Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: free speech (page 1 of 2)

Arabloggers 2011 – Day One, Part One

I wasn’t able to liveblog the first few panels due to limited connectivity, but we’re now fully connected, and I’ll do my best to round up each session thus far, and liveblog those to come.

Session One: Rebecca MacKinnon

The inimitable Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices and free expression expert in her own right, opened the day with a talk not all that dissimilar from her recent TED talk. The premise of Rebecca’s talk–as well as her upcoming book–is the fight for a citizen-centric Internet, rather than one controlled by governments. She, like I, has particular focus on the role of companies (Rebecca is also a founding member of the Global Network Initiative), and today discussed the role Tunisians–whom she says have just hit the “reset” button–could play in introducing new and innovative regulation that is citizen-focused.

Session Two: Tweeting the Revolution(s)

The second panel featured Ahmed Al-Omran (@ahmed), Hisham Al Miraat (@__hisham), Manal Hassan (@manal), @RedRazan, and was moderated by Nasser Weddady (@weddady). I unfortunately was unable to connect to the Internet during the panel, but @nmoawad, @techsoc and others did a great job of live-tweeting in English.

The main premise agreed upon by all panelists was the role that Twitter was less an organizing tool, and more a tool to allow users to draw a bridge between journalists/mainstream media and the people/citizen journalists. One major point worth noting, and agreed upon by Manal and @redrazan, is in respect to objectivity: citizen journalists, they emphasized, need not be wholly objective. They’re involved, it’s only natural that their views and reports will have a slant.

I can’t emphasize this point enough: I often hear MSM mainstays claim that to be the problem with the blogosphere; on the contrary, I believe that no one is truly objective, and that I would rather see an admittedly subjective player reporting his/her surroundings than a Tom Friedman sputtering bullshit without knowledge of the country he’s in. Of course, there are wonderful mainstream journalists–I’m not a hater, so to speak–but citizen journalists provide a complementary view. Both MSM and citizen journalism are needed in the ecosphere.

Session Three: Moez Chakchouk, President of the Tunisian Internet Agency

“Even if we wanted to censor, we’d have to consider the court decisions – there was a court decision in an appeals court without any prior references. We need to change ATI, make it an IXP, and provide more transparency.” — Moez Chakchouk, President and CEO, ATI

Moez Chakchouk is the president of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI). I recently interviewed him for a forthcoming piece, and his talk today was within the same framework: how to build up the ATI as an Internet Exchange Point (IXP) whilst ensuring that the ATI is neutral and free of censorship. He offered considerable detail on the goals and accomplishments of the ATI thus far (which I’ll spare you here, as it’s included in my upcoming piece – well, and because I couldn’t see the slides well enough from my position in the back row!)

Moez also, as Nasser Weddady put it, “[blew] a huge hole in tech companies’ claim that their equipment sale to repressive regimes [are] in good faith.” Tunisia long used SmartFilter (owned by McAfee/Intel) to censor the Internet and continues to do so (though at a very different level: see my post here). Slim Amamou (@slim404) commented afterward on the sale of surveillance and censorship equipment by American and European companies to foreign regimes, particularly Tunisia.

A little background: The ATI was long an enemy of Tunisians; charged with censorship and surveillance under Ben Ali, it was a feared agency, its practices referred to widely as “Ammar 404,” in honor of the 404 error users received when trying to access a blocked site. Post-revolution, the options were to shut down Ammar 404 and the ATI, or leave the ATI open as a semi-government agency, charged with being Tunisia’s IXP. Moez and others have faced several attempts to shut down the Internet, but continue their fight for an open and neutral Internet.

Session Four: Zeynep Tufekci on Networked Activism and Democratic Transitions

Zeynep, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and fellow at the Berkman Center, is presenting on the role of networked activism post-revolution.

“How did these regimes remain in power for decade after decade despite opposition?” Zeynep asks to start. She notes the struggles faced by long-term activists, as well as the perception that regimes cannot be brought down. “Once the floodgates open, as they did in Tunisia,” she says, “People realize they can bring a regime down. Revolutions can happen.”

