“Hand in your phones. Don’t tweet. We know you put things up [on Twitter].”

A friend told me that in Singapore there is a prison exclusively for ‘political criminals’. It is like any other prisons except that you will have no access to a pen and paper. I am not sure if this is an urban legend, but I’ve never heard of anything scarier. The idea of being locked up in a cell without a pen and paper genuinely sent chills down my spine.

Now, hypothetically, let’s assume that such a prison exists. The authorities might say everything is good and legal as prisoners get three meals a day, water for showers, and above all, no apparent torture. However, I can see how effectively it would break a soul. So, this has led me to a fundamental question of human rights: what constitutes a human necessity and who gets to define it?

A project I am independently working on at the moment is concerned with an aspect of the ongoing aerial protest in the shipyard of Hanjin Heavy Industries in South Korea. Kim Jinsuk, a committee member of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, has been on the top of a 35-metre-high crane since 6 January this year, demanding that the company withdraw its layoff plans. While up there, she has also been tweeting from her smartphone. As it recently started to gain wider public support through Twitter, and Kim shows no sign of climbing down, the management decided, in the name of security, to cut electricity to the crane and to screen food supplies for Kim with a metal detector. Interpreting this as a move to isolate and corner her, supporters complained that it is inhumane to deny her the right to communicate. In response, the management added that they could allow her an old-model mobile without Internet access.

“What, are you gonna say Twitter is a necessity?”, you might be scoffing already. No. Not for me at least. I can well live without. But if I were perching on the top of a vessel crane alone and were suddenly deprived of the only communication channel I had with the world, I am sure I would say differently.

No tweets from her for the last 24 hours. While waiting, let me share something I read a couple of months ago. Citing the whole passage here as it feels even more relevant now. The source, a Guardian article, is linked here.

Not long ago, according to the new-media guru Clay Shirky, the Sudanese government set up a Facebook page calling for a protest against the Sudanese government, naming a specific time and place – then simply arrested those who showed up. It was proof, Shirky argues, that social media can’t be revolutionary on its own. “The reason that worked is that nobody knew anybody else,” he says. “They thought Facebook itself was trustworthy.” This is one of many counterintuitive impacts that the internet has wrought on the politics of protest. But perhaps the most powerful is the one that Shirky – himself a prominent evangelist for the democratic power of services such as Twitter and Facebook – labels “the dictator’s dilemma”.

Authoritarian leaders and protesters alike can exploit the power of the internet, Shirky concedes. (At least he notes the risks: in another session at the [SXSW] conference, I watch dumbstruck as a consultant on cyber-crimefighting speaks with undisguised joy about how much information the police could glean from Facebook, in order to infiltrate communities where criminals might lurk. Asked about privacy concerns, she replies: “Yeah – we’ll have to keep an eye on that.”) But there’s a crucial asymmetry, Shirky goes on. The internet is now such a pervasive part of so many people’s lives that blocking certain sites, or simply turning the whole thing off – as leaders in Bahrain, Egypt and elsewhere have recently tried to do – can backfire completely, angering protesters further and, from a dictator’s point of view, making matters worse. “The end state of connectivity,” he argues, “is that it provides citizens with increased power.”

The road to that end state won’t be smooth. But the compensatory efforts of the authorities to harness the internet for their own ends will never fully compensate. Either they must allow dissenters to organise online, or – by cutting off a resource that’s crucial to their daily lives – provoke them to greater fury.

By the way, the title to this post comes from what those supporters visiting Kim’s sit-in site earlier this month was told when being taken by police.

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