Editor’s Note: Jillian C. York is Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Before joining the EFF, York worked at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where she contributed to the OpenNet Initiative. Her work is at the intersection of technology and policy, with a focus on the Arab world. She is a frequent public speaker and has written for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Al Jazeera, the Atlantic, the Guardian, Global Voice, Foreign Policy, Slate and CNN. With Katherine Maher, she has a regular web show, Interrobang, hosted on Bloggingheads.tv.
Jillian contributed chapters to the upcoming volumes Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communication, Journalism and Society (Palgrave Macmillan) and State Power 2.0: Authoritarian Entrenchment and Political Engagement Worldwide (Ashgate Publishing). She serves on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online, and on the Advisory Boards of R-Shief, Radio Free Asia’s Open Technology Fund, and Internews’ Global Internet Policy Project.
She says “I talk a lot around the Internets, and in real life–about free expression, privacy, anonymity, culture, and MENA. I also talk about travel and post pictures of food.” You can get her on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google +.
eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Jillian C. York recently to gain her ideas and insights on Freedom of Expression, Social Media and Nonprofits which is given below.
Niaz: Dear Jillian, thank you so much for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are very thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.
Jillian: Thank you for having me.
Niaz: As an activist, you have been working with all great organizations and setting a trend of doing great works. You’re also a writer and a speaker. At the beginning of our interview can you please tell us more about yourself, current works, projects and involvements?
Jillian: Certainly. Right now, I’m working on some really interesting projects. One is an effort to create a set of educational resources to teach people how to be more safe online…there are a lot of great guides and tools out there, but many of them are difficult to understand, or the resources are scattered all over the web. We want to create a definitive set of resources that are easy to access and comprehend.
Another thing I’m working on with my colleagues is pushing governments to commit to a set of 13 principles for the application of human rights to communications surveillance (they’re at necessaryandproportionate.net). We’ve gotten more than 300 organizations all over the world to sign on, and dozens of academics and experts, too. Now we’re taking these principles to governments.
Niaz: You’re the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Can you please briefly tell us about EFF, it’s activities and vision?
Jillian: EFF was born in 1990 in response to a basic threat to speech. Since then, the organization has grown to encompass a variety of issues—free speech, privacy, intellectual property, open access—that face us in the digital realm.
In the United States, much of our work is done in the courtroom, but we also have a strong team of activists who raise our issues in Washington, DC and get support from all over the country and the world. Our technology team builds tools and advises people and organizations on security. And our international team, the team that I work with, works with organizations all over the world to create good policy, fight online threats, and help build a movement in favor of online free speech and privacy.
Niaz: What are the other organizations out there working for freedom of expressions? Do you think we should have more organization in this area?
Jillian: There are so many! There are global organizations like Access and Global Voices Advocacy and US-focused organizations like Free Press and Fight for the Future. There are organizations all over the globe that I love and support, too…just to name a few, there’s Bolo Bhi in Pakistan, La Quadrature du Net in France, Derechos Digitales in Chile, 7iber in Jordan, MADA in Palestine, Digitale Gesellschaft in Germany, and so many more!
Niaz: How building similar organizations from different parts of world can help EFF to achieve its amazing vision? What are your messages for the youngsters working in nonprofits?
Jillian: Fundamentally, we believe in certain ideals, but we also believe that those battles are best won by local organizations, rather than by a US organization like ours coming in and trying to fix problems. And so our strategy is to work in partnerships with organizations in other countries to help them build capacity or support them in their fight against a particular threat. Of course, in this process, we also learn so much from our colleagues everywhere.
My message to youngsters would be that it’s worthwhile to do what you’re passionate about. I’ve spent my entire career working in the nonprofit sector, and have found it incredibly rewarding. It helps too that, through my job, I’ve developed friendships all over the world, which means I always have a place to sleep wherever I am!
Niaz: You also serve on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online. It has already become a true Global Media where people from all over the world doing citizen journalism and sharing amazing stories in different languages. At this point, can you please tell us about citizen journalism? How has citizen journalism been changing our traditional media?
Jillian: The problem that I have with traditional media is that it’s limited. In the US, it’s limited by the (false) idea of “objectivity”, but also by the experience of its journalists. I don’t think mainstream media is or should be dead, far from it, rather, I think that citizen journalism provides a supplement to more traditional media. It helps us gain the human perspective of a story.
Niaz: How is Global Voices different from other traditional media? Why is it important to be different?
Jillian: Global Voices began as an attempt to cover what people were saying in the blogospheres of places where the mainstream media didn’t always reach. Since that time, a lot has changed: we can now access more mainstream publications from different places in the world, giving us an insight into the perspectives of journalists there. There is also a lot more content from certain places in English than there was a decade ago, which is helpful.
