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Unionbook: a Bastion of Online Activism

Thu 13th Sep 2012

It is rare in life to find a statement that everyone (minus those who get a kick out of being contrarian) can agree with. However, I believe one of those rare statements is that the internet and the social networks it provides are a good thing. For activists the good is doubled, for in addition to the ability to make new friends and share, it also gives us new tools to reach out to fellow travellers and publicise information that the established media may not be interesting in spreading.

Ever since the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement came onto the scene, many liberal mouthpieces have proclaimed sites like Facebook, Twitter and their regional variants to be the 21st century equivalent to an AK-47, toppling nasty dictators and exposing corrupt CEO’s and rotten financial practices. Whilst I agree that social media played a part in the rallying and informing the opposition to Mubarak and Goldman Sachs, some serious dangers arise from relying too much on the internet’s equivalent of a text message service.

I think we are all familiar with the ability of governments to censor, or at least monitor, web traffic and take down troublesome websites. The phrase “Great Fire Wall of China” was popping up everywhere a few years ago and the whole controversy over Europe and America’s anti-piracy legislation shows that censorship it is not an exclusively authoritarian pastime.

But these dangers are well known and the opposition to them is active and well entrenched now that these dangers have been made clear. What is often overlooked is the corporate angle.

Virtually all the big and popular social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube) are owned and run by companies whose main goal is to profit from these networks. If you actually read the 'terms of service' most of them have you sign before accessing their services, you woukd see that they give the company carte blanche to remove anything they wish, the guidelines “Don’t harass others, Don’t spread material of a certain nature'' etc. are just that - behavioural guidelines.

They can still delete your account if you become a problem for them. “YouTube reserves the right to decide whether Content violates these Terms of Service for reasons other than copyright infringement, such as, but not limited to, pornography, obscenity, or excessive length.” (1) (The emphasis is my own).

But let us pretend the Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys of the world are saints and that they would never move to censor criticism of them and their companies if it did not violate the stated guidelines, does the problem go away? (For the record I do not think that is true but I also do not believe they are vainglorious tyrants either). No, even if the companies themselves are benevolent, the way they make money principally is through advertising. This means that a lot of other companies also have a vested interest in these platforms.

And with their interest comes the age old problem of advert funded media, “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. It is known that the best way to silence criticism in a newspaper is to pay for a full page advert in the next day’s edition. The same can happen with websites. Look at what happened to Guy Adams, writer for the Independent, his Twitter account was suspended over criticism of NBC’s Olympics coverage (2) .

He eventually got his account restored, but that was due to the controversy surrounding the suspension. The fact that he was a well-known journalist with a major newspaper backing him up certainly helped. If my account (3) was suspended over publicising, say the plight of Colombian workers, I very much doubt I would have a big crowd of people backing me up to have it reinstated.

So what is the solution? If advertisers keep throwing their weight around, in addition to the Government pressure already being used, then these websites will not be the champions of free expression we want them to be. Still, there is an alternative, inspired by the successes these corporate networking sites have had so far. Activists have been developing their own independent networks as an alternative to the increasingly dominated mainstream sites. Relax I’m not talking about a hacker collective; I’m talking about the perfectly legal Unionbook (4).

Unionbook, as the name implies, is a union networking site closely modelled on Facebook. If you have a Facebook account then you will be familiar with most of Unionbook's features. It lets you upload photos, music and videos in addition to having your own page and blog. You can message and befriend other activists as well as join and create groups for like minded people. The only difference is that you have to be in a union (any union from any country) to have an account. You might be wondering what the point of it is. The point is simply this, to create a space on the web for trade unionists (regardless of politics, profession or experience) to come together and share ideas and help one another in our struggles. It was developed by the people behind Labourstart (5) a website which aims to spread news of Labour struggles around the world and provides unions in need with global support.

I believe sites like Unionbook which are free of the constraints that come with the control, or the support, of private and government agencies can be a place for activists to organise and educate each other. Facebook and Twitter’s main strength is their popularity. The more people use them (what they use them for is largely irrelevant) the bigger the impact they can have for good or ill.

Unionbook is currently quite small in terms of membership (currently over 5,000) but its audience is global and its viewpoints varied. Consider signing up to Unionbook. Together we can make the world a better place for all whom toil on it.

1: http://www.youtube.com/static?gl=US&template=terms

2: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/nbcfail-backlash-as-twitter-locks-out-reporter-guy-adams-7987906.html

3: https://twitter.com/#!/Reddebrek

4: http://www.unionbook.org/

5: http://www.labourstart.org/

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