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Monday Q&A: EFF’s Jillian York on just-in-time censorship, scaling connectors, and the problem with banning porn

“When you’re writing, especially journalism internationally, there is sort of a lack of cognizance around the facts that you’re not writing solely for an American audience anymore.”
March 11, 2013, 11:51 a.m.

jillian-york-cc

Jillian York sees free speech issues from a global point of view. The director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, with significant experience in the Arab world, she writes and teaches about navigating a world where censors and those who want to evade them are in a constant arms race — technologically, legally, and politically.

Before joining the EFF, York worked at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where she contributed to the OpenNet Initiative. She writes a column for Al Jazeera where she regularly analyzes current events through the lens of Internet freedom. Lately, she’s been warning us about the danger of talking smack on Facebook in the Middle East and preparing us to think about protecting ourselves from Google. When we spoke — over a fuzzy, international Skype line — I asked her about increasing regulation, declining freedoms, social networks, and how traditional journalists are adapting to the digital reality.

O’Donovan: John Wihbey wrote last week for the Lab about a study out of the London School of Economics and the BBC called “Who’s Reporting the Protests?” that talks about converging practices of citizen journalists and the traditional media — what they’ve taught and what they’ve learned on the ground. I’m curious about what you’ve seen of that.
York: I haven’t seen that study, but I think there is a temptation when covering conflict to give a bird’s-eye view, and social media has changed that, for better or for worse. When you’re, for example, a foreign journalist going into Cairo and reporting from Tahrir Square, there were some really powerful images of journalists hiding in their hotel rooms. I think it was Anderson Cooper saying, “Oh, I’m in this hotel room with this other journalist and it’s so dangerous and we’re crouched down.” But then I would look at Twitter and see someone from the other side of Cairo saying, It’s calm here. So I think it’s enabled us to get a more well rounded view.

There’s certainly a place for both traditional and citizen journalism in those scenarios because, really, it’s giving us a fuller picture — often the traditional journalist is better able to contextualize. But, with that in mind, I think it’s kind of misleading to continue reporting from a central location and trying to represent that as the broader locations. So i think one of the things I’m seeing shift a little bit is a little more admission or recognition that the traditional journalists’ point of view is just one piece of a larger puzzle.

I think one of the ways that they manage is by pulling social media into their reporting. I think Robert Mackey at The New York Times does a great job of this. He’s a professional journalist, he’s giving us neutral context, but he’s also pulling in key tweets from key players in certain spaces. I think he does that a lot more than other folks I’ve seen, and it’s amazing to see the difference between that and CNN in 2009 during the Iran elections, when they were literally just scrolling random tweets without context.

O’Donovan: If a journalist came to you and asked how do you learn which are the important tweets, or who are the important players, what would you tell them? If you’re learning about a conflict for the first time or entering a new place — how do you immerse yourself in that network and get an understanding of what the important nexus points are?
York: Ethan Zuckerman has done a lot of work on this. I’ve played this role myself before. I’m someone that’s straddled both worlds when it comes to Egypt and the U.S. I’ve spent a lot of time there, I have a lot of contacts there. When the protests originally broke out, I was getting a lot of calls from journalists who knew that about me asking: Who is a good person to talk about, you know, the Internet being shut down? Can you connect me to whomever? And then it sort of goes viral from there.

So let’s say I connect that journalist to someone who is in Tahrir Square at that minute, and then that person can help that journalist venture out into the rest of their network. The thing is, it’s not very scalable — so I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is the future of journalism. But I do think that bridge figures who are outsiders can often help provide that context and sort of guide the journalist toward a broader cross-section of people.

That’s not to say those people are going to be definitely representative. For example, when I was getting those calls I was never able to, say, connect a journalist with someone who was in favor of Mubarak, because I simply didn’t know anyone like that. But I was able to say, this person is a blogger, this person is an activist against military trials — and allow the journalist to delve into it from there and figure out the network.

O’Donovan: Do you see traditional journalists getting more comfortable with that?
York: Definitely. I’ve talked to a lot more people who’ve played this role. There was a period where it felt very alone when I was getting these calls constantly, and now it doesn’t happen so much anymore. And I see other people who are doing that for Syria, for example, where I don’t have as many contacts.

But I think there is still a risk in that bridge figures are not always neutral. I know that I’m not always neutral — I try to at least provide the context to journalists, to say, this is not a representative sample. So it can be tricky — I think there is still work to be done around neutrality.

O’Donovan: You’ve said you’ve seen on the ground that there is less freedom and more censorship. Can you talk about how you’ve seen that developing?
York: In 2009, Alec Ross called 2009 the worst year for Internet censorship that we’ve ever had. At the time, that was true — things were getting worse. Iran was doing what we call just-in-time censorship, where they block a site just prior to an election period or a protest for the sole purpose of just keeping information from spreading during that time period. Obviously, that kind of censorship is more palatable to the population, because at least they know they’ll get Twitter back eventually.

At the time, that was terrible, but all I can say is it’s only gotten worse from there, and now I would call 2012 the worst year. We’ve seen not just the traditional blocking of websites like China does, or like Iran does, but now we’re seeing governments putting essentially viruses or malware onto the computers of activists to track what they’re doing. We’re seeing a lot more of that just-in-time censorship, and we’re also seeing some more sinister stuff, where governments are not blocking websites but going after people who dare to speak out. That continues to be the case in Egypt, for example, where — despite the fact that there’s a court order to block YouTube and pornography — the Internet is not yet censored, but they still have arrested people who say certain things on Facebook or on Twitter.

