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The Canadian government is investing $9 million in a project launched by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs that aims to open up digital communication in countries ruled by repressive regimes by developing an online system that circumvents government Internet firewalls.

Munk’s Digital Public Square Project was first launched during the lead-up to Iran’s 2013 presidential elections to offer dissidents and human rights activists in the country an online platform to air their thoughts without being censored by Tehran.

However, yesterday’s announcement of funding from Ottawa indicates that what the Conservative government now calls “direct diplomacy” could be replicated in countries such as Russia, Syria and Iraq as well.

“Canada believes that by harnessing new digital technologies to support freedom and democracy we can help give a voice to the voiceless,” said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird as he announced that the government is providing $9 million for the project. “Through the Digital Public Square project, the Munk School of Global Affairs will create open digital spaces to enable citizens to hold their governments to account in defending freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

The Digital Public Square project will rely on technology to open up online so that people can articulate their interests, exchange views freely, advocate for their rights and share views on the policies that affect them.

The initiative will provide individuals and civil society organizations with increased access to global information and communications networks, improved connectivity with others living in and outside their countries, and support for citizens’ monitoring and reporting on human rights violations or political repression.

The Digital Public Square will help to:

  • Increase political accountability and transparency;
  • Support citizen monitoring of human rights violations;
  • Increase connectivity between a community’s global diaspora and domestic and international stakeholders to help generate and share alternative narratives on key issues of concern;
  • Broaden the number of people who can participate in active national debates, including marginalized or purposefully excluded groups;
  • Increase the access that citizens, civil society organizations and activists have to global information and communications networks;
  • Increase connectivity between citizens and civil society within their own countries; and
  • Amplify diverse voices, narratives and expression in oppressive societies.

This latest development builds of an earlier Munk School initiative, the Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran, which established platforms and tools that reached over 4.5 million unique users inside Iran, according to Janice Stein, former director of Munk School who will now head the project.

“Governments have jailed journalists, closed civil society organizations, and strengthened their firewalls to deny citizens access to the web. Using surveillance technologies, they monitor what their citizens post,” Stein said. “Why do they do this? Because oppressive and authoritarian regimes fear the power of ideas. Ideas are what they fear most. And for good reason. Ideas create change. Ideas are what citizens exchange when we push against the constraints that others impose.”



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