freedom of expression

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."

BlueLink

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.

We need a Freedom of Expression League Table for Web 2.0

FREE EXPRESSION IN 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.

UDHR VERSUS TOS

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'.

PSEUDO-PUBLIC SPACES

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.

PRIVACY INTERNATIONAL

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

RACE TO THE BOTTOM

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.

PRIVATISED CENSORSHIP

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".

USERS FIGHT BACK?

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?

P.S. CORPORATE COMPLICITY

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.

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.

eCampaigning for Internet Freedom

Those of us using the internet in campaigns to change some social or environmental policy call ourselves ecampaigners. But ecampaigning is based on internet freedoms which are under serious and increasing threat. Whether the dimension of freedom is technical, such as the end-to-end principle, or legal, such as the absence of state blog regulation, we can't assume it'll continue to exist. And web 2.0 (a.k.a. the social web) could accelerate the dangers to internet freedoms. It's possible that ecampaigning will become completely neutered, so that we won't be able to anything controversial, we won't be able reach half the world's population, and in any case people won't want to get involved.

privacy invasion

One of the most serious threats is privacy invasion. There's a reason why Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion - they want to learn all about our habits so they can target more effective advertising at us. Yahoo (proud owner of Flickr and Delicious) says it wants social networks to define its business - they don't just want to know about us, they also want to know about our friends. The National Security Agency in the USA has set its sights on the datamining of social networking websites for intelligence gathering. With the advent of web 2.0 we are seeing the emergence of the panoptic gaze of web 2.0 and infrastructures of dataveillance. As well as violating our individual privacy the web-enabled data aggregation can lead to “social sorting†beyond the consumer realm, allowing authorities to reinforce social differences and enact discrimination. (Ironically, this is a dark reflection of audience segmenting, which is a key technique for effective ecampaigning).

filtering

Many ecampaigners assume that the internet is still a global space, but it's actually in danger of becoming a set of censored national enclosures. Back in 2002 only 3 countries regularly filtered & blocked content (China, Iran & Saudi Arabia), but according to the Open Net Initiative it's now up to 25, and the scope of the blocking is growing, as in the recent blockings of YouTube. (The human rights impact of YouTube will be the subject of a future post here). States and corporations are inseparable partners in the business of internet filtering - as Alexandra Samuel says

In the digital era, the infrastructure for policy enforcement is often digital - and the creators of that infrastructure are generally private companies. That makes state security inseparable from corporate security; the ability to enforce policy compliance extends only to the extent that your technology is hack-proof. This creates a complicated relationship of policy interdependence among countries: consider, for example, the fact that China's firewalls - the infrastructure for its information controls, and the target of much hacktivism - run on routers from US-based Cisco.

This profitable partnership to fence off the internet leads to a kind of real-time revisionism and has received justifiable condemnation .

censorship

Many people were shocked to learn of the censorship and imprisonment of Egyptian blogger Karim Amer who was sentenced to four years in prison for defaming both the president and Islam. This unfortunate blogger wasn't a hardcore human rights activist - his blog also includes film reviews and other personal minutae. He was, however, outspoken and even offensive - which he has every right to be under international law. His jailing may prove the general point that when social media seems to be making a social difference, repression will surely follow. And in the participative spaces of web 2.0, censorship can come in many forms. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights might value free expression but the same thing can't be said of YouTube's Terms of Service, which leaves content vulnerable to vague allegations of being 'objectionable' or 'inappropriate'. What becomes of freedom of expression in the pseudo-public spaces of the online monopolies?

copyright

Another threat to internet freedoms is the aggressive expansion of copyright and so-called Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Although these issues are beyond the ken of many traditional rights organisations they can have a direct impact on ecampaigning. Corporates have already responded aggressively to the use of their logos in online campaigns, although happily there have been robust defences by organisations like Greenpeace. Web sites can also be subject to take-downs through legislation such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which can become a form of legalised harassment and disruption against campaigning web sites. In the future, the Digital Rights Management technology that'll be built in to the very heart of our hardware could be spying on the fact that we've been watching a certain campaigning video on our PC. All this flies in the face of the traditional protections that copyright offered to parody and fair comment, let alone the concept that mixing and mashing is the emergent free speech of our times .

