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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

How Human Rights Groups and "Hacktivists" Are Using Internet Technology to Buck State Censors

May 29, 2008

By Jayati Vora
May 23, 2008

A woman walks into an Internet café in Beijing, knowing what she is
about to do is illegal. But by using a proxy server -- connecting her
computer to another one abroad -- she hopes to evade the state
censors. She has done this many times before. It takes longer this
way, but it's free and easy to use, and she has plenty of time.

The young man at the computer next to her is using a more
sophisticated method -- a VPN or virtual private network. It creates
a private, encrypted channel that runs along with the regular
Internet. Through his VPN, he is connecting with another server
overseas. It's much faster than a proxy server, but it costs roughly
$40 a year.

This sounds like the stuff of spy movies and suspense novels, but in
China, it's fairly commonplace to evade government censorship --
breaching the Great Firewall -- to access forbidden websites, send
information out and do it without any of China's army of censors
being any the wiser. (Official figures aren't available, but the
number of censors is said to be in the tens of thousands.)

Now, thanks to the efforts of human rights groups, forward-thinking
news organizations and "hacktivists," more and more voices from
around the globe are finding a place on the Internet -- even in
countries where Web filters and censorship are the norm.

"Now you can't say you didn't know," says Sameer Padania. "Human
rights abuses have fewer and fewer places to hide." Padania was
discussing the website he runs, The Hub, following a panel discussion
at the recent 2008 PEN conference in New York. According to its
website, The Hub is "the world's first participatory media site for
human rights." A kind of human rights version of YouTube, it allows
users from all over the world to upload audio, video and photographs,
provide written context for them, or simply watch and listen. Users
can connect with other groups, post an event, and, perhaps most
importantly, decide how much other visitors to the site can see about
them. The Hub doesn't even log IP addresses, which means it can't
track how many individuals use the website every day, or where they
come from. The videos on the site range from cell phone camera
footage of protests to slideshows with voiceovers and more
sophisticated, edited mini-documentaries and public service
announcements (PSAs). The Hub is a project of the human rights group
Witness, which was founded by musician Peter Gabriel in 1992. It's
mission was to give cameras away to the world.

The story of Witness is a lesson in the power of video as a medium.
Suvasini Patel, communications and outreach manager at Witness,
recounts its history:

"Peter Gabriel had gone on this tour organized by Amnesty
International. He came face-to-face with survivors of human rights
abuses, and he began filming them. He was carrying a first generation
video camera, and he found there was something cathartic in them
being able to tell their story, to have a platform, and not have
anyone be able to deny it."

At first, Witness had fundraising problems. Then came the the Rodney
King episode in Los Angeles in 1991, when a black motorist was
viciously beaten by four white LA police officers. The assault was
captured by amateur photographer George Holliday; as the images made
their way around the world, they put the issue of racial profiling
both inside and outside the black community, on the map. Still, Patel
says, "I don't know whether it was a success or not, because the
video was used as evidence both by the prosecution and the defense.
Perspective is important."

Witness soon realized that cameras alone weren't enough. So it began
doing training in the use of video, providing strategic support of
the distribution of video, and envisioning The Hub.

"The Hub is just a different platform," Patel explains. "People don't
necessarily need cameras, but they need a platform, a community to
engage with, and strategic guidance on how to use video to create change."

Carroll Bogert, the associate director of Human Rights Watch, is
experienced in the use of video to effect change. One of the
organization's videos, about child soldiers, was produced for Senator
Dick Durbin so that he could show it to his colleagues at Capitol
Hill. Thanks in part to the footage, Durbin managed to get several
co-sponsors for a bill he introduced, The Child Soldier Prevention Act Of 2007.

Video, says Bogert, "gives the written reports more emotional
impact." Of course, there are also boundaries. For instance, "we
don't take pictures of rape victims, and are careful about using
images of children," she says. "There are delicate questions to
confront so that the images aren't exploitative. Also, it confuses
the authorities and victims about whether you are a human rights
activist or a journalist." Bogert feels that still photography can be
every bit as important, less intrusive, and sometimes has just as
much impact as video.

Breakthrough, another human rights organization, uses video in an
entirely different and innovative way. Their latest multimedia
offering is a video game, ICED -- a play on the acronym of the
Immigration and Customs Enforcement department (ICE) -- about
detention and due process. In it, players answer questions and make
choices between good and bad deeds to gain points. The game ends in
one of four ways: deportation; indefinite detention; voluntary
deportation; or citizenship.


Ben Carduss, a senior researcher with the International Campaign for
Tibet (ICT), knows how valuable video can be, in rejecting the
official government line and in advocacy work. "Raw footage, any kind
of evidence is incredibly useful," he says. "In Tibet, cell phones
are being confiscated, because they are used to send text messages to
relatives in China and India. Very basic technology is being used to
get the information out." Much of the footage of the monks' protests
was shot on cell phone cameras.

Before posting video online, ICT takes care to blot out people's
faces and electronically modify their voices to protect them from
government retaliation. But Carduss often comes across the same
footage released by other organizations that haven't made similar
efforts. There have been several protesters, especially in Eastern
Tibet, who have been arrested for tearing down the Chinese flag and
putting up the Tibetan flag in its place -- protesters who have been
identified by videos circulating online. Despite the dangers for the
photographers, Carduss is "incredibly frustrated not to have more
footage. A picture paints a thousand words," he says.

Citizen Lab -- an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk
Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada
-- has several programs designed to help citizen journalists. One
project, called Psiphon, allows citizens in uncensored countries to
provide open access to the Internet via their home computers to those
who live in countries where the Internet is filtered or censored.

The people who develop these programs are known as "hactivists." One
hacktivist site describes itself as a "think tank" of electronic
civil disobedience and hactivists as those who "use modern technology
against those that exploit and oppress the people."

Says Patel, "It's harnessing the power of technology to create social
change." She's speaking of The Hub, but it applies equally to the
citizen journalists who snap forbidden pictures, and the hacktivists
who work to support them. "The footage we're seeing from Burma,
Tibet, the London bombings, by regular citizens -- that's
revolutionary. Anybody can be a human rights defender at this time --
it's not solely in the purview of experts anymore."
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