human rights

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.

UCLA Student Tasered: is YouTube a human rights tool?

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

Human Rights at the Internet Governance Forum

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

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

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

At the IGFAt the IGF

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

Web2.0 Mobilization and Institutional Inertia

A flyer at Netsquared for the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-Net) caught my eye, because the front page listed spaces on Flickr and MySpace tagged with 'genocideintervention'.


GI-Net is a formal organisation rather than an informal network, so how come they're so quick to embrace the social web? I think it's because their constituency is students, and they're naturally going where the students are (MySpace , Facebook and so on). So it was interesting to talk to Heddy Nam at Netsquared because she's got a foot in both camps; by day, she works on operational stuff in Amnesty-USA, but outside of work she's part of an international youth network called Never Again which aims to prevent a repeat of a genocide like Rwanda. As Britt Bravo already pointed out, the Never Again network are using almost every social web tool available e.g. wikis, blogs, tagging & webchats. Like Heddy, I've also had experience of both large organisations and activist networks, and it makes me wonder whether big human rights organisations can really be agile enough to take full advantage of social web tools, or whether they'll be prevented by their own institutional inertia. Maye big organisations should stay out of the social web and just let the kids and the activists get on with it.

Surveillance of Social Software

The week after i got back from talking about the potential human rights threats of web2.0. a colleague at work circulated an article by Paul Marks from the New Scientist entitled 'Pentagon sets its sights on social networking websites' which bears out a lot of that threat.
It reveals software being developed with NSA support to datamine social networking sites by, perversely, harnessing the semantic web technologies of the W3C. Then email brought in a link to this article by David Freedman: "Why Privacy Won't Matter - Google, Yahoo and Microsoft desperately want to know every last thing about what you do, say and buy. Here's how they'll do it—and why we'll let them ". It does a nice job of highlighting the way that the drive for revenue from targeted advertising is eroding privacy and turning search engines in to Big Brothers. Whereas Google enables it's panopticon by seducing you in to using it's tools for all of your online life, Yahoo is researching social network analysis as a way to target ads at friends and colleagues. Although the general picture it paints is of inevitability, and it's very negative about the compliance of the younger generation (wrongly, in my opinion), it does highlight some developing techniques for prtecting privacy, and more importantly the possibility of a 'privacy backlash' against all this market-led surveillance. For me, the most chilling effect is the potential for self-censorship; as people become aware that their preferences and opinions are tracked they will become "afraid to engage in any behavior that others might find controversial."

web2.0 & human rights

Here's my session notes for the workshop on 'Human rights and new communication technologies: building an architecture of participation' at the NetSquared conference (held May 30-31 2006).

web2.0 & human rights
the benefits & threats of an architecture of participation

If you haven't heard of 'an architecture of participation' it's one of the original web2.0 buzzwords. (I picked it up from the O'Reilly article that started a lot of the hype. So that's what web2.0 mostly means for me: a chance to up the level of human rights activism by riding a wave of user participation. In the first place this is about increasing people's engagement with Amnesty by giving them ways to contribute; beyond that, it's about matching the social network side of web2.0 to the task of building a movement of activists. We don't yet know what this will look like, except that it will be different to Amnesty's traditional activist model (e.g. local letter writing group). Most of our ecampaigning is really just online letter writing - actions taken by individuals. If we use web2.0 ways to connect these people we open this out to a social network which can spread. Perhaps, for Amnesty, the social network is another route to solidarity. Certainly we hope it will lead to new forms of activism, especially ones that connect the online to the offline, empowering people to do something small but extraordinary for human rights.
Web2.0 will also challenge the way that big NGO's like Amnesty relate to their supporters. There's a great post by Ethan Zuckerman (From representing to pointing: some thoughts on the future of advocacy) where he describes how the online voices of people on the ground will modify the way that big advocacy organisations approach their mission. I think this is a timely development; to make the most use of the Internet we will all have to realise that we're in the 'post-deferential era', where people are not content to simply listen to the authoritative voice, but want pluralistic and direct sources so they can make their own minds up, and have their own say.
Of course, web2.0 can also be fun! It was the creative possibilities that first grabbed our attention: the potential for putting together exciting mash-ups that help visualise Amnesty's work, such as a 10x10 for human rights. And, being web2.0, this isn't only (or mainly) about the creative things we can think of - it's about giving other people a chance to be creative around human rights work in a way that will spread the messages way beyond our core of dedicated supporters. The question for organisations like Amnesty is whether we can let go enough to tap in to the web2.0 attitude; the hacker ethic that remixes content in a concrete display of 'semiotic democracy' i.e. people taking the stuff we put out and making their own meanings from it.
But an architecture of participation can also bring risks. The first risk is that people won't participate! I'm wondering how relevant we can make web2.0 to non-Western constituencies who are often the ones at the forefront of human rights struggles. On the other hand, by inviting people to participate wherever they are, we run the risk of endangering those who live under the most repressive regimes. So we also need to work out how people can participate safely. A good start here is the RSF Handbook for bloggers and cyber-dissidents ). And then there's the dark side of web2.0 itself; that we are entrusting more and more data about ourselves and our social networks to tools which are increasingly owned by large corporations (c.f. the recent purchase of MySpace by Ruport Murdoch). The indirect risk is that a culture of advertising-led surveillance can still lead to stifling conformity. The direct risk comes when corporations hand your data over to hostile authorities. For me it is important that we embed human rights awareness from the start, without getting carried away by the cool grooviness of the latest Google application. I am excited by the potential of web2.0 to amplify and mutualise human rights activism. But the Internet itself is becoming a terrain of human rights struggle; how do we ensure that our web2.0 work will embed and strengthen human rights values?"
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