Participatory Web for Development

Web2forDev in Rome

A big shout out to the organisers of the Web2forDev conference in Rome. They're shaking the hype out of web 2.0 and wrestling it in to relevance for the world's poorest and most marginalised.

Connectivity, Innovation, Censorship

If I'd had a chance to contribute to the conference, I'd have stepped back from the real issue of rural connectivity and looked at the less examined issues of innovation and censorship - the good and bad futures for the social web in the developing world.

The dark side of web 2.0

The bad news first - as soon as social media starts to make a real social difference it will be subject to some form of repression by those who favour the status quo. The downside for web 2.0 is that, under the wrong circumstances, its social networking side could become an engine for privacy invasion and surveillance. We must learn from places where social media survives and thrives in the face of corruption, military might, and the intimidation of opponents. Embedding human rights in social media requires eCampaigning for Internet Freedom.

Innovation - the disruptive fruit of participation

The real powerhouse of web 2.0 for dev will be innovation, the disruptive fruit of all architectures of participation. Charlie Leadbeater's book We-think starts with the example of the Barefoot College before going on to show how examples like Wikipedia are the herald of a new era of mass collaborative innovation. His wide global analysis of the new era mashes silicon valley with social innovation - as he says about a peer-to-peer AIDS support network "Low-cost, self-organising networks might be the height of organisational fashion on the US west cost but they are a matter of life-and-death in places like Mbuya Parish, Kampala".

Web2forDev HowTo

So where do we find guiding values for the development potential of web2.0? If I'd been at the web2fordev conference I'd have plagiarised the Res Publica Report 'Prospects for e-Advocacy in the Global South' and proposed this set:

  • Work within Movements: Working within a movement means that all the talent of the various members can be brought to bear in creating solutions and the lines of communications within the network can be used to quickly disseminate new methods.
  • Worship the Power of the Network: Through networks we aggregate our knowledge, amassing insight that is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Bring Technologists and Advocates Together: Innovative solutions emerge when technologists collaborate with advocates, working on a specific campaign problem or network goal.
  • Build Innovation Systems: Rather than think of innovations as pieces of hardware or even creative ideas, it is better to think in terms of "innovation systems," combinations of hardware, social structures, and economic models that solve social problems.
  • Promote Independence not Dependence: Seek to empower, and explicitly address sustainability.
  • Engage with Youth: In almost all societies, young people are most likely to adopt new ICT methods. They are more familiar with ICT because it has been present for most of their lives.
  • Cultivate the Fringe: The boldest new ideas often come from far outside the

I applaud the organisers and participants at the web2fordev conference for their global fusion of social media and social impact. The scale of that impact will depend on how well mass creativity can challenge the status quo. As the APC's Anriette Esterhuysen says "The key is NOT to think of social networking tools (or Web 2.0) as a completely new set of tools/applications. ... but as representing significant changes to power structures that characterise the creation and use of content on the internet".

the evolution of social action networks

social action networks

I get a real sense that we're due for a step-change in the evolution of social networks, and I think the momentum is towards networks that enable action.

causes - so what?

What an odd experience it is to be recruited to so many causes on Facebook. I've joined with hundreds of others on what feels like dozens of causes. And i'm left with the feeling - so what? What does it mean to have joined a Facebook group for issue X? What level of active participation comes from 'friending' an issue on MySpace? I'm not dismissing the real world impact that social networks are already having (see my earlier post on 'social networks for social change') but they're acting as networks of communication rather than as engines of active collaboration.


