September 17, 2010
What national government censors the internet most aggressively ?
Iran and China are probably the most popular answers, and there’s a good case to be made for each. My friend Sami ben Gharbia makes the case – in a very important and must read essay – that much of the Arab world is extremely hostile to online dialog and filters extensively, though gets less attention because Arab leaders are often aligned with US foreign policy objectives. If we’re getting technical about things, North Korea, which doesn’t permit internet access for ordinary citizens, probably wins the prize. But when I think about aggressive internet filtering, I think about Vietnam.
Lots of countries – as many as forty – filter the internet their citizens can see. Vietnam does lots, lots more. They surveil, harass and arrest bloggers. There’s evidence to suggest they use DDoS attacks to silence dissident websites and hacking attacks to disrupt discussion forums and intimidate participants. And in an amazingly brazen attack, they distributed a malicious trojan, distributed as a popular keyboard driver necessary to type in Vietnamese on a Windows computer.
It’s worth noting, as a commentator did on a past one of my blogposts about internet censorship in Vietnam, that pro-democracy groups aren’t the only ones targeted by the Vietnamese government. Bauxiteinfovietnam, a site targeted by DDoS attacks, is the centerpiece of a campaign against a Bauxite mine in an environmentally sensitive area, not an explicitly political protest. While the Vietnamese government is quite aggressive in silencing speech that advocates for democratic change, other forms of dissent are targeted as well.
Given the challenging environment for speech in Vietnam, I was thrilled to hear from my friend Duy Hoang that pro-democracy organization Viet Tan has launched a new website focused on helping Vietnamese evade the national firewall. Nofirewall.net offers an extensive collection of internet security resources translated into Vietnamese. (The site, incidently, is hosted on Blogspot.com. This isn’t because Viet Tan are cheap – many activists are choosing to host on Blogspot or WordPress when they believe their sites are likely to be affected by denial of service attacks – it’s much harder to cripple Google’s vast server farms with a DDoS than it is to take down a third-tier hosting provider.)
Some of No Firewall’s manuals were originally published by the fine folks at FLOSS Manuals – indeed, much of the content is from “How to Bypass Internet Censorship“, a manual written during a “book sprint” in Upstate New York involving contributions from Sesawe, the FLOSS Manuals folks, and other writers who’ve published on internet security.
Viet Tan was able to produce a Vietnamese version of the FLOSS Manual in question because FLOSS Manuals are generally licensed under the Gnu Public License version two. As such, Viet Tan is free to translate and redistribute the manual so long as they use a compatible open source license on their own text. FLOSS Manuals use of open licenses is one of the most important parts of their project because it means the work done by the manual’s authors can spread widely to a variety of audiences.
Just a few days back, I was writing a letter of endorsement to try to help the FLOSS Manuals project obtain funding from a donor Global Voices has worked with. (The text of that letter follows below.) I argued that the translatability of FLOSS Manuals was a big part of their importance. It was exciting to see an example of this potential put into practice, and I’m glad that these resources are available for Vietnamese speakers around the world.
(from an endorsement letter written in support of FLOSS Manuals)
The rise of open source software has been widely acknowledged as one of the most exciting developments of the 21st century. The ability of geographically distributed individuals to produce mission-critical software and systems offers not only a challenge to the software industry as we commonly understand it, but intriguing hints about the future of economics in a connected age.
Often missed in the enthusiasm about open source software is an understanding of the model’s limitations. Developers have an increasingly impressive track record in bringing innovative new software to light and to rapidly addressing the bugs discovered in this software. Their track record of documenting this software and in producing usable manuals, on the other hand, is pretty dreadful. Writing a new email package is viewed as sexy and exciting – writing the manual to allow someone to use that package is usually viewed as a necessary evil at best, as a task for an unspecified someone else, at worst.
Enter FLOSS Manuals. Adam Hyde and friends are applying some of the best thinking of the open source movement to solve one of that movement’s important and nagging problems : documentation. Without documentation, FLOSS (free, libre and open source software) software is less useful, less usable, and less able to displace expensive and often inferior (though better documented) closed source software. FLOSS Manuals close the gap between the developers and users of software, exploring the power and potential of these tools from the perspective of experienced users, rather than from the inside perspective of the developer. As such, they’re some of the most compelling and useful manuals on tools like Firefox, CiviCRM, OpenOffice, WordPress and GNU/Linux.
These are critical tools for users around the world, but they’re especially important for users in the developing world, as they represent low/no-cost alternatives to very expensive proprietary software. It’s no surprise that the One Laptop Per Child project is working closely with FLOSS Manuals to document their software, used by children across the globe.
FLOSS Manuals’ process is as fascinating and compelling as the work they produce. Books are jointly authored by anywhere from a handful to dozens of authors, collaborating using wikis and other shared workspaces. Many books are produced using a “book sprint”, a unique form of book writing that involves inviting a small group of experts on a tool or process to live and work together for a few days and produce the essential skeleton – and often the entire text – of a manual. Sprints are frequently organized around conferences and meetings of tool developers, leveraging the systems used to organize FLOSS software development to allow for documentation of code. The model has been surprisingly successful in turning out high quality text on very short deadlines. I witnessed a sprint conducted in conjunction with a summit on Open Translation Tools – within a few days, half a dozen lead authors created the best text available on the subject. (My modest contribution, an essay I’d written previously, was sliced and diced into am introduction for the volume, which detracts only slightly from the quality of the project as a whole.)
Translatability is a key feature of books produced by the FLOSS process. They’re licensed in such a way that potential translators face a minimum of hoops to jump through in translating the texts, which makes them easier to localize for developing world environments, or to make available in accessible editions for the blind and disabled.
As the open source ecosystem matures, we are beginning to understand what aspects of this new model work well and which are spaces for further learning and innovation. Two years ago, I would have decried the poor quality of documentation available for users of open source software and pointed to it as a key reason why FLOSS software faces barriers to adoption. Now I can point to FLOSS Manuals as a model for how this work should be carried out, and as an organization capable of carrying out this work on a wider basis, with appropriate support. I celebrate the work Adam and friends have done so far and endorse, in the strongest terms possible, their models and working method. I hope they’ll see increasing recognition and support, as there’s a mountain of projects out there that deserve and demand the sort of high quality documentation FLOSS Manuals has begun to provide.
senior researcher, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University
co-founder, Global Voices Online