Today, Global Voices still seeks to accomplish that goal, but it’s also now available in dozens of languages, which I often think is even more valuable – it allows people in Madagascar, for example, to read content in their own language by and about people in say, Venezuela or Japan. It’s that cross-cultural pollination that I find fascinating.
Global Voices is also unique in that it’s almost entirely run by volunteers. There are fewer than 10 paid full-time employees, and more than 300 people working on the project at any time.
Niaz: Your work focuses on freedom of expression. And you’ve a profound body of works on freedom of expression. Now can you please tell us about Internet Censorship? How does Internet Censorship affect freedom of expression as well as democracy?
Jillian: Censorship happens all over the world. We often hear about China and Iran, which are by far two of the worst offenders, but we hear much less about the Internet censorship that happens in Vietnam, Jordan, and many other places. In Vietnam, political content is censored and bloggers that challenge the state can be arrested for unrelated crimes. In Jordan, more than 300 news websites were recently blocked after they refused to obtain licenses. Censorship can be used for all sorts of purposes, but governments that censor the Internet tend to have one thing in common: they fear their citizens.
Niaz: Social media coverage is becoming increasingly common across media; do you see a fundamental shift happening in the way news is covered, particularly internationally?
Jillian: I do – I’m seeing a lot more agency given to the subjects of news articles. It used to be that an American journalist could parachute in, write a story about a place, and have that story become the definitive narrative of a given situation. Today, the Internet allows the “subjects” of that narrative to challenge it. So when, for example, Tom Friedman writes a story about Egypt, you will often see Egyptians on Twitter challenging him about it.
Unfortunately, this is happening on the fringe of the media. The Atlantic, for example, is doing a pretty good job of it, but the New York Times by and large still seems fairly oblivious.
Niaz: What do you think about social media revolution in terms of freedom of expression?
Jillian: I think that we’re looking at a net positive for freedom of expression, but with a serious caveat: the social media companies that host our speech can also exercise control over it. This can be insidious, such as Facebook banning entire categories of expression (such as nudity or its ill-defined “hate speech”), but it can also be subtler. We should be cautious and aware of the fact that the spaces we think of as the online public sphere are not public at all, but privately-owned companies.
Niaz: Do you think social media revolution is also the revolution of free speech? What do you think about the future of Citizen Media that will be able to scale freedom of expression?
Jillian: Yes and no. I think that the social media revolution is about broadening the set of voices we can hear and that we listen to, but I don’t think we’re nearly there in terms of access to call this a speech revolution. There are places in the world, like Yemen, where Internet penetration still rests below 5% of a country’s population, and there are other places, like Nigeria, where women report not feeling safe accessing public Internet spaces. We need to solve the access gap before we can really proclaim social media as a revolution of free speech.
Niaz: What’s new about democracy in this digital era? How do you connect democracy, freedom of expression and social media revolution?
Jillian: I’m not sure we’re even close to solving the problems of democracy, but I do believe that social media opens up space for citizens to make their voices heard in an unprecedented way. Take, for example, the recent nuclear deal between the US and Iran. I watched while right-wing journalists decried the deal on Twitter, but their voices were drowned out by those of the people, the citizens, all over the world. Before social media, those “expert” voices would’ve carried far more weight than they do now.
Niaz: Can you please tell us about your book chapter in the volume ‘State Power 2.0’?
Jillian: Sure – I wrote this chapter with Katherine Maher. It covers the history of the Tunisian Internet—its infrastructure, censorship, surveillance—as well as the forces that led to a change in policies after the fall of Ben Ali.
Niaz: What are your suggestions to make our non-profit sector much more productive, scalable, efficient and effective?
Jillian: I think one of the key challenges is for non-profit organizations to think more like businesses, particularly when it comes to finding sustainable funding models. Non-profits are all too often tied to foundations, which means they risk losing their funding at any moment. We’re lucky in the United States, in that donations are tax-deductible, which means that organizations have a much easier time at getting individual support.
Niaz: Can you please briefly tell us about your new book ‘Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communications, Journalism & Society’?
Jillian: Sure – this is a fantastic book put together by a group of academics. My chapter looks at the history and effects of leaking in the Arab world, starting with the Iran-Contra Affair and moving toward the future.
Niaz: Dear Jillian, thank you very much for your invaluable time and also for sharing us your amazing life story, great ideas, insights, experience and knowledge. We are wishing you very good luck for your good health and safe living along with for all of your upcoming great endeavors.
Jillian: Thank you so much, Niaz, this has been great.
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