Free Bassel, Free Culture

On the eve of last year's Egyptian constitutional referendum, I joined a group of Middle Eastern colleagues in Cairo to celebrate Creative Commons' tenth anniversary, in one of over 30 such gatherings around the world. Many local advocates for an open Internet were in attendance, along with more than 25 Creative Commons affiliates from throughout the Middle East.

The room was full of excitement, not only about what Creative Commons was building together as a community, but also about the future of the Arab world. The room brimmed with ideas: ideas about using arts and technology to build a better Middle East, ideas about new possibilities and challenges for the region. But mixed with the excitement was angst. One man was missing from the celebration. In a way, an entire country was missing.

Since March 15, 2012, our colleague and friend Bassel Khartabil has been in prison in Syria, held without charges and not allowed legal representation. Bassel is an open-source coder and leader of the Syrian Creative Commons program. He believes in the open Internet, and has spent the last ten years using open technologies to improve the lives of Syrians. Not only did Bassel build the CC program in his country; he worked tirelessly to build knowledge of digital literacy, educating people about online media and open-source tools.

Our work requires us to spend a lot of time looking at nuanced details -- whether a certain piece of legislation supports open access to research, for example, or how to mark creative works for easier search and filtering. Bassel's imprisonment has been a stark reminder that our work is part of a larger, global ecosystem. For Bassel and others around the world who fight for open, a free internet is not a theoretical matter. Real lives hang in the balance.

Over the past year, friends of Bassel have organized on Twitter under the hashtag #freebassel, fasted in honor of Bassel, and written letters to Syrian authorities. Today, members of the community are holding gatherings and demonstrations all over the world.

In November, Foreign Policy magazine ranked Bassel at number 19 on its Top 100 Global Thinkers list. A few weeks ago, the Index on Censorship nominated Bassel for its Digital Freedom Award.

These honors illustrate how Bassel's detention is an injustice not only to Bassel himself, but also to the Syrian people who can no longer benefit from his leadership. As CC co-founder Lawrence Lessig wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "Mr. Khartabil isn't a partisan, aligned with one Syrian faction against another. He represents a future, aligned against a totalitarian past."

It's not hard to find examples of people who've fought for a more open Internet making a difference, but sometimes it becomes clearer in retrospect. Aaron Swartz, who helped design the original architecture for Creative Commons,spent the last two years of his life entrenched in a complicated criminal lawsuit dealing with access to academic research. In the past few weeks, open access has become a major national issue, with both Congress and the White House pushing for increased access to federally funded research. There's no doubt that Aaron's case helped direct the spotlight to open access, but he wasn't the only one. Change comes because committed people like Aaron work for it.

When change comes in Syria, it won't be because one side finally defeated the other. It will be thanks to Bassel and people like him, who use their intelligence and creativity to find new solutions. When Bassel is free, he'll rejoin our community to help build a better Syria and a freer world.