As we say on our About page, Advox is “dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and free access to information online.” Breaking news about threats to free expression, privacy, digital activism, and access to information online comprise the majority of our coverage. We also regularly publish posts on Internet law and policy, the rules that govern our rights online, and campaigns promoting online rights.
What is the difference between writing for Advox and GV's main site? When writing for GVO, the primary goal is to introduce an issue or event by presenting a diverse range of online voices. The Advox approach is different: you don’t have to present a range of online voices, although you're certainly free to do so. Instead, the goal is to explain a threat to online expression and to help the reader understand how that threat affects Internet users.
How to write for Advox
With every Advox post, we seek to explain how an event or a change (in law, government practice, corporate behavior, civic action) affects the rights of Internet users. Use primary source material (screenshots, original data, government documents, interviews), evidence from credible secondary sources, and sharp analysis to build your story. Use quotes from citizen media if they help to advance the story you’re trying to tell.
When you set out to write a post, no matter what the subject, always consider three questions:
- Who is the reader?
- What happened?
- Why should the reader care about what happened?
Who is the reader?
If you want your story to have an impact, you have to convince your reader to care about the story. So ask yourself: who do you want to read this story? Our readers include savvy Internet users who care about their rights (but may not know a whole lot); human rights and political activists; journalists; academics; our own community; and plenty of other people.
What does/doesn’t your reader know? Why might she care about this story? How can you use language and concrete examples to interest her in things that she might not care about otherwise? Your reader may be a citizen or Internet user in a specific country, but it could be someone more specific, like the CEO of the technology company, or a government official.
Never assume that readers have heard about a case, or the people involved, even if we've written about it before. Answer the basic questions:
- Who are the people/groups involved?
- What did they do/what happened to them?
- When and where did it take place?
- Why might this have happened? You can answer this question providing speculation from experts, or with your own. This will vary from story to story.
A country’s current political climate is nearly always relevant to our stories – devote at least three sentences to giving the reader whatever necessary local context he might need in order to understand why the story is important. This could include political controversies, party politics, organized crime, social movements, or groups or ideas that the government sees as threatening and explain how this might relate to the situation in question.
Advox stories benefit from additional context concerning the local legal environment, as it relates to the issue in question. Are you writing about a long-standing problem? An issue that has recently emerged? A situation in flux? Devote 1-2 sentences to this type of context.
Lay out the facts of a story before presenting an argument about what they mean. Remember: the facts of the story will always provide the strongest evidence for an argument. If you want your story to have maximum impact, build a foundation of facts, not opinions or subjective ideas. Once you have done this, then you can make an argument that you may derive from local legal standards, human rights values, or other frames within the ambit of Global Voices’ mission.
Why should the reader care about what happened?
Remember our mission: Advox is “dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and free access to information online.” These core issues, along with the related issue of privacy and surveillance, usually come into play in our stories. When you're writing a post for Advox, ask yourself: How does this event (a website being blocked, a citizen being surveilled, a social media account being deactivated) affect freedom of expression? How does it affect privacy or anonymity? How does it affect a person's physical safety? If you can answer these questions in a simple way, you will be helping readers to not only understand the particular event but also to see how it relates to broader issues of online rights.
Source your posts with information from multiple websites and multiple sources. It is vital to our mission, and to our credibility as a site, for all of our posts to cite multiple, reliable sources, particularly when facts are unclear or in dispute. Be skeptical of all sources — while it is particularly important to fact-check information shared on social media, all media can make mistakes. Make an effort to verify the information you have before finishing a post.
- If you cite a law, policy, or government action, do your best to link to a source provided by that government, regardless of what language it appears in.
- If a news outlet reports that a government person said X or Y, check one or two other sources to make sure that this is true.
- When you cite a source, make sure it's the original source of whatever piece of information you're sharing. There is so much republication of content online these days that this often isn't the case. Make every effort to cite the original source.
- Don't plagiarize or use unclear phrasing/terminology that comes directly from sources.
Consider using “live” sources: If you have the ability to contact individuals who are directly involved with a story, or who have expert knowledge on the issue in question, please do so. Be sure to ask the person if they are comfortable being named as a source for a GVA post. If they are, note their contribution either in the body of the post or at its conclusion. If a person is willing to speak but wants to do so anonymously, work with her to find a way to acknowledge contributions of first-hand information.
All Advox contributors must adhere to our sourcing guidelines (see above). This is vital to our mission and to the credibility of our work. In addition to offering strong sourcing for facts and arguments made in posts, remember that you cannot make assumptions about what is true.
