Privacy vs Authenticity for Digital Activists in Dictatorships

I do not want to beat on a dead horse about Google and privacy issue but the consequences of Google Buzz lackadaisically releasing contact lists by default was for more dangerous if you happen to be a freedom of speech activist than if you are just a social media novice. As E. Morozov vividly illustrated in this post:
" I am extremely concerned about hundreds of activists in authoritarian countries who would never want to reveal a list of their interlocutors to the outside worl [..] If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government. They can then spend months on end drawing complex social circles on the shiny blackboards inside secret police headquarters."
I realize that Google has been working rapidly trying to fix the bugs on Google Buzz but it might be a bit late for a few of the insiders contacts of internet activists using a gmail account. Privacy on the internet is clearly a major policy issue from both a security perspective (see unfrozencaveman's and Teague's thoughts on the matter) and a commercial one, as Tux rightfully pointed out. Personally, I do not put much of a premium on the protection of my privacy online; if you'd want to find out more about me , you probably can find materials rather easily and cross-check whether it is indeed my real life identity. In fact, I am trying to make it easier for anyone to find out about what I do and I am not alone in this situation. Why is it that some people willingly disclose their information publicly?
One of the objectives of digital activists writing about authoritarian regimes is to not only get the words out about what incidents in their regions but also to be credible when making allegations that could potentially threaten the people in power. Let's take the personal experience of a friend of mine who was hold at gun point by military forces for taking photos during repression of public protest. Had he mentioned this episode anonymously on an internet forum, no one would have given much thoughts to his report. However, because he maintains a well-known personal blog and built a credible reputation by having a history of posting frequently digital verifiable evidence, his words had a much greater impact and helped the community understand what transpired at the height of the military repression. In other words, he exchanged parts of his privacy for a credible digital identity to carry on his citizen journalist effort. In the context of media censorship, government propaganda and need for trustworthy sources, such actions are evidently extremely valuable.
Still these activists are at great risk and need to be supported with a modicum of protection from the regimes that are after them. In that regards, Google Buzz's indiscretion with contact lists was quite detrimental to activists' efforts everywhere. However, Google Buzz could also provide a rapid, powerful vehicle for activists to reach a large audience easily and instantly. After all, short of being caught and jailed for their actions, the second worst thing that can happen to an activist is for their effort to be ignored because they did not have access to enough media platforms or because traditional media deemed their reports unworthy of the news cycle of the day ( insert your "if a tree falls in the forest.." philosophical riddle here)
Reports showed that in spite of all its flaws, Google Buzz has already reached a larger audience than twitter. For regions with very little traction in the news media, a significant social media impact are invaluable so many are willing to sacrifice chunks of their privacy to get the words out about their struggle more efficiently. Policy makers ought to find a way to support the amplification of such citizen journalists' efforts without jeopardizing their well-being.

1 comment:

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