My (rough) statement for the US Helsinki Commission hearing (Feedback Please!)

Below is my rough statement for the US Helsinki Commission “Twitter v. Tyrants” hearing this Thursday. I would greatly appreciate any of your comments and feedback, as I will be polishing this up a bit before the hearing Thursday and before I formally submit it into record. I mostly wonder whether I have made to many generalizations in trying to connect the dots for people in the limited time I have. Are there other case studies I should mention that would help? Any other papers, posts, links I should I include? Thanks!

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to participate in this hearing. Thank you to the members of the commission for the invitation to appear here today, and for your interest in this very important topic. I come here today as a representative of the many, many technology advocates, experts and educators who believe that the most amazing innovations of our generation should be used for more than just acquiring more wealth or as simply new channels entertainment or distractions. I am also a longtime member and former board chair of the international non-profit group Students for a Free Tibet, led by Tibetan activists Lhadon Tethong and Tenzin Dorjee.

From my perspective, the latest wave of new media protest technology began in 2004, with an open-source web service called TXTMob. TXTMob was first developed by MIT’s Institute for Applied Autonomy for protesters at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston and the Republican National Convention in New York. I was part of a team that utilized TXTMob to broadcast thousands of short messages to over 10,000 people on the streets of New York, letting them know what was happening moment by moment. Later in 2004, during the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, students utilized the service to coordinate their spontaneous protests or flashmobs, strikes and sit-ins. In 2005, two of my colleagues who had been involved TXTMobs use during the RNC went to work for the company that became Twitter, where they showed the demonstrated the power of TXTMobs and short message broadcasting to their coworkers around the office. It was in those times, that Twitter was born. It is not an accident that things have come full circle, with Twitter now being the standard go-to tool for activists around the world.

In my activism work, my areas of focus are Asia and the Americas. I have specific experience traveling in and working with organizations focused on China, Tibet and India. I have developed patented technology, focused on the exchange of data between mobile devices over wireless networks. I am also teaching at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program this semester – a new graduate course I’ve designed entitled “Social Activism using Mobile Technology”.  My personal path in this sphere, as a developer, practitioner and instructor in the use of new media technologies within social movements, is built upon a very long tradition that goes back to the first time someone figured out how to use drums, fire and birds to send signal messages.

During the second world war and the cold war, inventors, mathematicians and the earliest digital computers played a critical role in helping the allies stay one step ahead of the axis. In recent years, open-source hackers, nerds and geeks have gravitated towards the social justice, environmental and human rights movements, creating unique alliances and very rich opportunity for innovation. Four guys in a garage in Silicon Valley, is now multiple activists communicating in realtime through Twitter, Skype, Facebook, all using their iPhones, Blackberries and Google Android phones, to weave together human rights campaigns using true grassroots organizing and tested non-violence tactics with open-source software, cloud-based web services and very powerful, yet very cheap hardware gadgets.

Take the case of Burma in 2007. Video journalists and I.T. student organizations teamed up to provide their own coverage of the Saffron Revolution. As their footage began reaching the outside world, they become bolder and more targeted by the junta. While the revolution never fully materialized, and many of the monks and activists who participated have been imprisoned, tortured or worse, the “VJ” model of Burma is largely considered to have been successful due to the global attention the protests received. A similar model is being used in Iraq, through the well known citizen journalist video service, “Alive in Baghdad”, that works to cover and disseminate stories of the every day lives of Iraqis. We have also seen this model used with simple camera phones in the Kashmir and most recently in Iran, where a single clip of video of an innocent dying girl instantly clarified the issue for a global audience and brought overwhelming sympathy and support to the side of the Iranian people. The power of the moving image is unavoidable.

In many cases, the authoritarian states power proves too formidable for adhoc efforts with new media technology. In Tibet, the largely peaceful uprisings in March 2008, were perceived by the outside world as being “riots”, due to China’s ability to control the story by severely restricting news media access and blocking telephone and internet communication. Thousands of Tibetans were detained, many died, and hundreds were given lengthy sentences, many convicted through evidence gathered via close-circuit security cameras, mobile phones, PCs and the Internet. There are countless stories of Chinese, Tibetan and other activists within China being incriminated through their use of email, Skype and other tools. The evidence gathered by the state is often done in collaboration with the technology providers – Yahoo!, eBay, and so on.

