Autocratic regimes fight Web-savvy opponents with their own tools
(Mary Beth Sheridan, The Washington Post, May 22, 2011)
For weeks, Syrian democracy activists have used Facebook and Twitter to promote a wave of bold demonstrations. Now, the Syrian government and its supporters are striking back — not just with bullets, but with their own social-media offensive.
Mysterious intruders have scrawled pro-government messages on dissidents’ Facebook pages. Facebook pages have popped up offering cyber tools to attack the opposition. The Twitter #Syria hashtag — which had carried accounts of the protests — has been deluged with automated messages bearing scenes of nature and old sports scores.
“There is a war itself going on in cyberspace,” said Wissam Tarif, head of the Middle East human rights organization Insan, whose Web site has been attacked.
Syria offers just one example of the online backlash in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. Although social media sites have been lionized for their role in the Arab Spring protests, governments are increasingly turning the technology against the activists.
“In the same way that, a few years ago, it became commonplace to talk about Web 2.0, we’re now seeing Repression 2.0,” said Daniel B. Baer, a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has expressed alarm about the trend, which began years ago in places such as China and Iran and has spread recently. “In a number of countries, democracy and human rights activists and independent bloggers found their e-mails hacked or their computers infected with spyware that reported back on their every keystroke. Digital activists have been tortured so they would reveal their passwords,” she said last month.
For several years, Congress has given the State Department millions of dollars annually to provide technology to help activists evade Internet censorship by oppressive governments. But diplomats are increasingly realizing that the threat goes beyond blocked Web sites.
In several Arab countries where popular rebellions have erupted, activists have discovered anonymous death threats arriving via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.
In Bahrain, Mohammed al-Maskati, a 24-year-old human rights defender, became the target of a smear campaign on Facebook. Government supporters posted his home address and picture on various forums and urged that he be killed, Maskati said in an interview.
“Some people say, ‘We will kill you, and we will do this and this’ — bad words — ‘if you don’t stop [defending] human rights,’ ” he said in a telephone interview.
Maskati is hardly alone. “A lot of leading, moderate bloggers have had to flee the country because of threats to their person online,” said Robert Guerra, head of the global Internet program at Freedom House, a pro-democracy group.
The Bahraini Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
When it faced swelling protests earlier this year, Egypt’s government effectively shut down Internet access across the entire country. Other governments have taken to the Web with their own campaigns. China has the “50-cent party,” named for the fee its members allegedly receive when they flood sites with propaganda. The Iranian Cyber Army, run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, hacks into opposition and news sites, according to Freedom on the Net 2011, a report by Freedom House.
In Sudan, young people inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have used social media to organize sporadic demonstrations against the longtime ruling party.
Osman Hummaida, a New York-based activist who runs the African Center for Justice and Peace Studies, said Sudanese authorities detained demonstrators and pressured them — sometimes under torture — to give up their Facebook and other account passwords.
“Through that, they started trying to sabotage the whole network, by sending false information” about pro-democracy gatherings, he said, including wrong dates and locations.
The actions had a chilling effect on the protests, which have not gained momentum. Although young Sudanese have not given up, “they are more careful in using the Internet,” Adil Abdel Aati, an opposition party member, said in a Skype message.
A Sudanese official, Mandur al-Mahdi, was quoted recently in the Sudanese media as saying that ruling party “cyber-jihadists” had launched “online defense operations” to crush any effort to topple the government.
But Sudan’s charge d’affaires in Washington, Fatahelrahman Ali Mohammed, said authorities were simply trying to get their message out.
“It is something natural that the government would encourage the supporters to go to the Internet,” he said. “But I don’t have information that there is a campaign which is declared.” He said he also was unaware of anyone being forced to give up their passwords.
Syria’s government, which has long been accused of spying on Internet users, appeared to signal leniency when it lifted its ban on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in February.
But since then, it has dispatched tanks and snipers to put down a wave of peaceful demonstrations. It has cut off electricity and phone service to cities hit by protests, crippling Internet use, and arrested bloggers. And there are signs of a somewhat more sophisticated campaign.
Recently, some Internet users in Syria discovered that their Facebook security certificates had been switched, allowing outsiders to track their log-in information and online activity.
“We don’t know who’s doing it. We assume it’s the Syrian Telecom,” which is affiliated with the government, said Jillian York, director of international freedom of expression at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.
