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Getting Past Digital Censors Becoming "Part of Youth Culture Around the World"

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, March 25 2010

Credit: Shekhar Sahu

AccessNow sprung up in the aftermath of the post-election digital crackdown in Iran, a new organization dedicated to providing cyber activists around the world the circumvention tools and gathering points they need to operate online. This week, the group praised Google's new redirection strategy in China, calling it "a wakeup call to the world's dictators, that digital intimidation against citizens is not acceptable." They're hopeful Google's action will snowball, with other tech giants (cough, Microsoft) will find inspiration in their withdrawal. But what do they make of the worry that the real victim in the short-term might be Chinese citizens and their ability to make the most of their online experience?

AccessNow's Los Angeles-based co-founder Cameran Ashraf made, in a phone call, an intriguing case for the argument that a savviness at routing around filters and barriers is quickly becoming a part of the the online experience, particularly among younger people.

Ashraf says that his work thus far observing and working to the benefit of activists in Iran, China, and other countries tells him that "the idea of circumventing government censorship has become a part of of youth culture around the world," part of the learned experience of the web these days. "Dictatorial governments share worst practice," he said, but the more encouraging flipside is that, "good people share best practices." That's true even if routing around government filters comes because people want to do nothing more subversive than to check out their friends on Facebook. "Young people will find a way," says Ashraf.

Relatedly, I asked Ashraf what he makes of the State Department's reported program to provide micro-grants to activists who are building circumvention technologies to help people around the world move around online freely. AccessNow enjoys the support of an advisory board that includes people like Eli Pariser, Chris Hughes, Jos Rospars, Ethan Zuckerman, and Peter Gabriel. "We don't take any government money," Ashraf said. But he did judge that the funding would be particularly beneficial for independent developers.