The 4 Ways Tech Can Change Politics

How can people use digital technology to change politics? Starting from within political institutions and moving outward, people can use technology to change politics in the following four ways:

1.Insiders

This is e-government – people inside government using technology to change government, usually to make it more efficient, but occasionally to make it more accountable and democratic. On the efficiency side you have e-filing of income taxes and clearinghouse sites like USA.gov. On the accountability and democracy side you have Recovery.gov and Data.gov, efforts to give people the information they need to hold government to account.

An interesting sub-group of insiders are those who use digital technology not only as a means of government reform, but as a model for how government should function. This is the idea of “government as a platform” or Government 2.0. As a recent post on O’Reilly Radar put it, “Gov 2.0 is about a transformation process involving innovation for transparency, collaboration, and/or participation,” it “does not exist in a government vacuum…. To the extent that it serves or interacts with citizens, those citizens serve as an operating environment for government.”

The country that is trying this Government 2.0 approach most seriously is Great Britain, where thePrime Minister David Cameron’sBig Society program is cutting back on social services and asking citizens to step in and co-create British society. Practically, this means collaborative budgeting and unfunded local initiatives like people building a bike path in their village. A recent New Yorker article said of the Big Society, “This is Wikipedia government, collectively created by the impassioned, the invested, and the bored.” Without money (the country isin adebt crisis), access toinformation is the currency of this new endeavor. “Transparency is the Cameronian fetish; government is meant to be a ‘co-production’ of citizen and state.”

2. Entrants

Political institution can be changed not only by people already in government, but by helpingnew types of people enter government who previously would have been doomed to failure by their outsider status. The prime example here is without question the 2008 election of Barack Obama, where thousands of online micro-donations allowed the campaign tofund itselfwithout relying on the traditional big donors and PACs and for supporters to communicate with one another and self-mobilize without the direction of the campaign through social media tools like MyBarackObama.

Two other prominent examples of digital technology helping outsiders into office by reaching out directly to self-organizing supporters arePresidentRoh Moo Hyun in South Korea in, whose supporters mobilized online and via text messaging in 2002, and President Victor Yushchenko of Ukraine, whom the Orange Revolution brought to power, through the help of mobile technology and online citizen journalism in 2004.

The post-election atmosphere into which these candidate step is rarely peaceful. President Obama is brutally attacked from the conservative right and disappointed left. Yushchenko oversaw various government crises, including two dissolutions of Parliament, before losing the election of 2010. Roh’s story is surely the saddest. After a dramatic fall from grace he committed suicide in 2009. The difficulty these outsider candidates face once they enter formal political institutions is less a mark of personal failure than an indication of how truly threatened the old guard feel by these new insiders and how viciously they will fight to thwart them.

3. Pursuaders

The third group, pursuaders, seek to influence political institutions from the outside. This group refers not only to the digital activists that are the common theme of this blog, but also more traditional nonprofits and, perhaps most forcefully of all, business interests. In the persuader (or advocate or lobbyist) role, these groups have no interest in being members of the government, but seek to convince those in government to act and legislate according to their interests.

There are many types of pursuader individuals, from paid lobbyists to nonprofit employees to passionate volunteers. However, it is the least well-connected that are most likely to rely heavily on technology to make their voices heard and to mobilize supporters to take action on their behalf. To a corporate lobbyist with the Senator’s home phone on speed dial, creating an active Facebook group or trying to raise awareness of an issue through creating a hashtag on Twittermay seem not worth the effort. However, as the rise of astro-turfing has made clear, even the well-connected sometimes need a popular front to reinforce the legitimacy of their claims.

Even though digital activists are often seen as radical, and are jailed and harassed in repressive countries, they are actually operating within the existing political environment. They access the basic institutions of government and, even when they seek a leadership change, go about it through the proper institutional channels of elections. In the case of issue advocacy they are even less radical, asking only that those already in power side with them on a particular issue. Digital activists are not the radicals of this spectrum.

4. Usurpers

The true radicals here are the usurpers, those who use technology in their attempts to take political power, usually through violence. Though this site does not address violent activism often, its role in changing politics cannot be ignored.The Mumbai terrorists used encrypted Blackberry phonesto coordinate with one another during the 2008 attacks and seek information about the progress of the attacks, which has caused a backlash against encrypted mobile data not only in India but also in the Middle East.

