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February 27 2014

February 25 2014

February 11 2014

Privacy vs. Free Speech? Questioning the Conflict

Cartoon by Doaa Eladl via Flickr, Web We Want ( CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cartoon by Doaa Eladl via Flickr, Web We Want ( CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Censorship doesn't matter, surveillance is the real problem.” This was the subject of a panel at the 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting held in Amman, in January 2014 – it was one of the most exciting panels I have ever been on. I argued against this proposition, countering that censorship does matter and will continue to matter because it violates our fundamental right to free speech. But I also noted that surveillance violates another fundamental human right – the right to privacy.

Throughout my years as a journalist, media researcher and activist, I have seen many colleagues envision a dichotomy between privacy and free speech. But this can often lead to a dead end. These values can and should often co-exist without the need for one to cancel out the other. But occasionally these rights can come into conflict with one another.

Privacy and free speech are merely two of many other universal human rights, which also include the right to education, right to security, right to peace, right to religious practice, etc.

A typical example is the sensationalist news stories where paparazzi abuse their right to speech by publishing nude photos of politicians in their own bedrooms. In this case, the right of privacy is violated by the exercise of free speech. Similarly, it could be argued that the right of free speech has been trumped by the protection of privacy (and security) as demonstrated by the hiding of key information about the NSA surveillance program – information considered a state secret for its alleged role in protecting national security.

But most frequently I find that surveillance ends up becoming a form of censorship. When CCTV cameras are used to monitor user online activities at Internet cafes, users may censor themselves just to ensure they don’t get in trouble. This breach of their privacy stands in direct violation of their right to speak freely.

To me, nothing was more devastating than having the right to express my views taken away from me. It happened when my website YemenPortal.net was censored by the Yemeni authorities in 2008. It was an awful feeling of deprivation of one of my basic rights. I knew that I was only one of millions in Yemen and the Arab world whose right to free speech have been violated through censorship.

For those living in Western societies where free speech is protected with constitutional guarantees that largely prevent laws abridging free speech, censorship is not that common and so surveillance may be a priority. But for us in the Arab world, I believe we are still struggling to have our voices heard. I cannot accept the idea that the fight has now moved to the area of surveillance and away from free speech. While this may be the case where censorship is limited or non-existent, it is certainly not applicable to many countries living under authoritarian rule.

Privacy and free speech are merely two of many other universal human rights, which also include the right to education, right to security, right to peace, right to religious freedom. If we look back in history, we find that most of the time, the right to free speech preceded the right to privacy. As social animals, humans have depended on their need to communicate and open up to each other to survive and prosper. While the urge to communicate and exchange thoughts has been with us for an awfully long time, the need to have privacy is relatively new. But indeed, it has become increasingly accepted with the growth in populations.

It is unnatural for someone to prefer being in total privacy over being able to speak freely. The notion that free speech is not important as long as privacy is protected is unjustifiable.  After all, in a prison cell somewhere in a deserted area, I have all the privacy I need, but I cannot reach the world to say what I want. We were born free with a desire to speak out freely to express our grievances, needs and desires.

The importance of privacy for both Arab activists and citizens alike ought to be recognized. However, protecting privacy using a purely technologically-driven approach through the use of anonymizing tools such as Tor is not enough. Technology will not solve a problem so entrenched and complex such as surveillance and a technologically deterministic stance in that respect is not helpful – after all, in Arab countries (and many other parts of the world) surveillance is as prevalent in real life as it is online.

Protecting free speech and privacy requires more than microprocessors – it requires humans willing to rise up and change government policies, practices, misguided cultural beliefs, and other more deeply-rooted problems. One should take a more comprehensive approach where free speech and privacy –along with the other fundamental rights – need to be addressed, without comprising one for the other. I know that only by recognizing the complexity of the problem can we rise to the occasion and solve it.

 

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

January 31 2014

AB14: “We Must Stop Thinking That Technology Will Solve All of Our Problems”

This article originally appeared on El Diario, in Spanish. Translation by Ellery Roberts Biddle.

Empty seats for those who were absent from #AB14. Photo by Hisham Almiraat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Empty seats for those who were absent from #AB14. Photo by Hisham Almiraat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Those who live in western societies do not understand the importance of being able to criticize the actions of their government. This is a right we do not have in our countries.”

It was with this that Walid Al-Saqaf, founder of Portal Yemen, began a panel on censorship and digital surveillance at the Arab Bloggers Meeting #AB14 that took place from the 20-23 of January in Amman.

Banner calling for the release of Alaa Abd El Fattah and Bassel Safadi, former participants at the Arab Bloggers Meeting.

Banner calling for the release of Alaa Abd El Fattah and Bassel Safadi, former participants at the Arab Bloggers Meeting.

The political context for this event has changed dramatically since the last meeting in September of 2011, when bloggers and activists from every Arab country came together in Tunis, meeting under a banner that read: “Welcome to a Free Tunis.” Since this time, censorship and repression have continued. The ardent, palpable feeling of hope at the last meeting, fueled by uprisings against dictatorships in the region, has given way to difficult transitions in some cases and armed conflict in others, all struggles that we see plainly in the online realm.

“We must stop thinking that technology will solve all of our problems,” Al-Saqaf pleaded. “Censorship is here to stay, regardless of the tools, so we must stop being obsessed with them and begin to think in the long term.”

The meeting focused on the strategic pursuit of protection against censorship and surveillance, and the preservation of common bonds in a milieu that feels more and more fragmented each day. An on-site photo project featured a message from each of the participants.

“We watch the government, not the other way around,” message from Moroccan blogger Zineb Belmkaddem during the Arab Bloggers Meeting in Amman. Photo by Amer Sweidan, used with permission.

