The Internet Freedom Fallacy and Arab Digital Activism
We are very happy that Sami agreed to publish his article on futurechallenges.org. It was first published on his blog and immediately created a string of great comments. Sami is a Tunisian blogger, the co-founder of nawaat.org (which means ‘the core’ in Arabic), a Tunisian collective blog about news and politics. He is also the Advocacy Director at Global Voices.
This article focuses on grassroots digital activism in the Arab world and the risks of what seems to be an inevitable collusion with U.S foreign policy and interests. It sums up the most important elements of the conversation I have been having for the last two years with many actors involved in defending online free speech and the use of technology for social and political change. While the main focus is Arab digital activism, I have made sure to include similar concerns raised by activists and online free speech advocates from other parts of the world, such as China, Thailand, and Iran.
This piece therefore stems from a major assumption that U.S official and corporate involvement in the Internet Freedom movement is harmful for that same freedom. I will explain why I consider the new context as extremely dangerous for the digital activism grassroots movement. Many people outside of the U.S, not only in the Arab world, have a strong feeling that the Internet Freedom mantra emanating from Washington DC is just a cover for strategic geopolitical agendas. This Internet Freedom policy won’t be applied in a vacuum. At first, it will build upon broader U.S and Western foreign policy and their strategic goals and interests; in other words, it will continue projecting the same Western priorities. Having the U.S and other Western government as major actors in the Internet Freedom field could present a real threat to activists who accept their support and funding. A hyper-politicization of the digital activism movement and an appropriation of its “success” to achieve geopolitical goals or please the Washington bubble are now considered by many as the “kiss of death”. In a worst-case scenario, Western funding, hyper-politicization and support could also lead to a brutal alteration of the existing digital activism field and the emergence of a “parallel digital activism” in total disregard to the local Arab context. We should also point out how hypocritical and unequal the online free speech movement is in its support for Internet Freedom of bloggers and digital activists at risk.
When putting Internet Freedom at the center of its foreign policy agenda, the U.S will be disinclined to engage in any kind of action which might endanger the “stability” of the dictatorial Arab order. And because it is unrealistic to expect the U.S or any Western government aggressively working to boost political dissent against their closest Arab allies, the way they’re doing with Iran or China, we cannot afford the risk of a potentially disastrous hijacking of Internet Freedom by powerful actors to serve geostrategic agendas that are not in our favor.
My own concern is that every bridge that will be built between the U.S government and U.S research centers and NGOs working around the Internet Freedom and digital activism field will lead to the destruction of many of the existing bridges connecting those same NGOs and research centers to grassroots activists and bloggers from the Arab World and the Middle East. And unless something changes the U.S foreign policy dynamics, activists – especially those from the excluded countries – will always look at it as a hypocritical policy trying to use them and their causes for the sake of their own agenda or simply for domestic consumption.
The direct risks on the digital activism field in the Arab World, in its current early stage of development, are thus huge and need to be discussed and addressed. This is a modest attempt to outline possible strategies for the future of an independent and grassroots Arab digital activism movement and how to better understand and navigate the new chessboard of the “21st-century statecraft”.
Digital activists as new actors for change
Filling the gap that mainstream media and traditional Human Rights organizations have left open, the Arab digital activism movement has established itself, with varying successes and failures, as a vibrant actor for change, shaping a relatively important portion of the public opinion (e.g., the connected and literate) while evolving in a cyberspace that looks better suited to resist governmental attempts to police it the way it did with traditional means of organizing and communicating.
In its first stage, it is vital to point out that none of the most successful digital activism campaigns and initiatives that have marked this field with innovative and creative approaches in dealing with sensitive topics have been funded by any of the Western governments, institutions, or donors. In contrast to some of the currently U.S funded digital activism initiatives, the early ones have the following characteristics:
In the Arab world, the use of digital tools for social and political change was not driven by hype or a professional or media interest. On the contrary, it was the result of needs driven by a strong commitment to defending Human Rights. Those needs are a direct result of an established authoritarian environment and a lack of an open space where activists could practice their citizenship. Digital activism has been “invented” and rose out of necessity to fill the very gap that was left by traditional civil society constituents.
