Mapping the unmappable

courtesy Global Voices Screenshot of the Access Denied Map highlighting the Middle East and Asia 

The weirdest (and saddest) map mashup ever is the Access Denied Map. This ever-growing online map highlights countries whose Internet-filtering governments won’t let their citizens access the Access Denied Map. This hall of digital-censorship mirrors was created by activist Sami Ben Gharbia, who wanted to call attention to countries cracking down on and blocking user-generated content on YouTube, Flickr, Blogspot, LiveJournal, Facebook, MySpace, and Wikipedia, along with many other blogs and social networks.

Gharbia writes in his blog, “Over the last half-year, governments in China, Tunisia, Syria, Turkey, Burma, Thailand and Morocco have all cut off access to video-sharing websites.” His map shows the world with pins marking each region where activists report that they’ve lost access. The more sites blocked, the darker the pin. Clicking on a pin gives you a detailed explanation of what sites are being blocked, for how long, and which groups are doing the blocking.

Columnist Annalee Newitz 

It’s a handy way to visualize global censorship. Most of the blocked sites are publishing networks where amateurs can post whatever they like, in a variety of media formats, to personal accounts. More important, these Web sites are social gathering places. People on YouTube can form video-sharing networks with groups of online friends, and bloggers do the same thing with text and audio files. Blocking these sites doesn’t just destroy people’s ability to speak. It prevents them from assembling.

For the governments blocking sites like YouTube, it’s clear that assembly is really what they’re worried about. Sure, in some cases the content might strike certain regimes as objectionable. But what makes these seemingly innocuous sites so dangerous in the eyes of some is that their software is designed to help every creator reach an audience instantly. When you post a new movie of your cat on YouTube or your blog, for example, that movie doesn’t just sit there waiting to be seen. Your social network friends or subscribers are notified immediately. Everything you create comes with a built-in megaphone that yells right into the ears of people who want to hear what you have to say.

You can imagine how this kind of system would work in a repressive political regime. You post a movie of somebody being kidnapped by the secret police, and your network of contacts all over the world is instantly notified. They can download and save the movie before your repressive regime figures out you’ve done something naughty and forces you to take it down. But even if your government does force you to take down your movie, it can’t force people in other countries to stop republishing it. From the repressive government’s point of view, it’s better just to block any site that allows you to disseminate media to a group of friends: cut the network off before it has a chance to grow at all.

So the Access Denied Map is a map of places where people cannot network. And that’s a powerful idea – but I’d like to see it go a lot further, because social networks are being blocked by repressive institutions as well as nations. Within the United States, YouTube, LiveJournal, MySpace, and many other sites for networks are being blocked by universities, the military, and corporations. Usually the reason given is that people are goofing off on these sites or viewing unsavory materials. But I don’t think either of those is the real reason. These institutions want to prevent people from assembling and sharing their creations. After all, you never know where a network will go. A group of friends who share movies, with the right impetus, could become a subversive movement. Better to just block any Web site that would make such a thing possible.

The Access Denied Map we need would show us the places in our cities where people cannot network. I think the number of markers on that map would surprise you.

About the author Annalee Newitz (annalee at techsploitation dot com) is a surly media nerd whose plan is to keep the networks going until the bitter end.