An Open Letter On Global Voices Advocacy

When I first decided to apply for the position as director of Global Voices Advocacy (GVA), I had these two ideas in mind: the will to make sure that Sami Ben Gharbia’s legacy lives on, and the belief that GVA can play a more proactive role in defending netizens’ rights.

I think we have reached a point in our evolution as a community where we have the duty to take a clear stand in favor of people’s rights to access the internet and to use it freely, without big companies interfering or governments curtailing free speech. I believe the time has come for us to cross that imaginary fence that we have contemplated for so long.

As we consider this change, I think we should start by identifying what this great community of ours has achieved under Sami’s watch.

We’ve been doing a good job at raising awareness about the impact of government policies and actions on the freedom to access and use the internet. We also have pioneered information for the public about the consequences of corporate policies that affect a free and fair use of the internet.

Thanks to the efforts of Sami and of our global network of contributors and friends, we’ve been able to provide a comprehensive set of guides to educate the public about, among other things, how to best circumvent censorship or ways to identify threats to our freedom online.

For that and more, I think GVA deserves the credit for putting many subjects that concern netizens into the public arena.

What we’ve been doing so far

With the resources available to us and the political and corporate environment in which GVA evolved, our work thus far has focused on raising public awareness about policies that affect internet freedom, and occasionally also educating the public on these issues. This has worked well and we’ve participated in most debates in that regard.

The three core activities of GVA are the following:

- Original reporting
- Training and network building
- Policy advocacy

What we should do in the short run

My objective for the short run is quite simply, to improve on the vital work that we’ve been good at so far:

1) More original reporting: strengthening editorial coverage of local and global digital activism, as well as major policy developments, with the goal of building local public concern and making netizens more aware of issues that affect their use of the internet in their own cultural and political contexts. The emphasis on making our reporting translate local concerns cannot be stressed enough.

Hiring an editor who manages, coordinates and edits content will certainly help improve our original reporting. We also should invite more authors, including guest writers from outside of the community, to contribute.

2) More training and network building: by expanding our reach to a larger base of political and technology-oriented activists. They should know that we are working hard to defend their interests. GVA is one of the natural environments for activists to create and expand networks.

This involves a better and, I believe, a more aggressive use of social media, including a comprehensive, ongoing outreach strategy.

This strategy implies that we engage our audiences by offering them the opportunity to participate in our work. Participation could take the form of regular surveys, theme-oriented campaigns, and online workshops and discussions, for instance.

Our content should be less “geeky”, more visual, aimed first at activists, and using a simple and accessible language.

It also involves more collaboration with other sections within Global Voices, such as Rising Voices and Lingua, tapping into the work done by our colleagues within the community, such as the Technology For Transparency project, building partnerships with local and regional citizen media initiatives, and collaborating more actively with international and local organizations whose work overlaps with ours, such as Tactical Technology, Reporters sans frontieres, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Next, we should improve our “teaching department.” We should be able to offer a public service to our audience for education and training: more visual material and guides tailored for local use, and links and suggestions for the use of guides created by others.

Finally, we should consider how to broaden our network. Since the political is more and more intertwined with the technological nowadays, we should look to get more software developers and technology activists involved.

What we should do in the medium run

I applied for this job, in part, because I believe that GVA is uniquely qualified to push the agenda of a free internet in a way that no other organization can. This vision, which I share with many of you, as I gladly discovered during our last summit, can only be achieved if the whole community feels involved and empowered. There is no top-down recipe that has ever proven to work in endeavors like ours, and it will certainly not work in an organization like GV. That is why I am asking for your support in helping GV Advocacy engage in more policy advocacy.

The case for policy advocacy is quite simple:

Taking a stand, as a community, on policy issues and working actively and openly to change corporate practices and challenge government policies should, in my view, be part and parcel of our “core business”,
because:

1) The world has changed: Since GVA was first launched five years ago, governments no longer regard online political activity as a minor issue. In fact, one of the unintended consequences of the Middle East and North Africa revolutions of last year was to convince oppressive governments that what they considered a minor and controllable battlefield, the internet, was actually a formidable tool for change. MENA governments are now drafting new laws, and investing money on human resources and surveillance technology in an effort to curtail the freedoms that netizens have claimed.

Corporations, have with various degrees and varying intentions, attained unprecedented power and gained into our ways of communicating online. Surveillance and security companies are working closely with governments, providing them with cutting-edge spyware technology. Gamma, Hackers Team, AmeSys, and many others sell their wares both to democratic governments and to non-democratic governments who work within the international system.

