On-line dissidents innovate as repressive regimes deploy ‘digital weapons’

While China’s Internet branch is exploding beyond the domestic market, Beijing is tightening the rules for online communication, Deutsche Welle reports:

In early August, the State Internet Information Office issued new regulations for chat services. It stipulated that only media organizations registered in China are allowed to disseminate instant messages. Additionally, private users are required to register their accounts using their real names and will be subject to a verification process. 

According to The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, CloudShield Technologies, a California defense contractor, is selling lucrative spyware tools to foreign security services, some of them with records of human rights abuse:

CloudShield’s central role in Gamma’s controversial work — fraught with legal risk under U.S. export restrictions — was first uncovered by Morgan Marquis-Boire, author of a new report released Friday by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He shared advance drafts with The Post, which conducted its own month-long investigation.  

The prototype that CloudShield built was never brought to market, and the company parted ways with Gamma in 2010. But Marquis-Boire said CloudShield’s work helped pioneer a new generation of “network injection appliances” sold by Gamma and its Italian rival, Hacking Team. Those devices harness malicious software to specialized equipment attached directly to the central switching points of a foreign government’s national Internet grid.

The result: Merely by playing a YouTube video or visiting a Microsoft Live service page, for instance, an unknown number of computers around the world have been implanted with Trojan horses by government security services that siphon their communications and files. Google, which owns YouTube, and Microsoft are racing to close the vulnerability.

Citizen Lab’s report, based on leaked technical documents, is the first to document that commercial spyware companies are making active use of this technology. Network injection allows products built by Gamma and Hacking Team to insert themselves into an Internet data flow and change it undetectably in transit. ….

Security researchers have documented clandestine sales of Gamma and Hacking Team products to “some of the world’s most notorious abusers of human rights,” said Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, a list that includes Turkmenistan, Egypt, Bahrain and Ethiopia.

But dissidents and activists are becoming more sophisticated and resourceful in using the internet to promote democracy and human rights, and circumventing censorship and to groups like Movements.Org, as demonstrated by the following sample cases:

  • A Syrian activist and university student seeking asylum in the United States posted an urgent request for help and representation, as his life would be in grave jeopardy should he return to his native country. A professor at The John Marshall Law School, based in Chicago, took on the case, and is helping the activist attain asylum.
  • A famed former Iranian political prisoner who spent tens of years in jail asked for help saving a radio station he runs which broadcasts into Iran.  A senior American official saw the post and reached out to the dissident.
  • A North Korean defector asked for helping getting information in and out of their dictatorial regime.  Radio, satellite and computer experts connected with the defector to talk about new technologies to help make this possible.
  • A Cuban blogger hoping to circumvent censorship in her home country and Ecuador posted a request for technological help getting around firewalls.  She was contacted by several computer programmers and security experts who offered to walk her through the process of protecting her information.
  • Activists requested a  song be written to honor the late Russian accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who was was arrested and tortured after exposing corruption of the Putin regime.  Magnitsky died in prison. A songwriter in NYC saw the request on Movements.org, and wrote a catchy song to commemorate his life (see below).  The song was featured on Al Jazeera and in The Wall Street Journal.
  • A request written on behalf of a famed Syrian dissident who spent a decade in prison under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, asked to publish an op-ed in a major American publication about how to bring peace to Syria.  A short time later, the article was published in The Daily Beast.
  • A Saudi expert on combatting state-sponsored incitement in textbooks posted a request to speak with members of the German government due to their strict anti-hate-speech laws.  A former German foundation executive saw the post and is now connecting the Saudi activist with senior members of the German government.
  • A secular Syrian group posted a request for PR aid to explain to Americans that the opposition is not comprised solely of radical elements.  The founder of a strategic communication firm based in Los Angeles responded and offered help.
  • An editor from a major American paper posted a request for human rights stories that often are not told. He was contacted by a liberal activist from Iraq whose family and friends were killed by al-Qaeda.