The digital activism field in the Arab world forms one of the most decentralized, unstructured, and grassroots oriented dynamics of change that even most of the cyber-savvy local NGOs and opposition parties have a serious trouble in “infiltrating” or exploiting it for their own benefit. Consequently, this has made this movement independent, attractive, and resistant to any kind of control. But independence does not necessarily mean disconnection or isolation. Many digital activists in the Arab world do collaborate with opposition parties or movements. Most of these activists are also interconnected with each other; they collaborate during major events and rally to support each other’s campaigns and causes. They are connected as well to the global digital activism movement through conference circuits and face-to-face meetings. Add to that the strong networking capability that social networking platforms have integrated in their daily web activity, digital activists act, react, and interact in a multilayered context of activism that is local, regional, pan-Arab, and global. Most importantly the most successful online campaigns to free and support jailed and threatened bloggers are conducted by grassroots activists with loose affiliations of networks and peers. And they are playing key roles in this field.
While it may look easy to grasp, digital activism is a complex multi-faceted movement, varies strongly from one country to another, and changes over the course of time. It’s always evolving by adopting new tools and tactics and through a constant adjustment of its strategies of resistance and actions.
All these characteristics have made Arab digital activism vulnerable to a variety of challenges. On the one hand, its independence and other characteristics can lead to a structural and financial crisis that could threaten its very future. At some point, and out of pure necessity, volunteer-based digital activism might seek to adopt a professional approach that requires resources. Anti-censorship resistance strategies cannot beat a sophisticated and determined Internet police. A hobbyist’s security capabilities cannot stop sophisticated DDoS or hacking attacks. Encryption technologies and security measures are totally useless when passwords and other sensitive data are extracted via torture and threats. On the other hand, its complexity has made it hard for foreign actors involved in the digital activism filed, whether through funding, training, capacity building or logistic support, to come up with a policy that takes that very complexity of each country into account when shaping or running programs targeting the entire region.
Those early characteristics are about to change due to a myriad of factors and actors that need to be understood in order to prevent digital activism in the Arab world from losing its most genuine and cherished characteristic which is its autonomy. The existential question is how to overcome these challenges and preserve the independency while addressing the needs of building a vibrant, efficient and solid digital activism field.
As the Internet Freedom and digital activism are getting politically trendy with fancy rhetoric and theories of change, lots of governmental money is being spent on this “new Colorado of change”. For many governments, NGOs and circumvention tools providers and promoters, this constitutes an unprecedented opportunity to push for own agenda, better adjust public relations strategies according to the momentum or simply raise more money.
Caught in the middle between authoritarian regimes aggressively engaged in repression, Internet filtering and monitoring on the one side, and growing attention from Western public agencies and associated NGOs on the other, digital activists and online free speech advocates in the Arab world are going through one of the most challenging phases of their short history that could alter their ecosystem dramatically. The number of workshops and conferences organized by U.S and Western NGOS targeting Arab bloggers and activists has dramatically increased over the last few years to the point that no one can accurately predict the consequences of these activities on the nature of the Arab digital activism.
A new context
During her “Remarks on Internet Freedom” speech in January 21, 2010, U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton elevated Internet freedom to be a major foreign policy of the new Obama administration. Two months before that speech, in November 2009, Secretary Clinton announced the Civil Society 2.0 initiative which will help grassroots organizations around the world use digital technology, “allocating $5 million in grant funds for pilot programs in the Middle East and North Africa that will bolster the new media and networking capabilities of civil society organizations“.
Certainly, the U.S is not the only government that is working to integrate Internet Freedom into its foreign policy. More European governments are already following its footsteps, with The Netherlands’ and France’s Foreign Ministers working on a code of conduct on Internet Freedom and planning to hold a ministerial-level meeting next October to work on their plan of supporting “cyberdissidents”. “We must support cyber-dissidents in the same way that we supported political dissidents,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner declared.
Furthermore, big American web companies such as Google, Yahoo!, and Twitter are becoming convinced of the value of Internet freedom and their interests is sometimes tending to coincide with those of the U.S administration. Google is now working with U.S. and European officials to build a case that would make Internet censorship a trade barrier. Since his debacle in China, Google has been the most vocal web company about Internet Freedom. “Our goal is to maximize free expression and access to information [...] This is a very important piece of business for us,” said Bob Boorstin, Director of Corporate and Policy Communication at Google and former speechwriter for the Clinton Administration.