At least Project Agape's Causes application for Facebook is adding a network-effect to fundraising by encouraging (and tracking) virality. But it's still about donations, not about enabling people to directly contribute to the activity of their chosen cause. Nothing wrong with that, except the risk that it could eclipse the potential for more active participation (see also my post 'chuggers in cyberspace' ). Surely one of the most exciting potentials of the social web is the way it could enable new forms of collaborative organisation and action - possibilities that are more disruptive and creative than simply using social networks for social marketing.

purposeful groups

The difference of social mode I'm talking about is described in Beth Simone Noveck's paper 'A democracy of groups' as the shift from 'virtual communities' to purposeful groups:

"Virtual communities, according to Howard Rheingold, are defined by conversations among people who meet in cyberspace. But a group in the sense that I use the word is unlike two people talking or ten people on a street corner or even unlike ten thousand people on Craig's List. It is not defined or determined by the size of its membership or the level of sociability. It is not defined by the rights it has or does not have ... A group is an agglomeration of people with the affirmative purpose of bringing about change. The group moves beyond the 'illusion of companionship without the demand of friendship' that characterizes virtual community."

aggregated action

How could social networks support change by becoming enterprise and action networks? Maybe we need to look at business models for web-enabled collective action. When Allan Benamer emailed me about his startup 'socialmarkets' he described how they embedded an action model in the site that goes beyond connectivity:

'I'd say the only way you can make Web 2.0 really interesting is using it to harness certain behaviors either on the part of nonprofits or on the part of donors. You have to choose the behavior you want and then break down those behaviors into their constituent parts. That's how Wikipedia works. The granular and atomized tasks that together form an emergent pattern of content contributions that is Wikipedia is pretty much how the Web works. So it's not really connectivity, but the emergent properties of mass activity that need to be looked at.'

I think the same logic can be applied to evolve social networks - iterate functionality that aggregates useful behaviours in to some kind of concrete change.

network-centric widgets

What would this look like for social networks, and how would it come about? Certainly that 'how' is not going to be in the mainstream functionality of the social network platforms but via their application APIs - the actionability of social networking will emerge via widgets like Pledgebank's Pledges app . My first guess at the 'what' is apps that distribute a major task in a way that can be directly actioned, and then aggregate the results. For example, the MediaVolunteer project described on the Network-Centric Advocacy blog . Each volunteer was assigned two reporters to call, out of which the project aimed to assemble a national media list of media contact details:

"To influence media coverage our groups need a good press list. The communications people for these groups need to be able to jump online and find all the reporters that cover health in Georgia or who covers veteran issues across Pennsylvania. The groups need to be able to work the media as with the same tools as Madison Ave. P.R teams hired by Halliburton. To update and develop lists of tens of thousands of reporters would eat up staff time. However, a few thousand volunteers could update the list in a week with just a few calls each."

collaborate at scale

Imagine the MediaVolunteer example as a Facebook app, using Skype to make the calls directly from the computer. This could have the same virality as the Causes app and give the same kind of visible feedback (e.g. calls made, friends recruited). As Charlie Leadbeater says in 'Social software for social change' :

"The rubric of the social web is: contribute, connect, collaborate, create...Under the right circumstances, people can collaborate and coordinate their activities at scale, without requiring much of the top down hierarchy of large organisations...As a result, large scale collaborations can create quite reliable, robust and complex products ranging from open source computer programmes such as Linux to compendiums of knowledge such as Wikipedia."

Will social networks evolve beyond 'connect' to 'collaborate', or will the disruptive potential of network-centric collective action spring from elsewhere?

Bulgaria: environmental bloggers threatened

Environmentalists from the BlueLink Information Network report :

"The Bulgarian police has called in bloggers and pressured them to stop writing about the recent wave of environmental protests that has swept across the country in the recent weeks. Michel Bozgounov, BlueLink's web designer, was one of several online activists who were summoned, interrogated, and advised "friendly" to refrain from blogging on environmental protests. During the conversation, which he described in his blog again, Michel saw an investigation file against himself and his blog, compiled by the National Service for Combat against the Organized Crime, one of Bulgaria's several secret services that have inherited the notorious State Security of the former communist regime."


In my recent post on eCampaigning for Internet Freedom i pointed out that one of the deep reasons for defending internet freedom is its increasing importance for environmentalism (given legal recognition in the Aarhus convention, which grants the public rights regarding access to information and public participation and access to justice in environmental matters).

