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Let’s Keep The Internet Clean and Free

The entire beauty and ugliness of the world appeared today on Facebook accounts from Romania, proving the huge power of this environment, which we usually disregard.

The fire occurred on October 30 at Colectiv Club in Bucharest killed, until now, 32 young people and caused other 140 victims. The tragedy shook Romania and put it to test in various ways. It tested its health system, its emergency system, the management capacity of civil authorities, and the piety of church authorities. But, most important, it tested the citizens’ humanity and solidarity, as well as their ability to care about other people. The fire occurred on Friday night, when televisions have ended their news programmes and were preparing for the weekend Halloween parties and entertainments.

The first who reacted was the online environment, social networks. Facebook (the most popular social network in Romania, with over 7 billion accounts - almost one third of country’s population) became the main information source and, at the same time, a means of communication among people. The first lists of victims, injured and hospitals where people were taken to, appeared on Facebook. On Facebook, the relatives and friends asked questions and on Facebook, the good and the bad news were circulated. A network aiming at helping the families of the victims, the doctors and nurses who worked in hospitals for days, was also organized on Facebook: the companies mobilized, fruits, water and food were brought, the professional psychological support was concentrated.

The initiative of organising a march of silence, to honour the memory of victims and to protest against corruption in administration that allows the functioning of some ill-equipped clubs, where the distance between life and death is so short. Tens of thousands of people participated in that march - one of the biggest street demonstrations in Bucharest.

On Facebook photos of the club where the tragedy happened, with the burned bodies of victims appeared. A headline that said “You must see the photos of the dead people from Colectiv” - was shared by many users. On Facebook messages like: “It served them right, if they are Satanists and rockers and have fun on Halloween” were published, or the completely inappropriate „jokes” and puns about the „incendiary show”.

The social networks are so intimately part of our lives that we do not think of how public they are. During the tens of training sessions on media literacy I organized within the last few years with high school students from Romania, the issue of social networks occurred constantly. When Romanian young people are asked if they read newspapers, they almost burst into laughter. Newspapers!

Ha! But they are well informed about what is happening around them, they know “the time of the day”. If they are asked what the source of the information is, they quickly answer like to someone who is not in touch with reality. “From Facebook!”.
But try to ask them where exactly on Facebook - silence. Our young people - and I am afraid that many of our adults - have no idea about who is posting in the online environment the information they consider useful and relevant. They do not seem to be interested in the reliability of that source; if it is on the Internet - it is true. They do not seem to be aware that behind every link they share, every photo they use without asking is somebody’s work, sometimes the work of an entire editorial office, an editorial brain and certain costs, especially costs.

Just like they do not know that the Internet has behaviour rules, that laws apply in cyber-space just as in „the real world”.

How should they know if nobody tells them? The Internet is seen as a very useful tool in schools (even if it is used for plagiarism, which does not seem to be such a serious wrongdoing). But the damned allows pupils to say what they want. The main reaction of parents and schools is to try to control, to censor. The pupils I worked with said they were punished for certain posts on Facebook (otherwise innocent, but critical for the school), they were asked to remove them from the blogs or they were threatened with being expelled if they will continue to publicly talk about their life as pupils.

I recently participated in a debate with several movie producers that complained about the high level of piracy, at a global level and asked for severe measures of identification and punishment of those who decrease their incomes this way. The measures ranged from cutting the access to Internet at the simple request of companies holding the rights (I will leave aside the law because it will take long to discuss), to criminal cases for users and limiting the transfer speed, in order to make illicit transfers longer and more boring. All these measures tell a very harsh storey: where there a major economic interest exists, the industry will move to protect it. Therefore, we will witness “privatization of police and/or justice” regarding the copyright and we will see that punishment efforts are much more supported than education ones.

We have a single way of maintaining the Internet space clean and free: to teach the users how to use it. They have to know that the rules of journalism - to tell facts as you know them, to prevent deliberate harming and to express your opinion honestly - are valid not only for journalists, but for everyone who has access to communication in the public space. We must tell them that complete freedom does not exist, that rules are adopted to be observed. That theft is theft, if you steal an egg or pixels. That the work is work and it should be respected, even if its result is “exclusively” virtual. They also have to know that if they obtained through technology such a huge power, they shall respect it, doubling it by being responsible.

They should receive these rules at the same time with the Internet subscription. Or, even better, in school, when they learn to write, to read or to calculate. Because these rules are part of “life skills” too.

executive director of the Center for Independent Journalism from Romania

This material is published within the project "Freedom of expression and media development in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and South Caucasus", implemented by CIJ during the period May-September 2015, supported by Deutsche Welle Akademie and financed by German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The opinions expressed in this material belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the financer’s opinion.