Towards a Collaborative, Coordinated Strategy for OER Implementation

Cable Green, November 17th, 2015

Game Plan

Game Plan. By Rob Armes, CC BY 3.0

Today, the OER community releases the Foundations for OER Strategy Development. This document provides a concise analysis of where the global OER movement currently stands: what the common threads are, where the greatest opportunities and challenges lie, and how we can more effectively work together as a community. Ideas for this document came from across the OER community, following a 6-month drafting and feedback process. The document can be found at http://oerstrategy.org

This document reflects the state of the OER movement through the eyes of its practitioners: what we need as a movement, what we agree on, areas where we differ, and opportunities for advancing OER globally. The Cape Town and Paris Declarations set the vision for the OER movement, including the value statements that form the basis for our work. We see the Foundations for OER Strategy Development as forming the basis for future actions and commitments.

Our next step is to make the commitments for actions that will continue the momentum.

Make a commitment to advance OER:

  1. Read the document.
  2. What actions will you take? Consider:

– How will you address the opportunities and challenges outlined?
– What do you see as the greatest opportunity and what ideas do you have to address it?
– How can your organization work effectively with others to address this?
– What roles are you best suited to take?

  1. Make your commitment public.

– Tweet your commitment using the hashtag #oerstrategy.
– Follow the conversation … we’ll also capture the tweets at oerstrategy.org

  1. Get to work and keep us updated.

– Tweet your updates using #oerstrategy.
– Let’s track our collective progress and build an even stronger global OER community.

Thank you for helping to build the open future of education!

Foundations for OER Strategy Development drafting committee: Cable Green, Nicole Allen, Mary Lou Forward, Alek Tarkowski, Delia Browne.

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Free Music Archive launches 2015 fundraising drive

Jane Park, November 17th, 2015


The Free Music Archive, a long-running Creative Commons music platform, is running its first-ever fundraising drive. It will run from mid-November until mid-December 2015, and is offering donors shirts and stickers at various pledge levels. The Free Music Archive has existed for many years and has provided millions of users with curated, ‘some rights reserved’ audio tracks. Artists are recognizing the value of a progressive approach to distribution and licensing in the digital era, and the Free Music Archive seeks to promote their work with intent to support artists, and those who want to experience the Commons as it continues to grow.

The Free Music Archive began with a generous grant, and has been grant-supported in the past. This fundraising campaign is designed to engage its various communities: users, contributors, curators, artists, media producers, and more. The website has not seen significant changes since its launch, and is in need of upgrades to make it easier to use.

Specifically, FMA plans to make its in-page player more like other ubiquitous audio players, including scrub bars, waveform displays and volume control; to enhance search and allow users to browse by artists and albums, not just tracks; to support a wider variety of audio formats (the site currently only accepts MP3 files); and to release a new version of the FMA API for its dev community.

The money raised in this campaign will be used in hiring the Free Music Archive’s part-time developer on for a full-time year of work, in which time FMA will roll out these improvements. To donate, please visit www.freemusicarchive.org/donate.

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Trans-Pacific Partnership Would Harm User Rights and the Commons

Timothy Vollmer, November 16th, 2015

The final text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was released earlier this month. The gigantic agreement contains sweeping provisions regarding environmental regulation, pharmaceutical procurement, intellectual property, labor standards, food safety, and many other things. If adopted, it would be the most sweeping expansion of international restrictions on copyright in over two decades. Over the last five years, the TPP has been developed and negotiated in secret. With the text now locked down, participating governments will decide whether to ratify it.

The TPP is a direct threat to the public interest and the commons. It downplays the importance of the public domain and exceptions and limitations, increases the term of copyright protection, and demands harsh infringement penalties.

The TPP must be rejected.

In our initial analysis, we examine several issues that would be detrimental to the public domain, creativity and sharing, and user rights in the digital age.

