Blurring the Boundaries for the Common Good

Blurring the Boundaries for the Common Good

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. ~ Margaret Mead

For the last week I have been holed up with approximately 60 computer scientists, activists, and social scientists from around the world at the Connaught Summer Institute hosted by CitizenLab at the University of Toronto. The individuals gathered here are some of the top minds in monitoring internet openness and rights. For the last 5 days, each of us has either presented a paper, case studies, or posters on issues most people never think about, but should.

We have engaged one another in a cross-disciplinary give and take. The problem this institute seeks to address, as identified by the CitizenLab, is a lack of dialogue occurring between academic disciplines and with academia and activists on the ground. The entire goal, as it has become apparent, is to begin the process of blurring the boundaries between the disciplines and with activists.

This process is not easy. While at times there were mutual moments of glazed eyes staring at presentations, dinner and evening conversations were rich with interest over the intricacies of the research discussed and the applicability to their own work. Presentations included examinations of keyword filtering in China, the structures of network filtering equipment across the Middle East, Tor node filtering and client censorship models, case studies on the legal implications for activists in East Africa and India, the evolution of censorship regimes in regions around the world, the normative implications of corporate censorship tool sales to oppressive governments, and evolution of national intelligence activities in cyberspace. As I write this I am sitting in a tutorial on the next evolution of the Open Net Initiative platform. The more technical in the room are asking coding specific questions while those of use from less technical disciplines are asking questions about the ethics and implications associated with conducting this research.

This institute is admittedly the first step in long process of ongoing communications between different groups all working to understand and safeguard human rights on the internet. As these diverse groups continue to interact it is hoped that this small, dedicated cohort can blur the boundaries between disciplines and activists to serve as a bulwark for openness and rights online.

I would like to add a word of thanks to Ron Deibert, Masashi Crete-Nishihata, and the entire team at the CitizenLab for facilitating this institute.