In Somalia, the Islamist insurgency group Al-Shabaab uses their web forum, Al Quimmah, tocommunicate with the Western media and recruit fighters internationally. Their desire for power is serious, and they have been successful. According to Wikipedia, as of summer 2010 the group controls most of the southern and central parts of the country, including significant portions of the capital, Mogadishu. Where it controls territory it changes political institutions by Islamacizing them, enforcing the harsher tenets of Sharia law.

Once in power, these usurpers become insiders, butwithout the benefit of popular legitimation through elections. This insecurity causes them to use technology repressively to maintain control, as the once-revolutionary Communist Party does in China and the once-revolutionary mullahs do in Iran. Though in many cases usurpers limit technology use by their citizens rather than use it proactively to assert their power, the more creative governments use digital technology and social media offensively, such as China’s 50 Cent Party, Iran’s online identification of protesters, and Hugo Chavez’s heavy use of social media to maintain his popularity in Venezuela.

Conclusion

For those interested in exploring the intersection of politics and technology, it is important to understand the full spectrum. From the most conservative bureaucrat automating some of his tasks to the most radical terrorist using the Internet to legitimize himself internationally, digital technology is at play at all political levels, from the institutional center to the revolutionary edge. We will only understand how technology affects politics if we understand the interplay of its diverse manifestations.

image: ceBIT Australia

Easy Answers to Simple Questions

When I worked in the Obama campaign’s new media department, one practice I particularly admired was the reliance on data in decision making. Which title should we use for this fundraising email? Run a test where one randomized group gets one title, one randomized group gets another title, and see which group donates more. Where on the homepage should we put the donate button? What color and shape is most likely to illicit a click? Which ad graphic is most likely to result in a sign-up from a woman age 18-35? For all these questions the campaign relied on the scientific method to decide which of a number of choices was best. Of course, a human being had to come up with those choices before they could be tested, but, whenever possible, a conclusion was tested before it was implemented. Intuition was never good enough.

If the Internet has given us any one thing in abundance, it is information. Every click, every friend request, ever video view can be logged and linked to other user behavior across the Internet and in our day-to-say lives. One day I gave a positive review to a commercial for Heifer International on Hulu and a few days later I received a fundraising letter in my mailbox. (People who like the ad are probably statistically more likely to donate.)

The Internet presents us with a bonanza of know-ability. We now have more recorded information about our actions than ever before in human history, especially if those actions are carried out online. In his 2003 book Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, Duncan Watts of Yahoo! Research writes that, on the Internet, “data are recoded automatically…. By distributing the effort of data entry to the members of the network themselves… the main limitation to data recording is virtually eliminated, and the resulting data bases can essentially grow without bounds.”

One of the challenges of the Internet is actually dealing with the mass of data now available. This summer, Stanford University actually held a workshop on dealing with massive modern data sets with sessions on topics like “Massive-Scale Analytics of Streaming Social Networks” and “Geometric Network Analysis Tools”. Crowdsourcing tools like Ushahidi need specific applications simply to help them process the deluge of data that is submitted. Scientists now rent time on “clouds” of off-site computers because they need more computing power than their institutions possess.

But the answers to some of the most fundamental questions about the effects of digital technology are still unanswered. For example, what do we really know about digital activism? We define by anecdote, lean on pre-digital theories of social movements, and change the definitions as new cases arise. Yet the answers to the most interesting questions elude us: If digital technology is a tool in a cat and mouse game between government and the opposition (as it is in many repressive societies), who is winning now and what tactics can activists employ to give themselves the upper hand? Does digital technology simply increase the effectiveness of previous activism tactics or create new types?

Digital technology both automates and alters the status quo. It strengthens the power of current institutions (better-targeted corporate advertising through shared user data) and upends them in unexpected ways (corporations that sell hard copies of textual, audio, or video content are going out of business). Which trend is stronger now and which will be in the future?