  • 20-year copyright term extension is unnecessary and unwarranted: The agreement requires member nations to increase their term of copyright protection to life of the authors plus 70 years. Six of the twelve participating countries will have to increase their copyright terms 20 years past the baseline required by existing international treaties.
  • The mention of the public domain is lip service, at best: Text has been removed which more actively supported the public domain as a key policy objective.
  • Enforcement provisions are mandatory, while exceptions and limitations are optional: Instead of securing mandatory limitations and exceptions for uses of copyrighted works under TPP, all of the provisions that recognize the rights of the public are voluntary, whereas almost everything that benefits rightsholders is binding.
  • Potentially drastic infringement penalties, even for non-commercial sharing: The agreement allows for infringement penalties that are disproportionate to harm, providing for the possibility of imprisonment and excessive monetary fines for lesser infringements.
  • Criminal penalties for circumventing digital rights management on works: The agreement adopts a mechanism that would prohibit the circumvention of technological protection measures (DRM) on works, and treats this type of violation as a separate offense regardless of any copyright infringing activity on the underlying content.
  • Investor-state dispute settlement mechanism may be leveraged for intellectual property claims: Copyrighted materials can be subject to the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, meaning that a private company could bring a lawsuit against a TPP country if that country adopts a law that the company claims would harm its right to exploit its copyright interest.

Statement from Creative Commons on copyright-related aspects of the TPP

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Message to our community about the Paris and Beirut attacks

Ryan Merkley, November 14th, 2015

It’s been a very frightening evening and a sombre morning. We are all worried for our friends around the world who are at risk. Last night we saw the attacks in Paris in Beirut, but we also know that this kind of violence is sometimes a daily reality in countries around the world not so fortunate to even merit coverage by the mainstream media. That’s not meant to diminish the horror of what happened yesterday, but to acknowledge that we have friends everywhere who are at risk, and who may need our help.

As news of the Paris attacks was breaking, CC was publishing a post to bring attention to new rumours that our friend Bassel may have been sentenced to death in Syria, and to invite him to become a CC fellow — which only highlights for me that the world is a dangerous place, even for those who only wish to do good things.

Last night, as Parisians fled the attacks, the hashtag #PorteOuverte was being used for those who didn’t feel safe to go home. Strangers took each other in. Even in the face of evil and fear, people helped. The desire to take care of each other is so much more powerful than the urge to harm.

To all of you, take care of each other. My hope is that we will respond to hatred with love, and combat fear with openness.

Ryan Merkley
CEO, Creative Commons

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Creative Commons offers Bassel Khartabil position as Digital Cultural Preservation Fellow

Timothy Vollmer, November 13th, 2015

Bassel Khartabil by Joi Ito, CC BY 2.0.

Bassel Khartabil is the lead of Creative Commons Syria. He’s been has been imprisoned in Syria since March 15, 2012. Bassel has been a key contributor to projects that digitize, preserve, and share cultural heritage works. The #NEWPALMYRA project was launched last month, which is an online community platform and data repository dedicated to the capture, preservation, sharing, and creative reuse of data about the ancient city of Palmyra. The project features 3-D models of ruins from Palmyra created by Bassel.

In recognition of this work, Creative Commons is offering Bassel a position as Digital Cultural Preservation Fellow. His numerous and impactful contributions to the open web and the commons has always inspired collaboration, community, and the sharing of culture and knowledge. As a Creative Commons Fellow, Bassel can continue the important work he started years ago.

The Creative Commons Board of Directors called for Bassel’s immediate and safe release in a resolution at its most recent meeting.

The stakes have been raised even higher for Bassel. In October we heard that Bassel had been transferred from Adra Prison to an unknown location, with no other information provided. Now, there’s even more dire news. Noura Ghazi Safadi, Bassel’s wife, wrote on Facebook yesterday that his life is in immediate danger. English translation from Arabic provided here:

I’ve just gotten disturbing and shocking news that Bassel has been sentenced to death. I think this means that the transfer to military prison was very dangerous. I really don’t know other news. May God help him, we hope it’s not too late. We are worried sick about his life.

The EFF published this call for Bassel’s release at the Internet Governance Forum in João Pessoa, Brazil:

The Internet community calls on the governments of the world to reach out to the Syrian authorities immediately and urge them to reveal Bassel’s condition and location to his family and legal representatives, and to exercise clemency in his case.

Bassel’s detention is arbitrary and in violation of international human rights law. The refusal of the authorities to reveal his whereabouts is an enforced disappearance. His prosecution do not meet the standards of a fair trial. Bassel can and should be unconditionally released to the care of his family.

