Archive for June, 2012

Playing by the Rules? A discussion on the future of Internet censorship

There are so many ways the internet is censored all over the world. From a government perspective, internet censorship makes sense, especially if censorship is already practiced in traditional media. If communications via the Internet are free from control, then many regimes (especially the more repressive ones) fear loss of power and control over their populations. With governments loath to surrender any part of their sovereignty, to envision a future where an online civil society, like Cambodia’s, can match that of America or Western Europe in both scope and activity level involves quite a bit of stretching.

Stretching is exactly what the six panelists from all over the world did at the Discussion on the Future of Censorship & Free Speech put on by the DC chapter of the Internet Society in conjunction with the US Department of State. Each panelist came from a country with heavy internet censorship, except for Koundjoro Gabriel Kambou, a journalist at and the panelist from Burkina Faso. In Burkina Faso, Kambou said, the tallest hurdle for activist bloggers and social media networkers to jump isn’t direct government censorship but rather poor internet connection and unreliable electricity.

In contrast, Dlshad Othman, the panelist from Syria and an activist and IT engineer who provides Syrians with digital security tools, listed many occasions when the Syrian government turned off the Internet all together for citizens in certain cities. Othman also discussed the various types of websites that the Syrian government actively blocks, including Facebook and Twitter. Increasingly-resourceful citizen activists are now using proxies, such as Vertus Linux, as well as fluid cell phone connections to bypass the trojans and the prying gaze of the government.

In the United States, the government does have some control over the Internet, the extent of which includes disconnecting terrorist-related websites, tagging people who visit certain sites, and banning some uses of the Internet altogether, such as for child pornography and modern slave trade, where censoring these websites is for the legitimate purpose of protecting valued human rights. Despite these restrictions, the US and other Western countries boast of freedom of speech on the internet and criticize countries, such as China and Syria, which openly ban dissent and restrict access to certain websites.

In seeking praise and a better international image while hoping to attract multinational corporations, some countries proclaim that their citizens have complete freedom on the Internet while at the same time actively cracking down on Internet activists who expose corruption and espouse opposing views. Azerbaijan is an excellent example of this. One of the panelists, Emin Milli, is a famous activist blogger from Azerbaijan who received jail time for his activist work. The Azerbaijani government, being party to treaties that are meant to protect the free speech rights of citizen activists, charged Milli with “hooliganism,” in an attempt to avoid criticism from other countries and appear as to not be in violation of those treaties.

Similarly in Venezuela, the government does not openly limit what citizens say and do on the Internet. Venezuelan politicians, in fact, rank themselves based upon how many twitter followers they have, according to the Venezuelan panelist Andres Azpurua. But if a citizen says something anti-Chavez or points out local corruption, they might find their face on national television along with the description of “Imperialist” and “anti-Venezuelan,” making it easier for pro-Chavez/pro-government individuals to seek out the “Imperialist” and intimidate him or her in some way.

Even in India, Internet freedom seems to be facing some difficulties ahead, said Indian panelist and cyberlaw expert Pranesh Prakash, particularly after the Indian government started requiring that all Internet companies that wish to operate in India must physically move servers into the country. In Cambodia, according to panelist Sopheap Chak, the Deputy Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the government is cracking down on Internet companies and trying to create a culture of self-censorship, akin to the one already in effect in Venezuela, Azerbaijan, and all other countries where the government censors Internet use in some indirect way.

Open access to the Internet is an important aspect of the mission of Wikimedia DC. Millions of people seek information on Wikipedia and other Wikimedia proejct every day, and, sometimes, their access to these project has been hindered (as was the case with the Uzbek Wikipedia, which was blocked by the government there). While our mission is not to make governments open up the Internet in their countries, we do strive to make it possible that anyone who wishes to access or contribute to information on Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects should have the rights and the ability to do so. And when it comes to the Internet, we are all ultimately playing in the same sandbox, and although we do not all play by the same rules, we should all play nicely together.

Lisa Marrs, Outreach & Program Coordination, Wikimedia DC

Copyright info: Image by Mike Licht, imported from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Developing Networks for Development: where do we fit in?

