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February 27 2014

February 25 2014

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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 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

February 07 2014

Indonesia: Twitter Defamation Case Casts Shadow on Media Landscape

Screenshot of @benhan Twitter page

Screenshot of @benhan Twitter page

Popular Indonesian Twitter user Benny Handoko, @benhan on Twitter, was sentenced to one year of probation last week, after being found guilty of defaming a former politician.

Benny tweeted on December 7, 2012 that former Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) member Mukhamad Misbakhun (@misbakhun) was a crook who had stolen from Century Bank, the embattled financial institution at the center of a 2008 scandal in which lawmakers pushed excessive bailout funds to certain banks as part of a larger money-making scheme. Benny rose to Twitter fame because of his sharp commentary on the scandal.

In 2010, Misbakhun was sentenced to two years in jail for forging documents to acquire a loan from the bank. Misbakhun soon after resigned from his party and eventually lost his seat in Congress. But in July 2012, the Supreme Court overturned the 2010 conviction.

Misbakhun threatened that if Benny did not apologize for his tweets calling the Misbakhun a crook, he would sue Benny for libel. But the Twitter celeb refused to apologize, arguing that he based his comments on news reports.

Misbakhun later filed a police complaint against Benny, which ultimately led to the case brought against Benny. In assessing charges, the prosecutor cited controversial Law No. 11/2008 on Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE).

Many Indonesians, especially avid social media users, are voicing support for Benny. Supporters see his case as a sign of rising Internet regulation and censorship in the country.

Media freedom advocates have long lobbied for the review and even repeal of the ITE, as it is often used by politicians to silence critics. They specifically highlight Article 27, Paragraph 3 of the law which gives a person or authority the right to file slander charges against a person or entity if he or she feels insulted or degraded by a particular publication under that entity's control.

After Benny’s verdict was announced, concerned Indonesians immediately expressed fear that it would have a negative impact on freedom of expression in the country. They added that it might discourage whistleblowers from coming out to expose corrupt practices in the government and society.

For his part, Misbakhun advised netizens to learn from the trial of Benny by being more careful and responsible before posting messages online. He reiterated that free expression must not be abused by hurling unfair and malicious accusations against other persons.

Benny has yet to decide whether he will file an appeal.

Beyond the legal fight between Benny and Misbakhun, the case could mark a turning point in the future of Indonesia’s free media. As long as the draconian ITE law exists, it will remain a pernicious threat to Indonesian democracy. It is time for Indonesia to seriously consider proposals to discard the law and embrace Internet legislation that upholds international human rights doctrine.

January 13 2014

Hong Kong 2013: A Burgeoning New Media Sector and a Backward Government

Edward Snowden supporters rally in Hong Kong. Photo by Voice of America. Released to public domain.

Edward Snowden supporters rally in Hong Kong. Photo by Voice of America. Released to public domain.

Written by Michelle Fong and translated by Sharon Loh, the original version of this article was published on in Chinese. 

Many new media initiatives, both commercial and citizen, have blossomed in Hong Kong over the past two years. These newly founded online media outlets have strong potential to transform not only the professional media sector, but also political processes in Hong Kong, as grassroots voices gain more attention both from the public and from political leaders. Below is an incomplete list:

Burgeoning New Media Initiatives

Hong Kong Dash – a collective blog operated by student activists, established after the anti-national education campaign in Hong Kong in 2012

The House News – a commercial news portal, following the Huffington news model, curating news and offering commentaries to readers

Pentoy – the online version of local newspaper, Mingpao, commentary page

Urban Diarist – an online magazine to record oral history in Hong Kong, sponsored by an architecture firm as a corporate social responsibility project

Post 852 – a newly launched “breaking views” platform formed by a group of media workers who collectively resigned from a local newspaper, Hong Kong Economic Journal

Bastille Post – an online news portal partially funded by media corporations, Singtao News Corporation Limited. The Group's founder and chairman, Charles Ho Tsu Kwok, is also a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Hong Kong SOW – a social enterprise with an online platform that showcases the practice of “solutions” journalism. The social enterprise was founded by Vincent Wong, director of Strategic Planning of HK Commercial Broadcasting.

Some groups are also making use of Facebook pages to distribute topical news:

Tai Kung Pao: a distributor of labor news.

United Social Press: a page run by social activists, reporting and distributing news related to local social movements.

Online news outlets sidelined by government

With the new media sector is clearly increasing in strength and numbers, the Hong Kong government has been unable to keep up with the changing landscape. Many independent media projects have faced limitations on their work, particularly when seeking to cover government events — obtaining press passes has been a constant challenge.

Last year, citizen news portal's contributing reporters were kicked out of several press events by government civil servants. These included the second public forum on population policy and the 2013 summit on district administration. In another incident, Home Affairs Department staff barred House News reporters from entering a public consultation where HK mayor Leung Chun-ying was present. The staff claimed that the venue had limited space and was only open to the mainstream media. The Information Service Department, an authority responsible for handling government press conferences and news releases, has routinely refused to send press invitations to online news outlets as they are not recognized as proper media institutions.

In response to this out-dated approach, Hong Kong In-Media, an independent and citizen media advocacy group affiliated with, issued several statements demanding that the Information Service Department review its policies with an eye towards the changing media landscape, and to place particular attention on the definitions of the terms “media” and “news organization”. The agency has thus far refused to make any changes to its terms.

Technological innovation has resulted in the introduction of new media forms, from newspaper to radio and TV to the Internet — now an essential part of people's everyday lives. If we were to define the notion of “mainstream media” based on audience, many online news outlets would have out-numbered print media such as the pro-Beijing newspapers Wen Wei Po and Tai Kung Pao. It is backward and ridiculous for the government to limit its definition of “media” merely to printed media.

Malicious hacking a persistent threat

Although government restrictions are a substantial barrier for these new groups, online media's biggest enemy is hackers. Last year, a number of online news platforms weathered malicious hacker attacks. suffered Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks in May 2013, with a large number of HTTP requests coming from China. A few months later, in September, The House News became the next DDoS attack victim. Amnesty International Hong Kong‘s website was hacked around the same time. The hackers replaced some images on the sites with pornographic photos. SocREC, a social movement documentary video team had its Youtube account stolen in October. Hackers deleted over one thousand videos published under their account.

Internet freedom and privacy in HK and around the world

Government plans to pass the controversial Copyright (Amendment) Bill failed in 2012. To address public concern over the potential criminalization of parody, the government put forward a public consultation on the exemption of legal liability for parody in the Copyright (Amendment) Bill in October 2013. So far, major copyright holders and concerned citizens are divided in their opinions on the issue. But civil society has managed to put together a counter proposal calling for the exemption of legal liability on all non-profit user generated content.

Last but not least, the most significant event of 2013 concerning Internet freedom was the series of documents leaked by Edward Snowden that revealed the massive online surveillance practices of the US National Security Agency. As Hong Kong was the first stop in Snowden's escape route, Hong Kong In-Media quickly assumed a coordinator role in the organization of local support including producing a public statement and organizing a rally to condemn US spying activities.

Building public awareness about online privacy
Last August, the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of The Hong Kong University and Google Inc. worked together to launch the Hong Kong Transparency Report. The report showed that between 2010 to 2013, various government departments had made more than ten thousand requests for users’ personal data and more than seven thousand content deletion requests to local Internet service providers (ISPs) without a court order. A majority of the requests, 86 percent, came from the Hong Kong Police.

