International Relations

From Sideshow to Main Attraction: Transatlantic Perspectives on Digital Rights and Online Privacy

During Wikimania 2012, Jimmy Wales said that he hopes Wikipedia never has to black out again in protest, but that it can if the need arises.

According to Daniel Weitzner, Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Internet Policy at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the government has kept its hands off of the Internet, allowing innovation to course and the Internet to grow from a small sideshow to the main event, from a small community of researchers to being an indispensable part of global infrastructure. If the Internet were to be an economic sector, he told the audience at the New America Foundation‘s panel discussion on Transatlantic Perspectives on Digital Rights and Online Privacy, it would make up 3.5% of GDP in all OECD countries. Despite this, there is still no Department of the Internet, which is a good thing, Weitzner explained, because of the very horizontal nature of the World Wide Web.

At the same time, we are becoming increasingly aware of the need to create legislation or norms to protect the privacy of the average Internet user. Although it is highly unlikely that an all encompassing, grand public policy treaty on the use and protection of personal information on the Internet will ever be signed, laws should still be made to protect consumer privacy and to let businesses know where boundaries lie. It’s not enough to let companies and people regulate themselves. In order to really make an effort to enforce consumer privacy and protection, the “bully pulpit authority” of government regulation must be used. This does not equate to infringing on the freedom of expression online, which would slow the growth of online businesses and innovation.

Anti-ACTA demonstrators wearing Guy Fawkes masks.

Anti-ACTA demonstrators in Tallinn
photo courtesy of Otto de Voogd (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Three of the four panelists, Konstantin von Notz, Markus Beckedahl, and Jeanette Hofmann, all shared the German perspective on digital rights and online privacy. Beckedahl, the founder of, told the amused audience how in Europe, the potential for ACTA (the infamous treaty already signed by the US to strengthen copyright legislation) to be signed by their own governments created a stir. Starting with Poles literally jumping in the cold in protest of the treaty (the story of which was told during Wikimania 2012), demonstrations spread to Germany where tens of thousands showed up to protest any abridgement of online creativity, and then to different parts of Europe. Jeanette Hofmann, Co-Founder and Director of Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, announced her own plans to create a study challenging the pervasive economic assumption that copyright is essential to prevent market failure.

The fourth panelist was one of America’s own, Gigi B. Sohn, the director and co-founder of Public Knowledge, who managed to pull something positive out of the SOPA/PIPA fiasco. Americans, she said, are now more concerned about where their politicians stand on issues touching the internet. Even though SOPA and PIPA went to the backburner in the face of public outrage, Sohn warned that lobbyists are still pushing hard to increase IP protection through the creation of jobs in the IP department and through IP protection personnel in departments where ones haven’t been seen before.

Wikipedia’s blackout design for SOPA

There is a fundamental difference, Sohn emphasized, between legislating the content on the Internet and how that content gets there. The barriers to potential growth and innovation on the internet are not really created by controlling the on-ramps but by controlling the width and scope of the road itself, she said. Wikipedia itself helps to bring awareness to this issue. When Wikipedia blacked out in protest of SOPA and PIPA, Europeans began paying attention to the issue of government control of copyright on the Internet, said Beckedahl.

What we say on the Internet has global reach. The information we spread can touch the lives of people all over the world. Still, five billion people do not have access to the Internet, so there is still tremendous room for growth. In the spirit of providing free access to the sum of human knowledge, the Wikimedia movement should continue to raise awareness about potential legislature that may abridge that access and engage more people in the spread of information and the inevitable creativity and innovation that comes with it.

Lisa Marrs, Outreach & Program Coordination, Wikimedia DC

From Mozart to Michael Jackson

Inside of the Grand Reception room in the Austrian Embassy

Photo courtesy of Gryffindor under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Austrian Embassy’s giant reception room was packed. Row upon row of quiet guests in formal evening attire sat beneath a wide, glassy sunroof allowing the last rays of the sun to soak quietly into the dim room. Even the people in blue and red in the paintings lining the walls seemed to be waiting. The stage was set and lit and an older woman with short, blonde hair took the microphone, “This is my last cultural event,” Andrea Schrammel, the Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum Washington, informed the waiting audience. Even though she had spoken these words several times before, it was much more real this time, as the Austrian government was calling her back to Vienna after four years in the United States.

