For the second straight day, my GV day started out a bit inauspiciously. I came to the main gate to get my bag of goodies, which included the GV t-shirt (which I would pay for but miraculously was free for us) and asked for a large. The woman handing out shirts looked at me and said, “You need an extra-large. They run small.” I was like, “small” or “European H&M malnourished model” small? Crestfallen, I considered my gym regimen, my diet, and finally, accepted the bag. The shirt fits just fine, and I don’t know quite what that means. I slammed double-instant-nescafes all day, replete with sugar and cream, so that probably didn’t help. I’ve noted this elsewhere, but the fact that we aresucking down instant coffee in Kenya of all places is a bit bizarre.
The coffee seemed a bit irrelevant after the quality of the first panel, which featured Philippines blogger-cum-parliamentarian Mong Palatino, Matisse Bustos Hawkes of Witness, Bahraini blogger Amira Al-Hussaini, and Pakistani digital activist Faisal Kapadia. Matisse walked us through some fascinating new initiatives to protect the identities of video bloggers fighting for change in authoritarian societies. Noting the Iranian government’s successful efforts to use activist videos to identify individual dissidents and arrest them, Hawkes unveiled initiatives like ObscuraCam, which as she says, “identifies faces in photo and video and strips out the meta-data” and thus protects activists from authoritarian surveillance. Her presentation seemed particularly relevant in light of the many cases of authoritarian regimes using activist videos against their authors. Palatino detailed some of the newest activist stories from Southeast Asia, including a mass planking protest. The Pakistani activist Faisal Kapadia told us that “I’m mostly known in Pakistan as FK which is a synonym for what I want to say to our politicians.”
One can only be in so many places at once, and there were multiple simultaneous panels today, so I can only relay notes on what I saw. GV has its own recaps of each session on the site, so check them out if you’re interested. After the opening session, I attended a fascinating discussion about digital diaspora communities, featuring bloggers from Zambia, Kenya, Iran and Cuba. One of the persistent themes of this panel was the idea of representation: who has the right to speak on behalf of a community? A Kenyan or Zambian or Cuban abroad, or those living, struggling and fighting within the home community? The panel featured a contentious exchange between a Kenyan blogger living in Kenya who argued that Kenyans abroad are not accepted as representative voices and a diaspora writer who asked the panelist “not to use generalizations like this.” Other panelists, including the Cuban academic and blogger Elaine Diaz, who argued “it would be extremely difficult for Cubans living on the island to accept as a representative voice someone living in the diaspora.” Interestingly the panel was balanced with two diaspora bloggers including Iran’s Fred Petrossian. Petrossian argues that diaspora digital activists can serve an important role but not always. “The virtual world is the extension of real life,” he said, “and the diaspora outside country cannot really create a movement in country when there is no motivation, when people don’t have the will to go to demonstrate. You can fill the whole Internet with messages, but when the heart and soul isn’t in the country it doesn’t move.” The panel highlighted the tension between diaspora and local communities, and there were, frankly, no easy answers.
A panel on the Arab uprisings featured Amira Al Hussaini, as well as Tarek Amr, Hisham and Sami Ben Gharbia. Ben Gharbia laid out a conceptual map of four different kind of digital networks – what he called “hyperlocal” networks, national, regional and international. He argued that both offline networks (of student activists and labor organizations) and online networks were important but that “without the online networks that were built during the last decade, we couldn’t imagine a successful revolution in Tunisia.” Amira Al Hussaini gave a rather dispiriting rundown of what happened in Bahrain, where she told the audience, “When the people went out and started chanting ‘the people want to overthrow the regime,’ the regime did not chant that but it made sure it overthrew the people.” Leila Nachawati gave a fascinating rundown of what is transpiring in Syria. She emphasized the importance of revolutionary art, and then laid out how activists are sharing video in the face of censorship: “We are seeing a lot of contact between old school activists from the 80s leftist mainly, contacting young people about how to face violence, nonviolent resistance, what they call flash demonstrations, one minute, two minute demonstrations in very central parts of the city. Enough to make lots of videos photos – someone makes it viral without getting killed.” In perhaps the funniest moment (although tragic), Tarek Amr likened the Egyptian uprising to an Egyptian movie. “It was this bad guy, he killed the family of the Egyptians, so they took revenge. When SCAF took power it was an Indian movie. SCAF and Mubarak are two twin brothers from different mothers. Now it is like Inception, in our case it is a nightmare inside a nightmare.” The takeaway: there is a lot of work still to be done in all of these places.
I doubt that the organizers planned it this way, but themost contentious panel of the day featured Bob Boorstin of Google (a major GV summit funder) and several activists and academics including Ramzi Jaber and Max Schrems. Internet privacy and corporate responsibility has been a major theme of this conference, I’m sure in no small part because of Rebecca MacKinnon’s important Consent of the Networked, but also due to the many emerging issues involving corporate and state policies that seem always to privilege certain communities at the expense of others. Schrems went hard after the “Internet giants” and their behavior even in the democratic world. As he argued, “Even in well-developed democratic situation like the European Union, the rights we have are not enforced.” Boorstin then made the interesting move of blaming these troubles on governments. “If governments all over the world, weren’t putting us in the position of forced compliance we might not be sitting here talking about these issues.” He told us about Google’s “data liberation” unit, which makes it possible for users to pack up all their data and move it somewhere else. Boorstin really hammered this theme that users are free to move to other platforms (actually he used the term ‘consumers,’ which drives me crazy but that’s a personal thing) and that therefore these continuous attacks on Google are misguided.
When Jaber and Schrems kept pursuing Google on the point of having a process whereby people whose pages or videos are taken down, Boorstin admitted that it’s simply not possible to do this “because of the scale of the Internet.” He said that citizens are free to challenge Google through legal channels. Of course, this left the question of what people in non-democratic countries are to do unexamined, or even in democratic countries where you cannot exactly take Google to court. He concluded that it is up to us to hold Google accountable. “The most important thing you can do is to work with us when we do and to make suggestions about how we can fix them.” This led to the evening’s testiest exchange, when Schrems threw up his hands and said that “I am sick of this” idea that it is citizens who have the responsibility of holding huge companies accountable.” Boorstin remained calm and collected, and it was good of Google to face this audience, which was not entirely friendly, even though they are a major GV funder. At the same time, some of the answers left the audience puzzled or unsatisfied, particularly this idea that companies will continuously run afoul of the law and that rather than regulators or the state enforcing it, citizens must remain constantly vigilant.
One takeaway from this conference is that Global Voices is so much deeper and more complex than I ever imagined. As someone who has been focusing on Egypt and the Middle East for years, I’m sorry to say that I did not appreciate GV’s comprehensive coverage of the rest of the world, and their initiatives like Lingua, which seek to bring foreign-language content to the global community, from Malaysia to Germany to Portugal. At the same time the organization is clearly struggling with a problem of scale – how to maintain early deliberative and inclusive practices when the group has grown so large that even three large Kenyan hotels cannot hold everyone. At the same time, this is clearly an important way for the writers and activists to get together and share stories, ideas and best practices. Leila Nachawati told me at a break that GV is “like therapy for me.” This is something I heard repeatedly from the writers and translators, that this opportunity to take a break from what is sometimes depressing work is critical. The Internet remains the default mode of resistance to all kinds of repression and injustice, and the GV community is a critical network hub in this broader effort. At the same time, many of these panels have really highlighted the increasing challenge of surveillance and the corporate-state nexus that threatens all of this work.