2) We need to speak for the oppressed: This issue often comes up in conversations with fellow GVers and activists. The danger of not speaking up in favor of netizens’ rights is the pervasive feeling that GVA gradually shifts from its initial course, which is primarily to speak for those whose freedom of expression is threatened, and creates the impression that GVA doesn’t really have a voice.

By taking a stand GVA will give the community the appetite to start producing content. By crossing the fence into policy advocacy, I believe we will offer an incentive for a new generation of activists to join in. We all need a site that translates our concerns into a common cause.

Why the emphasis on local voices

The emphasis of Global Voices Advocacy is to speak to power through the scope and voices of local communities. There are at least two good reasons for this:

1) We’re not going to have the attention of decision makers and corporations unless we prove that their policies have a real impact on real people. Our goal is to bridge the gap between the global and the local.

2) Our audience and network will only lend us credence if we demonstrate that we are an honest conveyer of their concerns and voices.

What about the community as a whole?

More resources and commitment from the GV community are essential to GV Advocacy’s success. That evolution needs to be accompanied by a rethinking of the way GVA relates to the community as a whole, including having a say on how to proceed.

Managing the work of GVA while in the same time making sure that the diversity of views within the community is respected can only be achieved through a democratic process. This will yield an advocacy team with a clear mandate and a certain autonomy to act.

I therefore propose to begin with an in-depth consultation with the GV community, with the hope that we can reach a consensus around the direction GVA should take.

One approach I’m considering will produce a consultative board and regional advisory committees to represent a cross-section of the GV community.

The director, with the help of the board and the regional committees, will then articulate a clear mission statement for GV Advocacy. I will also ensure that we will update the community on strategic matters and policy issues on a regular basis.

How do we do it

Policy advocacy should be tailored for local concerns. Our advocacy should be different from the work of other organizations based on the fact that it will have a distinctive local flavor. We will be targeting policy makers on the local and even the micro-local levels, tapping into our “globally localized” network. We will speak and translate local languages. We will adopt a decentralized campaigning approach.

Since policy advocacy is not a one-size-fits-all matter, action must take place on two levels, central and local:

- Central (director and consultative board): for global issues related to internet policy or internet censorship.
- Local (director and regional committees): for reporting on and translating issues related to internet policy and censorship on the local level.

Information and decision-making processes will flow in both directions, with the idea that campaigning and reporting should be decentralized as often as possible. That, I believe, would help us avoid replicating the work of other organizations where the efforts of grassroots activists are rarely recognized.

The director should be able to coordinate and facilitate the work of the board and the regional committees, build partnerships with other organizations, help organize conferences and regional meetings.

*

Policy advocacy is an ambitious endeavour. It can’t possibly happen without adequate resources. I believe that with a clear backing from the community, we can articulate a clear vision that would certainly appeal to our supporters and followers.

I believe GVA is in an unmatched position to take up that challenge and I count on your support to do it.

Viva GV,

Hisham

18 comments

  • Hisham – great post, very clear expression of the challenges of online speech. I wonder how the effort to focus policy advocacy at both local and global levels plays out in terms of language. It seems that one of the first things we’d need to do is ensure that more of our content is produced and translated from and into target languages. It may also, as a first step, be tied into production of more netizen reports that have local focus – and maybe produced in languages other than English.

    I’m also curious as to whether all the reporting we’re doing could also be represented as data. Looking over the past few months of netizen reports, for instance, are there trends or patterns that we can track? Should we be thinking about more comprehensive research to compile and show data? onlinecensorship.org is a good start for the corporate sector, but what about other aspects of online speech.

  • Hisham, Congratulations! and a brilliant post, for GVA to move forward and take a much stronger stance, it’s important that we have clarity over our strategy. I believe the strength of the GVA community lies in its diversity. I like the idea of an advocacy team and consultative process you have suggested. Especially now as countries continue to curb on internet rights, I believe more people from the GV community have been affected and it would be great to populate GVA and form an advocacy team. One thing that I strongly support is regional advocacy committees, one suggestion for populating and getting more GV-ers involved can be through reaching out to the regional editors. I believe the current system in place at GVO works really well and could be utilized to create more content for GVA.
    I have a similar question as Ivan above, should we focus more on data? It would be much more interactive — but perhaps too ambitious– to try methods of data visualization? do we have enough data to do such a thing? Would certainly like to see and help in creating regional versions of netizen reports.
    Lastly, would also love to hear more about ways in which we can make threatened voices more useful and interactive given instances of arrests and threats to bloggers have increased tremendously. Once again, congratulations and reading this post I have faith that we’d be seeing GVA grow into a much stronger network, as Sami had envisioned.

  • It is great having you here Hisham! Congratulations!