In August of 2008, over seventy activists from around the world traveled to Beijing to protest for Tibetan human rights and independence during the Olympic games. New media tools played a major role during this effort. It provided a loosely coupled link between the various independent activists who were traveling to Beijing to participate. It enabled a team of citizen journalists to document the many different protest that occurred (since mainstream press was mostly unable to due to their “close” relationship with Chinese security agents) – all utilizing broadcast quality HD video cameras, small mobile computers and uploading photos and footage for publishing and broadcast around the world. The Beijing authorities eventually caught on, arresting and detaining for a week, six American citizens who had been documenting the protests. During their detention, they were told that the crimes they were guilty of, documenting and spreading media of protests, was far worse a crime than actually participating in the protest itself. Fortunately, due to their American passports, they were treated fairly and made it home.

During last years presidential elections, I was a member of an adhoc team of people who came together to build “Twitter Vote Report”, a nation wide web 2.0-style election monitoring system that tied together google maps, wikis, and iPhones with human resources on the ground from watchdog groups and the media. Over 30,000 citizens reported from outside their polling places, providing a real time view and instant notice of any long lines, hanging chads and potentially voter fraud. The data captured that day was released freely to the Internet for analysis and research by academic institutions. The open-source code from this project, as well as a few others, has been utilized in India and Afghanistan, and we hope to see it become a standard tool in the fight against election fraud.

As you can tell, I am very enthusiastic and active participant in the use of new media tools for social good and in the fight against authoritarianism. However, the use of these tools also brings about the possibility of serious risk to the user, their friends, family and broader movement. As a friend of mine said, “You cannot twitter your way out of a bludgeoning by security goons”. Mobile phones are unique, always broadcasting personal identifiers; changing SIM cards does nothing, phones are tracked easily tracked by their hardware IDs. Laptop computers are often full of incriminating documents, web caches and email addresses. Digital viruses that deliver actual spy-ware such as GhostNet are common and becoming more powerful and more invisible every day – one slip and your entire email inbox can be copied by an adversary. Use of new media and social networks reveal one’s “social graphs”, buddy lists, friends & followers… in a free country, these provide benefit, amplifying your ability to communicate and connect. In an authoritarian state, these reveal your human networks, make the job of cracking down easier and more efficient. It often takes an entire generation to rebuild when an activist network is decimated. The protests of 2007 and 2008 in Burma and Tibet were at level not seen since 1988 and 1989. That twenty year gap is no accident.

While the free world is easily enamored of applications of new media tools within dictatorships and authoritarian states far way, our own federal, state and local law enforcement are often quite fearful and hostile towards their use within domestic movements. Tad Hirsch, creator of TXTMob, is the subject of a subpoena by the City of New York in connection with several active lawsuits against the City that allege police misconduct during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Elliot Madison, a 41 year old social worker, was been arrested in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24 and charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime. The Pennsylvania State Police said he was found in a hotel room with computers and police scanners while using the social-networking site Twitter to spread information about police movements. Just this week it was announced that In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, has invested in a company whose technology is capable of powerful data mining from any information openly published on Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites. In summary, acts taken to secure our homeland from violent terrorists often have similar justifications to acts taken by authoritarian governments to squelch dissent and democracy. Our government needs to be mindful of these contradictory positions on the benefit of new media within our own democracy.

Finally, I would like to briefly emphasize the comments from Mary Joyce of DigiActive, who could not be here today, on the topic of embargoes. In the digital age, where a “good” is a string of code that can be delivered anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse, even today’s smart sanctions are not smart enough.  By preventing access to blogging platforms, social networks, and other types of new media, current embargo policies harm the very activists who are furthering our common goals of democracy promotion, while leaving authoritarian governments free to spread propaganda through a range of state-controlled media outlets.

Referenced URLs of note:
TXTMob: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TXTMob
Alive in Baghdad: http://aliveinbaghdad.org/
TwitterVoteReport: http://twittervotereport.com
Beijing Olympics Protest Coverage: http://freetibet2008.tv
GhostNet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GhostNet

15 thoughts on “My (rough) statement for the US Helsinki Commission hearing (Feedback Please!)”

