Digital Bonapartism, Russia, and America in 2016

American democracy is entering uncharted and treacherous territory. Fabricated news to discredit political opponents, use of social media to manipulate the public discourse, and political hacking have been around for a long time in many parts of the world.

In light of raging debates about fake news, hacking, and other types of online manipulation in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and what to do about it, I’ve decided to make freely available a few excerpts from a key section of the book titled “Control 2.0.”

From Chapter 3: Networked Authoritarianism (mainly about China) see Western Fantasies vs. Reality

From Chapter 4: Variants and Permutations, see Divide and Conquer and Digital Bonapartism. Here is how I explain the concept of “digital bonapartism:”

In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx coined the term “bonapartism” to describe political leadership by a populist demagogue who seeks to legitimize himself with democratic rhetoric and trappings. The term was inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule after the French Revolution: usurpation of popular revolution by military officers, strong nationalist messages, populist rhetoric about reform and equality, and elections lacking strong alternatives. Today, after having thrown off communism, Russia is pioneering a new digital-age version of bonapartism: conservative-nationalist rule unchallenged by viable political opposition despite the formal existence of multiparty parliamentary and presidential elections, which are effectively populist plebiscites, and manipulation of public opinion through the control—both direct and indirect—of digital networks and platforms.

The final paragraph of that excerpt – and of the “Control 2.0” section, concludes:

It remains to be seen whether a more genuine form of democracy, in which dissenters’ rights are protected from extrajudicial threats and vigilante violence, will emerge from Russia’s digital bonapartism. In the meantime, a new model has emerged that can be replicated elsewhere: government leaders use the Internet to carry out a much more direct and populist discourse with citizens in ways that were not possible before the Internet, thus bridging an emotional and psychological gap between rulers and ruled, and building greater public sympathy for the leaders as people. The Internet serves as a “focus group” and early-warning system for the government, alerting policy makers when certain policies just are not working or need modification to prevent unrest. More negatively, pro government bloggers and journalists are encouraged to mount slur campaigns to discredit reformists and activists who pose serious challenges to the regime’s credibility. Anonymous threats against activists who cross the line also help. A full-ranging public discourse about the nation’s political future is thus constrained and stunted, and the status quo power arrangements are more easily maintained. This dynamic begs an uncomfortable question: To what extent are the world’s oldest, most established democracies vulnerable to digital bonapartism?

(Emphasis added to the final sentence.)

Netizen Report: Intervention Edition

This week’s Netizen Report on Global Voices Advocacy begins in Kuwait:

Throughout this week’s edition we highlight examples of government intervention to limit free speech online, ostensibly “for the greater good”. In Kuwait, a Shi’ite man has been sentenced to prison for ten years for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammad and Sunni Muslims via Twitter. Pleading innocent, Hamad Al-Naqi said the posts were written by someone who had hacked his Twitter account.

From there we travel to China, India, South Africa, Tunisia, Oman, Facebookistan, and beyond. Click here to read the whole thing.

Mark News: Internet Freedom and the Erosion of Democracy

Canada’s Mark News has just published my latest essay on how increasing government surveillance around the world is threatening the freedoms granted by Internet access. An excerpt:

This week, at least 125 million people are watching the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual competition of singers from 56 countries across Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union. This year’s contest is hosted by Azerbaijan, a country whose human-rights record has come under heavy fire.

Azerbaijan is a classic example of how, even when people are free to connect to the global Internet, they can be subject to pervasive, unaccountable, and unconstrained surveillance. It is also a case of how, while western democratic governments have been quick to follow the lead of the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in calling for a free and open global Internet, they are much more conflicted when it comes to surveillance. The democratic world has failed to address the freedom-eroding potential of government surveillance through commercial networks.

Read the rest of the piece here.

Does Internet Activism Work?

The Cato Institute’s online publication Cato Unbound is running a discussion about the effectiveness of Internet activism. Libertarian thinker and writer Berin Szoka argues that the Internet does make activism easier, but it can also be manipulated by governments. My response, “Internet Activism? Let’s Look at the Specifics” unpacks some of the offline, political, and economic factors behind the success and failure of different online movements. Ironically, I conclude: “Activism is urgently required—nationally and globally—to ensure that the Internet remains compatible with activism.”

