Community-centered Tool Design for Internet Freedom

Project: Research

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In 1948, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out as fundamental the right tofreedom of expression, including the “freedom to hold opinions without interference and toseek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”It would have been impossible to predict, 65 years ago, the extent to which the Internet wouldtransform people's ability to “seek, receive and impart information.” And while the benefits ofthis transformation (for commerce, creativity, communication) have been vast, they areparalleled by ever increasing attempts to restrict the free use of this valuable resource.Hong Kong has thus far avoided many of the restrictions on freedom of expression enforcedelsewhere in China, but threats to online freedom and privacy in the SAR are increasing. Since2010, Hong Kong has dropped 24 places to 58th on the Press Freedom Index, with the authorsnoting that "arrests, assaults and harassment worsened working conditions for journalists to anextent not seen previously” (Reporters Without Borders, 2012). Similarly, in a 2012 poll,nearly 90% of journalists surveyed felt that press freedom had deteriorated over the past sevenyears and nearly 36% admitted to self-censorship (Hong Kong Journalists Association, 2012).Although freedom-preserving software has been a major research area in computer andinformation science, there is growing recognition that the tools created by researchers havefailed for average users. One study reported tool use by less than 3% of censored populations,stating that on “the tremendously messy question of whether these tools are meeting thesecurity needs of users… we have very little understanding of what particular securityproperties users are looking for” (Naone, 2010). Another noted that these failures are often dueto a lack of attention to the specific needs and skills users, and that “the need to make securitymanageable for even untrained users has become critical” (Hong, Cranor, & Sadeh, 2009).To address this growing problem, this study applies a Participatory Action Research (PAR)methodology designed to take systematic account of the needs of tool users by involving themin a systematic process of discussing, evaluating, planning, acting and reflecting on a sharedproblem (O'Brian, 2001; Rodriguez, 2008). As preparatory work for this project, the author hasalready made contact with several local organizations concerned with issues of Internetfreedom, including independent media outlets, hackerspaces, and local art/cultureorganizations. As such, this study represents the first PAR-based investigation of Internet toolsin Hong Kong, a unique locale due its position as both part of and apart from the rest of China.Leveraging the PAR methodology, local stakeholders (journalists, activists, entrepreneurs) willplay an active role in answering the following questions: 1) What are current best practices forusers wishing to protect their online freedoms? 2) How have existing tools failed to meet userneeds? 3) What tools can be adapted or created to fill these gaps? 4) How can such resourcesbe best served to diverse populations like Hong Kong? 5) What generalizations can be drawnfrom the Hong Kong case for the larger international community? Results of the research willbe reported in journal articles and conference presentations, as well as archived online forparticipants and for the general public.


Project number9048018
Grant typeECS
Effective start/end date1/11/1423/04/19

    Research areas

  • Values-in-design,Surveillance,Censorship,Internet freedom,