Computing power offers us easy answers to simple questions: What color? How much? A or B? What is the likelihood that Sarah knows Tim? But where causation is diverse and leaks into the real world, computing power hasn’t helped us yet, particularly in the social sciences. Is this a limitation of our current methodology or a hard limitation of the power of technology to reveal itself?

image: Optimizely

Watchdogs of the Mobile Network

The big mobile story of 2002 was that the number of mobile subscriptions had finally exceeded the number of land line subscriptions worldwide. In 2007, the story was that mobile subscriptions had hit 3 billion, dramatically narrowing the digital divide. Since then, the story has been about the backlash. Repressive governments like Iran, China, and Egypt have shifted their censorious gaze from the Internet to mobile phone networks, tracking data on the mobile web and shutting down SMS services before elections and during periods of mass protest.

Fortunately, activists are becoming more aware of these activities, not only by governments, but also by the private firms that help them. The Internet freedom organization Access Now has started a No to Nokia! petition, asking Nokia Siemens, the second largest telecommunications equipment supplier in the world, to “completely end all sales, support, and service of tracking and surveillance technology to governments with a record of human rights abuses”. The petition page notes that the company has admitted that their technology was used to “suppress dissent” in Iran, and Access Now alleges that at least one Iranian journalist, Isa Saharkhiz, was tracked down and imprisoned using Nokia Siemens’ technology. The American Islamic Congress also took action against Nokia Siemens last year by staging a protest outside their Manhattan store.

Researchers are also shining a light on how telecommunications companies are collaborating with governments to reveal subscribers’ private communication. The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and the SecDev Group, an Ottawa-based think tank, have teamed up to create RIM Check (https://rimcheck.org), a research project that allows Blackberry users to check how the phone’s manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) is routing their phone’s encrypted data. The results are retained by the RIM Check project and will be later made public. The homepage states:

Recently a number of governments have threatened to ban Research in Motion’s BlackBerry services if the company does not make encrypted BlackBerry data and other content available to state authorities . A major concern of these regimes is that BlackBerry data can be encrypted and routed through servers located outside of their jurisdictions. Unconfirmed reports have circulated that RIM has made data sharing agreements with India, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Other countries are also requesting the company locate data centres within their jurisdictions.

The RIM case also highlights the convergence of mobile services with the Internet, since much data traffic on the Blackberry is actually Internet traffic, rather than simple mobile service that carries SMS messages. It looks like we are headed into a second front in the war for freedom of digital expression.

The Russian Blogosphere is Pollock-esque

… or so I just learned from the Berkman Center’s lovely new infographic (left), which accompanies their first report in a series on Russian Internet society: “Public Discourse in the Russian Blogosphere: Mapping RuNet Politics and Mobilization” (PDF). There’s also a nice post on the Berkman blog explaining the key findings, which include:

  • Russian bloggers prefer platforms that combine features typical of blogs with features of social network services (SNSs).
  • The central Discussion Core that contains the majority of political and public affairs discourse is comprised mainlyof blogs on the LiveJournal platform.
  • The Russian political blogosphere supports more cross-linking debate than others (including the U.S. and Iranian), and appears less subject to the formation of self-referential �echo chambers.’
  • Pro-government bloggers are not especially prominent and do not constitute their own cluster, but are mostly located in a part of the network featuring general discussion of Russian public affairs.
  • The Russian blogosphere is a space that appears to be largely free of government control, although the authors cannot confirm or deny the existence of subtle controls over Internet speech.
  • Many of the most politically attuned bloggers use the platform to serve as a watchdog on elites and the government, with a focus on corruption.


In terms of digital activism research methodology, Berkman’s blogosphere studies represent an excellent mix of qualitative content analysis by coders who carefully read and described blog content, and sophisticated quantitative network algorithms by John Kelly of Morningside Analytics that use link analysis to illustrate complex connections.

The Unsung Heroes of Circumvention

[UPDATED] Most people who use circumvention tools (and there aren’t many of them) use generic simple web proxies, rather than brand-names tools. That was the most interesting take-away I got from the Berkman Center‘s new “2010 Circumvention Tool Usage Report” (PDF), prepared by Ethan Zuckerman and Hal Roberts, along with Rob Faris and Jillian York of the OpenNet Initiative and John Palfrey. Here are some quotes:

First, even though much of the media attention on circumvention tools has been given to a handful of tools notably Freegate, Ultrasurf, Tor, and Hotspot Shield we find that these tools represent only a small portion of overall circumvention usage and that the attention paid to these tools has been disproportionate to their usage, especially when compared to the more widely used simple web proxies.

