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The Cute Cat Theory Talk at ETech

I’d forgotten just how much fun ETech is. Not only are the talks some of the most creative and innovative you can hear in the tech community, the room full of people is one of the most congenial, smart and funny you’re likely to encounter anywhere. Tim O’Reilly won’t come out and say that it’s his favorite conference, but he’s willing to declare it the most important that his organization puts on.

I was only able to be in San Diego for one of the days of the conference – long enough to catch several excellent talks, but briefly enough that I’m relying on Ryan Singel of Wired to catch talks that I’m very sorry to miss: Larry Lessig’s plans to change congress; Quinn Norton, who’s now thinking about hacking her brain as well as her body; Joel Selanikio’s celebration of the mobile phone as a tool for transforming Africa.

Singel did an excellent job with my talk as well, The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism. I was grateful to have the excuse to explore at more length some of the ideas I’ve been writing about for the past year, and was gratified that the talk was well received. There were several requests for me to post the slides – that’s not really realistic, as they were 100MB and rather video-rich – what I’m going to do instead is post my notes, a bunch of links and a few of the slides. This won’t be an accurate picture of what I said – it’s more likely to be a picture of what I meant to say.

Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers.

Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats.

I had a front-row seat for this transition, working with Tripod. We sincerely believed that the purpose of the web was to give college graduates helpful information about renting apartments, applying for jobs and investing their money. Our users rapidly told us that what the web was really about was publishing their own information… which left us with the difficult challenge of figuring out how to make money off of people’s collections of cat pictures.

User-generated content, on average, is a lot less interesting than professional content. But there are a lot more people creating their own content for fun than those doing so for a living, and in aggregate, that content is at least as interesting.

Based on my Tripod experience, I’d offer the hypothesis that any sufficiently advanced read/write technology will get used for two purposes: pornography and activism. Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media – it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test – if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable.

In late 1996, we noticed that Tripod was receiving a great deal of traffic from Malaysia. Searching through the server logs, we found lots of pages in Bahasa Malay talking about “Reformasi” and “Anwar Ibrahim”. I had to visit the Political Science department at Williams College to figure out that we were apparently hosting much of the Malaysian opposition political movement, dedicated to helping deposed and imprisoned deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim return to power. Malaysian media was largely closed to opposition voices, but investment in internet infrastructure meant that the opposition was able to access the internet and publish material that couldn’t be disseminated any other way. (Several of these pages still exist on Tripod.)

A more economically rational company would have likely removed the Malaysian content, as we had no way of selling ads to Malaysian advertisers. Economic rationality was never Tripod’s strong suit, and we ended up sponsoring Malaysia’s olympic team instead. (They took the silver in Men’s team badminton.)

With web 2.0, we’ve embarced the idea that people are going to share pictures of their cats, and now we build sophisticated tools to make that easier to do. as a result, we’re creating a wealth of tech that’s extremely helpful for activists. There are twin revolutions going on – the ease of creating content and the ease of sharing it with local and global audiences.

There’s been understandable excitement about use of online video by the Obama campaign. I was in Doha, Qatar, when Larry Lessig showed the above video as an example of the way that remix culture could reinvigorate American political culture. Others have pointed to the video as an example of “user-generated swiftboating“, and the potential for amateur nastiness to be even more evil than our debased professional political culture.

I was sitting next to Tunisian activist Sami ben Gharbia at the meeting in Doha, and he nudged me, saying, “We did this years ago in Tunisia.” I thought he meant the idea of using video to motivate voters. Actually, he meant that Tunisian activists – specifically a friend of his who works under the name “Astrubal” had remixed the 1984 Apple ad for political ends. (See my post “Democrats Invent the Remix, only three years after the Tunisians” for more on this story.)

In the Tunisian video, the guy on the screen is Ben Ali, a major opponent of free speech and a long-serving dictator. No matter how negatively you feel about Hillary, he’s a more Orwellian figure, in part because he’s so skilled at PR. Tunisia is more repressive than many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, but it enjoys widespread tourism and was selected – absurdly – to host the World Summit on the Information Society conference in November 2005. (For more on this absurdity, you may want to refer to my posts from WSIS, perhaps starting with this one.) Because Ben Ali is so good at PR, Sami, Astrubal and others see themselves as an ad agency, making videos designed to embarass the government on an international scale.One of the most amazing of these videos features the peregrinations of the Tunisian presidential aircraft. You wouldn’t expect to see this jet in Europe very often, as Ben Ali is famous for rarely leaving the country. But Sami and Astrubal used planespotter sites – sites like Airliners.net that allow amateur plane enthusiasts to post their photos – to determine that the President’s jet travels a whole lot more than he does. They He used footage from Google Earth and pictures from the plane spotter sites to make a video that shows the power of the participatory web at its best. (Sami has asked me to make it clear that the Tunisian flight video was solely Astrubal’s work – his function was solely to publicize it, on his blog and in talks given about online activism.)

