Usually talk of Internet censorship pits an authoritarian state against its citizens. But reality is not always so simple, as evidenced at New America’s Annual Board Retreat and two-day conference launching the Open Technology Institute at Washington’s Newseum April 27-28.
Take Mexico, a country whose government doesn’t obstruct freedom of speech, but whose journalists are among the most endangered on earth. As Oscar Salazar explained, the censorship is of a more private nature: “We don’t have an authoritarian government, we have an authoritarian group of criminals” limiting freedom of speech.
Salazar is the CEO of CitiVox, an innovative social media platform for civic mobilization in that country. In the city of Monterrey alone, 50,000 Twitter followers brought together by CitiVox serve as a credible source of information regarding organized crime. It provides a means for civil society to leverage an open Internet and social media to reclaim public spaces and fight back against powerful drug cartels. From Russia, Alexey Sidorenko talked about his similar experience with RuNet Echo, his effort to leverage social media to track everything from forest fires to political rallies and other news not adequately covered by official media.
“In both cases, we are democratizing democracy,” Salazar said, in an apt summation of the promise of connected, open technologies. It is this promise that New America is committed to advancing through its Open Technology Institute. OTI, led by New America vice president Sascha Meinrath, will serve as a hub of impartial research, open discourse, innovative fieldwork, and new tech development to ensure access to open technologies and networks.
The conference began one day after the House of Representatives approved the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), a bill with the stated intention of allowing information-sharing to help fight cyber attacks, but that many privacy and civil liberties advocates argue would sacrifice individual privacy in the name of government security.
CISPA and similar thorny issues that highlight how technology is both enhancing and limiting our freedoms – online and off, domestically and abroad – figured prominently in many of the conference’s discussions.
Senior Future Tense Fellow Robert Wright, moderating a discussion on Internet freedom, asked how our domestic initiatives differ from those of, say, Syria – sparking a fiery debate among the panelists.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of Policy Planning for the State Department from 2009-2011 and a New America Board member, contended that the actions of the United States bear no resemblance to those of the Syrian government.
Jacob Appelbaum, an advocate of The Tor Project at the University of Washington who has been detained and monitored by the United States government, warned that the U.S. is already dramatically restraining our rights online even without the formal passage of bills like CISPA.
Censorship and monitoring in the United States is no way near as pervasive as it is in Syria, where the U.S. government has imposed sanctions on the regime for systematically blocking its citizens’ access to outside sources of news and information. John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Freedom argued that the issue isn’t necessarily how systemic the practices are, but the message of our government sends the rest of the world when it overbearingly polices the Internet, whether in the name of fighting terrorism or piracy.
In another provocative session, Syrian dissident blogger Anas Qtiesh said the sanctions against the Assad regime have proven counterproductive. The Syrian government has circumvented the sanctions and continues to monitor dissidents.
But the sanctions do have an asphyxiating effect on the opposition movement: Because of the sanctions, activists can no longer obtain software to encrypt communications or to edit videos of violent protests, Qtiesh explained.
Speaking in a session on the business of the Internet that also featured Marne Levine, Facebook’s Global Public Policy VP, Andrew McLaughlin, the Vice President of Tumblr, reminded the audience that when it comes to policing online speech, the world’s nations cannot tidily be divided into those that are “free” (where anything goes) and those that are “dictatorial,” lacking any freedoms.
The world, he said, looks far less black and white when you are working at one of these gateways to the Internet, dealing with governments out to regulate speech according to their values. Germany is an enviable democracy in many ways,, but there is no freedom to deny the Holocaust online. On the Turkish Web, insulting Kamal Ataturk is big no-no. Ditto for the King in Thailand, and Brazil has a very broad definition of what constitutes racially offensive speech. And plenty of Western democracies, the United States included, draw the line at child pornography. And so on and so on.
Still, there are shades of gray, and then there are those regimes and practices whose values and practices are antithetical to connecting people to each other. “Are there countries you won’t go to because of the nature of their laws? The answer to that, if you have a conscience, has to be yes,” McLaughlin said.
Levine, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, was less categorical. Facebook is notoriously absent from China, but she wouldn’t rule out an entry into that country on principle. Wherever platforms like Facebook become accessible they create opportunities for voices to come forth where they couldn’t before.
“This expansion of free expression and the ability for free association means it’s one of the greatest tools of human rights of all time,” she said. “When I think of what it is I’m trying to do, it’s trying to maintain a free and open Internet. As governments think about privacy restrictions, that means it is challenging this idea of a free and open internet, and this ability to free associate.”
“Could there be a case when Facebook’s desire to expand into a particular country will be at odds with preserving those values?” Robert Wright asked her.
“I don’t think so,” she responded. “We can’t let the fear of what might happen with these tools overshadow the real potential and opportunity.”
Rebecca Mackinnon, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “Consent of the Networked,” challenged Levine on Facebook’s policy (unlike those at Tumblr) to prevent users from remaining anonymous. This practice, MacKinnon noted, makes it easier for regimes to identify and roundup dissenting voices.
Levine answered that Facebook’s policy that every user be identified by name is one of the reasons why the social network is trusted and enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people around the world. In the context of authoritarian regimes, she added, anonymity could give Facebook users critical of regime a false sense of insecurity, insofar as governments might still be able to track them down. Levine and McLoughlin from Tumbler agreed that users have to know the risks entailed by whatever communication tools they use, and that not all of them will best serve every purpose.
Back at home, Americans themselves don’t always think clearly about privacy. Marvin Ammori, a First Amendment lawyer doing work with OTI (and a member of the 2013 class of Schwartz Fellows) who noted that many people are less concerned about giving private information to companies online, but that in many ways it is a distinction without a difference. Uncle Sam can always buy or obtain that information from corporations.
And can all these technologies make us better citizens? Several directors of technology and innovation from city governments were on hand to mull that question over in a session moderated by Slate Editor David Plotz. In Boston, for instance, a group of technologists within the mayor’s office who call themselves Urban Mechanics are trying to figure out a way to predict where potholes will appear on streets before they destroy innocent car tires.
They’ve created an app called “Street Bump,” which would run on a smart phone as a resident drives, tracking the vertical motion of the car. The data it gathers on street conditions is uploaded into the cloud. It could then be used to proactively identify potholes.
This form of civic hacking is useful because it enables public entities to experiment and be nimble and take risks at the community level before engaging in multi-year mega projects, explained Alissa Black, the director of the California Civic Innovation Project at New America.
The Annual Board Retreat and conference was organized around the promise of a free Internet, and the sessions throughout the two days showcased how wide-ranging the subject is, the breadth of its applications. And as such, the breadth of the newly-launched Open Technology Institute’s mission.
--As reported by Elizabeth Weingarten, editorial assistant