Of the 11 circumvention tools with at least 250,000 monthly users (Ultrasurf, Freegate, Tor, Hotspot Shield, and SWP #s 1 7), 7 are simple web proxies. Those 7 proxies together appear to serve close to half of the combined unique users of the 183 simple web proxies whose usage we were able to estimate.

We were surprised to discover that several widely-used simple proxies remained unblocked for very long periods of time in highly censorious nations that aggressively block the more well-discussed blocking-resistant tools. This difference in the treatment of the different types of tools may be the result of the difference in press coverage of these tools. Unlike Freegate, Ultrasurf, and Tor, the more widely-used simple web proxies have not been lauded much if at all in the U.S. press as agents of political change.

Support for circumvention technology has been a major element of the US State Department’s Internet Freedom initiative, and brand-name tools seem to be their focus, with Secretary Clinton’s public support for Haystack being the most unfortunate example.

The report indicates that the importance of these brand-name circumvention tools may be overstated, at least in terms of user volume, which might convince the State Department to change their focus as well. However, if simple web proxies are able to “remain unblocked for very long periods of time in highly censorious nations” because they “have not been lauded much if at all in the U.S. press as agents of political change” then I hope that the State Department refrains from publicly aligning these tools with US interests.

It’s a catch-22 of digital activism research: sometimes a tactic works precisely because it is not publicly known.

The Adjacent Possible in Digital Activism

If I am now standing on Broadway in Manhattan I cannot immediately be on the Miracle Mile in Chicago. I must first be in a taxi, then at an airport, then on a plane, then at another airport, then in another taxi and finally in downtown Chicago – and that is assuming I take the fastest route. Likewise, if I am 28 now I cannot be 30 or 15 tomorrow. I could be 29, but the possibility of changing ages from one day to the next only happens once a year.

In space and in time we understand the idea of the “adjacent possible” and even see it as obvious. Change happens incrementally and, even if we can conceive of a radically altered state, we realize that there are several steps we must pass through to reach it.

However, as the subject of change becomes more complex – a city, a country, a culture – we forget about the concept of the adjacent possible and suddenly believe that radical change can happen from one moment to the next: elect the right president and a generally conservative and striated society will become progressive and egalitarian, enact the right law and get soft money out of politics, amend the Constitution and bring about racial equality. It is not a fluke that the election of President Obama, the passage of McCain-Feingold, and the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments did not bring about their intended outcomes in the short term. In complex systems, radical change cannot happen if one piece changes while others remain the same.

Small change in the short term, however, does not negate big change in the long term. The amendments passed in 1865-70 ending slavery and granting African-Americans the rights of citizens made it possible for a black man to be elected president 140 years later. What was previously impossible becomes commonplace, and by the time the change occurs it often does not seem so radical because of the many intermediary steps that brought society to that point.

From this perspective it was always unreasonable to expect digital technology to bring immediate radical change. By the same token, it is reasonable to expect that the changes wrought by technology in the short term will merely extend the previous reality: repressive regimes will use digital technology to repress, criminals will use digital technology to commit crimes, attention-seekers will use technology to seek attention.

Yet we are also seeing dramatic changes, where the incremental steps of change are happening much faster than in previous eras. So far, we are seeing this mainly in the realm of economics. In a world where news is digitized and available for free through a digital network, people will not want to pay for news. In that world it is less likely that a news company will stay in business. In a world where music is digitized and available for free through a digital network, people will not want to pay for music. In that world it is less likely that a music company will stay in business. We wanted global democracy and we got BitTorrent.

This is not to say that increasing democratization is not possible, only that it is one of a variety of outcomes that are still distant. I am by no means a skeptic, but I do not believe that a dramatic increase in democracy is even in the adjacent possible, we are still several incremental steps away… which means we are actually closer to a future in which technology extends the status quo.

Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist whose idea I am almost certainly bastardizing here, came up with the idea of the adjacent possible as a way to explain increasing biological complexity over time. As soon as the first amino acid existed, it became more likely that a slight change in that amino acid would create another type of organic chemical, “as actual molecules are formed, new adjacent possibles come into existence and old ones disappear”.

