January 24, 2017

Collateral Freedom in China

OpenITP has just released a new report—Collateral Freedom—that studies the state of censorship circumvention tool usage in China today. From the report’s overview:

This report documents the experiences of 1,175 Chinese Internet users who are circumventing their country’s Internet censorship—and it carries a powerful message for developers and funders of censorship circumvention tools. We believe these results show an opportunity for the circumvention tech community to build stable, long term improvements in Internet freedom in China.

The circumvention tools that work best for these users are technologically diverse, but they are united by a shared political feature: the collateral cost of choosing to block them is prohibitive for China’s censors. Our survey respondents are relying not on tools that the Great Firewall can’t block, but rather on tools that the Chinese government does not want the Firewall to block. Internet freedom for these users is collateral freedom, built on technologies and platforms that the regime finds economically or politically indispensable.

Download the full report here: http://openitp.org/?q=node/44

The study was conducted by CITP alums David Robinson and me, along with Anne An. It was managed by OpenITP, and supported by Radio Free Asia’s Open Technology Fund. We wrote it primarily for developers and funders of censorship circumvention technology projects, but it is also designed to be accessible for non-technical policymakers who are interested in Internet freedom, and for China specialists without technology background.

The New Ambiguity of "Open Government"

David Robinson and I have just released a draft paper—The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”—that describes, and tries to help solve, a key problem in recent discussions around online transparency. As the paper explains, the phrase “open government” has become ambiguous in a way that makes life harder for both advocates and policymakers, by combining the politics of transparency with the technologies of open data. We propose using new terminology that is politically neutral: the word adaptable to describe desirable features of data (and the word inert to describe their absence), separately from descriptions of the governments that use these technologies.

Clearer language will serve everyone well, and we hope this paper will spark a conversation among those who focus on civic transparency and innovation. Thanks to Justin Grimes and Josh Tauberer, for their helpful insight and discussions as we drafted this paper.

Download the full paper here.


“Open government” used to carry a hard political edge: it referred to politically sensitive disclosures of government information. The phrase was first used in the 1950s, in the debates leading up to passage of the Freedom of Information Act. But over the last few years, that traditional meaning has blurred, and has shifted toward technology.

Open technologies involve sharing data over the Internet, and all kinds of governments can use them, for all kinds of reasons. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more transparent), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability. Today a regime can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of web site—even if it does not become more accountable or transparent. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands.

This essay proposes a more useful way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: We separate the politics of open government from the technologies of open data. Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.

Retiring FedThread

Nearly two years ago, the Federal Register was published in a structured XML format for the first time. This was a big deal in the open government world: the Federal Register, often called the daily newspaper of our federal government, is one of our government’s most widely read publications. And while it could previously be read in paper and PDF forms, it wasn’t easy to digitally manipulate. The XML release changed all this.

When we heard this was happening, four of us here at CITP—Ari Feldman, Bill Zeller, Joe Calandrino, and myself—decided to see how we might be able to improve how citizens could interact with the Federal Register. Our big idea was to make it easy for anyone to comment paragraph-by-paragraph on any of its documents, like a proposed regulation. The site, which we called FedThread, would provide an informal public forum for annotating these documents, and we hoped it would lead to useful online discussions about the merits and weaknesses of all kinds of federal regulatory activity. We also added other useful features, like a full-text search engine and custom RSS feeds. Building these features for the Federal Register only became a straightforward task because of the new XML version. We built the site in just eight days from conception to release.

Another trio of developers in SF also saw opportunities in this free machine-readable resource and developed their own project called GovPulse, which had already won the Sunlight Foundation’s Apps for America 2 contest. They were then approached by the staff of the Federal Register last summer to expand their site to create what would become the new online face of the publication, Federal Register 2.0. Their approach to user comments actually guided users into participating in the formal regulatory comment process—a great idea. Federal Register 2.0 included several features present in FedThread, and many more. Everything was done using open source tools, and made available to the public as open source.

This has left little reason for us to continue operating FedThread. It has continued to reliably provide the features we developed two years ago, but our regular users will find it straightforward to transition to the similar (and often superior) search and subscription features on Federal Register 2.0. So, we’re retiring FedThread. However, the code that we developed will continue to be available, and we hope that enterprising developers will find components to re-use in their own projects that benefit society. For instance, the general purpose paragraph-commenting code that we developed can be useful in a variety of projects. Of course, that code itself was an adaptation of the code supporting another open source project—the Django Book, a free set of documentation about the web framework that we were using to build FedThread (but this is what developers would call a “meta” observation).

Ideally, this is how hacking open government should work. Free machine readable data sets beget useful new ways for citizens to explore those data and make it useful to other citizens. Along the way, they experiment with different ideas, some of which catch on and others of which serve as fodder for the next great idea. This happens faster than standard government contracting, and often produces more innovative results.

Finally, a big thanks to the GPO, NARA and the White House Open Government Initiative for making FedThread possible and for helping to demonstrate that this approach can work, and congratulations on the fantastic Federal Register 2.0.