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

  • @Leila:

    Thanks dear,

    I couldn’t agree more. Let me here just re-post my reply to Sana’s similar question:

    There are many ideas and things we can implement:

    – 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 on social media platforms 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.

    One more thing we can do, in relation to Ivan’s earlier question:
    – Do visualization of data on TV which may help us produce viral material like infographics, animations and more..

    Best,

    Hisham

  • @Rezwan,

    Thanks my friend for your very sensible and insightful questions.

    Just for the sake of the argument let me tell you what I *personally* think of this matter:

    – Number 1: Nothing justifies violence. Two wrongs never make a right.
    – Number 2 : Banning FB or any other platform just to abate a violent reaction = wrong! because it only postpones the problem and gives violent people a good reason to be even more violent next time. Should we ban paper and ink because some stupid, hateful and racist people print stupid, hateful and racist things? No.
    – Number 3: Freedom of expression is absolute, and it includes the freedom to insult and offend. That of course doesn’t mean that anyone who feels offended doesn’t have the right to prosecute the offending party before a court of law.

    Now, of course this is my personal opinion. And I’m sure many of you will have opinions different from mine.

    That’s exactly why we want to insist on having a board and regional advocacy teams who represent a cross section of the GV community. We want to build an efficient, quick and inclusive decision making mechanism before we start advocating for policy, because there will always be very controversial, not easy to answer questions like you so eloquently illustrated.

    Have we had a board and an East Asia Advocacy team for example, we would have had a meeting, decided on a clear stand and issued a press release in Bengali and English, to be translated to even more languages by our Lingua teams.

    As we will proceed, we will build enough expertise and positions on those issues that the process will become even more swift and natural. At least that’s my belief.

    As for giving advice to the government of Bangladesh, I am not sure Rezwan it is or should be part of our job. What I imagine Advox should do is what I like to summarize under the acronym: we “RANT”:

    – we Report
    – we Advocate for causes
    – we build Networks of activists
    – and we Train activists

    That’s what I believe we should do, and nothing more. :)

    Best,

    Hisham

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  • […] With Syria and Gaza plunging into information by pulling the plug on the internet, the right to access remained one of the most pertinent issues. Our special coverage included Syria,archiving online reactions to Syria's internet blackout and the resurgence as parts of Syria regained connectivity, protests in Bahrain and Yemen amid media blackout, conflict voices from Caucasus and Sudan revolts, in-depth coverage of Russia's protest movements,bearing witness to Egypt's historic presidential elections and the aftermath and the intense elections in Venezuela, seeking indigenous voices representing 370 million people that speak more than 4000 languages, a spotlight on the forgotten voices of Myanmar's Rohnigya, keeping an eye on the worldwide #occupy movements and SlutWalks a new protest movement defending women's rights and  most importantly monitoring and defending internet freedom,  free speech and freedom to access with Global Voices Advocacy evolving in to a community determined to take a stand. […]

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