Inside Avaaz – can online activism really change the world?


The Guardian: “With 30 million members, Avaaz is an organisation with ambitions to save us all through technology. Carole Cadwalladr meets its founder Ricken Patel to find out what it has achieved…But then, this is the reality of 21st century protest: it’s a beauty parade. A competition for the thing that we all seem to have less of: attention. The TV cameras do show up, though, and a young Rohingya woman from Burma’s Muslim minority gives moving interviews to journalists about the terrible human rights abuses her family have endured. And a dozen or so mostly fresh-faced young people show up to offer their support. The protest has been organised by Avaaz, an online activist organisation, and these are Avaazers. They may have just signed an online petition, or “liked” a cause on Facebook, or donated to a campaign – to save Europe’s bees from pesticides, or to defend Masai land rights in Tanzania, or to “stand by” Edward Snowden. And, depending on who you believe, they’re either inventing a new type of 21st-century protest or they’re a bunch of idle slacktivists who are about as likely to start a revolution as they are to renounce their iPhones and give up Facebook.
In just six years, Avaaz – which means “voice” in various languages – has become a global pressure group to be reckoned with. It’s a new kind of activism that isn’t issue-led, it’s issues-led. It’s human rights abuses in Burma, or it’s the Syrian civil war, or it’s threats against the Great Barrier Reef or it’s homophobia in Costa Rica. It’s whatever its supporters, guided by the Avaaz team, choose to click on most this month. And if you hadn’t heard of Avaaz before, it’s probably only a matter of time….
“We’re like a laboratory for virality. For every campaign we test perhaps 20 different versions of it to see what people want.” It tweaks and it tweaks and it tweaks, changing the wording, pictures, call for action, and only then does it send it out on public release. Sam Barratt, Avaaz’s head of press, shows me the previous versions of its email about the Burma campaign. “Changing the meme at the top, or the photograph, massively affects the number of clicks. Eighteen versions were tested. People think we just chuck it out there, but there’s a huge amount of data sophistry into how we design the campaigns.” And, just as Amazon and Google try to predict our behaviour, and adjust their offerings based on our past preferences, so does Avaaz. It uses algorithms to detect things we perhaps don’t even know about ourselves.
“It’s a tremendously evolving science, internet engagement,” says Patel. “But we develop a picture of someone from their previous engagements with us. So, for example, we can see that a certain set of people, based on their previous behaviour, might be interested in starting a campaign, and another set won’t be, but may be interested in signing something. We can tailor it to the individual.”
Everything is viral now, says Patel, “from financial crises to health epidemics to ideas”. And learning the lessons of that and of how to garner attention from some of the most attention-deficient people on the planet – young people with electronic devices – has been Avaaz’s masterstroke….
A crisistunity is another Avaaz-ism. “Though I think we originally got it from The Simpsons,” says Patel. “It’s a mixture of crisis and opportunity. We’re at this extraordinary moment in history. We have the power to wipe out our species. But at the same time, we’ve had tremendous progress in the past 30 years. We have more than halved global poverty. We’ve radically increased the status of women. There are tremendous reasons for hope and optimism.”
There is something very Avaazian about the crisistunity, I come to think, in that it’s borrowed something slick and witty from popular culture and re-purposed it for something which used to be called the Greater Good. And then given it a thick dollop of added earnestness.”

Open Government Guide


Open Government Partnership: “We were proud to unveil the new Open Government Guide… The Guide—with its accompanying web site—has been developed to support this action planning in three ways :

To read the Guide go to OpenGovGuide.com. You can also use the Report Builder function and create a custom download tailored to your own country or to the officials and other audiences in the local planning process.
Anyone seeking governance reforms, from inside or outside government, faces political as well as logistical challenges, so the Guide is also intended to serve as a way to frame the sometimes difficult conversations about the steps to make reform a reality and show examples from other countries
The OGP process includes four “cohorts” of countries. The largest group are currently drafting their first action plans, and another cohort are already at work on their second plans. The Open Government Guide can help any group seeking to promote reform.
While the Guide is quite comprehensive, it is also a living document. We will continue to add more detailed topic areas. A new section is currently in development on the security sector, drafted by the Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative and including recommendations on transparency and accountability of military spending and on surveillance, drawing on the new International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance and the Global Principles on National Security and the Right to Information (The Tswhane Principles). To preview and comment on this document, please watch for the draft version at www.opengovguide.com/news. “