Front of the World Bank.

Picture courtesy of Aman Emoto

The United Nations Industrial Development Organization is a small branch of the World Bank, but it does big work. For the past six years or so, UNIDO has examined how networks between individuals, organizations, businesses, and governments affect economic growth and development.

When they began, there were only a few points of consensus about development economics: 1) that no universal solution to growth exists, 2) that knowledge is the key to effective policy-making, 3) that there are global public goods, 4) that inclusive governance systems are necessary to growth, and 5) that there needs to be South-South triangular cooperation. In all of the data they pulled together from a variety of countries and organizations, they found a steady positive correlation between the level of interconnectedness and intra-connectedness of countries and their citizens, and GDP per capita/government effectiveness: The more connected a government, businesses, organization, and individuals in a country were, the higher they landed in any economic index.

From all of the graphs and data the World Bank has presented, it is clear that there must be some relationship between networks & economic growth and government transparency & effectiveness. Building networks requires ample time and resources. Like growing an orchard, one cannot expect seedlings to give fruit after a year. Likewise, networks need time to take root and mature before endowing their benefits. At the release of fresh Networks for Prosperity information at the World Bank, a representative of Costa Rica, which ranks about the same as China in term of density and quality of networks, made the above point admirably. He said that networks are more of a force in Middle Income Countries (MICs) because those countries have diversified industries outside of the primary sector of agriculture and mining. This means that networks have the potential to bring even more business into the state as a matter of agglomeration and assurance that the government will not change policies abruptly after a company begins operation. A well educated populace able to take advantage of non-primary sector jobs combined with a transparent, well-connected government means less social unrest, which then leads to greater investment opportunities and so on.

So what can the global Wikimedia movement do to tap into this particular field of networks and make a positive difference globally? Wikipedia can already be accessed on mobile technology, and partnerships with mobile providers, like Orange and Telenor, allow for people in the Middle East & North Africa, and Asia & Southeastern Europe to access Wikipedia and all of its information for free. So we know that there are ways to get important information to people on mobile technology without costs to them. Combine that with the fact that the 87% of the world’s population will have mobile subscriptions by 2015, and what you have is a well-established network that can be an instrumental part of getting the right kind of information to the right people in accessible ways. One particular suggestion for utilizing the reach of that network (brought up during individual discussions at the event) was the possibility of creating a or a similar project as a space for governments and International Governmental Organizations (IGOs) to post their policies clearly, and where citizens can comment on how those policies are implemented on the ground.

Wikimedia DC is working on building relationships with various organizations, non-profits, government institutions, and embassies to coordinate edit-a-thons and hack-a-thons, along with cultural and educational events to engage local Wikipedians and Wikimedians and encourage new individuals to join the global knowledge movement. The support of this large community will help us to continually update and improve the world’s largest encyclopedia and its related projects.

To access the Networks for Prosperity report, you can visit (PDF link):

Lisa Marrs, Outreach & Program Coordination, Wikimedia DC

Blind with Vision

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown DC is more than the cornucopia of book stacks it appears to be from the street. Within its glass walls its librarians in various departments labor tirelessly creating programs for multitudes of patrons. Chris is one such librarian. He works with adaptive services teaching the blind how to use computers. This past year a group of students from his advanced class decided to go one step further. Every month or so they meet as a book club and pick a book that doesn’t have a Wikipedia article yet, listen to it, then return and, using the software Chris teaches them how to use, write an article as a group.

It is an amazing privilege to watch them at work. All of them are older folks and have varying amounts of experience with computers but they all take turns typing sentences, navigating the keyboards, counting keys from left to right to find the right letter and clicking it before searching for the next. Everyone participates in the process of writing and brainstorming content and, in the end, what they create is a new Wikipedia entry, expanding the horizon of shared information just that much further.

Their most recent article is about the book Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper and their next project is Outwitting Trolls. To put it in the words of an attendee, “We may get loud and rambunctious, but we pull through. We always pull through.”

Lisa Marrs, Outreach & Program Coordination, Wikimedia DC

Copyright notes: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. by David Monack, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license from Wikimedia Commons.