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Harnessing The Streisand Effect: RSF Kick-Starts Effort To Kill Censorship

News of a massive blast in Turkmenistan last year that killed dozens of people was spread around the Internet, despite the best efforts of the Turkmen authorities to suppress the story.
It's hard to imagine how the spring revolutions that convulsed the Arab world in 2011 could have happened without the Internet.

Those popular uprisings would not have had the same impact if social networks and new media had not helped spread news and information about events as they rapidly unfolded.

Similarly, despite the censorship efforts of the Assad regime, most of us are still aware of the horrors currently occurring in Syria thanks to ordinary citizens who are documenting what's happening and immediately putting it on the web.

Increasingly, the Internet's role in circulating information that some regimes have done their utmost to repress seems to be a powerful genie that will not be put back in the bottle anytime soon.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) appears intent on ensuring that this always remains the case.

The press watchdog has just launched an exciting new project that aims to exploit the Internet's ability to spread information in places where the media is severely shackled.

On November 27, it unveiled the We Fight Censorship (WeFC) website.

The idea behind the ambitious initiative is to make censorship counterproductive by ensuring that content which has been blocked or seized by repressive authorities gets replicated and propagated across the Internet.

The site is specially designed so that content can easily be duplicated on mirror sites all over the world.

In this way, RSF hopes to exploit the so-called Streisand Effect, named after the singer Barbra Streisand, which dictates that the greater the effort made to censor information on the web the more the Internet community tends to post it.

In order to protect them from possible reprisals by repressive regimes, citizen journalists and other potential contributors can upload content using a secure digital safe, which protects their anonymity.

WeFC says it will process the content it receives and add explanations and context to the material "so that its importance can be appreciated."

The first stories wheeled out by the site on November 27 include a report on the persecution of an opposition newspaper in Chad, RFE/RL footage of a police crackdown in Belarus, and a report on the state suppression of information following a deadly arms depot explosion in Turkmenistan (a story which landed an RFE/RL reporter in hot water last year).

WeFC intends to continuously process and post such stories when they receive them. They also plan to gradually develop a so-called digital survival kit, which will provide netizens with practical tools and advice on how to circumvent censorship and keep their information safe from authorities that might attempt to suppress it.

-- Coilin O'Connor

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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