case, for example, has raised many complicated questions about child pornography and demands much more public debate. The PEN Web site will be the place where all voices can be heard.
The primary work of PEN Canada is to help release imprisoned writers around the globe. As we know from cases like General Gallardo in Mexico, this is usually a long, difficult and sensitive process. It requires a tremendous amount of communication between the local groups on the ground and the international community willing to lend its support. No technology is more cost-effective, more efficient, or more widely available than the Internet to do this. The Internet can be of great help in galvanizing the support of global citizenry and lobbying governments on behalf of imprisoned writers. If used well, it can enable us to fulfill our mandate more effectively.
Evan Solomon is the host of CBC’s Power & Politics. In 2000, he sat on PEN Canada’s board as a Member at Large.
Photo credit: Featured image by Mike Licht. Headshot of Evan Solomon courtesy of the CBC Media Centre.