As an e-network created by green activists, the BlueLink network has been pioneering the potential of the internet within Bulgaria's dynamic environmental movement. This latest attempt to repress freedom of expression online stems from a controversial decision by the country’s Supreme Administrative Court to remove the protected status of the largest nature park in the Balkans - the Strandja Mountain. The decision has been claimed to favour the interests of a local mayor and businessman, who campaigned for hotel construction project within the park.

BlueLink's response to the intimidation of Michel Bozgounov and others is to launch the Freenet Campaign "not only as an illustration for Bluelink’s support for individual freedom of speech, but also as a tool to help network and share information regarding the current issues, news and campaigns related to the freedom of speech movements." They are also asserting that asserting that repressive actions are in breach of the Bulgarian constitution and are targetting the government for action on this. Sign BlueLink’s Declaration Statement.

UPDATE: Drupal and the Dot Org Boom

'How Drupal Will Save The World ' by Lullobot's Jeff Robbins has three key ideas that resonate with my post on Drupal and the Dot Org Boom .

1) Tools for the grassroots

My plan for Amnesty was that a switch to open source would allow the main web technology to be rolled out to the smallest section or activist group, anywhere in the world. Jeff's is also excited about the potential of tools like Drupal for grassroots activists and quotes a great example from the netsquared conference:

"My favorite story from the NetSquared conference comes from Kim Lowery of Kabissa who talks about a village in Nigeria that had agreed to let an oil company access their land and resources in exchange for clean water and school buildings. After a few years of letting the oil company get what they wanted, it became apparent to the people of this village that the oil company was not going to fulfill its end of the bargain. Ten years ago, these villagers would have had no recourse. But these days, they have their own website and the leverage that goes with it. They scanned the original contract and posted it on their site and followed up with a few emails to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the like. And before long they had a campaign going to bring people's attention to the oil company's failure to deliver on its promises. A few months later, the oil company began showing up to the village, taking more interest in their needs, and began delivering on some of their promises".

2) usability for activists

His second major theme is usability, and how it's critical if these tools are to be any use to people at the grassroots. As he says about some of the social activists at netsquared

"These are not technical people. And they want to build sites for even less non-technical people. They want to bring Drupal to third grade teachers in Indiana, church-basement activist groups, street orphans in South Africa, or Vietnamese farmers. These people may have very little experience on the web. The idea of "filtered HTML" is likely beyond their concern. And administrative idioms such as "node", "taxonomy", "vocabularies", "terms", even "menu items" and "blocks" are usually only understood after some conscious effort".

Jeff contrasts the clunkiness of Drupal with Apple products like iMovie and Automator which show "how even very complex operations and configurations can be simplified into a friendly user interface that the average user can begin to grasp".

3) drupal distributions

This is a simple idea that could pack a real punch;

"Drupal should have maintained, funded distributions (pre-configured packages of Drupal with add-on modules and themes) to act as a quick-start launch pad for various common website types".

Having specialist server-side distributions would extend the existing idea of operating system distributions (various Linux distros) and application distributions (like tactical tech's NGO-in-a-box series ). Instead of a community group spending months getting up to speed on Drupal, experimenting with various modules and wiring things together, there would be tailored Drupal distributions for specialized purposes e.g. a community events management system with discussion boards and event-related photo galleries and mailing lists.

footnote: linux live CDs and community translators

Part of my enthusiasm for easy-to-use distros comes from running a web project that delivered vital advice in community languages to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. I needed non-technical tranlsators to be able to generate Unicode text in languages like Bengali, at a time when this was not possible in Microsoft Word. The tech side could be done with a combination of Linux and OpenOffice, but there was zero chance of the community translators being able to install this on their own computers. Then along came Indic language live CDs like Indlinux . They cut right through the problem; simply ask the translators to pop the CD in their computers at start-up and bingo - urgent translated text in the correct technical standards for web delivery.