  1. While I am a HUGE fan of FrontlineSMS, I was trying to find examples of it specifically being used within authoritarian situations, as opposed to humanitarian. Any links / case studies on this type of use would be greatly appreciated.

  2. While I am a HUGE fan of FrontlineSMS, I was trying to find examples of it specifically being used within authoritarian situations, as opposed to humanitarian. Any links / case studies on this type of use would be greatly appreciated.

  3. where they showed –the–[and] demonstrated the power of TXTMobs — strike 'the' insert 'and'

    patented technology–,–[ and] focused on the exchange — the comma doesn't work just use and

    many different protest[s] that occurred — plural?

  4. where they showed –the–[and] demonstrated the power of TXTMobs — strike 'the' insert 'and'

    patented technology–,–[ and] focused on the exchange — the comma doesn't work just use and

    many different protest[s] that occurred — plural?

  5. Here is an updated version of my opening statement for today.

    Nathanial Freitas
    Opening Statement
    CSCE Hearing “Twitter vs. Tyrants”
    October 22, 2009

    I greatly appreciate the opportunity to participate in this hearing.
    Thank you to the members of the commission, Chairman Cardin and
    Co-Chairman Hastings, for the invitation to appear here today, and for
    your interest in this very important topic. I come to you as a
    representative of the countless technology and new media advocates,
    experts and educators who believe that the most amazing and
    ground-breaking innovations of our generation should be used for more
    than just the acquisition of wealth or as new channels of
    entertainment and distraction. I am also a longtime member and former
    board chair of the international non-profit group Students for a Free
    Tibet, led by Tibetan activists Lhadon Tethong and Tenzin Dorjee. What
    I will share with you today are some of my experiences working with
    new media technology as an activist practitioner, and my ground-level
    perspective, so to speak.

    First, a small bit of history. The roots of this latest wave of new
    media technology, specifically Twitter, began in 2004, with an
    open-source web service called TXTMob. TXTMob was first developed by
    MIT’s Institute for Applied Autonomy for use by protesters at the 2004
    Democratic National Convention in Boston and the Republican National
    Convention in New York. I was part of a team that utilized TXTMob to
    broadcast thousands of short messages to over 10,000 people on the
    streets of New York, letting them know what was happening moment by
    moment. Later in 2004, during the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine,
    students utilized the same service to coordinate spontaneous protests
    also know as “flashmobs”, strikes and sit-ins. In 2005, two of my
    colleagues who had been involved in TXTMobs use during the RNC went to
    work for the company that became Twitter, where they demonstrated the
    power of short message broadcasting to their coworkers around the
    office. It was in those times and in those moments, that the idea for
    Twitter was born. It is not an accident that things have come full
    circle, with Twitter now being the standard go-to tool for activists
    around the world.

    In my activism work, my areas of focus and expertise is Asia. I have
    specific experience traveling in and working with organizations
    focused on China, Tibet and India. I have also been employed in
    Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley, developing patented technology
    focused on the exchange of data between mobile devices over wireless
    networks. As a student at the University of California in the mid 90s,
    I worked on a DARPA and NSF-funded research effort known as the
    Digital Library Initiative. Today I am an instructor at New York
    University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, teaching a new
    graduate course entitled “Social Activism using Mobile Technology”.
    My personal path in this sphere, as a developer, practitioner and
    instructor in the use of new media technologies within social
    movements, may seem novel, but is in fact built upon a very long
    tradition of geeks trying to good.

    During the second world war Second World War and the Cold War,
    inventors, mathematicians and the earliest digital computers played a
    critical role in helping the allies stay one step ahead of the axis.
    During the civil rights movement, the use of telephones, telegrams and
    traditional social networks within churches and universities, helped
    build a foundation to mobilize supporters throughout the south. In
    recent years, open-source hackers, nerds and geeks have gravitated
    towards the social justice, environmental and human rights movements,
    creating unique alliances and very rich opportunity for innovation.
    The idea of two guys in a garage in Silicon Valley has translated into
    global teams of activists communicating in realtime through Twitter,
    Skype, Facebook through their laptops, iPhones and Blackberries,
    working to weave together the grassroots organizing and non-violence
    tactics of Gandhi with freely available, open-source software, cheap
    internet bandwidth, cloud servers and mobile devices.

