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Rebecca MacKinnon: iSummit '08 Keynote Address

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So last week, I attended another conference very different from this one that also related to technology called the "Fortune Global Brainstorm" or "Fortune Technology Brainstorm" which was held in Half Moon Bay near Silicon Valley and Joey Ito and Larry Leslie were also there; I'm not sure if they're here at the moment. Um...but it was full of the CEOs of many of the major internet companies, and venture capitalists looking for the next entrepreneur and big thing to invest in, and lots of start-up, internet dot-com entrepreneurs going around promoting their businesses. And what really struck me was the extent to which pretty much everybody there had such a strong belief that just because we have the internet combined with mobile phones, and capitalism, that the world will ultimately and inevitably become more free - that all we need is the internet, mobile, and capitalism, and freedom will spread across the globe as a result uh, and thanks to the benevolence of these great entrepreneurs. And this, uh, soon after the conference I happened to be reading the blog of, uh, Danny O'Brien from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who was pointing out what he called the "benevolent dictatorship" of Silicon Valley, and warning of the dangers of relying too much on the Web 2.0 giants, and the Googles, the Facebooks, Gmail, and all of these fabulous services and that so much of our lives, both personal and professional, and our identities, are being wrapped up in these services. And it's as if we were conceding on the political level that we're just allowing benevolent dictatorshi--, benevolent dictators to run our lives and not insisting on greater participation, autonomy, and so on. And, so, this was, at this conference, at the Fortune Technology Brainstorm, there were a few of us who kept trying to point out well, mobile and internet and capitalism - you know, maybe it depends on how these things are implemented, uh, whether or not people are going to be more free, or less free. Uh, maybe, maybe there're some details that need to be considered, and actually on one of the panels, Joey actually made a comment that, he said that sometimes venture capital is irresponsible, and that there are business models out there that actually result in the internet being less free, and that people, in doing business and rolling out their great Web 2.0 services, need to think about that. And Vince Serf, one of the fathers of the internet, got up and accused Joey of being a "venture communist." So, speaking of communism, I actually have spent a lot of time in China. I first went to China as an 8-year-old in 1978 (now you know exactly how old I am), and I've spent a lot of time over the past 30 years living, studying, and working in China. And when I first got to China, the way that information, media, and speech was controlled was pretty much entirely according to the "Mao model." Uh, so, so you have heavy censorship, heavy state control, and also a very strong sort of political connect--, correctness being enforced. But over the past 30 years, China has gotten much more capitalist; it's opened up to the outside world, and increasingly China is moving towards what I like to call the "Murdoch model," but you could call it the "Time Warner model" or anything else. And increasingly China is allowing media and internet companies not to be uh, just state-controlled, but to be acting according to market forces and demand for information, supply and demand and all that. But actually, the people who control Chinese information and media policy are encouraging the development of large media and technology companies and are not finding this to be in any way in conflict with the regime's survival. And this, this is something to think about - why that might be the case. Um, one of the other assumptions that we often get in the West, in the western media, and also amongst many people involved with international technology policy, is this assumption that we have un-free countries, the authoritarian autocracies, dictatorships on one hand, and the democratic countries on the other hand. And there's, there seems to be an assumption that the un-free world is eventually going to come over here to meet the free world. Uh, but is that necessarily the case? Or might we actually meet in the middle - if we just kind of let things float along happily? Uh, and, so that's something we need to be thinking about and how the free culture movement might be able to have some influence on where we're going. There's also the issue of, just by having the internet, just by having technology, just by having the free flow of information, um, and large media companies, we're not solving the caring problem. I think at the beginning when the Internet first got going, when the web first got going, people were hoping that we would have this big global conversation, that barriers would come down, and people in Africa and people in the United States would, would be able to talk to one another and understand each other better just because we had the Internet. But what we're finding is that information flows and media flows still very much favor the wealthy, developed countries or the powerful countries, and that if you come from a country that has neither economic nor military power, you're very likely not to have your concerns or voices heard. And so this is part of some media attention research done by a former colleague of mine, Ethan Zuckerman, who also co-founded Global Voices with me, where he tracked