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February 27 2014

#AB14: If I speak out, will I be punished for it?

Empty chairs at the Arab Bloggers Meeting. Each post-it bears the name of a colleague currently in prison or missing. Photo by Hisham Almiraat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Empty chairs at the Arab Bloggers Meeting. Each post-it bears the name of a colleague currently in prison or missing. Photo by Hisham Almiraat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This post was written as part of a partnership with Global Post.

When we know we’re being watched all the time, what happens to our right to free speech?

This was the question at the core of a live debate at the 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting, a recent gathering—in which I participated—of bloggers, activists and scholars from across the Arab region in Amman, Jordan.

Clearly drawn from the fiery discourse that has overwhelmed the Internet policy world since the first Snowden leaks broke last June, the subject of the debate was provocative: “Censorship doesn’t matter anymore – surveillance is the real problem.”

The group assembled to discuss the new political paradigms and challenges facing digital activists and bloggers, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, three years since the start of the Arab uprisings.

Two security experts said they envisioned a future Internet where much communication happens privately (through encrypted channels) and the use of pseudonyms becomes the norm. If we can’t defeat surveillance, we must circumvent it, they argued. Because as long as you’re being watched, you can’t be free.

But this argument didn’t strike a chord with the audience as it might have in the west. Censorship is a very real problem in the Arab region, especially in countries where independent media are under threat and heavily reliant on the web to get their stories out.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 proved that news sites and social media can change what people believe and how they interact with their governments – unless they’re shut down. Walid Al-Saqaf, chair of Internet Society Yemen (and my debating partner), took this point within the context of the current moment, when (largely western) digital rights advocates are sounding the alarms, somewhat singularly, about surveillance.

“People in Western societies do not understand realize the value of being able to criticize one’s own government. We do not have this right in Arab countries.”

We went on to make the point – no news to our audience – that surveillance is ubiquitous in the Arab region. Most people, to say nothing of those who criticize or document government actions, expect to be surveilled – a guarantee of privacy is a distant dream at best. But this doesn’t change the fundamental need for dissent.

Surveillance or no, some individuals are willing to take the risk of reporting on an incident, filming a confrontation, or voicing an opinion. And in the end, censorship and surveillance often stem from the same kinds of desires on the part of governments – they want to control information and the people who disseminate it.

The Snowden revelations exposed the surveillance practices of the US government. Around the world, they left many people wondering, “is my government spying on me too?”

Internet users may not be happy that the US government is collecting their data, but in regions like the Middle East and North Africa, this is a foregone conclusion. The bigger question is: If I speak out, will I be punished for it?

The Al Jazeera journalists currently in prison in Egypt provide one among far too many examples – like many bloggers and independent media workers in the region, these journalists have been accused not of libel or slander, but of aiding terrorist groups.

The Moroccan government is considering a new blanket law that would punish online statements deemed threatening to “public order, national security, necessities of public service, or public policy” – often with web censorship.

In Gulf countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, criminal prosecution over something as a small as a Tweet is a real threat.

It seems strange to talk purely of policies for the digital realm in a region where dissent and even fact-based reporting, whether they happen online or offline, so often have profound real-life consequences.

Those who speak out are not simply fearful of being watched or of having their websites blocked. They are fearful of arrest, detention, prosecution, and torture.

The Snowden revelations set off shock waves in the US, Europe, Brazil, and beyond, sending much of the global Internet policy community on to tackle digital surveillance as a primary and now almost seemingly singular goal. But in a region like this one, where it is impossible to separate the threat of surveillance, let alone censorship, from the dire consequences it could bring in the real world, such a singular agenda doesn't quite resonate.

Still, just because we (as online activists) face different challenges from place to place, doesn't mean we can’t work together to help defend each other and support campaigns and efforts across borders, oceans and hemispheres.

 

This piece was inspired by many conversations at #AB14, including several with Walid Al-Saqaf. Read his piece on our debate and the “censorship vs. surveillance” dichotomy. 

February 25 2014

Arab Bloggers: A Blessed Generation?

“Your generation is blessed. Everybody has a phone now, internet is accessible everywhere, satellite TV is available in almost every home. What more do you need?”

This was thrown at me by a middle-aged Jordanian taxi driver who took me from the Amman airport to the Arab Bloggers Meeting last month. I was trying to share with him my frustration about the situation of freedom of expression in the Arab world.

Three years earlier, I may have agreed with the man’s comment. Today it seems to encapsulate almost all that is wrong with the way some of us still think about how technology can change things.

