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Freedom of Speech in the Blogosphere

This article was written by Ethan Zuckerman in March 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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Worldchanging contributor Jon Lebkowsky put together a really excellent group for our panel at SXSW. The panel focused on the challenges of blogging in countries where there’s no reasonable expectation of freedom of speech. On stage, we had Shava Nerad from Tor, Rob Faris from the Open Net Initiative, Shahed Amanullah of altmuslim.com, and Jasmina Tešanović, a Serbian journalist and blogger - a great range of speakers from experts on technical constraints on speech to people who’ve written and spoken from very difficult countries.

Rob Faris opens by suggesting that the cyberutopian fantasies of the Internet as an open, special place beyond national boundaries, is being dismissed as a fantasy. At least two dozen countries are filtering in the Internet and there are others ONI is watching closely - there’s a concentration of countries that filter the Internet in the Middle East and in East Asia. In many cases, filtering doesn’t just block sex or drug content, but prevents people from accessing political content. Filtering is messy and incomplete - Rob suggests we take a moment and have some sympathy for the poor censors, who are taking on an impossible task, as it’s very difficult to block any content without collateral damage. (His tongue is firmly in cheek.)

There’s many ways to filter the Internet, Rob points out, beyond simply blocking access to controversial sites. Governments have started imposing licensing and registration requirements on online authors, and threatening liability for ISPs for allowing certain content. These restrictions have a chilling effect on online speech, turning the ISPs, or the individuals who post content, into censors or self-censors. Other countries like Cuba keep net prices so high that they functionally supress dissent by keeping many dissenting voices offline. He suggests that we should expect to see a convergence between controls on offline and online media - countries that control their press are very likely to want to control what people access on the Internet.

I agree with Rob’s contention that online and offline media restrictions are merging, which is why my talk started with Freedom House’s map of press freedom in 2006 - according to Freedom House, press freedom is in scarce supply in much of the developing world. I argued that we’re seeing the rise of citizen journalism first and foremost in nations that are “moderately repressive”. Countries that thoroughly inhibit dissent, like North Korea, Turkmenistan or Burma, aren’t seeing rapid emergence of citizen media - even if citizens had access to tools of online expression, the consequences are too high for most citizens to use them. In developing nations that are not especially repressive (like Ghana, which gets a “free” rating from Freedom House), the growth of online citizen media is somewhat retarted by the wealth of other opportunities for expression, like debates on talk radio.

In countries that threaten but don’t entirely shut down speech, like Iran, China and Egypt, we often see a strong move into citizen media - the rise of the Iranian blogosphere in 2003-5 is strongly correlated to a crackdown on the independent press, and a large number of journalists moved from banned papers to publishing blogs. I pointed to a couple of favorite examples of activism in citizen media: Sami ben Gharbia’s Tunisia Prisoners map, the Zimbabwe Council of Trade Unions video of protesters being beaten, Alaa’s blog from prison, the Bahrain land use maps featuring Google Earth footage. I point to some of the ways that states try to shut down online media: blocking sites (pointing to Nazret.com and the blocking of Ethiopian blogs), blocking tools (pointing to Pakistan’s Don’t Block the Blog campaign), registering bloggers (pointing to Mahmood’s Den and activism around resisting registration) and arresting bloggers (poining to the Free Kareem campaign.)

(Eric Case from Blogger mentions that the Pakistani blog block has been lifted - he’s right, sort of. What’s unclear is whether the block has been lifted temporarily, because the Pakistani authorities have been blocking a huge range of sites - my friends in Pakistan speculate that the block will be reinstituted shortly. Much more on this forthcoming on Global Voices in the next day or two.)

What can we do to fight back? I point to Isaac Mao’s site and the “notisaacmao.com” site that he points viewers towards when his main site is blocked - mirroring sites is key to keeping them accessible when blocked. Blogging under psuedonyms using privacy tools allows bloggers like Sleepless in Sudan to speak freely in situations where they’d otherwise be threatened. Publicity across the blogosphere - as we see for Karim - is one of our most powerful tools. I ended with a call for solidarity and a willingness to agitate for speech fo all threatened bloggers, not just the ones we agree with - we’ve got to be prepared to support Muslim Brotherhood bloggers in Egypt as well as dissidents like Karim.