Advancing Human Rights has launched Movements.org, an online platform where dissidents in closed societies can connect to the legal, media, public relations, and technological expertise of open societies. A dissident seeking asylum in a closed society can connect with an asylum lawyer abroad who can provide pro bono legal assistance. A journalist dedicated to unearthing the secrets of dictators can connect with local dissidents to piece together the story. By leveraging democratic tools to assist activists achieve freedom, activists can challenge authorities with a new, clear voice.

A ‘responsibility to assist’? When and why civil resistance works

civilresistancePolicymakers should prioritize a “responsibility to assist” nonviolent activists and civic groups, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan contend. Strengthening civil society is a precondition for sustained democratic development and outside actors have an important role to play in assuring that civil resistance has a fighting chance.

“Nonviolent civil resistance movements have varied widely in terms of their duration, their success, their ability to remain nonviolent, and their cost in terms of human life,” they write for Foreign Affairs. “The basic trajectory of these recent movements — each successive one seemingly more violent and more geopolitically charged — has encouraged skepticism about the prospects for civil resistance in the twenty-first century. Such doubts are understandable but misplaced,” they argue, drawing on an extensive data set.

Between 1900 and 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance against authoritarian regimes were twice as likely to succeed as violent movements, they note:

Nonviolent resistance also increased the chances that the overthrow of a dictatorship would lead to peace and democratic rule. This was true even in highly authoritarian and repressive countries, where one might expect nonviolent resistance to fail. Contrary to conventional wisdom, no social, economic, or political structures have systematically prevented nonviolent campaigns from emerging or succeeding.

Liberal interventionists cited a “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify NATO’s intervention in Libya and have also invoked that argument in advocating for similar action in Syria. But the promise of civil resistance suggests an alternative: a “responsibility to assist” nonviolent activists and civic groups well before confrontations between civilians and authoritarian regimes devolve into violent conflicts.


“Civil resistance does not succeed because it melts the hearts of dictators and secret police. It succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime, Chenoweth and Stephan suggest:

Broad-based support for a resistance movement can also weaken the loyalty of economic elites, religious authorities, and members of the state media who support the regime. When such figures defect to the opposition, they can sometimes force the regime to surrender to the opposition’s demands, which is what happened with the Philippines’ People Power movement of 1983–86. Broad movements also enjoy a tactical advantage: diverse, nonviolent campaigns that include women, professionals, religious figures, and civil servants – as opposed to violent ones comprised of mostly young, able-bodied men trained to become militants – reduce the risk of violent crackdowns, since security forces are often reluctant to use violence against crowds that might include their neighbors or relatives. And even when governments have chosen to violently repress resistance movements, in all the cases under review, nonviolent campaigns still succeeded in achieving their goals almost half the time, whereas only 20 percent of violent movements achieved their goals, because the vast majority were unable to produce the mass support or defections necessary to win. In cases in which the security forces remain loyal to the regime, defections among economic elites can play a critical role.

“Even campaigns that possess the holy trinity of features — mass participation, regime defections, and flexible tactics — don’t always succeed,” they note:

Much depends on whether state authorities can outmaneuver the protesters and sow division in their ranks, perhaps even provoking nonviolent resisters to abandon their protests and strikes, lose their discipline and unity, and take up arms in response to repression. But even when nonviolent campaigns fail, all is not lost: from 1900 to 2006, countries that experienced failed nonviolent movements were still about four times as likely to ultimately transition to democracy as countries where resistance movements resorted to violence at the outset. Nonviolent civic mobilization relies on flexibility and coalition building — the very things that are needed for democratization.

But revolutionary campaigns can still maximize their chances of achieving more representative government — of bringing the successes of the street into the halls of power — if they develop so-called parallel institutions during the course of their struggles. Poland offers one of the best examples. In 1980, after some 16,000 workers launched a strike at the Gdansk shipyard, Polish labor groups, which had already been fomenting resistance to the Soviet-backed communist regime in Poland for a decade, formed Solidarity, a trade union that morphed into a civil resistance movement and gradually eroded the communist authority’s grip on the country. Solidarity published underground dissident newspapers, organized demonstrations and radical theater performances in churches, and resisted years of repression, including the imposition of martial law in 1981. Eventually, ten million Poles joined the group, which operated as a kind of shadow government, facilitating its ability to step into a leadership role as communism crumbled.

