October 26, 2011 | Culture and Media, Science and Technology
Woman of the Week: Jillian C. York
Longtime blogger and relentless free speech activist Jillian C. York is fighting to keep the internet an open forum.
By Anna Louie Sussman
NEW YORK CITY -- While her peers were manning lemonade stands, Jillian C. York was fighting censorship at her elementary school library. A blogger and free speech activist, she traces her civil libertarian roots to an early passion for reading and writing.
“I've always been conscious of the perils of censorship,” she said, “right down to lobbying my elementary school librarian for more adult books because the kids' books weren't doing it for me.”
Her passion for writing drew her to blogging, a medium she adopted a decade ago when it was still in its infancy. While the recent political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa has highlighted the power of social media, York is quick to note how vulnerable the internet remains to censorship, something she discovered herself as a 22-year-old English teacher in Morocco. Upon moving to Meknes, she found that the early blogging platform Livejournal was blocked by the government.
“In terms of online free expression, that experience was definitely the turning point for me,” she said.
In her current role as the Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a watchdog group for online civil liberties, she monitors crackdowns on bloggers around the world, and keeps an eye on the Western corporations who sell the sophisticated filtering technology used by repressive governments. It’s the perfect job for someone who describes herself as “kind of reactionary” and “not afraid to call people out,” traits borne out by a sampling of her Twitter stream. From a recent conference on human rights in Silicon Valley: “This is rich. AT&T, which collaborated with the NSA to spy on US citizens, is now talking about how great they are. #rightscon.”
Before moving to EFF, York spent three years at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where she managed the OpenNet Initiative and researched a variety of topics related to free expression online. While she maintains that most censorship impacts women and men equally, she acknowledges that women are significantly more likely to experience harassment online, and some policies can have unintended gender-specific consequences. For example, a 2010 OpenNet report to which she contributed found that filtering software can have unintended consequences for women: governments who zealously block so-called “obscenities” in English and Arabic render vocabulary related to women’s health off-limits. Similarly, requirements that users identify themselves online – “real names” policies -- can affect women who may be avoiding an abusive ex-partner, as well as dissidents, LGBT individuals, and others who may need to remain anonymous for political or social reasons.
York, meanwhile, is allergic to pseudonymity. She writes prolifically, logging seven journal articles, 40 articles for mainstream publications, 155 blog posts and two academic papers in 2011 alone. Since February 2008, she has racked up over 58,000 tweets.
“I'm someone who puts a lot out there publicly,” she said, “and while I've experienced harassment, I think the tradeoff for sharing--for me, anyway--has been worth it.”
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.