    Take the case of Burma in 2007. Video journalists and I.T. (Internet
    technology) student organizations teamed up to provide their own
    coverage of the Saffron Revolution. Using SMS, instant messaging
    technology, digital video cameras, internet-based file transfer
    services, combined with old fashioned “sneaker nets”, a network was
    able to present an uncensored view of the protests as they unfolded.
    As their footage began reaching the outside world, appearing on the
    BBC and elsewhere, the journalists became more bold and increasingly
    targeted by the state security forces. When the revolution never fully
    materialized, the monks, activists and journalists involved paid a
    very heavy price, facing imprisonment, torture or worse. However, the
    innovative work of the video journalist teams made a lasting impact
    and was largely considered to have been successful due to the global
    attention the protests received. A similar model is being used in
    Iraq, through the award-winning online video channel, “Alive in
    Baghdad”, that works to cover and disseminate stories of the every day
    lives of Iraqis. We have also seen this model used with simple camera
    phones in the Kashmir and most recently in Iran, when a single video
    clip of video of an innocent dying girl instantly clarified the issue
    for a global audience and brought overwhelming sympathy and support to
    the side of the Iranian people. The power of the moving image is
    unavoidable, and with the low cost of distributing video online, the
    ability to easily stream live over mobile and satellite data networks,
    its reach and impact has come to rival broadcast television.

    In many cases, the authoritarian states’ power proves too formidable
    for new media technology to have a meaningful impact. While we can
    instantly know about the smallest conflict in any part of the planet,
    there is often very little that the Internet can do to help those in
    harms way. In Tibet, the largely peaceful uprisings in March 2008,
    were perceived by the outside world as being “riots”, due to China’s
    ability to control the story by severely restricting news media access
    and blocking telephone and internet communication. Thousands of
    Tibetans were detained, many died, and hundreds were given lengthy
    sentences, many convicted through evidence gathered via close-circuit
    security cameras, use of mobile phones, PCs and the Internet. Just
    yesterday, four Tibetan political prisoners were executed after being
    hastily convicted of crimes related to the March uprising. There are
    countless stories of Chinese, Tibetan and other activists within China
    being incriminated through their use of email, Skype and other tools.
    The evidence gathered by the state is often done in collaboration with
    the technology providers – Yahoo!, eBay/Skype, and so on.

    In August of 2008, over seventy activists from around the world
    traveled to Beijing to protest for Tibetan human rights and
    independence during the Olympic games. New media tools played a major
    role during this effort, providing a loosely coupled link between the
    various independent activists who were traveling to Beijing to
    participate in protests. The tools also enabled a team of citizen
    journalists to document the many different protests and press
    conferences that occurred, using techniques evolved from what the
    Burmese students accomplished in 2007 and a bevy of new technology -
    solid-state HD digital video cameras, handheld tablet computers, live
    streaming camera phones. Their photos and footage were broadcast
    around the world, appearing in the NY Times and on the BBC and CNN
    International. Mainstream press was
    unable to cover the majority of
    these events due to the close monitoring and scrutiny they faced. The
    Beijing authorities eventually caught on, arresting and detaining for
    a week, six American citizens who had been documenting the protests.
    During their detention, they were told that the crimes they were
    guilty of, documenting and spreading media of protests, were a far
    worse a crime than actually participating in the protest itself.
    Fortunately, due to their American passports and support from the
    White House, they were treated fairly and made it home. Chinese and
    Tibetan activists, bloggers and journalists who have been arrested for
    similar acts have faced far worse treatment and sentences.

    During last year’s presidential elections, I was a member of a diverse
    team of software developers and open government activists who came
    together to build “Twitter Vote Report”, a nation wide web 2.0-style
    election monitoring system that tied together google maps, wikis, and
    iPhones with human resources on the ground from watchdog groups and
    the media. Over 30,000 citizens reported from outside their polling
    places, providing a real time view and instant notice of any long
    lines, hanging chads and potentially voter fraud. The data captured
    that day was released freely to the Internet for analysis and research
    by academic institutions. The open-source code from this project, as
    well as a few others, has been utilized in India and Afghanistan, and
    we hope to see it become a standard tool in the fight against election
    fraud. It is important to remember that using technology to promote
    civic engagement and democratic participation is as important as its
    use for active dissent.

