Campaigns against online censorship in the Middle East

Hurisearch, stuff store the human rights search tool built by HURIDOCS in collaboration with Fast, is launching today. (Note that the Beeb got the date wrong — Human Rights Day is December 10th, but the search portal’s launch is, in fact, right now.) Huridocs deveoped Hurisearch as a tool to index the contents of 3000-odd human rights websites around the world. I’ve played with the tool, and it has impressive search functionality — an amazing number of languages, categories, document types can be searched. Not surprisingly, the tools works best indexing websites built using a metadata standard like Dublin Core – which is, unfortunately, not something that all human rights websites or archives have integrated. Recently, I’ve talked with a number of people in the human rights community about the need for better webmaster training in using content management systems, search engine optimization and metadata structures, and self-publishing tools — many human rights websites that emerge from developing or transitional countries, unless they are the product of well-funded organizations, are built in such a way that the staff can’t use them to publish information, and the information that is published by an overworked webmaster is not easily indexed by tools like Hurisearch. Hm, Webmasters Without Borders, anyone? (Credit to Elijah for that idea.)
krampus1.JPGOh lucky me, mind experiencing Christmas as an American child. While I cried on Christmas mornings past when I got Kissing Barbie instead of Etch-a-Sketch, sickness or a bright pink cable-knit sweater instead of the stripey Danskin legwarmers I craved, viagra sale my Central European counterparts were spending the month of December dodging birch-switch beatings by the Krampus, St. Nick’s evil sidekick in these parts. In my homeland, Christmas is a riskless experience for children, a mushy blend of holiday cheer and a strong sense of entitlement. Not so in Central Europe, where Mikulás showed up on December 6th* accompanied by (or according to some legends, preceeded by) a foul-breathed, forked-tongued creature who sought out the bad children and instilled terror and a sense of gratitude before, maybe, doling out the apples he lugged around on his back — or maybe just taking the bad children away with him.

The Krampus (or Krámpusz, in Hungarian) appeared all across the Austro-Hungarian lands in one form or another. Often, he was rather unimaginitively depicted as a traditional Christian-style devil (horns, cloven hooves, forked tail or tongue, flaming red) on Krampus-themed Christmas postcards that circulated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leave it to the Weiner Wertstatte in Vienna to really get down to the essence of the Krampus in their version of the nasty fellow. This postcard, currently for sale on eBay for 1500 USD, shows us the Krampus as we’d like to remember him — furry, stunted, behorned, and tongue-lollingly silly, giving a couple of fashionable Viennese kids a run for their money while fabulously Art Deco St. Nicholas looks on with approval. This particular Krampus card indicates a somewhat different relationship between St. Nick and his unpleasant friend than we might otherwise assume. Here, the monster seems positively beleagured by his duties of child-terrorizing, driven by his cruel, supervising taskmaster. Before I saw this card, I had always assumed that kindly St. Nick was a bulwark against the evils of the Krampus, not in collusion with the little beast. In fact, the Weiner Werkstatte seems to suggest from the patriarch’s smug expression that the Krampus is really an employee of the Santa empire, clearing out the nastiest brats so that Szent Miklos could come in and drop off his gifts more efficiently across the Austro-Hungarian lands.

So, American children, be happy. In earlier days, the threat of coal in the stocking may have hung vaguely over naughty children, but let’s face it — Christmas in America is a time of national amnesia, when parents from coast to coast forget all offspring-related evils, from dishes left undone to neighborhood arson. The Krampus wouldn’t let you off so easily, but he hasn’t made it to your neck of the woods yet.

*In Hungary, holiday traditions of the Christian bent are confusing to begin with. Children in Hungary expect two days of present-giving in December. The first, Miklos Nap or Mikulás (Nicholas Day), falls on December 6th; Saint Nicholas, as might be expected, attends to this event. On the night of December 24th, the Baby Jesus shows up, dragging with him a tree and another round of gifts.
iblogblk.gif Following last week’s post on the list of human rights bloggers being assembled by Human Rights Tools, remedy I had an email exchange on what makes a human rights blogger with HRT’s editor, order Daniel D’Esposito. Daniel noted, correctly, that my comment about 15,000 “human rights” tagged posts on Technorati didn’t really add up to that many bloggers:

Problem is many of these are just passing references to human rights…not from blogs devoted to human rights primarily.

