Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On the many, many faces of courage: A follow-up

Wow. When we created this yesterday and tossed it up on my site, I wasn’t expecting the huge response it received (something like 3,000 hits and ~200 retweets in less than 24 hours). Most of the reactions were extremely positive. Some were disgusting and misogynist, but not unexpected. Some were critical, but fair: I especially take to heart points about the erasure of non-whiteness or non-maleness in the initial image, and Renata’s astute comment all of the faces highlighted having much more exposure already than those whose activism takes place offline or out of the public eye.

While I absolutely take those critiques to heart (and have spoken to folks individually), I do think that, in a sense, they miss the forest for the trees. As I said in the initial post, the point of this exercise was not to erase or diminish the sacrifices of people like Aaron Swartz or Chelsea Manning or Jake Appelbaum or Julian Assange, but to point out two things: First, that whomever created the graphic may have failed to recognize the whiteness of the images, perpetuating privilege (even if, as I’ve acknowledged,  the individuals in the image are indeed disempowered). And second: that courage has many faces.

There was one comment from WikiLeaks (whose response I do appreciate) that particularly struck me, and while I disagree with it, I can accept it as critique for explaining purpose more effectively.  By messaging that “courage is contagious” with a group of white-seeming, male-seeming faces, we are not effectively getting “the audience to act using whatever tricks one can.” Instead, we are speaking only to a possible segment of the audience that may not feel inspired by seeing faces like their own not reflected back at them.

I stand by what I did, and am particularly inspired to see the ways in which others have remixed the idea to demonstrate that courage indeed does have many faces, many of which are unknown or less empowered than even those on the image I presented.  I enjoyed @zararah’s take, which included some of her heroes. Nick Farr’s version was lovely to include me, but much more importantly, it reminds us that “hero” takes on a different meaning for each person. Renata highlighted activists that I’d never even heard of. Sarah took the opportunity to remind people to support research for Huntington’s Disease.

The wonderful thing is, misogynist assholes aside, even those with serious reservations were able to get behind the concept. While they may not have agreed with my approach, no serious person contested the idea that more faces need to be known, that some are routinely excluded, and that there are many people both spreading and catching the courage bug. For that I’m grateful, and inspired.

Courage: It’s not just for white men

Yesterday, my dear friend Morgan re-posted the following image with this comment: “It appears that courage is a white dude thang….”


The image, initially posted by Pirate Parties International, features whistleblowers and others who have been lauded for their courage in the vague but connected realm of Internet activism. The image also only features white dudes.*

I was incredibly disheartened by the majority of comments Morgan received. While some people tried to argue that Jewish men aren’t white (a valid perspective in relation to some issues, but not this one), others pointed out that Chelsea Manning is a trans woman (true, but she’s not represented as a woman here). Even those that understood the problem only seemed capable of coming up with one missing woman: Laura Poitras.

The lionization of white dudes is a common, even basic, issue that’s been getting a ton of attention lately, but I guess I’m still surprised when it happens in what I consider to be my own community. It’s not that some of these white men aren’t heroes, rather, it’s that by representing courage with only white male faces, we erase the work of many other incredible and heroic whistleblowers, activists, lawyers, and hackers.

As Morgan reminded me, this is a self-perpetuating problem. White men feature and promote the work of other white men, leading to boardrooms and other spaces that look like this. Except, in this case, there are other people in the room. Hell, there are people in the Pirate Party that could’ve made the cut. And yet, somehow, they didn’t.

In any case, we knew what we had to do. So with the photo editing assistance of the talented Marie Gutbub, we made our own version. Please share it widely.


Clockwise from top left: Sana Saleem, Birgitta Jonsdottir, Sami Ben Gharbia, Jesselyn Radack, Laura Poitras, Cindy Cohn, Renata Avila, Alaa Abd El Fattah

There are many talented women and people of color who deserve to be on this list. Rather than creating a rigorous process to select them, though, we instead just quickly came up with eight names. It took about one minute, demonstrating that you don’t have to look very far to find heroes that aren’t white men.



*Yes, I’m aware, and originally noted, that Chelsea Manning is in that image. But as you’ve probably noticed, Chelsea Manning is included in that image as Bradley Manning, and in a tie, a very masculine piece of attire. There are images of Chelsea available as Chelsea, but the Pirate Party folks chose to misgender her anyway posted the older image despite her transitioning. Therefore, I am not incorrect in stating that this is an image of white dudes made even more problematic by the fact that the one non-dude in it is represented as a man.

It was pointed out to me later that the image was published before Chelsea’s transition was made public. The onus is still on the Pirate Party for sharing it (not only for this reason) but they’re not responsible for its creation.

Speech: 60 years of CERN

I spoke today at CERN’s 60 year anniversary celebration – here is, more or less, my speech

First, I’d like to thank CERN for inviting me to speak here – it’s truly an honor – and to wish you a happy 60th anniversary and many more years of scientific discovery ahead.

I’ve been asked to speak about the World Wide Web and human rights – this is a topic near and dear to my heart. As a freedom of expression and privacy activist, I believe that the Internet has opened new frontiers and given us an incredible tool with which we can connect across borders in ways that previously were only available to a select few. In many ways, the Web is like CERN… Neutral ground on which people from all backgrounds can debate and collaborate.