After her brief introduction of the event, a musical duet by famed Jazz piano composer Michael Kahr and violin prodigy Barbara Helfgott, Wikimedia DC‘s own Nicholas Bashour, in a turquoise button shirt that matched the blues in some of the art around the room, took the stage as a sponsor of the event and told the expectant audience that this event is only the tip of the iceberg, that Wikimedia DC is active and looking for more opportunities to reach out to the international crowd.

Austrian Violinist Barbara Helfgott, photo by Nicholas Michael Bashour, CC BY-SA 3.0

Applauding, the people fell silent when Kahr, tall with a fitted black suit and mahogany hair feathering his neck, stepped out of the backroom alone and took the ready stage. Without preamble he sat down at the waiting piano and began. Soft and classical notes met strains of improvisation in a dizzying way as the last of the sunlight faded from the room and the only light came from the beams concentrated on the man and his piano.

After two songs, he finally arose, bowed to the applause, and addressed the audience saying how wonderful it was to be there that night and to introduce Barbara Helfgott as “the future of Austrian music”. She came striding out of the backroom in six inch sparkly white heels, sleeveless black dress that went to the top of the knees, and a brilliant smile, holding out her violin and bow as she crossed to center stage.

Nodding to the sound technician to her left and clenching the violin between her chin and shoulder, she smiled at Kahr and winked at the audience as the bada-tss of percussiondrums and other instruments began to throb from the speakers and wash out over the audience like the beginning ripples of a rising tide. Then Kahr joined in with the piano, moving back and forth on the seat, shoulders keeping the beat along with his fingers as they ran across the keys. Nodding and tapping her toes, Helfgott moved in, the first few notes screaming out from the violin like lost souls. The audience began to look restless, phones were brought out, someone left the room with fingers in her ears. Yet Helfgott smiled and turned to Kahr, nodding almost imperceptibly, and the real music began.

Austrian pianist Michael Kahr and Austrian violinist Barbara Helfgott, photo by Nicholas Michael Bashour, CC BY-SA 3.0

For forty or so minutes straight, Helfgott and Kahr coaxed wild and beautiful melodies from the piano and violin, intertwining and separating them from the background music thumping from the speakers. After finishing the first set, they returned for not one, but two encore performances. During the first encore, Helfgott introduced the next song, “I’m So Excited,” by taking the microphone and giving a short speech about how excited she was to be at the embassy, how excited the embassy people were to have her and Kahr, and she knew the audience was super excited, too. Then, Helfgott turned to the audience and said, “well, this concert is called From Mozart to Michael Jackson. There hasn’t been any Mozart, but, we have Michael Jackson,” after which she and Kahr played the finalist song: “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson.

After the romping musical escapade during which Kahr shook his shoulders to the music and Helfgott danced as she played her violin, Helfgott and Kahr returned for a final encore, this time, a request from the audience. “Mozart, Mozart!” the audience chimed in, but, unfortunately, according to Helfgott, “Mozart did not really write a lot of pieces for piano and solo violin.” As a compromise, she played, on her own, a rendition of one of Mozart’s most famous and challenging arias, “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” from the opera “Die Zauberflöte” (The Magic Flute).

After the concert, everyone broke for food and wine, and during the reception we had the opportunity to briefly interview these two great musicians.

Barbara Helfgott, with her amazing showmanship, got her start on the violin at the tender age of 5, and by 10/11, she was already winning contests and attending university classes for the musically gifted. After being turned away from philharmonics because “women can’t play the same as men,” she resolved to create her own philharmonic ensemble. And she did: the Rondo Vienna, a group of up to 25 women musicians that travels Europe and, in 2007, won the Austrian Show Award.

Although she doesn’t have a favorite location where she would love to play, she does want to play wherever there are “people who love music. There is a symbiosis between musician and audience: the musician expresses themselves through their music and the audience takes and gives back, in turn expressing themselves through listening.”