Shava Nerad of Tor outlines the basic operation of the Tor network - a set of routers designed to obscure connections between the client requesting a web page and the server offering the page, protecting the identity of the user. She clears up some of the misconceptions about the network, pointing out that Tor can’t be asked to release user information to legal authorities because Tor doesn’t have that information. She also makes an interesting point: that it can be counterproductive to demand American levels of free speech in countries trying to make the transition from authoritarian to more open governments. She sees Tor as a pressure release valve for societies who are allowing change but trying to control the pace of that change. She points out that China could easily block all of Tor and has, for some reason, chosen not to. For two weeks before the anniversary of Tienenman last year, the Chinese government ordered the Tor nodes within China taken down - they were allowed to return online shortly after the anniversary.

Shahed Amanullah, the founder of altmuslim.com, explains that moderate muslim bloggers find themselves under pressure from two sides - they experience pressure from the governments they’re criticizing, but they also experience pressure from muslim extremists, who are not interested in dialog but in shutting down discussions. He points out that, at a moment where the Islamic world is in flux, trying to cope with modernity, it can be difficult to encourage and empower free speech - he tells the sad story of a friend who has tried to open a bookstore in Iraq and discovered that inviting open dialog on controversial issues is a dangerous and difficult stance.

Blogging is important because it breaks the monopoly on information claimed by the press, letting people get around the dictum, “Let’s not talk about certain things.” He argues that “the freer the discourse, the more moderate the Islamic practice is,” and hopes the sort of discourses that take place in blogs will eventually be a moderating influence. To allow this to happen, we need to “use technology to pry the doors open from the outside”, using tools like Tor and Psiphon. We need to read and publicize the work of bloggers, showing governments like the government of Egypt that the world is watching. And it’s incumbent upon us to advocate for persecuted bloggers.

In the discussion that follows the session, Shahed makes the excellent point that it’s difficult and dangerous for moderate Muslims to refute extremist viewpoints online. The danger is not so much from the extremists being critiqued, but from the US government monitoring participation in extreme sites. Shahed would like to encourage moderate friends to respond on these sites, but worries that participating in these sites will be viewed as being involved with terrorist activities and lead to intervention or questioning by US security agencies. It would be very smart for the US government to figure out how to assuage these concerns - in the meantime, this is a phenomenon which silences moderate Islam’s best spokespeople in the US.

Jasmina Tešanović mentions that her name badge for the conference simply reads “Jasmina” - in the process of registering, she’s lost her surname and her country. SXSW’s system can’t accept the diacritic marks in her name, and doesn’t recognize “Serbia” as a country, wanting to put her as a citizen of Yugloslavia, a country that hasn’t existed for ten years. She tells us that this experience of losing her identity isn’t an unfamiliar one. Talking about the surreal experience of “seeing myself on the TV being bombed as I was being bombed,” when she lived in Belgrade during the NATO attacks, she discovered that she couldn’t trust any media. “Milosevic’s TV lied all the time,” she says, but NATO lied as well, denying civilian casualties and failing to talk about “collateral damage”.

To give voice to these “invisible victims”, she began writing letters via email to a large list of recipients - it would be called a blog now, but the technology didn’t exist then. She wrote anonymously, giving witness to the sights and emotions of life during wartime, and tried to speak to foes as well as friends. Speculation grew about authorship of the letter - now published as “Diary of a Political Idiot“, excerpts of which are available online. ABC News contacted her and wanted to interview her, but didn’t want to compromise her identity. She realized that there was no safety in anonymity - “Milosevic could kill me, so could random looters or NATO - my only safety is in the public square.” So she came out, and became one of the most visible and passionate voices about the war. She’s now active in Blog B92, a project documenting the rebirth and reconstruction of Serbia which she believes is the only free, uncensored media in the country. She tells us that the site gets a great deal of hate mail - she’s passing it onto researchers who study hate and facism as fertile ground for study.

All in all, it was one of the best panels I’ve been on in recent memory - a real honor to appear on stage with these folks. I wish more folks had been able to see it and hope I can get my hands on a podcast of it soon.

Blogging Where Speech Isn’t Free is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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