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Creative Commons Toolkit for Business

Timothy Vollmer, November 13th, 2015

Guest post by Fátima São Simão, CC Portugal Public Lead; Teresa Nobre, CC Portugal Legal Lead

CC Toolkit for Business Handouts
CC Toolkit for Business Posters
CC Open Business Model Canvas

At the 2013 CC Global Summit in Buenos Aires, Creative Commons launched the CC Toolkits Project, an initiative aimed at developing, collecting, and organizing informational and support resources about CC. As part of that project, CC Portugal proposed to develop a toolkit to help promote the use of CC licenses in business. And last month at the 2015 Global Summit in Seoul, we presented the first “tools” to be included in the business-focused toolkit, including a handout, poster, and short video.

We were particularly interested in developing this project for two main reasons:

  • Portugal is a European country in a deep economic crisis for the last several years. Being a small economy (our population is about 10 million), its companies need as many resources as possible to gain and maintain their access to international markets.
  • We are an economist and a lawyer with experience, respectively, in business development and legal consultancy for the creative industries.

We’re very thankful for the contributions and valuable input from Paul Stacey, Eric Steuer, Sarah Pearson, Ryan Merkley, John Weitzmann, and Gwen Franck.

Why a CC Toolkit for Business?

Even if the uses of CC seem relatively clear to artists and creators, the licenses have been more difficult to justify when the authors’ activities involve commercial interests. The main goal of the CC Toolkit for Business is to allow companies to understand why the use of CC licenses can be an interesting instrument to consider in their business model.

Why Use CC Licenses in Business?

As Paul Stacey puts it, Creative Commons licenses amplify the affordances of digital technology and provide an enhanced means for social production in the networked economy. CC licenses do this by:

  • removing artificial scarcity constraints;
  • removing barriers to access;
  • enabling rapid distribution and use;
  • allowing for customization, personalization, adaptation, translation, and localization;
  • providing a means for mass participation: fellow creators, end users, customers, and partners can contribute their expertise, suggest improvements, add new features, make enhancements, create derivatives, and ensure currency;
  • distributing production, and making it possible to produce work faster, generate work of greater breadth and depth, innovate, and increase quality; and
  • creating materials that are part of a shared global commons from which resources can be extracted for local use and to which local resources can be contributed.

The 6 Economic Benefits Identified

The toolkit materials focus on the 6 economic benefits of using CC licenses that we have identified so far: 1) reduce production costs, 2) reduce transaction costs and legal uncertainty, 3) increase access to innovation and reduce marketing costs, 4) increase first mover advantage, 5) increase “opportunity benefits” and build a reputation, and 6) promote sustainability. We examine these benefit further in this document. They are a work in progress–we think there is still room for improvement and additional discussion. If you are interested on helping us continue developing these tools, please send us your feedback to creativecommons.pt@gmail.com.

What’s Next?

  • The CC Toolkit for Business should also include practical tools (like the different open business model canvases CC has been developing), case studies from different sectors and countries, and a list of Frequently Asked Questions that will help to explain the pros and cons of CC licenses for business. CC Portugal will continue to work on developing the FAQ and other materials we find relevant to the project.
  • Creative Commons will soon publish the book Made with Creative Commons: A book on Open Business Models, as the result of an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign.
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US Dept. of Education proposes Open Licensing Policy. CC joins White House announcement.

Cable Green, October 30th, 2015


U.S. Department of Education Seal


Yesterday, Creative Commons joined the U.S. Department of Education (ED) for a series of important announcements that will advance OER in grades PreK-12 across the United States. ED announced the launch of its #GoOpen campaign to encourage states, school districts and educators to use Open Educational Resources (OER). OER, made “open” by CC licenses, will benefit schools in a number of ways including: increasing equity, keeping content relevant and high quality, empowering teachers, and saving districts money.

“In order to ensure that all students—no matter their ZIP code—have access to high-quality learning resources, we are encouraging districts and states to move away from traditional textbooks and toward freely accessible, openly-licensed materials. Districts across the country are transforming learning by using materials that can be constantly updated and adjusted to meet students’ needs.” – U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan


#GoOpen announcements include:

(1) Creative Commons will lead OER workshops across the country (with CC US and OER coalition colleagues) with thousands of district leaders to help them scale the use of OER with the goal to replace old, outdated, expensive textbooks in their districts with new, up-to-date, OER. CC will provide the hands-on help that districts need to propel them to a new model of empowering their teachers to create, share, customize, and improve openly licensed educational resources.

