human rights

Freedom Not Fear: the Open Rights Group photo-action

Come and join the Open Rights Group this Saturday (11th Oct 2008) as we stage a photo-action in Parliament Square with our friends No2ID . Our action is part of the international Freedom Not Fear day against the total retention of telecommunication data and other instruments of surveillance.

If you can't make it on the day, don't worry; you can still contribute. We need as many people as possible to take photos of stuff that embodies the database state, and the UK’s world-famous surveillance society. Here are instructions for sending us your photos. If you’d like to join the action, email info [AT] and let us know.

The power of the Freedom Not Fear concept comes from linking opposition to technical measures, like blanket surveillance and filtering of internet communications (EU Telecoms-Package) and blanket logging of communications and locations (data retention), to a positive vision of a free and open society.

And the growing reach and scale of the day of action is impressive; one of the organizers emailed me yesterday to say that "in Berlin, things are shaping up really well. We have more than a hundred organizations that call for the demonstration, most of the 100 buses from all over Germany are booked out, there will be a club night afterwards with prominent DJs, films, keysigning parties etc. I am really blown away how this all has developed from a vague idea into an international action. In the Netherlands, they even have three demonstrations (Amsterdam, The Hague and Rottterdam). And we had inquiries from places as remote as Sri Lanka about how to join FnF."

Roma rights, social networks, molotov cocktails

I was very disturbed to read about the recent attacks on Roma camps in Italy . The report says:

"Young Neapolitans who threw Molotov cocktails into a Naples Gypsy camp this week, after a girl was accused of trying to abduct a baby, bragged that they were undertaking "ethnic cleansing". A UN spokeswoman compared the scenes to the forced migration of Gypsies from the Balkans. "We never thought we'd see such images in Italy," said Laura Boldrini."

I'm pretty obsessed with how the web and digital technologies can advance human rights , and whether they can prevent gross violations and genicode, so I started wondering how useful they could be in this situation.

I remember the launch of the Roma Information Project (RIP) back in 2002, a great project using the erider model to support Roma groups in Central & Eastern Europe. But there's also potential for defending Roma rights using social web & mobile technologies through cloud campaigning. Obviously, the communities are going to be using mobiles to coordinate their self-defence. But maybe there's a role for using mobile to report human rights abuses in the way that Fahamu tried with Rural women in KwaZulu Natal. And mobile video can be uploaded to the Witness Hub (a "YouTube for human rights") which allows people to create campaigns around them by adding context and joining discussion groups.

I think the other critical point is the influence of culture on whether human rights are defended or abused. The digital space is a cultural space and racism towards Roma & travellers online will affect what happens in real life. And likewise, a healthy online culture would respond with outrage to the kind of attacks that happened in Italy.

One pioneering project that's trying to create a positive cultural space online is Savvy Chavvy where young Gypsies and Travellers in South East England are being trained in podcasting and video blogging skills ('Chavvy' is a Romany word for a young person). Many of the participants report having been abused on other social networks so the Ning network is just for Gypsies and Travellers and there's a strong debate within it about the presence of 'Gorjas' (non-Travellers). One of the public videos produced by the young people is called 'You've been logged', a story which challenges schools to think about how they deal with bullying, specifically the bullying of young travellers.

As a truly transnational cultural community, the Roma are well placed to leverage the international nature of the net despite all the obvious obstacles of access and tech skills. In fact, the conjunction of the internet (international, low barriers to access, relative freedom) and the transnational experience could make them one of the demographics of innovation. And (given that necessity is the mother of invention) this could first kick-in in the defence of their rights, in the same way as for other diasporic communities. Check out another Savvy Chavvy video called A Better Life In Gravesend where young Slovakian Roma students in Gravesend describe why they fled Slovakia (and the moment where the very young boy says "my house back home - broken windows...")

At the crowdsourcing & transparency training in Prague I met a very tech savvy Roma from and I really hope the Roma will get it together with digital activism. But what about the rest of us? I don't want to pick on Italy because racism and fascism lurk everywhere, but the stuff that happened there a couple of weeks ago is a clear precursor to some really bad human rights violations. We'll know that there's a human rights culture online when the digital space is plastered with responses to attacks. It was some comfort to read katrinskaya's tweets from South Africa about the first demonstrations against the xenophobic attacks on immigrants there. It's tricky to report a whole demo in 160 character snippets, but she reported a speaker paraphrasing Niemoller ; "First they came for the Zimbabweans, but i did nothing, because I am not Zimbabwean"...

Can Social Technology help prevent Genocide?