    As you can tell, I am very enthusiastic and active participant in the
    use of new media tools for social good and in the fight against
    authoritarianism. However, the use of these tools also brings about
    the possibility of serious risk to the user, their friends, family and
    broader movement. As a friend of mine said, “You cannot twitter your
    way out of a bludgeoning by security goons”. Mobile phones are unique,
    always broadcasting personal identifiers; changing SIM cards does
    nothing, phones are tracked easily tracked by their hardware IDs.
    Laptop computers are often full of incriminating documents, web caches
    and email addresses. Digital viruses that deliver powerful
    espionage-ware such as GhostNet are common and becoming more powerful
    and more invisible every day – one slip and your entire email inbox
    can be copied by an adversary. Use of new media and social networks
    reveal one’s “social graphs”, buddy lists, friends & followers… in a
    free country, these provide benefit, amplifying your ability to
    communicate and connect. In an authoritarian state, these same tools
    can make clear loose connections between activists, which make the job
    of cracking down on dissent much easier and more efficient. It often
    takes an entire generation to rebuild when an activist network is
    decimated. The protests of 2007 and 2008 in Burma and Tibet were at
    level not seen since 1988 and 1989. That twenty year gap is no
    accident. Rather than just focus on the use of technology as a better
    megaphone, we need to consider how it can be used to safeguard and
    protect the identities and well-being of dissidents. The Tor Project
    is a successful case of technology that provides anonymity to web
    surfers and the ability to route around state-sponsored censorship.

    While the free world is easily enamored of applications of new media
    tools within dictatorships and authoritarian states far way, our own
    federal, state and local law enforcement are often quite fearful and
    hostile towards their use within domestic movements. I raise this
    point not to say that we do not enjoy great freedoms in this
    democracy, but in order to make clear that tools which provide a more
    powerful platform for dissent are universally threatening to those in
    power. Tad Hirsch, creator of TXTMob, is the subject of a subpoena by
    the City of New York in connection with several active lawsuits
    against the City that allege police misconduct during the 2004
    Republican National Convention. Elliot Madison, a 41 year old social
    worker, was been arrested in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24 and charged with
    hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication
    facility and possession of instruments of crime. The Pennsylvania
    State Police said he was found in a hotel room with computers and
    police scanners while using the social-networking site Twitter to
    spread information about police movements. Just this week it was
    announced that In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, has invested
    in a company whose technology is capable of powerful data mining from
    any information openly published on Twitter, Facebook and other social
    networking sites. In summary, measures taken to secure our homeland
    from violent terrorists often have similar justifications to those
    taken by authoritarian governments to squelch dissent and democracy.
    We all must be mindful of these contradictory positions on the benefit
    of new media within our own democracy.

    In summary, there are constructive steps that can be take today by
    policy makers, NGOs and technology developers. We need to support the
    development of a Global Technology Bill of Rights that extends
    freedoms of speech and the press to the tools needed to communicate
    using the Internet and mobile phones. Congress should develop policy
    and programs that recognize and fund new media technology as a
    fundamental component to the promotion of human rights, liberty and
    democracy. There also must be guidance and motivation for
    corporations, startups and venture capitalists who are building these
    technologies to consider their global impact on human lives, and not
    just on the bottom line or their stock price. I am all in support of
    entrepreneurs being rewarded for their risk, and am happy that tools
    such as Twitter can be used just as well to cover the daily lives of
    Ashton and Demi or break the news of Michael Jackson's death, as it
    can to broadcast updates live from the streets of Iran or spread the
    news of the execution of four Tibetan political prisoners this morning
    in China. I just hope that MBA students at Harvard and Stanford will
    consider the Humanity Quotient of their work while dreaming up the
    next big thing.

    Finally, I would like to briefly emphasize the comments from Mary
    Joyce of DigiActive, who could not be here today, on the topic of
    embargoes. In the digital age, where a “good” is a string of code that
    can be delivered anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse, even
    today’s smart sanctions are not smart enough. By preventing access to
    blogging platforms, social networks, and other types of new media,
    current embargo policies harm the very activists who are furthering
    our common goals of democracy promotion, while leaving authoritarian
    governments free to spread propaganda through a range of
    state-controlled media outlets.

