Around the World in 80 Weeks

The path of a Google Policy Fellow from Dupont Circle to Dar es Salaam

January 27, 2016

Margaret Kavaras on Gellért Hill overlooking central Budapest
Margaret Kavaras on Gellért Hill overlooking central Budapest.

Since I completed a Google Policy Fellowship with the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) the time has flown by, quite literally, as I spent much of it in transit: on flights, buses, trains, boats, and rickshaws. My post-fellowship life has brought a surfeit of new experiences and travels that allowed me to apply insights from my time at OITP firsthand, especially in understanding the intersection of information policy and foreign politics.

It has been a unique and interesting experience living abroad and witnessing firsthand the ways in which information access, technology policy, and digital privacy are closely intertwined with the political process.

Following the completion of my fellowship in August 2014, I departed the US for Budapest, Hungary, where I took master’s courses in public policy at Central European University. My OITP experience attending Capitol Hill hearings, closely following the FCC ruling on net neutrality, and writing policy analysis provided a great foundation for studying the policy process and lent new insights to comparing US and Hungarian internet politics.

The Hungarian Parliament on a cold January evening.
The Hungarian Parliament on a cold January evening.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his conservative Fidesz party sparked mass protests when he attempted to pass an “internet tax” in October 2014. I first heard of the proposed tax when I received a security alert that more than 32,000 Hungarians were protesting in the square I walked through every day to go to class. After some research and talking to Hungarian classmates, I learned that the internet tax proposed to levy a $0.60 charge for each gigabyte of data used, and represented a string of legislative changes attempting to curtail democratic freedoms and transparency.

Hungary represents only one part of a global five-year trend in governments reducing internet freedom, increasing censorship, and limiting online privacy. However, in this case, protestors who took to the streets won the day, effectively canceling the proposed tax and shooting down any further alterations to the law. How did they succeed? By making the political consequence of passing the law completely unappealing to the ruling party. The internet tax served as a rallying point that unified the prime minister’s opposition in a way few other issues could. By the end of October, the proposed tax had been withdrawn.

Protecting information access during political change

Tanzania: A market street in Zanzibar's Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tanzania: A market street in Zanzibar’s Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Information freedom is a key ingredient to political freedom, a principle that US libraries actively defend. Sadly, it is a common trend that in a shifting political climate, freedom of the net is one of the first things to change. This phenomenon made headlines in Tanzania and abroad last spring.

In February 2015, I left Hungary and moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for a job as a research project manager. The employer I worked with, Digital Divide Data, is a social enterprise focused on hiring low-income high school graduates and training them in digital skills, which they actively applied to archiving records for contracted libraries, corporations, and I worked in the field research department and closely followed the passage of bills in March that limited research, data collection, and information distribution.

In 2015, Tanzania saw the most competitive election in its 50-year voting history, where the ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi was challenged for the first time by a dissatisfied and vocal opposition. In the leadup to the election, the government feared online discussion and access to unofficial statistics could increase the opposition’s support. They hastily passed a statistics bill that criminalized the publication of any statistics not approved by the government and a Cyber Crimes Act that allowed for the search, seizure, and arrest of anyone publishing information online considered “deceptive, misleading or inaccurate.” Such bills threaten the progress of independent journalism, academic research, and environmental conservation.

This past autumn I moved back home to the US with a renewed perspective on the ways in which what we access online influences what we see at the polls—a perspective to keep in mind as we watch the 2016 presidential election unfold. I look forward to my re-immersion into US information policy.