The Access Denied Map of web 2.0 censorship

The Access Denied Map is a high-impact map of the web 2.0 crackdown from Sami Ben Gharbia, creator of the Tunisian Prison mashup.

Access Denied Map

The map provides an overview of online censorship efforts related to the social web and major web 2.0 websites, and aims to amplify the local campaigns defending the right to access them. As Sami writes in his introduction; "The recent successes of ... citizen journalists and citizen watchdogs in Pakistan, Burma, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, have confirmed once again the enormous potential of user-generated content as an advocacy tool and as an alternative and independent source of news. The common characteristic of all these cases is that they have made efficient use of web 2.0 technologies in exposing abuses and injustice."

While Sami's map highlights the collision of the social web with what he neatly describes as the “authoritarian reflex”, the dimension of web 2.0 censorship unmapped in this mashup is the exercise of unaccountable authority by the sites themselves, and we need a Freedom of Expression League Table for Web 2.0 along with a campaign to defend it. One aspect that increasingly interests me is the power of the social web as a cultural space; and it's the cultural (rather than directly political) aspects that, a few days ago, seems to have resulted in Syria banning Facebook. As a blogger from Damascus writes

“Who lives in Syria knows that it's the country of “nothing's going on” except to hang out in old Damascus' cafes, but recently there has been a cultural awakening; people are starting to organize their interests in concerts, galleries, conferences, plays, screenings…etc. and Facebook is facilitating the process which is very hard to do in an inactive militarily controlled society. There are no cultural institutions in Syria, no private independent NGOs, no civic institutions, who represent the populations except the government? Syrian Facebookers are trying now to represent themselves. Those who cannot be activists in a “real” Syria can be one in a virtual Syria.”

Participatory Web for Development

Web2forDev in Rome

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

Connectivity, Innovation, Censorship

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

The dark side of web 2.0

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

Innovation - the disruptive fruit of participation

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

Web2forDev HowTo

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

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

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

Netsquared - the European Remix?


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


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


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


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

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



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


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


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

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


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

social networking and social change

It's hardly a surprise that large NGO's are starting to experiment with social networks, given the sheer numbers of people using them and their high media profile. But, judging by comments on the eCampaigning Forum wiki , there's some uncertainty about how non-profits should approach social networks, and especially how to get an effective return for the time that has to be invested in these relationship-spaces. NGOs are also anxious about the loss of control - in a participative space, what happens to the brand and the carefully crafted messaging?

Of course, some groups have already leveraged a lot from these space, such as the Genocide Information Network (see also my previous post ). Despite the fact that there are now some decent initiatives from larger orgs such as Oxfam's Oxjam and Amnesty's Make Some Noise (both MySpace, and both focussed on youth + music) I still think that the agility deficit of large organisations means that smaller groups or non-profit start-ups like GI-Net will find it easier to get to grip with social networks.

A parallel dynamic comes from what i call the first law of web 2.0, which says that people will do it anyway. Community groups and grassroots activists aren't waiting for large NGos to decide whether social networks are kosher - they're just going ahead and using them (for better or for worse).

Another and newer issue for NGOs is the potential fragmentation of social spaces, as niche communities start to spring up. It's hard enough for a traditional org to decide what to do about MySpace or YouTube, so the multiplication of spaces must seem like a dizzying kaleidescope. The flip side of this is the emergence of social networks focusing directly on activism, which could give non-profits a direct route to interested audiences and cut out a lot of the noise. Right now this seems like a growing trend, with examples like Change.org & Project Agape , but there's also some scepticism about whether this is a good thing. Perhaps they'll be complementary - you go to an activism community for a guaranteed response and to a global pool to filter out new constituents. A recent development is the extension of the LinkedIn business network to support charities .

It's also useful for Western organisations to remember that social networks are a global and growing phenomenon, despite the digital divide. This also complicates the picture for BINGOs because (of course) different cultures use (different) social networks in different ways. The majority of Orkut members are in Brazil, and it is also popular in India. China has QQ , Japan has Mixi and Cyworld originated in South Korea. Youth in Kosova and the Kosovan diaspora use Hi5 rather than MySpace or Bebo. Across the Middle East the picture seems varied; while there are Iranian MySpace pages with thousands of friends, Saudi Arabians seem keener on Orkut, and there are MySpace look-alikes like MuslimSpace.

Despite the attraction of numbers in the dominant global communities like MySpace and YouTube, they are corporate spaces that could pose problems for sustained ecampaigning. 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. NGOS should take note of reports that Yahoo shut down many anti-war Yahoo Groups. We may assume the carry over of internet freedoms like free expression, but where does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stand in relation to YouTube's terms of service? (more on this in a future post).

So should NGOs thrown up their hands at the complex and time-hungry nature of these spaces, with their in-world cultures and hard-to-define returns? I think that would be unwise. Whatever the shake-out that follows the new web boom, these spaces hint at emerging online behaviours that aren't simply going to go away. And if the next generation are flooding in to these spaces, perhaps NGOs have a duty to be there, even if it costs them in the short term. For if, as Danah Boyd says, young people are

using the sites to present themselves to a small group of friends and get their recognition and feedback. The sites are an opportunity to define in public who they are. By providing an audience, and the tools to interact with that audience, the social networks are satisfying that need. Boyd calls this behaviour “identity production” and, employing a favourite phrase of hers, says that young people are trying to “write themselves into being”

then shouldn't NGOs be ensuring that the causes they represent are part of that mix?

From a human rights perspective I think the social networking phenomena may have a deep significance. Events like Rwanda have shown the relative impotence of international legal frameworks to prevent mass human rights abuses. We certainly need the values of the UDHR to be embodied in activists that are part of social networks (locally and internationally) and who, by being in communication with one another, feel more empowered to to take action on the ground.

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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