Their video raises all sorts of ethical questions – is it permissable for the country’s first lady to take the Presidential jet, fueled and crewed on taxpayer dollars, for shopping junkets in Europe? Foreign Policy magazine didn’t think so, and ran an article critiquing the first lady. They also published instructions on how you, too, can become a presidential planespotter.

Sami and Astrubal posted the video on their personal blogs… but as known activists, their blogs have been blocked in Tunisia for years. They also posted it on DailyMotion, a video site popular in the French-speaking world. Shortly after, the Tunisian government blocked access to DailyMotion.

This is a good thing if you’re an activist. Most Tunisians don’t identify as activists and might not be engaged with politics. But, like Americans and Europeans, they’re interested in seeing cute cats being adorable online. When the government blocks DailyMotion, it impacts a much wider swath of Tunisians than those who are politicially active. Cute cats are collateral damage when governments block sites. And even those who could care less about presidential shenanigans are made aware that their government fears online speech so much that they’re willing to censor the millions of banal videos on DailyMotion to block a few political ones.

Blocking banal content on the internet is a self-defeating proposition. It teaches people how to become dissidents – they learn to find and use anonymous proxies, which happens to be a key first step in learning how to blog anonymously. Every time you force a government to block a web 2.0 site – cutting off people’s access to cute cats – you spend political capital. Our job as online advocates is to raise that cost of censorship as high as possible.

So why don’t governments block only he offensive speech? Why would governments be stupid enough to close off these tools entirely? It’s a reasonable question and one that’s an active research topic. One answer is that it’s surprisingly difficult to censor the web well. (Pakistan’s recent shutdown of YouTube shows one remarkably stupid and dangerous way to screw up and overblock web traffic.)

If you want to prevent your users from accessing online content, you’ve got four basic options. You can block keywords, block URLs, pollute your DNS or block IPs. It’s surprisingly hard to block keywords – you need to open and examine all the packets crossing your network. China does a bit of this, but mostly blocks keywords within URLs – it’s prohibitively expensive to examine every packet for an entire nation and check against a blocklist. URL blocking simply doesn’t work very well – it’s easy to rewrite a URL and access the same content. DNS blocking is very simple, but it tends to backfire – your smarter users simply switch towards using an unpolluted DNS and you have no way to control their behavior with this technique in the future. And so, most repressive governments block IPs, which limits access to banal as well as sensitive content.

But perhaps this isn’t stupidity on the part of nations. When Pakistan blocks YouTube, it limits traffic to the site. Google notices these sorts of things. Perhaps it’s coincidental that the video named by Pakistan has been removed from YouTube due to a terms of service violation – perhaps not. But while advocates try to raise the price of censorship for governments, smart governments are raising the price for noncompliance for Web 2.0 companies.

My colleagues at the Open Net Initiative began documenting net censorship a bit more than five years ago. At that point, Saudi Arabia and China were censoring widely. Now at least two dozen nations censor the net regularly, and more may be participating in “event-based filtering”, blocking access to political sites before a key election, for instance. My fear, in the medium to long term, is that every nation that constrains freedom of the press will begin filtering the net, realizing that the Internet is where important press takes place these days.

Of course, the activists win sometimes too. When Google Maps became accessible in Bahrain, it let Bahrani activists answer a pressing question in that small, crowded nation – who owns all the land? From the air, it becomes pretty clear that large chunks of the nation are reserved for palaces owned by the royal family.

An anonymous Bahrani activist thought this was pretty interesting, and made a PDF document of screen captures from Google Maps, enhanced with notes comparing crowded communities with spacious palaces. The document flew around the country from mailbox to mailbox. The Bahrani authorities couldn’t block the file – it’s a PDF, and blocking PDFs has nasty consequences for businesspeople. So they blocked Google Maps, which got bloggers like noted free speech advocate Mahmood Al-Youssif up in arms. After a brief block, they simply gave up and let citizens see the site, rather than letting Mahmood and others train people to use proxy sites. (More on this story is available on my blog.)

When governments really want to shut people up, they don’t just block them, they imprison them. Egypt has blocked very few websites – the Muslim Brotherhood site gets blocked occasionally, but most are uncensored. But they’ve jailed Kareem Soliman for his critical remarks about Islam, and they haven’t hesitated to arrest protesters seeking political reform.