“We watch the government, not the other way around,” message from Moroccan blogger Zineb Belmkaddem during the Arab Bloggers Meeting in Amman. Photo by Amer Sweidan, used with permission.

This year, the absence of two participants from past meetings was especially palpable: Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah and Syrian web developer Bassel Safadi. The meeting was dedicated to them, journalists and activists detained in the region. A statementcalling for freedom for Razan Zaitouneh, co-founder of Syria’s Center for Violations Documentation, a group that documents human rights abuses, who was kidnapped in December in Damascus.

As a community, we have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with activists promoting freedom and exposing human rights violations in service of our shared humanity. We at AB14 demand that the UN and all countries involved in the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference establish verifiable mechanisms to protect and secure the release of opinion detainees and kidnappees in Syria.

These were not the only people absent. A Syrian member of the Enab Baladi project, a local independent media project created at the start of the March 2011 uprising, was sent back to Turkey after several hours of interrogation at the Amman airport. Two Iraqi participants were denied entry visas altogether. Restrictions for citizen travel between countries in the region remains a constant (at the last meeting, Palestinian participants were not able to get into Tunisia) a reality that contradicts the illusion of regional unity.

“I have no words, only shame, to describe how Arab regimes treat citizens in other Arab countries, while a person with a Western passport can move freely without a visa through practically the entire region,” wrote Abir Kopty. She added: “We will keep fighting until we are separated neither by borders nor by authoritarian regimes.”

January 28 2014

Arab Bloggers Demand Release of Rights Activists in Syria

The 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting participants support the release of Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and the co-founder of Syria's Violations Documentation Center (SVDC) — a non-violent civil group documenting human rights abuses in Syria since March 2011. Ms. Zaitouneh, 36, who is a co-awardee of the European Union's Sakharov Prize for her human rights work was kidnapped on December 9, 2013 in the outskirts of Damascus along with Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada and Nazim al-Hamadi, also members of SVDC.

In the 33 months since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, Razan Zaitouneh's work with her colleagues at SVDC became a vital source of information for the international community on the violations of human rights in the country. Now that the UN has made the unfortunate decision not to track the death toll in Syria, the work of SVDC has become more crucial than ever.

Razan and her colleagues worked in extremely difficult conditions, taking great risks in order to fulfill a vital task enriching our understanding of the plight of the Syrian people. So were many others, like our colleague blogger  Bassel Safadi – in detention since March 2012 – who worked on promoting freely available and open-source technology, and who is highly missed at the 4th Arab Bloggers Summit, which took place from January 20-23 in Amman, Jordan.

As a community, we have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with activists promoting freedom and exposing human rights violations in service of our shared humanity.

We at AB14 demand that the UN and all countries involved in the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference establish verifiable mechanisms to protect and secure the release of opinion detainees and kidnappees in Syria.

January 24 2014

GV Face: Live from the Arab Bloggers Meeting #AB14

In this special edition of GV Face, GV veterans and colleagues join us live from Amman, Jordan, where nearly 80 bloggers and activists from throughout the Arab region came together this week for the Fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting. After four days of training and discussion between bloggers, activists, musicians, rappers, teachers and scholars from across the region, there's plenty to talk about.

GVers Advox Director Hisham Almiraat, GV MENA Region Editor Amira Al Hussaini, SMEX Co-Director Mohammed Najem and Berkman Fellow Dalia Othman share with us their insights from this remarkable event.

Learn more about the meeting and read blog posts from throughout the week (in English and Arabic) on the #AB14 website: http://ab14.globalvoicesonline.org/

January 15 2014

Next Week in Amman: 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting #AB14

AB14 banner

Next week, bloggers, techies, activists and entrepreneurs from throughout the Middle East and North Africa will come together in Amman, Jordan for the 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting, led by Global Voices and Heinrich Böll and hosted by Amman-based media platform, 7iber.com. We are thrilled to be organizing this event once again!

Over the course of three closed-workshop days, we will discuss and learn about MENA region community-based projects that are advancing civic engagement online, and work together to build collaborative knowledge around advocacy, digital security, and policy issues.

We'll be lucky to have friends and colleagues with us from many leading advocacy groups and platforms —  SMEX, Al-Monitor, EFFTactical Technology Collective, and Free Press Unlimited, just to name a few. On our final day, we will discuss current political trends and challenges in a live, public forum with leading activists and thinkers from the region and around the world. All this and much more information about the meeting can be found on the AB14 website, in both English and Arabic.

As many of our readers know, the Arab Bloggers meeting has served as a critical space and platform for our broader community since its first iteration in Beirut in 2008. The meeting brought together influential voices from across the region, playing an important role in helping digital activists build a network of solidarity with each other prior to the Arab uprisings.

Today, three years after the ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia, the challenges faced by digital activists and bloggers in the Middle East and North Africa have shifted substantially. While in some countries the Internet and speech rights are considerably more free, others face continued and significant surveillance, censorship, and significant threats of violence or imprisonment. Uncertainty about the future and political polarization have made attempted transitions to democracy difficult and often times painful, especially for those of us, netizens, who supported and helped drive it.

There are many questions about the role of netizens themselves in a post- “Arab Spring” MENA — these have given way to frustration and uncertainty about what to do next. We believe there’s a need, today more than ever, for a meeting of this kind.

We wish we could invite all of our friends to join us next week, but limitations on space and funding force us to keep the meeting small — this also has the advantage of giving us plenty of time and space for one-on-one conversations and work in small groups. The good news is that meeting facilitators will do everything they can to make the meeting readable, watchable, and tweetable for friends and followers who aren't with us in Amman!

Please watch the official meeting website — arabloggers.org — and follow hashtag #ab14 on Twitter for updates, reports and insights from Amman. More to come very soon!

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