UPDATE on Netsquared - the European Remix

There's been a great response to the call for a European remix of Netsquared! We're now discussing ways forward for the project (codename n2eu) so we keep the momentum.

The basic idea is to organise a major conference to catalyze social change via the tools of the social web (aka web 2.0). Like the original Netsquared project we expect this will also include an online community with community blogging and case studies.

We've opened the idea up to a community conversation, based on an n2eu mailing list and an n2eu wiki . If the idea of n2eu is going to be anything, it’s going to be community-driven. Please accept this invitation to be part of that community. And please feel free to forward this invitation to anyone else you think might be interested.

Hack Day London - a missed opportunity

I can't help feeling that Hack Day London missed a good chance to help keep the internet free for hacking (and for human rights). Both the BBC and Yahoo (the institutions behind Hack Day) lost the opportunity to make a strong value statement about freedom of expression and internet rights. And imagine the funky anti-filtering & socially positive hacks that could have come out of a weekend's hacking by 500 geeks!

hack day

Of course, the organisers deserve a lot of credit for pulling the event together, and for getting their respective institutions to back it (many wouldn't have). But Yahoo in particular has a lot of ground to make up to be seen as one of the good guys again, given the long-running case of Shi Tao (imprisoned for 10 years with the help of information from Yahoo) and the recent flurry of accusations that Yahoo Inc. provided information to the Chinese government that led to the persecution, torture and imprisonment of dissidents, for which the company is now being sued .

Hack Day was a creative event, not a political one - but it could have been so much more. A lot of the fun behind hacking lies in the freedom to mix and mashup, and it's eactly this kind of freedom that's at stake in the titanic clash between two legal regimes , namely Intellectual Property Rights versus Human Rights.

If I'd had a chance to introduce some social themes to Hack Day, I would have started with a rough definition of hacktivism, staring with this overview (quoting ron diebert from the Open Net Initiative). As a practical example, there's the Firefox extension that allows people in Iran (and other censored locations) to access Flickr. I asked a few friends what they would add, and the ideas included

  • show examples of what others have already done (like TOR, Psiphon, all the work of Cult of the Dead Cow) and invite folk to think about how innovations like yahoo pipes could be turned to similar ends
  • think globally when developing tools: in the West, people have alternatives to the information and resources available on the Internet, whilst many people living in developing countries do not. The Internet is their only source of real information. Develop open source, prepare for localisations and don't be afraid to answer simple user questions
  • Are there ways people could use for instance GreaseMonkey to build a kind of javascript decryption tool with which to reveal information encoded in images or videos? (Lots of bytes to hide information in.) Use one website as a “key” to filter information from another website? How to make it very easy to spread?

All the big technology companies (from Google to Cisco) rely on the kind of young developers that attend these events, who in turn could influence company activities when they show a blatant disregard for human rights. Having hacktivism as a standing part of Hack Days could help raise awareness of the ethical dimension (along the same lines as the Brazilian HackerTeen project).

We need a campaign to keep the internet open for creativity and hacktivism is going to be a part of that. But if the young d00dz are content to play trivia with frivolous API's, the internet control-heads will get to say 'I 0wn3d you'.

 (Thanks to ron , rolf and dmitri for their help with this post.)

Netsquared - the European Remix?


I think Europe badly needs a Netsquared conference and online community, or something like it. NetSquared's mission is 'Remixing the Web for Social Change', and it does this though a framework that includes community blogging, case studies, major conferences and local monthly meetings. It has just held its second major conference , where 350 invited participants gathered to accelerate 21 Projects that were selected by the NetSquared community as having the greatest potential to leverage the social web to create social change.