Example 1: In a post about the trial of Alaa Abd El Fattah and his sister Mona Seif, author Rasha Abdulla mentioned several activists who had been arrested under Egypt’s new protest law.
After explaining the facts, she wrote: “Activists in Egypt believe these cases and others are merely political in nature and meant to keep prominent activists behind bars while intimidating others away from the political process.”
By framing this as a “belief” of activists, Rasha takes the onus off of the government –she does not explicitly state this as fact. Yet to the reader, the message is clear – these cases seem to be politically motivated. By expressing a prominent view, rather than asserting a fact that she cannot definitively prove, she makes the piece stronger and more credible to a broader range of readers and decision-makers.
Example 2: Imagine that a group of citizens protest the arrest of the blogger. A week later, authorities decide to free the blogger.
- Do write: “Citizens protested the arrest of Bloggerama. A week later, Bloggerama was released from prison.”
- Do not write: “In response to citizen protests, authorities released Bloggerama from prison.” Unless authorities have explicitly stated that they are releasing the blogger due to protests (and we can link to a statement that proves this), we cannot assume that the protests were the cause of the authorities’ decision to free the blogger.
If you suspect that citizen actions led to certain outcomes, use subjective language to say so. It would be okay to write, “Bloggerama has been released from prison, perhaps due to protests by citizens.”
Reporting on individuals under threat
As a community, we must hold ourselves to high standards in our coverage of individual cases. While we must always strive for accuracy and reliability, demonstrable sourcing, this is especially important when we are writing about individuals who are under threat (from governments, organized crime groups, or others) for their activities online. If you’re writing about an individual or group under threat, you must consider how both government and other actors could use your words against this person/group. Make every effort to confirm information about a person under threat with reliable sources close to that person.
When you don’t have complete information, be transparent about it – use modifiers like “according to [source]” and “some sources say X, while others claim Y”. If you do not know whether or not the person wants to be written about, please speak to the Advox editor before drafting your post. Remember that misinformation can complicate a case or even further endanger individuals.
Making an argument
Our mission is to defend and tell stories about online expression. Some Advox posts take a clear position on an issue, which usually stems from our mission – this is welcome on our site. As with all stories, Advox authors must make every effort to support their argument with adequate sources and a clear explanation of the facts. We invite authors to articulate provocative opinions on our site, but there are some boundaries to this. For example, we would not publish an opinion piece that advocates for censorship of content that we consider being valuable to the public interest. If you have questions about our guidelines on opinion pieces, consult with the Advox editor before you begin writing.
If you or someone you know would like to contribute to Advox anonymously, there are ways to do so. GVA staff are working to create a guide on this for Advoxers. In the meantime, contact Advox Editor Ellery for advice.
What we cover
Popular Topics on Advox
Here are a few questions that regularly come up in our coverage:
- Was a website or page censored?
- Was someone’s Facebook or Twitter account attacked?
- Is a government using online surveillance?
- Was a person (could be a regular citizen, blogger, journalist, or activist) harassed, threatened, prosecuted, or jailed for their act of speech?
- Was a person punished because of private information that government (or other) actors obtained using surveillance tools?
Two very common topics on our site are technical censorship and arrests. Because these topics are so common, we've prepared special guidelines for each one.
Arrest and prosecution
Unfortunately, we publish many stories about arrests and prosecution of netizens who we believe are targeted because of their views or political activities online. Stories about an arrest or detention should try to answer the following questions:
- Who is the person under threat? Why might he/she have been targeted?
- When and where did the arrest take place?
- What events or activities might have triggered his/her arrest? These could be long-term (years of activism on media rights issues), short-term (blogging about corruption), or both.
- Was a warrant or judicial order issued for the arrest?
- Was the person and/or her family/legal counsel/supporters given any indication of why she was arrested? Subjects often get informal accusations when arrested.
If authorities continue proceedings against an individual and seek to prosecute her, try to answer the following questions:
- Have formal charges been issued? If not, write that the subject was
“informally accused” of X or Y. If you’re not sure, be transparent about it.
- Do not misrepresent charges – this can complicate advocacy around a case and even interfere with judicial proceedings.
- If charges or accusations link the case to specific national laws that authorities believe have been broken by the defendant, give a brief explanation of what these laws say and do. If possible, link to the original text or an accurate explanation of the law.
- If charges or accusations appear to go against national laws, or regional/international human rights doctrine, include this in the story.
Technical censorship and surveillance
When you set out to write a story on technical censorship or surveillance, it is helpful to think about the way the Internet works. Remember: the Internet is a network of interconnected computers that send packets of information between each other. All information is sent through the Internet – whether it’s a private email, a video on YouTube, or the content of a published news article – travels through pathways that can be both blocked (i.e. censored) or watched (i.e. surveilled) by the owners or operators of those pathways.