a lot of different English language, global English language new sources. And very consistently - this is for Google News but it's a very similar picture when you look at a lot of English language news sources - the red represents countries that have lots of stories about them in English available on the Internet. And the more blue and white you get, the fewer stories there are. And, actually when you map the blogosphere against that, you find that, that it's actually even more polarized in the English language blogosphere than it is in the mainstream media. And so, just to give an example, what, as a result, if for instance on a given day on CNN.com, he found that there were over 12,000 stories that he could find on CNN.com about Japan, but only about 900 stories about Nigeria, which has a similar population. And so as a result, because of market forces, because of demand, because of what people profess to care about, um, the, the media basically is making a judgment that Japanese people have much more value than Nigerians. And so, one attempt to try and address this imbalance that the Internet has not been addressing just on its own by existing was Global Voices. And, uh, basically this idea that there are actually people blogging from Nigeria, and telling us all kinds of things that we can't read in the newspaper, but how do you find these people? So we developed a community of people who are curating the global Internet with a focus on the developing world and the non-West to help amplify the voices that are not sort of naturally being amplified on the Internet or through mainstream media, but even through just kind of the distributed blogosphere on its own. And this is all, of course, only possible because of open-source software, because of free blogging services, because of the culture of sharing in which people are posting things, re-posting it, and creating a commons, an information commons, that is not based on profit motive, but rather based on the incentive to, to get information out, and to share knowledge about what's happening in different countries. And so you have all kinds of different projects springing up around the world. Ushahidi from Kenya is one of them, in which bloggers are, have been mapping incidents of violence and various other things taking place that their media has not been reporting very well, and the international media has been reporting even worse, uh, and again taking matters into their own hands to get the information out, not through any commercial motive, but just trying to get that information out. But we find that we need to add another layer on top of that, to amplify this, if we want people beyond Kenya to even know that this is happening. And that layer, we have not been able to come up with any kind of commercial model that would enable that amplification to happen, that has really had to have been according to a non-profit and free culture-oriented model. But we've found that doing that alone has not been enough. We've been having to get very quickly into advocacy, because just encouraging people to speak, just encouraging people to share information, to share their creativity, doesn't get very far if people are going to jail when they start doing that. And so increasingly we've had to set up an advocacy arm, in which we call attention when people get arrested, and these are just two examples of two bloggers from the Middle East who were arrested this year, but there are many people around the world. And also, this question of increasingly, blogs are being blocked, and, uh, open-source resources, free resources that people have for sharing information online are being blocked by governments and sometimes other powerful entities, and that people can't get their message out. And so we're having to also build a support network to help people get around censorship and also have tools for anonymity and so on. But we're also having this problem where because people are blocked from using global, international tools in some countries, such as China, what happens is that people rely on domestic tools. And so in China there are a lot of domestic blog-hosting companies. But what's happened is the companies are required to assist the government in censorship. So, in this example here, I attempted to post an item about a demonstration that happened a few months back and I couldn't even publish it because I got an error message telling me "This article contains sensitive content; please check it and try again." So, you know, you can't even, in some cases even get stuff on the web to be viewed by people in your community using commercial tools, and then they can't really use the open-source international tools very easily, either, because they're blocked and not enough people they want to reach are using proxy servers to access that content. We also have a lot of privacy and surveillance issues; Xe Taos, a Chinese journalist, went to jail for 10 years after sending an email to an overseas website about a political story. There are four Chinese dissidents who've gone to jail because of political communications that they sent through Yahoo! China and Yahoo! China, whose servers are in mainland China, was compelled to hand over that information in response to a criminal investigation. So this is a real problem where people are turning to these global companies for services and finding that the extent to which they can trust them is limited. Now, to be fair, Google, which runs Gmail, has decided not to host its email service in China in order to avoid having to hand over information in response to a domestic Chinese court order But again, this is a problem because because