The explosion of citizen journalism has allowed increased access to a diversity of voices around the globe. Issues and voices that are not represented in mainstream media are providing diverse perspectives on both popular and obscure political issues. However, this phenomenon is certainly not new. While recent attention has focused on bloggers around the world, past efforts, including the creation of Indymedia nearly ten years ago, leveraged the Internet for these same purposes. The success of citizen journalism is based on a combination of personal experience, opinion and analysis with traditional news to provide a compelling account of political events that engages and connects with the reader.
While bloggers are quite aware of the danger of government censorship and surveillance, the same skepticism concerning free expression and privacy often does not extend to the corporate sector. The blogosphere looks more like the logosphere, unlike the nologosphere of earlier incarnations of independent media. While some open, decentralized elements remain, particularly the use of open source software such as wordpress and open licensing such as creative commons, most of the tools and platforms used by bloggers are corporate, proprietary products: Blogger/Blogspot, Twitter, Gkype, Gmail, Feedburner, Flickr, Technorati, Facebook, Myspace, Youtube etc… This is not necessarily a bad thing, it just presents a different set of challenges.
After setting up a fake Facebook profile of a Moroccan Prince, Fouad Mourtada was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. Although Fouad was recently pardoned and released after an international campaign, the case has raised questions about Facebook’s possible involvement:
How the Moroccan police found out Mourtada’s identity remains a bit of a mystery. They could have obtained his IP address from Facebook, or from his service provider, Maroc Telecom, or from an old-fashioned snitch. But the preliminary court hearing did not include details of the police investigation, so the possibility of corporate cooperation cannot be ruled out.
In at least four cases Yahoo! cooperated with the Chinese government resulting in the imprisonment of dissidents. The use of a foreign, well known email service did not provide them with any more protection than a domestic Chinese service would have. Orkut, Google’s social networking site, handed over information to the police in India which was used to arrest a person for insulting a revered figure. Youtube, despite putting up a legal battle, has been ordered to turn over user information of everyone who has ever used Youtube to Viacom. Such services collect and store information about users that can and has been handed over to others, in some cases resulting in the arrests of activists and dissidents.
In other cases companies censor their users. Skype has partnered with a domestic Chinese company to provide a censored version of its popular voip/chat software. Microsoft deleted the MSN spaces account of a well known Chinese blogger and filters its service to prevent posts from being made that contain certain sensitive words. In fact, this is exactly what domestic Chinese blogging platforms do. The Chinese version of Myspace censors posts that contain sensitive words and also encourages users to report those who engage in “misconduct.” Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! all maintain censored versions of their search engines for the Chinese market.
Internet users can and should take measures to protect themselves, even Indymedia’s servers were seized by police in the past. Projects such as Tor provide technical measures to enhance ones privacy online by providing a significant level of anonymity. Global Voices Advocacy has created a guide that shows users how to blog anonymously with WordPress and Tor. The Citizen Lab has produced a guide to bypassing censorship. NGO-in-a-Box has produced a collection of security software that helps NGO’s secure themselves. It is important for citizen journalists to asses the threats they face and use tools that minimize those risks. A well recognized foreign brand is not a substitute for good security practices.
However, the strength of tools such as Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter rests upon their ease of use and most users will not take the additional steps necessary to protect ones privacy. Just as users may need to implement strategies to minimize their potential risks, the technology companies on whose services bloggers and citizen journalists rely should also take proactive steps to protect their users and communicate the limits of that protection to their users.