However, unlike molecules, we humans have conscious agency. We can see a number of futures that technology could help us achieve. As long as we are not pure determinists we believe that we have some ability to influence those outcomes. But that does not mean change is imminent, it means we need to build out into adjacent possibles now available to us, realizing the incremental steps that lead to radical change.

What are the incremental steps towards the “great potential” of digital technology? Is it increasing penetration mobile rates? Bringing down the cost of processing power? Building global norms for openness on the Internet? Ensuring net neutrality? These are all potentially important and there are likely more besides. According to Kauffman, “what becomes Actual can acausally change what becomes Possible and what becomes Possible can acausally change what becomes Actual,” so our idea of the digital possible will play a role in determining the digital actual that is yet to be.

image: Flick/Loli

Webinar Notes: The Digital Duel

UPDATED:

I decided to take notes while participating today in the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict‘s webinar, The Digital Duel: Resistance and Repression in an Online World. These comments are from Daryn Cambridge, Director for Knowledge & Digital Strategies at ICNC. I hope they are useful and I apologize for any errors in summarizing them.

  • Digital technology helps activists define the narrative of a conflict. The value of digital technology for nonviolent activism is all about the story. Digital technology helps activists define the story’s elements (protagonists, antagonists, plot), decide on the medium (video, photos, text), and then distribute that story online.
  • Mass media has taken story-telling power away from ordinary people, which is now dominated by corporate media conglomerates or government propaganda, depending on a society’s media landscape. New media changes this dynamic, giving activists the ability to publish, and shifts media attention from professionals to people.
  • Gene Sharp, an expert on nonviolent civic action, has noted that power is not monolithic (from above and from limited actors) but pluralistic (from below and from multiple actors).
  • Because the Internet supports the pluralistic power model by empowering individuals to critique and define social realities and coordinate action independently, the Internet challenges the existing power structure, which is why repressive governments are trying so hard to control the Internet.
  • For case study analysis, Daryn suggests a “champions and critics” methodology, that acknowledges the increased affordances of digital technology but also the limitations and threats that result. For example, in the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Burma, digital technology allows the citizen journalists of Burma VJ to capture and share information on the protest and crackdown, but also acknowledges that the Burmese government was able to shut down the Internet and that digital technology was not so effective to allow the opposition to succeed.
  • In bringing together nonviolent civic action theory and digital tools, Daryn presents a digital application of a “dilemma action,” an activist tactic in which the opponent loses whatever response he takes. Daryn takes the example of Ethan Zuckerman’s cute cat theory, that if activists post information on a popular and generally apolitical platform like Blogger the government will lose if they allow the content to remain accessible, but will also lose if they block the platform as other apolitical bloggers that use the platform (and their readers) will also see their sites censored and may become politicized through that experience.
  • Conclusions: We must judge the the value of digital tools through the lens of its effect on power; a campaign’s individual context and goals must determine whether and how tools are used.


Analyses like those provided in this webinar are extremely important in integrating strategic theories of activism with knowledge of digital infrastructure. This as the next step in digital activism analysis, moving beyond the optimist/pessimist debate to acknowledge the truths in both viewpoints and to dig deeper into how these tools can be applied for maximum positive impact.

LibTech: Practitioners’ Panel Strikes Back

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors.

Here are a few of the most interesting tidbits from the third and final practitioners’ panel:

