Contesting networked authoritarianism?

The internet is politically contested terrain, a leading US official said last week, calling on global tech firms to defend cyberspace against authoritarian intrusion and censorship.

Companies had both a financial interest and a moral responsibility to ensure that the internet remained a realm of “empowering innovation” instead of “political domination,” said assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner.

Somebody wasn’t listening.

“A U.S. company that makes Internet-blocking gear acknowledges that Syria has been using at least 13 of its devices to censor Web activity there—an admission that comes as the Syrian government cracks down on its citizens and silences their online activities,” The Wall Street Journal reports:

Blue Coat Systems Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., says it shipped the Internet “filtering” devices to Dubai late last year, believing they were destined for a department of the Iraqi government. However, the devices—which can block websites or record when people visit them—made their way to Syria, a country subject to strict U.S. trade embargoes.

RTWT

“American tech companies are increasingly being caught in situations where their products and services are used by foreign governments to repress or control their own populace,” according to Politico.

Google, Yahoo and Microsoft consciously designed the Global Network Initiative (GNI), as a multi-stakeholder initiative to bring together rights groups and activists with hi-tech firms to identify problems and develop responses. The tech firms enjoy considerable leverage, a recent Silicon Valley human rights conference heard:

Gmail was hacked in China because it was activists’ email service of choice. Despite Google’s testy relationship with the Chinese government, things like Gmail and Google Docs continue to be available there (albeit with some disruption); Rebecca MacKinnon, a founder of the GNI, argues in her upcoming book “The Consent of the Networked” (above)  that this is because a good chunk of the Chinese intellectual and business elites, not just political dissidents, have come to depend on them.

“No matter how badly behaved some of us companies have been, we’re really here in this room because of the actions of the governments,” Bob Boorstin, Google’s public policy director told the conference. “Governments are causing lots of trouble by blocking.”

One GNI member, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, recently released standards on surveillance equipment. But such advice often falls on deaf ears.

“It’s not my job to really understand what [customers are] going to use it for. Our job is to respond to the bid that they’ve made,” said the executive of a firm which reportedly sold surveillance technology to the Chinese city of Chongqing.

Analysts and activists differ over companies’ capacity and responsibility to address the issue.

“You can’t just stay in the walls of your company,” said Caroline Rees of the Harvard Kennedy School told the conference. “You need to engage with others about what is reasonable for you to do.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for GNI and other human rights organizations to be asking private corporations to solve foreign policy problems,” said Larry Downes, a senior adjunct fellow at TechFreedom.

“The Obama administration has been really good about highlighting the idea of an open Internet,” said Arvind Ganesan. “They haven’t been strong enough in insisting that U.S. companies act responsibly.”

Contesting networked authoritarianism?

The internet is politically contested terrain, a leading US official said last week, calling on global tech firms to defend cyberspace against authoritarian intrusion and censorship.

Companies had both a financial interest and a moral responsibility to ensure that the internet remained a realm of “empowering innovation” instead of “political domination,” said assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner.

Somebody wasn’t listening.

“A U.S. company that makes Internet-blocking gear acknowledges that Syria has been using at least 13 of its devices to censor Web activity there—an admission that comes as the Syrian government cracks down on its citizens and silences their online activities,” The Wall Street Journal reports:

Blue Coat Systems Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., says it shipped the Internet “filtering” devices to Dubai late last year, believing they were destined for a department of the Iraqi government. However, the devices—which can block websites or record when people visit them—made their way to Syria, a country subject to strict U.S. trade embargoes.

RTWT

“American tech companies are increasingly being caught in situations where their products and services are used by foreign governments to repress or control their own populace,” according to Politico.

Google, Yahoo and Microsoft consciously designed the Global Network Initiative (GNI), as a multi-stakeholder initiative to bring together rights groups and activists with hi-tech firms to identify problems and develop responses. The tech firms enjoy considerable leverage, a recent Silicon Valley human rights conference heard:

Gmail was hacked in China because it was activists’ email service of choice. Despite Google’s testy relationship with the Chinese government, things like Gmail and Google Docs continue to be available there (albeit with some disruption); Rebecca MacKinnon, a founder of the GNI, argues in her upcoming book “The Consent of the Networked” (above)  that this is because a good chunk of the Chinese intellectual and business elites, not just political dissidents, have come to depend on them.

“No matter how badly behaved some of us companies have been, we’re really here in this room because of the actions of the governments,” Bob Boorstin, Google’s public policy director told the conference. “Governments are causing lots of trouble by blocking.”

One GNI member, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, recently released standards on surveillance equipment. But such advice often falls on deaf ears.

“It’s not my job to really understand what [customers are] going to use it for. Our job is to respond to the bid that they’ve made,” said the executive of a firm which reportedly sold surveillance technology to the Chinese city of Chongqing.

Analysts and activists differ over companies’ capacity and responsibility to address the issue.

“You can’t just stay in the walls of your company,” said Caroline Rees of the Harvard Kennedy School told the conference. “You need to engage with others about what is reasonable for you to do.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for GNI and other human rights organizations to be asking private corporations to solve foreign policy problems,” said Larry Downes, a senior adjunct fellow at TechFreedom.

“The Obama administration has been really good about highlighting the idea of an open Internet,” said Arvind Ganesan. “They haven’t been strong enough in insisting that U.S. companies act responsibly.”

China’s moral crisis: from Maoism to Daoism?

Kneeling is not a crime by Bu Din: winner of Human Rights in China's photo contest

By highlighting cultural reform at the end of its annual plenum last week, China’s ruling Communist Party both drew attention to the country’s moral crisis and demonstrated its own ideological bankruptcy. Citizens were shocked and shamed by the recent incident in which two-year old Yueyue was killed and then ignored by a stream of passers-by.

In a characteristic authoritarian reflex, the party announced that it would limit entertainment-based TV programs, while imposing new restrictions on microblogs and other social media. As The New York Times reports in a must-read magazine piece on the-dangerous politics of internet humor in China:

No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them — the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China.

The Communist authorities have been rattled by an extraordinary on-line campaign which has marshaled ingenuity and humor to mobilize support for the blind barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng.*

“Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.”

“Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing against the boundaries of the state,” Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tells the Times. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”

Xiao’s Web site, China Digital Times, the Times notes publishes “an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms.”

RTWT

Further evidence that the Communist party is in ideological limbo and eager for some form of moral legitimacy lies, one observer suggest, in Beijing’s growing support for religion:

After decades of destruction, Daoist temples are being rebuilt, often with government support. Shortly after the plenum ended, authorities were convening an International Daoism Forum. The meeting was held near Mt. Heng in Hunan Province, one of Daoism’s five holy mountains, and was attended by 500 participants. It received extensive play in the Chinese media, with a noted British Daoist scholar, Martin Palmer, getting airtime on Chinese television. This is a sharp change for a religion that that was persecuted under Mao and long regarded as suspect. What, exactly, is gong on here?

RTWT

*The US-based Congressional-Executive Commission on China are hosting an “Examination into the Abuse and Extralegal Detention of Legal Advocate Chen Guangcheng and His Family” on Tuesday, November 1, 2011. 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. 2118 Rayburn House Office Building, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.  Witnesses include: Jerome A. Cohen, Professor, New York University School of Law; Co-director, U.S.-Asia Law Institute; and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China (HRIC); Professor of Law Emerita, City University of New York School of Law; and Chai Ling, Founder, All Girls Allowed.

China Digital Times and Human Rights in China are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

 

China Digital Times and Human Rights in China are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.