Taken Offline: New EFF Project Shines Light on Coders and Bloggers Imprisoned For Online Free Expression

San Francisco, California (EFF) —The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today launched the Offline project, a campaign devoted to digital heroes—coders, bloggers, and technologists—who have been imprisoned, tortured, and even sentenced to death for raising their voices online or building tools that enable and protect free expression on the Internet.

The Offline project initially presents five cases of silenced pioneers, including the personal stories of technologists like Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian programmer who wrote software for uploading photos to the Web. While visiting Iran, Malekpour was kidnapped, thrown in prison, beaten, tortured, and given a death sentence by an Iranian court. His case, and other cases of coders and online journalists imprisoned by governments for their work in the digital world, have received little attention in the mainstream media and online community.

Offline aims to change that by collecting these important stories and providing links and resources about what the online community can do to support them, defend their names, and keep them safe. More cases will be added to the project in the future.

“Oppressive regimes are silencing those whose work or voices they wish to squelch by throwing them in jail. Offline will shed much-needed attention on these technologists and encourage digital citizens to join campaigns advocating for their freedom,” said Danny O’Brien, EFF’s international director. “We see a clear connection between innovators who work to build an open Internet in relative safety and colleagues doing similar work who have been silenced and cut off from the online world we share. We hope to strengthen that association in order to help keep all technologists safe regardless of where they live or travel.”

Offline was created in response to an alarming increase in the number of technologists detained or threatened with prison for their work. Another example is tech pioneer Bassel Khartabil, a Palestinian-Syrian software developer who wrote and shared free code as well as information about his home country of Syria. He was arrested and charged in a bid to stifle access to news and free expression. 

“It’s a tragedy that our friend and co-developer Bassel is imprisoned, when Syria and the world so badly need his skills and commitment to open, peaceful collaboration,” said Jon Phillips, Bassel’s colleague and organizer of the #freebassel campaign. “Until he is free, maintaining the visibility of his situation is vital to shielding him from harm and keeping his spirits up.”

Advocacy and campaigns on behalf of imprisoned technologists can make a difference. Saeed Malekpour’s original death penalty was reduced to life imprisonment in 2012 after an international outcry over his sentencing.

"Cenzura2". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cenzura2.png#/media/File:Cenzura2.png

“Cenzura2”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cenzura2.png#/media/File:Cenzura2.png

“Our past experience has shown that when you shine a light on these prisoners of conscience, sentences are often reduced and conditions improved,” said Jillian C. York, EFF’s director for international freedom of expression.

This report prepared by EFF.