I was lucky enough to be invited to the first Netsquared conference, which was a buzzing mix of geeks, activists and tech philanthropists. For me, some highlights included Howard Rheingold discussing the way hispanic youth in LA used MySpace to organize against anti-immigrant legislation encountering the Genocide Intervention Network, which is such a good example of a web 2.0 enabled NGO start-up seeing Camp Darfur in Sercond Life and, of course, the workshop on Human Rights and New Communication Technologies where i was a presenter :) (MSNBC published a good overview of the first conference called Can Web 2.0 change the world?)


Of course, there are already some great tech & society conferences in Europe. I recently did a workshop at the eCampaigning Forum which covers a lot of the key issues, but is very tightly focused on professional ecampaigners. I was also impressed by the LIFT conference which had a great diversity of content - but although they were kind enough to give us a platform the 2006 conference to talk about human rights & web 2.0 most of the event lacked any kind of activist edge.


Those of us who have been part of the Netsquared experience can see the need for a similar incubator for web-enabled social change in the UK & Europe. The proposal is to establish project like Netsquared that hits the sweet spot at the overlap of technology & social innovation. The goals would be

  • To stimulate web-enabled social innovation
  • To create a an online-offline community for learning skills, sharing experiences and developing expertise
  • To sustain socially progressive activity through alternative business & organisational models



Creativity and innovation are fundamental to the social web, not least because it empowers initiative at the grassroots level through an architecture of participation. This is attracting a lot of interest and engagement from groups and networks with a social mission. A Netsquared Europe would be well-placed to channel this dynamic and support some strategic development of this field. Tapping in to European movements for social change would also bring a more activist strand to the event.


The conference and community could also address 'the organizational question' i.e. the challenge that Web 2.0 raises for traditional NGOs and non-profits. The many dimensions of this challenge have been spelled out recently by Michael Gilbert in The Permeable Organization , Steve Bridger in Whose cause is it anyway? and Katrin Verclas in Online Communities Redux: Why They Matter to You. Perhaps, like the second Netsquared conference, it could aim to incubate a new generation of web-enabled non-profits that use new forms of organising to deliver more directly on their missions.


Like many other radical innovations, Netsquared Europe will have open source embedded in its genes. Not only because much of the innovation would be impossible without open source tools, but because the DIY attitude of open source software communities is the best innovation paradigm for web-enabled social change. As Karim Lakhani says, the open source model is about "the movement of innovative activity to the edges of organizations and into communities". I think a conference & community like the one proposed in this post, that brings together developers and social change activists, would be a prime site for another open source principle described by Lakhani: "the intersection of firms and communities and the emergence of hybrid models of organizations that blend and blur firms and communities".

I'd like to add a tip from the new programme at NESTA who's strapline is Innovation is a Contact Sport. NESTA Connect "will focus on creating new, unexpected or extreme collaborations - blurring the traditional boundaries between disciplines, organisations and places. We believe such collaboration has the potential to generate radical, transformational innovation." At their Uploading Innovation Event I highlighted the reasons why online innovation and human rights are closely intertwined . A conference like Netsquared Europe could be a great opportunity to creare unexpeted collaborations by mashing up the new wave of social entreprenuers with dedicated networks like The Association for Progressive Communications and young upstarts like the Web Activist Collective .


The success of a project like Netsquared Europe will depend on the collaboration of organisations and networks that already reflect facets of its goals. Take the original Californian tech-visionaries of Netsquared and remix with the professsionalism of the eCampaigning Forum, the European activist focus of Total Tactics, the open source know-how of the Tactical Technology Collective and the enterprise of The School for Social Entrepreneurs and what do you get....?

We need a Freedom of Expression League Table for Web 2.0


This is a call for a Freedom of Expression league table for Myspace, Youtube and other Web 2.0 spaces. Privacy International has shown the way with their Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies, which lists the best and the worst privacy practices across the full spectrum of social networking, email & search sites. But with the emergence of web 2.0 sites as spaces for civic dialogue there's a critical need to test their commitment to free expression and the exchange of ideas.