  • Thanks for these great insights, Hisham, I´m so excited to see GVA moving forward. I´m particularly interested in how we can improve our work with netizens under threat. We have a Threatened Voices project, but in order for it to continue serving the community like it was intented to we need to reconsider what being threatened means, what is expected from GVA on this field and where we can add more value. Threats against freedom of speech advocates will only get bigger so we should invest more time and energy in finding ways to tackle these issues and reach out to more people.

  • Thanks Hisham for bringing this important discussion on board. I also think GV Advocacy should engage in more policy advocacy. I present to you a real life problem. In Bangladesh there was a deliberate attack on Buddhist minority, which was instigated by Facebook. A blasphemous photo was tagged to a Buddhist youth and his Facebook wall was printed and distributed among people and the photo shared in cellphones to generate anger. After that an orchestrated angry mob burned down Buddhist temples and villages shouting slogans against this boy (see GV report)

    Now these people are trying to replicate the same menace again. The government officials are not so internet savvy and they are not sure how to tackle the threat. The local blogger community has been engaged in fact finding investigations on who are behind this as the police has failed so far..what more they can do? And if these attacks continue using Facebook the govt will think of banning Facebook as they do not have knowledge and experience on how to tackle this.

    How can GV advocacy help in this case? What advice they should give to the online community and how they can help the Bangladeshi government? Should there be an archive of similar case studies from which other countries can learn? Should there be mentors? We can brainstorm. Suggestions welcome.

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  • @Ivan:

    I spent the past few days thinking very deeply about those very strategic questions.

    1- More translations:

    Part of the challenge as I said is organizational.

    We need to improve our work flow and ameliorate our standards to seek efficiency and more content in local languages.

    Let me explain how this would work in practice :

    - Changing standards: I think we need to change the taxonomy of the Netizen Reports. The current editions need to be broken down into smaller posts (instead of a long and heavy article, we can post smaller texts under easily recognizable topics: thuggery, censorship, cybercrime, sovereigns of the internet). That would make them easy to write, quick to publish, easy to translate.

    - in terms of organization:
    – both the regional teams and the advisory board would encourage original content in local languages by calling for volunteers from among the GV community (Advox content should be naturally part of Lingua’s constituency)
    + the audience.
    – the director coordinates and keeps track of translations among the different teams.

    One question remains unresolved in my mind though Ivan: Should we deploy the site in multiple languages? Or should we create separate pages for every language? I tend to lean toward the first suggestion.

    2- Representing our work as data:

    I think it is part of my responsibilities to encourage visualizations, data mining and pattern seeking based on our work.

    I want to work with the tech community and web developers:

    I’m thinking of a closer partnership with TacTech Collective to produce visual and didactic (and hopefully viral) material for Advox preferably tailored for local use and communities: with particular preference for videos, infographics etc.

    I also want to contact organizations that can help us do more comprehensive research on our findings.

    Best,

    Hisham

  • “Should we deploy the site in multiple languages? Or should we create separate pages for every language?”

    Each lingua site has Advocacy posts as a separate category, this category acts already as if it is a separate translation (or website in case of original content) for advocacy. I think a good option is how to make it look better.

    I completely agree with simplifying the Netizen Report and the rest of the points.

    Have a great day!

  • @Sana:

    Thanks for the kind words. It’s really appreciated.

    – Relying on our already existing structure:

    I agree 100%. In the same time as our discussion proceeds, I will seek the help of our editors and project managers to decide on a definite timetable so that our regional advocacy teams and board are up and running before the end of this year (hopefully), so that we can start working as quickly and efficiently as possible.

    I’m happy you want to participate in writing regional Netizen Reports. I’m looking forward to working with you Sana :)

    – Data visualization:

    Like you Sana, I am very excited about this field and I believe that the amount of data that GV has amassed during all these years, ought to be exploited. I don’t think it is a short run objective though, but I sure will work to build partnerships with some of our friends (like TacTech) who’ve been working on the subject for years.

    – Threatened Voices:

    There are many ideas and things we can do quickly to improve the work on Threatened Voices and OnlineCensorship, as some of us had the pleasure to discuss during our last summit:

    - Better integration of TV and OC on the main Advox site. I’m actually working on a mock-up of a would-be new Advox that I will be sharing with the rest of the community when ready.
    - Have a dedicated small team of Threatened Voices trackers
    - Hire a community coordinator/manager to publicize the data and work published on TV
    - On the longer run: Work on a more visually appealing website: tell the human story besides the cold numbers and stats.

    Best,

    H

  • @Mohamed: It sounds great. I see this works for the French translation of this post for example. Nice!
    Thanks much

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