The Chief Executive's political reform package, slated to include universal suffrage in Hong Kong beginning in 2017, will be announced in 2014. As civil society prepares to exercise mass civil actions and independent press coverage to promote a fair candidate nomination process, conventional mainstream media are facing substantial political pressure to censor and tailor their content. In the coming years, we believe Internet-based independent and citizen media will play a crucial role in the democratization process.

January 09 2014

Prison Flees: Reflections on Alaa, Activism, and Community

Adapted from Alaa’s own Twitter icon by Hugh D’Andrade. Free for reuse.

Adapted from Alaa’s own Twitter icon by Hugh D’Andrade. Free for reuse.

By Lina Attalah, Chief Editor, Mada Masr.

He has two hours of fresh air and 22 hours of cell air.

He discusses the constitution draft with other inmates from across the wall of his cell.

And then he reads. He mostly reads.

He is not receiving letters this time. Letters are barred.

But he is receiving books. Some books, not everything. Some are novels. Others are comics. And others are social theory.

He reads both comics and theory because he believes that we are both plumbers and philosophers; we, the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. We work and work and work on bits and pieces and then sit back and reflect on the whole that our work is gazing at. And sometimes we write about it.

When the revolution broke out and everyone celebrated the kids that came out of the Internet, Alaa, who had tirelessly spent years on the forefront of organizing online activism, reminded us how our encounter with technology became a way of living. Everyone celebrated the Facebook, the Twitter and the Blogosphere. Alaa was thinking of the community and the way in which activism was changing and differing from what he had heard about from his folks and from tales of the 1960s and 1970s.

Alaa rose to fame with the hype of the Egyptian blogosphere in the beginning of the millennia, the stars of which have been mostly young middle-class Egyptians. He believed in this new wave of activism and created with Manal, his partner, the famous Omraneya aggregator, which collected and archived blog entries and which was at times the house of alternative expression and at others the amplifier of muted voices. He often reminded us how at the same time that he and others were blogging in the heart of our cities, the youth of our slums scrambled to buy locally assembled computers. This all happened while the government announced the forming of colossal partnerships, promising to provide a laptop for every child in the context of some grand 2010 scheme. He also reminded us how bandwidth was already being shared by hundreds and supporting the livelihoods of dozens in the countryside and the slums every day, while it took years for the government and its service providers to promise connectivity for all.

While he spent years building websites around causes and campaigns and developing Arabization tools to make that sea of knowledge accessible, he sat back and observed how our social and political work is evolving on a multiplicity of levels: organization, the production of narrative, and ambition. He would talk about this evolution, and eventually write about it, but most importantly, he was actively thinking of how Internet tools should serve these changes.

When we set out to create Mada, which we commonly describe as a product of crisis and inevitability, Alaa and Manal naturally became our technology partners. When they sat with us to brainstorm on the website we would build, they made us think about the different ways we want to tell our stories, at a time when a mainstream narrative is dominating the news from Egypt. Being both techies and tellers, they made us think of technology as more than a sheer logistical tool, and more of a vehicle of possibility. For us, web development became less of a list of technical requests but more a process of carving out a space for expression, where prose would unfold in performance, and so would the visual narration, and other unknown forms of storytelling.

What happens when you confiscate a computer from a kid for whom technology has become a trigger for thinking, an entry point to philosophy, to a new and emerging social theory?

This is not theory crafted by academics or theorists, but rather by the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. And this is theory born out of practise. The computer and the tools are no prison companions. But the thinking is. It is a prison companion for Alaa and also for us, who strive to fetch for his presence in his absence, through written correspondence, memory and imaginary conversations.

In his incarceration, Alaa continues to exist, by reading, by talking, by eventually writing and most importantly, by staying in conversation with us. It takes a leap of faith to be in conversation with a prisoner today. We do it because we are capable of imagining and because his thinking transcends time and space.

In the grandeur of analysis and punditry, we are deemed the losers of the margins today in Egypt’s dazed revolution. But we remain the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. That is so long as we read and write and talk and continue to exist.

This article originally appeared on Mada Masr.

On Alaa, Learning, and the Struggle

Alaa and Manal. Photo by Lilian Wagdy via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Alaa and Manal. Photo by Lilian Wagdy via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Egyptian activist, blogger, and GV Advox friend Alaa Abd El Fattah is currently in prison because of his work as an activist. This essay originally appeared on Jillian C. York's personal blog.

I don’t really remember meeting Alaa. I just remember that, from the first moment I saw him, how obvious his presence was. We were sitting in a room in Budapest talking to a group of academics about something or other, something about activism, and everything they said was wrong, in Alaa’s view. He raised his voice across the table, and I was struck by his boldness.

Sometime a couple of years later, in 2010, we became friends. I know this from the abundance of encrypted chat logs that sit in my email, when we started to talk once or twice a week. This was before the revolution, when he and Manal were living in South Africa. From the snippets I can piece together from memory and those rare unencrypted logs, I recall him admonishing me for not doing enough on X, chiding me gently for not speaking up on Y. One of those blanks was crypto itself. After one of those small but typical annoyances that come from using OTR, he said “OTR is a bit too demanding, but encryption tools typically are.”  I replied, “I need to start getting better about using them.” ”Yep,” was his response, and he was right. He would prove that.

Jillian booking a plane ticket for Alaa and looking exasperated because he didn’t know his passport number. Photo courtesy of Jillian York.

Jillian booking a plane ticket for Alaa and looking exasperated because he didn’t know his passport number. Photo courtesy of Jillian York.

When the revolution started, he was still in South Africa and could still reach his family in Cairo, despite the Internet blackout. I was in freezing Boston, and by virtue of my job at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, I began receiving press calls – the New York Times, NPR, Al Jazeera. I knew how Egyptians had used Facebook and Twitter to organize before, but I couldn’t reach anyone on the ground. Alaa gave me names, including his sister Mona’s, which I in turn gave to press, connecting them with the rare person who still had a means of connecting out. He filled me in, I repeated his analysis to press. He didn’t want to be the center of attention then. He wasn’t there.

And then they went back to Cairo, he and Manal. And a year of requests started pouring in: to speak, to comment on this or that. “I’m going to the Empire,” I remember him telling me about his first visit to New York. And then shortly thereafter, his second trip, where we met amongst friends at Personal Democracy Forum and drank a little too much and plotted. Later that year we saw each other again in Tunis for the second Arabloggers meeting; Manal was quite pregnant and looked beautiful, and at one point I’m pretty sure they both did a session still wearing their swimsuits. It was a happy, optimistic time. And at some point, sitting on a couch in the lobby, I convinced Alaa to come to San Francisco for RightsCon. He would stay on my couch, and they could send anything they wanted to my house.

For nearly a week before he arrived, I would come home each day to find another enormous package from Amazon. There was a stroller (“all-terrain 4WD” as we later joked), countless books, and a few pretty cool toys that we definitely played with before Khaled did. The story of what happens next is known: When Alaa arrived, he already knew what would happen when he went home. He gave an incredible talk, went to the Occupy protests in Oakland, and hung out with my friends.  Then he got on a plane and went straight to prison. Do not collect, do not pass go.

Alaa with Khaled. Photo by Rasha Abdulla, used with permission.

Alaa with Khaled. Photo by Rasha Abdulla, used with permission.

I visited Cairo for the first time not long after Khaled was born. He was tiny, fragile, and I stood helpless while Manal bathed him, already so obviously a mother. This was the height of autotune in Cairo and at some point after midnight, parents delirious from the beautiful lack of sleep that comes with having a newborn, we recorded Khaled’s cries and ran them through autotune, stifling manic laughter so as not to wake the baby.