net neutrality

And finally, but perhaps fundamentally, we've all grown used to the idea that bloggers can compete with the CNN for the internet audience, and there are many examples where this has led to some kind of media or social impact. This won't be the case on Internet 2, the 'next-generation' high-speed internet which is specced out as a tightly controlled and locked-down environment, removing any of the bugs/features that gave the internet its freedom.

why should we campaign for Internet Freedom?

It's very worrying that most ecampaigners are ignoring these threats to the environment that they depend on. Of course, they're all busy doing online campaigns for the core mission of their organizations, whether it's environmental, human rights or whatever. But key techniques like blogging, social networking and global campaigning are already being impacted by reductions in internet freedoms, and this is reason enough for ecampaigners as a profession to be collectively involved in campaigning against those threats. But there's a deeper imperative as well, arising from the nature of the information society, which is the fact that the internet itself is becoming an actor in many of these core missions. For example, the internet is not just a tool for communicating about human rights, it is itself a terrain for human rights struggle. Many development organizations see access to the internet and open knowledge as a key element of economic & social development. And, as Rolf Kleef pointed out, even environmental agendas may interpenetrate the internet via the Aarhus convention (which grants the public rights regarding access to information and public participation and access to justice in environmental matters). But many established organisations don't yet get it, and the danger is they'll only realise when it's too late.

on what basis should we campaign?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the legal frameworks drawn from it provide a plethora of policy tools to defend internet freedoms, ranging from Article 19's right to seek, receive and impart information freely, to Article 12's defence of privacy and even Article 20's right to freedom of assembly. Most governments are already signed up to the UDHR and (more or less) to the international treaties that flow from it. On the copyright side we can pursue the openings of Creative Commons and the work done at WIPO by organisations such as CPTech (for example the right for developing countries to manufacture local versions of AIDS drugs)

who should campaign?

In my humble opinion, all ecampaigners and the NGOs they work for should contribute to a broad coalition campaign to preserve internet freedoms. It is not safe to assume that the battle can be left to the usual suspects, whether that's digital freedom groups such as the EFF or traditional human rights organizations (whose grasp of digital issues can be pretty weak), because the issues are too broad for any one organisation to cover. In the UK it would be logical to look to existing coalitions such as the Global New Media Group, which emerged from the new media campaigning of Make Poverty History. An alternative hub could be something like the Open Rights Group , which is committed to defending civil liberties in the digital
world and was itself born out of a kind of ecampaign (a pledge on MySociety's Pledgebank). Whatever form the campaign takes it can take advantage of the way the internet itself supports emergent foms of collaborative innovation.

how should we campaign?

Almost all ecampaigning is some kind of advocacy - pressuring someone like a government official or corporate CEO to make a decision or change a decision. For sure, we need active campaigning for internet freedom, so we need to follow the tried and test methods of developing an influencing strategy & identifying target audiences. But there's also the really interesting possibility of using hacktivism, in the form of the policy circumvention defined in Hacktivism & The Future of Political Participation :

Policy circumvention is here defined as legal noncompliance that: a) is a strategic political response to a specific policy, law, regulation or court decision b) focuses on nullifying the effect of a policy, law, regulation, or court decision, and c) creates some non-excludable benefits (though there may be additional, excludable benefits of non-compliance).

