UPDATE: Gapminder and net censorship

Oops. It doesn't look like we're going to see Trendalyzer, the software behind Gapminder , used to visualise net censorship , as "Trendalyzer’s developers have left Gapminder to join Google in Mountain View". So that should make "the beauty of statistics" safe for Real-Time Revisionists.

Tunisian Prison mashup

Sami Ben Gharbia has created a Google maps mashup of Tunisian prisons which really sets the standard for human rights mashups. When you click on a marker of one of the semi-secret locations, details about prisoners' cases pop up, along with video from the dissidents and their families. tunisian prison maptunisian prison map Sami says the data is pulled data from Human Rights NGOs report as well as from a temporary list of Tunisian prisons on the TUNeZINE website; he made the Flash animations himself, and the mashup also draws on video/audio files hosted on YouTube related to Tunisian political prisoners. The locations of many of the prisons are only approximate (e.g. to the nearest town), such is the level of paranoid security imposed by the Tunisian state. As Sami explains

In front of this omerta by the governing authorities and its determination to muzzle the press and the organisations of defence of human rights as soon as they approach this “forbidden zone”, it becomes impossible to have an idea about the exact number of prisons and penitentiary institutions, to know the criminality rate in the country or the number of the prison population.

The mashup achieves its impact by breaking this veil of secrecy and by giving some of the 'lost' prisoners a human face.


It's interesting to reflect in how the map could be used directly for campaigning. Staring at the map immediately reminds me (by contrast) of all the tourist maps on the web that are supposed to help you "find the seaside villa of your choice". Perhaps there's a form of Google bombing which could be used to link holiday sites with mashups like the Tunisian prison map. I've always had a problem with the way that travel brochures ignore any of the more difficult facts about holiday destinations. History suggests that the countries the tourists come from (such as Britain) have frequently been complicit in the human rights abuses in the destination countries (see, for example, 'Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses' by Mark Curtis).

Another example from a popular holiday destination that's ripe for a mashup is the excavation of mass graves in Spain where many victims of Franco's terror are buried. For 60 years after the Spanish Civil war ended in 1939 the families were too scared to break the silence, but now a group called the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory has been working to identify and excavate mass graves which they say are dotted all over Spain. The association uses the testimonies and memories of relatives and survivors to pinpoint the unmarked graves. According to a BBC report from 2002 about the Piedrafita massacre "a relative, Asuncion Alvarez, 87, whose brothers were shot that night, became so worried over the years that their fate would be forgotten that she drew a map of the spot where they lay and gave it to her children. Last week's excavations confirmed the map's accuracy."


Real-Time Revisionism

Apparently, there's a significant rise in Holocaust revisionism in Europe. (So, for human rights organisations, the debate is one about freedom of expression versus hate speech).

It made me think about what & other censored search engines are doing, as ably demonstrated by OpenNet Initiative's Google China Search Comparison.

I'm fascinated by how, in web terms, a censored internet can create a gaping absence in the visible history and politics of a country. So kudos to jimmy Wales for the way that Wikipedia defies China's censors. Perhaps the activities of the censoring search engines should be labelled real-time revisionism.

Google China Search Comparison - tiananmen
Google China Search Comparison - tiananmen

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.

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