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 â€˜Liberating the Silenced: Iranian Bloggers in the Diasporaâ€™
. 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."