I was at the one year anniversary of the Amnesty International-Observer Irrepressible.info campaign looking at challenges to the freedom of information on the internet. The event started with recorded statements by citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia talking about some of challenges that Chinese Wikipedians face just to contribute to the community-created encyclopedia.
Some people think the internet is a bad idea. I think it’s a great idea, and we’re the people who are going to make it happen.
The next hour and a half had some gripping stories from bloggers and net activists from around the world talking about their struggles for freedom of expression
Kamal Ahmed of The Observer opened up with the long relationship of Amnesty and The Observer. The founder of Amnesty Peter Benenson wrote in the Observer 45 years ago about the The Forgotten Prisoners. Last year, The Observer wanted to mark it’s relaunch last year, and the one organisation that they wanted to work with to mark the launch was Amnesty. The message of Amnesty is even more important now than in the past because of the power that the internet gives to people, he said, and the attempts by governments to control that access to this empowering medium. The Irrepressible campaign wanted to pressure governments whether Iran, Turkmenistan, Vietnam or China to control access to the internet.
The Observer is committed to this campaign as long as people are being censored on the internet.
The issue has been hugely debated in the US, the UK and across Europe. It has brought some engagement from the companies colluding with these governments such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. And he gave credit to Google for making some moves to modify its behaviour.
Clark Boyd, the technology correspondent for the BBC, introduced Martha Lane Fox, founder of LastMinute.com.
She said that she is often referred to as a dot.com dinosaur. She reflected back on why she felt energised when she started LastMinute. It was incredible to think that this was a network that could speak across borders. The web is also about disruption. LastMinute was disruptive in the small sphere of the travel industry. Before LastMinute, it was quite complicated to buy tickets. Yahoo disrupted the way that you looked for information. Amazon disrupted the way that you bought books. The web is also about innovation. It’s important to encourage innovation. We should encourage people with crazy ideas. We’ve been very good in the UK about having good ideas, but we’ve not always been good in commercialising them.
Ten years on, not so much has changed. She said that she didn’t necessarily anticipate the power of the individual. She talked about friends going online to meet people through social networks. There is a shift away from the marketing hype of businesses and hear the real opinions of people. And politics are changing. There is the Huffington Post in the US. In the UK, now people can sign e-petitions for Downing Street.
There are 196m users of Skype. There are now more people watching things via the web than watching TV, she said. She gets all of her news online, does all of her shopping online, investigates the weather for her boyfriend’s fishing trip and watches a video of her god-son on YouTube. She feels blessed to have access to all of those technologies, and she wants to make sure that they are available to everyone.
Ron Deibert, one of the principal investigators with the Open Net Initiative and the Citizen Lab in Toronto
ONI aims to document patterns of internet censorship worldwide. They do research with internet users in countries facing censorship and complex tools. Last year, they did tests and research in 41 countries worldwide.
The picture is rather is rather troublesome. The scope, scale and sophistication of internet censorship is growing worldwide, Ron said.
When they first started four years ago, there were only three countries filtering the internet. Now, that number is 15. Six countries – Burma, Vietnam, China, Iran, Tunisia, Syria – engage in extensive filtering. One would have to include developed countries either through filtering provided by law or at businesses.
Most countries targeted pornography to begin with, but they are now targeting human rights sites, blogs and blogging services, streaming media services, political opposition sites and successionist movements. He also drew attention to commercial filtering products. The US product SmartFilter is used in China, Burma and Iran. These companies (WebSense and a couple of other comanies were mentioned) don’t get as much attention as the larger companies, but they are helping these regimes control information.
He also talked about Just-In-Time filtering, and he raised concerns about ‘an arms race in cyberspace’ between Russia, China and the United States after the recent cyber attacks in Estonia. The architecture of the internet is going to change if concerned citizens don’t take action. He suggested the development of tools and accountability, transparency and the rule of law to hold governments and corporations responsible. We need to raise awareness of how the internet works so that they are aware of how authorities might intercept and monitor communications.
Clark: There are real people who are being imprisoned and tortured because of their blogs.
Sami Ben Garbia, from Tunisia but not lives in the Netherlands. His blog is censored in Tunisia. He is also outreach director at Global Voices.
It is thanks to the internet that I am here and thanks to the internet that I got asylum in the Netherlands. The enemies of the internet control the government. They are using religious, nationalistic and other excuses to muzzle the internet. They are using multi-national companies and local service providers. The governments know that they are losing control.