Between 20 and 22 September, 2010, Google will be holding a conference entitled Internet Liberty 2010 in Budapest, inviting activists, bloggers, NGOs, researchers, governments and corporations representatives. “The conference will explore creative ways to address the boundaries of online free expression; the complex relationship among technology, economic growth and human rights; ways in which dissidents and governments are using the internet; the role of internet intermediaries; as well as pressing policy and legal issues such as privacy and cybersecurity.” The occasion will be used to launch the “Middle East and North Africa Bloggers Network”, an initiative of the Washington based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), which is loosely associated with the U.S Democratic Party. The inauguration, on September 23rd, of a “Middle East and North Africa Bloggers Network” by a Washington based NGO, via its Aswat initiative during an event organized by Google and will be attended by U.S and Western governments and corporations representatives is exactly the kind of interference that we need to avoid.
The other worrying issue is the “invisible revolving door between Silicon Valley and Washington“, if I may borrow the expression from Evgeny Morozov, as many State Department officials are working for Big Web industry, with four Google employees having gone to work in the Obama administration. The most recent example is Jared Cohen, the technopragmatist and specialist on the use of technology to advance U.S interests, counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization, who served as member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff under both the Bush and Obama administrations, and who has just left the U.S State Department to lead a new division at Google called Google Ideas. Jared Cohen was the same person who intervened in June of 2009 to keep Twitter online and delay its scheduled maintenance work in order to keep Iranians tweeting the post-election protests.
The same Twitter is also looking to hire a government liaison in Washington D.C. whose job it will be to helping Twitter understand what to do “to better serve candidates and policymakers across party and geographical lines“. On July 9th, 2010, Katie Stanton, who worked for Google in 2003 and for the Obama administration as “Director of Citizen Participation,” in 2009, has joined Twitter where she will be working on international and business strategies.
As expressed by Jared Cohen during his talk about the State Department’s use of new technologies and innovation in the practice of diplomacy: “every single university, every private sector company, is de facto a think-tank and a strategic partner on technology and innovation and how to be relevant or applied for foreign policy [...] they just need to raise their hand and say “we want to get involved”.”
The new context is that digital activists, especially in the Middle East, are getting increasingly more attention from several U.S public agencies, associated NGOs, research centers, universities, and Web companies. Many activists and bloggers from the Arab world have been helping research centers, such as the Berkman Center, in translating, navigating, understanding and mapping the Arab web and blogosphere. The most relevant example here could be the Iranian blogosphere map and the Arabic blogosphere map, both produced by John Kelly and Bruce Etling from the Berkman Internet and Democracy project which is sponsored through a grant of $1.5 million from the US Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.
If we take a closer look at the framing and labeling used by this research we will notice a visible focus on the understanding and mapping of “extremist”, “terrorist” and “Islamist” voices in the Arab blogosphere. John Kelly, the affiliate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School who was involved in the mapping of Arab and Persian blogosphere, acknowledged in an email responding to criticism expressed by some Arab bloggers toward the map: “we were writing something that will be read by a policy-oriented DC crowd, among others, parts of the study are naturally in language that is keyed to the debate as it happens there“. Talking about mapping bloggers’ networks during a conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace on January 8th, 2009, John Kelly insisted on the need to “think about nurturing and shaping these networks when they are small, as they grow very large very fast”. All this of course is aimed to shape the development of online media to promote U.S. public diplomacy.
When the U.S Senate passed the Victims of Iranian Censorship (VOICE) Act authorizing $30 million to the Broadcasting Board of Governors to expand Persian-language broadcasting into Iran and counter Iranian jamming efforts, $20 million for the “Iranian Electronic Education, Exchange, and Media Fund,” that will help Iranians bypass Internet censorship and share information online, and $5 million for the U.S State Department to document human rights abuses that have taken place since the 2009 election, my dear friend Rob Faris, Research Director for the Berkman Center reportedly declared “You are engaging in cyberwarfare, on the side of the good guys.” The fact that our friends from the Berkman Center are adopting the rhetoric of “good vs. bad guys” shows the danger of this very new context whose boundaries are blurred.
