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Internet in Chile: Creating New Political Actors?

Co-authored by Mary Joyce and Rosario Lizana

Why has Chile, a country of only 16 million people where only 10% have internet in their homes, become a hotbed of cyberactivism? We know that the answer is not related to the tool, it is related to what is done with the tool and with the social consequences produced. This article is a mixture of the opinions of Chileans involved in activism, examples related to the fields of technology and education, cases of cyber-activism and some history of Chilean technology.

In the past few months, Chile has witnessed several instances of citizens using the internet, particularly blogs, to affect social change. These actions are different from other forms of internet activism, like Amnesty International's Irrepressible campaign or MoveOn.org ‘s efforts to influence the senatorial campaign in Connecticut. These actions were realized by large organizations. However, events in Chile mark a new type of internet activism in which individual citizens who use the internet as a low-cost mechanism to publicize a message, attract allies, and collaboratively plan and execute actions.

The most noteworthy example of this individual-led internet activism is that of the thousands of Chilean students who went on strike around the country and staged rallies demanding the removal of fees for college entrance exams. Many high schools set up photoblogs to show their affiliation with the campaign and to disseminate information, such as the times and locations of rallies. The work of individual webmasters was key in spreading information in this decentralized campaign, which resulted in the government raising the education budget by $200 million.

When a homeless poet in Chile's capital, Santiago, was taken to a mental hospital against his will, the people in his neighborhood campaigned for his release by starting a blog (ES) which informed the public about the case, called for meetings and was used to organize a protest in front of the mental hospital where the man was being held. Supporters also used Flickr.com, a photo-sharing site, to post photos of the man, who calls himself “the Antichristo.” Two days later, the man was freed.

Chile is also the home of Atina Chile (ES) , a unique web-based organization that uses the internet as a tool for active citizenship. The site has 30,000 members, many with blogs hosted on the site. Atina Chile provides a home for citizen-led projects and also offers the expert advice to social entrepreneurs.

Do these instances of internet activism in Chile amount to a significant social movement? Not yet. Currently, these activists represent only a vanguard, the early adopters of the internet as the individual's tool for social change. According to a recent report released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), 28% of Chileans are frequent internet users and among young people in their teens and early twenties, the percentage is closer to 85%. However, these users are not going online to change society. They are going online to chat, send e-mail, find news, do school work, and download music. Nevertheless, these habits could change soon. Although most Chilean internet surfers do not use the internet for political activism, they do see the political possibilities of the internet. According to the same UNDP survey, 39% of frequent users think the internet can increase the ability of public campaigns to influence decision-makers. How long before this mass perception will lead to an increase in political action?

There is another connection between internet use and internet activism: the latter cannot exist without the former. If you do not know how to use a blog, you will be unable to use a blog to create social change. However, if you have already mastered the blog's traditional uses as an online diary or a self-published op-ed column, you are in the position to innovate by creating new blog uses. In a questionnaire sent out to bloggers involved in the student protests, almost all had a blog or photoblog before they began blogging about the student movements. According to one blogger:

“I [already] had my own blog and photoblog, but when the movements began they invited me to create a blog about the student movements, dedicated to informing the students in my school.”

Internet expertise is the necessary foundation for internet activism.

What factors have made Chile a fertile environment for internet activism? The history of the internet in Chile is fairly short. Introduced in 1992 by Florencio Utrera, a mathematician at the University of Chile (ES), the internet spread quickly due to a healthy mixture of the free market and government intervention. Deregulation of the telecommunications market removed barriers to the creation of digital networks and encouraged companies to compete over prices and service. However, the government did not just stand by and watch. In 1996 the Subministery Telecommunications cut the cost of dial-up in half by mandating that a minute of the internet cost only 50% of a regular voice minute over the telephone. Around the same time, the government put a limited number of internet-connected computers in every school in the country through the Enlaces (ES)program and government entities, like the Library of Congress, began offering internet training to NGO's, government officials, and businesses.

Towards the end of the nineties the internet was a popular source of information and communication, but a new medium was about to arrive on the scene that would further expand the internet's uses. That tool was the weblog. According to Leo Prieto (ES) , ” Chilean blogging really exploded between 1999 and 2000. Although teen photobloggers make up a large percentage of the total, blogging in Chile is not limited to a particular age, class, or geographic area. This is partially due to the efforts of Atina Chile, which has held dozens of blogging workshops around the country to teach people how to use the internet to express themselves.