Video sharing sites like Daily Motion and YouTube are being blocked. Photo sharing sites are being blocked. Online maps are being blocked. Blogger is being blocked in Pakistan, Morocco and Fiji. E-mails are being intercepted and scanned.
Users need technical knowledge. They don’t have these skills, but they do have fear of being tortured.
The internet is a bad thing for the users who are threatened. In Tunisia, the internet is bad thing. A Tunisian blogger spent a year and a half in jail for a subversive comment. The internet is a bad thing Tunisian journalist who has been assaulted by plain clothed police. He listed a number of activists in Tunisia who had been imprisoned, assaulted or harassed. You can see a full list on the Tunisian Prison Map mash-up he created.
In Syria, he talked about a mother who was arrested for blogging against corruption. In Fiji, the internet was a bad thing for a business man who arrested him on the belief that he was an anti-military blogger. In China, 50 cyber-dissidents are in jail.
The battle for freedom has another front. Here in the West, we have to fight against these companies that are designing this software.
Sina Motalebi, Iranian journalist and former blogger, five years ago, he was arrested by the Iranian government.
He was afraid to mention it in his weblog. The government told him that the proceedings were secret and he couldn’t blog. He spent 23 days in a cell. He was blindfolded. After three weeks in prison, he lost his psychological stability. He heard voices. He had conflicting ideas. He fought for his sanity. He was interrogated about every word on every post on his web blog. I don’t know which post was the reason for my arrest. He was blind-folded and interrogated by the head interrogator.
Blogging is a free way to express your beliefs without any knowledge or cost, Sina said.
The interrogator told him that he wanted to use him as an example to prove that there are costs. High costs.
After he left Iran, they arrested his father. He then realised that he could not pay these costs. He could accept the costs but could not impose them on his family. There are many people like him with moderate views who want to fight for freedom of expression but do not want to put their families under threat.
In Iran, the voice of extremists is louder than ordinary people. The internet is place that you can hear the voice of average, ordinary users.
But the authority is suppressing these moderate voices as extremist voices flourish. There are extreme, radical sites outside the country that want to spread these extremist voices. We must not only decry the censorship but also help with media literacy so that they can find reliable information in this mine field, as Sami put it.
Clark Boyd, this isn’t just developing nations. We have on the line Josh Wolf. He is an American video blogger. He refused to turn over tapes of an anti-globalisation demo. He served 220 days.
Josh Wolf: He filmed the G8 protest in San Francisco that was going on in Gleneagles Scotland. A police officer was injured. The FBI got involved. They asked for the video. He cited journalistic privilege issues. A federal grand jury was convened to press charges. He refused to turn over the tape. He had a couple of more hearings, but he was detained. He published the material and turned over the tapes as long as he didn’t have to testify.
Clark Boyd: What’s the lesson here? I get the sense that you weren’t expecting this to happen.
Wolf: We need a better shield law. We have state protections, but on a federal law, we don’t have protections.
Clark Boyd: What can we do in the west?
Josh Wolf: I’m focusing on the Freedom Media Coalition. There are other organisations out there, the Committee to Protect Bloggers. But there is nothing to protect a peer-to-peer network to protect individuals. Every voice deserves to be heard. They are setting up a network that will publish prisoners blogs.
Clark Boyd: We’re now going to shift gears and talk about corporate complicity: Google, Yahoo and router companies like Cisco. One of the interesting threads of this story. We’re going to turn to Morton Sklar. He helped bring the a case on behalf a Chinese cyber-dissident in the United States.
Morton Sklar: Yu Ling brought the attention of the case of her husband, Wang Xiaoning, as well as Shi Tao to the United States. We have filed a case against Yahoo. US-based corporations are playing such a major role in the latest wave of this free speech challenges. In China, Yahoo has provided the government with the names and addresses of those discussing democracy on the internet. Cisco has provided the Chinese government with routers and training to filter the internet on a huge scale. Google has filtered internet search results.
There are four individuals whose names we know and hundreds that we don’t know who have been detained and possibly tortured by Chinese authorities on the basis on information provided by Yahoo. We’re waiting for Yahoo’s response.
Yahoo said that they did what was required of them to comply with law in China. They didn’t know how the Chinese government would use the information. They also said that it was provided by an affiliate that they have no control over.
They are asking that Yahoo would not be complicit in providing information to the Chinese government.
Clark Boyd: What do you think is the chance of success?