In response to my question, “in that case, what makes a human rights blog?”, Daniel went on to say:

Lots of posts about human rights seem to come from commentators of international affairs, with a focus on the Middle-East: articles on Bush, Rumseld, Al Jazeera, Lebanon, others blog about personal issues as well – include these would bring a lot of “noise” into the feed. Some institutional blogs are far too active, several posts a day – would drown out the amateur blogs. Some amateur blogs have been inactive for several months. Others are in Chinese or Arabic, so would only be accessible to a fraction of HRT readers. I would certainly include freedom of expression blogs, or peace blogs, or even blogs with a political stance, as long as its respectful of others. So it takes careful sifting, which I will continue to do. The key question to select a blog: would HRT readers find the last 5-10 posts useful and interesting?

…A few bloggers have written to be listed (“I guess I am a human rights blogger”), others have posted the “human rights bloggers” gif on their blog’s margin, and this is a good sign.

Since Daniel is putting together a human rights blogging feed, it would be useful to hear what “human rights blog” means to different people, and what readers of that feed would want to see, or would consider off-topic. I was sorry, when Human Rights Watch started the “I blog for Human Rights” campaign, that we weren’t able to track which blogs tagged their sites with the HRW button. Self-identification is obviously important — but reaching out to those who write about human rights issues but don’t necessarily see themselves as part of the community is also a part of assembling a good blogroll.

(Thanks to Daniel for giving me permission to post this conversation.)
The NY Times’ recent article, prostate “Open-Source Spying”, medicine chronicles a knowledge management project writ large. The author discusses the US intelligence community’s tentative use of knowledge-sharing tools like blogs and wikis to exchange information across and within agencies in an ad-hoc but powerful way. Given my involvement in several knowledge management projects over the years, I was particularly interested how the agencies’ employees described the best use of Intellipedia, the internal wikipedia clone for spooks:

Chris Rasmussen, a 31-year-old “knowledge management” engineer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency….told me the usefulness of Intellipedia proved itself just a couple of months ago, when a small two-seater plane crashed into a Manhattan building. An analyst created a page within 20 minutes, and over the next two hours it was edited 80 times by employees of nine different spy agencies, as news trickled out. Together, they rapidly concluded the crash was not a terrorist act.

I like this story, because it’s talking about knowedge capture as opposed to knowledge sharing. As I think much of the NY Times article makes clear, within organizations that don’t have a culture of open information exchange (i.e., most), the idea of knowledge sharing–fetishized by KM geeks–tends to fall flat. It seems to me that sharing is a knock-on effect of capturing information, rather than an activity that people actually undertake. Capture happens most effectively during a real-time event, like the plane crash Chris describes above. Many organizations are using the wiki-capture model to create an editable snapshot of knowledge around a certain event or meeting; one of my favorite organizations to pioneer this approach, Aspiration Tech, has used wikis for event knowledge capture in such diverse areas as e-advocacy and open source usability.

In a hilariously blunt article on organizational knowledge management called “Knowledge Sharing Should be Avoided” from 2004 by James Robertson, an Australian KM guru, the author notes:

Knowledge sharing is certainly an important concept for those in the knowledge management and information management disciplines (ie the readers of this article).

The starting point to moving beyond this terminology, however, is to recognise that it means little to anyone else in the organisation.

(Bolding mine.)

He goes on to note that:

…the concept of knowledge sharing will generate little enthusiasm (and therefore action) amongst staff. In fact, when asked (or instructed) to ‘share your knowledge’ staff will typically respond with confusion, passive resistance or hostility.