(2) Open License Policy

ED has proposed a regulatory change requiring “grantees who receive funding through competitive discretionary grant programs to openly license all copyrightable resources created with ED funds. This open license will allow the public to access and use the intellectual property for any purpose, provided that the user gives attribution to the creator of that work.”

“By requiring an open license, we will ensure that high-quality resources created through our public funds are shared with the public, thereby ensuring equal access for all teachers and students regardless of their location or background. We are excited to join other federal agencies leading on this work to ensure that we are part of the solution to helping classrooms transition to next generation materials.” – John King, Deputy Secretary of Education

While the CC BY 4.0 license meets this requirement, and it always better to be specific re: open license requirements (to help grantees understand and comply), and CC will suggest that ED require the CC BY license by name, the following “open license” definition looks pretty good:

The license must be worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, and irrevocable, and must grant the public permission to access, reproduce, publicly perform, publicly display, adapt, distribute, and otherwise use, for any purposes, copyrightable intellectual property created with direct competitive grant funds, provided that the licensee gives attribution to the designated authors of the intellectual property.

With this proposed open licensing policy, ED joins the U.S. Departments of Labor and State, USAID, and other agencies in adding open license requirements to federal grants to ensure the public has access to publicly funded resources. This policy proposal is the first major step the Obama Administration has made toward fulfilling a call made by more than 100 organizations for a government-wide policy to openly license federally funded educational materials.

This good news caps a busy month for OER where: legislation was introduced in the U.S. Congress to provide support for open textbooks, the White House blogged about how OER provides equitable access to education for all learners, and the U.S. government released its 2016 Open Government National Action Plan, which includes a commitment to expand open licensing of federally funded resources.

(3) CC licenses in new OER Platforms: Creative Commons is thrilled to be working with the following platforms and congratulates them for committing to integrate CC licenses into their tools – making it easier for the public to share, find and reuse OER. CC is actively working with these (and other) organizations to ensure their platforms and terms of service are compliant with and fully support CC licenses. We will make joint announcements with each platform when the CC / OER integrations are complete.

  • Amazon will leverage its technology and expertise in content discovery and distribution – and add CC licenses to a new content sharing platform – to support OER initiatives in K-12 education. Amazon will also provide infrastructure and developer support for ED’s Learning Registry for two years.
  • Microsoft announced new features to Docs.com, Sway and OneNote Class Notebook to enable educators to create, discover, rate, and share OER. The products are integrated with Microsoft Office and will enable tailored curation of resource collections, and encourage reuse by supporting CC licenses and metadata sharing. In addition, Microsoft will index content from the Learning Registry by creating a new app so educators can search and access OER through LTI compliant learning management and publisher systems.
  • Edmodo announced an upgrade to its resource sharing platform, Edmodo Spotlight, to enable searching, curating, and sharing OER – using CC licenses – with the Learning Registry. Edmodo will also provide professional learning resources for districts to curate, organize and share OER in Spotlight.
  • The Illinois Shared Learning Environment released a redesigned version of their IOER platform that makes it easier for teachers and school leaders to find OER by CC license and learning standards. Additionally, IOER developer code is available as open source for other states interested in implementing a similar functionality.

(4) First US Government Open Education Adviser: Andrew Marcinek is now working with school districts, education platforms, civil society, and open education leaders to expand awareness of OER in PreK-12.

(5) Ten school districts will replace at least one textbook with OER within the next year.

(6) Six #GoOpen Ambassador Districts will help other school districts move to openly licensed materials. These #GoOpen Ambassador Districts currently use OER and will help other districts understand how to effectively discover and curate OER.

(7) ASCD will provide ongoing professional development resources and webinars for Future Ready school districts committing to help train educators on the use of OER. ASCD will work with district leaders to support districts pledging to replace one textbook with openly licensed educational resources by next fall.

We look forward to working with ED on its new open licensing policy proposal and other exciting OER initiatives in this new #GoOpen campaign. This is another positive sign that both OER and open licensing policy are going mainstream!

Will your country be next to #GoOpen? Send me a note if you want to shift to OER in your country: cable at creative commons dot org


Additional resources for the #GoOpen campaign:

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White House takes another step in support for open education

Timothy Vollmer, October 28th, 2015


Yesterday the Obama administration released an updated version of its Open Government National Action Plan. Ever since the launch of the global Open Government Partnership in 2011, participating nations have made commitments to work on initiatives “to promote transparency, increase civic participation, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to make government more open, effective, and accountable.” Included in the U.S. plan is a section aimed at supporting open educational resources and open licensing.