The problem lies in the radical difference between the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the realities of the Terms of Service agreements we sign up to when using online services. Article 19 of the UDHR says "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers", whereas a service like YouTube will assert the right for the company to remove content that it considers to be 'inappropriate'.


Despite the way that MySpace and YouTube are marketed as communities they are actually corporate spaces. As I pointed out in my post on social networking and social change: "Like shopping malls, they are pseudo-public spaces where our presence is tolerated as long as we are not interfering with the creation of (advertising) value for the owners". Of course, the role of commerical companies is to make a profit, and they also have legal liabilities to content with around issues like copyright. But the debate around the role of internet companies in China has shown that it's not OK for these powerful corporates to ignore the human rights consequences of their commercial decisions.


In my opinion, the Privacy International report gives us a great model for how to tackle these issues. Their analysis employs a methodology comprising around twenty core parameters and was compiled using data derived from public sources (newspaper articles, blog entries, submissions to government inquiries, privacy policies etc), information provided by present and former company staff, technical analysis and interviews with company representatives. Although they say that "we have been surprised by the number of social networking sites which are taking some of these issues quite seriously" it's notable that "not one of the ranked organizations achieved a 'green' status" (where green means privacy-friendly and privacy enhancing).

privacy rankings


Although it's fascinating to read the detail of the differences between, say, Bebo and Hi5, i think the most worrying aspect of their report is the overall trend of a 'race to the bottom' in corporate surveillance of customers. In their Key Findings they report The current frenzy to capture ad space revenue through the exploitation of new technologies and tools will result in one of the greatest privacy challenges in recent decades. The Internet appears to be shifting as a whole toward this aim, and the opportunity to create market differentiators based on responsible privacy may diminish unless those avenues are explored immediately.


I fear that the same threats exist to legitimate free expression in the Web 2.0 spaces, where commercial imperatives could drive companies to summarily remove 'objectionable' content, especially if they are pressured to do so by governments or other powerful corporations. This could also throttle the use of these spaces for any campaigning, which is a trend led by the users themselves (see for example the innovative uses of YouTube & MySpace for human rights work and social organising ). The recent Open Net Initiative conference on global internet filtering highlighted the growing privatisation of censorship; as the BBC's Bill Thompson says "Perhaps it's time for the Open Net Initiative to have a look at filtering policies at Facebook, Bebo and MySpace as well as Burma, Iran and Saudi Arabia".


In the longer run, the anwer may come from angry users who expect to be able to freely express themselves in the social spaces that they helped to create. After all, it's the users who add the valaue and revenue potential to these sites via their content and participation, yet no user has ever received a dividend from the hundreds of millions of dollars that are paid for YouTube or MySpace. But for there to be mass pressure in favour of internet rights, we need to raise the free expression issues in the way that Privacy International is doing for privacy and data protection. As P.I. also point out, the critical issue is not what's on paper but what the company's actual (privacy) practices. Who's going to lead the way on this for Freedom of Expression?


In my opinion, it's no coincidence that the title of the Privacy International report ('A Race to the Bottom') is the same term used by Human Rights Watch in their report on Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship. The overt political censorship of the Chinese authorities and the invisible loss of privacy and fair expression in the commerical enviromnent of the West are two sides of the same coin. Defending the internet against one implies defending against the other, especially as the same corporations are often the critical actors in both.

Next steps for the Number 10 e-petitions

In a pub after the 2007 eCampaigning Forum, Tom Steinberg of mySociety laid down a challenge. Though out of the media headlines, the Number 10 e-petitions engineered by mySociety are still getting tens of thousands of visits a day. Tom's challenge was "what's next?" - how do the people visiting and signing petitions get connected to something actionable? What about all the charities and non-profits that are campaigning and working on the same issues that people are petitioning about - how do people get connected to them?