This, in turn, has been known to backfire. When Kefaya activist and open-source proponent Alaa Abdel Fateh was one of 700 activists arrested at a protest supporting the independence of the Egyptian judiciary, it was hard for government authorities to know that they were about to have a PR crisis on their hands. Alaa began blogging from prison, passing notes to his wife, Manal, who jointly maintains their blog. These blog posts helped attract international attention to the case, which meant that camera crews from Al Jazeera and CNN covered a situation they normally would have ignored. It probably meant that Alaa spent much more time in jail than he otherwise would have, but it also may have meant that he was safer than if he’d been anonymous in prison.

(A piece of advice I offer at this point in many talks – if you’re planning on being an online activist, marry a blogger. It’s worked very well for me.)

The imprisonment of bloggers has taught activists some interesting lessons about advocacy in the era of Web 2.0. When Global Voices China editor Hao Wu was arrested and detained in Beijing, I and other GV friends wanted to go online immediately and advocate for his release. But that’s not the right way to do things – you’ve got to get permission from the detained person’s family first. And it took Rebecca MacKinnon a month of phonecalls to get his sister, Nina Wu, to agree to let us advocate on Hao’s behalf.

More importantly, Nina began blogging herself. Unsurprisingly, she knew a lot more about her brother than we did, and she wrote much more movingly than we could. Eventually, our campaign focused on translating her posts from Chinese to English and disseminating them as widely as possible. My conclusion from this: good advice for the advocate in a web 2.0 age – “Don’t speak. Point.” (Bruno Giussani explains what I mean by that phrase far more eloquently than I ever have.)

Nina wasn’t a professional activist. She was a successful career woman, a young mother, living the Chinese dream in Shanghai. She became an activist because she was forced to and she reached out for the tools she had access to – which hapened to be MSN spaces. MSN is heavily censored in China – it’s certainly not what we would have chosen for her. But you don’t get to choose the tools – activists use what’s at hand. It’s fine to build tools for activists, but even better to build tools for folks who don’t know they’re activists yet.

(In making this point, I should be very, very careful to point out that I have deep respect for tools that have been developed successfully for activist uses, tools like Martus or FrontlineSMS. My point is simply that there are huge numbers of web users who don’t yet think of themselves as activists who are likely to reach for the tools they have at hand, not to look specifically for tools designed for activists.)

Most activists discover they’re much more effective out of jail. It’s possible that bulk SMS tools – especially Twitter – might be useful in keeping activists out of jail. Alaa now uses Twitter to report on his political activities – this gives friends watching his feed the possibility of relauching the FreeAlaa site, should we see his note that he’s going in to talk to the police, and there’s no message letting us know he’s out of the police station afterwards. (Alaa tells me that tons of people are now subscribing to his Twitter feed and that they should back off because it’s a very boring time right now in Egyptian politics… :-)

Kefaya activists were able to use mobile phone messages, some sent through Twitter, to alert activists to the impending arrest of Malek Moustafa. As activist came to the place where Moustafa was being taken into custody, they attracted a huge crowd of police, who effectively blocked the street and prevented the police car with Moustafa from leaving the street. He was eventually released. Corresponding with Alaa about the situation, he raises questions of whether this was really a victory for Twitter – this is something Egyptian activists have done with SMS for a long time. Twitter may simply be useful in confusing Egyptian authorities, who might choose to block local SMS in a crisis, but might not consider blocking an international SMS number.

Twitter is also becoming more useful in crisis reporting. Viktor Markovic used a Twitter feed to report live on events in Belgrade after Kosovo declared independence; Juliana Rotich has used her feed to report live from Eldoret during post-election violence. And mobile phones are allowing people to report incidents in Kenya and include them within the map on Ushahidi.

Twitter is far from the perfect tool – it’s centralized and easily blocked. But it’s also used for lots of dumb purposes, which means it passes the cute cats test. Lots of the tools that have become most useful to activists have characteristics that un-recommend them for activist uses. Facebook, which has helped organize major protests against the FARC in Colombia, is notoriously bad about letting users pull data out of the system. Imran Jamal spoke about the challenge of trying to move a community of 400,000 users from Facebook to Avaaz, so they could fundraise more easily. (See “Pros and Cons of Facebook Activist“.) One challenge for activists using Web2.0 tools is figuring out when it’s time to get real and get onto dedicated platforms.

What happens when governments begin taking Web2.0 activism seriously? A funny example comes from Belarus. Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko noticed that YouTube was beginning to carry a wealth of anti-Lukashenko content, and suggested the Belarussian government might build it’s own YouTube competitor. Belarussian bloggers went one better and built LuNet, a set of parody sites designed to represent a Lukashenko-compliant read/write web. Perhaps the best of the sites was a Google parody – most searches resulted in a page telling you that the KGB was on lunch break and asking you to try again later when they could watch what you were doing. (See Global Voices Advocacy coverage of the story.)

