open letters shame corporates for their complicity in china

It's good to see that Isaac Mao's Open Letter to Google Founders has got a lot of attention. The basic message is that Google is losing big time because of it's compromise with the Chinese authorities, and it really hits home to have this said by a prominent Chinese blogger. I'm sure there's been similar rumblings inside Google itself for a long time - even back in July last year Google co-founder Sergey Brin admitted that the company had compromised its principles by launching a censored search engine in China, and when he was challenged at this year's WEF in Davos he said "On a business level, that decision to censor... was a net negative."
At the end of his letter Mao makes 3 recommendations - the most interesting to me is the second that called on Google to "develop anti-censorship tools and service for global Internet users". This reminded me of a great post by Greg Walton asking Can Google afford privacy? which lays out the case for doing exactly that. Greg brings together two facts - that Google one of the most powerful supercomputing platforms in the world, and existence of Tor, a distributed network that anonymizes web browsing. As he says

Suppose Google were to install Tor's Onion Routers throughout its serverfarms. Global internet users communications would bounce around anonymously in a massive distributed network of virtual tunnels. It would be unprecendented in scale, a network that would open up the internet to people in censored regimes all around the world. It would enable a generation of software developers to create new communication tools with privacy built-in. The Google platform running onion routers would provide an ecosystem for a range of applications that allow organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their identity.

Too right! Although these days, i think more people would question whether Google could be trusted to run a service like this.

Isaac's letter to Google is a worthy missive, but its topped for sheer force and raw impact by Liu Xiaobo's Open Letter to Jerry Yang, Chairman of Yahoo! Inc., which appears as an appendix to the Human Rights Watch report “Race to the Bottom” - Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship. His letter contrasts the careers and fates of Jerry Yang and the journalist Shi Tao, who was imprisoned with the help of documentation that Yahoo provided to the Chinese authorities.
As he says
Shi TaoShi Tao

In my view, what Yahoo! has done is exchange power for money, i.e. to win business profit by engaging in political cooperation with China’s police. Regardless of the reason for this action, and regardless of what kinds of institutions are involved, once Yahoo! complies with the CCP to deprive human rights, what it does is no longer of a business nature, but of a political nature. It cannot be denied that China’s Internet control itself is part of its politics, and a despotic politics as well. Therefore, the “power for money” exchange that takes place between western companies like Yahoo! and the CCP not only damages the interests of customers like Shi Tao, but also damages the principles of equality and transparency, the rules that all enterprises should abide by when engaging in free trade. And it follows that if Yahoo! gains a bigger stake in the Chinese market by betraying the interests of its customers, the money it makes is “immoral money”, money made from the abuse of human rights.

I've personally heard unconvincing excuses from the representatives of such corporates as Google and Yahoo, and Liu Xiaobo’s letter from the heart speaks for me too.

participative campaigning

'Help us design a direct action to save the whales' is the challenge from this interesting “Defend the whales” campaign from Greenpeace, called I-GO. Although the campaign theme is traditional the process is very different, because it is an open invitation to the public to generate the ideas for the campaign. This looks like a a major NGO trying to engage with the participative nature of the internet, and it's refreshing to see such a big organisation inviting the public to have a say instead of relying on central planning that gets pushed out to activists and volunteers. It's also a forward-looking attempt to harness the power of social networks, since people who register become part of 'a world-wide community of environmental activists' and can rate the action ideas. I think I heard about the underlying technology platform when it was being developed (codenamed 'Melt', as i remember) so it's great to see it live and with such a well designed front-end.greenpeace-igogreenpeace DIY campaign
There's an even more rock'n'roll example of participative campaigning described in detail in Yochai Benkler's book 'The Wealth of Networks' . In a section entitled Networked Information Economy Meets the Public Sphere he describes the emergence from the blogosphere of an effective grassroots campaign against a mass-media outlet (Sinclair Broadcasting) who was transmitting negative propaganda during an election campaign. As Benkler says:
Filtering and synthesis occurred through discussion, trial, and error. Multiple proposals for action surfaced, and the practice of linking allowed most anyone interested who connected to one of the nodes in the network to follow quotations and references to get a sense of the broad range of proposals. Different people could coalesce on different modes of action - 150,000 signed the petition on, while others began to work on the boycott. Setting up the mechanism was trivial, both technically and as a matter of cost - something a single committed individual could choose to do.Pointing and adoption provided the filtering, and feedback about the efficacy, again distributed through a system of cross-references, allowed for testing and accreditation of this course of action.
benkler-chartSinclair stock correlated with campaign

Benkler's blow-by-blow account is really worth a read and conveys the dynamism of self-organised direct action. I guess this is the creativity that Greenpeace wants to tap in to. Although their site says "We need your help to create an amazing campaign that accomplishes the unexpected" it's not clear if the organisation is committing itself to acting on any of the ideas. And maybe that's for the best, because the result seems to be a peer-to-peer swapping of ideas and materials via the site.