Tom repeated the challenge a couple of weeks later at The Social Impact of the Web event at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) - "we built, as a independent contractor, the Number 10 petition site... 25,000 people a day are coming... what I'd like to do is be able to point people to a debate about what happens next... petitions, a very low form of political engagement, can help get people more engaged..." Tom also triggered a conference debate about the relative primacy of tools versus people. He's an advocate for the disruptive effect of new tools - the things that the toolsmiths create challenge the way we do things. Several speakers from the audience challenged that, arguing that it's not the tools which are transformational but the people.

So here's my tool-centric attempts at an answer to Tom's challenge.

Option 1: Ask people to tag their petitions with relevant keywords (in the same way as for Flickr photos or other user-generated content). Link this to a Google Custom Search Engine which indexes a range of charity and NGO websites with relevant campaigns, and display the search results as action links. A proof of concept Advocacy Search was set up by Fairsay a few months ago. One catch here is the effort required to build the site list for the search, especially if refinements are used to provide targeted search (e.g. for 'Campaigns' or 'Advice'). On the plus side the Google CSE is set up to enable collaboration.

[disclaimer: proposing the use of Google tools in no way overwrites my opinion of their actions over China: see also Open Letters Shame Corporates For Their Complicity In China & Real-Time Revisionism]

Option 2: Use petition-tagging tied to an NGO 'action registry' which aggregates all the current advocacy and campaigning actions from the non-profit & NGO sector. Such an Action Registry is proposed as part of Fairsay's eCampaigning Tool (currently in Beta release). Another route to aggregating actions would be to develop a microformat for web actions (see also my proposal for a Prisoner of Conscience Microformat).

The broader debate about whether it's tools or people who are transformational segued in to another of the presentations at the RSA, when Bronwyn Kunhardt quoted Heidegger: "The social character of man is determined by his use of technology". An old pal of mine called Jeremy Weate wrote an excellent paper on this subject called Imaginalysis - or the Technologies of Place. Pointing out that "Heidegger claims τεκνε (techne) most fundamentally refers to ‘disclosure’ or ‘unconcealment’" he asserts that this understanding of technology implies that its meaning is forever contested. Since "the imagination is the conduit or schema by means of which what shows up in the world acquires meaning and significance" we are able to re-imagine the meaning of technologies, rather than seeing them only as the devices of the dominant order. Seems to me this is a tendency at work in all socially-conscious hacktivism (see also eCampaigning for Internet Freedom).

Open Net Initiative's Global Internet Filtering Conference 2007

It was a privilege to attend the OpenNet Initiative's Global Internet Filtering Conference 2007 to discuss the current state of play of Internet filtering worldwide. ONI's empirical testing in 41 countries paints a truly alarming picture of internet filtering as a growing global phenomenon. At the behest of governments, major hardware & software companies have shifted from wiring the world to barbed-wiring the world, dividing the internet into censored national enclosures. The results of ONI's work are visible at a glance in their global internet filtering map.

The principal targets of filtering activity include social themes (such as pornography), national security and political expression, defended by justifications like "it's for the kids", "it's for the motherland", or "why are you asking anyway? Maybe you should come to the security office for an interview...". But very few countries limit their filtering to a narrow set of targets - instead, a majority of countries filter a broad set of topics, suggesting that filtering regimes, once put into place, generally expand beyond their initial mandate. Non-profits and campaigning organisations should note that at least one commercial filtering package now has a tick-box to automatically enable filtering of NGO websites.

Although it is ONI's analytical toolset and technical proficiency which has made this report possible, it was clear from the conference that the technical side is only half the story. The datasets are made meaningful by the qualitative input of in-country experts, and the ONI site includes country profiles and regional overviews replete with political, legal and social context.

The ONI have a refreshing openness about the limitations of their work, and were happy to discuss the dimensions of filtering that are outside of the scope of their report. These range from the filtering of non-web channels, especially instant messaging and cellular / mobile, to the way that sites can be censored via take-down notices or by a quiet word from local security officials. Two of the most important new areas that emerged from the day's debate were event-based filtering and the privatisation of censorship.