The sheer number of tactics has diversified and increased, and that’s what’s getting scary. It’s becoming a lot harder to defy and keep track of and fight against.

O’Donovan: In a recent article in The Atlantic, you and Trevor Timm quote a line from Evgeny Morozov’s Net Delusion about the danger of becoming “numb” to “potential regulatory interventions.” Can you explain to what extent you feel we’re unaware of the risks to our freedoms?
York: So, for example, in the European parliament just yesterday, there was a call from a parliamentarian to block pornography on the Internet. Ignore the fact for the moment that porn is legal, and that therefore calls to block it would be problematic anyway. The fact is that pornography has never been something that people can define, so when you put a mechanism in place to block something like that, it creates a system that is ripe for abuse.

So, sure, today I might just block child pornography, and that might be okay because that’s illegal. But then tomorow, I might add legal pornography, and then the next day, pictures of naked women. And then the next day, ban the word “sex” from Google searches. Part of the problem is, once you put those mechanisms in place, unless you have incredibly stringent oversight and transparency and accountability for the actions around that, it becomes a quick and slippery slope.

So far, there has not been a single government that’s gotten this right. Australia tried to put a black list in place on certain obscene content, and they ended up accidentally blacklisting the websites of a dentist and a tailor. These systems are not perfect.

O’Donovan: How do you see that slippery slope applying in some of the places where you’ve been on the ground, or in teaching people how to report in those places?
York: I just did a training a few weeks ago in Cairo for a group of journalists who were reporting on some of the ongoing censorship there, and one of the things that they didn’t know is that encryption is banned in Egypt. As a journalist, or as a lay person, you might not understand it, but in Egypt it is prosecutable. What that actually means is that by allowing Egyptians to use encrypted Gmail by default at this point, Google is technically breaking the law.

That isn’t necessarily the intent behind the law — it’s hard to say what it was, it’s a law from 2003 — but when these laws were put in place without context, Egyptian users are breaking the law without realizing it. So that’s one argument to be acquainted with the laws, but it’s also a suggestion that the laws were created without an understanding of how the Internet would look in the future. It’s the same thing as what’s happening — and I’m not as qualified to speak about this because I’m not an American lawyer — but, it’s an analogy to what’s happening in the U.S. right now with the Aaron Swartz case, where you have a law that was created early on without context of what the Internet would look like.

O’Donovan: I was reading your blog about the training you were doing in Cairo, and you seemed surprised by what these young journalists were interested in. Can you share what they felt to be the most valuable information?
York: I went in with the idea that they wanted to talk about international Internet regulation and what implications of online service providers like Facebook and Google was. What I found was that people were less interested in that and more interested in learning about digital security. In the future, I guess those things will be complementary, but regardless, that was one of their strong interests.

They were also interested in copyright law, and that was surprising to me because sometimes you have countries like Egypt, where there’s not a strong regulatory culture around issues like copyright, and the only way that that’s applied is through the DMCA [Digital Millenium Copyright Act] on sites like Facebook and Google.

I was asked one amazing question by a journalist that I’ve never been asked before. He was wondering if a government can censor online radio. It hadn’t occurred to me to think about what sort of mechanism would be required in order to do that. Sure, they could shut down the website, but I mean, what if he was breaking the law on the radio — what if he was encouraging people to commit violent acts? Or not him but if someone was doing that, what would be the mechanisms possible for the government to step in? And I was baffled. I didn’t have a good answer for that.

O’Donovan: Where do you see the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and your work going in the next few years?
York: One thing that I’d love to emphasize, particularly as I was just doing a panel with some folks from there in Geneva, is that we need to start looking more toward Sub-Saharan Africa. As Internet penetration increases there and youth increases and more people start getting online everyday, we’re going to start seeing governments concerned about some of the things happening in Nigeria around regulations, for example, and Ethiopia around surveillance. So I think this continent that we’ve sort of ignored we need to start paying attention to.

Another thing I would say is thinking more about technologies. Yes, there are a number of regulatory fixes and paths we can take, but there’s also a technological response to repression of free expression. So, for example, circumvention technology is heavily funded right now by the U.S. government for use in other countries. That’s a really important thing to be thinking about. If we can’t solve the problem using regulation, how do we empower users to gain access to information and protect themselves from surveillance?

O’Donovan: Do you see the media landscape shifting there?
York: I’m not as familiar with the media landscape in Africa, but if you look at the Middle East, for example, the media landscape is changing dramatically. In countries where revolutions have started, not only do you have a rise in revolutionary or activist journalism, but you also have a rise in conservative journalism — a rise in journalism from places that you wouldn’t expect. I think almost all of the major newspapers in Egypt are based in Cairo. A lot of the increase in citizen media allows us to see more of different parts of the country that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
O’Donovan: And you see that diversity of voices increasing despite rising regulation?
York: I certainly hope so. Obviously, you always have exceptions to that. I think things might be getting worse in Iran, and definitely in Syria. But in large part, people find ways to get around censorship. Even with these regulations on the rise, I think you’ll still see an agitation from citizen journalists, and to some degree, professional journalists.
O’Donovan: How do they get around censorship?
York:The thing is that governments haven’t really yet found a way to rapidly follow the creation of new sites. So you can, even if your website gets blocked, create another one at the end of the day, or mirror it so it’s available from a number of different URLs. So people find ways to defy government censorship, as they always have. As governments become more sophisticated, I think the fear is that they will go after journalists one by one, which is terrifying and not completely unheard of. But the other fear is they’ll find more ways to rapidly block websites.

But then we think of something new. Technology almost always catches up.

Photo by David Sasaki used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 11, 2013, 11:51 a.m.
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