Another interesting lesson from Benkler's example is the way that certain well-connected blogs acted as key nodes:
High-visibility sites....offered transmissions hubs that disseminated information about the various efforts and provided a platform for interest-group-wide tactical discussions.

Benkler's further discussion about the connectivity of the blogosphere is nicely visualised in recent blogosphere graphs on Matthew Hurst's 'Data Mining' blog . I suspect that a campaign that's seeking well-formed action ideas would do well to target their call to action through well-connected blogs that reflect the campaign's concerns.

mass digging as virtual activism

Last week I suggested to my work that, as an experiment, we add a 'Digg this' button to some of our content. I was also thinking about how we could go a step further and ask our activist network to digg human rights stories that we urgently want to bring to peoples' attention. This made me wonder about the ethics of Digg 'gaming', as i'd recently stumbled on a story about a possible Digg scam on Jason Calacanis's blog, and the Digg site refers to recent Digging Fraud for which certain user accounts were banned. It turns out that Digg fraud has had a lot of recent attention, partly because of an article called 'The big Digg rig' on CNET news.
Luckily there are sensible voices out there who put Digg gaming in its proper perspective, such as Joshua Porter who points out that 'any successful (social) site sees its share of gaming' and declares that so-called mainstream media and government are equally susceptible via lobbying by Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Insurance. (Joshua also has an interesting write-up of why 'the design of conspires to make it haven for gaming' ). So I think that like Copyblogger I'll back compelling content and suggest that encouraging activist digging is a legitimate way to play the Digg game.
p.s. My quick scan of some top global NGO's only turned up one example of a site using a 'Digg this' button, at Oxfam GB, but I'd be interested to hear about others.

an open source Second Life?

Are we on the way to an open source version of Second Life? A press release by the Free Software Foundation just announced support for the Free Ryzom campaign (, which plans to purchase the online game and universe known as Ryzom from the bankrupt Nevrax company and release the entire game as free software.
"A fully free MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) engine and client/server architecture would allow the development of a myriad of universes, each one evolving its own philosophy and unique content - but sharing in general technical improvements. If successful, this campaign would allow any user to create their own universe and produce their own content based on the Ryzom/Nevrax architecture".
ryzomryzom Maybe I'm getting the wrong end of the stick, but this sounds like it could be a move on the way to an open version of Second Life, which I think would be great. I'm pretty uncomfortable with a virtual world who's founding principle is property development, and I sometimes find it disturbing to read the SL blogs where people discuss their relationship to the SL 'gods' (i.e. the owners, Linden Labs). Nonetheless I'm pretty keen on Second Life because I reckon it has that quality that Jonathan Zittrain calls 'generativity' . So the sooner we get truly open virtual worlds, the better.

UCLA Student Tasered: is YouTube a human rights tool?

Here's an example I picked up from Global Voices that shows the power of YouTube to reach a mass audience with a human rights story. It shows University of California police officers repeatedly using a taser gun on an Iranian-American student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, in the Powell Library at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).
Its pretty harrowing to sit through the whole clip (especially the audio). Incredibly, the video got 425 000 viewings in 6 days, which is off the scale by comparison with the readership of most human rights briefings.
The question for human rights organisations is how to take advantage of this immense interest. Even if only a small percentage of those visitors go on to take some action it'd be a big boost for any campaign.
Of course, out of that many people you're going to get a seriously wide range of responses - many or most would be disturbed, some outraged - but some might think it's completely justified. There was a disturbing illustration of this in the vox pop interviews in the Daily Bruin news report (the local student news channel) which is also on YouTube. Several of the students say stuff to the effect that 'well, what do you expect if you don't show you're ID card when the police demand it'. Is this the culture of an ID-based society; where any objection to a demand (e.g. because of perceived racial targetting) is sufficiently deviant to justify cruel & inhuman treatment?
p.s. Wikipedia has a useful page on the 'UCLA Taser incident'.

Human Rights at the Internet Governance Forum

I went to the first Internet Governance Forum in Athens with a certain amount of dread. Although I was happy to be heading up the Amnesty delegation, my experience at WSIS in Tunis left me with the abiding impression that most states and commercial entities would be happy to roll back rights & freedoms in the online space unless constantly pressed. However, somewhat to my amazement, human rights were a headline theme for the whole of the IGF and were raised over and over again by civil society participants. When we intervened in the Openness Session on Day 2 it triggered a debate about Internet censorship and corporate complicity in China, which was widely covered in the media. This debate included a jaw dropping moment when the head of the Chinese delegation completely denied that there was any internet censorship in China (check out the full transcipt of the debate).

In most of the panels I attended there was a sense of confusion about how to set global standards for Internet governance when faced with various threats (security, pornography) or when states pose cultural reasons to justify censorship. Many of us pointed out that key global standards don't need to be re-invented because they are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , to which states are already committed. Many participants seemed unaware that there are limited exceptions to deal with genuine threats, as long as the exceptions are applied in a specific, proportionate and concrete way.