what then happens is that Chinese, a lot of people I know in China who are basically trying to figure out how to use more secure email and they use Gmail with https so that they can send things a bit more securely. They figure that they're less afraid of Homeland Security getting their data in the United States than they are of the Chinese police. But what happens if Gmail gets blocked? They don't have any alternatives. And so this is the danger of people relying too much on a couple of concentrated sources. Where do they turn when those things get blocked? And so we have this problem, we have...which is really a global problem. We have users on one hand relying very heavily on company services, company-run services, and then governments putting pressure on those companies to do things that go against our rights and interests. And this is not just a China problem; this is not just an authoritarian country problem; it's very much a global problem. We have this problem in the United States recently with secret surveillance program and pressure being put on American telecoms companies to spy on citizens, and I know there are a lot of issues in Europe and in countries that consider themselves democratic as well. Um...so, there are some people involved with, with free culture, with the free culture movement, like Jimbo Wales, founder of Wikipedia. Um, he has made it very clear Wikipedia is not going to censor itself. It's not going to compromise. As a result, it's blocked in China, blocked in many places. Um, and he's also said with his new open search engine, Wikia, he's not going to censor that. Um, he can afford to, to do this, to not compromise because he is not pressured by shareholders to maximize his profits in the world's largest markets that may not be very democratic. Um, so he can afford to take that commercial loss because his, his primary focus is not commercial. But, then on the other hand, there are people in China who say, "Well now we can't access, we can't benefit from, from Wikipedia at all." And so this is again part of the problem with having - We need free culture, we need the, the non-profit spaces that are not driven to compromise by market reasons, but if they are really centralized and concentrated, then are large numbers of people denied the benefits? And so one thing that we're seeing emerge in places like China are grassroots P2P networks. There's something called the "Social Brain Foundation," which is, which is a small organization run by a blogger named Isaac Mao and a group of other bloggers. And they're basically trying to develop open-source tools um, and smaller communities to help people basically share information around across a loose network of platforms. There's also a group called "Digital Nomads" that is, is helping people to set up blogs um, in ways that it's, it's harder to block more independently. Um, and they've found that being centralized or having a big organization doesn't work; it has to be very loose and shifting and, and so on in, in, in order to work. Um, but we need more non-profit alternatives everywhere. Youtube, increasingly, is being not only blocked but, um, Youtube has agreed to censor content in a number of countries, uh, and some human rights activists have had problems with their content being taken down on Youtube because for whatever reason they were violating some agreement. Um, and so we do need more non-profit alternatives, but again, we're, they're going to need to be decentralized if people are going to be able to, to make use of them in many different countries. Um, so this is why we need these alternative spaces - we need free culture communities. We need civil society, Uh, we need strong, uh, and vibrant but, but sometimes loosely distributed uh, communities who can work together to help make sure that we have spaces where dissenting voices, where minority voices can continue to be heard, can continue to, to be amplified um, so, so that information environments around the world are not too homogenous. And, and so really going from Mao to Murdoch, that's not the end of the story. Uh, the, the global story, the way it's told often, I think, by a lot of analysts and pundits and, and, and so on on is, you know, "The world has gone from communism to capitalism and that's great, and now we're free, and yay!" Uh, but we've got this other layer on top of it which we're building which is the commons, which is the free culture movement. And it's very important. And this is why I think the work of iCommons, the work of Creative Commons, the work of many different organizations in this space is so important, and why I hope that iCommons and the community around iCommons will continue to thrive and help encourage the growth of many strong and vibrant free culture communities all around the world. Thank you.

Video Details

Duration: 20 minutes and 20 seconds
Country: Japan
Language: English
Genre: None
Views: 135
Posted by: isummit08 on Sep 12, 2008

"Free Culture and Free Speech: Why strong and vibrant free culture communities are important for freedom of expression" In the democracies of today freedom of expression is often taken for granted when it is particularly fragile. It is a right that needs to be continually exercised, because if it isn't, the space that society provides for it shrinks until the next time someone exercises that right. The communities that subscribe to the ethos of the Commons are important actors in the creation of the space for free expression. See the slides from this presentation here: http://www.slideshare.net/rmackinnon/isummit-keynote-free-culture-free-speech/

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