Today was the closing day of the Global Voices Summit, and one that continued to bring new challenges, ideas and individuals to our attention. Our first early-morning session including a presentation about what GV is doing to protect endangered languages. A speaker of Aymara from Brazil was there to tell us about the ways that her work with Global Voices Lingua is helping to revive and protect threatened languages of the region including her own. You can check out GV’s Aymara page to get a sense of what they’re doing.
From there I headed to a panel led by Rebecca MacKinnon on Internet governance. She familiarized the crowd with the major organs of Internet governance, including ICANN, and some of the controversies surrounding the organization, including charges that it is dominated by Western (particularly American) interests. A panelist from Kenya spoke about how because ICANN is a volunteer organization that meets three times a year, you have to have loads of money to travel to their meetings, something that again privileges richer, Western actors at the expense of the developing world. MacKinnon reiterated some points she made in Consent of the Networked and argued, “We don’t have a lot of clear solutions, but the current model of governments representing everybody doesn’t work very well unless governance improves.” The word “multi-stakeholder” was used at least 100 times but what was clear was that some stakeholders have bigger stakes by virtue of geopolitical and economic power. The issue of access and equality for all the world’s citizens, when combined with the opacity of many corporate actors and government determination to censor, is likely to be one of the great emerging issues of the Internet in years to come.
In a breakout session led by Matisse Bustos Hawkes of Witness, participants engaged in a fascinating discussion about the ethics of using and posting crowd videos, in light of the many cases of governments using videos and pictures to identify participants. One of the participants argued that people participating in a protest have to assume that their actions are public, and I replied that in fact, many people assume they are anonymous in crowds, particularly in contexts where battles with security services are not routine or expected. The new technologies of facial recognition raise important and very difficult questions of ethics not only for participants but also for the journalists and bloggers who cover them. Several participants also gave the group a demonstration of ObscuraCam, a handy-dandy app that instantly obscures faces and strips data out of photos and videos. Hawkes gave some advice to organizations seeking to use video to document atrocities, arguing that personal stories of victims and their families are ultimately more useful in creating change than videos of the horror itself (which is more useful for evidentiary purposes). “People get exhausted watching graphic imagery,” she stated. Hawkes’ presentation reinforced a message I’ve heard from our own Mary Joyce, who emphasizes the need for organizations to highlight people and their stories, with imagery, on their web sites.
From there I headed to a session led by Danny O’Brien and Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists. O’Brien was quite honest about the difficulties of sorting out who is a journalist and who is arrested for something else but just happens to have a blog. Tom Rhodes of CPJ remarked, “I stretch the definition of journalist to its very limits so that we can help as many people as possible get out of dangerous situations. I’ve had many occasions where I’ve had to say I can’t really help you because this is not journalistic work.” The panelists also relayed the dispiriting news about Ethiopian blogger Eskinder Nega, who has been given a long prison sentence for his activities. Rhodes remarked, “It breaks my heart because I’ve known this guy for years and I’ve known his family for years and they moved him to another detention center and we don’t even know where he is.” CPJ does vital but rather depressing work, and highlights the ongoing reality that bloggers in authoritarian regimes, while they remain crucial conduits for information and dissent, very often pay an extraordinarily high price for their courage.
One particularly interesting exchange took place between the Consul General of Estonia and the panelists. She argued that sometimes the “name-and-shame” campaigns to release imprisoned journalists are not helpful because they interfere with back diplomatic channels and face-to-face negotiations. She said she just got someone out of an 8-year prison sentence in 3 months in Kenya. The problem was that it was not entirely clear that she was speaking about a journalist or perhaps just an ordinary citizen who had run afould of Kenyan law. Finally, panelists and participants talked about the importance of protecting your data. For bloggers, as O’Brien argued, this might mean having a “buddy system” for electronic data – a friend who knows the password to your site or Facebook page in case you are arrested and security officials try to extract that information from you. It also means avoiding “stupid tools,” as O’Brien called them, like Skype or Yahoo! Messenger which are not encrypted. Failing to protect your own data, they emphasized, can put others at risk.
With that the summit came to a close. As Google’s Bob Boorstin noted yesterday, there are enormous problems of scale in governing and using the Internet. With 2 billion people online, 196 sovereign countries and tens of thousands of organizations and individuals using the Internet for reporting, information, advocacy and entertainment, all of these issues have become even more complex than they were just a few years ago. It is extremely difficult for any individual to have their voice heard at the level of state or corporation in this environment in order for the Internet to remain a relatively open platform for all participants.
This is complicated by the fact that, as one participant noted yesterday, governments do have some legitimate reasons to engage in surveillance, such as combating attempts to hack into banking systems, and companies have an interest in monitoring at least the volume and types of data that are being transmitted. The ideal of an authority-free Internet as declared long ago by John Perry Barlow in “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” is something of a dream, and all of these stakeholders must work together to make sure that it is not the interests of authoritarian regimes or regressive corporations that carry the day, but rather that the online world is managed in a way that forges compromises between these actors and does not compromise core interests. In order for digital activists to continue doing the work that we study here at MAP, NGOs, governments and companies will have to forge new bonds and networks designed to protect the ideals of freedom, openness and transparency that remain under constant threat.