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In Burma, RSS Can Smell Like Freedom

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, September 1 2010

Activists who toil in the field of helping figure out how people the world over can avoid web restrictions put in place by governments will tell you, happily, that this sort of circumvention is becoming second nature, especially amongst young people in repressive countries. Earlier generations figured out how to send emails; today's up and comers learn how to route around search engine filters and blocked websites. But how? How, as a normal sort of person living in say, Burma, do you acquire that sort of knowledge?

Well, here's some insight from, indeed, Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar), which is looking at its first election in twenty years. No one under the age of 38 has ever vote before, at least not at home. And so they're naturally turning to the Internet to learn about candidates, and how these elections things are supposed to go. The ruling junta isn't enormously favorable to that sort of thing, and those looking for information online run smack into restrictions. But what seems to have sprung up in Burma then, according to a report from AFP, is a shared culture where people are actively helping one another master online circumvention tactics. That might look like a simple Rangoon cybercafe. But it is, actually, a place where people go to learn from one another the art of using proxy servers:

Staff are quick to help clients find proxy servers to bypass blocks on certain websites, even though they are strictly forbidden to do so on threat of closure, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

The rights group describes Myanmar's legislation on Internet use, the Electronic Act, as "one of the most liberticidal laws in the world", with dissident netizens facing lengthy prison terms.

Tin San, who has about 2,000 Facebook friends and thousands more blog followers, says he holds informal gatherings across Yangon to discuss the Internet's uses -- and how to dodge the junta's restrictions.

"Political websites are banned but you can still read them, for example through (web aggregator) Google Reader," is one of his tips. He also offers advice about privacy settings on social networking sites.

Using an plain ol' RSS reader like Google Reader to route around filters and connect to off-limits political sites is fairly basic tactic, but a potentially powerful one. It's a simple hint that can get passed from one person to another, creating a body of knowledge and practice that changes that dynamic between a single person and their government. What's fascinating to think about is what sort of mastery over their online environment young people in restricted countries all over the world are developing, because they have to if they want to stay connected and informed. Anyway, here's the rest of the piece from the AFP.

And while we're on the topic, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Luke Allnutt has a new blog up called Tangled Web, covering "the smart ways people in closed societies are using social media, mobile phones, and the Internet to circumvent their governments." There you go. Go ahead and put in your Google Reader.