“During last year’s UN General Assembly meeting, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to a roundtable about the essential role that civil society has played in nearly every major social and political transformation of the last half century,” Chenoweth and Stephan recall, noting that he “called on governments to embrace civil society groups as partners and, in a slightly edgier appeal, pressed governments and nongovernmental organizations to come up with more innovative and effective ways to support groups and activists fighting against injustice and oppression.”


“But that raises the question of which forms of external assistance to nonviolent civic groups work and which ones don’t,” they write:

The idea of “do no harm” remains an anchoring principle for how outside governments and institutions should promote democracy and aid civil society groups in other countries. International support to such movements can take many forms, such as monitoring trials of political prisoners, engaging in solidarity movements to support the right of peaceful assembly, providing alternative channels of news and information, targeting warnings to security officials who might be tempted to use lethal force against nonviolent protesters, and supporting general capacity building for civic groups and independent media. But local actors are in the best position to determine which type of support is appropriate and if it is worth the associated risks.

Strengthening civil society is not only a precondition for sustained democratic development. It can also protect civilians from the worst excesses of violent repression. Although regimes may not refrain from using violence against peaceful protesters, history suggests that helping civic groups maintain nonviolent discipline — a practice that often requires coordination, preparation, and training — can ultimately minimize civilian casualties. In addition to staving off armed rebellion, sticking to civil resistance can insulate protesters from the most extreme forms of state violence by raising the costs of repression (although as Tunisia and Egypt proved, hundreds of protesters could still pay with their lives). Nonviolent movements are not as reliant on outside support as armed ones are, but the international community can help ensure that civil society groups maintain the space they need to exercise their basic rights of free speech and assembly while avoiding the temptation to turn to arms to pursue their goals.

“Policymakers should prioritize a ‘responsibility to assist’ nonviolent activists and civic groups, rather than only seeking to protect civilians through military force, as in NATO’s Libya intervention,” they contend.

“Syria highlights the moral and strategic imperative of developing more flexible, nimble ways to support nonviolent resistance movements. The local champions of people power will continue to chart their own future. But outside actors have an important role to play in assuring that civil resistance has a fighting chance.”


Representative democracy ‘losing its luster’

4th revolutionAs Asian countries generate clever ideas for reforming government, the West’s greatest strength — representative democracy — is losing its luster, argue two leading analysts. Democratic governments increasingly make promises that they cannot deliver on and allow themselves to be captured by special interests or diverted by short-term considerations, according to The Economist’s John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.

This crisis of Western liberal democracy has been brewing for decades, but it has become acute in the last few years for three reasons, they write for the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs:

First is the increasingly unsustainable debt burden that Western states are carrying. The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent global recession led to an explosion in public debt: according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, global public debt reached $50.6 trillion in 2013, compared with just $22 trillion in 2003. …..

The second factor that has thrown the deficiencies of contemporary Western governance into sharp relief is the rapid development of information technology. ….. Western governments have failed to harness the full potential of the digital revolution, often stumbling in their attempts to make themselves more Internet-friendly…..

The third ongoing test of Western-style liberal democracy is the impressive track records in recent years of other models, particularly the modernizing authoritarianism pursued by Asian countries such as China and Singapore. For the first time since the middle of the twentieth century, a global race is on to devise the best kind of state and the best system of government. Compared to during that earlier era, the differences between the models competing today are far smaller — but the stakes are just as high. Whoever wins this contest to lead the fourth revolution in modern governance will stand a good chance of dominating the global economy. 

“Westerners have long assumed that the ideals of freedom and democracy would ultimately take root everywhere and that all countries that wanted to modernize would have to adopt such values,” they note. “But the rise of authoritarian modernization in Asia puts this in jeopardy. To remain stable and prosperous and to maintain their positions as global leaders, European countries and the United States will have to embrace the goal of smaller, more efficient government.”