The most alarming development, in regard to this matter, is to put the knowledge and data gathered in part by global grassroots activists and bloggers, via their collaboration with U.S research centers and NGOs, into the hand of the policy-oriented DC crowd to foster U.S interests or cyberwarfare in the world.
When we see people like my friends John Kelly and Ivan Sigal, Global Voices executive director, taking part in a conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace on January 8th, 2009, with CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, and many other U.S officials, and sharing their knowledge about the blogospheres and the role of social media in the region while the event is largely focusing on finding “nonmilitary solutions” to critical foreign policy challenges facing the U.S administration, we simply don’t know any more how the knowledge that is being generated by bloggers, volunteers authors and activists is being used and for what purposes. The presence of my dear friend Ethan Zuckerman at a conference on cyberdissidents organized by George W. Bush Institute, even if Ethan has a different political stance, was also perceived by many as a bad move.
And this is what makes the situation difficult and uncomfortable for all of us. While it is very normal and usual for a U.S citizen to attend such an event and even collaborate with his government or testify at congressional hearing and deliver his expertise, for non U.S activists, it will be much more difficult to accept collaborating with NGOs, research centers or circumventions tools providers/promoters that are sponsored by the U.S government or are sharing their knowledge and data with U.S policymakers, military commanders, Intelligence community and the like. in Such, every step taken in the direction of a closer collaboration with the U.S government will ultimately weaken the U.S research centers and NGOs position in the global Internet Freedom field.
I’m not questioning here the right of the U.S or any other regime to use Internet freedom as a tool for diplomacy or as a blunt regime change medium that serve its own interests; this is what politics is all about. But, in this new context marked by governmental and private efforts to adopt the Internet Freedom as a foreign policy tool, whether through researching, mapping, translating, supporting, or funding, digital activists in the Arab world may need to be more careful and skeptical about how to deal with this space and rethink with whom they can best work and collaborate. So now, when we want to collaborate with a research center or an NGO to answer a survey, or collaborate in a crowdsourcing project, or help translate a text or a tools, or provide insight about the context of certain topics, or recommend activists and bloggers to attend a conference, we may ask ourselves if we are not in fact collaborating with the U.S government via those “proxies”.
1. The U.S Internet Freedom policy is not credible. Why?
During a conversation at the Global Voices summit on the topic of “Internet Freedom”, led by Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon, I was asked by Ethan “whether there was any way [I] thought the US government could have a beneficial influence in the Internet freedom space” and my answer was “No. I’d prefer they stay out of the field.”. My answer is driven by the following three important considerations. As I said, I don’t see the new Internet Freedom policy as independent from the broader and decades old U.S foreign policy, which has been based on practical rather than ethical and moral considerations such as the support for Human Rights. As we all know in this part of the world, in the name of a short-termed realpolitik, the U.S has been supporting all kind of dictatorships at the expense of democratic and reformist movements and aspirations.
The long tradition of the U.S and the West’s support of regimes is derived from the fear that any kind of democratic reform in the Arabic world will yield even worse regimes than the current ones, which are providing a certain level of “stability” that ensures American and Western interests. Many Arab dictators, who have been leading the so-called “moderate” Arab regimes for decades with virtually no opposition, and among them few aging autocrats who are now orchestrating a “constitutional” succession that will maintain their absolute rule, are considered as allies, and therefore enjoy financial and moral support from the Unites States and Western governments despite their horrid human rights records.
This same hypocritical foreign policy is visibly manifested in the selective and inconsistent support and attention that the U.S government, Web companies, the Western mainstream and citizen media, and unfortunately an important part of the free speech advocates, research centers, and circumvention tool providers are giving to the Internet Freedom initiative. There is a strong focus on the Internet control in countries posing serious geostrategic challenges to the Western Interests, with a preferential focus on Iran and China and a near omission of allied states or “friendly dictatorships” which maintain close ties with the West, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Golf States.
And, as eloquently articulated by journalist Rami Khoury in his New York Times op-ed “When Arabs Tweet”:
One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.