    Referenced web resources of note:
    TXTMob: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TXTMob
    Alive in Baghdad: http://aliveinbaghdad.org/
    TwitterVoteReport: http://twittervotereport.com
    Beijing Olympics Protest Coverage: http://freetibet2008.tv
    GhostNet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GhostNet
    Tor Project – anonymous web browsing – http://torproject.org

  6. Here is an updated version of my opening statement for today.

    Nathanial Freitas
    Opening Statement
    CSCE Hearing “Twitter vs. Tyrants”
    October 22, 2009

    I greatly appreciate the opportunity to participate in this hearing.
    Thank you to the members of the commission, Chairman Cardin and
    Co-Chairman Hastings, for the invitation to appear here today, and for
    your interest in this very important topic. I come to you as a
    representative of the countless technology and new media advocates,
    experts and educators who believe that the most amazing and
    ground-breaking innovations of our generation should be used for more
    than just the acquisition of wealth or as new channels of
    entertainment and distraction. I am also a longtime member and former
    board chair of the international non-profit group Students for a Free
    Tibet, led by Tibetan activists Lhadon Tethong and Tenzin Dorjee. What
    I will share with you today are some of my experiences working with
    new media technology as an activist practitioner, and my ground-level
    perspective, so to speak.

    First, a small bit of history. The roots of this latest wave of new
    media technology, specifically Twitter, began in 2004, with an
    open-source web service called TXTMob. TXTMob was first developed by
    MIT’s Institute for Applied Autonomy for use by protesters at the 2004
    Democratic National Convention in Boston and the Republican National
    Convention in New York. I was part of a team that utilized TXTMob to
    broadcast thousands of short messages to over 10,000 people on the
    streets of New York, letting them know what was happening moment by
    moment. Later in 2004, during the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine,
    students utilized the same service to coordinate spontaneous protests
    also know as “flashmobs”, strikes and sit-ins. In 2005, two of my
    colleagues who had been involved in TXTMobs use during the RNC went to
    work for the company that became Twitter, where they demonstrated the
    power of short message broadcasting to their coworkers around the
    office. It was in those times and in those moments, that the idea for
    Twitter was born. It is not an accident that things have come full
    circle, with Twitter now being the standard go-to tool for activists
    around the world.

    In my activism work, my areas of focus and expertise is Asia. I have
    specific experience traveling in and working with organizations
    focused on China, Tibet and India. I have also been employed in
    Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley, developing patented technology
    focused on the exchange of data between mobile devices over wireless
    networks. As a student at the University of California in the mid 90s,
    I worked on a DARPA and NSF-funded research effort known as the
    Digital Library Initiative. Today I am an instructor at New York
    University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, teaching a new
    graduate course entitled “Social Activism using Mobile Technology”.
    My personal path in this sphere, as a developer, practitioner and
    instructor in the use of new media technologies within social
    movements, may seem novel, but is in fact built upon a very long
    tradition of geeks trying to good.

    During the second world war Second World War and the Cold War,
    inventors, mathematicians and the earliest digital computers played a
    critical role in helping the allies stay one step ahead of the axis.
    During the civil rights movement, the use of telephones, telegrams and
    traditional social networks within churches and universities, helped
    build a foundation to mobilize supporters throughout the south. In
    recent years, open-source hackers, nerds and geeks have gravitated
    towards the social justice, environmental and human rights movements,
    creating unique alliances and very rich opportunity for innovation.
    The idea of two guys in a garage in Silicon Valley has translated into
    global teams of activists communicating in realtime through Twitter,
    Skype, Facebook through their laptops, iPhones and Blackberries,
    working to weave together the grassroots organizing and non-violence
    tactics of Gandhi with freely available, open-source software, cheap
    internet bandwidth, cloud servers and mobile devices.

