Nathan Freitas Responds To Douglas Rushkoff | Digital Nation | FRONTLINE | PBS
digital nation - life on the virtual frontier

Nathan Freitas responds to Douglas Rushkoff


Nathan Freitas

My activist work is very focused on bringing the net into the streets, so to speak. I've always had a strong interest in mobile technology, going way back to when I used to try and build my own walkie talkie radios, as a kid. The converge of net and mobile as a mainstream technology has mean that people physically out in the streets (or on the mountain, as is this case with the story below), can be just as tapped into the power and effect of the net, as someone sitting in front of their computer at home. Here's one case of that, which I was involved in making happen.

In spring 2007, one year out from the Beijing Olympics and its global torch relay, China was preparing climbers to take the Olympic torch to the top of Mt. Everest, in order to claim the mountain as their own in front of the world. For Tibetans, this was a terrible insult, heaped on top of all the other political whitewashing and cultural exploitation that was going on there in the lead up to the games. Tenzin Dorjee ("Tendor"), a young Tibetan born in exile and the Director of Students for a Free Tibet, decided to risk his personal freedom, and travel to the Everest basecamp to stage a protest. Unfortunately, that is a location which is about as remote as you can get, at that time under guard by Chinese military, without even guaranteed cell phone coverage. We knew however, that to have an impact and to safeguard Tendor, we needed a way to get footage of the protest out to the world as fast as possible.

Fortunately, the cost of satellite-based net connections have dropped dramatically in recent years, mostly due to the high use by news, humanitarian and military organizations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I was able to work with Tendor to put together a very affordable and lightweight system that used a satellite modem, laptop and consumer digital video camera setup which could run off battery and solar power. More importantly, we found the right team, willing to take the risk and capable of both mountaineering and tech geekery, because not only would this be a highly sophisticated endeavor, it would also need to be pulled off in the thin air of Tibet.

After traveling for a few days, Tendor was able to make it to Everest and stage his protest, which including a moving speech, the lighting of a Tibetan torch and singing of Tibetan national anthem, all in range of the Chinese camp. They were quickly arrested by the armed military guards in the area and taken away in land rovers for interrogation. Fortunately, Tendor's media support team was able to beam his protest in real-time back to SFT offices in New York, where the protest quickly moved from the real world onto the net. The footage was immediately uploaded to YouTube, released online as downloadable MPEG-4s, and burned onto DVDs that were given to the Associated Press. Blog posts and press releases were published. Social networks and email lists were alerted. The Everest team had been in detention for barely a few hours, yet over 50,000 people around the world had already experienced Tendor's protest directly, and understand the great risk he and the others had taken.

Over the next few days, Tendor and the team were taken through various detention centers on the Tibetan plateau, faced intense interrogation and even had their lives threatened. They were lost to the world for those days with no official information released by the Chinese authorities. The video had made it to the front page of YouTube (in the days where 100,000 views was enough), been covered by blogs including BoingBoing.net, and picked up by major news outlets, with the footage showing internationally on CNN, BBC, VOA, Al Jazeera and local NBC and FOX affiliates in Boston, San Francisco, New York and across the country. Eventually, the late US. Senator Ted Kennedy became personally involved (Tendor's family lives in Boston), and the U.S. State Department began putting tough pressure on the Chinese government to release the protestors (all American citizens). Finally, they were taken to the China-Nepal border, released, and told never to return to China.

Ultimately, the use of the net in this protest allowed for Tendor to take the ultimate risk, while knowing in his heart and mind, that the world would know what he had done almost instantly. In addition, in a media world built on sound bites and story hooks, the idea of "this just happened now on Mt. Everest" helped captivate netizens, sell the story to mainstream media, and garner the support and attention needed to activate our own government representatives before it was too late. In the coming months, every mention of the Chinese Olympic ascent up Everest also mentioned the "Tibet Protest" as the counterpoint to the story. News of the protest spread through Tibet thanks to official shortwave and satellite broadcasts of RFA and VOA Tibet, as well as just word of mouth of "The Tibetan Who Protested on Everest".

Throughout history, untold numbers of activists and dissidents have taken similar risks without the benefit of the net to get their backs, to spread their words, to amplify their cause. That in no way should diminish the nobleness of their acts, but instead, only prove the value that the net has brought to people such as Tendor.

Just search "Everest Protest" on YouTube to see it for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=everest+protest&aq=f

posted February 2, 2010

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

Series funding by: Macarthur Foundation
Park Foundation
and Viewers Like You.

Digital Nation is brought to you by the Verizon Foundation

Verizon Foundation