Rather than waiting for a bad law to be changed, policy circumvention routes around it - a tactic that goes back to the original nature of the internet!

hacktivism

A good example of hacktivism in practice is the Citizen Lab's Psiphon tool. Psiphon is a censorship circumvention solution that allows users to access blocked sites in countries where the Internet is censored. A really nice aspect of Psiphon is the social side of the tool - rather than being a public tool it operates through networks of trust between people in censored and un-censored locations, which also makes it difficult for the authorities to detect or block. Another exemplar of hacktivism is The Onion Router a.k.a. Tor which provides a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet. Tools like these act directly to negate the threats of filtering, censorship and privacy invasion. Note that policy circumvention is not the same as law-breaking; in fact, using these tools enables people to directly enact their rights under international law. Moreover, research suggests that policy circumvention is an additional pressure for policy change because it undermines the credibility of the policies themselves. It may be that policy circumvention and hacktivism will have a bigger part to play in all the ecampaigning of the future. To quote Alexandra Samuel again:

in an information economy, policy circumvention will be an expanding sphere of political activity. The domains that are most vulnerable to policy circumvention are domains that are dependent on information: information distribution, and information control. In an information age, more and more economic and social activity unfolds in these domains. That means that more and more of the state's activity, and its policy responsibilities, will unfold in domains that are vulnerable to policy circumvention by hacktivists.

Certainly there are people like Ron Deibert of the Psiphon project who are focusing on the need to develop this field of work to “ensure that protecting freedom of speech online is embedded within the research agendaâ€. Perhaps the need to defend internet freedoms gives ecampaigners an urgent incentive to pioneer this new form of campaigning.

Josh Wolf free but citizen journalism under threat

I'm very happy to see that Josh Wolf was set free on April 3rd, and I'm proud to say that this blog featured the 'Free Josh Wolf' banner. However, I've just had a quick scan of Josh's blog and I have a different view about the most important lesson of his imprisonment. His focus is the legal situation of journalists in the States, whereas I see more of a threat to the web as a participative space. The internet has become a tool for social impact, and the most important thing to defend is its use by ordinary citizens.

josh wolf

Josh refused to turn over unpublished video out-takes to a federal grand jury investigating a July, 2005 anti-G8 demonstration which he had covered on his blog. He was never been convicted of a crime. He was held on civil contempt in an effort to coerce him to testify and turn over his unpublished material to a federal grand jury. On February 6th he became longest-incarcerated journalist in U.S. history for refusal to comply with a subpoena on journalistic principles.

The immediate scandal of Josh's case is summed up by Dan Gillmor (a prominent advocate for citizen journlism). In short, the federal governmant blagged jurisdiction his case "using a pretext so flimsy that it would be laughable if the issue wasn’t so serious — it says there’s a federal case because federal tax dollars helped pay for a city police car that was damaged in the demonstration". In fact, it should have been handled at state level, where he would have had protection from imprisonment. So after his release Josh said

Much of the debate has focused on whether or not I am a journalist; this question is nothing more than a distraction and a red herring...The question that needs to be asked is not "Is Josh Wolf a journalist?" but should journalists deserve the same protections in federal court as those afforded them in state courts.

I think the threat is in the question 'who is a journalist'. It's clear that this will be used to divide the deserving from the undeserving. The space for ordinary citizens to use the web to report social issues is already being squeezed. See, for example, the recent French law on filming acts of violence - the implications of which are spelled out by Sami Ben Gharbia :

France’s Constitutional Council passed the Sarkozy law which criminalizes the filming or broadcasting of acts of violence by people other than professional journalists. During the parliamentary debate, government representatives said the law is meant to target a practice known as “happy slapping”, defined in Wikipedia as "a fad in which an unsuspecting victim is attacked while an accomplice records the assault (commonly with a camera phone or a smartphone)." In France, therefore, the filming and broadcasting of acts of violence such as the riots which took place in the Paris suburbs during the month of October and November, 2005, will henceforth be the prerogative of accredited journalists only. Under this new law, any other eyewitness who records acts of violence, or anyone who makes the content available online (the operator of a web site, for instance) could face up to five years' imprisonment and a fine of nearly US$100,000. In an ironic twist, the law was announced on March 3, 2007, exactly 16 years after amateur videographer George Holliday filmed African-American Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers. The officers' eventual acquittal in 1992 sparked off riots in the city.

So one way the clampdown comes is in the name of tackling antisocial behaviour. Historically, we've seen this tendency before. The original Public Order Act in the UK was introduced in the 1930's in the name of dealing with Moseley's Blackshirts (the British Fascist movement) - but in the subsequent decades it was used over and over again to suppress civil disobedience and left-wing protests.