More competent regimes have managed to exert significantly more control. China filters the internet more effectively than any other nation, using a combination of keyword filters, IP blocks and some DNS fiddling. The system is extremely complicated, involving filtering at a national boundary level and throughout the network, with some blocking taking place deep within the national network. China uses some techniques not widely seen elsewhere, including sending RSET packets when certain keywords are detected to knock users offline.

But that’s not the sinister part. Effective as the Great Firewall may be (and, actually, it’s not that effective – lots of dissidents get around it using various proxy techniques), the most relevant Chinese censorship takes place within Chinese Web 2.0 companies – including US companies operating servers in China. There’s an incredible wealth of Web 2.0 startups in China. These companies allow Chinese users to share video, post photos and write blogs. They’re much more useful to the average Chinese user as the tools and content are in Chinese, not English. And, unlike most popular web 2.0 tools, they’re not blocked in China.

And they’ve got censorship baked in. The above image is from research conducted by my colleage Rebecca MacKinnon. She discovered that MSN Spaces, Microsoft’s Chinese-localized and Chinese-hosted service prevented her from putting the terms “democracy” or “human rights” in the title of her blog. According to a report published by RSF, the heads of web companies meet weekly with censors who instruct them on what keywords to block, allowing the system to be extremely flexible and adaptable.

Some Chinese bloggers have responded by being extremely creative in their use of images. Some Chinese bloggers began posting images of river crabs on their blogs. The joke is that the term for “river crab” sounds very similar to the word “harmonize”, a term that had become slang for “censored” – “My blog just got harmonized.” The term “harmonized” became so popular that it became blocked. So Chinese bloggers began to refer to their blogs as having been “river crabbed”. The watches are a pun on “the three represents“, a political philosophy put forward by Jiang Zemin. This is also a commonly blocked term, so has been rewritten as “wears three watches”… which explains the oddly dressed river crab.

Here’s the thing – for the vast majority of Chinese internet users, they’re encountering a much more free information environment than their parents experienced. Michael Anti argues that Chinese society is much freer than the US in terms of personal behavior, especially around premarital sex and homosexuality. The vast majority of young Chinese are enjoying these personal freedoms and are willing to accept a world in which political freedom is somewhat constrained.

China’s censorship genius is that they’ve found a way to let people have their cute cats and have censorship as well. While China will block sites like Human Rights Watch, they won’t block domestic Web 2.0 sites, and hence the collateral damage from blocking banal content doesn’t draw non-activists to become aware of activist issues. Is this unique to China, or will we see this technique spread? It’s hard to imagine Ethiopia, for instance, being capable of building their own Amharic internet applications and blocking all Web 2.0 tools.

It’s also interesting to see what tools China won’t block. GMail, thus far, has remained unblocked – Anti theorizes that it’s popular with the communist party. Skype is unblocked, and it has some intriguing holes in it – Skype voice chatrooms are tailor-made to serve as pirate radio stations. Pipe a podcast into a chat room and you’re broadcasting audio via an encrypted system to users around the world. And China’s unlikely to block MMOGs, even if people periodically stand on hills inside games and shout out the IP addresses of proxy servers.

(Lots more on China and net censorship at “Cute Cat Theory: The China Corollary” and “Michael Anti and the end of the golden age of blogs in China“.)

It seems criminal to give a talk at the ancestral home of Lolgeeks and not talk about the brave and noble Lolcat. We did some informal research within the Global Voices community and discovered that, while our non-north American, non-European colleagues thought Lolcats were very funny, they simply didn’t exist within their own communities. (Trading funny pictures of animals was quite common, just not the leet-speak captioning.)

Our early attempts to propogate lolcats in other cultures have been largely unsuccessul. (That’s a lolcat by Rachel with our cat, Thorn, saying “Oh Hai”…) There’s a real challenge within the world of lolcats – making activism viral probably means making it funny as well as political and heart-wrenching. My single favorite comment on SUP’s acquisition of LiveJournal is a lolcat, which sums up the situation better than any angry post could have.

It’s typical to end these sorts of talks with a call to action, possibly a better one than “export lolcats to repressive nations”. If there’s a single message to the talk, it is that activists are going to use your tools if your tools are any good – watch them, pay attention to them, protect them and learn from them. They’ll make tour tools better, and they’re one of the reasons to make social software in the first place.

232 thoughts on “The Cute Cat Theory Talk at ETech”

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