The OpenNet Initiative's current methodology means that a site is counted as blocked if it is consistently unavailable for the week of the testing period. While this means that ONI data is much more reliable than off-the-cuff rumours of filtering, it is obviously not well suited to government tactics of short term blocking around the time of an election or international meeting. There was a consensus at the conference that this is a critical area and there is a need for rapid-response monitoring. It also seems sensible for ONI's techniques to be a routine part of any election monitoring as well (OSCE take note).

The importance of non-state filtering was raised my many participants at the conference and from different viewpoints. Many people (especially in developing countries) get their main internet access through work or university, and workplaces are increasingly filtering and blocking internet access under the rationale of 'productivity'. Given the importance of the net for union organising there could be an important role here for trade unions. (Ironically, the Oxford college that hosted this conference issued participants with a notice warning that unauthorised internet activity would result in immediate disconnection). At a strategic level there was a lot of concern that states would outsource all filtering to private sector actors without a legal trail that could be tied back to the government. Since it's governments that are signed up to the international system of human rights legislation, this privatisation of censorship could create a kind of human rights evasion.

For me, the next question is how to make the ONI's work actionable. As someone once said, the point is not to interpret the world in various ways but to change it. What campaigning can reverse the increasing trend to broad & unaccountable internet filtering? It would certainly help if the ONI's impressive data was supplemented by human stories - people who aren't internet freedom geeks will need to understand why repressive filtering is a bad thing and how it can damage people's lives. An interesting hint of the potential impact of filtering as politicisation comes from Pakistan, where the government blocked the whole of Blogger in order to suppress one or two individual blogs. This led to the launch of the Pakistani “Don’t Block The Blog” campaign, which drew previously non-political people in to a campaign against filtering.

Influencing the legal and policy framework will be critical, and there needs to be an active link with the dynamic coalitions that have come out of the Internet Governance Forum. One curious finding of the conference was that there is a low correlation between repressive media laws and active internet filtering; those states who (on statute) hate independent media aren't necessarily big internet blockers, and vice versa. The conference workshop on the impact of internet censorship on economic development shows that filtering may incur opportunity costs as well as rights violations. It may turn out that environmental issues will become another agrument against filtering . Given the strategic and cross-cutting significance of the internet it's probably time to create a UN Special Rapporteur for Internet Freedom.

One campaigning seed within the ONI's work is the potential for action research; applying knowledge gained by studying filtering directly to techniques for circumvention. A key ONI member, Toronto's Citizen Lab, is the creator of the recently-released Psiphon software, and the conference included a session on circumvention tools with participants from TOR, Peacefire, Anonymizer, Psiphon and DynaWeb. While I understand some people's concern that ONI itself should be seen as neutral and impartial to boost the credibility of its data, I don't think that precludes more hacktivist projects. After all, most research on cancer is done by people who are unambigously committed to preventing it. As I wrote in eCampaigning for Internet Freedom, advocacy efforts will tend to be supported by the more direct policy challenge of hacktivist techniques.

One notable omission from the conference was any kind of web 2.0 / social web perspective, and yet this wave of web engagement could offer different ways to tackle filtering questions. On the one hand, the participative nature of web 2.0 offers the chance to broaden decision-making beyond the traditional choke points, and could address the kind of objection to regulation systems raised by the APC ("that key groups which are deemed to benefit from such systems – women and children – are largely absent from such discussions."). The social web offers ways to reach out to key transnational constituencies that can be affected by filtering, such as LGBT communities or diasporas. And it may also be that in the quantum foam of activity at the user-generated level there are already innovations in practical circumvention that should be researched and amplified.

Whatever happens, the ONI have already succeeded in drawing a clear line in the sand. They've objectively proven the massive expansion of internet filtering and provided weighty evidence of its scope and sophistication. They are working on ways in which this critical work can be extended by becoming more decentralised and involve more participants. It's up to the rest of us to join the effort, and to turn evidence into action.

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