Even if I do not share most of Khoury’s conclusions about the achievement of digital activism in the Arab world—a field that I have followed very closely for the last ten years—I do agree with his aforementioned one: the U.S cannot be regarded as credible in their new crusade for Internet freedom as long as they maintain the same foreign policy which is, as many Arab affairs specialists and activists describe it, a hypocritical and counter-democratic one.
Prominent Egyptian blogger and activist Alla Abd El Fattah makes a similar point. Alaa told me in an interview for this article that:
To most Egyptians the alleged support to digital activism provided by US government, US companies and US non profits is irrelevant at best. For starters the interest and hype in what goes on down south is very selective. For instance the tens of thousands of Egyptian workers organizing factory strikes and posing the biggest challenge to the Mubarak regime at the moment are totally ignored by both media and policy makers. This is not some argument about slacktivism either. These factory workers are using blogs, Facebook, SMS and YouTube to organize, mobilize, and publicize their actions and grievances. Digital activism is very much a daily part of their movement. Even when the State Department notices actual activism happening, their interest and “support” can bring more harm than good. You see we notice how much the U.S. supports the “moderate” regimes that enjoy torturing us. And getting support from the same guys who finance the police, the military, state propaganda media and corruption is simply bad for an activist’s credibility (not to mention how most of us feel about the occupation of Iraq or the United States’ unconditional support for Israel). If the U.S. government is really interested in democracy in the Arab world, it should stop sending aid to the dictatorships, and just get out of the way.
From Thailand, CJ Hinke, the founder of one of the most active anti-censorhip groups since 2006, Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT), draws the same conclusions in an e-mail conversation with me:
The U.S. government has been giving a lot of lip-service to Internet freedom. While they talk the talk, I’m not so sure they walk the walk. Walking the walk is about far more than simply budgeting millions for so-called anti-censorship activities. In Thailand, every NGO is funded from overseas and, to a certain extent, taking government funding from any government can undermine both credibility and autonomy. On the other hand, the US funds a lot of critically important voices such as Reporters Without Borders. There is almost no interests in funding Thai free speech efforts because, unlike Iran or China, Thailand is not seen as a major censor despite 210,000 websites censored during six months of martial law.
Nasser Weddady, from Mauritania, who serves as HAMSA-AIC Civil Rights outreach director, also blogged about the problems posed by foreign funding of Arab digital activism (see also Jillian York’s blog post) and has run a workshop on that topic during our 2009 Arab Bloggers Meeting 2.0 in Beirut. Nasser told me in an interview for this article that:
There is a serious credibility gap between the US government and other western governments stated policy of support for internet activism in the Arab World. For better or worse, these governments think they are sensitive to the needs of Arab cyber dissidents, Arab dissidents are weary of foreign funding’s impact on their credibility in their societies. This is not only due to the traditional themes of discontent with Western foreign policy, but also because in many Arab countries, receiving direct foreign governmental funding can lead to crack down by the very same governments that are in effect US allies : Saudi Arabia for example.
In whatever way, it seems that the U.S. officials are not completely aware of such concerns and grievances. During her aforementioned speech on Internet Freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “on their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does.” And I think we all know that the U.S. is taking sides in our region by backing our Arab autocrats and hereditary republics. We know as well how untrue the claim made by Jared Cohen when he said “we don’t have an internet freedom policy towards one country or another, we have a global internet freedom policy, we support efforts to get around politically motivated censorship globally. “
But my dear friend and colleague Oiwan Lam, a researcher and free speech activist from Hong Kong, has a different view than the one presented by Jared Cohen:
I think the U.S government is not reflective enough on internet freedom. Actually many of the bad practice started from the U.S. such as the over protection of copyrights, the monitoring of net users and compulsory IP logging under the pretext of terrorism. In her talk about net freedom, Clinton singled out China because of the Google hacking incident. It is indeed true that china is an authoritarian state and applies all measures to suppress online organization and speech freedom. However, by singling it out, it makes western country very hypocritical. Many democratic states are also extremely harsh in controlling online speech. South Korea is the first country to apply real name registration, Singapore sues whoever criticizes the government online defamation. And as I said the U.S government is also an origin of many malpractices. Similar to the U.S government, Google also single out China in its internet freedom campaign. For me the main threats to global users are copyrights, defamation charges, privacy protection, new monopoly model, the lack of transparency and accountability in taking down users content, etc.