Joe Zawinul

Joe Zawinul
Photo courtesy of Wikimedian, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Michael Kahr first became attached to jazz when he heard the music of Joe Zawinul, an Austrian-American jazz keyboardist and composer. With jazz, he says that “the music itself draws you in. It is a musical language, there are no definitive differences you can point to between Austrian, African, Australian, and American jazz even if there are some researchers now trying to find those differences.” And he has been all of those places in search of musical inspiration, studying jazz wherever he goes.

“When I was young, I knew I wanted to travel,” he added. He has visited America (the birthplace of jazz), Africa, the Middle East, and Australia in order to find traditional instruments, gather inspiration, and experience the music scene in those countries as well.

As the guests slowly trickled out from the embassy into the humid blanket of night with the orange glow of incandescent bulbs behind them, and those who live at the embassy climbed the stairs to their living quarters, no one had a cross word to say, or a regret for coming. Bridging cultures and languages, bringing people together to connect ideas, Wikimedia’s Embassy Outreach Initiative’s second event left everyone moon walking away with thrumming hearts and dancing minds.

Lisa Marrs, Outreach & Program Coordination, Wikimedia DC

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

Internet Freedom & Global Knowledge: Where do we go from here?

More than three months after the SOPA/PIPA protests, a big question still remains for the global Internet community: where do we go from here? The Wikimedia/Wikipedia community, which was divided over the decision to black out the English Wikipedia globally in January, faces a different but related question: have we done enough, and should we remain neutral moving forward? To help answer at least the first question, last week Wikimedia District of Columbia (Wikimedia DC), in partnership with the Washington European Society and the Estonian Embassy in Washington, hosted the inaugural event of the Embassy Outreach Initiative, “Internet Freedom & Open Government: an International Conversation.”

From L to R, Danny Weitzner, Chairman Marko Mihkelson, Ian Schuler, and Rebecca MacKinnon (CC-BY-SA)

The event, hosted at the Estonian Embassy, featured a discussion with Danny Weitzner, Deputy CTO for Internet Policy at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy; Chairman Marko Mihkelson, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Estonian Parliament; Ian Schuler, Senior Manager for Internet Freedom Programs at the US State Department; and Rebecca MacKinnon, Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a member of the Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board. Adam Kushner, Deputy Editor of the National Journal, moderated the discussion.

The conversation on Internet freedom highlighted several global issues and programs, such as the State Department’s $76 million effort to support worldwide Internet freedom programs, but two significant points emerged that have a particular significance to the Wikimedia community’s goal of global free access to knowledge. The first was an assertion by both Weitzner and MacKinnon that what we can do on the internet today is not a product of random forces or serendipitous actions, but was the result of hard work, of conscious domestic and international policy decisions, and of global efforts by public and private groups to create the environment in which the current Internet culture exists. This is the same assertion that was at the heart of Sue Gardner’s statement on the eve of the January 18 Wikipedia blackout: that “although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not.”

The global dialogue on Internet freedom did not start on January 18, and it’s far from being over. There is no doubt that Internet freedom will always be a central component to the mission of providing free access to global knowledge. One has to only look toward the Uzbek Wikipedia, which was blocked in Uzbekistan for no good reason, to see an example of how attacking Internet freedom can impede our global vision and goals.

The second significant point from the discussion at the embassy was the perhaps deserved criticism that the Internet community has been largely reactive when it comes to Internet freedom, and it needs alternatively become more proactive and use its power constructively to influence or advocate for suitable alternatives. Stopping SOPA/PIPA and hindering the progress of ACTA did not solve the problems that they were designed to address, and there are already talks of what needs to be done next. The Internet community as a whole, and the Wikimedia community in particular, needs to figure out how it wants to shape the global conversation. We need to, as a movement, decide what role want to play in this dialogue or we run the risk of possibly facing another SOPA not too far down the road. But we also need to be careful to avoid sidelining or disenfranchising those in the movement who are not comfortable with (or legally restricted from) advocacy.

One thing to keep in mind is that promoting advocacy and facilitating dialogue are two different things. We don’t need to advocate for a particular viewpoint or policy to facilitate constructive dialogue about the issue as a whole, if that’s the role we want to play. Sometimes simply being present and making the decision makers aware of our existence and our needs makes a significant difference. SOPA, and particularly ACTA burst onto the scene after years of closed-door negotiations, and that’s part of the reason why the response to them was so intense. Many of the policymakers drafting them had no idea what the needs of the Internet community was, or even how the Internet works, because the Internet community was never a part of that conversation and these policymakers did not even think that the community’s opinion mattered. These policies, and way they developed, would have been radically different had we made our presence, needs, and significance known earlier.