When writing about either of these issues, always consider the following questions:
- Where in the network is interference taking place?
- Who is interfering with (ie censoring or surveilling) the flow of information online – a government, a company, or a third party actor?
- If companies or private websites are involved, what responsibilities do they have to governments? To users?
Where in the network is interference taking place?
- Countrywide blocking: There are a few ways that a government can single-handedly block a piece of online content. Some countries have a single cable that links their local networks to the global Internet. Whether the cable is owned by the government or by a private company, it lies in the jurisdiction of the government and is therefore under its control. It is relatively easy for governments to manipulate or block countrywide Internet traffic when it travels into the country through a single cable. Governments can also use this type of infrastructure to conduct mass surveillance.
- Internet service providers: Most countries have more than one Internet Service Provider (ISP). ISPs are typically private or semi-private companies that provide private/in-home and institutional connections to the Internet. In many cases, if a government wishes to block a website or page, it will issue an order to all ISPs in the country. The same is true for collecting user data – governments often ask ISPs to do this work for them.
ISPs typically obey these orders, as they can risk fines or the revocation of their business licenses if they do not. But some situations are not so clear-cut.
Example: During protests in Venezuela in 2014, selected content on Twitter was blocked by CANTV, the country’s largest ISP, which is controlled by the government. It was initially reported that Twitter had been blocked countrywide, but users on privately-owned ISPs reported that they were still able to access the site. It appeared that the Venezuelan government was blocking Twitter on its own ISP, but had elected not to order other ISPs to do the same.
It can be difficult for a few users to determine whether or not a site has been blocked countrywide or only on certain ISPs, but there are some tools that can help with this. Renesys and Herdict both websites that offer reliable, nearly real-time data on technical censorship.
Who is interfering with the flow of information online (i.e. censoring or surveilling)?
This question is not always easy to answer. Although we assume that the government is responsible when a website gets blocked, this is not always the case. Typically, the location of the interference indicates who is doing the blocking. If you suspect but do not have strong proof that the government is at fault, be transparent about it.
What about companies that block online content?
Private companies and independent websites block and surveil content – and they are also beholden to certain laws in countries where they operate. If you're editing a story that touches on these kinds of entities, keep in mind the following: Anyone who runs a website, from a little WordPress blog to Google, has the power to remove content from their site. Most companies and most independent sites (even Global Voices!) have their own policies governing how content may be used, shared and stored on their platforms.
While the Internet often feels like a free, public place, most space online is owned by private companies. When you store information with Google or DropBox, express yourself using Twitter or Facebook, you are not only subject to your country's laws but also to the individual policies (often known as Terms of Service) of that company. If you are working on a post about a company, be sure to read their terms of service and other relevant policy documents. Google and Twitter also issue transparency reports that can be helpful too.
What happens when governments ask companies to block content from their sites or hand over user data?
Governments routinely ask websites to remove content or provide them with the personal information of a user to assist in a law enforcement/security investigation. But multinational companies walk a difficult line when it comes to the law. All of them are incorporated in only one country, with its own laws, to which they are primarily beholden. Many of them have physical property – offices, servers, data centers – in multiple countries. And they offer their services in nearly all countries. But not all countries have the same laws!
Geo-blocking: Some multinational companies, among them Google (owner of YouTube) and Twitter, have developed systems for “geo-blocking”, a technique that allows them to block specific posts, videos or tweets in specific countries, a procedure that may seem unfair, but allows them to preserve online content for audiences in all other parts of the world. Overall, this leads to less blocked content or less censorship.
US Companies and Court Orders: Most large online companies based in the United States now require governments that wish to have content blocked in their country to submit an official judicial (court) order to them in order to initiate a takedown procedure. When a government wishes to obtain information about a user of a product, it must obtain a court order and submit it to that company. Companies can refuse or challenge these if they suspect that the order was not written on fairgrounds, but this is relatively uncommon.
DDoS and other types of malicious technical attacks: Technical attacks on websites are a form of censorship that is important to track, but often difficult to study. Even experts often struggle to identify the root source of such attacks and mainstream media often misreport these. There are a few experts on this issue in the Global Voices community – if you're working on a story about an attack and want to learn more about the technical details, contact the Advox editor for help.
If you have questions about a company's policy and how it affects users, or how it interacts with the law, certain members of our community are experts on this subject. Ellery and Rebecca can help answer questions. Here are some resources on company policies:
Law and policy
In recent years, Internet users have become keenly aware of how national laws, trade agreements, and other regulatory mechanisms affect the online world. We've published posts on laws that allow governments to block websites with certain kinds of content, prosecute individuals for expressing their opinion, conduct online surveillance, and more.