I'm hoping that the internet governance processes can use the UDHR to prevent the net from becoming a collection of censored national enclosures and instead reinstate it as a protected international space for free expression and free flow of information and ideas.

At the IGFAt the IGF

Oh yes, and I got to hand in the petition for the campaign to Nitin Desai (UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser for Internet Governance). So a big thanks to him and especially to Markus Kummer, the Executive Coordinator of the IGF, who arranged the whole thing.

mashups on the frontline

Dirk Voorhoof was kind enough to send me a copy of the FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION vs. COPYRIGHT presentation I blogged about earlier . This also quotes the US Supreme Court decision allowing the 2 Live Crew Parody of 'Oh pretty woman'. I remembered Joichi Ito making a comment about remixing at the Internet Governance Forum; a trawl back came up with this inspiring quote (via Intellectual Property Watch ); “Ito added that the editing of multimedia has become an essential part of social discourse in the United States, and that “being able to share and remix video and music is vital” to political debate. But he said copyright law is interfering with political commentary by preventing the use of video material. “I think we’re inhibiting an entirely new form of free speech,” he said”.
Well, i think that nails it - all this mixing and mashing is the emergent free speech of our times.
can dialectics break bricks?can dialectics break bricks?
But of course, this is a mode of counter-hegemonic expression with a pedigree. As Lawrence Liang points out in the The Black and White (and Grey) of Copyright , the Situationist International were putting this in to practice in the 1960's and 70's (and he reckons they were inspired by the late romantic poet Lautréamont!)
[Note 1] For a Human Rights geek like myself, it's doubly cool that mashups are the frontline of of expression, because I reckon that technology mashups are the current tech trend with the biggest potential for online activism.
[Note 2] For a good example of a Situationist mashup (aka detournement), check out "Can Dialectics Break Bricks?" by René Viénet.

Copyright versus Campaigning

I caught a great presentation at the Internet Governance Forum called FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION vs. COPYRIGHT given by Dirk Voorhoof . The folk at my day job are good enough at spotting traditional censorship i.e. direct repression by governments, but one of the main things I wanted from the IGF was to sharpen up on how copyright impacts freedom of expression. Dirk's presentation hit the spot by showing how copyright is used as a tool to inhibit campaigning, by harassing groups like Greenpeace when they use something similar to a logo or brand to criticise a corporate through parody or imitation. This also seems to me a great way to get the message through to traditional campaigning NGO's that copyright is a key issue. oil logosoil logos The other great aspect of Dirk's presentation was the image he conjoured up of a titanic clash between two legal regimes, namely Intellectual Property Rights versus Human Rights. As he put it, we need to decide between "Copyright/trademark protection as a principle and freedom of expression as an exception or Freedom of expression as a principle and copyright/trademark protection as exceptions".

WDM Death Counter

Under the slogan "Don't forget the real world" the World Development Movement (WDM) have placed a large death counter in a prominent place in ‘Second Life’ . The digital counter records the number of children who have died as a result of preventable global poverty since Second Life was founded.

WDM Death Counter

WDM Death Counter

I respect the WDM for getting it together to do this. And yes, I can relate to the frustration - "don't these people realise we need to get out there and do something". But i think their Death Counter comes across as preachy, with that musty old school NGO feel, and doesn't see the positive, activist potential in the creativity that goes in to Second Life stuff. Surely there must be more creative ways to intervene there; for example, the virtual Camp Darfur which I blogged about before . Despite the controversy around Camp Darfur in Second Life, it's hard to imagine WDM's Death Counter being guarded by the Green Lantern Core . Now that the novelty of SL is starting to wear off, I think any NGO going in to SL has to offer something constructive that takes advantage of the creative and (dare i say it) playful nature of the space.

hiphop and the policy department

I've come across several inspiring hiphop links recently, especially through Ethan Zuckerman's blog where he features the street kids from Recife and their downloadable Ciudad de Rima” (City of Rhyme) CD, and the Palestine Lyrical Front who are featured in the Slingshot documentary (see also this online playlist ). slingshot-rappersslingshot-rappers I've had a listen to both and I recommend them.
There's also the UK-based Life MC who's tracks you can listen to on Zebra Traffic's audio page . Life MC works with Sabatikal who are trying to take the human rights message to the youth via music, graphics and gaming. And some MC's are prepared to back their lyrics with action, such as the Finnish anarchist MC Henrik "Iso H" Rosenberg who was jailed in March for refusing military service.
I'd really like to see a human rights organisation expand in to hiphop, especially as it's music that's thriving in parts of the world where human rights work is really urgent. Of course, as David from Sabatikal says, established organisations would needs to find a way to deal with the rawness of hiphop lyrics, which certainly wouldn't pass the filter of the policy department. But isn't that the point? They're expressing the gut feelings that brought us all to human rights work, as well as the consciousness of a situation that needs changing. The impact of human rights work is much cultural as it is legal, so there's a danger in focussing too much on UN lobbying and neglecting the cultural level.
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