Explore the world’s constitutions with a new online tool


Official Google Blog: “Constitutions are as unique as the people they govern, and have been around in one form or another for millennia. But did you know that every year approximately five new constitutions are written, and 20-30 are amended or revised? Or that Africa has the youngest set of constitutions, with 19 out of the 39 constitutions written globally since 2000 from the region?
The process of redesigning and drafting a new constitution can play a critical role in uniting a country, especially following periods of conflict and instability. In the past, it’s been difficult to access and compare existing constitutional documents and language—which is critical to drafters—because the texts are locked up in libraries or on the hard drives of constitutional experts. Although the process of drafting constitutions has evolved from chisels and stone tablets to pens and modern computers, there has been little innovation in how their content is sourced and referenced.
With this in mind, Google Ideas supported the Comparative Constitutions Project to build Constitute, a new site that digitizes and makes searchable the world’s constitutions. Constitute enables people to browse and search constitutions via curated and tagged topics, as well as by country and year. The Comparative Constitutions Project cataloged and tagged nearly 350 themes, so people can easily find and compare specific constitutional material. This ranges from the fairly general, such as “Citizenship” and “Foreign Policy,” to the very specific, such as “Suffrage and turnouts” and “Judicial Autonomy and Power.”
Our aim is to arm drafters with a better tool for constitution design and writing. We also hope citizens will use Constitute to learn more about their own constitutions, and those of countries around the world.”

Behold: A Digital Bill of Rights for the Internet, by the Internet


Mashable: “The digital rights conversation was thrust into the mainstream spotlight after news of ongoing, widespread mass surveillance programs leaked to the public. Always a hot topic, these revelations sparked a strong online debate among the Internet community.
It also made us here at Mashable reflect on the digital freedoms and protections we feel each user should be guaranteed as a citizen of the Internet. To highlight some of the great conversations taking place about digital rights online, we asked the digital community to collaborate with us on the creation of a crowdsourced Digital Bill of Rights.
After six weeks of public discussions, document updates and changes, as well as incorporating input from digital rights experts, Mashable is pleased to unveil its first-ever Digital Bill of Rights, made for the Internet, by the Internet.”
 

International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance


Final version, 10 July 2013:  “As technologies that facilitate State surveillance of communications advance, States are failing to ensure that laws and regulations related to communications surveillance adhere to international human rights and adequately protect the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. This document attempts to explain how international human rights law applies in the current digital environment, particularly in light of the increase in and changes to communications surveillance technologies and techniques. These principles can provide civil society groups, industry, States and others with a framework to evaluate whether current or proposed surveillance laws and practices are consistent with human rights.
These principles are the outcome of a global consultation with civil society groups, industry and international experts in communications surveillance law, policy and technology.”

The Charitable-Industrial Complex


Peter Buffett in the New York Times: “It’s time for a new operating system. Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.

What we have is a crisis of imagination. Albert Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Foundation dollars should be the best “risk capital” out there.

There are people working hard at showing examples of other ways to live in a functioning society that truly creates greater prosperity for all (and I don’t mean more people getting to have more stuff).

Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.

It’s an old story; we really need a new one.”

The Danger of Human Rights Proliferation


Jacob Mchangama and Guglielmo Verdirame in Foreign Affairs on “When Defending Liberty, Less Is More“: “If human rights were a currency, its value would be in free fall, thanks to a gross inflation in the number of human rights treaties and nonbinding international instruments adopted by international organizations over the last several decades. These days, this currency is sometimes more likely to buy cover for dictatorships than protection for citizens. Human rights once enshrined the most basic principles of human freedom and dignity; today, they can include anything from the right to international solidarity to the right to peace.Consider just how enormous the body of binding human rights law has become. The Freedom Rights Project, a research group that we co-founded, counts a full 64 human-rights-related agreements under the auspices of the United Nations and the Council of Europe. A member state of both of these organizations that has ratified all these agreements would have to comply with 1,377 human rights provisions (although some of these may be technical rather than substantive). Add to this the hundreds of non-treaty instruments, such as the resolutions of the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council (HRC). The aggregate body of human rights law now has all the accessibility of a tax code.
Supporters of human rights should worry about this explosion of regulation. If people are to demand human rights, then they must first be able to understand them — a tall order given the current bureaucratic tangle of administrative regulation…”

Putin Puts OGP Entry on Hold


Moscow Times: ” President Vladimir Putin has postponed Russia’s entry into the Open Government Partnership planned for the second half of this year, a news report said Monday.
“We are not talking about winding up plans to join, but corrections in timing and the scale of participation are possible,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Kommersant.
OGP is an international partnership with over 50 member states aimed at promoting human rights, budget transparency and fighting corruption.
In December, Medvedev had confirmed plans to join the partnership in Sept. 2013 noting that Russia needs membership for its own benefit, and not for the sake of becoming “part of a global shindig”.
Open Government Minister Mikhail Abyzov said Russia will join the organization if the latter implements the newcomer’s recommendations, namely, linking transparency assessments provided by the OGP to investment ratings, Kommersant said.
Furthermore, Russia proposes expanding the OGP’s format, increasing the number of member and observer states, as well as changing the principles of financing the organization.”