My interest is how to defend the use of the internet by people who aren't (as the French law says) 'professional journalists'. Talking to experts on the role of Human Rights Defenders it seems to me that journalists are the ones who get the most attention and protection, both through professional organisations and because global society broadly accepts the role of 'journalist' as something socially necessary. (Note: I don't wish to minimise the specific threat to journalists where that exists e.g. in overtly repressive regimes). But what about all those other segments of society who are learning to use the net to report on social problems that are critical to them?

So, for me, the issue raised by Josh's case is the need to step back from the label 'journalist' and look at why that's seen as a necessary role in civil society. In Josh's first post after being freed he quoted a US Judge Douglas (from a press freedom case in the 1970's) who said "The press has a preferred position in our constitutional scheme, not to enable it to make money, not to set newsmen apart as a favored class, but to bring fulfillment to the public’s right to know". Surely this role is being massively and positively expanded by the blogosphere (one only has to look at Global Voices as an example) and in general by the participative internet (see for example my earlier post UCLA Student Tasered: is YouTube a human rights tool? ). Do we follow the citizen journalism of Dan Gillmor and say "While Wolf’s sympathies may well have been with the demonstrators, he was engaging in journalism when he shot that footage". Or do we just dump the category of journalist all together and find other terms for our right to participate and to be heard? In harsh times, is it enough to be reporters, or do we need to become defenders? Josh quotes the same Judge Douglas as saying

“As the years pass, the power of government becomes more and more pervasive. It is a power to suffocate both people and causes. Those in power, whatever their politics, want only to perpetuate it. Now that the fences of the law and the tradition that protected the press are broken down, the people are the victims".

Cyberpunk meets UNDP

"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts...A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..." --William Gibson, Neuromancer
Wouldn't that be an amazing way to experience the data from the UNDP; the statistics of life and mortality, the tangents of development and disarray marked out as peaks and fjords that our avatars could fly through? The data, in fact, that Gapminder has visualised so vividly in 2D. So why not an engine that imports stats like those into Second Life, where they can be experienced in the way that William Gibson originally imagined? It seems like one step towards this is on the cards, judging by blog posts like 3D import tools for Second Life , although this still focuses on importing static 3D objects like buildings, cars and so on. Where are the pure data import tools?

And this begs the bigger question; why is Second Life a 3D representation of real-world objects at all? I know there are lots of reasons why this makes SL an interesting place with a lot of social potential. And it's actually the not-quite-real aspect that gives SL a lot of its buzz. But still, it's a virtual re-creation of our world, not the Gibsonian data-space.

cyberspace

Second Life is more like Neal Stephenson's Metaverse; an immersive virtual world populated by avatars. Which is cool, but it's not the Net. It doesn't help us visualise the data-space, the nodes and trails of information, including the trails that we leave and the giant repositories that bureaucracies build. Only today I was discussing with freedom of expression and privacy colleagues the urgent need to visualise these threats to online freedoms. I suspect that only when we can fly through an old skool Cyberspace will we get a keen insight in to the enroachment of censorship and corporate data-mining. Let's hope that, by then, it's not too late...

