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.


Foreign Policy: The Rise of Europe’s Private Internet Police

This week in Foreign Policy I examine the debate in Europe over whether and how private Internet companies should be expected to police people’s activities on the Internet. An excerpt:

European governments may not have intended to create a “privatized police state,” but that is what digital rights activists in Europe warn is happening, due to growing government pressure on companies to police themselves. As Joe McNamee, director of the Brussels-based nonprofit European Digital Rights Initiative (EDRI), puts it, “We are sleepwalking further and further along a road on which we’ve decided that our right to communication and privacy shall be put in the hands of arbitrary decisions of private companies.”

Read the whole commentary 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.”

Foreign Policy: The Shawshank Prevention

In Chapter 3 of my book I described how Internet censorship works in China. Foreign social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and many Google services are blocked by the “Great Firewall” of China, so most Chinese Internet users spend their time on social media services run by Chinese companies which are required to carry out heavy political censorship. Most recently, the name of the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng  has been censored on the Chinese social media platform Weibo – and so was the name of the Hollywood movie Shawshank Redemption. Why? Because once it became impossible to mention Chen’s name directly, Chinese netizens used the movie about a prison break to allude to Chen’s dramatic escape from house arrest.

In Chapter 12 I described the political fights in Washington that came to a head in 2010 and 2011 over  the State Department’s “Internet freedom” policy and, specifically, which projects should receive U.S. government funding to build tools that help people in China and elsewhere circumvent Internet censorship.  My latest article published Wednesday on ForeignPolicy.com gives an update on how circumvention tools are used in China. I conclude:

Whether or not the U.S. government funds circumvention tools, or who exactly it funds and with what amount, it is clear that Internet users in China and elsewhere are seeking out and creating their own ad hoc solutions to access the uncensored global Internet. In China today, thanks to the government’s success in nurturing a domestic commercial walled garden, circumvention technology has not been a direct driver of political change. Yet circumvention tools of various kinds have provided a lifeline for a small core of tech-savvy liberals who are becoming more active online as political uncertainty grows. Meanwhile, the recent political uncertainty is driving new demand for circumvention technology, which could make it just that much more difficult than in the past for the government to control what the Chinese public learns — or believes — about Chen Guangchen and this week’s delicate diplomatic dance between Washington and Beijing.

Read the whole thing here.

Preaching Internet Freedom, Practicing Surveillance

In Foreign Affairs this week, I argue that while Washington preaches global Internet freedom, its practices are facilitating the global spread of unaccountable surveillance. An excerpt:

In the Internet age, it is technically trivial for corporations and governments to gain access to people’s private communications and track their movements. The Obama administration recognizes that online freedom requires not only an open and uncensored Internet, but also one on which government and corporate surveillance powers are appropriately constrained, so that citizens are protected against abuse, and abusers are held accountable. Without strong global standards of public transparency and accountability in how surveillance technologies are deployed, the empowering potential of the Internet diminishes quickly.

Yet, even as the White House clamps down in Iran and Syria, other parts of the U.S. government are driving the development of policies, regulatory norms, and business practices that make a mockery of Washington’s well-meaning efforts to expand Internet freedom abroad. Put another way, although the State Department funnels millions of dollars to nonprofits fighting censorship and surveillance beyond U.S. borders, repressive digital surveillance around the world continues to expand in scope and sophistication.

Read the whole thing here.

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.

The Not-So-Great Firewall of China

My latest piece in Foreign Policy discusses social media as a battlefield for public opinion in China. An excerpt:

China’s censorship and propaganda systems may be complex and multilayered, but they are obviously not well coordinated. Writing in the Guardian this week, dissident artist Ai Weiwei declared that while China’s Internet censorship system may be the envy of autocrats worldwide, China’s leaders need to understand that in the long run “it’s not possible for them to control the Internet unless they shut it off.” He was half right: While the Chinese government’s tactics may be ham-handed and likely doomed to failure in the long run, they are working well enough to keep the Communist Party in power for the short to medium term.

You can read the whole thing here.

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.

Internet Freedom Starts at Home

I have just written an essay for Foreign Policy on the Global Online Freedom Act and why the United States needs to do a better job of practicing at home what it preaches for the world. Here is how it begins:

“An electronic curtain has fallen around Iran,” U.S. President Barack Obama warned in a recent video message marking the Persian New Year. Government censorship and surveillance, he said, make it more difficult for Iranians to “access the information that they want,” denying “the rest of the world the benefit of interacting with the Iranian people.”

Implied though not explicit in Obama’s remarks was the idea that if Iran’s Internet were freer and more open, Iran’s relationship with the world generally — and the United States in particular — would be different. Cases like Iran are the main driver of Washington’s bipartisan consensus around the idea that a free and open global Internet is in the United States’ strategic interest.

Yet more than two years after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her first speech declaring “Internet freedom” to be a major component of U.S. foreign policy, it turns out that many of the most sophisticated tools used to suppress online free speech and dissent around the world are actually Made in the USA. American corporations are major suppliers of software and hardware used by all sorts of governments to carry out censorship and surveillance — and not just dictatorships. Inconveniently, governments around the democratic world are pushing to expand their own censorship and surveillance powers as they struggle to address genuine problems related to cybercrime, cyberwar, child protection, and intellectual property.

Even more inconveniently, the U.S. government is the biggest and most powerful customer of American-made surveillance technology, shaping the development of those technologies as well as the business practices and norms for public-private collaboration around them. As long as the U.S. government continues to support the development of a surveillance-technology industry that clearly lacks concern for the human rights and civil liberties implications of its business — even rewarding secretive and publicly unaccountable behavior by these companies — the world’s dictators will remain well supplied by a robust global industry.

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.