Expand Access to Educational Resources through Open Licensing and Technology (p.3)

Open educational resources are an investment in sustainable human development; they have the potential to increase access to high-quality education and reduce the cost of educational opportunities around the world. Open educational resources can expand access to key educational materials, enabling the domestic and international communities to attain skills and more easily access meaningful learning opportunities. The United States has worked collaboratively with domestic and international civil society stakeholders to encourage open education initiatives. Building on that momentum, the United States will openly license more Federal grant supported education materials and resources, making them widely and freely available. In addition to convening stakeholders to encourage further open education efforts, the United States will publish best practices and tools for agencies interested in developing grant-supported open licensing projects, detailing how they can integrate open licensing into projects from technical and legal perspectives.

You’ll recall that Creative Commons and over 100 other organizations called on the White House to act so that federally funded educational materials are made available under liberal open licenses for the public to freely use, share, and improve. One way for the Obama administration to meet this goal is to make open licensing policy a major commitment in their updated Open Government National Action Plan.

The newest White House plan—released during the Open Government Partnership Summit in Mexico City this week—is not as progressive as our earlier recommendations. Still, it mentions open education and open licensing as important areas for action. And this type of work could help move the U.S. toward a default open licensing policy for the digital education and training resources created with discretionary federal grants funds.

Text of the updated U.S. Open Government National Action Plan (PDF)

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WIRED article highlights #NEWPALMYRA project launch

Timothy Vollmer, October 21st, 2015

Temple of Bel 3-D model renderings, CC0

Today marks the launch of #NEWPALMYRA, an online community platform and data repository dedicated to the capture, preservation, sharing, and creative reuse of data about the ancient city of Palmyra. The project features 3-D models of ruins from Palmyra created by Bassel Khartabil, the lead for Creative Commons Syria who has been imprisoned there since March 2012.

In today’s WIRED article A Jailed Activist’s 3-D Models Could Save Syria’s History From ISISAndy Greenberg highlights the project’s dual purpose:

The New Palmyra Project seeks to digitally rebuild those structures as they’re being physically deleted—and in doing so, put a spotlight on the project’s creator that could help pressure the Assad regime to release him.

#NEWPALMYRA says that it will “work  to source archeological and historical data, share it with the community, and output art exhibitions, salons, and creative works using this data to carry the rich history of Palmyra forward to new generations.”

All data collected by the project will be released into the public domain using the CC0 Public Domain Dedication at newpalmyra.org.

“Bassel’s contributions to Creative Commons have always inspired collaboration, community, and the sharing of culture and knowledge,” said Ryan Merkley, CEO of Creative Commons. “We’re proud to see these historical monuments preserved and protected digitally and shared freely with the world. Because of his leadership, #NEWPALMYRA will live on for everyone as part of the Commons.”

Visit newpalmyra.org for more information and to download the 3-D models.


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Read the story of Bassel Khartabil, Syrian prisoner who lives and risks dying for a free Internet

Timothy Vollmer, October 19th, 2015

The original article was written by Stéphanie Vidal in Slate.fr. It has since been published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Please attribute author Stéphanie Vidal and Slate.fr as the place of first publication by linking to the original article. The following has been translated into English by Philippe Aigrain, Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay, and Jean-Christophe Peyssard. The translated source text is available here.

Bassel Khartabil by Christopher Adams, CC BY 2.0.

Known worldwide as a free Internet defender and an Open Source culture promoter, he has been detained for three years and a half by the Bashar al-Assad regime and has been transferred from Adra prison to an unknown place on 3 October 2015. On October 10th, his wife has been informed that his name has been deleted from the prison register, without further information on where he could be. None of the parties involved recognizes they have him or not.

Bassel Khartabil, 34, a fervent defender of a free Internet and promoter of open source culture, has been held prisoner since 15 March 2012 in the jails of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. According to the opinion of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention during its 72nd session held in Geneva in April 2015, he had been arbitrarily detained for “peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression” and having “advocated a non-restricted use of the Internet.” Khartabil was transferred on 3 October 2015 from Adra prison, located in the north-eastern outskirts of Damascus, where he has been imprisoned since December 2012. He was taken to an unknown location, possibly for trial. Accused without evidence having ever been presented against him, he is more than ever in danger.