After activists posted online videos of soldiers attacking protesters, government supporters began to upload footage that they said shows that the protesters are Islamist extremists or are using weapons, according to Tarif, the human rights activist.
“They run their own campaign to discredit the campaign of the revolution,” he said. In one case, activists say, a video purportedly showing Syrian protesters attacking police officers turned out to be footage from Iraq.
Syrian regime supporters also have been posting their version of events on foreign media sites, including that of The Washington Post.
The Syrian Embassy in Washington did not return calls for comments.
To help the embattled activists, Baer said, the State Department has funded “cyber-defense” training for 5,000 people in the past two years. The department is stepping up its efforts, with plans for additional training and new gizmos — such as a digital “secret handshake” to enable Internet users to know who they are chatting with online.
Guerra said users are often unaware of the extent to which governments monitor them.
“They’re just happy there’s Internet. They are oblivious as to how insecure it is for them,” he said. “That’s a huge problem.”
New Angola computer law could have effect on social media
(Michael Malakata, IDG News Service, May 23, 2011)
In the face of an upsurge in African cybercrime targeting the financial sector and uprisings meant to force regime change in many African countries, the Angolan government has approved a computer crime law that is expected to have a ripple effect in the region.
The law on information and communication technology crimes gives security forces powers to search and confiscate data without a court order and creates penalties of up 12 years imprisonment for any crime committed using a computer.
The Angolan law is however also aimed at preventing unrest in Angola that is coordinated by social networks.
The law has been approved as part of a package of laws regulating information technology and data protection in Angola. In March this year, the Angolan government successfully managed to neutralize an antigovernment demonstration that had been called via the Internet, whose aim of to end the 32-year regime of the country's president, Edwardo dos Santos.
Waves of antigovernment demonstrations are currently sweeping through Africa following the successful ousting of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali early this year. The demonstrations in Africa are being coordinated through e-mail and social networks. Failed economic policies and failure by African leaders to relinquish power have been the major cause of the demonstrations.
Attempts to block social networks have been made in Cameroon, Uganda and Swaziland in a bid to stop people from sharing information that could incite the public against the government. But Angola has become the first country to formulate a law that give powers to security forces to search and confiscate data in a bid to prevent the coordination of demonstrations against the government through the Internet.
The Angolan government said the law is justified by the fact that the advancement of the telecom sector, in addition to providing increased production and improved working methods, also facilitates the emergence of new forms of computer crime.
"The law is aimed at stopping people from committing crimes on the internet in the domain of information and communication technology," said Angolan Minister of Telecommunication and Information Technology Jose de Cavalho da Rocha in a phone interview.
As in Many African countries including Zambia, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, the use of internet and social media by journalists, opposition political parties, civic and human rights activists has become very important in Angola as a way of circumventing the longstanding restrictions on traditional media. Facebook, Twitter and blogs are being used as avenues for discussing economic and political issues.
Last month, Edwardo dos Santos claimed that the internet was being used to organize unauthorized demonstrations.
Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch said the law would deepen and extend existing restrictions on Angola's media environment and could deter journalists from posting videos of demonstrations and police brutality on the Internet.
G8 and the Internet: Sarkozy messes with a good thing
(Don Tapscott, HuffingtonPost.com, May 27, 2011)
The irony couldn't be more obvious. After staging a piece of political theater called the E-G8, which French President Nicolas Sarkozy used as a platform to champion the notion of much tougher government control over the Internet, the president today will welcome to the analog G8 meeting in Deauville, representatives from the interim governments of Tunisia and Egypt.
Without the Internet, and social media in particular, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt would simply have never occurred.
Sarkozy's problem is that, like other political leaders, he doesn't like a medium over which the government does not have final authority. With the Internet's arrival, lofty concepts such as freedom of speech and freedom of thought are actually gaining traction. Prior to this, freedom of speech was meaningful only to those who powerful people who could use the printing presses and broadcast media.
Earlier this week in the UK, for example, football star Ryan Giggs filed a lawsuit against Twitter and thousands of Twitter users who ignored a court-ordered injunction that prohibited the media from identifying the celebrities involved in an extramarital affair case in which Giggs is a central figure. The so-called super injunction is truly odious, and prohibits newspapers and other media from even saying the injunction exists. In the old model of centralized, one-to-many mass media, the hiding of inconvenient truths was easily achieved. No longer.
