The Committee to Protect Bloggers, a now defunct U.S. organization that monitored bloggers who found themselves in danger, kept track of the various forms of intimidation and suppression. Curt Hopkins, who was the group’s director, says there are three basic methods that countries employ to suppress bloggers: technical filtering, the law, and direct intimidation. Though it is fairly easy to track down bloggers using IP addresses, bloggers have an easier time evading the authorities than do journalists working for a newspaper. “When it comes to shutting down a publication, it’s pretty easy,” says Hopkins. “You just send some goons with baseball bats and suddenly you don’t have a publication. It’s that simple. Also it’s easier to find people because they are in the offices when you come to arrest them. And though it’s true that if you have enough money and time, you can find almost anyone, you’ve got to remember that most governments don’t have enough money and enough time.” Abdulhamid, the Syrian blogger who continued to update his blog every day, even while the state police were interrogating him, also noticed such limitations. “During my interrogation, I saw that, one, most security apparatus really don’t have access to the Internet; two, they don’t know how to use that technology very well to begin with, even if they did have access.” Still, enough bloggers have either been arrested or, as in Abdulhamid’s case, had their lives threatened, for the fear to be well founded.
Last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah was a defining moment for the Arab blogosphere, when all the elements of the online world that had been building for the previous two or three years suddenly were put to the test in what became widely known as “the most-blogged war.” In such a crisis, when entrenchment and nationalistic devotion tend to trump openness and self-criticism, the Arab blogs could easily have lost their unique flavor. But they didn’t. And the blogosphere only strengthened one of its more interesting liberalizing functions: acting as a frequency of communication between Arabs and Israelis.
For the first time, the phenomenon gained some attention in the West. How could it not? There was something revolutionary in the notion of an Israeli woman huddling in a bomb shelter in Haifa instant-messaging a Lebanese man whose family was planning its escape to Damascus, even while Katyusha rockets and bombers flew overhead. “While two countries were at war, people were live-blogging it and talking about it in real time with each other,” says Michael J. Totten, a prominent American blogger who has edited a book of blog posts from the war and traveled widely in the Middle East. “There has never been anything like that in the American blogosphere, nor in any two countries that I’m aware of in the world ever.” Totten had lived in Beirut and knew what it meant for the two sides to be talking in this way. “It was encouraging for me to see this,” he said. “Because on the Lebanese side the standard line is that Israel is the enemy, full stop. And it is actually illegal for any Lebanese citizens to have any contact whatsoever with an Israeli citizen. It is treason. But most of the people in the Lebanese blogosphere were having none of it.”
The blogs did what they do best. First, you had full descriptions from individuals of their experience under the bombardment, both physical and psychological: an Israeli blogger named Gavriel, for one, tried to give a face to the Israeli army then moving north into Lebanon. “We know these soldiers,” he wrote. “They’re all of our kids — for some of us literally so. We’ve known them since they were little. They’ve grown up in front of us, we’ve watched how they were raised. We’ve watched them shoot hoops, and play games in the street. We’ve bought cotton candy from their neighborhood stands … . They’re not killers but defenders, the best we’ve got.” Or there was Lebanese Lady, writing, “What I feel now, as a citizen, and what everyone feels is disappointment, anger, anxiety, frustration. We’re scared and locked up at home. War came in a day. War in one day. All the books I’ve read about war, the daily news on Afghanistan and Iraq, how we were saying ‘how terrible the situation was in Gaza’ — and now I’m living it.”