The last time I saw Alaa was in Cairo. He picked me up across town at my hotel, and we sat in crazy Cairene traffic for three hours, the first time I’d ever seen him drive. I had brought a tricycle for Khaled and a fresh EFF shirt for Alaa at his request, and when we arrived Manal and I caught up while Alaa put the thing together, scrambling for its plastic parts. Later, the three of us went out with some of their friends. I listened quietly while they talked politics and revolution. Manal kept chiding them to speak English, Alaa remarked that by now I should be able to understand. I did, only a few words getting lost here and there. We drank tea until it got cold and they drove me back to Heliopolis.

These friendships come in fragments, but they are sometimes the best we have. And in this case, despite the fact the he is only (and exactly) six months my senior, the friend has also been one of my most important teachers, reminding me to take risks and not being afraid to tell me when I’m not going far enough, not doing enough. Chatting recently with another friend, who suggested that perhaps surrounding myself with perfectionists and radicals has damaged my own thought processes a little, I relented, but when I think about all that I have learned and all that I have been taught, I have no regrets.

I’ve said it to reporters so many times that it’s almost lost its meaning, but I’ll say it again: Alaa is in prison not because he committed a crime, not because he said too much, but because his very existence poses a threat to the state. Those who are bold, those who do not relent, will always threaten the terrified and ultimately weak state which must, to survive, squash its opponents like flies. But Alaa will not allow himself to be crushed like that, I know.

There is little more I can say that hasn’t been or wouldn’t be better said by Egyptians, those who fought these battles on the street while I merely watched, an observer with a few good friends on the ground.  But the one thing I know is that we must not give up.  Alaa hasn’t, and we cannot.

Inspired by Omar Robert Hamilton and Alia MossallamBelal Fadl, and Lina Attalah who have written their own beautiful pieces about our shared friend.

December 30 2013

In the Internet Policy World, Who Gets to be Civil Society?

Global Voices members meet at IGF 2013 in Bali, Indonesia. Photo by Hisham Almiraat, used with permission.

Global Voices members meet at IGF 2013 in Bali, Indonesia. Photo by Hisham Almiraat, used with permission.

Written by Ellery Roberts Biddle, with inspiration from Hisham Almiraat.

There was plenty of hot air at the 2013 Internet Governance Forum, both on the beach and in the Nusa Dua Conference Center. Held this year in Bali, Indonesia, the UN-sponsored IGF is almost entirely open—save for a few “high level” meetings, anyone can attend and ask questions at whatever session they wish. Experts and advocates come to talk about everything from access and infrastructure, to industry regulations, to child protection, to the exercise and protection of human rights online.

During this four-day circus of workshops, panels and coffee-fueled hallway chatter, Advox Director Hisham and I attended many sessions on the issues we care most deeply about: free expression, privacy, and other fundamental rights in the digital environment. Panelists spoke of human rights, but typically through a lens of principles and doctrine—real stories about user experience seemed few and far between. There was plenty of talk about human rights—but not so much about human beings.

During Global Voices’ brief session we explained our mission: to tell stories about people who use the Internet for a civic purpose. When we opened the floor for questions, activists from a diverse range of countries—Azerbaijan, Sudan, Mexico, and Morocco, to name a few—all shared stories of colleagues who had been harassed, arrested, or worse because of their actions online. As the conversation continued, we discovered we had all been feeling slightly out of place at the conference. Why weren't there more conversations like the one we'd just had?

At a meeting that prides itself on openness and an emphasis on civil society (i.e. the public), you might think this kind of omission wouldn't happen. These issues are supposed to the bread and butter of Internet rights groups. Yet time after time, I watched my colleagues point to human rights violations in discussions with “civil society” representatives, and the typical response was polite and dispassionate. One got the impression that it was seen as immature or obvious to speak of actual human rights violations. It was as if the majority of attendees, many of them IGF “veterans,” had decided this was understood and therefore no longer worthy of discussion.

This raised a few questions.

First, who exactly makes up civil society? By IGF standards, anyone who wishes to may attend the meeting as a representative of the public interest. Of course, with a few exceptions, there are no processes by which the public can elect Internet policy representatives. Civil society members typically attend as individuals or on behalf of an NGO or academic institution with a policy agenda that seeks (or at least claims) to serve the public interest.

How can we be sure they mean it? There is no official process for determining the legitimacy of this claim. And this is probably not a bad thing—if the act of deciding who represents the public interest were to become bureaucratized, the bulk of “civil society” would probably look and sound more government-like than it currently does. So the proof is in the pudding—over time, a group's actions typically make it clear where their priorities lie. And groups are often dissolved or excluded from conversations if their motives seem especially dubious.

In the end, civil society at the IGF is a mishmosh of people, most of whom do care about the public interest, but are often sidetracked by competing priorities such as funding, personal politics, and media attention. Within this group, principles and process are often the tie that binds. Individuals who I know and respect have spent years working on documents like the Internet Rights & Principles charter, a critical act of leadership within the Internet governance world, but something that does not exactly cut at the heart of human rights challenges facing Internet users in many countries every day.

In a session that our colleague Reem Al Masri dissected beautifully in a previous post, a representative from the Arab League explained that we cannot address human rights violations until we've determined a process and approach that all entities (governments, industry, and civil society) agree with. This is a bad answer—in so many national contexts, this is not possible. Organizations that claim to represent civil society could spend infinite quantities of time and money working to perfect process. And those who claim to represent civil society while working almost wholly in the interests of the government can continue to push state agendas. In the meantime, the fate of the Internet and the users that these organizations claim to represent will be sealed. National-level policy will move in whatever direction the more powerful government and corporate entities want it to—they understand how it affects them and they have the time, money, and institutional muscle to make things change.

At a broad scale, it makes me wonder what this means for Internet policymaking in much of the world. If those who claim to represent the public choose not to address the worst violations of human rights in their respective countries or regions, what will become of the world's most vulnerable online speakers?

I recognize that there are many pressing issues that bring people to this event, and I don't think it would be practical for all of us to focus only on those online speakers whose circumstances are most dire. But I fear that process and principles may be taking up more than their fair share of the agenda, while individuals most in need are getting short shrift. I don't know why this is, but I suspect that after years of attempting to work on Internet-related policy with bureaucrats and corporates, civil society has found that working on process and principle can lead to real outcomes, while trying to change blasphemy laws or surveillance practices feels like banging one's head against a wall.

Apart from a few statements of support for one initiative or condemnation of another, no policies or laws are actually made at IGF—the conference is literally all talk. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it depends on what you talk about.

If your organization has enough money to send you to Bali to talk about Internet policy for five days, do some talking that is worthwhile. If we attend IGF next year, I think we will make a point of listening to the stories of human beings, and working to protect the rights they need and deserve.


A Different Kind of Free Speech

Political demonstration in Azerbaijan. Photo by Jahangir Yusif, used with permission.

Political demonstration in Azerbaijan. Photo by Jahangir Yusif, used with permission.

Today is the birthday of the friend of the youth, our Mr. President. I sincerely congratulate you on behalf of “Azerbaijani Youth Alliance” public union and myself. I wish you lots of luck in all the work you do for turning our Azerbaijan in the worlds most strongest states! We are proud of you!

She was wishing him a happy birthday, on Facebook. The man’s whose birthday she was so candidly celebrating was Ilham Aliyev, the current President of a small country called Azerbaijan. She is a young woman from Baku who works for a government institution.

Reading the message was heart wrenching. At the time of its writing, there are people behind bars for doing something not unlike what this user was doing – expressing their opinions. Perhaps this young woman doesn’t know them, but I do. They are not hooligans or terrorists — they represent no threat. They are innocent men who have families and friends waiting for them to get out.