This alarms politicians such as Sarkozy. In his opening address at the E-G8, he told his audience of digital luminaries from around the world that, "The universe you represent is not a parallel universe. Nobody should forget that governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies. To forget this is to risk democratic chaos and anarchy."
Sarkozy sounds like a music recording industry executive arguing that MP3s and file-sharing have already created chaos and anarchy in the music world. The music industry has responded to the democratization of music distribution with intransigence and lawsuits. They sought a legal solution to a business model disruption and are now paying the price. For his part, Sarkozy has enshrined in French law that anyone caught downloading copyright-protected music from the Internet without permission more than three times should have their Internet access cut off. I'm not the only one to view this approach as truly asinine. Last week the U.N.'s independent expert on freedom of speech, Frank La Rue, said that politicians promoting this response don't understand that access to the Internet has become a basic human right.
Given his views on the Internet and music, it is not surprising that most Internet-industry delegates at the E-G8 shivered when Sarkozy said that, "We need to hear your aspirations, your needs," but that "You need to hear our limits, our red lines."
During one of the E-G8 panel discussions, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt responded to Sarkozy's attitude by saying, "You want to tread lightly on regulating brand new, innovative industries... Clearly you need some level of regulation for the evil stuff. But I would be careful about overregulating the Internet."
"I cannot imagine any delegate in this conference [who] would want Internet growth to be significantly slowed by a government that slows it down because of some stupid rule that they put in place," he said.
Schmidt has the proper perspective. The appropriate debate is not between Sarkozy's oppressive approach as opposed to no regulation whatsoever. Obviously the rule of rule should prevail in cyberspace just as it does in the bricks-and-mortar world.
But the Internet is changing every institution in society. It enables new approaches to innovation, requiring new thinking about patents and copyright. It renders old institutions naked, requiring more transparency on the part of governments and corporations. It disrupts old models of learning and pedagogy demanding a change a relationship between students and teachers in the learning process. It offers new models of democracy based on a culture of public discourse, in turn compelling old style politicians to engage their citizens. It turns intellectual property into bits, that don't know the old rules that governed atoms of how to behave. It drops the transaction costs of dissent, subjecting dictators and tyrants to the power of mass participation. It breaks down national boundaries and requiring a rethinking of how peoples everywhere can cooperate to solve global problems. And for the first time in history children are an authority on the most important innovation changing every institution in society.
Predictably, old style political leaders comfortable with the industrial age are dazed and confused, and many feel threatened. A new communications medium is causing disruption, dislocation and uncertainty. And leaders of old paradigms with vested interests fear what they do not understand, and react with coolness or even hostility. Rather than innovating and opening up they often hunker down, trying to strengthen old outdated rules and approaches.
Let's hope the representatives from Tunisia and Egypt talk sense into Sarkozy and the other leaders when they meet today. Yes, the Internet should be on the G8 agenda, but not from the perspective that this technology poses some menace to the world's democracies. Rather, G8 leaders should discuss how to champion and promote the growth of the Internet within their own countries and around the world.
Rather than discussing the constraints that should be put on Internet users in democratic countries, they should focus their energies on how to unconstrain users in non-democracies such as China.
Excerpts from: "Social Media in Singapore Politics: It’s Serious Business Folks!" by Raymond Tham, EconomyWatch.com, May 24, 2011
It takes a brave person to write about politics in Singapore.
Over the years, publications and journalists have been sued - and even jailed for criticising the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), who have been in power since 1963.
The older generation of Singaporeans believe criticising the government only means trouble. Even in private conversations, many older Singaporeans resist talking about the government in the fear “big brother” may be listening.
In past interviews, former Prime Minister and founder of the PAP, Lee Kuan Yew has made no attempt to mask the fact that his government has deliberately bred a culture of fear within the Singaporean society.
The Internet and Social Media sparked a new way of thinking for Singapore, especially in the political arena. While older Singaporeans relied on state controlled media agencies for their news and information, the Internet opened up a source of independent information that could not be tightly regulated or controlled as traditional media platforms.
Singapore’s World Press Freedom Index ranking is a dismal 136th out of 178 countries (assessed by Reporters Without Borders) and 151st out of 196 countries according to the Freedom of the Press 2010 Global Rankings report.
