Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The connection between cute cats and web censorship

This is going to be a light blogging week for me, my friends – apologies in advance. I’m in NYC today and tomorrow, then in Boston for a meeting of a board I sit on… and I’m feeling like I’m scheduled roughly 20 hours a day for the next four days. I’m sure you’ll survive without regular updates from me.

I gave a talk at the International Human Rights Funder’s meeting today, a semi-annnual meeting of foundations interested in supporting human rights projects around the world. The panel I sat on was titled “Advocacy 2.0″ and asked what the rise of the read/write web means for advocacy organizations. Needless to say, this is a topic that interests me – I gave a talk at NetSquared on this topic about a year ago, and much of the talk I gave today drew on a talk I gave at the New School a few months ago.

I explained to the assembled funders that, while Web 1.0 was invented so that theoretical physicists could publish research online, Web 2.0 was created so that people could publish cute photos of their cats. But this same cat dissemination technology has proved extremely helpful for activists, who’ve turned these tools to their own purposes.

So while Flickr should be used for displaying pictures of cute cats, it’s also proved an effective tool for avoiding keyword filtering. Activists in China are using Flickr to disseminate images that contain words that get blocked by keyword filters - a simple tool built by Zhang Erning allows a photo of Einstein at a blackboard to be annotated with arbitrary text that won’t be blocked by the Chinese firewall. You can post videos of the Star Wars kid on YouTube… but you can also post videos of Zimbabwean labor activists being beated by government thugs. Twitter lets Robert Scoble tell me what he’s doing 200 freaking times a day… but it also lets me know whether Egyptian activists have been released from the police station when they go in for questioning.

It’s important that these tools are generally used for banal purposes. If internet entrepreneurs created “Protestr” as a web 2.0 tool for activists, no repressive goverment would leave it unblocked. But blocking a tool that is mostly used for amusement or communication between friends has consequences – the users looking for cute cat videos get annoyed that YouTube is blocked… and learn about their government’s willingness to constrain speech. This cost doesn’t mean that governments won’t choose to block these tools, but it makes the calculus more complicated.

(Yes, is taken, by a domain name squatter. Alas, my dream of an integrated Web2.0 tool for automated revolution may need to wait for another day…)

19 Responses to “The connection between cute cats and web censorship”

  1. Seth says:

    Great idea, sounds like a clever lecture.

    Would captioning pictures of activists being maltreated be too much in bad taste? Something along the lines of “I has a constitutionally-protected right”, “No, they stealin’ mah freedum!”, &c.

  2. McChris says:

    This is a great post. When I first got a handle on the Web 2.0 concept, I thought, “Isn’t this just a commercialization of what Indymedia and other activist type orgs have been doing for years?” You’re right, tho, in pointing out that posting content to an activist-specific forum like Indymedia or your theoretical Protestr almost guarantees it will be flagged by law enforcement. (A DOJ rep was dumb enough to publicly say that Austin Indymedia was on its Joint Terrorism Task Force watchlist) However, I wonder about the ethics and legal implications generally of posting content to for-profit services for no compensation. For activist groups, this seems particularly acute – will anarchists want to post to a service owned by Yahoo! Probably for only the tactical reasons you describe.

  3. Adrian says: is taken, but is available!

  4. Ethan says:

    Adrian, Seth – I’m sensing a collaboration here, possibly a website you two should start together. You guys have only one degree of separation (aside from the connection through me), so you should figure out how to reach each other and start building, IMHO… :-)

  5. I was reading Rebecca’s post about censorship in Hong King the other day and clicked the link to the photostream of the photographer from whence the now-censored image came…I was given some sort of Flickr interstitial that warned me about “SafeSearch” and, after giving assent to have my retinas burned by unsafe images, was treated to a few banal pictures of mountains and houses. But at the top was a banner that allowed me to “escape” the inhumanity of these unsafe images at any time by clicking a big blue button that said “TAKE ME TO THE KITTENS.” Which I guess is a roundabout way of saying that I think you’re right that there’s something to this whole kitten thing…

  6. Beth Budwig says:

    Wonderful! I love cuteness as a cover for subversion.

    Kittehs for great justice.

  7. Doug Hacker says:

    This has to be done – for great justice!

  8. alan says:

    I liked this. I hadn’t seen the previous keynote presentation that you linked back to, and i found it very interesting (the link to the scrawford blog is blank though).

    You’re right when you talk about the focus of advocacy moving from “speaking on behalf of others” to “enabling others to speak.” I don’t see a great deal of evidence of that in many organisations however, outside of those like HRW et al that you linked to or screenshotted on the presentation.

    There is a huge amount of potential for organisations like the one i work for (Transparency International) to move from “traditional” research based advocacy into more “people based advocacy.” Research and study will remain an important aspect of some advocacy, but it can be strengthened and augmented by “people based advocacy”. At the same time – NGOs should increasingly seek to facilitate voices, and enable them to advocate for themselves, like you outline.

    I’m reading Yochlai Benkler (slowly) at the moment, as i’m trying to find to understand further how information is produced and the role of the Commons in issues of advocacy and corruption. You’ll have seen Wikileaks I’m sure, which i think is a good use of the wiki approach.


  9. Ethan says:

    Okay, I now have ICANHASPROTEST.COM . Would love ideas on what clever things I could do with it…

  10. Mary says:

    […]I like to pay credit where credit is due. Not many people are treating digital activism with the rigor of deep intellectual analysis, so I’d like to point out Ethan Zuckerman’s contribution to this area. Ethan, co-founder of Geek Corps and Global Voices, is also the originator of the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism[…]

  11. Alberto says:

    Excellent post, Ethan, as always! And purchasing Genius!

    Here’s an idea about what to do with it…

  12. Steve Song says:

    I love it! Web2.0 is all about viral memes. Why shouldn’t there be viral social justice!


    KTHXBYE… Steve

  13. lolcats says:

    Where have you seen cute cat pictures on Google maps? I would love to see something like that.

  14. schock says:

    I agree in general, with the following caveats: activists are (and should be) concerned with building autonomous noncommercial platforms not only because of the exploitation factor (your videos on myspace generate ad revenue for Murdoch, etc), but also because of surveillance (IP addys handed over to the state with little resistance) and censorship (your content deleted and you have no recourse). I’m not saying activists shouldn’t use corp sites, instead i’m a fan of the strategy of infiltration (both to reach audiences and because of the ‘cute cat smokescreen’), only that it’s not sufficient to _depend_ on these services as our only comm infrastructure. meanwhile, a few of us in LA had a similar idea to icanhasprotest and registered last summer, although we haven’t had time to hook it up yet. Here’s a wiki we set up to develop this idea, with some LOLitics examples! Check it out:

  15. schock says:

    PS see below… LOLZ!11!!

  16. Cats says:

    This is an excellent and enlightening post. First, i gotta be handling the Web 2.0 concept ;)

  17. travesti says:

    Interesting theory…cute cats and web

  18. travesti says:

    My cat has a birth. And now I have 4 cats. lol .

  19. morenews says:

    What does it mean? Cute cats? Handsome cats? lol


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