A Few Reasons Activsts Shouldn’t be Banned from the Internet

Posted on January 23, 2012 by Yvette Alberdingk Thijm

Last month on Human Rights Day (December 10th) I wrote an opinion piece for the HuffingtonPost about the increasingly important role technology companies and platforms are playing in the human rights landscape. I’m sharing it again here along with some excerpts of a recent blog by the Bahrain activist and blogger Esra’a on MidEastYouth.com which eloquently summarizes why technology providers can and should serve better human rights activists and defenders. The quotes and placement of them below from Esra’a's blog are of my choosing.

In 2011, tens of millions of people took to the streets in protest to defend their human rights. With the help of cell phones, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, we have been able to monitor and track violations taking place all across the world. Even in Syria, where no journalists are allowed, we have been able to “witness” events on the ground from the screens of our various devices.

Cameras are literally everywhere, helping activists and ordinary citizens document and share vast numbers of human rights abuses with unbelievable speed. From Syria alone, thousands of hours of footage of protests and abuse are shared with newsrooms and social media outlets each day. Take, for instance, the images posted of a 13 year-old boy named Hamza Ali al-Khateeb who was arrested at a protest and later found tortured and killed. From similar footage on the Internet, there is no doubt that he represents hundreds of others who have suffered the same fate.

Now facing its tenth month of unrest, the Assad regime in Syria continues to try to silence protestors both offline and online. iPhones have been banned in Syria and just recently an outspoken Syrian-American blogger named Razan Ghazzawi was arrested while on her way to Jordan to attend a conference on press freedom in the Arab world. In September, she tweeted, “I confess, that while it took me a while not to fear death, I still fear torture, very much.”

In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) efforts to present itself as a key player in a semi-stable election process are countered online by citizen video showing a different story. Footage shows tear gas launched into demonstrations and rubber bullets shot at protestors’ eyes, and calls attention to the 12,000 civilians who have been arrested and tried in military courts since Mubarak fell. These people are still awaiting release, despite the SCAF’s promises last September to end military trials of civilians.

With thousands of stories captured on video and shared via social media, it is clear is that online sites are the new public squares of activism and the people who run them are in powerful positions to help ensure that these platforms continue to be used for good.

Over the 20 years in which WITNESS has developed the practice of video advocacy, there has never been as much potential for video documentation and social media to impact positive social change as now. Video has become an essential human rights tool. However, as more people turn to these platforms, the safety and security risks they face are also greater than ever before.

From Esra’a's blog:

Sure we can simply stop using their services – it’s theirs and they can do whatever they want to their terms of agreement (which to be fair we had to agree on before signing up on the site), but it’s still alienating, it’s still dangerous and the more and more companies that adopt these policies the more we risk losing in this struggle against censorship and surveillance.

“Internet and Censorship” by Chappatte

There are many examples of governments misusing technology and social media to track down activists and repress freedom of expression. Until Dec. 1st, when the European Union barred exports of surveillance technology to Syria, it was reported that the regime acquired technology from companies like Area, NetApp, Qosmos and Utimaco to intercept, scan and catalog virtually all e-mail in and out of the country.

And, with the rise of citizen journalism and video activism, eventually some of this footage may be used as evidence in court. It is important now that we find ways to systematically manage and authenticate information. YouTube has become the de-facto repository — a living history of human rights abuse. But imagine what would happen to our ability to secure justice if YouTube changed its archiving and retention policies and deleted evidentiary videos shot by citizens in Libya over the past year?

Part of this requires the development of smart tools and systems that protect identity and capture data for those who are working to document abuses. We’ve partnered with the Guardian Project to create “SecureSmartCam” mobile applications that help address some of the needs of these human rights defenders.

Technology providers can also play a critical role in creating products and services that can better serve citizen activists and human rights defenders. Whether they realize it or not, technology companies are important new players in protecting human rights — they hold the key to determining the fate of the tens of millions of people turning to video, technology and social media for change.

By incorporating human rights values like privacy and security into their content and user policies or by allowing anonymity for activists using their sites, technology companies can better support human rights change. These changes alone will save lives.

Again, Esra’a writes to this point:

There is certain information that we really prefer to simply not share. It’s not because we’re stubborn. It’s because not all of us are courageous enough to share every aspect of our lives, checking in from every location, uploading every photo, revealing our physical addresses or phone numbers. Some of us have a lot of reason to be scared shitless of the likelihood of being an easier target by ruthless regimes and armed groups if we did share all of these bits and pieces that these services require.

These are the issues that WITNESS is currently working to address. We have developed digital tools to better protect citizen activists using mobile phones to document human rights abuse. We are working with other activists and groups, evaluating which tools work, and sharing these learnings online with the broader public.

When technology companies work together with NGOs to incorporate the best interests of their users into policies and practices, we can keep the platforms and tools so essential to the millions of citizen activists from serving the wrong side of justice.

And a last word from Esra’a:

We’re not asking you to recreate your products to be more fitting for our needs. We’re not asking you to make your products more tempting for spambots and potentially abusive users.

We’re asking you to be considerate.

We’re asking you to make an exception.

For some of us out there, our lives literally depend on these little exceptions.

Read Esra’a's original post “Silicon Valley companies don’t get the full range of dangers involved with online advocacy” published on January 20, 2012.

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Yvette Alberdingk Thijm January 24, 2012 at 12:22 am

    Hi Debby – thank you for your thoughtful comment. The concerns you mention are real and WITNESS and others are working to make sure with more people turning to video, those videos can be more effective in the fight for human rights. The ‘doctoring’ issue is one of authenticity – making sure that a video can be authenticated as an accurate account of what happened, where it happened and when it happened. You are right also that there are real risk to the people filming and those being filmed. One project here is our SecureSmartCam project that is addressing both issues – we partnered with the Guardian Project (https://guardianproject.info/) to develop a software camera that authenticates and can protect.

    The project was highlighted in last week’s Economist print edition in an article entitled “Video and human rights: visibility before all”. Check out the online version with an accompanying Economist video: http://www.economist.com/node/21542748

    This is part of WITNESS’ new “Cameras Everywhere” Leadership Initiative– which ensures that people turning to video for human rights use it as effectively and safely as possible.If you want to read more: http://www.witness.org/cameras-everywhere
    Here is the link to the actual app (Android only at this time) : https://guardianproject.info/apps/securecam/

    Other orgs are doing great work on promoting safety and security as well: e.g. Mobile Active: http://mobileactive.org/howtos/mobile-security-risks

    Thanks!

  2. Debby Bruck January 23, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Yvette ~ This important topic illustrates the potential for people to be involved in their world and to be the voice of news,. When journalist are banned from sensitive locations around the world, the people in the streets may be able to capture and document events. My concern is two-fold. 1) photographs and videos may easily be ‘doctored’ and manipulated and don’t always show the truth of situations. 2) the person’s who take risks to capture real on-going events put their lives at risk and finally countries may block internet signals and the export of information. Thanks for your work. Blessings, Debby

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