Public editor: The NYT "has shifted toward a more flexible — and more realistic — approach to how it explains to readers why it is using an anonymous source."
I've never ceased to be in awe of our Global Voices team who have been working hard for the past year to amplify and curate the global online conversation. So were the judges for the 2006 Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism, who have chosen Global Voices Online as one of seven finalists for this prestigious award.
The winner will be announced on September 18th in Washington D.C. Click here to read the full press release.
Here is how I described Global Voices to the judges in our application:
Global Voices Online is your guide to the most interesting and globally relevant content in online citizens’ media outside North America and Western Europe. At a time when the international English-language media ignores topics that are important to large numbers of the world’s citizens, GVO aims to redress some of the inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens’ media. Tens of millions of people around the world are sharing information, opinions, images, sounds and video online. We focus on the “bridge-bloggers:” those not merely talking to their friends about their pets and social lives, but who seek to engage a broader global audience in a conversation about what is important to them. But how can the wider global audience find these voices? If we are curious about the views of Saudi Arabian youth, how do we find out who has credibility and respect in the Saudi blogosphere? How does an American find out what the Russian language LiveJournal writers are saying about recent events in Belarus? GVO attempts to provide a solution to the worldwide Internet information overload. We are, in effect, an edited aggregator run by a core international team of 15 multilingual bloggers who select, explain, contextualize and translate conversations and citizens’ reporting that emerges from their regions. An additional group of 80-plus volunteer authors contribute even more in-depth perspective on the blog buzz in their countries. GVO’s new podcast editor has now taken the same curation model to audio with the newly-launched Global Voices Show, bringing you – literally – voices and perspectives from podcasters across the globe. In January 2006 we launched a new partnership with Reuters, introducing Reuters readers to the best of global online citizens media with tailored country-specific GVO feeds on pages devoted to specific countries and regions.
An excellent example of the way Global Voices and Reuters are working together to amplify citizens media can be found on this Reuters.com special Mideast Crisis page, where commentary from the region’s bloggers appears alongside news coverage and analysis from Reuters journalists. The GV and Reuters editorial teams continue to explore new ways to combine the best of citizens media and news agency journalism toward a common goal: a better informed public discourse about the important issues of our world.
Global Voices is a non-profit project housed at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. We are grateful to everybody there for putting up with me and Ethan as we worked to get this project off the ground. In addition to generous financial support from Reuters, Global Voices has received project-specific funding from the Dutch NGO Hivos. And we are eternally grateful to the Macarthur Foundation - who gave us the seed grant that made everything possible.
Most importantly, thanks to all the bloggers around the world who are working with passion and dedication to help us understand their countries and regions in completely new ways. Global Voices exists to serve you and to amplify your voices. We hope you’ll let us know what we’re doing right and what we could do better… and that you’ll help us improve. If you have any thoughts feel free to post them in the comments section of this post.
Head on over to Global Voices Online for more details about our application.
I'm in Singapore at the Fourth Annual Chinese Internet Research Conference, where I finally had a chance to meet Roland Soong, the Hong Kong-based blogger whose blog EastSouthWestNorth has become an indispensable resource to anybody who follows contemporary China.
In his presentation, Individual Blogging for Social Transformation, Roland says: "My goal in running the blog is for neither fame nor fortune, but it is a personal attempt to bring about a social transformation."
He points out that Western coverage of China - even at its best - is spotty and driven by the interests and attention spans of far-away editors. Thanks to an un-demanding job which leaves him with a decent income and plenty of free time, Roland has dedicated himself to serving a very important cause: helping the English-speaking world understand the Chinese world better by filling in the gaping information gaps not filled by professional media organizations. Every day Roland translates huge amounts of material from Chinese-language news websites, BBS chatrooms, blogs, and other sources. He works hard to document and track information about breaking news events in more detail than any mainstream news organization has time or space to do. Last year I wrote a post detailing Roland's important role in tirelessly documenting the Taishi Village conflict between peasant farmers and local authorities in Southern China - while English-language media coverage was fickle and fleeting. Also see this news article about him.
Roland's presentation (which you should read in full) links to a long list of stories about which his EastSouthWestNorth blog provided the only comprehensive English-language coverage. I know for a fact that ESWN has become required reading for journalists covering China, and quite a lot of people have done stories based on information that they first found on Roland's blog. Will this indeed bring about social transformation as Roland hopes? He concludes:
Let us review the limited goals that had been set up previously. The first goal was to make a difference in specific cases. It is possible to list a number of cases in which the blog has informed and influenced opinion.