However, “self expression” does not fully capture the importance of blogging in the history of internet activism. Previous forms of self-expression, like e-mail and instant messaging have allowed people to use the internet as a communication network. Suddenly the internet was not just a communication network or source of information, it was a platform for personal creation and public self-definition.

Blogging is necessarily an active and entrepreneurial enterprise, so it is no surprise that the first grassroots internet campaign in Chile came out of the blogging community. That campaign was “Mi Primer PC, pero de verdad! ” (ES) (My first computer, but for real!), which was launched in 2005. It was a reaction to a public-private initiative, Mi Primer PC, which was backed by President Lagos and aimed to provide low-priced computers to poor Chileans. However, bloggers objected to the use of proprietary software (as opposed to open source), which increased the cost of the computers by 20%, as well as the limited functionality of the systems. What began as a discussion among bloggers became an active campaign to change the Mi Primer PC program, including an online petition with over 11,000 signatures, an official website, blog badges, and in-person lobbying with government officials in charge of the program.

With regard to its stated goal, the campaign was only a partial success. It succeeded in killing the original Mi Primer PC program, but was unable to replace it with anything better. However, as a milestone in grassroots internet activism in Chile the campaign was extremely significant. The campaign, which was covered extensively in the mainstream media, demonstrated that the internet could act as a launchpad for real-world social change. The Mi Primer PC protest campaign increased the public's perception of capacities of the internet. Whether consciously or not, Mi Primer PC affected the decision of the students to use the internet as a tool in their campaign for higher quality education. Their consciousness of the internet had changed. It was not only a source of entertainment and a way to chat with friends. It was also a way to change their world. For an isolated country as Chile, internet also allows to have more world net participations and internal connectivity.

The internet is increasing the power of the individual. In the past you needed a rebel army to change the status quo. Then you needed a pre-existing network with man-power and resources. We are arriving at a time when any individual will be able to use the internet to bring attention to her concern, gather allies, and collaboratively plan and execute actions. A world of individuals each with the tools necessary to change the world.

5 comments

  • […] …o al menos eso es lo que nos propone la periodista Rosario Lizana en Global Voices Online: …La campaña (MPPCDV) – que tuvo una amplia cobertura por parte de los medios – demostró que Internet podía actuar como un catalizador de cambios sociales hacia el mundo real. […]

  • As I read, there’s two errors on your article, about the “My First Computer… but for real!” campaign.

    1. “It succeeded in killing the original Mi Primer PC program, but was unable to replace it with anything better.” That is not true. “Mi primer PC” is now working as “Mi PC” (My Computer) and is releasing new models at low prices. And the “My First Computer… but for real!” finishes with an alternative called “Nuestro PC” (Our Computer), that initially gives a full featured machine, with open source software, even cheaper than “My Computer”.

    2. Based on the previous point, “My First Computer… but for real!” didn’t have the original intention of “kill” “My Computer” or give an alternative to it. But the bloggers though that was necessary to give “solutions” based on the original campaign. And the use of propietary software was only the first point on the discussion.

    Finally, “My Computer” initiative, in my particular point of view, far as be an initiative to close the digital breach, was a business between Microsoft, Intel and the chilean department stores to give them the chance of sell products that was impossible to sell on the professional’s market, such as Celeron processors and Windows Starter Edition, with a 6 months warranty.

    If you can go to a chilean department store, you can see what the sellers think about “My First Computer”.

  • Interesting article, but I must address an important correction.

    The ‘Mi Primer PC Pero de Verdad’ campaign DOES NOT kill (and it wasn’t a goal neither) the original Mi Primer PC program as stated. In fact, they sold over 41 million dolars.

    At the same time, the MPPCDV campaign INDEED DOES present a superior alternative to MPPC, although it wasn’t one of its initial goals neither. The alternative – called Nuestro PC – not only had nation wide sales, but was the first time in Chile that the consumers join corporations to create a low-cost computer.

    You can find more information (in spanish) about this topic on the first trackback of this post. Thanks!

  • Hi, I am one of the co-authors of this article. Sorry that I was unclear in my comments about Mi Primer PC. What I meant was that the government did not accept the Nuestro PC proposal.

  • […] users, young and old, how to participate in the new media ecology, they will remind Chile’s established digerati that there is so much more to their country than the upper-middle class neighborhoods of […]

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