digital diasporas & human rights

As I track the internet & human rights I keep coming across examples of digital diasporas. Maybe part of the reason I'm fascinated by diasporas is because I'm born out of one (Irish) and married in to another (Kosovan). But I'm also convinced that the conjunction of the internet (international, low barriers to access, relative freedom) and the disaporic experience will make these communities one of the demographics of innovation that Charlie Leadbeater is so interested in identifiying.
I've seen this in my previous work on multilingual websites for refugees and minority communities; when i needed to understand the complexities of getting Bengali script encoded and rendered I would turn to people like Deepayan Sarkar, a student in the USA who was a key contributor to the Free Bangla Fonts Project.
I've recently come across Drishtipat, a diaspora organisation focussed on human rights in Bangladesh, which seems like a good example of people using the internet to collaborate for positive social change back home.
"Drishtipat is a non-profit, non-political progressive expatriate Bangladeshi organization committed to safeguarding every individual's basic democratic rights, including freedom of expression, and is opposed to any and all kinds of human rights abuses in Bangladesh. We are based in the United States, and have members in every part of the globe via memberships and local chapters."
But connecting with the diaspora can be sometimes be risky. I was gripped by the case of Truong Quoc Huy, from the recent Amnesty report on internet repression in Vietnam, who was arrested for taking part in a chat room entitled "The voice of people in Viet Nam and Abroad", hosted by the PalTalk website. As the report puts it;
"Another central transformation brought about by the Internet is that those voicing dissent in cyberspace are considerably younger than most of the well-established dissidents. Chatrooms that provide web based conferences, among them the popular New York-based PalTalk, have brought thousands of young Vietnamese face to face with each other across the nation and with young Americans, French or Australians of Vietnamese origin."

TruongQuocHuyTruongQuocHuy

It may also be the diasporic connection that provides a way to make these kind of conversations secure, when combined with a tool like Psiphon, a project of the Citizen Lab. Psiphon is a private proxy run by someone outside the censored country which allows users in-country to circumvent filtering at a national level. Since using the software requires a user in an uncensored country and one in a censored nation, diasporas are a likely userbase. In a recent talk by Ron Deibert, the Citizen Lab director, it was reported that Vietnamese and Iranian users have flocked to the software.
The issues of digital diasporas & campaigning against internet censorship converge in the interesting new campaign by ARTICLE 19 called The Persian Impediment. As well as giving in-depth info on the system of oppression in Iran and on the cases of cyberdissidents unlucky enough to be imprisoned, the site has a blog which "provides an opportunity for bloggers, non-bloggers, Iranians and non-Iranians to discuss issues of systematic online censorship". One of the recent entries is an interview with Celine Petrossian, an Iranian-Armenian-American and author of ‘Liberating the Silenced: Iranian Bloggers in the Diaspora’ . which discusses the social impact of a transnational public sphere under headings like 'Breaking the Silence', 'Challenging Social Norms' and 'Depicting the True Iran'
While these are the kinds of outcomes I would hope and expect to find, there were two other aspects of the research that caught my attention, and back up my own observation of the general effect of diasporic communities. The first is that "Iranian bloggers serve as 'merchants' of culture and information, trading cultural knowledge and news from both Iran to the outside world and from the West to the Iranian people living in Iran.". And secondly, that one of the main effects of this is to challenge the conservative restrictions on the role of women in society (both in terms of gender and sexuality).
My hope for the transational space created by the Net is that it can influence positive change while supporting people to strengthen what's best about their unique identities. This seems possible, as Petrossian concludes that "The blogging phenomenon has made it possible for an increasing number of Iranians in the diaspora to use blogs as an avenue to break free from traditional political and social constraints as well as to maintain a sense of belonging to a cultural past and common homeland." So i can only echo her admiration of "the motivation and stamina behind the works of so many Iranian bloggers who have helped create this borderless, transnational space on the Internet."

my 3 minutes at NESTA Uploading

UPDATE: see this talk on YouTube (tx to Lloyd Davis.) a post of the rough notes from my 3 minute 'provocation' at today's NESTA Uploading Innovation Event.
 

SOCIAL MEDIA FOR CAMPAIGNING

not amnesty's official view

architecture of participation for campaigning amnesty, greenpeace, witness

disruptive innovations, bypassing and displacing

move-on, avaaz, genocide intervention network

post-deferential era people will do it anyway

youtube and human rights; wael abbas; first ever prosecutions of egyptian police for torture

ice cream flash mobs of belarus
 

THE DARK SIDE: SURVEILLANCE AND CONFORMITY

chance social media will lead to conformity privacy invasion

google & yahoo - everything about us and our relationships

privacy backlash

pentagon

you know social media is making a social difference when people start getting arrested for it