  • Bob Boorstin of Google: asks the audience “What do you want Google to do?”
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: Governments are to blame, not companies. If Google had their druthers, they’d show everything.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: There is a questions of company power and company leverage, but that leverage is limited. Google didn’t have the ability to push back Chinese censorship policy.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: There are things that companies can do, like making their products open and safe by providing https access and not putting servers in unfree countries.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google:Google is trying to set and example for governments and other companies with their Transparency Reports and their participation in the Global Network Initiative.
  • Bob Boorstin of Google: Working too closely with governments can also damage Google’s credibility with users.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Her organization is the creator of the circumvention technologies Ultrasurf and Freegate.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: “There’s no freedom without freedom of information and no freedom of information without freedom of the Internet.”
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: They have about 300,000 people using their tools every day in China, and got 1 million users in Iran during the Green Revolution, which crashed their servers.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Many of their developers were inspired by the 1989 Tienanmen massacre, which affected some directly, as well as persecution of Falun Gong.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: All of their tools are portable on a USB stick, leave not trace on the computer, and use encryption so they are indistinguishable from other https traffic. They have a very good record on user safety.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: It took 8 days to create a tool called Green Tsunami to detect, disable, and remove the Green Dam censorship technology.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Proposes that 5% penetration of circumvention tools in a national internet creates enough breaks in a censorship system to render it significantly inoperable.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: How to bring together nonviolent civil resistance theory with new technology to create a new discipline – Otpor and Android, Gene Sharp and Steve Jobs.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: Success means training + technology + strategy. Liberation technology alone is not enough.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: They accomplished seven pro-Tibet protests leading up to and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, many using livestreaming cell phone video.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: He has created a smartphone app that pre-filters human faces from video with black boxes as the video is captured, preventing the video from then being used to identify activists.
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: Kungleng App for iPhone for Voice of America Tibetan coming soon.
  • Ron Deibert of Citizen Lab: Google should provide resources for activists affected by DDoS attacks. (non-panelist commenter)
  • Nathan Freitas of NYU and the Guardian Project: Would like to see money used for small grants for individual implementations and for education.
  • Janice Trey of Global Information Freedom Consortium: Tools are not open source in order to protect


That’s all folks! Hope you enjoyed these posts.

LibTech: Dan Calingaert on US Policy

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors.

Dan Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House, clarifies that addressing supporting Internet freedom is merely an extension of defending human right in general. He presents five ways that organization like his own can carry this out:

  1. Support and defend international norms of cyberspace
  2. Condemn human rights abuses
  3. Support human rights defenders by acting as advocates and through material assistance
  4. Use diplomacy channels where available
  5. Prevent private companies from contributing to human rights abuses


In terms of US policy, he argues that US should try to shift international policy norms to openness on the net, not attempt to bring freedom through the Internet, which is too ambitious. He then analyzes current US policy on international Internet freedom:

  • US govt. speaks out on some digital freedom of expression cases, such as Iran, but not all.
  • Funding on Internet freedom, both effective and less effective.
  • When there are competing interest, the decision is usually made against Internet freedom.
  • The US does not criticize the closed Internet policy of its friend, like Saudi Arabia.
  • US policy is reactive, speaking out when an abuse is made, but not trying to prevent these abuses.
  • Secretary Clinton publicly urged US companies to not take part in foreign censorship and surveillance, but this is not a reasonable request, especially for smaller companies.


Here are his policy suggestions:

  • Help US companies resist cooperation in censorship that goes beyond the Global Network Initiative (GNI), such as mandating some level of transparency, such as Google’s Transparency Report initiative. Regulation would put all companies on a level playing field in what they could and could not participate in.
  • Support the open and unitary structure of the Internet by resisting efforts to create national intranets.
  • Limit Internet freedom only in a way that is narrowly defined, transparent, and subject to judicial oversight.
  • Cooperate with other democratic nations, particularly in Europe, to create and promote international norms, such as getting these nations to sign on to the GNI.

LibTech: Walid Al-Saqaf on Circumvention

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors. [UPDATED]

Walid Al-Saqaf, is the founder of the news aggregator YemenPortal.net, which was blocked in Yemen on January 19th, 2008, following his coverage of a major protest in southern Yemen. As a censored online media producer her was left with three choices:

  1. Self-censorship through filtering his own content
  2. Shut down the site
  3. Resist the censorship by helping visitors get to his site


He chose the third choice. He created his own proxy server to assist with circumvention and moved his content from one URL to another, using mirroring. He realized this cat-and-mouse game was unsustainable. He then created a Firefox plugin and this made it easier to visitors to his site than by using a block-able proxy server. This was successful, and traffic from Yemen returned to his site.

His newest project is called Al Kasir (alkasir.com), which means “circumventor” in Arabic. The browser-style software first checks queries against a list of censored sites, only accepting queries for censored content that is not related to pornography or hacking. Other queries are sent directly to the open web. This allows the software to function while using minimum bandwidth. He is able to track blocked sites through a system of automated tests of listed sites, which are verified by moderators. Though he focused his service on Middle East users, the service now has many Chinese users. The Al Kasir site also has an interactive map that shows which sites are blocked in which country.

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