The Offshore Journalism Toolkit

With Mario Tedeschini Lalli, we wrote an application for funding to Google’s Digital News Initiative, based on Mario’s vision for an offshore journalism. I republish an adapted version here.

The Offshore Journalism Toolkit is a series of components comprising legal advice, software and how-tos for publishers who want to create an offshore publication vehicle. It enables media outlets to pursue their efforts to seek, publish and remember facts and opinions in challenging legal environments.

Many of the wealthiest Europeans have used offshore vehicles to legally optimize their tax burden. It makes sense for European media outlets to build and use offshore vehicles to optimize their freedom of expression, and their readers’ freedom of thought.

Overcoming time boundaries by linking the past to the future is one of the main contributions that digital technologies made to journalism. This central feature of digital journalism is put in serious jeopardy by new legal and judicial acts that are meant to constrain journalism in time, thus gravely limiting its scope.

European publishers are actually facing an unprecedented assault on their freedom to publish digitally.

The Italian supreme court has declared that news could have a preemption date, after which interested parties could ask for their deletion (read here). News websites have been censored by European governments without explanation (read here). How many acts of censorship have been committed is impossible to know. A ruling from the European Court of Human Rights declared that databases could not be considered journalism, thereby demoting most datajournalism to data management and denying it many legal protections (read here). The French Senate is contemplating an infinite statute of limitations for libel online, which would exponentially increase the risk of being sued for publishers (read here). A draft directive containing measures to counter terrorism threats may end up paving the way for the legalization of online censorship by the police without any possibility of appeal (see its article 5).

The Offshore Journalism Toolkit addresses these legal threats that seriously hamper the capacity of Europeans to seek, publish and remember facts and opinions by providing news publishers with a series of components comprising everything they need to set up an offshore vehicle.

Moreover, the project itself, not only its final tools, will help the journalism community focus on the ethical, political, and legal issues involved in preserving and enhancing freedom of expression in the digital era.

The outcome of the Offshore Journalism Toolkit will be a suite of guides and tools for news publishers that let them optimize their freedom of expression over time through offshore vehicles. By seriously limiting the threat that content can be censored by an administration or deleted by judicial injunction, the Offshore Journalism Toolkit will free journalists all around Europe from the straitjacket of self-censorship that is creeping through every newsroom.

The Offshore Journalism Toolkit comprises legal guides and a set of three open source software products:

Legal guides

Working with lawyers and non-governmental organizations, we will examine the current legislation and legal cases relative to the freedom to publish and store content. We will assess the risks of publishing offshore for both publishers and consumers, as well as the business implications of selling advertising on offshore properties.

The guides will address the following points:

  • How to choose an offshore location
  • How to set up a publishing vehicle in the offshore location
  • How to make the technological and business connection with the onshore publishing company
  • How to address and mitigate the legal and technical risks of offshoring

Note that the Offshore Journalism Toolkit does not let publishers evade taxes in offshore locations. When evading taxes, an offshore vehicle owns onshore assets, so that taxes are paid offshore at a discount. With publishers, the offshore vehicle would be owned by the onshore company. Furthermore, the offshore locations for publishers will not be tax heavens but freedom of speech heavens.

Software: a set of three tools

The offshore media

This tool lets a European publisher set up a simplified content management system (CMS) on an offshore server that stores their articles or a copy thereof. A checkbox is added to the onshore content management system of the publisher so that journalists can store a copy of their work on the offshore server when publishing.

Upon deletion of the original article (a recent ruling by the Italian supreme court hints that news articles should be removed 30 months after publication), the European publisher can redirect users to the offshore version.

Publishers willing to hedge against the risk of libel litigation (a recent proposal by the French Senate might suppress the statute of limitations on libel, dramatically increasing the risk of lawsuits for publishers) could preemptively delete articles on their own servers and redirect users to the offshore version.

Publishers would be able to add their tracking codes and advertising to the offshore version of their content.

Only text and images would initially be accepted by the offshore CMS. If the tool is successful, videos and interactive content will be eligible as well.

The offshore publishing vehicle will be accessible on Tor via a dedicated .onion address for privacy-minded users and for all users in case of the domain name being blocked in the home market.

The right to remember

Some people wanted content removed from search engines’ indexes ; European political and judicial authorities heard their grievances and created the “right to be forgotten”. Some other people would like to have the right to remember the deeds of the first group, but cannot anymore.

This second tool lets publishers list the stories that have been de-indexed from traditional search engines and allow users to search through them on the offshore publishing vehicle of the media outlet. Publishers will also be able to provide their readers with a monthly newsletter of the content that have been de-indexed.

The peer-to-peer archive network

While we can react to laws that have been enacted, we should preempt future ones and design a system that will preserve the archives of European news outlets. Autodafés in the 1930’s destroyed single paper copies of pieces content ; autodafés of the future could destroy all electronic copies of a piece of content and therefore be much more dangerous for the future state of human knowledge.

To address this future risk, we will engage with all relevant stakeholders to discuss creating a network of archivists who will hold copies of the archives of a media outlet. Participants would receive one or more small data storage units (SD cards) containing articles of the publisher over a specific period in an open format. In order to preserve the network from single points of failure, no comprehensive index of who holds which pieces of content would be made. Instead, it would use distributed indexing. Each participant would only have access to the indexes of a few others. Queries for specific bits of content would travel this network until the nearest copy of the sought-after piece of content has been found. While this search technique would initially be developed on a dedicated programme using the internet to communicate, it would come with a back-up plan in case the internet were to become unusable for such queries. This plan would let users can print their index on paper and ask queries to their points of contact using traditional mail or in-person requests.

This would make content retrieval fairly long, but it would ensure the survival of the knowledge published by journalists in the electronic era in future times.

The Offshore Journalism Toolkit offers innovators the guarantee that their content cannot be wiped out of the internet, or sterilized from use in the future at the whim of a censor.

It therefore provides the foundation for a healthy and risk-taking news ecosystem.

Most of the previous approaches to the issue of content availability have been user-centric. A project such as Tor, for instance, helps users access content that is blocked, but does nothing to prevent content from being destroyed on the media outlet’s servers. Archiving projects such as the Wayback Machine or are concerned about the durability of content, but do not provide an integration with the current infrastructure of publishers.