Many early theorists, visionaries and defenders of the Internet (oft referred to as “cyber utopians”), foresaw the challenges that this global network would eventually face. They understood that the utopian global Internet was in many ways a great equalizer and platform for expression and as such, governments would seek to restrict it. As John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in his “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Barlow’s desire to create a civilization of the mind, more human and fair than the world before it was indeed utopian: only a few years later, the prediction of other theorists—that is, the “Balkanization” of the Internet along geographic lines—would prevail.

Today, we see a range of governmental restrictions drawn along geographic lines. In China, the government’s attempts to “harmonize” the Internet have resulted in a virtual intranet, cutting Chinese users off from socializing with the rest of the world. In Iran, the motivations are different, but the result is virtually the same. And in countless other countries that we hear far less about, from Jordan to Vietnam, Turkmenistan to Ethiopia, governments both elected and unelected are taking measures to restrict their citizens’ use of the Internet. The justifications span a range, from protecting citizens from obscenity to “national security,” but the result is often the same.

The Internet as a platform for promoting human rights

The Internet is also a platform for the promotion of human rights. Its global nature means that, when rights are being restricted, there is always someone else watching. It enables us to connect with one another, and hold each other accountable. And it enables greater transparency.

Well before the events that triggered the Arab Spring, activists in Tunisia had already found innovative ways to use the Internet for the promotion of human rights. When it was observed that the Tunisian presidential plane was showing up at airports across Europe, Tunisian activists used data collected from around the Internet to confirm that it was the First Lady, Leila Ben Ali, who was using the plane for personal use. When YouTube was blocked by the Ben Ali government, activists living in exile used Google Earth as a means of exposing torture, embedding YouTube videos onto sites in the country where torture was taking place, thus circumventing the censorship and reaching a local audience.

Palestinians, siloed by geography and travel restrictions, their organizing hampered after the second intifada, have used the Internet to connect with their cousins in the diaspora, creating a stronger and more powerful movement than could exist on the ground. The same is true for Tibetans, for whom connectivity has been a lifesaving connection to their global diaspora.

And of course, the Arab uprisings showed the world the power of online organizing. While the actual impact of the Internet in creating the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings is hotly contested, the networks that enabled 10,000 people to hear about the call for protest on January 25, 2011 and take to the streets could not have existed without the Internet. The revolution may have happened anyway, but it would have happened much more slowly.

No matter what the impact of the Internet on the Arab uprisings, it’s clear that their success inspired uprisings around the world, an effect which would likely not have been possible without the Internet. From Sudan to Oakland, citizens have found inspiration in the rapidity with which the Internet allows us to organize.

The Internet as a human right, human rights on the Internet

Finally, there is the discussion of human rights as they relate specifically to the Internet. In 2000, Estonia—ahead of its time—passed a declaring Internet access a fundamental right of its citizenry, an essential part of life in the modern age. By 2010, a BBC poll found that nearly 4 in 5 people around the world believed Internet access to be a fundamental right.

And in 2011, a United Nations report declared that disconnecting people from the internet—as Egypt had done earlier that year—is a human rights violation and against international law. While first access may not yet be guaranteed, once it is granted, it cannot be taken away.

In recent years a discussion has been advanced that existing fundamental human rights—access to information, the right to free expression and association, the right to privacy—must be protected online. UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Association, Frank LaRue, has said that “the framework of international human rights law remains relevant today and equally applicable to new communication technologies such as the Internet.” Inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee put it simply when he said that “The web must reflect human rights.”

Right now, we’re facing a lot of challenges for both the protection of human rights online, and when it comes to the use of the Internet to enable human rights abuses.

To speak first of the latter, nothing has challenged me more in my work as a defender of free expression than the use of the Internet by the Islamic State, or ISIS. The group has used the Internet to recruit extremists and to demonstrate their barbarity by publicizing videos of beheadings. Many have likened their use of the Internet to the use of the radio by the Rwandan Hutu majority in the 1990s to foment genocide and, as such, have called for any content they post to be censored. There are certainly questions that need to be answered as to the utility of allowing information posted by the Islamic State to remain online, versus the possible repercussions of taking it down.

As to the former—that is, ensuring that human rights are protected online—the challenges are also great. Not only are governments around the world restricting the content that their citizens can access, but corporations are increasingly taking on the role of regulator, telling us what is and is not acceptable speech, going far beyond what is required by law.

We’re also facing unprecedented spying from governments, enabled by corporations.

[Here I said a few impromptu things about FinFisher]

As documents released last year by Edward Snowden have made abundantly clear—powerful governments such as the United States and the United Kingdom are abusing their power by conducting mass surveillance on their citizens and the citizens of other countries around the world. This surveillance not only infringes on the universal right to privacy, but also has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and association. As Special Rapporteur Frank LaRue has written:

“The right to privacy is often understood as an essential requirement for the realization of the right to freedom of expression. Undue interference with individuals’ privacy can both directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas. … An infringement upon one right can be both the cause and consequence of an infringement upon the other.”

And it is not merely the NSA or GCHQ—digital surveillance is pervading local law enforcement, and will continue to do so unless we assert our rights to privacy, to association, to freedom of expression.

To conclude: The Internet is what we make of it. It can be a means of manipulating humans’ interests and controlling a populace, but it can also be the great equalizer, the mode of communication that finally enables us as humans to break past old barriers and connect with each other on a new level. If that’s what we want, it’s within our reach, but it’s imperative that we as citizens work to make it possible. There is no inherent divide between the Internet as a human right and the use of the Internet to promote or enable human rights. In order to be able to use the Internet to promote human rights, we must stake claim to our right to do so.

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