Stories about law and policy online must convey to the reader how a given law will affect users. They also must give a clear and simple explanation of what the law says. Use a nutgraf to explain the basics of a given law.
Most of our stories focus on the exercise/violation of either freedom of expression or the right to privacy, both of which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These treaties, while non-binding, have been signed by most governments in the world – they can be used to help support arguments to protect free expression. Visit these pages to learn more:
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
- UDHR signatories/parties
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
- ICCPR signatories/parties
- UN guide to regional human rights treaties (Africa, Americas, Europe)
- ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (Southeast Asia)
- Arab Charter on Human Rights
- Asia Pacific Forum on Human Rights
We have some additional style and editorial guidelines for the GVA Netizen Report. If you are contributing to NR, please check them out here: Netizen Reports Guidelines
If you are writing about a complex issue, remember to use plain language — jargon or specialized language (legal language, for example) can make it hard for readers to understand the basic facts of the story. Omit the full names of government agencies or laws unless they are important to the story. Remember that your story may be translated into dozens of languages, so try to use language and phrasing that will be easy for a translator to follow.
Words and concepts to watch for
Ban, Block, Filter – which is it? Blocked and filtered are equivalent terms used to describe a website that cannot be accessed from a specific place. A website that is “banned” has been outlawed, and henceforth blocked. If a site has simply been blocked without any prior judicial or legal process, say that the site has been blocked or filtered.
Child Pornography: Pornography that features adults and that which features minors are treated differently under the law in just about every country in the world, but child pornography is illegal nearly worldwide.
Cybersecurity: This word means many different things in different contexts. Please avoid using it unless it appears in the name of a law/regulation or in a direct quote.
Cyberwar: This term is so heavily politicized and used almost exclusively by governments that it is a bit risky to use in our own writing, as it is very vulnerable to misinterpretation. Please avoid using it unless it appears in the name of a law/regulation or in a direct quote.
Hacker: The term hacker can be used in many ways – geeks who like to tinker with technology often refer to themselves as hackers, while MSM tends to describe the perpetrators of malicious technical attacks as such. If you use the word in a negative light, please say “malicious hacker”.
Internet and Web: We think of the Internet as a place, and hence a proper noun. Within the English-speaking digital rights community, the standard is to capitalize the I in Internet and the W in web. Please remember to do this.
Internet freedom: The term “Internet freedom” has been used to mean so many different things that it is no longer useful. Coined by the US State Department, it also has negative connotations for some people, particularly in countries where the US has sought to impose an “Internet freedom” agenda that often contradicts US trade and other economically-rooted policies. A “free Internet” is sometimes used to mean the same thing, but can confuse some people who may read it as “free of charge.” Useful alternatives: open Internet, Internet openness, digital rights, human rights online.
Images on Advox
Finding strong images for Advox posts can be challenging, as there is often no physical manifestation of the things we write about. So you need to think expansively when searching for images. If you’re writing about a law, for example, think about all the different kinds of activities/websites/people the law could affect. All of these things could make potential subjects for images.
Basic pointers for Advox images:
Show people: If you can find an image of a person or people directly involved with the story that is clearly labeled for reuse and you can confirm that using the image will not put the person in danger, use it.
Use graphics: The Internet is full of memes, art, and webcomics. These can be great alternatives to regular photos. Here are some sites that have lots of Creative Commons-licensed art content that ties in with digital rights issues.
- Cartoon Movement (many cartoons available for reuse – Advox is working to develop an official partnership agreement with the site, more to come on this)
- Web We Want cartoon contest
Show places: Most of our stories are place-specific. If you don't have images tied to the specific issue or event, look for pictures of Internet cafes, mobile phone shops, newsstands, or university computer labs, or other places that can be tied to the subject at hand. Even a picture of a city scene or landscape can work.
Use your imagination! Much of the news in our section can leave one feeling blue – but our images don't have to. Here are some Advox posts with creative feature images:
Campaign images: If a post addresses a specific campaign (for the release of a blogger or the passage of law, for example) you will often find an image associated with the campaign. Creators of these images sometimes neglect to label their images for reuse, but if our post supports the campaign, it is usually all right to include the image.
- Screenshots of error messages, block pages, comments on social media – these can be included in the body of a post as evidence. Unless the image is colorful and engaging at thumbnail size, please do not use it as a feature image.
- Photos of computers, cables, mobile phones – we all know what this looks like
- Text-based images of words like “privacy” or “censorship”
- Logos of organizations, conferences, events, etc – not interesting