According to the Baku-based Human Rights Club, currently there are 142 people “in detention or imprisoned for politically motivated reasons” in Azerbaijan. The comprehensive list includes the names of journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, activists, religious figures and others. To be more precise, this group includes ten journalists and bloggers; two human rights defenders; eleven youth activists (so much for the caring love and compassion of the president); six political activists; seventy-four religious activists; seventeen people (of various background including police, former employees of the executive authorities, militia, and former prime ministers) serving lifetime prison sentences; and nineteen cases involving other politically motivated charges.

On December 18 of this year, Anar Mammadli, chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) landed behind bars on charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship (failure to obtain proper institutional permits) and “abuse of office” (Criminal Code Article 308.3), suggesting that he sought to interfere with election results. Mammadli’s arrest was seen as yet another politically motivated move by the government.

The EMDS Center is one of the few independent election observation bodies that does transparent work and publishes its findings in Azerbaijan. When the case against EMDS was originally brought in late October, following national elections, the Center’s offices were searched and equipment, reports, news releases and financial documents were confiscated.

Overall, 2013 was not a good year for human rights in Azerbaijan. While many protests shook the country starting in early January of this year, organizers and participants in these protests are now paying a high price for their activism. Advocates who share information with foreign media and international institutions have been warned. In a recent speech in Baku, Ali Hasanov, a senior political aid and regime loyalist argued that it is the “Western influence” and so-called “donor grants” that are corrupting the minds of Azerbaijanis and letting them “engage in an anti- Azerbaijani activity for some AZN 2,000-3,000 (approximately EUR 2,000-3,000).”

Last year, Azerbaijan hosted the 7th international Internet Governance Forum — the annual multistakeholder meeting organized by the United Nations to discuss public policy issues related to the Internet. Many government representatives attending the event repeated over and over again that human rights, press freedom and Internet freedom were all doing just fine in Azerbaijan. Ironically, as over 1500 international delegates attended the event, at least eight journalists and three human rights defenders were serving prison terms for criticizing public officials and for writing on sensitive government issues. All were sentenced on dubious charges.

A year later, similar remarks and statements were heard during the 8th annual Internet Governance Forum, held in Bali, Indonesia. A session titled “Azerbaijani government open forum building bridges: elimination of the digital divide” brought together a panel of like-minded people praising each other and commenting on successful partnership rather than on the pressing issues in Azerbaijan. This affable atmosphere was interrupted with a question from the audience on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and government persecution of activists. Nariman Hajiyev, an Azerbaijani government representative to the United Nations, responded: “I could easily say there are no concrete human rights violations or concrete freedom of speech [violations].”

The Azerbaijani government is working hard to present a rosy picture of our country abroad. Government supporters — like the young woman wishing Aliyev a happy birthday — have helped this effort. Like anyone else, she used the Internet to express her views on government activities — she’s exercising her right to free speech. But this woman will not find herself in jail. She will get a pat on a shoulder and a golden star for her immaculate behavior. How many more gold stars will be issued and innocent lives ruined before things really change?


Arzu Geybullayeva is an Azerbaijani blogger and regional analyst based in Istanbul.

December 01 2013

Lifting the Lid on China's Censorship

China has the world's most sophisticated censorship mechanism, and it can be very difficult for outsiders to understand how it works and what exactly is censored.

Several projects are devoted to shedding light on the situation by studying Sina Weibo, the most influential social media platform in China with more than 500 million registered users and 54 million daily active users, according to June 2013 figures. The China Digital Times has a “Ministry of Truth” section that collects directives from the country's propaganda authorities to media outlets and censored terms in Sina Weibo's search engine.

What does China censor online? Image from flickr @</a><a href=social Media Max (CC: NC-SA-AT)" class="size-full wp-image-16121" height="434" src="" width="640" />

What does China censor online? Image from flickr @social Media Max (CC: NC-SA-AT)

WeiboScope through the Hong Kong University School of Journalism and Media Studies keeps track of the microblogs of 10,000 Weibo users with 10,000 or more followers and creates backups of those that are deleted. WeiboScope has opened their data for others to develop their own censorship monitoring projects, such as Free Weibo, which creates backups of censored microblogs and makes them available for search. Recently, Free Weibo developed a mobile app for mainland Chinese users to check out what has been censored.

The latest attempt to track Sina Weibo's censorship is ProPublica's Memory Hole project. It uses software to monitor a set of 100 Weibo user accounts to detect censored images and visualize the censored content. As one might imagine, political speech is the largest category of censored images. The meaning of “political speech” covers everything from criticism of the Chinese government and calls for social justice to alternative interpretations of historical events.

In fact, other censored image categories that appear in the Memory Hole project, such as Dissidents and Public Figures, Protests, Scandals & Corruption, Censorship (meaning content that reveals what has been censored), and Cartoon & Humor, are all considered to be challenges to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, the major concern behind the party's recent call for online ideological battle.

All of the above research projects provide a brilliant overview of the country's censorship, but the data comes primarily from online opinion leaders — influential social media users who set the agenda and lead online conversation — and there is little information on how censorship affects grassroots initiatives. Community-based journalism on sensitive topics such as forced land acquisition, pollution, natural disasters, confrontations between street vendors and police, and small-scale protests against local authorities is also a vital part of the online conversation. Such content, often distributed by social media users who are not very active and have relatively few followers, might not catch the attention of opinion leaders on the national level, but the information has influence on the local level and is more directly connected with community-based social action.

Because the attention of Chinese web censors is focused more on national incidents that challenge the party's legitimacy, they tend to monitor celebrities who are capable of stoking public discussion nationwide, as well as hot topics that are already being discussed publicly throughout the country. Political deliberation in the national public sphere has been described as a process of “authoritative deliberation” in which public opinion leaders act as the main channels of public opinion for the central government and so are able to pressure authorities for change.

However, apart from the national public sphere, social media has also enhanced the growth of regional-, community-, identity- and issue-based public spheres. A large number of non-verified microbloggers or those with fewer followers are active in publishing local news and witness accounts of incidents on Weibo, and they seem to run less of a risk of censorship until their posts go viral. Furthermore, some users, in order to spread their news, are engaged in a kind of online guerrilla warfare by making use of a number of non-verified accounts on different microblogging platforms. As most of the censorship monitoring projects are focused on the verified and influential users, how the censors deal with the more distributive grassroots sources is yet to be unveiled.

With the Chinese Communist Party refining its censorship strategy from filtering and deleting content post-publication to self-censorship by introducing new laws and regulations, such as the most recent rumor law, there has been a massive migration of netizens from Weibo to more private platforms such as WeChat. While WeChat also has a public platform, more critical conversations usually take place within closed private circles so as to prevent online smears and attacks.

Despite its appeal, many Chinese mobile users are aware of the fact that surveillance technology is embedded in WeChat, and that Chinese authorities could gain access to their chat logs, contact lists, messages, calls, and geographic locations. The application, with its horizontal privacy setting for group chat, does help users build communities according to different degrees of trust, and we are yet to find out how WeChat would change the online public sphere in China.

October 30 2013

Why Didn’t Arab ‘Civil Society’ Discuss Human Rights at IGF?

Photo by Gabba Gabba Hey! via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ unattributed stencil art. Photo by Gabba Gabba Hey! via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Is it time for the Internet spring in the Arab region?” This was the title of the only workshop (out of 150 sessions) meant to highlight Internet issues in the Arab world at the 2013 Internet Governance Forum. Held in Bali, Indonesia, this forum is the eighth UN-convened, open multistakeholder forum that brings together people from all sectors to discuss Internet policy issues. This was the first time that my organization, 7iber, participated in the forum.