So what’s the moral of the story? I think the moral is that intelligence agencies, like so many other big organizations, are not hopelessly behind and totally clueless. The issue, more precisely, is that until very recently the culture of open information was entirely foreign to nearly everyone; communities like Wikipedia have embraced it with vigor, but most organizations are much slower-moving and are peopled with individuals who aren’t thinking about knowledge-sharing as their primary task (nor should they be, arguably). Integrating knowledge capture activities into daily work seems like the best way to get people thinking about the advantages of the approach, and of the tools available, because inevitably people will see the benefits. But don’t sit back and wait for your people to knowledge-share spontaneously; you’ll end up with empty wikis, cranky, confused staff, and skeptics proven right.
Our friends over at the Media Development Loan Fund’s Center for Advanced Media Prague (CAMP) have released version 1.1 (“Freetown”) of Campcaster, approved the long-awaited open source radio station management software. Using Campcaster, information pills community radio stations can manage broadcasts, unhealthy archives and networking. CAMPer Doug Arellanes is heading to Freetown, Sierra Leone to work with the Cornet network of community radio stations on installing the software and training staff.

And there’s more Campcaster on the horizon…“Kotor”, 1.2, is planned for deployment in Montenegro. In the next version, Campcaster will be integrated with Campsite, the open source online publishing suite developed by (you guessed it) CAMP.

Although Doug and Sava will probably kick me in the shins for saying this, software development is the easy part, relatively speaking. The harder part of software for the non-profit sector is deployment wthin the civil society organizations that needs it, and making sure that staff members have appropriate hardware, training, connectivity, electricity, ongoing support, and access to upgrades and bugfixes. Hats off to CAMP for getting Campcaster to 1.1, and for working in the field with community radio networks to get it in use. Can’t wait to hear how things go in Freetown. Good luck!

Campcaster v. 1.1 press release

Full disclosure: The Open Society Institute Information Program, my employer, is a funder of the the Campcaster software.
So, page this is weird. For the second time this fall, tadalafil I’ve flown internationally out of Heathrow airport without going through immigration or having anyone, prescription other than airline employees, look at my passport. The first trip was from London to Johannesburg in the middle of September. Traveling Companion and I at that time were puzzled, but theorized that perhaps there was an agreement between the UK and South Africa limiting the need for passport checks (although on reflection, that doesn’t make a lot of sense). But today, I’m on a big American Airlines 777 flying from London to Los Angeles, and no official of the British government examined my passport before I boarded the flight. All kinds of other reviews happened: I took off my shoes, turned on my laptop and stood spread-eagled three different times to be patted down by three different security officers during my journey through the airport. But no passport check. Am I missing something here? What the heck? Given the scrutiny one receives on entering the UK, I can’t believe that they aren’t doing some sort of cross check on the way out.

One other worrying thing about this situation: I was surprised enough to mention it to two different employees of American Airlines. In response, both looked at me blankly and then shrugged and waved me on when I re-elaborated the point. Hm. I’m certainly happy not to have yet another line to stand in to get to the airplane, and I’m not necessarily sure it’s even that important to check everyone’s passport when they leave a country…but given the extent that the UK is going to create an atmosphere of both threat and consequently, safety, at the airports, shouldn’t they have someone giving passports a glance? And shouldn’t an airline care if one of its passengers reports something that seems like it might be amiss?

Update: I asked the immigration officer who checked my passport when I entered the US in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon about exit passport checks. He told me that at LAX, they also don’t check international exits. In Euroland and every other country I’ve ever been to aside from the US and the UK, they certainly do. So what’s the calculation that Homeland Security has made here?
As it turns out, this if wireless networking on the African continent is one of your favorite things, check spending your weekend in the basement of APC’s London partner GreenNet with forty of your closest collaborators (and friends) can be a grand old time. This past weekend, buy more about I was lucky enough to join a group of African entrepreneurs, “wireless for dev” geeks and trainers, connectivity-focused civil society organizations and international business folk, along with a sprinkling of donors for a meeting focused on the next steps in rolling out rural wireless networks in Africa.

Much ink has been spilled over why wireless networks are good for African connectivity, so I won’t rehash too much. (For a media-focused brief on this, see Panos London’s “What’s stopping a wireless revolution?“). Suffice to say that wireless connectivity leapfrogs a lot of the infrastructure issues that plague developing countries, like a lack of fiber that has hastened the adoption of communications technologies in the global north; it also means that a single operator with limited equipment can provide connectivity to many more people on an ad-hoc basis than overland connectivity would allow. Generally, the people I work with believe more connectivity at lower rates is a basic building block of both economic growth and social justice movements.