A developer recognized worldwide for his contributions to open source projects such as Mozilla Firefox, Wikipedia and Creative Commons, Bassel Khartabil was also involved in local action, based in Damascus at Aiki Lab, a place dedicated to digital art practices and teaching of collaborative technologies. For all of his work, he was awarded by the Foreign Policy website the 19th position on its prestigious Global Thinkers ranking of 2012, and in 2013 won the Digital Freedom Award from the Index on Censorship, an international organization that promotes and defends freedom of expression since 1972.

His imprisonment and his recent transfer deeply affect and concern the Open Source community and activists for human rights and the fundamental freedom of free communication of thoughts and opinions. At the announcement of the news, Jillian C. York, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization defending civil liberties in the digital world, posted on her Twitter account the following message:

In less than 140 characters, Jillian C. York managed to raise two realities: the frightening silence of the Syrian government in response to the actions taken for the release of Bassel Khartabil, and the protection power that lies in the watchfulness of the Internet users for political prisoners fate. On the first point, Ines Osman, Coordinator of the Legal Service of the Alkarama Foundation NGO, linking the victims of violations of human rights in the Arab world and UN mechanisms, confirms the impassivity of the Syrian authorities:

We have taken action at the UN twice, in 2012 and 2014, and the Syrian authorities have never responded to UN requests. This past April, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for the release of Bassel, and this appeal once again remained ignored. It is essential that the international community is calling for the implementation of these decisions, which clearly state that his most basic rights were not respected: he was arrested, held incommunicado, tortured, and brought before a military judge with false accusations.

On Saturday morning, we were informed that Bassel had been transferred from the Adra jail towards an unknown destination. Nobody knows his present whereabouts. We immediately informed the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances. We hope that this time, the Syrian authorities will answer.

When there is no longer respect for human rights, public calls can only state what one hopes for. This brings us to the second point: the more the affirmation of our hope is shared and present on the Web and social media, the more it may turn to a reality. Bassel’s engagement in favor of a free Internet may have brought him to jail, but the attention that we, citizens on the Internet, give to this case may, to some degree, help bring him out of the darkness. To demonstrate interest for his life is one of the ways by which people can become aware that in Syria, one can die because one uses a smartphone and understands how the Internet works.

Survival in Adra, even under the bombings

To tell Bassel’s story over these last five years is also to try to portray implicitly a devastated Syria, from the beginning of the Syrian revolution 15–18 March, 2011 (first calls to uprising, further to the Egyptian revolution; first “Friday demonstrations” and their brutal repression) to the slow transformation of this revolution into an inextricable armed conflict where 240,000 people have died and millions have been displaced.

Bassel by Joi Ito, CC BY 2.0.

Bassel Khartabil, who was forced by restraint to remain in Syria, is yet another of these prisoners whose total number is hard to confirm: one speaks of 8,000 prisoners, of which 600 are women, in Adra prison alone, three times its nominal capacity. Prisoners have been jailed in Adra for a wide variety of allegations such as drug dealing or drug use, murder or robbery, but it also detains prisoners whose name is known abroad for the engagement in favour of freedom of expression. Mazen Darwish, for instance, is one of them. He is the President of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, arrested in February 2012, almost a month to the day before Bassel Khartabil. He was freed temporarily on 10 August 2015 before being found not guilty of the charges of “publishing information on terrorist acts” on the 31st of the same month.

Detained under other charges, Bassel Khartabil was accused in front of military courts, and thus excluded from the general political amnesty of June 2014, which, though opaque, cleared many peaceful activists of the charges brought against them. Khartabil was thus still in Adra when the jail was stormed by the armed rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, who took control of two of its buildings on September 12th, a date that may be symbolic as it is the day after Bashar al-Assad’s fiftieth birthday. The prisoners found themselves caught between bombings by the regular army and fire by the rebels trying to free the jail. Bassel Khartabil survived this deluge of fire, but it seems that around twenty other prisoners were killed and several dozens, possibly up to one  hundred, were injured.