The second goal was to create the awareness that things may be more complex than it seems. The blogger should think that the regular blog visitors would agree that this is offering a more complex picture of China . This blog cannot replace mainstream media, but it can supplement them. It has even created the awareness that blogs can outperform mainstream media in covering certain types of stories.
As for the larger goal of re-dressing the overall imbalance between Chinese-language and English-language news on China , it is beyond the capability of a single citizen. However, this blog seemed to have raised the awareness for this particular model. If there are dozens or even hundreds similar blogs run by individual citizens like this one, there will be a social transformation, both in transnational understanding and media culture.
Roland was one of the people who inspired Global Voices Online, the edited aggregator of blogs outside North America and Western Europe which Ethan Zuckerman and I co-founded, and which is now run by an amazing team of international bloggers. Concerned citizens around the world are discovering that it is possible to use blogs fill in the gaps left uncovered - or badly covered - by the Western English-langugage media. We link to Roland and bloggers like him in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe & Russia, East, Southeast, South, and Central Asia. I hope that his well-documented success in influencing the media will inspire even more people to wield the power of online citizens media.
Amnesty International has released a report titled "Undermining Freedom of Expression in China." (Click here for the press release (79.2K PDF); and Click here for the FULL REPORT (503.5K PDF).) The report lays out an argument for the way in which Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google "have, through their actions, directly and admittedly contradicted their values and shared policies" by complying with Chinese government censorship policies - and in one case, surveillance demands. Amnesty makes a compelling argument that these three companies "are facilitating and sanctioning government censorship rather than challenging it," and suggests concrete steps that these companies "can and should take to enable them to act in accordance with international human rights norms." Those steps are:
1. Publicly commit to honouring the freedom of expression provision in the Chinese constitution and lobby for the release of all cyber-dissidents and journalists imprisoned solely for the peaceful and legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression.
2. Be transparent about the filtering processused by the company in China and around the world and make public what words and phrases are filtered and how these words are selected.
3. Make publicly available all agreements between the company and the Chinese government with implications for censorship of information and suppression of dissent.
4. Exhaust all judicial remedies and appeals in China and internationally before complying with state directives where these have human rights implications. Make known to the government the company’s principled opposition to implementing any requests or directives which breach international human rights norms whenever such pressures are applied.
5. Develop an explicit human rights policy that states the company’s support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and complies with the UN Norms for Business and the UN Global Compact’s principle on avoiding complicity in human rights violations.
6. Clarify to what extent human rights considerations are taken into account in the processes and procedures that the company undertakes in deciding whether and how the company’s values and reputation will be compromised if it assists governments to censor access to the Internet.
7. Exercise leadership in promoting human rights in China through lobbying the government for legislative and social reform in line with international human rights standards, through seeking clarification of the existing legal framework and through adopting business practices that encourage China to comply with its human rights obligations.
8. Participate in and support the outcomes of a multi-stakeholder process to develop a set of guidelines relating to the Internet and human rights issues, as well as mechanisms for their implementation and verification, as part of broader efforts to promote recognition of the body of human rights principles applicable to companies.
Another human rights organization, for whom I have been doing some work as a consultant, will be releasing a more data-heavy, in-depth report full of screenshots, tables, and appendices, with more concrete data about the why and how of exactly what has happened, which I think will be of great interest to geeks and journalists. It provides screenshots of exactly how each of these companies censors content, a comparative analysis of censorship on Google.cn, Yahoo! China and MSN's new Chinese search engine. (As others have also concluded, Yahoo! wins as the heaviest censor of the three.) We've included quite a lot of information and quotes reflecting Chinese Internet users' perspectives on censorship - which are complex, and which I will say more about later in this blog post. Exactly when that report will be released is beyond my control but I hope it will be released quite soon because it's been difficult holding back from scooping the report on this blog.
Meanwhile, last week, all of the major human rights organizations signed on to a letter endorsing the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), the bill introduced by Congressman Chris Smith in February after the congressional hearings where Cisco, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google were called to the carpet. I think the human rights organizations are doing some great work in demanding these companies live up to their alleged values. However while I am not completely opposed to any legislation in theory, I remain very uncomfortable with this legislation in its current form.
GOFA has been substantially amended since it was first introduced. Here is a PDF of the newly amdended Global Online Freedom Act (108.3K PDF). For comparison, click here for the early version of the bill and click here for my critique of it.
The amended version is somewhat more realistic, though my concerns about the sharing of Chinese user info with the U.S. government still stand - if Americans don't want the DOJ to have access to their user information, why should anybody else? But my main concern with GOFA has to do with the way in which it frames the whole issue of corporate responsibility and Internet censorship. The bill would create a new Office of Internet Freedom in the State Department, which would then designate a list of "Internet-restricting countries." The legislation's ensuing provisions only pertain to company operations in those listed countries, making no attempt to address the fact that Internet and telecoms companies are more and more frequently caught between the over-reach of government power and user rights pretty much everywhere, including the U.S.
