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Google, Global Voices Join Forces to Fund Free Expression

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, January 5 2010

The landscape of global online activism is constantly changing, but one lesson shows signs of being rock solid. As savvy as activists get about using the Internet, governments are going to attempt, at least, to exert some measure of control there. Iran's struggles of late have been only the most recent demonstration, where authorities there have reacted to the proliferation of web videos and protesting blog posts by sometimes throttling the nation's already skinny Internet backbones and sometimes shutting off mobile access all together.

And so, the activists attempting to thrive online could use a little help. To that end, Google and Global Voices, the Berkman Center-born organization that works with bloggers from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe (and Macedonia in between) to aggregate blog content from all over the world, have teamed up to fund the "Breaking Borders Award," a trio of grants at $10,000 a piece that goes to groups or individuals whose work "demonstrate[s] courage, energy and resourcefulness in using the Internet to promote freedom of expression."

Applications are for the award due by February 15th, 2010, and grants will go to winners in the categories of advocacy ("given to an activist or group that has used online tools to promote free expression or encourage political change"), technology, ("given to an individual or group that has created an important tool that enables free expression and expands access to information,") and policy ("given to a policy maker, government official or NGO leader who has made a notable contribution in the field.")

There is evidence that, of late, Google seems to be devoting some attention to boosting its role as an energetic (and well funded) protector of free expression. It's not always an easy fit, most particularly on the world stage. The company has in the past been criticized for contributing to a less than open Internet. As late as last June, Reporters without Borders found that search results for the 1989 violence in Tienanmen Square were filtered on, the company's default portal within China's borders. More recently, though, the company's Senior Vice President for Product Management Jonathan Rosenberg posted a much noticed and passionate company manifesto on openness. "Open will win," wrote Rosenberg on the Google Public Policy Blog. "It will win on the Internet and will then cascade across many walks of life: The future of government is transparency. The future of commerce is information symmetry. The future of culture is freedom."