Again, when it comes to Syria, information sources are difficult to obtain. Numbers are approximate, speech is choked in fear, and communication is slowed because of regime surveillance. As stressed by the lawyer Benoît Huet in an op-ed published in the French newspaper Libération, the war in Syria has also become, in a connected world, an information war, raising the question of its dissemination and manipulation. Internationally, this information war prevents us from clearly seeing the facts in a media-pervasive but terribly distant conflict because of its extreme complexity. This should not make us overlook the other information war, which raged this time at local level: in the heart of Syria, personal information and content posted on social networks are used as weapons.

Syrian smartphones, fear in the pocket

The internet, and particularly social media such as Facebook, have been privileged communication venues used by the Syrian population to testify about the revolution of 2011 and the regime’s bloody repression. The documentary Syria: Inside the Secret Revolution, initially broadcast by the BBC on 26 September 2011, gathers some of these videos which, after their publication online, allowed the international community to realize the revolt on Syrian streets.

It should nevertheless not be forgotten that the Internet has not always been authorized in Syria, nor Facebook accessible to its population. As he took office after the death of his father Hafez in June 2000, Bashar al-Assad appeared like a reformer, demonstrating an open spirit in several economic and political domains. He even made access to the Internet possible but, understanding the power of the network, took care to have most social networks censored by 2007, followed by Wikipedia in Arabic in 2008.

From the start, the network was monitored: those who would go to cybercafés had to show proof of identification and their web history was kept, as explains Wahid Saqr, former officer of security of the Syrian government, to Mishal Husain in the second episode of How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring, as well as another documentary broadcast by the BBC on 15 September 2011.

It was only in February 2011 that Bashar al-Assad permitted access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The gesture, intended to be magnanimous, was quickly interpreted as threatening, because social network were also appearing to be a useful tool for the government to surveil its population and gather information on those who could, through words and images, be opponents. Employed as digital surveillance weapons, these social networks have been used to track those whose voice could rise, virtually or for real, against the Damascus regime, but also all those who had computer means or competences.

Dana Trometer, researcher and producer of the documentaries quoted above, could feel this dreadful reality:

People who I met for all movies on which I worked on the Arab world, and especially of Syria, have very often been forced to escape or have unfortunately disappeared shortly after our interviews.

Even today, on the road of exile, refugees explain that it is particularly dangerous to carry a mobile phone. This simple possession can lead to arrest — or much worse — by Syrian government representatives or ISIS members who ask them, at their respective checkpoints, to give their Facebook username and password to determine their political allegiance.

Bassel Khartabil said that in Syria, holding a mobile phone was much more dangerous than walking around with a nuclear bomb. Because of his job as a developer and his commitments to the promotion of a free Internet, it was impossible for him to get rid of his computers and connected mobile phones, nor to forget his knowledge of information technologies. On 31 January 2012, two weeks before being arrested, he posted the following tweet:

Wanting to build: the AikiLab and Palmyra Project

His role of Creative Commons lead in Syria and his participation, at the international level, in the free culture movement, led him to frequent travels abroad, but he would always go back home. It was in Poland, at the September 2011 Creative Commons Summit, that his friend Jon Phillips, who has since become the leader of the #FreeBassel campaign, saw him for the last time:

I begged him to not go back, that he would be killed or made a prisoner. He tried to reassure me by telling that maybe he would not be risking that, and that anyway, his friends, his family, his love was there, that he could not stay away. We cried and it was really ugly, then we spent the rest of the night laughing and designing a new world. When the sun rose, he took his cab, waved a last time through the open window, and I remember thinking that it was the last time I would see him; that he would be arrested as soon as he got out of the plane.

It didn’t exactly happen like that: Bassel Khartabil got a few more months of respite, during which he continued his local engagement. Syria was under an embargo, and only certain proprietary software was permitted to be taught in universities. In 2010, Bassel Khartabil thus founded the AikiLab, described, depending on the person, as a hackerspace or a cultural center, in order to allow education in social media and open source technologies.

Developers, artists, professors, journalists and local entrepreneurs would frequently visit the AikiLab space, described by artist Dino Ahmad Ali as a large apartment with two rooms where anyone could come to work and even sleep if the task was long, and drink a coffee or a beer in the kitchen to give oneself courage, or to relax. The large living room was fit for conferences, and Internet celebrities visited to share their knowledge, such as Mozilla founder Mitchell Baker MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito.