Despite the good work that many people have done in this area over several years, and the significant support that donors (including my own employer, the Open Society Institute, and others like Canada’s IDRC) have brought to the table, rural wireless is still nascent in Africa. The two-day meeting, organized by the Association for Progressive Communications, sought to come up with concrete answers to the question: what more could this group be doing bring wireless to more communities across the African continent?

As with all technology issues in the developing world, the barriers to rollout of wireless networks are varied and require people with quite different skills to address them. Policy regulations are one issue; in some African countries, it’s illegal to operate a wireless network. In other African countries, there simply isn’t any legislation to deal with the issue; monopoly telecoms control the internet market, and see no advantage in allowing an upstart technology to bring other players to the table.

Beyond policy, though, technical and human issues prevent speedy uptake. This weekend, one group discussed the need for business plans and models for Wireless ISPs (WISPS) and training or partnerships targeted at certain key groups: telecenters, schools, youth groups, and community radio stations.

Another group looked at software issues: if one were to aggregate the technology needed to run a WISP—from mesh networking software to billing systems that worked in a world without credit cards—what would it look like? Building off the Tactical Technology Collective‘s popular “in-a-box” idea, everyone around this table agreed to work towards a “WISP-in-a-box”.

Stripey! A third group envisioned future book sprints to produce complementary manuals to “the striped book”, the affectionate name for the current bible of the wireless for dev movement: Wireless Networking in the Developing World. Yet another group discussed what a more formalized community of wireless actors focused on experience sharing and project tracking could achieve.

And so on. Other issues we didn’t touch on extensively this weekend prevent wireless networking from taking hold faster: procurement of hardware, for instance, is a huge and costly problem. Not only are the bespoke solutions developed for northern users often missing the robust physical features needed for deployment in a developing world context, but import of hardware can be tremendously expensive. (An African colleague mentioned to me this week, by way of example, that in Malawi assembled computers are taxed at 0%, but hardware parts are levied with an import duty of 55%, a huge amount of money for the DIY set to absorb.)

One thing I really liked about this meeting was the view of Africa as a single continent, rather than two continents: sub-Saharan and North Africa. Participants came from Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, as well as Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco.

The other point about this meeting I was glad to see (credit APC and IDRC for this) was a distributed approach to problem solving. Rather than knocking heads together for a weekend to come up with an ambitious (and questionably implementable) Grand Plan, the meeting focused on achievable ideas that individuals could take forward with a small group of like-minded collaborators. I’m almost always a fan of the small-pieces-loosely-joined approach, and this time it produced some excellent ideas. Fortunately, there were some very smart people with us this weekend who are interested in taking up the harder work of making them happen.

Lots of people took pictures this weekend, but I was unfortunately not among them, so as soon as I find the Flickr pool I’ll link to it.

Full disclosure: My employer, the Open Society Institute Information Program, provided partial funding for this meeting.
One more note on communications resources for the developing world — some useful new publications have hit the stands over the past few months:

IT46+, here a consultancy has released The Voip Primer: Building Voice Infrastructure in Developing Regions. Written, shop edited, search reviewed and translated by a crack team of wireless for dev’s who’s who, the book is useful not only for technologists, but also for people who simply want to have a better sense of what VOIP means in the developing world context.

Our friend the stripey book, aka, Wireless Networking for the Developing World, now in French.

APC’s ItrainOnlinewireless networking materials in Arabic.

And finally, an orange stripey book, How to Accelerate Your Internet: A practical guide to Bandwidth Management and Optimization using Open Source Software, from the BMO Booksprint Team.

Really, it’s not as geeky as it looks!
Ethan tagged me in a little bloggame going around to spill five things about yourself that people don’t know about you. So here are the first five that come to mind:

1. Because I’ve lived a big chunk of my adult life in Hungary, help most people assume I have some kind of Magyar in the ancestral closet. I don’t, website like this not a single one (that I know of). I just like living here.