While issues of civil rights online filled the air of the forum’s hallways, Arab delegates had a minimal presence among the 1500 participants from private, public and civil society sectors. In the ‘high level’ meeting that opened the forum, there was no Arab representative among the 19 panelists. Although plenty of sessions addressed human rights online in broad terms, this was the only place where it felt appropriate and pragmatic to raise regionally-specific human rights challenges. For a media rights organization like 7iber, based in Jordan, this should have been the place space to bring forth issues of Internet freedom in this region in the conference.

If people attending the session had not been up to date on Internet news in the Arab world, they might have left the session thinking our region is perfect — a leading example in openness and policy-making. The panel’s discussion was off-base as its title was dreamy. IGF panel submissions required organizers to select participants from different sectors. This panel’s organizers seemed to believe that they could present an inclusive conversation by convening the head of the ICT Development Department of the Arab League, two members of Arab IGF Secretariat, two representatives from ICANN, the director of the international Diplo foundation, and a Yemeni internet rights advocate who resides in Sweden. During the first hour, the Arab IGF secretariat and Arab League panelists provided a progressive image of the “multistakeholder” process of Internet policymaking in the region. Then, the international civil society representatives from the Diplo foundation and ICANN used the panel to market their educational initiatives in the region.

At no point during the 90-minute session did panelists mention how Saudi Arabia recently jailed seven activists for organizing protests on Facebook. Nor was there comment on how Kuwait jailed a writer for tweets ‘defaming’ an ex-prime minister. The Whatsapp message of “Sisi is more criminal than Bashar” on the phone of a Jordanian, that sent him to a state security court under charges of “disrupting relations with foreign countries,” went under the radar. And so did the arrest of an Algerian blogger for posting a caricature mocking the Algerian President on Facebook. There was no discussion of why Bahrain was named “enemy of the Internet” in 2012 (a Bahraini blogger was tortured in Bahrain). There was no comment on the popular online magazine editor who was arrested in Morocco for publishing an article about an Al-Qaeda video.

Panelists did not go over recently proposed legislation in Qatar and Kuwait which targets and incriminates online freedoms of speech. They did not touch on new media laws in  Jordan that require sites to seek governmental approval before launching, a policy that has resulted in the blocking of over 200 websites. Nor did they broach Saudi Arabia’s plans to connect Twitter accounts with a national identification card. They did not speak of the countless old-school unregulated acts of online censorship in Bahrain and Oman.

It was only at the very end of the panel, during the question and answer period, that attendees from Jordan and Morocco were able to break the problematic facade created by the panel.  Addressing the Arab League representative, we questioned the evidence of the feel-good concept of “multistakeholderism” in states that incriminate online expression. The Arab League representative insisted that civil society was more present on the panel than governments, but the absence of civil society representatives attending the panel left this narrative unchallenged. In an attempt to conclude the discussion, the representative exclaimed, “how can I give you internet freedoms if you are threatening my national security?”

It was depressing to to see that while Latin American countries and Indonesia are developing data protection and privacy laws to protect online users’ privacy and right of access, the Arab world is still debating online freedom of speech. It was also astonishing to see how the presence of civil society alliances (on a local level like in Indonesia, or a regional like in Latin America and East Asia) across panelists and audience members prevented governments or enterprises from spreading propaganda without contestation.

The weak presence of the Arab civil society allowed a one-sided official narrative to only scratch the surface of repressive practices of governments in this region. I have never been a believer in the results of huge conferences, which are so often dominated by entities that wield the most power through tools, finances, and policy-making. However, the meetings at the IGF are the only place in which governments, civil society, and the private sector may directly and publicly interact at the same table. Regardless of a general fatigue of official meetings and a disbelief in systems of governance, it was still disappointing to encounter the domination of an official regional narrative at a global event of this magnitude. I left the session thinking that we are, unfortunately, realistic about the fruitlessness of engagement with our governments (that we did not elect), as evidenced by the earlier remarks of the Arab League representative.

Much work needs to be done within our role as actors within civil society. While we cannot detach or treat our online rights as separate from our offline rights, we can’t ignore the role of the Internet in shifting the process of consumption and the production of knowledge. Don’t the huge commonalities in the repressive practices of Arab governments online justify a need to form alliances? How can we generate greater legitimacy in shedding light on Internet issues, put forward a counter-regional narrative for the rights of 125 million users, and, to say the least, hack this global discussion?

Reem Al Masri leads research and development work at 7iber, a Jordanian media organization that promotes free expression online. The original version of this article appeared on

October 28 2013

Argentina and the New Surveillance Tech: Watching Your Every Move

SIBIOS from ADC on Vimeo.

Digital technology, in conjunction with contributions from a human team, allows for the implementation of an advanced, international-level system that secures the unchangeable identity of individuals. Now you are your own person.

In Argentina, a government database holding the pictures and fingerprints of its citizen will soon allow officials to identify citizens based on their DNA, their iris information, and the way they walk. The government-made promotional video (above) explains SIBIOS, the Federal System of Biometric Identification, and now airs on huge LCDs at selected border control stations. It was recently re-released with English subtitles.

The video moves from technical details and dubious philosophical assertions to bold claims about what technology can do. With visual references creepily reminiscent of Michael Radford’s 1984, the video is actually a significant glimpse into both a political practice and a human rights issue. On one hand, the Argentine case shows how policies can advance unscathed by criticism when they are presented as technological updates of standard practices. Indeed, the new database just takes the national ID registration scheme to a new level. But on the other, the video highlights how the fundamental right to privacy is absent from this policy arena.

This needs to change.

The Snowden leaks may have been a first step in that direction. They have produced outrage among Latin American presidents, rendering offers of asylum, harsh words at the UN Security Council and the General Assembly and vows to take action “to create the conditions to prevent cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war, through espionage, sabotage and attacks against systems and infrastructure of other count.” Yet privacy and surveillance practices are in Latin America are deeply troubling.

Apart from Argentina’s biometric data retention scheme, the country also suffers from a chronic lack of control over its intelligence agencies. Every now and then, the accounts of public officials, politicians and journalists are hacked and scandal erupts. These abuses are the result of an an Intelligence Law which parliamentary oversight mechanisms simply doesn’t work.

In Brazil, during a demonstration a few months ago, the Intelligence agency set a special team to monitor activities on social networks including the Whatsapp mobile application (not really a social network).

And in Colombia, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) was found not only snooping on the communications of journalists but also threatening them. They even developed a manual for this initiative.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of problems one may find in Latin America when looking past the outrage that political leaders have expressed in global fora. So the challenges of building a strong politics of rights around privacy issues are considerable. We face an urgent need to overcome old political practices that have become more risky. And for that to happen, a robust vision of privacy must enter the political debate.

Yet major obstacles lie ahead. First, changing social mores are defying the common understanding of the public and private divide. What used to be private is now shared on social networks. How does this fact affect the perception of privacy in citizens with already weak commitments to this fundamental right? Second, the counter-narrative usually invoked to thwart privacy arguments is related to crime-fighting, which is –according to polls– one of the main concerns of Latin American citizens. How can we make privacy an argument capable of defying practices and policies which –as ineffective as they may be– are seen as concrete steps in fighting rising crime rates? Finally, the risks involved in some of the most problematic practices are seen as merely hypothetical: after all, we all live in democratic regimes and most citizens have not felt the full effect of privacy-invasive policies.