Initiatives at Wikimedia DC, like the upcoming Open Government Project, are designed to do just that— to facilitate dialogue and allow the community to be an active participant, both online and offline, so that our needs are not ignored or misrepresented in the future. We at Wikimedia DC will always work toward the goal of empowering individuals across the globe through access to knowledge, and Washington, DC, is a great place for us to make an impact. After all, it was here where President James Madison wrote that “a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Nicholas Michael Bashour, President, Wikimedia District of Columbia

Note: The statements in this post are simply my own and do not represent the opinions of the Board of Directors as a whole

Transcending Boundaries: International Relations and Wiki Projects

The field of International Relations (IR) has always been about transcending boundaries, whether physical or metaphorical. Unfortunately, as aptly stated by Oxford IR Professor Andrew Hurrell in his introduction of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s inaugural Distinguished Fulbright Lecture, there exists in IR academia a “Berlin Wall-like division between fields.” This division, in fact, exists in several disciplines, not just in IR. While there are several individuals across disciplines who work to break down these barriers, large-scale cross-disciplinary collaborations hardly ever exist. In today’s highly-connected world, enhancing global knowledge depends in part on fostering collaborations across fields and disciplines.

In a paper by Deana D. Pennington titled “Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration and Learning,” she argues not only that collaboration is important, but also that cross-disciplinary collaboration depends on having a “knowledge ecosystem” composed of individuals who use effective tools along with bodies of knowledge to foster successful collaboration.  The very collaborative nature of Wikis makes Wikipedia and its sister project one of the effective tools to build this “knowledge ecosystem.” The only thing necessary is a large number of people who bring their expert body of knowledge with them and use Wikis as a tool for effective collaboration.

While not a be-all end-all solution to the problem of sharp divisions between fields in International Relations and other disciplines, Wiki Projects have the potential for bringing together actors from across IR fields to collaborate and build a large body of knowledge that is available to millions of people across the world, particularly those who wouldn’t normally have any reason or incentive to interact with each other. This is not a foreign idea to IR scholars. In a recent survey of US scholars of International Relations and related fields by the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at the College of William and Mary, scholars were asked a number of questions about topics related to the scholarship and pedagogy of IR. One of the questions asked was whether they have used Wikis, such as Wikipedia, as a scholarship or teaching tool. Results showed that 52.36% of responders used Wikis as a teaching tool in the classroom, and 13.46% of responders used Wikis for scholarly purposes. Unfortunately, only 6.96% of responders said that they have edited a Wikipedia article in their area of expertise. Increasing the number of professionals who contribute in their field to Wikipedia articles and other Wiki Projects is an important goal for everyone in the Wiki movement and an essential step for turning Wiki Projects into the effective collaboration tool of the “knowledge ecosystem.” We at Wikimedia DC place particular emphasis on reaching out to professionals in our area for that purpose.

Many of the scholars surveyed are from Washington DC. In fact, four of the top ten schools of IR are based in DC: The Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and the School of International Service at American University. One of our goals at Wikimedia DC is to reach out to students and scholars at these schools and encourage them to add expert and professional contributions to various Wikipedia articles in their field. By engaging the professional IR community in the region, we are moving one step further toward ensuring that the expert knowledge of world’s top scholars in International Relations becomes available to people around the globe.

If you are a scholar or a student of International Relations based in the Washington DC area, we will be reaching out to you soon. But we invite you to also reach out to us. In the works, we have multiple projects dedicated to bringing together professionals from many disciplines, such as LibraryLab, Edit-a-thons, and our forthcoming Embassy Outreach Initiative and Wikis and Open Government Project. By working together, we can ensure that the vast intellectual capacity of the Washington DC region is shared with individuals across the world. In that way, Wiki Projects and Wikimedia DC, like the field of International Relations, transcend both physical and metaphorical boundaries to bring the international community together.

Image: Madonna des Kanonikus Georg van der Paele