2. When I travel, price I try to bring home textiles from wherever I’ve been. Every culture makes textiles of some sort or another, whether they are printed, woven, embroidered, silk, wool, cotton. They travel well, and can be pressed into a wide range of services once you get home. I wear, sleep on, sit on, bathe with and frame textiles I’ve brought home from various corners of the world.

3. Despite the fact that I grew up in Southern California (or because of it?), my favorite beach is not in a particularly warm place: Cannon Beach in Oregon, where Haystack Rock is.

4. I (ineptly) played water polo in college. It was without a doubt the most terrifying but exhilarating athletic activity I’ve ever participated in. My only near-death experience to date was an away game in a swimming pool at MIT where a very powerful woman held me underwater until my struggles tore the strap on my regulation speedo bathing suit. For this very reason, the women’s team members always wore two bathing suits at once, to guard against having to flee the pool with only a shredded suit as cover. I had found it hard to believe that a speedo could give way, but I’m here to tell you that it will, and that that second suit is a life-saver.

5. I despise lima beans with all my heart. (My mother knows this, of course.)

Now I’m supposed to tag others…so Scotty and Peter, if you’re still looking at your trackbacks, how about it?
Admitting that the holidays are really and truly over is a painful act, unhealthy so despite the fact that I’ve been back at work this week, sildenafil I’m posting my Holiday Reading List Book Reviews as if I were still at leisure. This holiday season I’ve managed to plough through a good number of books, fiction and non-, and acquired even more that are waiting for a moment of calm. In case you’re looking for something to read, here are some suggestions (and warnings):