Overall, governments have the upper hand provided by habit and fear. This can only change through activism based on careful research, capable of uncovering the actual practices of the states. While we move towards that goal, the issue of privacy needs to become an increasing part of our public debate. Doing so demands innovative ideas, new narratives to overcome the security argument and a fierce commitment to the basic idea that freedom demands that our conversations are really, truly private.

Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte is a senior attorney at the Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (Association for Civil Rights) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

October 15 2013

Brazil: the New Internet Freedom Champion?

Dilma Rousseff addresses the UN General Assemby in 2012. Photo by Blog do Planalto via Picasa (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dilma Rousseff addresses the UN General Assemby in 2012. Photo by Blog do Planalto via Picasa (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff recently delivered a speech before the United Nations General Assembly that was very well received among Internet freedom advocates. In her speech, President Rousseff criticized the United States for spying and also mentioned that Brazil “will present proposals for the establishment of a civilian multilateral framework for the governance and use of the Internet and to ensure the effective protection of data that travels through the web.” Her words are, without a doubt, a very good starting point for Brazil if it wants to be the new international leader that guarantees Internet freedom. However, it is necessary that Brazil take concrete actions in support of Rousseff’s words.

For instance, if Brazil were to join the Freedom Online Coalition, a group of governments committed to advance Internet freedom, it would send a positive message to the international community. Countries that join the coalition endorse a statement supporting the principle that all people enjoy the same human rights online as they do offline. From Latin America, only Costa Rica and Mexico are part of the coalition. On the other hand, other countries that are not members of the coalition, such as Russia, China and India, have taken steps in the wrong direction. For example, in the past, they have presented draft resolutions to the UN General assembly, which would have put in risk Internet governance. For Brazil, joining the Freedom Online Coalition would be a turning point and a step in the opposite direction, demonstrating that it takes some distance from its partners in groups such as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa).

Another action that Brazil could take to support the President’s speech is to implement domestic public policies and to push laws that guarantee freedom online, particularly freedom of expression. The situation in Brazil up to date is not encouraging. Reports by International NGOs –such as the recent Freedom on the Net report published by Freedom House that indicates that Brazil is a “partial free” country– or reports by private companies –such as the Google Transparency Report that shows that Brazil is one of the countries with the most requests to take down content from the Internet- shows that there is lots to do at the domestic level to improve Internet liberties. The bill known as the “marco civil” or “civil framework” for the Internet, that could improve the situation for better freedom online is still pending before the Brazilian Congress, though the President stated in her speech that she supports and will continue to support the initiative.

Finally, Brazil should assure it would work for an Internet governance approach that will not damage Internet infrastructure, and more importantly, will not impose risks on basic human rights. Last week's announcement that Brazil will host a global Internet governance summit next year could be positive, but it is not yet clear what Brazil's position on this issue will be: Earlier this year, Brazil signed the ITU treaty in Dubai that was criticized by advocates and experts as a document that could undermine Internet freedom. Brazil should distance itself from these initiatives.

Speeches delivered within the framework of inter-governmental organizations, like the UN, should be taken seriously. But while very important, they are only words if they are not followed by concrete actions in the right direction adopted by all branches of government. A true champion does not stop at words.


This article was authored by Eduardo Bertoni, Director of the CELE, the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression at University of Palermo School of Law in Argentina.

October 14 2013

Internet and Statecraft: Brazil and the Future of Internet Governance

After cancelling her October visit to DC, Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 24th during the High Level Meeting for the Rule of Law. The UNGA is the main deliberative, policymaking, and representative organ of the United Nations and comprises all 193 Members of the United NationsBrazilians welcomed their president’s decision to cancel her October trip and address US Internet surveillance in a public, global forum.

Marco Civil campaign image by Access. (CC BY 2.0)

Marco Civil campaign image by Access. (CC BY 2.0)

President Rouseff noted that illegally intercepting communications, information, and data cannot be sustained among friendly nations.  In saying this, she was not simply speaking in the manufactured outrage so typical of politics. She was instead speaking from a very different experience fighting against the dictatorship in Brazil in her youth. In dictatorships, surveillance is an essential tool that protects the regime. This is what makes the right to privacy a pillar for freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, and fundamental to democracy. That’s the sad irony of the US government’s relentless push to monitor the Internet, including domestic metadata. It’s the kind of thing that dictatorships do. The only thing different is the intent.

I’m well aware that nation-states spy on each other[1]. Most of us who have spent time in international relations know this. But it’s usually a matter of spying on each other’s governments (or in some cases, businesses) and not on ordinary citizens. (I am a Brazilian citizen living in the US, so I can only assume the NSA monitors my Skype calls home – and, for that matter, my Amazon purchases). We may have simply been naive in believing this was because of principle, when instead it was merely a matter of cost. Now that the transaction costs are low enough, however, anyone may become fair game.

However, Brazil is not a small country, and Rouseff is not a fearful president. She looked directly at President Obama while affirming, categorically, that without respect, there is no basis for the relationship among nations. She was also very specific in her stance, demanding a multilateral mechanism to ensure core principles for the world wide web. In an act that may invite deeper governance influence for Brazil at the UN and its International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the international organization that is trying to extend its authority over digital networks –  Rouseff  called out five essential affirmations for digital rights on the Internet:

  1. “Freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights.”
  2. “Open, multilateral and democratic governance, carried out with transparency by stimulating collective creativity and the participation of society, Governments, and the private sector.”
  3. “Universality that ensures the social and human development and the construction of inclusive and non-discriminatory societies.”
  4. “Cultural diversity, without the imposition of beliefs, customs and values.”
  5. “Neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it   inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes.”

These principles were applauded by international civil society and mirror the national debate of the Brazilian Constitution for the Internet, locally known as the Marco Civil. The Marco Civil would be a domestic groundbreaker, guaranteeing civil rights in the use of the Internet. Internationally, Marco Civil would be for the highest benchmark for “open” Internet legislation ever to be enacted. Rouseff recently expressed her support for Marco Civil and has ordered it to be processed in the Congress under a 90-day fast track review (45 in the House and 45 days in the Senate).

In thinking that national sovereignty includes the right to live a private life within one’s own borders, Rouseff is not alone. But Brazil is uniquely able to push back at the infrastructure level to encode this principle into the network itself. The country first connected to the Internet in 1990, and connectivity is now available in most areas through a variety of technologies. We constitute more than 94 million of Internet users, and are 2nd worldwide in number of Facebook users. Brazil now wants to provide internet connection beyond its borders and build more Internet exchange points in an effort to have more control over its communication infrastructure, a core economic element that also allows for better control over what happens to the privacy of its nationals.

As reported by Bill Woodcock for Aljazeera America last Tuesday, Rouseff also announced measures to increase domestic Internet bandwidth production, increase international Internet connectivity, encourage domestic content production, and encourage use of domestically produced network equipment. However, some of these measures are not new nor an immediate response to Snowden’s revelations. Brazil has been in investing in ICTs for some time, including massive government investments on broadband connectivity with the Brazilian 2010 Broadband Plan – which is late on its deliverables but still is underway. Ultimately, this move suggests that rather than relying on US cables, US companies, and US state policy, Brazil aims to achieve a leading role on Internet governance by providing core Internet infrastructure to the country and by connecting the country with other countries in the Global South.

That is to say, the Brazilian government may take one of the classic principles of the Internet and apply it to statecraft: interpret the surveillance as damage, and route around it. Brazil is one of the few countries that can simply lay new cables over which the US has no control, and impose privacy by default in those systems. See for instance, the BRICS cable. By the time it is completed, the BRICS Cable will be the third longest undersea telecommunications cable in the world, covering a distance of 34,000km.