blogger kareem amer,

critical comments, protected freedom under int'l law
 

CREATIVITY VERSUS COPYRIGHT

Internet Governance Forum - titanic clash, aggressive IPR & copyright versus Freedom of Expression

make a big difference to what innovation we can do with social media

Joichi Ito - remixing is a new form of freedom of expression
 

SOCIAL MEDIA FOR HUMAN RIGHTS, HUMAN RIGHTS FOR SOCIAL MEDIA

Q. how do we shape policy to optimise social media innovation?

best hope for human rights activism in C21st

not just social media for human rights, but human rights for social media

how to preserve that quality that Jonathan Zittrain calls 'generativity'

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

policy & law: we need more than creative commons code:

psiphon: anonymity - also spread via social networks culture:

providing a safe space for people to network and campaign c.f. hispanic kids in LA using myspace to organize against anti-immigrant legislation

maybe org not doing the campaign, but providing campaigning context provide a safe space for collaborative innovation and say to people: 'be part of the change you want to see'

Fear of child abuse as a fig leaf for censorship.

One thing that really struck me at the Internet Governance Forum in Athens (see Human Rights at the Internet Governance Forum) was the way that many government and corporate representatives cited child pornography as a reason for filtering the internet. Perhaps it was quoted so much because opposition to child porn is seen as a shared global value, but i didn't like the way it was constantly invoked to symbolize the threat of the net. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights allows limited exceptions to freedom of expression so that things like child pornography can be dealt with. But these exceptions must go through proper legal process and be applied in a specific, proportionate and concrete way, not waved around as a general excuse for censorship.

At the IGF, Rikke Frank Jorgensen from the Danish Institute for Human Rights gave a good example of how this can become a slippery slope. Apparently the Danish police order web sites to be taken down on the basis of a phone call from the local branch of Save the Children, and these sites are added to a secret blacklist. Now, however contemptible the sites concerned, this isn't a good way to go about things - once websites are blacklisted simply because of 'common sense' and without being tested by legal process it is easy to widen the net to include any content that officials find objectionable.

I think this kind of cavalier approach to rights can become viral, especially in the online environment, as illustrated by the Personal Democracy Forum blog post Who's Molesting Who on MySpace? by Micah Sifry

"Apparently, the warrantless tactics that some prosecutors are now using to pull information off of MySpace pages to track sex offenders are now spreading to much lower level crimes. Henson discovered a thread on the Texas District and County Attorney's public user forum where a bunch of prosecutors are discussing whether it's OK to go online and create a fake profile on MySpace in order to get a kid to "friend" them and thus give them access to their private MySpace page, where they might find evidence of someone bragging about a petty crime like vandalism."

But, I hear you ask, how do we deal with all the bad stuff on the net? Firstly, human rights law makes adequate provision for dealing with truly illegal content. As for content that is objectionable, I would back the OSCE delegate at the IGF who pointed out that the presence of objectionable (as opposed to illegal) content is exactly what demonstrates the freedom of the media. There was plenty of constructive debate at the IGF in workshops like Content regulations from gender and development perspective organised by the APC Women's Networking Support Programme, where the question "should we define for children what content they can access, or rather let them decide what they want to access?" brought support for educating children about harassment on the internet and bringing their attention to some risks they need to manage, instead of censoring their version of the net. (As i remember, Danah Boyd also has some sensible stuff to say about this in relation to the Myspace scare in the USA).

I think some of the strongest challenges to triggy-happy content regulation are laid out in the intro to the APC workshop, especially the last point: "There are several problems which intersect to make content regulation in relation to 'harmful content' one of the most controversial areas for regulation and governance:

  • the definition of harmful content is contestable, subjective and open to a range of interpretations by multiple stakeholders;
  • the degree of 'success' of such controversial initiatives as 'clean-feed' and other filtering based systems, is primarily determined by the extent to which all affected stakeholders have been engaged in policy development and employment;
  • the key groups which are deemed to benefit from such systems - women and children - are largely absent from such discussions.
  • 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.
    Syndicate content