December 05, 2006

Psiphon and The Power Of Media Attention

CBC News: Interest in web anti-censorship tool rockets after launch

A new online tool designed to circumvent government censorship of the internet already appears to be a runaway success, a University of Toronto researcher who helped develop the software says.

Some 30,000 copies of psiphon (pronounced sigh-fawn) had been downloaded by 2 p.m. Monday after it was made available at 1 p.m. last Friday, Michael Hull, the program's lead engineer told CBC News Online.

That rate of interest by far surpasses his highest estimate for the total number of downloads anticipated, he said.

"I thought we were going to have maybe 10,000 downloads," he said, noting that traffic to the site was still on the rise. "I was amazed."

He said it, I didn't ("amazed").

I'm all for this project, but the activism lesson I draw from its prominent coverage is NOT necessarily a happy one. There's been activists working on this sort of stuff for years and years. The critical variable here is not technology, since those reporters wouldn't be able to tell a Tor from a FreeNet. What matters is *ATTENTION*. The backing from the various organizational sponsors is the reason for the widespread publicity.

Don't get me wrong. The attention being devoted to Psiphon is good. But I worry people are going to draw some very wrong lessons from the media frenzy. I've said this before, but it gets repeatedly demonstrated. Without some sort of support from an attention-system, it doesn't matter what you do in terms of fighting censorship, you'll talk to the crickets!

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on December 05, 2006 04:48 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Hi Seth
I appreciate the post and links, but I do not agree with your analysis. We were very fortunate to get good press coverage, but none of it had to do with the funders of the project -- Open Society Institute and the Centre for Innovation Law and Policy/University of Toronto. Neither one of them introduced us to any media, or had any role in the project beyond providing initial financial support -- an extremely modest amount as well for such an ambitious project -- and some introductions to some people who could help on a few aspects of the project. Not to minimize their support, which we appreciate a lot, but they do not give a lot of money (by their own admission, they cannot) and they did not help generate any of the media coverage psiphon has received.

If there is any explanation for the media coverage of psiphon, I think the reasons are two-fold. First, there is a growing appreciation of the growing problem of Internet censorship worldwide, and psiphon helps fill a much needed niche helping people get around it. We have had numerous letters of support from ethnic associations, for example, telling us how important this tool is to help them get around content filtering in countries like Vietnam, Burma, China and Iran.

Second, we (and me in particular) worked very hard to translate the case for psiphon to media in a clear and non-technical manner so that they can understand the "story" and tell it to their audiences (mistakes notwithstanding -- you can't control everything!). I wrote several press releases, and carefully sent them around to journalists I know would have an interest in psiphon, and once a few key articles were published, a swarming effect happened, leading to yet more stories that continue up to and including this day. It is not easy, as you may know, to speak to the press and translate difficult technical subject matter into plain language, but I think we at the Citizen Lab do a good job of explaining what it is that we do and working with journalists to get the story out.

I just don't think any of the coverage had anything at all to do with the support we got for the project. The media weren't interested in that angle, didn't ask about it generally, and even one got it completely wrong by assuming we were funded by someone else.

As an aside, the people who worked on this project do not do it for the money. All of the programmers involved could be working at two or three times the money. they are doing it because the believe in the project.

Ron Deibert

Posted by: Ron Deibert at December 7, 2006 05:22 PM

Ron, I believe you (understandably) misread some what I wrote. I think I understand why, since basically what I wrote is kind of homonymic to some nonsense punditry. But what you apparently heard is not what I meant on some points.

Here, "various organizational sponsors" meant the social network involved, not the funding sponsors.

And in no way do I think anyone is doing it for the money. I sure know better!

I'll take the rest to email, there's some material I shouldn't put in a public comment.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at December 8, 2006 03:05 AM