For all the rhetoric of a stateless cyberspace, the raw physicality of the network makes it vulnerable to statecraft. Until now, that statecraft has been dominated by a state that places a prime on certain priorities at the expense of civil liberties. But there is nothing in the network that prevents a state with other priorities from joining the fray.

Does this mean that by creating its own infrastructure, Brazil wants to have more control over the Internet?  This is the question we all should have in the back of our minds while the infrastructure is being laid. Brazilian civil society should also demand a series of checks and balances, so we are not surprised later with intelligence programs that the Brazilian government might impose. This need for transparency and accountability is even more pressing now with the 2014 World Cup approaching – Brazil has deployed a massive technology infrastructure to surveil the games and proximal events in the name of security. It will be interesting to see if, how, and when this setup is dismantled. This ICT infrastructure may be able to help or hurt the open Internet depending on its design and its use. Again, we all should watch and see if the distributed design is the mode of this enterprise and if Brazil is really part of the group of countries that support in action, not just in words, the future of and open and free Internet.

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

October 03 2013

My Friend is Getting Tortured for Blogging

Since his arrest in late July, it has been hard for me and other bloggers to bring attention to the case of Mohammed Hassan (aka Safy) a Bahraini blogger detained by authorities for his online activities. In a country like Bahrain, the brutal regime has been successful in normalizing and silencing its crimes against those involved in the political struggle for freedom and equality. Doctors, journalists, human rights defenders, teachers, athletes, and protesters have been targeted in Bahrain with sanctions, surveillance, interrogations, arrests. Some have been tortured. Some have been killed. The horrors committed since the February 14 revolution (and years before) are too many to mention and the case of Safy is only one among many.

Illustration by Jafar al-Alawy

Illustration by Jafar al-Alawy

Many of you might not know Safy; he is not of the older generation of bloggers who enjoy much more visibility yet he is certainly from a generation that has been on the front line, facing high risks of arrest, torture, and perhaps being forgotten. Safy is a regular guy who has worked as an IT officer until he saw his friend get shot by riot police during the first weeks of the revolution. He could not be the ‘regular guy’ after this. After months of blogging anonymously, Safy decided to go with his real name and picture. He helped journalists move around, took them to villages where people breath tear gas more than oxygen, and spoke bluntly in front of the camera. He decided to join Global Voices despite the risks that face bloggers in Bahrain when contributing to a major international platform.

Safy is not alone in this struggle: Photographers Hussain Hubail and Qassim Zainaldeen were arrested in the same week, followed with the arrest of Safy’s own lawyer Abdulaziz Mousa who was accused of disclosing details of the interrogation without legal permission. Mousa stated before his arrest that Safy was beaten through the interrogation and has been charged “with being a member of the 14 February Media Network, calling for and participating in public demonstrations, inciting hatred against the government and being in contact with exiled members of the the Bahraini opposition.”

Safy was not allowed to sleep for four nights. They slapped him, punched him in the face, and kicked his stomach, shoulders, legs and back. In these four nights, he was handcuffed and not allowed to sit down. All this happens in a cold room like a freezing hell. Typical of Bahraini torturers, they insulted him all the time, called him a Shia traitor conspiring for Iran and a man with no honor. They threatened to rape him and rape his sisters. When Safy is freed, we will surely get to know more details of the nightmare he had to live in prison.

Last year, Safy appeared on Dan Rather’s report on Bahrain. When asked if he feared persecution for speaking openly against the regime, Safy replied, “I do not care anymore. My friends have been imprisoned. Some still in prison. Some in hiding and some are dead… at the end of the day if you don’t have your dignity, lots of things don’t really matter.” For this blogger, persecution is an expected result of his choice to resist the brutality of a dictatorship. His willingness to take the results should be a reason for us to make enough noise in his defense. In a country like Bahrain, free speech is a major crime in the eyes of the regime; this dictatorship is threatened by any effort that criminalizes its authoritarianism and violence.

Many bloggers have already shown support for Safy but many more are needed to fight for our imprisoned friend. We do not want Safy to be alone, we do not want to see death and torture normalized, we do not want to let it be believed that Bahrainis don’t matter, or that their bodies and souls are worthless. Thinking of Safy in prison getting beaten and tortured is enough of a reason for us to feel restless.


#FreeSafy Campaign

We urge readers to share this story widely. Use hashtag #FreeSafy and tweet links to this press release or recent reports by Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Use the campaign image above to highlight his case and read more about Safy and the campaign for his release below.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather interviewed Safy in 2012. See a clip from the news program here:

September 16 2013

US Power and the Not-So-Democratic Global Internet

Carna Botnet geovideo of 24 hour relative average utilization of IPv4 addresses observed using ICMP ping requests. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Internet Census 2012.

Carna Botnet geovideo of 24 hour relative average utilization of IPv4 addresses observed using ICMP ping requests. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Internet Census 2012.

This post was co-authored by Eduardo Bertoni. It originally appeared on Huffington Post.

In the early days of the Internet, the United States established a near monopoly over Internet protocol and everything that flows from it — code, regulation, policy and an unthinkably powerful Internet technology industry. The NSA leaks provide a chilling example of the consequences that this degree of dominance can have for the world.

Today, most of the ICT private sector is based geographically in the US. This has made it possible for the US government to develop some of the most influential policies and practices that affect the exercise of human rights, like the right to privacy, on the global Internet. Foreign governments have little ability to influence or regulate the actions of companies like Google or Facebook beyond their national borders. Even within their jurisdictions, this can prove difficult.

Why should we assume that these policies will work for the rest of the world?

This dynamic can bring both gains and losses. The Global Online Freedom Act, a bill introduced in Congress that would hinder the ability of US companies to sell surveillance and censorship technologies to repressive governments, could have a positive impact on human rights. But many policies do just the opposite. What we now know about the NSA proves that, in essence, the US government created a surveillance regime not for just for its own country, but for the entire world. It would not be possible for the NSA to spy on millions of Internet users if Google, Facebook, Yahoo! and other leading companies were not located in the US.

We had previously hoped that the US government would regulate these giants with an eye toward the human rights of users worldwide. But the Snowden leaks prove that in some cases, they are doing the reverse. Here, they have taken advantage of their unique situation in order to create what is likely the largest electronic surveillance regime in human history.

For those of us who belong to what is now called “the global south,” the legitimacy of these policies is the same whether it comes from US government policy makers, or senior officials in Silicon Valley. We have not been involved in Washington political processes, nor have we taken part in technology companies’ decision-making about products and services. Of course, the US does not have an obligation to ask our opinion or to take our personal needs into consideration. But the legitimacy that the US has to impose a specific code of law on the Internet is similar to that of the private sector: Both can do so without taking into account the rights and interests of the rest of the world. As a result, we are left with a paradox: Either we accept some kind of “balkanization” of policy — wherein every society has the capacity to influence code through its own policies — or we accept that the only way to move forward is through decisions made by international agreements.

But both of these options are fundamentally flawed. Balkanization could make it impossible to maintain the bountiful “borderless” nature of the Internet as we know it today. And for international agreements to be legitimate, recognized and enforced by national governments, strong and serious engagement would be required from countries around the globe. Unfortunately, this does not yet appear to be happening. For example, there are just two Latin American member countries in the Freedom Online Coalition, a group of governments that came together in 2011 to facilitate a global dialogue about the responsibilities of governments to actively further freedom on the Internet. Participation of other countries from the same region in the annual Internet Governance Forum is equally low.

