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.


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.”


Vietnam’s pivot: netizens demand ‘right to know’

vietnamese bloggers

Bloggers across Vietnam launched an online campaign Tuesday demanding that their authoritarian government keep the people closely informed about national and foreign policies, including its dealings with giant neighbor China whose territorial disputes with Hanoi have led to riots and a sharp deterioration in bilateral relations, Radio Free Asia reports:

Vietnamese activists have become increasingly vocal over what they call China’s aggression in the disputed South China Sea and Hanoi’s reluctance to take a stronger stand against its northern neighbor. The “We Want to Know” campaign was launched by a Vietnamese bloggers’ group early Tuesday and quickly spread on the Internet through Facebook and other social media sites across the one-party communist state, Haiphong-based blogger Pham Thanh Nghien told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “At 12:00 a.m. last night, Vietnam time, the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers began the campaign ‘We Want to Know,’” said Nghien, who was freed from prison in September 2012 after her online writings earned her a four-year term behind bars. “Our network believes that free access to information helps people exercise their rights as citizens of the country,” she said.

Vietnam’s international strategy is shifting in a dramatic fashion, notes one observer. For years, the country hoped that it could manage China’s drive for regional hegemony by showing Beijing sufficient deference. But that strategy has been upended in recent months, analyst David Brown writes for Foreign Affairs:

At the end of July, Vietnam was awash with rumors that the country’s Politburo had voted 9–5 in favor of “standing up to China.” There was also talk that an extraordinary plenum of the 200-member Party Central Committee would convene to review and confirm the Politburo’s new tilt. The rumors may simply reflect the wishful thinking of a public that’s been far more disposed to tangle with China than its leaders have been. Beijing and Hanoi are still pro forma friends; Le Hong Anh, Vietnam’s top cop and a stalwart of the pro-China faction, was correctly welcomed in Beijing in mid-August and doubtless warned against unfriendly moves.

Even so, chances are good that Vietnam will soon take two game-changing step, Brown suggests:

First, Vietnam will likely challenge China in international courts, seeking a verdict that declares Beijing’s assertion of “historic sovereignty” over nearly all of the South China Sea to beillegitimate and its tactics impermissible…..Second, Vietnam is likely to forge a more intimate diplomatic and military relationship with the United States — not a formal alliance but a partnership based on a common interest in preventing Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea.

Hanoi wants the United States to agree to lift its ban on lethal weapons sales, a step that Washington has conditioned on Hanoi’s improving its treatment of political dissidents. For both governments, it’s a matter of principle. There is a yawning gap between the United States’ insistence that the Vietnamese regime respect fundamental political rights and Vietnamese Communist leaders’ belief that tolerating agitation for democracy poses an existential threat to their system.

On this matter of political freedoms, Hanoi, Washington, or both must compromise if they are to move ahead, but neither country has much room for maneuver. Many members of Congress will be wary of embracing Hanoi, even if they acknowledge that forestalling China’s regional hegemony is in both countries’ interest. For its part, the Vietnamese Politburo’s vision of political order has limited its ability to compromise on human rights. And yet, if Hanoi cannot pledge to open up the sphere of political participation, or Washington cannot take a longer view, the long-discussed strategic relationship will still be beyond reach.


Independent Syrian media comes of age

syria mediaSyria’s independent opposition media represents a miracle of resistance to President Bashar al-Assad and the forces of Isis, the fundamentalist militia that calls itself the Islamic State, Charlotte Eager writes for Newsweek. 

“They wanted to tell the world what was happening,” says Armand Hurault of ASML (Association de Soutien aux Medias Libres), a Paris-based media NGO and implementing partner of Smart, the Syrian Media Action Revolution Team.

ASML and Smart currently work with 300 people throughout Syria, Turkey, Jordan and France, supporting three radio stations, 12 newspapers and a dozen media offices inside Syria, giving video-camera lessons on Skype, providing computers, printers, paper and ink, money and technical assistance.

“Smart is by the largest Syrian independent media network as far as we know,” said Tamara Al Khoury of the Brussels-based civil rights NGO, the European Endowment for Democracy, who gave Smart a €129,000 grant for 2014. “There are other NGOs supporting media in Syria, but most are supporting online media, which is a problem as there is only intermittent electricity in Syria.”


Venezuela media crackdown boosts online media

vzla universalAngel Alayon’s Prodavinci.com blog, with its serious political analysis, has seen unique monthly visitors more than double, to 239,000—the kind of growth that has become typical recently in this news-starved nation, Ezequiel Minaya writes for The Wall Street Journal:

Internet media and social-networking sites in Venezuela added a greater number of users per capita than any other Latin American country in the 12 months ending in June, according to the Virginia-based market researcher, comScore, which tracks computer use. The growth came despite a creaky telecommunication infrastructure and a private sector that is contracting as the economy stumbles.

While the Internet audience expanded 62%, to nearly 10 million unique visitors in that year through June, news websites have also proliferated, from Armando.info and its in-depth reporting to news aggregator La Patilla and the satirical site Chigüire Bipolar, which skewers politicians with fake news.

The news sites have helped fill a gap since investors with business ties to President Nicolás Maduro’s leftist government snapped up three major independent news outlets and scaled back critical coverage, journalists and press-freedom advocates say.

The anonymity of a new ownership group and a dearth of information about the sale of the newspaper El Universal have many Venezuelans fearing it is the latest major media company to fall to what they view as an insidious new way for the oil-rich government to neuter its critics, Nick Miroff writes for The Washington Post:

Mariengracia Chirinos, a researcher with Caracas media watchdog group IPYS, said the pattern began to emerge last year after the sale of the television network Globovisión, which is popular with Venezuela’s opposition.

Under new ownership, the network purged its newsroom and stopped airing live speeches by opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro in April’s presidential race. After Globovisión flipped, the same thing happened with another major news company and its popular daily paper, Últimas Noticias.

Using legislation, steep fines, pressure on advertisers and control of printing paper, the government during the past decade has corralled the mainstream press, says Carlos Lauria, who oversees the Americas for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Minaya adds:

He and other free-speech advocates say the intimidation has deepened since Mr. Maduro was narrowly elected in April 2013 after the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, with dozens of reporters detained, beaten and censored, Mr. Lauria says. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Venezuela among the worst offenders on its press-freedom index. The group said it has collected some 500 complaints of censorship in Venezuela since 2013.

During his 14 years in power, Chávez clashed frequently with Venezuela’s private media companies, and he sent a chill through the country’s newsrooms when he revoked the broadcast license of the leading network, RCTV, in 2007, Miroff adds:

Today, that landscape is cluttered with ruined companies and revoked licenses. While state-run news channels and publications favorable to the government proliferate, observers say, privately controlled media companies are being hammered by new regulations, lawsuits and the weight of Venezuela’s sinking economy.