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: Recommended by one of my most trusted book friends, Cloud Atlas was possibly the best piece of fiction I’ve read in years. My reading of “serious” contemporary fiction has dropped off in the past five years or so, largely because every time I delve in I’m disappointed, annoyed, or overcome by the schlockiness of it all. The last book I found as satisfying as Cloud Atlas was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. While I don’t think The Corrections is for everyone, I can’t imagine a reading friend who wouldn’t appreciate Cloud Atlas. Go buy a copy.
  • Casino Royale by Ian Fleming: Been watching Bond movies for years but you’ve never read any of the books? Well, don’t bother, if the first one is any guide. Casino Royale was a real snooze; the movie, which I saw over the holidays with my family, was ten gazillion times better. Ian Fleming’s young Bond seems an arrogant dolt, deeply unperceptive (I wonder if Vesper’s nightly sobbing and daily secret phone calls during our romantic getaway spell T R O U B L E…? Bond’s conclusion: no, girls are just weepy), and frankly sounds unattractive (not unimportant if you’re claiming to be James Bond, right.) Also, predictably, the girls are real sissies, and not nearly vixenish enough to entertain. Ugh. Go see Daniel Craig instead.
  • A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes: I actually read this over Thanksgiving, but am including it in holiday reading since Favorite Husband read it over Christmas, sparking much Russian history discussion at the Haven-D’Amato dinner table. The long and short of it is: read this book, if you have any desire to understand the underpinnings of the revolution. It’s excellent, a 900-page page-turner, which is something one wouldn’t usually expect in a brick-sized tome. Figes packs the book with anecdotes illuminating the tidal shifts in power, particularly from the 1914-1919 era. A main point that both FH and I took away from the narrative was how unlikely the Bolshevik seizure of power really was — for much of the period under discussion, the country was entirely up for grabs, and much of the reason that the more moderate socialists didn’t step forward was their hilarious and tragic belief in the rule book of revolution: we can’t seize power, they explained to each other, because the book says that we need to have another twenty years of bourgeois development before the glorious socialist revolution could happen. Of course, anyone who has studied Marx knows that theory, but the idea that a group of so-called revolutionaries were presented with the possibility of taking on the reigns of state and stepped back from because of a theoretical map laid out by a 19th century philosopher is astonishing in 2006. Lenin, of course, only worried about that issue for, say, five minutes before shoving everyone aside and making the fatal grab for Russia.
  • Best American Short Stories 2006 edited by Ann Patchett and Katrina Kenison: Usually, I enjoy this collection, but this year, it’s draaaaging. I’m only halfway through, so hope lies in the next 10 pieces, but the stories so far have been ethereal, very atmospheric rather than character or plot driven. I mention it because I think my reaction actually points to a good thing about this series, that is, they pull in a new editor every year who brings their own slant to the choices. As Patchett says in her introduction, these aren’t the *best* short stories of 2006, they’re *her* 20 favorite stories of 2006. I wasn’t a big fan of Patchett’s book Bel Canto (although it won all sorts of awards), so I’m not surprised, on reflection, that I’m not moved by her short story choices. A word to the wise: know your anthologist.
  • American Pastoral by Philip Roth: Like every dutiful American fiction reader, I feel like I should read AND appreciate Philip Roth. I made it through The Human Stain a while back and did, you know, appreciate it, although it left a bad taste…I always find it hard to read novels peopled with wholly unlikable characters. Nevertheless, occasionally when I know I’m headed for a long flight, I choose to bring a book that I have been meaning to read and that I think in other circumstances, I might set down after the first few pages. So I picked up American Pastoral on my way out the door for the flight from London to Los Angeles back in December, and resisted the urge at the airport to pick up any other reading material that might offer me an easy out, should I regret my Roth. Oh, what a mistake. Six hours into the twelve hour flight, my laptop was out of juice, my iPod had mysteriously shut itself off and poutingly refused to turn on again, and I was two agonized hours into American Pastoral, possibly my least favorite forced reading experience of a decade. Why is Roth The Man of contemporary American letters? Why? Why? Why? Although the flight offered me many, many hours to review this question, I did not manage to come up with an answer, despite the fact that I got three-quarters of the way through AP before touching down in LA. Perhaps the last quarter of American Pastoral holds the key to this puzzler, but since I set fire to the book in the backyard barbeque upon reaching my parents’ house, I guess we’ll never know, will we?
  • Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology by David Gelernter: If you need an anecdote to Roth (or your version of Roth), pick up a copy (and go for the hard cover, you cheapskate) of David Gelernter’s lovely long essay on beauty as a driver of innovation in technology. It’s counterintuitive but obvious in retrospect, and so engaging that you may not even smell the charred Roth wafting in from the backyard.
  • December 6 by Martin Cruz Smith and The Moscow Vector by Robert Ludlum: Let’s acknowledge the private, dirty joy of an airport spy novel. What more can I say, except that in truth, the 12 hour flight back to London passed much more quickly with Martin Cruz Smith in hand than with Philip Roth on the way out. And my second iPod also broke directly after takeoff, so it was a completely level playing field. I don’t recommend either of these books, but then I also wouldn’t recommend that you eat an entire bag of Reeses Peanut Butter cups in one sitting, if you get my drift.
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White: Possibly you read this, or exerpts of this, if you were once an American schoolchild. Read it again. William Strunk’s clear, cool advice will resonate. As he tells you to use “definite, specific, concrete language,” to “avoid a succession of loose sentences,” to “omit needless words”, you will think: guilty. My version is new and illustrated by Maira Kalman, which makes it more fun. A large part of the fun is not in her illustrations themselves, but in evaluating her choice of phrases to illustratrate. I would have illustrated the book entirely differently than she did, and imagining your own visuals alongside Strunk and White’s spare, wise remarks makes for an amusing afternoon. And perhaps improved writing.

And books to look forward to…my father and brother ganged together and bought me, luxuriously, three of Edward Tufte’s toothsome books on information design: Envisioning Information, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and Beautiful Evidence, his most recent. I also have Julian Barnes latest, Arthur and George, on the stack, Gogol’s Dead Souls (which I started in California but haven’t finished), and eternally, that bastion of the bedside table, Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China (five years and counting).

Recommendations for further reading always more than welcome.
The O’Reilly gang is putting on a new conference this year called Tools of Change for Publishers. The Civil Society Communications proejct that I run is, pills of course, very interested in “tools of change” — although within the non-profit sector rather than in publishing. The incredible pace of change in the technology space means that we face unending difficulty in educating organizations in useful technology solutions; once you step outside the world of tech bloggers, Wired magazine, and conferences where no one will show up unless wifi is provided, you find that most people flinch when you cheerfully mention “web 2.0″, or the seemingly more user-friendly “read-write web”. I was struck, therefore, by O’Reilly’s explanation for throwing the conference:

For publishers, these shifts are taking place so rapidly that it’s challenging to keep current–let alone create new, profitable opportunities.

