Tying up the internet, Balkanizing the digital world

iraninternet freedom ftConcerns are rising that efforts to protect citizens from foreign surveillance will Balkanize the digital world. Blocking websites, bottling up information so it cannot flow freely around the world and ramping up the monitoring of people who are online are becoming increasingly common ways to manage the internet – and not just in authoritarian countries, according to a special FT report: .

Developments such as these are often depicted as a fight between the forces of darkness, represented by reactionary governments, and the forces of light, in the form of internet idealists trying to keep the medium open, says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor of internet policy at Oxford university.

But that perception is a fiction, he says. “A global commons of the internet was something that never existed. It was a useful aspirational thing for internet companies.” In reality, he adds, “there were always vacuums of power on the internet, which were seized by different organisations”.

One danger, however, is that the cause of defending a nation’s citizens is being used as a pretext for repressive political action. This year Turkey banned YouTube and Twitter for carrying allegations of political corruption, though the bans were overturned in the country’s constitutional court.

“The law used to be about protecting children from harmful content,” says Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi university. “Now it is all about protecting government from content they deem undesirable.”

If even democracies cannot be trusted as stewards of an open internet, the power of all governments must be kept in check by companies and civil society through processes based in a common commitment to keep cyber space free and interconnected, argues Rebecca MacKinnon, the author of ‘Consent of the Networked’ and director of the Ranking Digital Rights project at the New America Foundation:

But if companies are to win civil society over to their side, activists must be able to trust them not to violate their privacy or restrict speech. Strengthening trust in public and private institutions that shape the internet should be a priority for anyone with an interest – commercial, moral or personal – in keeping global networks open and free.

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Turkey: strike down internet curbs, says rights group

 

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch

New legal amendments giving the Turkish authorities broad powers to block websites and to amass users’ internet activity data should be overturned, Human Rights Watch said today.
The new measures deepen existing internet censorship in Turkey, increase surveillance of internet users, and violate privacy.

“After hosting the 2014 Internet Governance Forum, Prime Minister Davutoglu’s new government has adopted even more provisions to restrict free speech online and the privacy of internet users,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These measures would violate basic rights protected in the constitution and guaranteed under international law and should be struck down.”

A new law adopted by parliament on September 10, 2014, that would amend a range of other laws on a broad range of subjects introduces two new measures increasing the powers of the Telecom Directorate (TIB), a regulatory body whose head is appointed by the government. In July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister, stated that the directorate should be run by the National Intelligence Agency (MİT). The current head is a former MİT operative….

In February and March the government adopted amendments to the existing internet law (no. 6551) giving the directorate the authority to block internet content deemed to violate privacy. The government’s changes were a response to the circulation of wiretapped telephone conversations of politicians, including the prime minister, via social media. …These two amendments were included (as articles 126 and 127) in the major reform bill that parliament approved on September 10. ….

“The latest steps are the latest blow to net freedom and privacy rights in a year in which Turkey unlawfully blocked both Twitter and YouTube,” Sinclair-Webb said. “They should be reversed now, before Turkey has to account for and redress these violations at regional and international levels.”

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Civil society’s ‘Power of Together’

poweroftogether

‘What Football Taught Me About Citizen Action’ is just one of several new speaker videos released by ICNL, ECNL, and TEDxLiberdade under the rubric of The Power of Together.

On April 23, 2014 in Săo Paulo, Brazil, fourteen speakers demonstrated the power of civil society. We invite you to watch and share these TEDx talks, available here. Join the conversation using the hashtag #PowerOfTogether.

Available TEDx talks include:

Experience Maidan – Citizens Assembling For Their Country | Ruslana |

From ‘Fart People’ To Citizens On China’s Internet | Xiao Qiang |

Advocating For Uganda’s LGBT: Risk And Resilience | Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera |

Kids! The New Frontier For A Democratic Society | Mary Beth Tinker |

Document, Denounce And Divulge Human Rights Violations | Feliciano Reyna Ganteaume |

Using Your Capital To Transform Lives | Leonardo Letelier |

‘Counterterrorism’ Used To Crackdown On Civil Society | Ben Hayes |

E-Democracy And Building The Open Parliament | Cristiano Ferri |

What Football Taught Me About Citizen Action | Katerina Hadzi – Miceva Evans |

TEDxLiberdade is an awareness-raising project of the Civic Space Initiative, a global program that ICNL leads with partners ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and the World Movement for Democracy. Support for the Civic Space Initiative is provided by the Government of Sweden. The Government of Sweden does not necessarily share the opinions here within expressed.

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.

Technology is connective, but is it democratizing?

Many commentators mistakenly interpreted the Arab Spring in 2011 as a harbinger of democratic movements everywhere, and now the pendulum of punditry seems to have swung hard in the opposite direction, says Sheldon Himmelfarb of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Contrary to this doom-saying, however, opportunities for citizen participation in political processes have never been greater, thanks to the ingenuity of a new generation of activists and technologists, he writes for Foreign Policy:

Three recent studies of “peacetech” tools have documented their use and promise, as well as their limitations. The first, “Citizen Participation and Technology,” released in May by the nonpartisan National Democratic Institute (NDI), reviewed nine international programs with which NDI collaborated in countries such as Uganda, Mexico, and Egypt. The programs attempted to leverage technology to improve citizens’ participation in politics.It found, broadly, that technology is expanding this participation and is changing the relationship citizens have with organizations and public institutions, even in places where these effects might not be obvious.

“According to New York University professor Clay Shirky, social media is a tool that strengthens the public sphere — and a robust and active public sphere is necessary to increase political freedoms around the world and to create political change,” Himmelfarbd notes:

larryDiamondLarry Diamond, a founder of the liberation-technology program at Stanford University, echoes this sentiment and points toward a highly controlled society — China, where citizens have used microblogging site Weibo to identify corrupt officials — to best understand this phenomenon…For experts like Diamond and Shirky, the Internet’s decentralized architecture, the spread of cell phones, and the sheer popularity of social-network applications have combined to produce a revolution in social activism. Others, however, have taken issue with this. Writer Malcolm Gladwell, for example, has argued in the New Yorker that a crucial distinction exists between traditional activism and its online variant. Social media, he says, is effective at building loosely affiliated networks, which are the opposite in structure and character of effective social-change movements of the past.

“It is too early to tell the outcomes of today’s violent conflicts that are spawning the chorus of calls for more inclusive governments,” he argues. “But this is certain: The public sphere is growing. And in a world where 3 billion people are expected to enter the global middle class over the next two decades and have greater access to technology in their daily lives, the power of technology-enabled citizen networks to pressure governments and large institutions to act is only going to grow — putting new potential to prevent wars and solve humanity’s most pressing problems within reach, if not in our grasp.”

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