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The internet’s new billion

New web users — in countries like Brazil and China — are changing the culture of the internet.

Some observers say this difference has political consequences. “Many of the local companies provide far better service than the likes of Google and Facebook in those markets,” said Evgeny Morozov, a digital technology researcher at Stanford University. “But also those local websites are much easier to censor because the corporate entities behind those sites all have some domestic presence.”

Morozov is author of an up-coming book “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” and he said there’s a dark side to be found in the internet’s new billion, too. Because poorer users resort to more centralized methods for getting online — cybercafes, cell-phone towers — their activity will be much easier to monitor.

“The fact that so much of this is happening in cybercafes and mobile devices actually empowers the government because those two things are much easier to control than a desktop computer in your house,” Morozov said.

Morozov is also skeptical of notions that greater diversity of cultures online will lead to more cultural dialogue. “There is very little interaction between communities and it’s not because the tools are lacking. It’s just that modern-day Indians and modern-day Russians have nothing to talk about most of the time,” he said. “There may simply be no demand for joining that global village.”

More optimistic web scholars argue there will be cultural conversations, but bridging the gaps between communities will take effort. “The internet has become a bunch of interlinked but linguistically distinct and culturally specific spaces,” said Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “There’s some interface between them but there’s a lot less than there was years back when we were sort of pretending that this was one great global space.”

Instead of becoming the world’s biggest tool for cultural exchange, Zuckerman said the web could become its principal medium for mutual misunderstanding. “We’re mostly talking to people like ourselves rather than talking across cultural boundaries,” Zuckerman said. “And when we do cross cultural boundaries, it’s often in a way where we’re overhearing something that really pisses us off.”

Take for example the 2005 scandal after a Danish newspaper posted cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, sparking riots across the Muslim world. Zuckerman said such incidents may become routine. “It’s a problem of unseen audiences,” he said. “We always have to be aware there are other audiences out there listening, and they’re particularly listening for mentions of themselves.”

For a more amusing and recent online snafu, Zuckerman prefers citing a topic that went viral on the micro-blogging site Twitter this summer. The topic, the Brazilian Portuguese phrase “Cala boca, Galvao,” was mysterious to many English-speaking users. Asked to explain, a few mischievous Brazilians claimed the Galvao was a rare Amazon bird being slaughtered to extinction for its colorful feathers. For everyone who re-tweeted the phrase, so the pranksters claimed, 10 cents would be donated to a global effort to save the bird.

The encouragement helped catapult the phrase into the ranks of Twitter’s top-trending topics, or most-repeated phrases worldwide last June. But in reality, Galvao was the first name of Galvao Bueno, a Brazilian sports commentator on the Globo network, whose pronouncements during the World Cup had irritated many of his compatriots. In Brazilian Portuguese, “Cala boca” roughly means, “shut up.”

“There’s an entirely different conversation going on that’s so incomprehensible to Americans that the Brazilians make fun of us when we try to understand,” Zuckerman said. “In many ways that sort of characterizes for me what’s going on with the contemporary ‘net.'”

But Zuckerman still believes virtual borders can be crossed. In 2005, he co-founded Global Voices, an aggregator and translator of blogs from around the world, in part to help the next billion web users communicate.

“These billion users are sort of proxy for the global middle class,” he said. “They’re an increasing economic force, an increasing cultural force, and they are the people we need to negotiate with and have a conversation with if we want to address problems like climate change.”

In the run-down Engenho da Rainha neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, some of the LAN house customers seemed more interested in using the web to play games than solve the world’s problems.

One wiry teen in a blue baseball cap barely glanced away from his screen to answer questions. “I’ll spend all day, all night on the internet if I’m allowed,” said Carlos Wallace Cruz, 16. “I’d say I’m 98 percent addicted.”

Cruz’s drug of choice isn’t likely to ring a bell with Americans his age. It’s a video game available only on Orkut, a Google social networking site, wildly popular in Brazil and India but less so in the United States.

When a visitor asked if he ever spent time on Orkut’s much more famous rival site, Cruz responded with earnest puzzlement.

“What’s Facebook?” he asked.