Netizen Report: Fight for the Future Edition

By monashosh on Flickr

Meet Khaled Alaa Abdel Fattah, born last Tuesday to two Egyptian cyber-activists: mother Manal Bahey al-Din Hassan and father Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who is currently in prison. Khaled is named after Khaled Said, the young man whose violent death at the hands of police in 2010 became a symbol and rallying point for activism that brought down the Mubarak regime earlier this year.”

Little Khaled was born as Internet-driven activism in another part of the world, Russia, is bringing a new generation of young people – many of whom had never participated in a protest beforeinto the streets to oppose election results that they believe to have been rigged in the ruling party’s favor. One blogger told TIME magazine that he risked reprisals by United Russia supporters to post flyers around Moscow on the eve of the election, calling on people to vote against them. One flyer said:

“One day, your child will ask you, Papa, what were you doing when the crooks and thieves were robbing our country blind?”

People like Alaa, Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi who was arrested on the Jordanian border last weekend, and Ali Abdulemam, the Bahraini blogger who has been in hiding since February, are all fighting for a world in which their own children will be able to speak their minds and participate in opposition politics without going to prison. But what about the rest of us? To echo the Russian blogger’s question:

What are we doing to make sure that our children will even be able to use the Internet to fight for their rights speak truth to power?

The war for freedom and control of the Internet continues to rage. To get the full rundown, check out the latest Netizen Report on Global Voices Advocacy. Since September I have been working with the Global Voices team and several volunteers to publish these twice monthly updates on global developments related to the power dynamics between citizens, companies and governments on the Internet. You can even subscribe to them by e-mail here.

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Tunisia and the Internet: A chance to get things right?

This coming Sunday (October 23rd, 2011), Tunisia will hold elections for the constituent assembly that will be tasked with re-writing the country’s constitution. While this election is only the first step in a long and winding path that may or may not succeed in establishing a vibrant Arab democracy in North Africa, reports are quoting election observers and human rights groups who are optimistic that people are serious about the process of holding a real election.

Censorship is a major topic in the Tunisian political discoure. There have recently been protests by conservatives demanding censorship of all media including TV, film, and Internet and protests by liberals against censorship. After  Internet censorship was ended when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in January, some censorship of pornographic and incendiary web content resumed in May of this year, prompting heated debates over who has the authority to decide what goes on the censorship list and whether that power will inevitably be abused.

At the Third Arab Bloggers Meeting in Tunis earlier this month, Moez Chakchouk, Chairman and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency, gave an amazing presentation (slideshow included) in which he revealed that under Ben Ali, his agency had secretly tested censorship and surveillance software for Western companies. He would not say which ones, although according to Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Tunisia long used McAfee’s SmartFilter to censor the Internet under the Ben Ali regime, and controversially has resumed some filtering  in a much more limited way during the transition.

ATI (as the Tunisian Internet Agency is known according to its French acronym) was much reviled by activists under Ben Ali and nicknamed “Ammar 404” – the Arabic equivalent of “Joe 404,” with “404” referring to the “404 page not found” error message that appears on browsers when a web page has been blocked. Now Mr. Chakchouk says he is trying to turn the agency into a “transparent” and “neutral” Internet exchange point (IXP) that can support a robust public discourse in an evolving new democracy. He wants to put an end to web filtering at the network level and instead provide tools and services for households to filter their home Internet if they so desire, without engaging in blanket censorship for the entire nation. In general, he believes that Tunisia must foster competition and innovation in Internet services. He wants Tunisia adopt global “best practices” in Internet governance.

After a Tunisian court ruled in May that some websites must be blocked, the ATI appealed the ruling twice, but lost both appeals. It is making a further appeal to the highest court.

Click here for a video of Chakchouk’s entire speech in French (perhaps somebody will give it English and Arabic subtitles at some point). Here is a shorter English interview he did immediately afterwards with Tunisia Online:

Whether Mr. Chakchouk will succeed or even keep his job, or whether the ATI will survive as an independent agency, Tunisian activists told me at the conference, will depend in no small part on the outcome of this weekend’s elections and the continued political jockeying beyond.

Riadh Guerfali, co-founder of the citizen media platform Nawaat.org which played a key role in spreading protest information and who is now running as an independent candidate from his home town of Bizerte (and who features prominently in chapters 1 and 14 of the book), has made Internet access and online free expression a key goal, as have many other former activists who are now running for office. On the other hand, there are other candidates – on both the left and the right – calling for Internet censorship as part of an effort to attract more conservative religious voters. Who will prevail in the election remains to be seen… and how the constituent assembly will choose to handle the questions of censorship and civil liberties when they write the constitution is even less clear.

“Information infrastructure is politics,” writes Philip N. Howard of Washington State University in a recently published Brookings Institution report on authoritarian regimes and Internet controls. Tunisian politics over the coming year are likely to determine the shape of the country’s information infrastructure – and decide just how different it will be from the past, or not. The shape of the infrastructure will in turn shape political discourse to the extent that it enables a full range of political viewpoints, debates, and even whistleblowing; or whether it enshrines censorship and surveillance mechanisms that can enable  power-holders to subtly (or not so subtly) manipulate information and surveil Internet users.

Netizens across the world mourn Steve Jobs’ death

In Consent of the Networked (whose manuscript was finalized in mid-August before Jobs stepped down and then passed away), I am critical of Apple and its approach to app censorship, its general lack of openness, and the potential long-term implications for freedom and democracy. Soon after Jobs announced his retirement and not long before he passed away, my friend Christine Bader wrote about the serious environmental and labor problems that stain Jobs’ legacy.

That said, there is no question that Jobs’ leadership and vision transformed not only personal computing but hundreds of millions of people’s relationship with technology. People all over the world have good reason to feel strongly about the ways in which Apple computers and devices have enriched their lives. The emotional depth of the global reaction to his death has been stronger and more personal than global responses to the deaths of most world leaders. He touched the lives of all kinds of people in the most intimate and tangible ways. As I pointed out in the most recent edition of The Netizen Report, one pseudonymous Chinese Internet user spotted by the Wall Street Journal remarked: “This is the first time a foreigner’s death has been hard for me to take.” (See more Chinese netizen reaction here.) Global Voices rounded up reactions to Jobs’ death from Africa, the Arab world, and the Caribbean. The dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote about how Jobs’ persistence and ingenuity in the face of his own hardships inspired her to persist in building her own home-made computer in the 1990’s with which she eventually produced a university newsletter. Not all tributes are positive:  Bloggers in Brazil, for instance, criticized Apple’s lack of openness.

Global Voices’ Fred Petrossian linked to this cartoon by the famous Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani:


Fred’s translation: “An old man says to the ‘Angel of Death’ there are many dinosaurs in Iran and you go after ‘red apples’.”

This speaks to a point I make in the first chapter of my book about how new kinds of global constituencies are forming around certain brands of hardware, software, and virtual platforms created by multi-national companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter. Members of these global constituencies can hold strong and even emotionally-charged loyalties towards technologies that they have integrated into their lives and even identities. These overlapping loyalties and constituencies will increasingly compete and clash with loyalties and identities tied to the physical nation-state.

No government – not even the Western ones claiming to champion Internet freedom – is equipped to deal with the long-term consequences of this trend. But that doesn’t mean that we should leave it to the world’s multi-national technology companies to refashion global geopolitics to their own liking just because so many governments are not getting it right. We the world’s netizens must work to make sure that the Internet, the geopolitical system, and the international economy evolve in a way that serves everybody’s rights and interests, not just those of the most powerful one percent.