    Take the case of Burma in 2007. Video journalists and I.T. (Internet
    technology) student organizations teamed up to provide their own
    coverage of the Saffron Revolution. Using SMS, instant messaging
    technology, digital video cameras, internet-based file transfer
    services, combined with old fashioned “sneaker nets”, a network was
    able to present an uncensored view of the protests as they unfolded.
    As their footage began reaching the outside world, appearing on the
    BBC and elsewhere, the journalists became more bold and increasingly
    targeted by the state security forces. When the revolution never fully
    materialized, the monks, activists and journalists involved paid a
    very heavy price, facing imprisonment, torture or worse. However, the
    innovative work of the video journalist teams made a lasting impact
    and was largely considered to have been successful due to the global
    attention the protests received. A similar model is being used in
    Iraq, through the award-winning online video channel, “Alive in
    Baghdad”, that works to cover and disseminate stories of the every day
    lives of Iraqis. We have also seen this model used with simple camera
    phones in the Kashmir and most recently in Iran, when a single video
    clip of video of an innocent dying girl instantly clarified the issue
    for a global audience and brought overwhelming sympathy and support to
    the side of the Iranian people. The power of the moving image is
    unavoidable, and with the low cost of distributing video online, the
    ability to easily stream live over mobile and satellite data networks,
    its reach and impact has come to rival broadcast television.

    In many cases, the authoritarian states’ power proves too formidable
    for new media technology to have a meaningful impact. While we can
    instantly know about the smallest conflict in any part of the planet,
    there is often very little that the Internet can do to help those in
    harms way. In Tibet, the largely peaceful uprisings in March 2008,
    were perceived by the outside world as being “riots”, due to China’s
    ability to control the story by severely restricting news media access
    and blocking telephone and internet communication. Thousands of
    Tibetans were detained, many died, and hundreds were given lengthy
    sentences, many convicted through evidence gathered via close-circuit
    security cameras, use of mobile phones, PCs and the Internet. Just
    yesterday, four Tibetan political prisoners were executed after being
    hastily convicted of crimes related to the March uprising. There are
    countless stories of Chinese, Tibetan and other activists within China
    being incriminated through their use of email, Skype and other tools.
    The evidence gathered by the state is often done in collaboration with
    the technology providers – Yahoo!, eBay/Skype, and so on.

    In August of 2008, over seventy activists from around the world
    traveled to Beijing to protest for Tibetan human rights and
    independence during the Olympic games. New media tools played a major
    role during this effort, providing a loosely coupled link between the
    various independent activists who were traveling to Beijing to
    participate in protests. The tools also enabled a team of citizen
    journalists to document the many different protests and press
    conferences that occurred, using techniques evolved from what the
    Burmese students accomplished in 2007 and a bevy of new technology -
    solid-state HD digital video cameras, handheld tablet computers, live
    streaming camera phones. Their photos and footage were broadcast
    around the world, appearing in the NY Times and on the BBC and CNN
    International. Mainstream press was unable to cover the majority of
    these events due to the close monitoring and scrutiny they faced. The
    Beijing authorities eventually caught on, arresting and detaining for
    a week, six American citizens who had been documenting the protests.
    During their detention, they were told that the crimes they were
    guilty of, documenting and spreading media of protests, were a far
    worse a crime than actually participating in the protest itself.
    Fortunately, due to their American passports and support from the
    White House, they were treated fairly and made it home. Chinese and
    Tibetan activists, bloggers and journalists who have been arrested for
    similar acts have faced far worse treatment and sentences.

    During last year’s presidential elections, I was a member of a diverse
    team of software developers and open government activists who came
    together to build “Twitter Vote Report”, a nation wide web 2.0-style
    election monitoring system that tied together google maps, wikis, and
    iPhones with human resources on the ground from watchdog groups and
    the media. Over 30,000 citizens reported from outside their polling
    places, providing a real time view and instant notice of any long
    lines, hanging chads and potentially voter fraud. The data captured
    that day was released freely to the Internet for analysis and research
    by academic institutions. The open-source code from this project, as
    well as a few others, has been utilized in India and Afghanistan, and
    we hope to see it become a standard tool in the fight against election
    fraud. It is important to remember that using technology to promote
    civic engagement and democratic participation is as important as its
    use for active dissent.

