Human Rights

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

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.
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.

"Anybody Can Be a Human Rights Defender"

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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