The first O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference is being launched to raise the level of technology knowledge and discourse in the publishing industry and to provide a meeting ground for those leading the charge into the future of publishing.

It’s nice to know that confusion and frustration over integrating innovative technology solutions are not only limited to the sector I work in; on the other hand, once you extrapolate outwards from a single industry (publishing, or the non-profit world) to all industries, you get a lot of confused people. From there, cube that number to include everyone who isn’t yet online, or is only online in the most rudimentary way. We’ve got a lot of work to do to make this stuff more useful and more understandable.
Ron Deibert, more about director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, mind has written a very useful article for the non-technical crowd on country-level internet filtering. “The Geopolitics of Asian Cyberspace”, side effects was published in the December issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review. For those who are new to the topic or would like a broad overview of the level of filtering that happens regularly, the corporate players facilitating that filtering, and a few projects that are trying to track censorship around the world, it’s a good read.

Professor Deibert also showed up on NPR last week, talking about the Citizen Lab’s new circumvention software, Psiphon. Unlike other circumvention tools like Tor or TorPark, Psiphon works by harnessing social networks and establishing individual nodes of “host” computers that allow internet access to known users; Deibert mentions in the interview that they had had 30,000 downloads of the software in the first week.

I wish the interviewer at NPR, Bob Garfield, had asked somewhat more pointed quesitons about specific differences between these tools and the theory of how they work — there are a number of tools out there, and one may be more appropriate than another depending on geography, political situation, and your access to networks outside your own country.

With perfect timing, a correspondant pointed me to Peacefire founder Bennett Haselton’s article on Slashdot last month that does some of that work. Bennett is generally annoyed with the attention the “politically correct” Psiphon has received in the media (as opposed to the more suspicious attention Peacefire’s similar circumvention tool, Circumventor, received a few years ago). Beyond that, though, he provides a useful 101 on circumvention tools and how they work, as well as offering some commentary on how useless the tools are if a citizenry is apathetic about using them. He says:

This is not to downplay the enormous good that programs like Tor, Circumventor and Psiphon can do in bringing free speech to the people in censored countries who want it. But it’s easy to forget that those often do not comprise a large part of the population….The moral is, no matter how much your movement believes in its efforts to help oppressed people, you can’t just assume you’ll be greeted as liberators (ahem).

Good to keep in mind.

Update: Professor Deibert pointed out another very useful article on Psiphon, this one which talks about Psiphon’s aims — that is, not a be-all end-all anti-circumvention tool, but a way for individuals to help other individuals through direct, personal connections.

Psiphon is not designed to solve all secure Web browsing dilemmas. Rather, it is a means by which those in uncensored countries can assist specific individuals in censored countries access blocked Web content — without placing any technical (or personal security) burden on those individuals.

It’s important to reiterate the point that, as with all technologies, this is not a one-size-fits-all game. There isn’t an “unbreakable” anti-censorship tool; all of them can be defeated in one way or another. The crucial issue is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the options well enough to choose one that offers the least risk given the environment.
By chance, cost I came across two new projects within a week dedicated to ending online censorship and surveillance in Middle Eastern countries. The first, visit this (English here), cheapest is a project out of in Egypt.

The Initiative For an Open Arab Internet is an initiative by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo) advocating free use of the Internet without censorship, blocking or spying. In this context, the initiative seeks to provide international and Arab information and internet related documents. The initiative also defends internet users, web-designers, and writers by organising legal and media campaigns and highlighting practices restricting Internet freedom.

Through’s human rights blogging project, Katib, I also found Article 19’s campaign against online censorship in Iran, The Persian Impediment. Where’s project is mostly in Arabic and appears to be aimed at people in the region, The Persian Impediment site is entirely in English (so far as I’ve seen) and is probably internationally directed. There hasn’t been a lot of activity on the site that I can see since early January (the site allows contributors to join a blogged discussion on suggested topics, and/or to report cases of censorship), but it’s worth a look regardless.

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