THE BLOG

The Push/Pull of Technology and Its Ability to Bring and Restrict Information Has Never Been So Clear

12/03/2015 15:36 GMT | Updated 12/05/2015 10:59 BST

When Moses Walusimbi fled Uganda's anti-gay laws for The Netherlands, he started up a blog Uganda Gay on Move, that helps gay Africans who have fled persecution, as well as offering information who are still living in countries where anti-gay laws are making their lives miserable.

"When I came to Holland, I realised the more you keep quiet, the more you suffer," Walsuimbi told Index on Censorship magazine for an upcoming special report.

Walusimbi now has around 9,000 followers on Facebook, his most popular means of communications, but he also uses other social media to get out his stories and to raise awareness of human rights abuses of gay Ugandans and other Africans.

In the report 'Across the Wires: How Refugee Stories Get Told', Index on Censorship magazine examines how those who are being persecuted often use technology such as Viber, Skype, and WhatsApp to make public the news and information about regimes they are escaping from, as well as keeping in touch with their relatives. But along with the benefits of those networks, are often risks of the individuals, or their friends and families being tracked down by the authorities, and harmed or threatened. On one hand they want to let the world know what is happening, on the other they are afraid of the consequences for their own safety, if their communication is being tracked.

That's one of the reasons why Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is suing the US National Security Agency, alleging that the US agency is harvesting information made by volunteer editors made to the online encyclopedia from around the world. Wales told the New York Times that he fears personal information, about volunteer editors' location, sexual identity or politics, could be used not only to identify dissidents but used against them.

Our report shows refugees, often fleeing violence and threats, are already afraid of the possibility of surveillance and tracking. We spoke to one Iranian refugee whose wife changes her SIM card every week, as she worries about someone listening into their conversations. And one of our reporters interviewed Eritreans refugees, now safely in the West, and found very few would speak about the conditions in the country they had left because of fears those words would get back to the authorities in the countries they had left behind.

A Wikipedia statement said: "If people look over their shoulders before searching, pause before contributing to controversial articles, or refrain from sharing verifiable but unpopular information, Wikimedia and the world are poorer for it."

And that's it in a nutshell. If people are afraid to upload information, share knowledge and tell others what is really happening because they worry that as they do so their presence and their words are being tracked, then we will know less in future. We know less because fear will hold people back. The very technologies that we hoped would bring us more knowledge and ability to get news stories out against the restrictions of authoritarian government, will become a medium of enforcement and tracking.

"By tapping the backbone of the internet, the NSA is straining the backbone of democracy," said Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Knowledge has always been power, but the internet age was expected to shift power away from the few to the many, and enable us to learn more. But if people who see errors on Wikipedia's China page, or on Uganda's anti-gay policies, fear to make those corrections, then our knowledge base will be weakened, and with that our power to know and understand what is really going in this world. The push/pull of technology and its ability to bring and restrict information has never been so clear.

Rachael Jolley is the editor of Index on Censorship magazine, which launches its next special report Across the Wires: How Refugee Stories Get Told on Sunday. @index_magazine