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.

Digital Activism in Context in the Middle East

by Mary Joyce

This video, a digital honors thesis produced by Carmel Delshad of the University of South Florida, provides a nuanced view of digital activism in the Middle East. It talks about the importance of political and social factors that contextualize digital activism. It is optimistic while acknowledging the dangers of censorship and repression. It does not discount successes or downplay failures. It draws on the opinions of activists, citizen journalists, and scholars, realizing that all perspectives have a role in explaining digital activism. Most of all, it seems that Ms. Delshad is trying to get at the truth, not to present evidence to support a pre-existing point of view on the value of digital activism.

This is the direction I would like to see for all explorations of digital activism: putting personal bias and black-and-white logic aside to explore digital activism in all its complexity. Digital activism is as heterogeneous as the socio-political contexts in which it exists. In order to move the field of digital activism forward, we must first acknowledge that all the easy answers are wrong.

hat-tip: Mideast Youth

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