Freesteel Blog » Cory Doctorow: Internet Inactivist

Cory Doctorow: Internet Inactivist

Monday, October 8th, 2007 at 11:06 pm Written by:

Since he left the Electronic Frontier Foundation at the end of 2005, Cory Doctorow has experienced a meteoric rise. Paid-for air-travel to speaking engagements clocks out at at least 200,000 miles a year, and everyone seems to love what he has to say, from his routine speech at Duke University in North Carolina entitled “From Myspace to Homeland Security: Privacy and the Totalitarian Urge”, to the reading of his Guardian newspaper op-ed piece for Canadian radio called Copy killers.

This latter reading was done over the internet from his hotel room in Japan shortly before he went into China, the week after the cyber-dissident and Chinese blogger He Weihua was confined in a psychiatric hospital against his will for the second time in three years. His case was picked up by Reporters Without Borders.

I found out about it by listening to the interview with Watson Meng, founder of, which was broadcast in the same program as Cory’s Canadian radio piece. Since 2000 Boxun has been hosted from North Carolina, safely out of reach of the totalitarian urge of the Chinese Government.

It’s possible that Cory didn’t know about Boxun when he gave his “Totalitarian Urge” speech at Duke University, where he could have used his time to call on his audience to become more active in supporting this important service which has broken many of the stories of uprisings that the Chinese Government doesn’t want you to hear about. But then, he only happened to be the Fulbright Chair in Public Diplomacy at California University, and might not have had the time to find out about it. All I was doing was listening to all his podcasts for a research project about hypermobility.

While Boxun may be obscure, the situation for bloggers in China is common knowledge, so not knowing about what has just happened as you enter that country counts as willful ignorance. Maybe you don’t want to be bothered with it when you are being honoured by an invitation to the very exclusive Young Global Leaders conference where you will meet — if the World Economic Forum has chosen well — the people who will in the coming decades have their fingers on the nuclear trigger while their other hand grasps the financial levers that ensure this planet’s continued course towards environmental devastation. All the brightest CEOs and Royal Highnesses were there, and not a word was said that could have spoiled the party. The elite, as usual, smiled graciously and told itself that everything it was intending to do was all all right.

In my book a real internet activist with a celebrity status of the kind that means you are not going to get arrested or physically mistreated would have known about Weihua’s case, or at least one of the other 52 Chinese bloggers now in custody. A real internet activist would have made a fuss and arranged to visit the abandoned wife now fighting for her husband’s release. A real activist would have hired a psychiatry professor and barged into the hospital to get an independent examination of the victim. Such an activist would have made enough noise to ensure that the Chinese authorities understood that this problem was not going to go away.

I am not a public relations expert, but I believe that, had Cory done any of these things, it’s very likely he would never again get invited to a Young Global Leaders conference, but Weihua would be walking free and the cause of free speech in China would have been pushed forwards significantly. These interventions work. There are experts at Amnesty International who could have advised Cory about it while he was contributing to their special “struggle for freedom of expression in cyberspace” conference this summer.

But he didn’t do anything. It probably never occurred to him to do anything. Crossing that line between being an over-hyped, repetitive and in-demand motor-mouth, and actually doing something — or even encouraging other people to do things — does get in the way of your career. Going along month after month, touting yourself as a corporate adviser ready to teach business leaders how to make money and stay on top of the game in this changing world is what life is about. It’s not cool to actually contribute to those changes yourself, is it?

Thanks, Cory, for wasting our time and our most precious resource of public attention. Things in this world could be so much better if you were not the contented man you are.

Update: Searching BoingBoing reveals that He Weihua’s case was posted on BoingBoing by Xeni Jardin, one of the six contributors to that super-blog, on the same day that the news was released by Reporters without Borders. No further news has been produced. However, another Chinese blogger, Hu Jia, who has spoken against the Olympics organizers, was picked up on 28 December.

Additionally, a 2005 press release from Reporters without Borders explains how its secretary general was prevented from attending the “World Summit on the Information Society” in Tunisia. A day later:

Members of the organisation stuck a 2×3-metre poster on the floor of the exhibition pavilion among stands set up the countries taking part in the summit. It illustrated the 15 ‘enemies of the Internet’ – the countries that trample on free expression on the Net.

In these “black holes on the web”, sites are censored, draconian filtering systems set up and cyberdissidents and Internet-users harassed and imprisoned.

A real internet activist cannot functionally be welcome in all parts of the world.


  • 1. i.P replies at 9th October 2007, 8:37 am :

    After seeing what happened to Tatchell and the Italian Radicals in Moscow earlier this year, I begin to wonder whether minor celebrity gets you an Escape from Kicking pass anymore. Perhaps depriving Doctorow of his gadgets would be cruel and unusual enough, though.

  • 2. Freesteel&hellip replies at 3rd January 2009, 2:36 pm :

    […] will be written later, it will include carbon calculations, and will be more wide-ranging than the internet inactivist one done halfway through the […]

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