Web 2.0 and Oppression: How to Bypass Censorship

Remarkable is the power of Web 2.0 in helping alter the status quo of suppressed activists around the world. Social media is opening the eyes of the public on several issues by generating a huge flow of information, initiating counteraction from hegemonic regimes that may find certain ‘novel’ thoughts a threat to the continuity of their tight-fisted rule. Civil societies are now springing out of their suppressive nationalized boxes by merely existing in the virtual realm of Web 2.0 through social media. They are using the Web as a universal network, bringing together people in order to harness a collective power that did not previously exist. Yet, repressive states have sought tighter censorship by targeting the main tools of the progressive web, a reaction that further confirms the importance of using alternative ways to promote activism, initiating an upheaval of sorts.
A visual report by Reporters Without Borders shows the Internet’s “Black Holes” — countries that censor and restrict internet usage such as the Maldives, Tunisia, Belarus, Libya, Syria, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Myanmar, Cuba, Turkmenistan, and North Korea.
There are innumerable cases in point where free-thinking bloggers and citizen activists have been harassed for voicing a distinct opinion, a few of them have been in prison for years, and a few others are being sued or hassled because of what they choose to write online.

According to a report by The Associated Press, Tarek Bayassi, a 24 year old Syrian blogger was arrested last May in northwest Syria for surfing sites of Syrian opposition groups and posting comments online. Biassi was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of undermining the prestige of the Syrian state and weakening national morale.
Global Voices Online, points up stories from around the world as well, here’s one from China:
“On March 20, 2007, the Chinese cyber-dissident Zhang Jianhong, member of the Independent Chinese PEN center (ICPC) was sentenced to six years in prison. Zhang, who was arrested last year, was charged with “incitement to subvert the state’s authority”. Zhang had posted articles online calling for political reform.”
Take the story of twenty-two year old law student Abdul Kareem Nabeel who was jailed and physically tortured for “defaming the President of Egypt” on his blog. This certainly shows that being a blogger is not the easiest pathway to freedom of expression–especially in countries where the concept of free speech is frowned upon. Blogs can be a sensible solution to communicate an idea, or share a narrative of a story that should not be told, but sometimes you pay with your freedom, or your life.

However, change will definitely come about. For instance, societal transformation in countries with tightened communal circles and distinctive communication methods like Saudi Arabia is inconceivable without the help of social media.
And while there are countless accounts of regimes that advocate achieving any sort of control through oppression and violence, free citizens and activists that seek change have sought useful creative problem solving methods in order to bypass virtual barriers.
For those, Reporters Without Borders issued “The Bloggers Handbook” a handy booklet that demonstrates how to get round censorship (by Nart Villeneuve) and how to blog anonymously (by Ethan Zuckerman)–among other contributions as well–a perfect solution for the oppressed.
In the handbook, Ethan Zuckerman–co-founder of Global Voices Online—who contributed the chapter “How to Blog Anonymously”, shows how to create your own post and still remain incognito. Here are a few chosen tips of what he’s provided:
  • Create a new identity –a pseudonym by using a free webmail account and free blog host outside the native country.
  • Use public computers to make blogposts that are used by lots of other people, rather than setting up webmail and weblog accounts from home or a work computer.
  • Access the web through an anonymous proxy.
  • Use someone else’s computer from abroad. A friend can help by setting a proxy user so that you can use his computer as a proxy.

Zuckerman does not dismiss the fact that every solution has its quirks and discusses how to find another solution to the anti-solution. This means, more or less, that the anonymous blogger should keep up-to-date with all the new tools of the web, continuously investigating the ever-evolving field of Web 2.0 in order to bring about futuristic change.

Fast forward many full moons, when pioneering transformation will become the norm, the unheard will be heard, new methods of repression shall emerge, and newer solutions shall also make way. The ball will shift in between fields, but the technologies we need already are and will still be on the ground, so let’s make the most of them now.

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SMEX is a registered Lebanese NGO that works to advance self-regulating information societies in the Middle East and North Africa.

  1. Much need information. I think we all can benefit from such tips and stories. It is becoming even more clear that censorship and unjust legal consequences are everywhere and not just around middle east or arab world in general.
    Keep it up.

  2. Pascale,
    What a great post! Thanks for sticking with this. Maybe it would be a good idea to create a whole page or category for tools that help us blog anonymously, and bypass censorship and filtering. For example, http://torproject.org. Can’t wait to read the next installment.

  3. great blog!
    For someone who is not a blogger, it makes one see the importance of blogging and motivates to start one’s own blog.
    Keep up the good work!

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