Dino Ahmad Ali and Bassel Khartabil were also colleagues. They were both working for a publishing house called Al-Aous, on Discover-Syria.com, a website providing cultural information on Syria — Dino was artistic director and Bassel the technical director. Bassel Khartabil dedicated years of his life to a project which was particularly close to his heart, the Palmyra Project. On a CD-ROM, this project was an ambitious virtual tour of the ancient city, fully reconstructed in 3D images from documents of scientific and archaeological research. “Initially, Bassel was only dealing with programming, but as a person with multiple talents, he learned to use the Maya software and began to produce 3D models,” remembers Georges Dahdouh, who joined the team several months as head of 3D modeling. “He also learned the functioning of a game engine to conceive the path of the virtual tour in 3D and at the end, together with other team members, he would work on every other aspect except for copyright and research, for which a team was dedicated to the study of historical sources and interviews with archaeologists.”

Oriented for a general audience, Project Palmyra was expected to constitute a sort of digital encyclopedia on this city, also called Tadmor, bringing its return through the gathering of images and texts and discovering new technologies involving specialists and archaeologists. Khaled Al-Assad was the director of antiques of Palmyra between 1963 and 2003 and a friend of Bassel Khartabil. This scholar was beheaded on 18 August 2015 by ISIS, before his body was exposed on the streets by his executioners and photos broadcast on social media.

Since the CD-ROM has not been published, the members of the #FreeBassel campaign decided to revive Palmyra Project by launching on 15 October 2015 #NewPalmyra, an online community and a platform of data storage, in order to honor the work of Bassel. The project is directed by Barry Threw, a digital artist and director of software for Obscura, who also contributed to #racingextinction, a video projection on the Empire State Building. Behind both hashtags is a similar desire to use architecture to raise public awareness by displaying endangered species on one of the most famous skyscrapers in NYC, raising awareness on climate change, or by putting digital technology at the service of a threatened Syria. “The Ancient City of Palmyra was a vital gateway for commerce and cultures,” said Threw. “With #NewPalmyra, we oppose the foolish destruction of archaeological treasures led by ISIS by the will of construction of a man like Bassel Khartabil. We hope this project will raise awareness on his work and contribute to his liberation.”

A civilian pursued by a military tribunal

On 15 March 2012, while leaving his place of work in the district of al-Mazzeh in Damascus, Bassel was arrested by men of Branch 215, one of the military intelligence services in Damascus. After having been interrogated and tortured for five days, he was accompanied to his house so that his computers and documents could be seized. He was then detained in secret for nine months. We know since then that he was first taken to Branch 248 of military intelligence and that he spent eight months in solitary confinement in the Adra prison. He was presented to a military court on 9 December 2012.

“The military court, specialised in trials of military criminals in times of war, reports to the Defense minister and not to the Justice minister. It is composed of three soldiers, including one president. Its procedures are kept secret, and the accused do not have the right to a lawyer’s assistance,” explains Noura Ghazi, attorney and human rights activist, who was engaged to Bassel Khartabil a short time before he was arrested. “Sentences are particularly severe and result in death. Penalties are executed immediately, preventing any re-examination of the sentences. Since 2011 events, when the military court was activated to persecute peaceful activists such as Bassel, Anas and Salah Shughri and many others. This is a clear violation of the law, the Constitution and even the founding decree of this court.”

A civilian without a lawyer on trial by a military court, Bassel Khartabil saw his trial last for no more than a few minutes, without any evidence presented against him, as underlined the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. After this expedited and unfair trial, he was immediately transferred to the prison of Sidnaya, known to be one of the most infamous of the regime.

Bassel was then sent again to Adra prison, where he could receive a visit from his family on 26 December 2012. They found him in an alarming physical and psychological state. He obtained the right to marry Noura Ghazi in prison on 7 January 2013. He has been detained in Adra until 3 October 2015. According to a message posted on that day on the Facebook page of the #FreeBassel campaign, he was “transferred from the Adra prison to an unknown location after a patrol, which origin is unknown, came to ask him to arrange his affairs. It is assumed that he has been transferred to the headquarters of the military police civil tribunal in the district of al-Qaboun. Once more, we do not know where Bassel is, and are very worried.”

Bassel Khartabil, developer, teacher and pacifist, who survived torture, solitary confinement, hunger and bombing, certainly lives under the knife of a terrible sentence. Do not forget, you certainly have a mobile phone in your pocket.

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