A Nobel Peace Prize for the Internet?

by Larry Magid

It’s an odd concept but there is a movement to nominate “the Internet” for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

There’s even a Web site, InternetForPeace.org, to advocate that the “Nobel Peace Prize should go to the Net. A Nobel for each and every one of us.”

There are some heavyweights behind the idea, including Iranian human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, fashion designer Giorgio Armani and Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab and One Laptop per Child.

The group has a “manifesto,” arguing that “digital culture has laid the foundations for a new kind of society. And this society is advancing dialogue, debate and consensus through communication.” The Internet, it says, “is a tool for peace” and “anyone who uses it can sow the seeds of nonviolence.”

I’m not sure if it’s possible for something as amorphous as the Internet to win the $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize, but the nomination is certainly thought-provoking. The Internet is indeed a unifying force that brings people together, helps activists fight oppression and provides enormous possibilities for communications and global understanding.

It’s the way that people in the United States can learn about what is happening in the Middle East directly from people who live in that region. And despite China’s “Great Firewall,” the Internet helps activists in that country reach across oceans and across their own country to fight censorship and oppression.

The Net is also a tool for gay, lesbian and transgender people to provide one another support and encouragement and combat isolation. And it has been used to prevent suicides, counsel against drug abuse, and encourage countless laudable and even heroic acts by people all over the world.

One company, Global Hosted Operating System, uses the Internet and videoconferencing to link its two offices — one in Jerusalem and the other across the fence in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

But despite all those points in the plus column, there are some aspects of the Internet that seem as contradictory as the career of the prize’s founder, Alfred Nobel, a pacifist who was also the inventor of dynamite and nitroglycerin.

The Internet has been a boon to collectors of illegal child pornography, purveyors of hate sites, and millions of annoying, angry and not-so-peaceful “flame wars,” via e-mail, chat, forums and social networking sites.

Ernie Allen, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (whose board I’m on), has repeatedly pointed out that postal inspectors had all but eliminated child pornography until the Internet made it easy for criminals to disseminate these images. The Anti-Defamation League’s Web site has an entire section devoted to Internet hate sites.

Bullying has been around forever, but cyberbullying is making it all too easy to harass people 24/7. Just last week, a study by two researchers at Iowa State University found that 54 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth had been cyberbullied within 30 days of the study. Other studies have shown that as many as 30 percent of all American teens have suffered some type of cyberbullying.

Chatroulette.com could be cited for or against the Net getting a peace prize. On the plus side, it brings people from around the world together for a spontaneous online video conversation. I’m sure the Nobel committee would be pleased how easy it is for users to engage fellow global citizens who live on other continents. Unfortunately, a significant percentage of these global citizens seem to be engaged in activities that are more gross than noble.

If the Nobel committee ever did decide to give a prize to the Net, there probably would be a war over who would pick it up. Would it be early pioneers from the late ’60s like Vincent Cerf, Leonard Kleinrock, Robert Kahn or Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited for inventing the World Wide Web in 1990?

Maybe it should be Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who created a platform that, so far, links 400 million people around the world. Perhaps it should be Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, who have given a 140-character platform to activists around the globe.

They could give it to Al Gore, who reportedly once said, “I took the initiative in creating the Internet,” but he already has a Nobel Peace Prize.

This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

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