Surveillance Is Bad For Your Internet. Poster by Hisham Almiraat (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Surveillance Is Bad For Your Internet. Poster by Hisham Almiraat (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It’s true that communications technology has revolutionized the way we learn about the news or the way we spread ideas –or even the way we relate to each other. Three years back, it even seemed that it had finally succeeded in cracking the wall of censorship and fear that plagued the Arab region for decades. Social media platforms, blogs and the increasing availability of smart phones allowed a generation of citizen journalists to report and inform, while activists could mobilize and organize at a level not seen in the region for decades.

It seemed that people no longer had to worry about censorship and government control over the media. We were the media.

A lot of us believed that the mere access to modern means of communications had acted as the catalyst that allowed the sweeping wave of protests to continue, gather pace and arguably succeed. Today, not many of us are ready to make that unblinking assumption.

New challenges 

The challenges faced by bloggers in the Middle East and North Africa have shifted substantially ever since.

(By blogger, I don’t only mean a person keeping a blog, but rather anyone using the Internet for political or civic engagement.)

Since our last Arab bloggers meeting in Tunis in 2011, at least two major changes have occurred:

For one thing, bloggers are no longer expected to be “mere” commentators. From simple observers to active participants, a lot of them had to adapt to a new, more complex political reality where a lot more is demanded of them.

This called for a whole set of new skills and resources that those most active, most influential or those who agitated for the revolution didn’t necessarily have in store. They are looked at for answers, ideas, actions in so many more areas and ways than they used to be. And in a bitterly polarized region where things are moving so fast and so much is happening every day, the task can seem crushing — almost paralyzing.

I know that this has caused many around me to question their role. I also know that it’s been cause for frustration about the lack of resources pro-democracy activists generally have access to. Some of us just couldn't cope and gave up trying. Some even stopped being active online.

Secondly, the nature of the threats against freedom of expression online has equally shifted: Prior to the revolutions, governments in the region seemed resigned to the idea that Internet filtering was the primary way to stifle free expression on the web.

But now they seem to have learned a new lesson: Censorship may be cheap and efficient, but it is relatively easy to expose. Surveillance on the other hand is more subtle and much harder to identify

Over the last three years, electronic surveillance and interception technology have very much become the name of the game. A multi-billion dollar market has sprung up and many governments in the region seem happy to cash in. Today, with very few exceptions, many of those governments spend huge sums of money on expensive, state-of-the-art electronic surveillance and interception technology, most of it developed by western private companies.

Take the case of my country, Morocco, for example:

In 2012, the country purchased a two million USD program called Project Popcorn, developed by French company Amesys. It is said to be able to intercept and monitor all sorts of communications at a country-wide scale.

The same year, a Moroccan online activist group was visited by “Da Vinci”, a sophisticated virus worth half a million US dollars and developed by a Milan-based company, revealingly named Hacking Team. It is said to be able to compromise any operating system, take control of specifically targeted computers and communicate keystroke records and private files to a distant server.

For all we know, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Similar instances were flagged in places like Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Egypt. And the list is growing.

As a result, while censorship remains a major weapon against free speech in the region, electronic surveillance, with its chilling effect on free speech, is becoming a serious threat.

It’s no surprise that three years after the start of the Arab revolutions, the situation of online freedom of expression in the region seems almost as bleak as it did before 2011.

Planting the seeds for a better future

How are we coping with the new reality? Are there any new and creative forms of online activism that have succeeded in the last three years and that we can learn from?

How can we ultimately play an effective role in improving the internet freedom situation in our countries? And to what extent can we rely on technology to protect us online?

These are but some of the questions that participants at the fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting (#AB14) set out to answer.

For four days, the meeting (co-organized by Global Voices Advocacy and the Heinrich Böll Foundation) brought together 70 bloggers, activists, artists, and trainers came from all over the world, including from 16 Arab countries. Participants, like myself, were full of questions and keen to share their stories and skills while also anxious to learn from their peers.

Perhaps the most important lesson I left with is the idea that despite our broader access to modern means of communication in the region today, they seem to only work at the periphery and not necessarily as a major factor for change as a lot of us seemed to think three years back.

There’s a need to find ways to connect and combine online activity with the “offline” efforts of people who traditionally work to effect change in the real world. And that process seems to work towards change only when technology succeeds in mobilizing and organizing a broader and diverse sector of society.

Arab bloggers today are fighting a tough fight —an asymmetrical warfare, where it is no longer a question of access to technology alone, but also a larger, more fundamental question of user rights, of how technology is governed and whether it’s free from government interference.

The ominous feeling that someone may be looking over our shoulders makes it difficult, even for the most daring among us, to operate freely.

But this is not a lost battle. We may not be so blessed of a generation after all, but I feel like AB14, by bringing us together, has succeeded in planting the seeds for a better future.

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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