“The state is the most precious of human possessions,” the economist Alfred Marshall remarked in 1919, toward the end of his life, “and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way,” note Micklethwait and Wooldridge, the authors of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (Penguin Press, 2014).

But citizens and leaders in the democratic world have lost sight of the fact that government can change.

“Somewhat ironically, these days it’s China’s authoritarian rulers, and not their Western counterparts, who are more likely to understand Marshall’s insights into the preciousness and malleability of the state,” they write:

Chinese leaders study the great Western political theorists — Alexis de Tocqueville is a particular favorite — and their bureaucrats scour the world for the best ideas about governance. The Chinese, it seems, realize that government is the reason why the West has been so successful. Until the sixteenth century, China represented the most advanced civilization in the world; after that, the West pulled ahead, thanks in part to three (and a half) revolutions in government that leveraged the power of technology and the force of ideas. Now, a fourth revolution has begun, but it isn’t yet clear which countries will shape it and whether they will draw mostly from the ascendant tradition of Western liberal democracy or from newer forms of authoritarian rule that have emerged in recent decades. 

Innovation shifts east

China is the obvious focus of the debate over the future of governance, Micklethwait and Wooldridgeassert:

The Chinese have produced a new model of government that directly challenges the Western belief in free markets and democracy. China has pioneered a form of “state capitalism” by selling off thousands of smaller companies but keeping equity stakes in more than a hundred big companies. The country has also revived its ancient principle of meritocracy by recruiting Chinese Communist Party members from top universities and promoting party functionaries based on their ability to hit various targets, such as eradicating poverty and promoting economic growth.

“The twenty-first century is sure to be shaped by ever-fiercer competition between states to figure out which innovations in governing yield the best results,” they contend.

“The liberal democracies of the Western world still enjoy a significant leg up in terms of wealth and political stability. But it’s not yet clear whether the West will be able to summon the sort of intellectual and political energy that, for the past four centuries, has kept it ahead in the global race to reinvent the state.”


US needs ‘interventionist, internationalist’ foreign policy, says Obama

Barack ObamaThe United States will continue to provide global leadership and advance democracy but with less recourse to military power, President Barack Obama announced today, outlining a new foreign policy doctrine that is “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral.”

The new approach will draw on soft power and financial incentives to combat terrorism through international partnerships, including a $5bn Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to support partner states in areas such as the Sahel.

“The United States is the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for the century to come,” Mr. Obama said in a graduation speech to West Point cadets. 

“What makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”

“Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will,” he said. “The question we face … is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead.”

“America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism; it is a matter of national security,” he told the audience.

“The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership, but U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary— component of our leadership in every instance,” he said. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Obama countered his critics by reiterating his belief that there are moral and national security motives for foreign interventions in certain circumstances.

“We have a real stake – an abiding self-interest – in making sure our children grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren’t slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political beliefs,” he said.

“When a typhoon hits the Philippines, or girls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine – it is America that the world looks to for help. The United States is the one indispensable nation.”

“Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror,” he said:

A new century has brought no end to tyranny. In capitals around the globe — including, unfortunately, some of America’s partners — there has been a crackdown on civil society. The cancer of corruption has enriched too many governments and their cronies and enraged citizens from remote villages to iconic squares.

And watching these trends, or the violent upheavals in parts of the Arab world, it’s easy to be cynical. But remember that because of America’s efforts — because of American diplomacy and foreign assistance, as well as the sacrifices of our military — more people live under elected governments today than at any time in human history. Technology is empowering civil society in ways that no iron fist can control. New breakthroughs are lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And even the upheaval of the Arab world reflects the rejection of an authoritarian order that was anything but stable, and now offers the long-term prospect of more responsive and effective governance.

From Brazil to India, rising middle classes compete with us, and governments seek a greater say in global forums. And even as developing nations embrace democracy and market economies, 24-hour news and social media makes it impossible to ignore the continuation of sectarian conflicts, failing states and popular uprisings that might have received only passing notice a generation ago.

