World Press Freedom Day, Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom
13th CCWPF Press Freedom Award
Acceptance speech on behalf of the Citizen Lab
Rafal Rohozinski, senior scholar
National Arts Center, Ottawa, Canada.
3 May 2011
Excellency, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
It is truly an honour and a humbling moment to accept this award on behalf of the Citizen Lab.
Just under 10 years ago, Ronald Deibert founded the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. Following in the footsteps of other great Canadian media theorists — Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan — Ron recognized that the impact of technology lay in the social domain. With the help and support of Janice Stein, he created a unique space — a hothouse of sorts — where engineers, mathematicians, social scientists, and economists could treat cyberspace as a giant petri dish and examine its various transformative social and technical trajectories.
Over time, the Citizen Lab has grown to encompass numerous partnerships: with the world’s leading universities, Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, and with donors such as the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Canada’s International Development Research Centre, and the SecDev Group.
I am proud to be a partner in this enterprise — initially from across the Atlantic when I was at the University of Cambridge, to when Ron and I founded the OpenNet Initiative and the Information Warfare Monitor — two projects whose mission is to build an evidence-based profile of the political struggle over cyberspace between individuals, corporations, and states.
I am now honoured to be a senior scholar at the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs, (University of Toronto), and I look forward to continue growing the mission of the Citizen Lab by building public-private partnerships with spinoff companies such as Psiphon and non-profit organizations such as the SecDev Foundation.
As the Citizen Lab enters its second decade, our work seems even more critical than before.
Cyberspace now encompasses approximately 2/3 of all humanity. As more of us are online, the domain increasingly takes on the characteristics of any other social and political space—one driven by cooperation as well as competition.
The culture of cyberspace is changing. While the West may have provided cyberspace with its Ur template, it only makes up 40 percent of cyberspace. Cyberspace’s centre of gravity, in demographic terms, is moving to the South and into the East. Some of the fastest growing online populations are emerging from the world’s weakest states—the fragile and the failed.
These changes are already having an effect on cyberspace. It has given rise to a tsunami of cybercrime as those living under poverty with little chance of advancement recognize that it’s a lot safer to commit a victimless cybercrime or defraud a Canadian bank than it is to fight over a fistful of rubles in the decaying alleyways of Ekaterinburg.
It’s also leading to empowerment. Witness the colour revolutions of the former Soviet Union in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan; and the recent Arab Spring that overturned ossified quasi-authoritarian regimes in the Middle East region. While each of these upheavals has their roots in a complex mix of factors, including youth unemployment, lack of opportunity, and income disparities, it is difficult to deny the central role of cyberspace. The new generation of digital natives (under 25 year olds) who propelled these upheavals were born into a universe of pervasive satellite television, mobile telephony, and the Internet. They were plugged in, switched on, and able to rapidly and virtually network in ways which were difficult for security forces to spot—much less counteract.
But states are not turning a blind eye. At present — according to the work of the Citizen Lab and the OpenNet Initiative — between a third and a half of the world’s online population lives in states where cyberspace is deliberately censored, monitored, or otherwise controlled.
In China the “Great Firewall” and an army of censors work diligently to sanitize the past and provide citizens with a vision that is in line with the wishes of the regime—much like Orwell’s vision of a memory hole.
In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards use Facebook¬–like technology to post pictures of protesters so that collaborators can identify them, and turn them into the hands of authorities.
In Burma, Belarus, and more than 45 other countries, states have adopted a range of techniques, including technical filtering, prosecution, and raising their own armies of counter bloggers, in order to actively compete in this space.
There are indeed dark clouds on the horizon as competition intensifies.
Transparency and accountability are key. These principles are especially important for public institutions as many of the factors and issues shaping the global governance of cyberspace are complex, and as a result are difficult for politicians to grasp.
The slope between good intentions and the road to hell is a slippery one indeed. Because of the global nature of cyberspace, ideas that may be well–founded in one context are applied to completely different ends elsewhere. For instance, countering terrorism online has become a mean to silence legitimate opposition. Filtering inappropriate content suddenly becomes the basis for faith–based filtering, which encompasses anything culturally unacceptable that challenges the social status quo. In Saudi Arabia, it is unacceptable for a woman to send a smiley face through SMS as this act constitutes her revealing her “face.”
These issues that encompass the governance of cyberspace, dealing with cyber security, how to translate our values into this globally connected space – are mind bogglingly complex. And yet, we stand at the precipice of deciding whether the future of the space will be one that continues to evolve into a global commons—a Commonwealth—that empowers us all by making possible the free flow of knowledge, ideas, and capital; or whether it is parceled up, gated, and otherwise turned into private gardens by a confluence of economic and political interests.
In 1937, H.G. Wells prophetically wrote:
The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual. […] It need not be concentrated in any one single place. It need not be vulnerable as a human head or a human heart is vulnerable. It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba.
Cyberspace has emerged as H.G. Wells’ “world brain”, but it is an immature and complex brain, similar to that of an adolescent making the difficult transition into its teenage years.
Therefore, its future depends entirely on our engagement with it. However, the path is fraught with challenges and consequences.
On behalf of the Citizen Lab, I would like to thank you for this award and commit ourselves to another decade of ensuring that the debate over the future of cyberspace remains informed, and that cyberspace evolves into a Commonwealth that is defined by openness, transparency, and accountability.