In today's Internet age, software and hardware designs significantly impact our ability to exercise our rights. That is what Larry Lessig posited many years ago when he wrote that “code is law.” For that reason, and because the “code” is drafted mostly in the US, it is reasonable to question — and to doubt — the legitimacy of these policies for the rest of the world. The question is whether this will remain the status quo, or whether some force, corporate or political, will bring about a shift to a more equal, human rights-protective global Internet.

Eduardo Bertoni is the Director of the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (CELE) at Palermo University School of Law, Argentina. From 2002-2005 he served as the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights at the Organization of American States.

August 23 2013

In Thailand, Facebook ‘Likes’ Can Land You in Jail

Mobile phone users in Thailand last week voiced strong opposition to government plans to monitor online conversations on LINE, a popular messaging app. Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra responded by assuring her constituents that individual liberties will be respected and promised to carefully study the surveillance proposal released by the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD).

If Yingluck wants to dispel notions that her government is restricting online freedoms, she should order Police Major General Pisit Pao-in, commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division, to refrain from threatening Internet users.

In an interview with Thai daily newspaper The Nation, Pisit warned Facebook users that they can be arrested if they ‘like’ a post that undermines the national security:

[You could be arrested] if you ‘like’ a message deemed damaging to national security. If you press ‘like', it means you are accepting that message, which is tantamount to supporting it. By doing so, you help increase the credibility of the message and hence you should also be held responsible.

I'm not prohibiting from pressing ‘like'. But if you ‘like’ this kind of message, you will be arrested.

Then he added that ‘sharing’ subversive posts is also a crime:

If you share in a way to support the original message, this is wrong. But if you comment against the message, this is okay.

He said that he was “mainly aiming at social peace” when his agency summoned four Facebook users for posting messages that warned of an impending coup.

Pisit neglected to mention that the spread of coup rumors was probably triggered by the unusual presence of military tanks in Bangkok, the country’s capital. There was also a heated debate in the Parliament about a proposed Amnesty Bill which has divided the nation for several months already. Given the context, and the fact that coups d'etats have been frequent in recent Thai history, online discussion about the possibility of a coup should be expected.

Certain authorities have warned Internet users not to support statements that threaten national security, but the government’s definition of what constitutes rebellion, subversion, and national security is vague and questionable. One can imagine many perfectly non-threatening comments or jokes that could be interpreted as such. In a separate interview, Pisit revealed that his agency is is already watching the Internet activities of its citizens, using software “to monitor messages with words that pose threats to national security, such as coup, monarchy, lese majeste, drugs, counterfeit goods and prostitution.”

This was a rare admission on the government's part. It is also surprising that prostitution is now considered a threat to national security. Perhaps the real aim of Pisit is to prevent Thais from openly discussing political issues that could hurt the image and popularity of the nation’s political leaders.

Pisit should heed the advice of Ms Surangkana, the head of the Ministry of Information unit which drafted the Computer-Related Crime Act, who said that the law does not give authorities unlimited power to monitor the activities of Thai Internet users.

August 14 2013

August 09 2013

The Religious Right Rises! Advocates Face High Stakes in Pakistan

In recent years, Pakistani lawmakers’ long-standing tradition of suppressing political dissent has trickled into the digital world. The state now actively censors online content with the support of a military that refuses to accept criticism and a religious right that can’t tolerate any political narrative apart from its own.

Over time, Pakistan Telecommunications Authority has blocked thousands of URLs. It has taken down numerous Facebook pages, banned Rolling Stone’s website over an article that criticized the army, filtered a range of Baloch web pages due to ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unpatriotic’ content, and much more. PTA has become the tool through which the religious right, the politically intolerant powers that be, the military and other major players suppress freedom of expression in Pakistan.

Legally, it is an Inter-Ministerial Committee of elected representatives, members of the religious fraternity, and intelligence agencies that makes censorship recommendations. These move through the IT Ministry and then on to PTA for enforcement. But despite these procedural details, most critics agree that the state uses Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law to block whatever it chooses. This has put the country on a slippery slope that will inevitably end in a dark pit where the state controls what people hear, speak, write and how they act, all on the pretext that it wants to ‘save’ them from inappropriate content. We learned the harms of this model all too well in the days of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the state refuses to acknowledge this argument and continues to censor and filter the web.

Yet there are some individuals launching legal challenges against the state, striving to put an end to this relentless censorship of cyberspace, despite the risks involved. Such efforts are few and far between, but as the only stumbling block in government's path to full-blown Internet censorship, they are invaluable.

Infographic by Byes4All.

Infographic by Byes4All.

One of the better-known fruits of the current censorship regime is the ban on YouTube. Rights advocates have launched a petition challenging the ban before the Lahore High Court, but the case has seen little progress thus far. The Court has summoned the Minister of IT twice this month, but she failed to appear on both occasions. IT Minister Anusha Rehman is known among activists for having hinted that blanket-blocking Google would be a viable option for protecting citizens from “objectionable” videos on YouTube. When her ridiculous ‘plan’ was met by a social media backlash, she closed her Twitter account altogether.

In the meantime, several pseudo-intellectuals and state-anointed experts have taken it upon themselves to discredit individuals who are fighting against censorship. They have called the YouTube Ban a “divine calling” and have described those striving against it as anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan, pro-porn, Ahmadis, atheists, Zionists and so on, employing the popular propaganda tactics of the religious right.

Apart from painting a heavily skewed picture of the situation, this kind of reporting puts the lives of anti-censorship activists in danger. Taliban sympathizers in our midst are much too easily ‘provoked’ to the divine mission of attaining heaven by killing others. In the past, such allegations have led to incidents of violence against activists, some even resulting in their deaths.

Typically, this kind of propaganda is spread by several religious social media hubs and then reinforced by TV shows and newspapers. Allegations are little more than a veiled threat to activists, telling them to back off or face dire consequences. Once a person is deemed anti-Islamic by any of the major religious organizations, it means only one thing: The person in question is now on the hit-list of religiously motivated militants. He or she may also face mob justice motivated by religious right.

This sudden surge of pro-censorship publicity is happening at a time when PTA is out of valid arguments in the case. In fact, the court has criticized the regulatory authority and decried the IT Ministry's utter inability to devise a sensible policy regarding online content. The government will play the central role in resolving the questions around the YouTube case, if it so wishes. But what many choose not to see is that the government is far from willing to even come to the negotiating table. Instead, state institutions are creating new lists of URLs each day and blocking them routinely, even when the issue of online filtering is being contested in the courts.

In US, the recent revelations about government surveillance programs sent tremors through the White House and have resulted in a very public debate over the National Security Agency’s surveillance tactics and a Congressional motion that proposed to scale back its operations. Although the motion was narrowly defeated, it shows that speaking out against censorship and surveillance in US is not life-threatening.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, even the discovery of the mass-surveillance software, Netsweeper and its admission by PTA hasn't stirred anyone or anything. Clearly, the majority of the population has accepted the utter lack of personal freedoms as fate. Those who are fighting against censorship are trying to create awareness among the masses so that more people will speak out against government efforts to monitor users and content online. But in this milieu, it is the actions of those who are trying to sabotage the efforts of anti-censorship activists that are most harmful and unfortunate. One can only hope that when the history of individual liberty in Pakistan is written, theirs will be the names penned down as traitors of our society.


July 25 2013

National_Geographic explores Zimbabwe's pre-election pulse

#National_Geographic explores #Zimbabwe’s pre-election pulse

Two initial thoughts on #Alexandra_Fuller’s “Breaking the Silence: Oppression, Fear, and Courage in Zimbabwe” in the May 2013 National Geographic Magazine: First, anything by Alexandra Fuller will be an excellent read, and second, how will the photos accompanying the text manage to portray Zimbabwe? The first time I read the article was on a [...]


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