Containing Weapons of Mass Surveillance

My latest article in Foreign Policy argues that President Obama is on the right track with Monday’s executive order, but the United States needs to get tougher on the global digital arms race. I conclude:

President Obama has certainly taken a step in the right direction with Monday’s executive order. But the executive branch and Congress will need to do much more if they want to stem electronic abuses against activists in Iran and Syria — let alone anywhere else. It’s time to take decisive action to stop American and other multinationals from aiding and abetting the wrong side in the global digital arms race.

Read the whole thing here.

The article contains a late-breaking update. After my deadline had passed, I managed to reach a spokesperson at the Department of Commerce, who confirmed that an investigation of Blue Coat is “ongoing.” Blue Coat is the California-based company whose surveillance and censorship devices turned up in Syria last year. I described the circumstances in the article as follows:

Last October, the international activist group Telecomix published log files taken from 13 Blue Coat devices deployed by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment to monitor and block users’ activity. Facing scrutiny over apparent violation of a strict U.S. embargo against technology sales to Syria, Blue Coat later told the Wall Street Journal that these devices were shipped to a Dubai reseller that claimed the final destination as Iraq. In December, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed restrictions on a person and an entity in the United Arab Emirates for having sold the devices to Syria. But questions remain about what Blue Coat really knew or didn’t know, because after installation in Syria the devices transmitted regular automatic status messages back to the company’s computer servers. Blue Coat claims that it doesn’t monitor the origin of such messages.

Fighting the Great Firewall of Pakistan

Foreign Policy has published my latest contribution, Fighting the Great Firewall of Pakistan, featuring an interview with Sana Saleem, Global Voices contributor and founder of the Karachi-based social justice organization, Bolo Bhi. Here is how the article begins:

It takes a strong stomach and a thick skin to be a female activist fighting online censorship in Pakistan. Sana Saleem has both.

The 24-year-old founder of a Karachi-based free expression group Bolo Bhi has been accused of supporting “blasphemy.” On Twitter, a chilling message made the rounds last month: “this @sanasaleem is a prostitute who feature in porn movies #throwacidonsana.” Her photo was posted in pornography forums.

None of this has fazed Sana, who in conjunction with several other young Pakistani blogger-activists had launched a successful campaign that has shamed the government into halting plans for a national Internet censorship system. A long-time contributor to the international bloggers network Global Voices Online, in March Saleem joined forces with other groups including the Pakistan-based social justice group Bytes For All and other activists like the dentist-blogger Awab Alvi, a.k.a. “Teeth Maestro,” who has been campaigning against censorship since 2006. Their success is a victory for free speech, and not only in Pakistan. It holds lessons for activists around the world who are fighting uphill battles against censorship schemes initiated by governments that claim to be acting in the public interest, and who have support from influential political constituencies.

Click here to read the rest.

Learning from Egypt’s Internet and Cellphone Shutdown | Human Rights First

I wrote about Egypt’s Internet shutdown and the Egyptian government’s surveillance capabilities in the book’s introduction and in the beginning of Chapter 4. One year later, human rights groups, companies, and academics have had a chance to study and analyze what happened last year, and are drawing some important lessons about the relationship between a country’s telecommunications and Internet infrastructure and political change.

Human Rights First has an important blog post about the lessons to be learned by foreign carriers like Vodafone who were compelled along with domestic companies to do the Egyptian government’s bidding. The post begins:

One year ago, in a failed attempt to cling to power, Hosni Mubarak’s doomed government activated his country’s kill switch and shut down the internet and phone system. It was an unprecedented and desperate move, and it backfired. Egyptians flocked to Tahrir Square to raise their collective voices against the regime. But the image of the internet going dark was like the failing heartbeat of a dying patient. It pointed to a government losing its grip, and it raised all kinds of uncomfortable questions: about governmental authority over Egypt’s ICT sector; the responsibilities of private telecommunications and internet companies operating in Egypt and in similar authoritarian countries; and the expectations of customers who rely on ICT services. We at Human Rights First have been examining these questions for the past year and offer these observations about what happened and some suggestions for a way forward.