    As you can tell, I am very enthusiastic and active participant in the
    use of new media tools for social good and in the fight against
    authoritarianism. However, the use of these tools also brings about
    the possibility of serious risk to the user, their friends, family and
    broader movement. As a friend of mine said, “You cannot twitter your
    way out of a bludgeoning by security goons”. Mobile phones are unique,
    always broadcasting personal identifiers; changing SIM cards does
    nothing, phones are tracked easily tracked by their hardware IDs.
    Laptop computers are often full of incriminating documents, web caches
    and email addresses. Digital viruses that deliver powerful
    espionage-ware such as GhostNet are common and becoming more powerful
    and more invisible every day – one slip and your entire email inbox
    can be copied by an adversary. Use of new media and social networks
    reveal one’s “social graphs”, buddy lists, friends & followers… in a
    free country, these provide benefit, amplifying your ability to
    communicate and connect. In an authoritarian state, these same tools
    can make clear loose connections between activists, which make the job
    of cracking down on dissent much easier and more efficient. It often
    takes an entire generation to rebuild when an activist network is
    decimated. The protests of 2007 and 2008 in Burma and Tibet were at
    level not seen since 1988 and 1989. That twenty year gap is no
    accident. Rather than just focus on the use of technology as a better
    megaphone, we need to consider how it can be used to safeguard and
    protect the identities and well-being of dissidents. The Tor Project
    is a successful case of technology that provides anonymity to web
    surfers and the ability to route around state-sponsored censorship.

    While the free world is easily enamored of applications of new media
    tools within dictatorships and authoritarian states far way, our own
    federal, state and local law enforcement are often quite fearful and
    hostile towards their use within domestic movements. I raise this
    point not to say that we do not enjoy great freedoms in this
    democracy, but in order to make clear that tools which provide a more
    powerful platform for dissent are universally threatening to those in
    power. Tad Hirsch, creator of TXTMob, is the subject of a subpoena by
    the City of New York in connection with several active lawsuits
    against the City that allege police misconduct during the 2004
    Republican National Convention. Elliot Madison, a 41 year old social
    worker, was been arrested in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24 and charged with
    hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication
    facility and possession of instruments of crime. The Pennsylvania
    State Police said he was found in a hotel room with computers and
    police scanners while using the social-networking site Twitter to
    spread information about police movements. Just this week it was
    announced that In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, has invested
    in a company whose technology is capable of powerful data mining from
    any information openly published on Twitter, Facebook and other social
    networking sites. In summary, measures taken to secure our homeland
    from violent terrorists often have similar justifications to those
    taken by authoritarian governments to squelch dissent and democracy.
    We all must be mindful of these contradictory positions on the benefit
    of new media within our own democracy.

    In summary, there are constructive steps that can be take today by
    policy makers, NGOs and technology developers. We need to support the
    development of a Global Technology Bill of Rights that extends
    freedoms of speech and the press to the tools needed to communicate
    using the Internet and mobile phones. Congress should develop policy
    and programs that recognize and fund new media technology as a
    fundamental component to the promotion of human rights, liberty and
    democracy. There also must be guidance and motivation for
    corporations, startups and venture capitalists who are building these
    technologies to consider their global impact on human lives, and not
    just on the bottom line or their stock price. I am all in support of
    entrepreneurs being rewarded for their risk, and am happy that tools
    such as Twitter can be used just as well to cover the daily lives of
    Ashton and Demi or break the news of Michael Jackson's death, as it
    can to broadcast updates live from the streets of Iran or spread the
    news of the execution of four Tibetan political prisoners this morning
    in China. I just hope that MBA students at Harvard and Stanford will
    consider the Humanity Quotient of their work while dreaming up the
    next big thing.

    Finally, I would like to briefly emphasize the comments from Mary
    Joyce of DigiActive, who could not be here today, on the topic of
    embargoes. In the digital age, where a “good” is a string of code that
    can be delivered anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse, even
    today’s smart sanctions are not smart enough. By preventing access to
    blogging platforms, social networks, and other types of new media,
    current embargo policies harm the very activists who are furthering
    our common goals of democracy promotion, while leaving authoritarian
    governments free to spread propaganda through a range of
    state-controlled media outlets.

    Referenced web resources of note:
    TXTMob: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TXTMob
    Alive in Baghdad: http://aliveinbaghdad.org/
    TwitterVoteReport: http://twittervotereport.com
    Beijing Olympics Protest Coverage: http://freetibet2008.tv
    GhostNet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GhostNet
    Tor Project – anonymous web browsing – http://torproject.org

  7. If you're still on the fence: grab your favorite earphones, head down to a Best Buy and ask to plug them into a Zune then an iPod and see which one sounds better to you, and which interface makes you smile more. Then you'll know which is right for you.

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