On the night of October 27th, a group of activists – Free Culture @ NYU – took to the mean streets of New York City to protest the presence of DRM (digital rights management) technology on CDs sold by Sony BMG or EMI. According to the protest website:
We also met plenty of consumers who were shocked, dismayed, and saddened by the news that the CDs that they had just bought probably won’t work on their computer or iPod. We even gave some help to people who complained about CDs not working on their computers. We also got into Virgin and deposited some flyers around the store. It was a great event, everyone had a great time despite getting a bit cold at the end.
The protest was covered by Slyck.com, p2pnet.net and other anti-DRM weblogs. Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing, pointed that blog’s readers to the photoset of protest photos on Flickr. As of 12:18 EST on October 31, 2005, FLickr tells me the photoset has been 2802 times. (That number will likely rise as West Coast BoingBoingers wake up and check their RSS feeds.)
The photo set inspired me to think about the recent history of political protest in the United States: civil rights in the 1950s, feminism in the 1960s, protests to end the Vietnam War in the 1970s, to end apartheid in the 1980s, the Million Man March in the 1990s, the great anti-DRM marches of the new millenium. As I thought about the dozens of causes more likely to inspire me to march than digital rights management, Darfur leapt to the front of my list. And that led me, through Sokari Ekine’s Black Looks blog, to this photo series on Flickr.
On September 29th, hundreds of Sudanese refugees began protesting outside UNHCR offices in Cairo, Egypt. The refugees, who had fled violence in Darfur, were given “blanket temporary refugee” status, which means they’re ineligible to be resettled to a third country – they receive little humanitarian assistance and are deeply concerned about being forcibly returned to Darfur. Damanga.org outlines some of the demands of the refugees, who remained camped outside the UNHCR offices for more than three weeks:
1) We refuse to return voluntarily to Darfur because of the lack of security that the region is still experiencing.
2) We also refuse to resettle permanently in Egypt because cooperation between the governments of Egypt and Sudan has made our lives here difficult.
3) We refuse the random, unjustified arrest of Sudanese refugees in Egypt, many of whom are detained without charges filed or access to legal protection.
Pambazuka News reports that the protest now involves 1,200 refugees. One refugee told the Pambazuka reporter, ““We will wait here, we will die here. We have no other place to go.”
The Flickr photo series, linked to by Pambazuka and Black Looks, features seventeen photos of the protest camp, the list of demands, and the banners held up to protest the murder of Sudanese refugees in Egypt.
As of 12:43 on October 31, 2005, the Flickr photo set had been viewed 81 times.
As tempting as it is to make fun of NYU students for fighting for their “right” to purchase DRM-free music, I’m glad that they’re protesting something, even if the wrong they’ve chosen to right comes in at #23,273 on my personal “things worth fighting for” list. It’s the amplification effect that bothers me more. Why is one photo set featured on BoingBoing and the other isn’t?
Some possible answers:
– The folks at BoingBoing probably don’t know anything about the Cairo protests. I try to follow this issue, but I didn’t know about this protest until catching Sokari’s bookmark. While there are a lot of BoingBoing readers in the East Village of NYC, there are fewer in Cairo, and they may not yet have brought the issue to their attention.
– BoingBoing author Cory Doctorow is deeply committed to the issue of free culture, follows the movement closely and reports on this issue on his group blog, much the same way I write about African politics here. It’s his perogative to follow the issues he’s passionate about. And BoingBoing does some humanitarian coverage, providing excellent information on the Southeast Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters.
– BoingBoing readers may well be more concerned with DRM than with refugee issues in Northern Africa. BoingBoing is a private business – it maintains a huge readership by covering topics of interest to its readers, and filtering out other topics. Perhaps BoingBoing is more useful to its audience by covering DRM protests and not human rights ones.
It’s this last point I’m most interested in. I’ve been writing for the past two years about “problems” with media attention – most notably, the problem that events involving Africa get a whole lot less attention than those involving Iraq, Israel, Europe and the US. Jay Rosen (shrewdly, helpfully, kindly) pointed out a hole in my argument when I visited with him several weeks back at a conference in Chicago. While I can document how little coverage Africa gets in relation to Iraq, I haven’t successfully made the argument for why Africa deserves more coverage.
Jay argues that media – whether cable channel, newspaper or blog – serve a polis. This means that they’re obligated to do more than creating compelling content and selling ads – they’re obligated to inform their readers about issues that help them make decisions as citizens. It makes sense that community newspapers cover local news more thoroughly than international news – their audience needs to be informed about local issues to vote in local elections, protest local injustices and mobilize to right local wrongs.
I can complain that papers like the New York Times don’t cover Africa enough, but I have to make the argument that the issues in Africa are germane to the readership of the Times. It’s possible to make the same argument that the readers of BoingBoing are more concerned, and more likely to act, on issues surrounding DRM than they are about Sudanese refugees: more BoingBoing readers have iPods than have people they care about in refugee camps. In this sense, BoingBoing and the Times may well be serving their readers better than I would if I controlled their editorial agenda.
My problem with this argument is this: in an increasingly globalized world, the distant gets more local everyday. The rise of militant Islam in Central Asia was pretty distant to most Americans until September 11th, when it suddenly became profoundly local. Failed or failing states in Africa might remain very distant to Americans… or they might not, if Somalilia or Côte d’Ivoire emerge as global arms bazarrs in the absence of a functioning state. Pollution in China seems pretty distant until it starts affecting air quality in LA, at which point it’s very local.
Is localism, both of journalism and of dissent, a luxury we can’t afford in a global age? Is it okay for us to know about the arguments against DRM, but not about the arguments against refugee repatriation?
In other words, is it fair for me to make fun of the guy holding the green sign for fighting the RIAA rather than fighting for people who really need someone to march in the streets of New York on their behalf?