Iconoclasm: comments from Amnesty International's Irrepressible.info conference

Filed in Uncategorized by on June 6, 2007 0 Comments

It’s always a little tricky to report on a news event you’ve just participated in, but Amnesty International‘s Irrepressible campaign against Internet censorship just had a conference today that should be available as webcast soon.

I participated in my day job role as executive director of The Tor Project, and the topic given me was “The Power of the Internet:  Getting around Internet Censorship.”

My comments started out a bit geekier than this, but I rewrote them on the fly during the earlier speakers’ presentations, as it seemed clear that an Amnesty audience would want to hear an individual call to action, and that’s such an important part of getting around any organized censorship.

So, here are my remarks more or less as presented.  You’ll be able to hear them at the webcast link above, soon.




I’m so happy to be here. We’ve come a long way from writing postcards after church for prisoners of conscience in the 60’s – my first involvement with Amnesty. But four decades later, I’m executive director of The Tor Project in the Boston area in the US.

We’re a tiny R&D and educational nonprofit, an NGO – only a few staff, but something over a thousand volunteers worldwide who run servers, translate web pages, and write code for our open source anonymity and circumvention network. Our software is recommended by Reporters without Borders and Global Voices Online, used by Human Rights Watch and many other human rights groups, and we have hundreds of thousands of users worldwide.

I’d like to open with a quote from Kofi Annan, writing as UN Secretary General a couple years back:

‘And of course, the information society’s very life blood is freedom. It is freedom that enables citizens everywhere to benefit from knowledge, journalists to do their essential work, and citizens to hold government accountable. Without openness, without the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, the information revolution will stall, and the information society we hope to build will be stillborn’

– Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, WSIS, 11/2005 http://www.itu.int/wsis/tunis/statements/docs/io-un-opening/1.html

When I was a kid in a little town in northern Vermont, here in the US, I grew up in the whole world. My parents got the local newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor – then the best US paper for international affairs – and sometimes when money was not so tight, we got the Guardian by slow boat, about three weeks late. Today, I can check the Guardian site before I go to bed. It’s amazing.

I listen to American National Public Radio or the BBC World Service on the radio much of the day as I work. But NPR.org is blocked from China, and even the NPR correspondents in China have to file their stories to the US through Tor.

Circumvention tools such as the Tor Project’s Tor network, Citizen Lab’s Psiphon, and other tools and systems can sidestep filtering and national firewalls. But in a way, we are engaged in an information “arms race” between powerhouses like China and the corporations that assist them vs. academic groups and tiny nonprofits such as Ron’s and my own.

It’s the power of the Internet that even makes this struggle possible. But we need your help in that struggle – to educate yourself, educate others, act as you can, and help us make privacy online a norm in the face of governmental and marketing pressures. It is public silence on these issues that makes the silencing of online speech possible. Only our own speech against censorship can solve a problem which is ultimately social and political, not technical.

You can – and might want to – use these tools too, regardless of what you are doing online.

Our client, Tor, is used by dissidents, bloggers, journalists, human rights workers, whistle blowers, activists – as well as law enforcement, military, security, businesses, and various government agencies all over the world.  We’re also being used by ordinary people to avoid unscrupulous marketing and malware risks.

I know a lawyer here in the US who has intelligent things to say about local politics – but all of his partners and half of his clients might well take umbrage. So he uses our tools to separate his personal identity as a pseudonymous blogger from his identity as a professional in his community.

The ordinary uses of internet privacy should be important to all of us. We should be thinking about the risks not only of censorship in China, say, but also our consumer rights online, and the future of political speech online in every country. We should be worried about the privacy and financial security risks of data retention. We need to self educate.

It is through the power of educating ourselves on the social issues and technical issues that we will have a strong voice with our own communities, our governments, and in the world. The resistance to internet censorship may be one of the largest stealthy nonviolent actions in the world today. Net neutrality is resisted in the US. Data retention in Europe. Bloggers rights in so many countries.

The right to free expression online is the backbone of the resistance against the imposition of arbitrary controls by governments.  Cumbersome bureaucracies are not agile enough to adjust to the accelerating rate of change in world events, in human relations, and that rate of change is facilitated by the Internet’s boundariless communications.

The elephant in the room is sovereignty. Kamal Ahmed from the Observer talked about the governmental reactions to dissidents, but so much of the controversy over these issues is presented from our point of view as human rights, the right to free speech, free expression – and from the other side as an issue of sovereignty.

Martha Lane Fox identified this as disruption. Whether you believe this is a good thing or a bad thing probably entirely depends on your investments, your hopes, and your fears.

