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Committee to Protect Bloggers: An Interview

Committee to Protect Bloggers: An Interview

The Committee to Protect Bloggers is an important blog that focuses on bloggers in peril across the world. They broke the story on the Iranian blogger who died in prison some time ago, and they have been doing their very best to keep a watchful eye on the state of the blogosphere in parts of the world where blogging is actually dangerous.

That’s why it was such a shame when Curt Hopkins announced its closure, and such a good thing when Andrew Ford Lyons picked up the reins again. So let’s here what he has to say about Committee to Protect Bloggers and the future.

First of all, why don’t you tell our readers a little bit about Committee to Protect Bloggers and how you came to take over the reins after Curt Hopkins?

The Committee was formed in January of 2005. A lot of what it was about remains the same, but we’re adding to it some. The Committee to Protect Bloggers has always been “devoted to the protection of bloggers worldwide” as the mission statement goes, with a focus on highlighting the plight of bloggers threatened and imprisoned by their government. But we also need to recognise that the world and the web has changed as has how people use it. We look at the uses of micro-blogging sites now, such as Twitter, and the use of social networks like Facebook, Friendfeed and so forth to communicate.

My moving into taking the site over for Curt happened pretty casually, really. I was doing some research on the situation in Iran and the use of technology. If I recall correct, it was the whole Motorola scandal, and in my Googling I came across Curt’s final posts about ending the Committee website. In my caffeinated research mode state I dashed him off an email about revamping the site some and that eventually turned into a conversation about taking the site over.

But this is how organisations are supposed to go. Any group has turnover, and that’s not a bad thing. It should happen because that’s what brings new life into them. I’ve organised and supported scads of campaigns and grassroots efforts and one commonality I’ve seen across the lot of them is high burnout rates. You have these groups with maybe four or five incredibly dedicated people giving 200 percent and its no surprise when life catches up. The unfortunate thing is that it can often leave such a bad feeling about the work they’ve done. Curt needed to stop focusing so much energy on this project and get his job situation sorted out. That’s a completely rational reason to want to hand the keys over. I picture a time when I’ll likely do the same, and also am working on ways of sharing the load of the committee website with others who are interested in free speech and blogging. We’ve retained two bloggers from the previous guard: James Buck and Victor Ng’eny. And along with myself, Nigel Parry has joined the group. I’m hoping to continue increasing the number.

(NOTE: You can find current committee blogger profiles here!)

ctpb.jpgWhat are your plans for the site?

I have a few ideas, but am always open to other suggestions. First off, I’m wanting to expand the number of bloggers contributing. I’m looking for folks who are fans of blogs. People who not only write blogs, but also read them, participate in their comment areas and like what blogs represent, whatever that is. It’s a hard thing to identify. People who get what it means that the barriers to publishing are being smashed and see that as a good thing. A challenging, tortuous thing on occasion, but a good thing. I’m also interested in filling out our ranks. I’d like contributors with technical web-building, design backgrounds, people with legal backgrounds and those who are already obsessively following blogger issues and writing about them.

I’m hoping to expand the site over time to include more participatory aspects. Rigth now it’s running on the most recent WordPress. One thing I’m toying with is a way to incorporate a Buddypress installation and/or forums and chat, so that we can turn the CPB site into a place where people can practice free speech as well as talk about it.

We are interested in campaign ideas to raise the awareness and profile of blogs. One campaign that should be coming soon is around the slogan “I read banned blogs” which sort of plays on those old “I read banned books” badges and stickers you’d always see at independent bookshops or on the sweater of that one parent who attends school board meetings to demand to know why the Judy Blume books were taken off the shelves. I’m hoping to turn that into some sort of a design contest for our new link banners and graphics.

Eventually I’d like to see us re-invigorate our fund-raising efforts and turn that money into a legal fund of some sort or support development and distribution of new online tools that bypass censorship and help preserve privacy.

Our hope is to keep our interests aimed at all things blogging, and to look at the “protect” part of our name in a slightly broader sense. Sure, we’ll still report on imprisoned bloggers, censored and harassed bloggers. People being injured, jailed and killed for expressing themselves or sharing information in this format, but we also want to celebrate the idea of blogging as a viable medium and raise the profile some. You know, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reports Without Borders and many others are conducting amazing legal fights for free speech and electronic media. It’s not exactly a neglected area. But it’s an area under wide attack from all sides. Those organisations do great work and the benefits to reach bloggers, but their scope is much wider.