This approach is not only hypocritical and arrogant, but potentially dangerous. Governments of every stripe - be it dictatorship, autocracy, theocracy, electoral democracy - are leaning on Internet and telecoms companies to compromise citizens' privacy, freedom of speech, and access to information. (The latest India censorship situation is a new case in point, with ISP's being ordered to block blogs wholesale.) Sure, there is no comparison between the U.S. and China in terms of free-speech protections and privacy. But the the U.S. government has lately been asking internet and telecoms companies to compromise user data without our knowledge, and we even have some battles at the state government level over un-transparent and arbitrary government censorship. Internet and telecoms companies in ANY country have the potential to assist ANY government in quietly eroding our rights. Legislation that does not acknowledge the need to require companies operating EVERYWHERE protect ALL Internet users from ANY AND ALL government encroachment of their universally recognized rights to free speech will be viewed as hypocritical if not hostile by many of the people whose are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the legislation in the first place.
I've just spent the past 10 days in China (attending an off-the-record conference, working on longer-term projects that won't benefit from being scooped prematurely, and seeing people who don't want their lives and work to be blogged... which is why I haven't blogged much of anything about the trip, and why many people haven't even known I've been in China). I've met with local Internet entrepreneurs, bloggers, Westerners doing business here in the Chinese Internet sector, some diplomats, and some low-level bureaucrats. I'm struck by the degree of disconnect between what the international human rights and free speech community is intending to do, and the way the criticisms of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! are perceived here on the ground. While the leading international free speech and human rights activists view corporate collaboration in Chinese censorship as part of a global problem which will have a major impact on the future of the internet and free speech worldwide, most people in China who are aware of the issue see the debate mainly in terms of whether or not Internet companies should engage in China. They also see it as part of a larger political agenda to demonize China, or as an effort by Americans to tell the Chinese how to run their country. (See the essay by Chinese blogger Michael Anti, himself no fan of censorship being victim of it himself: "The freedom of Chinese netizens is not up to the Americans.")
On the other hand, in Beijing I heard a lot of frustration from Chinese internet entrepreneurs about the heavy costs that censorship imposes on their business, and frustration from foreign businesspeople that arbitrary, un-transparent and un-accountable censorship creates an unfair business playing field in which political acumen becomes as or more important than the quality of one's products or services. Many people in the bureaucracy say they would like their country to be governed more by rule-of-law rather than rule-by-political-whim, because they feel that the former is much better for China's economy in the long run. When I talked to people about the Internet censorship and surveillance issue as a global problem rather than just a China problem, there was a great deal more enthusiasm about working towards solutions. Many people I spoke with agreed it would be ideal if the Chinese government could be convinced to change the way in which it conducts censorship, so that there is documentation, accountability, and unreasonable censorship can be appealed. Businesspeople also tended to agree it would be ideal if the Chinese government would openly take responsibility for what is being censored, rather than foisting the responsibility - and thus anger and blame from users - onto the companies. Now the question is: how to get from here to there? How to create a dialogue between business, government, and free speech proponents around the world that helps provide a road map for legal and regulatory reform in China and elsewhere? Without people getting in trouble for resistance and having their companies shut down? The answers to those questions are not yet clear but one thing IS clear to me: the human rights community needs to do a lot better job at explaining this issue to the people they are trying to help.
It's also really important for activists to understand that from most Chinese people's perspective, Chinese Internet users currently (despite all the existing censorship) have much more freedom of speech thanks to the Internet than they ever had before. So when human rights groups talk at great length about how serious the repression is, many Chinese Internet users really do think that the foreigners are making mountains out of molehills - until they or their loved ones get into trouble of course, but most people stay far away enough from politics as to avoid getting into serious trouble so they fail to see the seriousness of the problem. Again, while I still think that human rights groups are on the correct side of the issue, they need to do much more to frame it in a way that makes sense to a Chinese audience, and which isn't patronizing or seemingly hypocritical, if more Chinese people are going to better understand the work these organizations are trying to do on their behalf.
I'm afraid that the human rights groups' largely unqualified endorsement of GOFA reinforces the real perception in China and many other countries - even among people who chafe at the lack of democracy and free speech protection - that this legislation and surrounding activism is yet another way in which Westerners are trying to tell the Chinese people how to run their country. Which it certainly shouldn't be. This ought to be a global citizens' movement to prevent governments from encroaching upon our privacy and right to free speech on the Internet.