As Singaporeans began to seek alternative viewpoints that were not expressed in the local media, websites like the Temasek Review and The Online Citizen cropped up. These sites gained popularity and support for publishing articles that were critical of the local government for the first time.
Soon, the Internet became a platform for Singaporeans to not only vent their frustrations at the PAP, but also share political opinion and connect with other like-minded individuals.
Activists slam Syria "Gay Girl" blog hoax
(By Stefano Ambrogi, Reuters, June 13, 2011)
Gay and political activists reacted angrily Monday after discovering a blog purportedly written by a gay woman detained by Syrian authorities was the work of an American university student living in Scotland.
Campaigners said the man had harmed their cause and potentially endangered lives.
"A Gay Girl in Damascus" has since February claimed to have documented the life of lesbian activist, 25-year-old Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari, in the capital during the civil unrest and quickly gained a worldwide readership.
The blog was closely followed by campaigners and gay activists in Syria and the Middle East who even launched an online campaign to secure her release after one blog entry spoke of her arrest by armed men believed to have been linked to President Bashar al-Assad's Baath party.
Sunday, however, Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American student at the University of Edinburgh, stepped out of the shadows and issued an apology on his blog site, saying he was "the sole author of all posts on this blog."
Sami Hamwi, the pseudonym for the Damascus editor of GayMiddleEast.com, wrote on its website: "I say shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country."
"We have to deal with more difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us fearful about (pursuing) our...activism," Hamwi said.
"Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina's arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure."
The revelation attracted considerable commentary on Twitter.
One user said: "Good work Tom MacMaster, now every piece of information not related to the Syrian government will be tainted with a thread of doubt."
Speaking to BBC Scotland MacMaster said the entries had all been fictional, but that the facts behind the narrative were true. "So I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issue," he said.
In his blog apology he wrote the most important thing was "to get the information out."
Belarusian officials detain over 450 after rally
(By YURAS KARMANAU - Associated Press - June 23, 2011)
Belarusian authorities have detained more than 450 people for clapping their hands and stomping their feet in a series of anti-government protests organized through social media in the ex-Soviet nation, rights activists said Thursday.
Most of those detained were released a few hours after the Wednesday evening's protest, but several dozen went on trial Thursday, said Valentin Stefanovich of the Vyasna rights center said. They face up to 15 days in jail on charges of hooliganism.
The protest in the capital, Minsk, and nearly 30 other Belarusian cities was the third such action in as many weeks. It drew several thousand, mostly young participants despite efforts by the Belarusian security agency to intimidate activists who helped organize the rally using the social media.
"The authorities staged a real hunt for dissenters on the Internet," Stefanovich said.
Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is facing growing public discontent over the nation's worst financial turmoil since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country recently devalued the national currency, causing panic buying of goods and huge lines at currency exchange offices.
Lukashenko, who has ruled the 10-million nation for nearly 17 years, earning the nickname of "Europe's last dictator" in the West, last week reprimanded his interior minister for failing to disperse the previous protests.
Police on Wednesday cordoned off streets in Minsk and shut down public transportation. Hundreds of people, however, gathered in small groups in the center of the city, some arriving on bicycles. Riot police quickly moved to disperse the protesters who did not shout any slogans or display any posters. Several journalists were also detained and held for several hours.
The Swedish Foreign Ministry on Thursday summoned the ambassador of Belarus to condemn the violence against demonstrators in the country after a Swedish embassy official was assaulted by security police while observing Wednesday's gathering in Minsk.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the violence is "yet another confirmation of the country's lack of respect for basic democratic rights."
The U.S. and the European Union have introduced additional sanctions against Belarus after Lukashenko unleashed a violent crackdown on opposition after December's residential vote that was also criticized by international observers.
UK Prime Minister Proposes Social Media Ban for London Rioters
(By Chloe Albanesius, PCMag.com, August 11, 2011)
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday that Scotland Yard and intelligence agencies are considering a ban on social media for those known to be plotting violence.
"We are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality," Cameron said in a speech before the House of Commons.
He did not go into detail about how that might work or how potential offenders would be identified. "Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill," Cameron said. "And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them."
