WIRED UK: Government and the net serve us, not vice versa

The UK print edition of WIRED is running a piece that distills my core argument from the book into “manifesto” form. An excerpt:

We have come to depend on digitally networked platforms, services and devices for almost all aspects of our lives, including our relationship with our physical governments. But these technologies are created, owned and operated mainly by a private sector whose decisions are driven primarily by business considerations, then further shaped by government regulation. It is important for netizens to have access to non-commercial, non-governmental and open-source digital tools, services and spaces that we can build, shape, use and encrypt. But this alone will not solve the problem of government or corporate abuse of power through digital networks.

Despite some activists’ utopian hopes to the contrary, the reality is that governments and companies are going to remain intertwined with our digital lives — for the same reasons that they are part of most people’s physical lives. Citizens continue to demand government help in fighting cybercrime, defending children from stalkers and bullies, and protecting consumers. And it could be argued that the world’s experiments with communism during the last century showed that economies without private enterprise lack innovation.

It is therefore urgent that we — the netizens of the world — do everything in our power to constrain the abuse of power and defend human rights on the corporate- and government-dominated internet, even as we work to build our own independent enclaves and tools when and where we can.

Read the whole thing here.

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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.

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.

An open thank you letter to Global Voices, on International Volunteer Day

Consent of the Networked was inspired in large part by the amazing community of people who contribute to the citizen media platform Global Voices. GV grew out of a gathering of international bloggers that my friend and former colleague Ethan Zuckerman and I organized at Harvard almost exactly seven years ago. In the preface, I describe how the book’s argument is informed in no small part by my experiences in working with the Global Voices community. A number of the stories I tell, and examples I cite to back up arguments throughout the book, were first told or exposed by GV contributors. In chapters 2 and 14 I describe Global Voices as part of an emergent networked civil society – which I call the “digital commons” – whose development and growth is critical to ensure that the Internet evolves in a manner that is compatible with democracy and human rights; not just the interests of the world’s most powerful governments and corporations. A few postings and articles I’ve written about Global Voices over the years include:

Today Ethan and I wrote the following open letter of thanks to the GV community:

—-

Today is International Volunteer Day, a celebration of the millions of people around the world who give their time, energy and wisdom to projects and causes they care about. Volunteers feed the hungry, care for the sick, comfort the grieving. We live in a world where companies and governments are responsible for producing most of the products and services we need and use. Volunteers prove that there’s another way to build things – we can write encyclopedias or operating systems, we can report the news, or host a revolution.

Choosing to build a volunteer community was the key decision that made Global Voices possible. Rebecca and I realized that some of the most interesting information we were getting from the developing world wasn’t coming from professional reporters, but from volunteers, using their blogs to share their perspectives on local and national events with the wider world. Our first action as a community – the manifesto that continues to inform and govern our decisions today – was co-written by volunteers at our first meeting, and rapidly translated into twenty five languages by volunteers.

While there’s a small team of editors and coordinators for whom Global Voices is a job (as well as a passion – we don’t pay well enough for anyone to do this for the money!), the lifeblood of our project is our volunteer community. 532 active volunteers are responsible for Global Voices today, part of the 1,904 volunteers who’ve worked on writing, editing, translating, designing over the seven year life of our endeavour. Volunteers have written more than 58,000 articles on Global Voices, and translated even more. We rely on an even broader community of volunteers – the tens of thousands of bloggers, twitterers and videographers who we feature on our site, the vast majority of whom create not for fiscal gain, but out of passion and dedication – to make our work possible. And we’re governed by volunteers: our board of directors serve without pay, giving their time because they care about our work and the sustainability of our community.

As co-founders of Global Voices, Rebecca and I are profoundly grateful to everyone who gives their time and energy to make the world more just, fair, knowledgeable and connected. But we wanted to call attention to two volunteers who’ve taken incredible risks to work with us. Late last week, Razan Ghazzawi was arrested by Syrian authorities when she travelled to Amman, Jordan to attend a workshop on press freedom. Razan is an active blogger and twitter user, and has written for Global Voices and Global Voices Advocacy. She’s one of several brave Syrians who is willing to work under her own name, despite the dangers of arrest, and we hope for her speedy release from detention.

We also recognize Ali Abdulemam, a Bahraini blogger, activist and Global Voices volunteer. Ali remains in hiding today, because he’s been sentenced to fifteen years in prison by Bahrain’s courts, who accused him of plotting a coup. In fact, Ali was sentenced because he’s been a passionate advocate for online speech in Bahrain, and has been arrested and tortured for his work on Bahrain Online and Global Voices. We are profoundly grateful for everyone who volunteers their time and energy to make Global Voices a reality. We pledge to work with you to make possible a world where no one ever need risk arrest to participate in a remarkable community like ours.

Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon, Global Voices co-founders and volunteers

Kudos and Concerns for Google

Earlier this week, Google published an update of its Transparency Report, which among other things discloses the number of government requests received for user information as well as requests to remove content. The latest report contains more granular data than ever before, including the number of actual users targeted by the government requests. (China remains a black hole because releasing the data would break China’s “state secrets” law and expose Chinese employees to prosecution.) As The Guardian points out, the data show a 70% increase in requests by the U.S. government or police. The company has also refused some takedown requests, including video of police brutality.  In the first half of 2011, Brazil topped the list with the most requests for content removal, followed by Germany, the U.S., and South Korea.

In the book I argue that inadequate transparency and accountability at the nexus between state and corporate power is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. All Internet and telecommunications companies should be required to report regularly and systematically to the public on how content is policed, and under what circumstances it gets removed or blocked and at whose behest. All companies serious about building public credibility and trust should waste no time in following Google’s lead.

Google still has a long way to go, however, when it comes to managing the development and rollout of its various services in a way that does not hurt its most vulnerable users. As Chapter 10 described, the implementation and enforcement of the real-name identity policy on Google Plus has thus far been a fiasco, resulting in dissidents and other vulnerable users around the world being booted from the service. Google’s Senior VP of Social Vic Gundotra recently announced that the social network will “soon” provide support for pseudonyms and other forms of alternative identity not tied to people’s government-issued ID. However it remains unclear what “soon” means.

Meanwhile, Google has announced that it will soon make major changes to Google Reader (an RSS reader used by many people to follow, manage, and share content from a large volume of news and blog feeds). Some of the social sharing functions will be eliminated and Reader will be integrated more closely into Google Plus. What Google staff apparently did not anticipate is how these changes will hurt some users including Iranian users struggling to share information despite harsh censorship. Because Google Reader is encrypted with https, it is harder for the Iranian government to block than most other overseas sites and services. As one Iranian blogger explains:

Google Reader acts like a news spreading website. Easy access to Google reader made it suitable for Iranian community and through all these years, specially after June 2009 election, developed an strong community for spreading the news.

Elimination of Reader’s sharing functions will put an end to this. Even worse, if Reader is integrated with Google Plus before the company finds a way to accommodate pseudonymous users and other forms identity not tied to people’s government-issued identity, Iranian users will be left even further in the cold.

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.