Zeynep recognizes the years of preparation by both Egyptians and Tunisians, but explains that everyone here understands that and that, rather, she wants to bring experiences from other post-revolutionary states to Tunisia. She notes the utility of the new media ecology in expressing the unknown; like Sami Ben Gharbia has said, Tunisians were aware of corruption and human rights violations, but leaks and activism confirmed it.

“How does new media play a role in organizing a new society?” Zeynep asks. “More participation and more democracy are not identical, and new media can even increase polarization, create more conflict. Free speech doesn’t automatically translate into other values.”

If you start with free speech, Zeynep notes, it’s only the first step – there are complications and expression is not a magic wand. She takes us through the post-revolutionary processes in the French Revolution, as well as in Iran and Eastern Europe, noting that in all cases, transition was not straightforward and often took years, or even decades. “Sometimes you have to keep going back, back, back. Revolutions are not moments.”

“The biggest danger facing us is a failure of imagination,” she concluded.

Palin and the First Amendment

Dr. Laura Schlessinger is being posited as the latest in a victim of liberal attacks on free speech, most notably by Sarah Palin, who claimed on Twitter this week that Schlessinger was forced to step aside “bc her 1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist thx 2activists trying 2silence” her and that that was “not American and not fair.”

This, of course, begs a couple of serious questions:

  1. Does Sarah Palin actually not understand the Constitution?
  2. Where was Sarah Palin to defend Shirley Sherrod, Octavia Nasr, or Helen Thomas?

Oh wait, I know exactly where Sarah Palin was when Helen Thomas was forced to resign, because she saved her own tweet about it in her “favorites”:

Palin was quite clearly on the side of getting rid of Helen Thomas for a single comment, despite years of incredible work as a journalist. But when it comes to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whose years of work as a radio personality include calling gay people a “biological error” and telling abused women they “asked for it,” Palin is suddenly concerned about free speech.

Nevermind the fact, of course, that our Constitution’s first amendment does not guarantee anyone the right to a public audience, as Rashad Robinson so eloquently explains in this piece.

What it comes down to, in my view, is that Sarah Palin (and her Tea Party ilk) think it’s okay to invoke one’s free speech for the sake of racist comments, but that those who defend against racism (or more accurately, those who defend Muslims) should be shut down.

Net Freedom Starts at Home

David Ignatius is one journalist whose work I greatly respect. I followed his PostGlobal project with Fareed Zakaria for its duration and know that, as a journalist, he tends toward openness and honesty, with a definite global (and sometimes even developing world) slant.

Yesterday, in a Washington Post op-ed entitled, “The case for spreading press freedom around the world,” he made the case for spreading press (and Internet) freedom globally, a sentiment I typically agree with, assuming it’s done right.

Utilizing a forthcoming “press-freedom manifesto” by Lee Bollinger, Ignatius argues that “‘America’s “Manifest Destiny’ in the 21st century is to extend to the world the standards of our own First Amendment.” Though there are subtleties to that argument that I might disagree with, generally speaking, I agree with Ignatius (and by extension, Bollinger), that it’s in the best interest of the United States to support press and Internet freedom globally.

But as the old adage goes, such sentiments must start at home.

As I’ve written before, the U.S. often acts as a de facto
censor toward other countries when it comes to certain technologies. Recently proposed HR 2278, for example, would block certain satellite TV stations not only from US consumption, but (were the satellite providers to follow U.S. diktats) from their intended audiences as well. And while the Department of Treasury recently loosened restrictions barring certain downloads from netizens in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan, Department of Commerce restrictions still make basic use of certain Internet sites and tools nearly impossible for citizens in Syria.

Ignatius notes that private companies are often affected by other countries’ censorship, but fails to mention how his own government affects private companies’ ability to remain open in other countries.

If you ask me, the U.S. needs to walk the walk before it starts talking the talk.

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