In the wake of riots that have consumed London and other English cities, there were reports that some of the rioters had organized their efforts via BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). The platform is popular among British teens and allowed them to communicate in a free and untraceable manner. BlackBerry maker Research in Motion later said it would cooperate with officials should they need lawful access to data related to the riots, prompting hackers to deface the official BlackBerry blog.
Twitter, however, has also been a popular means of communication, with many people providing updates about the situation in their neighborhoods, organizing clean-up efforts, and more. According to data published by Experian Hitwise, one in every 170 U.K. Internet visits on Monday was to Twitter, with the Twitter homepage receiving 3.4 million visits in the U.K. alone.
Police, meanwhile, are making use of London's intricate surveillance system to identify suspected looters. Officials have set up a Flickr account on which they are posting screen grabs from those videos and asking people to turn in anyone they might know. Earlier today, officials posted video clips of suspects and potential witnesses in an attack that happened in the Ealing section of London.
Cameron dismissed the idea that the posting of such photos was a violation of peoples' privacy.
"We are making technology work for us, by capturing the images of the perpetrators on CCTV—so even if they haven’t yet been arrested, their faces are known and they will not escape the law," he said. "And as I said yesterday, no phoney human rights concerns about publishing photographs will get in the way of bringing these criminals to justice."
As of this morning, police had arrested 922 people in connection with violence, disorder and looting; 401 people have been charged.
Twitter Country Blocks: 10 Key Facts
(By Mathew J. Schwartz, InformationWeek, January 27, 2012)
Twitter has added new capabilities that allow it to block tweets on a country-by-country basis.
According to a Thursday Twitter blog post, titled "Tweets Still Must Flow," the new functionality will help the company better comply with valid, legal government requests.
"We haven't yet used this ability, but if and when we are required to withhold a Tweet in a specific country, we will attempt to let the user know, and we will clearly mark when the content has been withheld," said the post. Some critics, however, have alleged that the change will enable governments to more easily censor any tweets they don't like.
When weighing whether the changes might promote censorship, or simply help Twitter to better comply with legal requirements, keep these 10 facts in mind:
1. Some tweets are already excised. Twitter said it already complies with certain takedown requests; for example, posts that are illegal, or contain spam. "We make efforts to keep these exceptions narrow so they may serve to prove a broader and more important rule--we strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content," said Twitter.
2. Previous takedowns were global. According to Twitter, when it previously received a legal request to remove material, it had to do so for all users. But Thursday, the company said the changes would allow it "to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country--while keeping it available in the rest of the world."
3. Censorship concerns voiced. Some, however, have criticized the move as representing a step toward censorship. "In the bigger scheme of things it just opens up the floodgates," Reporters Without Borders spokeswoman Heather Blake told the BBC. "It allows for Twitter or other Internet organizations to censor things. Freedom of information, and freedom of the press can be compromised."
4. Twitter denies censorship intent. But in response to such criticism, Twitter spokeswoman told the BBC that the Thursday announcement was simply "a clarification to how we respond to legal requirements."
5. Even Europe demands some restrictions. Already, said Twitter, it must comply with content restrictions in place in various countries, including Europe. "As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression," according to the Twitter blog. "Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content."
6. Twitter is already banned in China. Could Twitter's move be an attempt to begin to do business in China, where it's currently banned? That's a possibility, as microblogging network Weibo--which counts more than 140 million active users, as opposed to 100 million at Twitter--is thriving in China, and could become a global threat to Twitter.
7. Twitter promises transparency. Twitter has promised that any tweets that get withheld will be so noted--at least in the countries where they can be viewed. According to Twitter, its new approach will include "a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why."
8. Copyright removal tweets lagging. A year ago, Twitter--in a blog post titled "The Tweets Must Flow"--said that that it was sending all copyright-removal notices it received to Chilling Effects, and that the group was tweeting all takedown requests. But that Twitter feed lists itself as being in beta, with the most recent tweet dating from February 9, 2011, and referencing a takedown request from 2010.
9. Cease and desist database running. If the takedown tweets have lagged, Twitter said Thursday that Chilling Effects now was maintaining a searchable database containing cease-and-desist notices received by Twitter.
10. Chilling Effects monitoring. The involvement of Chilling Effects--a site designed to help people "understand the protections that the First Amendment and intellectual property laws give to your online activities"--is certainly positive. Organizations involved in the project include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as numerous law schools, including Harvard, Stanford, and Berkeley.