Morton Sklar: I think the chances are good based on a statue in the US that allows people to get relief from the victims of torture.
Clark Boyd: Google had a slightly different argument. They said it was better for them to be there and provide some service.
Morton: It’s better for them to be there, but when a corporation is contributing to torture and arrests, they have to ask themselves whether it is worth doing or proper to do. These corporations have not asked themselves that question and owned up that they are complicit in these human rights abuses.
People need to speak out to our government. You have to pass a law that companies doing business abroad will not be complicit in human rights abuses. There is a share holders meetings and they are being challenged on
Yan Sham-Shackleton wrote the blog Glutter, (cross glitter and gutter).
I started right out of college working for online media and internet providers in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia. She was a producer and wrote news on websites. At the time in 1997 after the Hong Kong hand over.
After the handover, there was a person in the office who didn’t seem to have a role. Shinua officials were called into the room. They couldn’t put information about basic information about democracy, politics and law. They used the swearing word block to prevent this information from being posted. She was just doing a job.
She quit her job after a couple of months.
Clark Boyd: This isn’t just technical means.
Shackleton: Technology that seems innocuous can be used in other ways. The software that originally blocked swear words was now being used to block political speech.
On her blog, she wrote that her simple wish for her 30th birthday was that she wanted a free and democratic China. She was in an internet cafe. She chatted to a man in the cafe. She asked what he did. He said that he worked for the government.
She wrote to TypePad. She suddenly could not get into her blog. It seemed to be a geographical problem. It led not only to her blog being blocked in China but all of TypePad being blocked.
She said that people can break through the firewall and teach people how to stay anonymous and safe. If the internet is truly free, it doesn’t matter that the government controls the media.
Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement. In 1993, users should be able to able to see the source code. All software should be free. I started developing the GNU operating system in 1984. Now, they mistakingly call it Linux, but I started that work.
Free software itself can’t do anything to get around gateways. If you’re using non-free software, you’re controlled in a different way. You’re using software controlled by someone else. Both Microsoft Windows and Mac OS restrict users from copying. To prevent that from being bypassed. We have to protect ourselves from threats both inside and outside. As we fight against the Great Firewall, we have to make sure our own computers aren’t censored.
He called the Trusted Software Platform the Treacherous Software Platform because it took control from users to corporations.
It embeds numbers numbers in documents. It’s perfect for Enron and ‘dodgy dossiers’. If a whistleblower sends a document to a reporter, the reporter might be blocked from reading the document due to the embedded identifier.
There is not a software only solution. It might take new hardware. In the 1960s, when I started working with computers, I told people that computers couldn’t take over the world. He said that computers only did what they were told. But he thinks he might be wrong. Computers are making it possible today for total surveillance. This is the world of ‘Bliar’ and Clown: Total Information Awareness.
Shava Nerad, executive director of the TOR project – The Onion Router
They have two staff members but over a thousand volunteers. It’s used and recommended by Reporters without Borders and Global Voices Online. She wanted to talk about the tension between the technical issues and the social issues. She grew up in Vermont reading the Christian Science Monitor and the Guardian. Now, she can check the Guardian site online and listens to National Public Radio or the BBC. In China, these sites are blocked. Reporters in China have to use TOR to file their stories. Tiny non-profits and the power of the internet make this possible. We have to make privacy online the norm in face of government and marketing pressures. Our client TOR is used by dissidents, bloggers, governments and ordinary people.
We have to think not only about censorship in China but also privacy rights as a consumers. The right to free expression online is the main way to resist governments who aren’t agile enough to change fast enough. The major issue is sovereignty.
I think that this is a Galileo problem. His thoughts were disruptive to society. Today, some of the players in our current drama deserve our compassion. China is in flux. I get reporters who try to get me to vilify China. China moving to a market economy is a pressure cooker. Rather than opposing China, I think of our disruptive technology is a valve on the pressure cooker. None of us want civil unrest in China. China needs the internet to remain competitive.
This is not a new problem. Dissidents have been jailed for information offenses. She referred to Tom Paine in the revolutionary colonies that became the United States.
Activity internet leaves tracks. Without tools like TOR, government or marketing groups can track your activity. Anonymity is important. In China, thousands and thousands of people use anonymity so it provides coverage. However, in Tunisia, use is rare and might draw the attention of authorities.
I talked briefly about how Skype, instant messaging and blogs and the impact on journalism and the freedom of information. My colleague Jemima Kiss also was at the event and blogged about it on the Guardian’s media blog.