All governments have “kill switch” authority, that is, the authority to commandeer or suspend private communications networks, typically for reasons of national security or natural disaster. Some are more democratic, and have more independent judiciaries than others. But the temptation to use this authority can overwhelm even the most democratic societies. Reports that rioters in London used RIM messaging service to organize last August prompted the Prime Minister to threaten a clampdown on social media sites. Shortly thereafter, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system shut off cellphone service to one of its stations in an attempt to thwart a planned protest there.

In the case of Egypt, the government owns enough of the infrastructure to shut down the network with or without private cooperation. For the last year, we’ve had an ongoing dialogue with Vodafone, the largest telecommunications service provider in Egypt, about their reaction to the shutdown. Based on the information they’ve provided us, we’ve reached the following conclusions.

They are in sum:

  1. Egypt’s Transition to Democracy Isn’t Possible as Long as the Military Remains in Control of ICT Regulation.
  2. Without Effective Control of the Infrastructure, Taking Control of the Shutdown Process to Minimize its Impact is a Reasonable Course of Action.
  3. Even the Most Well-Intentioned Corporate Strategy Will Fall Short – In Execution and/or Perception – Unless Informed by Stakeholder Engagement.
  4. The Lack of Policies to Address Government Demands to Limit or Degrade Service Leaves Companies at Risk. To Avoid or Minimize these Risks Companies Should Work with Peers and Other Stakeholders, Such as the Global Network Initiative, to Elaborate Appropriate Strategies.

Read the full detailed explanation of HRF’s important conclusions here.

Surveillance technologies and “apolitical” corporations

Since the book’s manuscript was finalized in August, there has been a steady stream of headlines recently about the use of Western surveillance technology by repressive regimes, adding to the cases I described in Chapter 4 and elsewhere. One of the biggest stories has been the revelation by the hacktivist group Telecomix that the Syrian government continues to use censorship and monitoring devices manufactured by the California-based company Blue Coat. Late last month the company has finally acknowledged that at least thirteen of its devices are being used by Syria.

Today, The Guardian has an amazing article titled “Governments turn to hacking techniques for surveillance of citizens.” It describes the annual Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) World Americas  conference, at which surveillance firms share tips on the latest “lawful interception” techniques used to spy on citizens. The companies showed little concern for how this technology can be and is being abused around the world. An excerpt:

Jerry Lucas, the president of the company behind ISS World, TeleStrategies, does not deny surveillance developers that attend his conference supply to repressive regimes. In fact, he is adamant that the manufacturers of surveillance technology, such as Gamma International, SS8 and Hacking Team, should be allowed to sell to whoever they want.

“The surveillance that we display in our conferences, and discuss how to use, is available to any country in the world,” he said. “Do some countries use this technology to suppress political statements? Yes, I would say that’s probably fair to say. But who are the vendors to say that the technology is not being used for good as well as for what you would consider not so good?”

Would he be comfortable in the knowledge that regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea were purchasing this technology from western companies? “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has proposed a two-part “know your customer” framework for surveillance equipment:

  1. Companies selling surveillance technologies to governments need to affirmatively investigate and “know your customer” before and during a sale.  We suggest something for human rights similar to what most of these companies are already required to do under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the export regulations for other purposes, and
  2. Companies need to refrain from participating in transactions where their “know your customer” investigations reveal either objective evidence or credible concerns that the technologies provided by the company will be used to facilitate human rights violations.

Click here for further details. One of the broader problems, of course, is that the market for ever-more sophisticated surveillance equipment feeds unaccountable abuses of power not only by authoritarian regimes but also by democratic governments.

As long as engineers and companies claim to have no responsibility for the political context in which their inventions and products are used, the problem is going to grow worse. This problem of “amoral” technology being used for immoral purposes has been exacerbated in the Internet age, but it has been around a lot longer. In a talk I gave last week at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, I played a video clip from Tom Lehrer‘s early 1960’s song about ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun:

The lyrics :

Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun,
A man whose allegiance
Is ruled by expedience.
Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown.
“Ha, Nazi Schmazi,” says Wernher von Braun.

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
Say rather that he’s apolitical.

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some think our attitude
Should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.

You too may be a big hero,
Once you’ve learned to count backwards to zero.
“In German oder English I know how to count down,
Und I’m learning Chinese,” says Wernher von Braun