But U.S. support for democracy and human rights “has been very weak during his years in office—in Russia and China, in Iran and Egypt, in Venezuela and Cuba,” according to Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle East policy at the Council on Foreign Relations:

America has not effectively challenged dictators, nor has it defended human rights activists and journalists when repressive regimes jailed them. “Engagement” with regimes has been the most important goal. To state now that support for human rights “goes beyond idealism—it’s a matter of national security” is nice, but if that is all true, where has he been since January 2009? 

Even Obama’s supporters worry that the president’s caution can become an excuse for inaction, the FT’s Geoff Dyer reports:

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, says that he believes Mr Obama often has the right instincts but that “he does not always translate that into diplomatic strategies to achieve his goals”.. . .

The root cause of much of the angst about Mr Obama has been his public wobble last September over whether to launch Tomahawk missiles against Syria, culminating in the walk on the White House lawn when he decided to punt the issue to Congress. Outside of the Middle East, few US allies were worried about the details of the proposed Syria strike: what rattled them was the sight of a US president making a threat and then deciding he did not have the political authority to carry through with it…..

Countries such as China and Russia appear to have found new ways to gradually chip away at US influence, pursuing territorial claims in Crimea or the South China Sea in a manner that fall well short of casus belli.

“With such a structural shift in international politics, the US will need to operate in different ways, but we are still struggling to come to terms with the new reality,” says Jeremy Shapiro, a former Obama administration official now at the Brookings Institution.

Re-Thinking Democracy Promotion Amid Rising Authoritarianism

The crisis caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the threat to freedom posed by kleptocratic autocracies. The world is watching how the democratic community of nations responds to Putin’s brazen attack not only against Ukraine but against the very concept of freedom and the ability of people to choose their own political destiny.

Much is at stake, for authoritarian regimes pose a danger not only to their own populations through suppression of human rights but to others as well. This requires a re-examination of democracy promotion, the threats it faces, and how best to advance it.

The American Interest, Freedom House and Johns Hopkins-SAIS invite you to

Re-Thinking Democracy Promotion Amid Rising Authoritarianism

Monday, June 9, 2014 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. Kenney Auditorium, Paul H. Nitze Building, 1740 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20036

Click here to RSVP

Conference Agenda

9:00-9:30 Registration and Coffee

9:30–9:40 Opening Remarks

Charles Davidson, Publisher and CEO of The American Interest and Board Member of Freedom House 

9:40 – 10:00 Democracy Promotion in the World of Vladimir PutinSpeaker via Recorded Video:

Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University and Europe Center Research Affiliate

10:00 – 10:40 200+ Years of American Values in Foreign Policy


Walter Russell Mead, Editor-at-Large at The American Interest and James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College

10:40 – 11:00 Coffee break 

11:00 – 12:15 Do the Internal Affairs of Other Nations Matter to Us?


Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter Professor and Director of the American Foreign Policy program at SAIS

Richard Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations

Moderator:Paula Dobriansky, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Board Member of Freedom House 

12:15 – 1:00 Lunch

1:00 – 2:15 The Authoritarian Temptation – And the Need To Push Back Speakers:

Josef Joffe, Publisher and Editor of Die Zeit and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford

Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow at Brookings

Moderator: Charles Davidson

2:15 – 3:45 The Authoritarian Threat


Andrew Nathan,Professor at Columbia Universityand Board Member of Freedom House

Zainab al-Suwaj, Co-founder and Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress and Board Member of Freedom House

Ruth Wedgwood, Edward B. Burling Chair in International Law and Diplomacy at SAIS and Board Vice Chair of Freedom House

David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House


Carla Anne Robbins, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Clinical Professor National Security Studies Baruch College/CUNY

3:45 – 4:00 Coffee Break

4:00 – 5:00 How Can We Do Better?


Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy

Thomas Carothers, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 

Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House


Adam Garfinkle, Editor of The American Interest

5:00 Closing Remarks by David J. Kramer