I like to think of this as the “Galileo problem.”  Galileo is often lauded as a hero of free expression. But what even scientists often forget is that the Vatican didn’t try to suppress him because his ideas were invalid, but because they felt that the speed of information – that was a relative singularity in the renaissance – was disruptive to society. They wanted more time to spin the information for the masses, so to speak.

Well, today some of the players in this drama deserve some of our compassion also. China, as our largest example, is in flux. I often end up talking to reporters who try to make me vilify the Chinese. I certainly can’t approve of any number of things that happen in China. But ruling China has always seemed to me to be an impossible task. Ruling China through the kind of change they’re embracing now has got to be some multiplier of “impossible.”

A China moving to a market economy is a pressure cooker. It’s producing economic, environmental, and human rights pressures that can’t be estimated because they are such rapidly moving targets.

So rather than opposing China, I think of our disruptive technologies as, in a special way, being the valve on the pressure cooker. We want evolution, not revolution, we want reconciliation and nonviolent change.

None of us want to see China in civil unrest. The consequences to the whole world would be devastating. Does China think the Internet is a bad thing? Any country who thought that the Internet was a bad thing would simply not allow the Internet at all. China needs the Internet. They need the swift exchange of information to remain competitive.

What is the solution adopted by so many of these countries whom Kareem Amer documents as jailing people for online activities?   They let in the net, and then try to control it by social controls – some technical solutions like filters, but often by amorphous and broadly phrased laws, or by inappropriate applications of existing laws — measures that allow them to jail almost anyone at will.

This is not a new problem. Dissidents have been entrapped by capriciously enforced information-related laws for centuries: pamphleting leading to my own country’s separation from Britain; speaking in union halls; East German neighbors reported for wrong thoughts; fax machines at Tienamen.  All targets of information repression.  All irrepressible.

Without anonymous pamphleting, it’s likely I’d be a subject of the Queen today. But no one could repress the authors of some of our prophets of free speech in the American colonies. Today, anonymity online is just as vital to free expression online.

John Gilmore from the Electronic Frontier Foundation is quoted “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” That is the soul of circumvention. But the net was also designed to trace information, and the tension between those two features is where we find cultural tensions.

The Internet leaves tracks. Like caller ID, your internet activity leaves an address that tracks your online activity like a travel itinerary. Without tools like Tor, your government or some slimy marketing company can trace your activity from website to website, forum post, email.


The Internet that we praise for making such excellent communications possible, also makes the forensics easy for those who would wish us ill. Circumvention gets around firewalls, but anonymity means that if circumvention is detected, the person at the end of the line is still reasonably protected.

Anonymity is important to these journalists, dissidents, and human rights workers, and to whistle blowers, union activists, reformers. But if only these sensitive populations use anonymity to protect their activities, then governments can identify them specifically for their use of anonymity tools. This actually keeps a democracy blogger in China safer than a political blogger in Tunisia – because in China, thousands and thousands of Chinese are circumventing the “Great Firewall” at any second for trivial reasons, giving cover to those who might be at risk. In Tunisia, Internet usage is low in general, and circumvention is rare and obvious.

Should the authorities be able to slit your email without cause? To track your web surfing without a warrant? To prevent you access to the tools that would allow your privacy?


Until the right to privacy in online communications is acknowledged in every country at least on par with the privacy of the mail, of phone communications — and is legally protected — we won’t have an information society such as Kofi Annan envisioned in my opening quote. We’ll just have speech on steroids, and there will be so much information that the silencing of some of it will become invisible.

Take these messages away from here. Spread them. Talk to people – broadly online, and personally, one on one. Understand the arguments. Support these organizations and get your friends to support them too.


We must become the common wisdom of the information society we want to see emerge.

Thank you.




Shava Nerad, News and Opinion Correspondent:

Shava’s column, Iconoclasm, published several times a week to Gather Essentials: Newsis an examination of the provocative ideas emerging in media and world culture behind the news.


Shava Nerad has been working on the Internet for twenty-five years, at the boundaries of Internet and social issues.  She is executive director of The Tor Project as her day job.  She lives in Somerville, MA with her teenage son, her fiance (a professional magician and fundraising coach), and a corgi/dachshund mutt named George.


Opinions here have nothing to do with Tor. 


You can find all of Shava’s Iconoclasm columns at http://Iconoclasm.gather.com

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A young 50ish, intense honey-brown eyes, greying curly brown hair that used to be red and skin to go with the red hair. Built like a steppes pony -- compact and powerful and chunky. A formerly single mom of a wonderful teenage nerdy son, engaged to a pro

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