We see our niche as focusing on the individual bloggers out there. The girl who mostly writes about fashion but one week when a coup is under way in her country she becomes one of the most read political reporters. The Iranians who use mobile phones, Twitter accounts, blogs and Facebook groups to get the message out as reporters in their country are sequestered to the office. We also want to show people the tools to use for better blogging. Some of these are technological, like open source systems, proxies, security settings and the like. But they can also be things like legal guides. Letting people know their rights. We also want to highlight information about how to report on things better, file freedom of information requests, protecting their identity online and maybe some decent essays on just how to write better. All these things have the accumulative result of protecting bloggers. Because were in the day and age now where anyone can launch a website in a few clicks. It’s very easy to spread a message now. It’s also very easy to get yourself into more trouble than you planned for.

How would you say the situation for bloggers are across the globe these days? Are there any specific cases you would like to single out?

Both good and bad. It’s good that more people are blogging. It’s good that the range of topics people are blogging about is growing hourly. But it’s getting scarier as well. People are writing things, expressing themselves, getting something off their chest, but often not knowing what the response can be. The Committee supports people saying what they need to say, and we think blogs are a great way to do it, or we wouldn’t be doing this.

But we don’t live in a world where everyone simply respects everyone else’s right to free speech. When we think about censorship most of us traditionally look at actions taken by an oppressive government. That is of course, still happening all over the place. But the barriers to becoming a censor are lowering almost as fast as the barriers to becoming a blogger. Companies troll the internet and fire employees who are posting content they deem damaging to their brand image. They sue first and let the potential legal costs silence people. Cut-rate hackers launch DOS attacks because they don’t like what they’ve seen on someone’s website. The same social networks that build the systems so many of us use are sometimes too quick on the trigger to kill a group, profile or conversation that may be viewed as offensive by someone somewhere. Political action groups launch mass email campaigns to get sites taken down, siting poorly worded, vague TOS reasons that may or may not apply to what they are complaining about, but the service provider shuts them down anyway.

We try to report on these situations when we can but people also need to share the information with us however and whenever they find it. In Virginia a woman was jailed for reporting on local narcotics cops in her town. In Azerbaijan two bloggers were arrested on trumped up charges over a satirical video they posted. A woman who very likely did commit an act of libel was hit with a legal ruling that challenges blogger safety elsewhere by forcing Google to reveal the identity under rather broad conditions. All these are on our site now, but there is are loads more cases like them out there. In Iran right now people are allegedly being asked to log into their social profiles when landing at the airport so security can see what they’ve been posting on them.

You’ve appearde on Al Jazeera. Tell us a little bit about that,

I participated in an episode of The Listening Post, which aired last week on Al Jazeera English.

The show was focused on the limits of online anonymity; how much people really have and how easily it can be taken away. While we work to promote the right to privacy for bloggers we also want them to be aware of existing laws as well as the very real possibility that they could be identified through their content, by their blog host or through intensive investigation by a motivated person. Bloggers need to know their rights and also the ways of keeping themselves safe, but they also need to know how much anonymity they can expect.

I’d like to thank Andrew for taking the time, and urge all of you to visit Committee to Protect Bloggers. They’re doing important stuff, so make sure you check them out.

View Comments (5)
  • This site is of the utmost importance. As the blogosphere continues to grow and the topics discussed continue to become more mainstream (not just what color curtains you bought at the flea market over the weekend), there is definitely going to have to be some delineation in the blogger’s mind as to what their rights and responsibilities are. I posted about this subject a few weeks ago Is The Basement Blogger on the Verge of Extinction. Please share with me what you think.

  • I don’t remember Omidreza Mirsayafi in the news, unlike Ling and Euna Lee. From their descriptions of imprisonment in Korea (that debilitating fear of being sent to a gulag, the psychologically oppressive restrictions) one can see how Mirsayafi could deteriorate.

    I have always seen online syndication as ultimate freedom, as you mentioned. But obviously there are limits–being identifiable, or even (surprisingly) accountable. True worry, as you say: the barriers to being a censor are coming down almost as fast as free publishing is utilized. Though, in the case of the Virginia woman (who turned out to be a hate advocate of white supremacy) who was arrested for blogging about cops and narcotics, the attentive and skeptical reader would wonder whether there could be any defamation or libel issues at play that would validate an arrest (turns out there weren’t). There is a basis, to be sure, for some limitations.

    Thank you for keeping me grateful for my freedoms. I’d love to get involved with the Committee to Protect Bloggers, via either the insider’s or outsider’s perspective.

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