The distressing footage of violence in Kenya and the reflective horror of the Darfur documentary 'The Devil Came on Horseback' prompted me to revisit Tom Glaisyer's thoughtful paper on Social Computing Technology and Genocide Prevention. I was struck by the fact that an analysis of the genocides in Armenia, Germany, and Rwanda shows there was enough information available at the time to have enabled preventative action. And yet that action wasn't taken. Tom concludes that "simple knowledge of genocidal potential or acts is insufficient to provoke people to act".

While his paper is a careful analysis of the various roles the social web could play, especially in supporting 'the third side' ("the surrounding community, which serves as a container for any escalating conflict"), it's basic thesis is that personal connection is the necessary driver for prompt intervention. Hence the potential for social technologies, and I'll quote the BBC's Bill Thompson again because he says it so well:

"What happens when the photos on Facebook and Flickr show devastated crops and starving families – and these people are not just faces on the television but old friends, people whose likes and dislikes and reading habits and favourite films we know and share? The world is different when it’s the people you know, and I do not think we will be able to resist the forces of change when our friends are dying on screen, in front of us, and we know that we could do something but have decided not to."

Of course, there were no laptops or wifi networks in the burned out villages in Darfur visited by Brian Steidle, the disillusioned peace monitor profiled in 'The Devil Came on Horseback'. On the other hand, the amazing spread of mobiles in Africa has already led to some human rights uses (for example 'Rural Women To Report Human Rights Violations Against Them Using Mobile Phones'). And it's interesting that the concrete project propose by Tom Glaisyer looks to me a lot like the WITNESS Video Hub. So the humble mobile may become the technology vector for a genocide prevention platform.

But maybe, when looking at the impact of the social web on genocide, the focus on tools is the wrong tack. After all, as Tom also points out, all technologies can be used to promote genocide as much as to prevent it. There is such a thing as User Generated Racism and fascists and racists "get" Web2.0.

The critical point is the influence of culture on whether human rights are defended or abused. In The Wealth of Networks Benkler points out how rights-based liberalism (the basis for most human rights organisations) is made impotent by ignoring the power of culture. Within cultural (and counter-cultural!) values lie the shared motivations for spontaneous action. Since the digital space is a cultural space I'm suggesting that the biggest brake the internet can have on genocide is by propagating an online culture pervaded by a sense of fairness & justice. Whether that happens by writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in to all web 2.0 Terms of Service, or by flooding social networks with raw human rights hiphop , history will judge the role of the social web in our darkest collective moments .

p.s. while writing this post I was intrigued to see how many torrent sites are hosting 'The Devil Came on Horseback' - that's got to be a good sign, no...?

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.)

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.

Urgent Action IM Bots and Twitter for Darfur

I'm a long-time admirer of and I'm wondering how their experiments with IM bots could be applied to human rights. (IM bots are programs that use IM as an interface to send information & respond to commands. IM users can add the name of the IM bot to their buddy list the same way they add friends). Bots could be used for campaign updates in the manner of the BBC news flashes or as a way to push messages that need urgent action, such as faxing / emailing an embassy about a prisoner of conscience.

Another fascinating possibility is the use of bots to evade censorship in those situation where IM protocols are unfiltered. An example is this IM Persian news bot from the crew. And perhaps they could be used like IRC bots to deliver vital chunks of information, such as online privacy tips or the updated list of open proxy servers accessible from China.

Things become even more interesting when Twitter is introduced. Of course, already started twittering.

But to me the critical thing about Twitter is the way it can be updated (and read) via mobile, and how that can reach in to urgent areas or situations in a way the internet can't (yet). In his post The Potential of Twitter in Africa Soyapi Mumba says

"In Malawi for example, there are about 50,000 Internet users against about 700,000 mobile phone users out of a population of about 12 million. Twitter allows users to post a small update via SMS, instant messaging client and the web. Anyone who chooses to follow you will get that update on the Twitter home page, or their mobile phone of they choose to. Unlike most mobile phone web services, you can update via SMS from anywhere in the world and from virtually any handset".

I heard UN emergency relief coordinator John Holmes in a radio interview describe how he was blocked by a Sudanese army checkpoint from visiting a camp for the displaced in war-torn Darfur during his first visit to the country. For an NGO wanting to convey the immediacy of it's mission in the field, Twitter could provide compelling live updates in 140 characters or less; imagine a Twitter that says 'Blocked at checkpoint - arguing with army colonel'. This is a great way of engaging people and giving them a sense of what's happening on the ground.


The unanswered question is whether we can come up with forms of (cyber)activism that are just as immediate, so people can do someting meaningful in response to the Twitter. On a similar subject, Andy Carvin explores the humanitarian relief potential of Twitter in his post Can Twitter Save Lives?

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."


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."


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.


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


chance social media will lead to conformity privacy invasion

google & yahoo - everything about us and our relationships

privacy backlash


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


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


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'

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

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