2. The online free speech space is already showing its hypocrite facet and the U.S involvement won’t make it a better place. Why?
Activists and Free speech advocates in countries beyond China and Iran are receiving very bad signals from the global online free speech movement. The attention given by foreign governments, media outlets, research centers, circumvention tools providers/promoters and even online free speech activists to the sexiest countries engaged in Internet control and repression has dwarfed the attention to all other countries into almost nothing.
This, of course, does not mean that threatened bloggers and activists in Iran and China do not deserve that level of attention and focus. Every single blogger deserve to be supported and all suppressed voices need to be heard. The problem is in the preferential and unbalanced treatment that catches the attention as a significant portion of international media coverage of the threat posed to online free speech are focusing on two major cases, Iran and China. Which begs the question of why are Iran and China a higher priority for several major players than, lets say, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Vietnam and many other repressive regimes?
For bloggers and activists at risk living under U.S.-backed Arab regimes, this question is more than legitimate. But in the ears of the “policy-oriented DC crowd”, the mere fact we are asking this question sounds just like another conspiracy theory of yet another skeptical “angry Arab“.
Responding to my concerns that the U.S. Internet Freedom agenda is focusing much more on “sexy” countries like China an Iran while ignoring the online repression going on in Tunisia, Syria, Vietnam and many other less sexy countries, Bob Boorstin, Director of Corporate and Policy Communication at Google and former US government official, labeled my concerns as “paranoid”, while in the main time he recognizes that the U.S “pays more attention to countries with nuclear weapons than to those that don’t.”
So, when Bob Boorstin stresses the importance of “nuclear weapons” to explain why the U.S is focusing their Internet Freedom policy on certain countries than on the others, we all know what country he is referring to and why. What we don’t know is what this really has to do with the main topic of Internet freedom that Google is now aggressively adopting? This kind of statement from a Google director simply confirms the fact that it’s not about Internet Freedom but about a new geostrategic battle that is hijacking the online free speech field to push for U.S strategic interests.
Online freedom for all? not really!
In a Global Voices article published in April, 2007, I raised the issue of why some jailed and persecuted bloggers and digital activists are winning the sympathy of Western media, while others have difficulty attracting their attention. Since then, I do not think that this phenomenon, what some are calling a double-standard in defending bloggers and internet activists, is getting any better. Although we worked hard on Global Voices Advocacy with our collaborative mapping project to build a database of Threatened Voices (which by the way does not pretend to be exhaustive or to reference all threatened bloggers), we are still witnessing the same unshaken “selective compassion” reserved to some bloggers in selective countries with much more attractive media-bait than to the vast majority of repressed voices. The most recent example of blackout surrounding the crackdown on freedoms in Bahrain with the arrest of one of the most inspiring blogger and activist, Ali Abdulemam, is here to remind us of what kind of policy the U.S is reserving to liberal Arab grassroots activism in the context of its support to the Bahraini regime, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. For now, the Obama administration is very busy with the largest US arms deal ever with the neighboring Saudi Arabia. A 60 billion Dollars deal will make it almost impossible for the U.S to voice its support for the activist when Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are backing Bahrain in its crackdown on the opposition.
Just look at the number of op-eds in the U.S. and Western media covering the crackdown on Iranian and Chinese bloggers and activists and compare that with the lack or the under-coverage reserved to Arab bloggers and activists from allied states. Also, the number of awards that have been given to Iranian activists and bloggers since the 2009 disputed elections is amazingly high. In March 2010, at the occasion of Reporters Without Borders World Day Against Cyber Censorship, David Drummond, Google Senior Vice President who supported the “Netizen Prize” with Reporters Without Borders, declared during the prize-giving ceremony that awarded the women’s rights blog we-change.org that Iran and China pose “the most systemic risk and the most immediate risk to individuals” by cracking down on online dissent.
And even if China and Iran are truly indexed high on our Threatened Voices platform, it is also quite clear that the most repressive region is the Arab World with 41% of the recorded cases of threats towards bloggers and activist. Ironically enough, most of the politically motivated arrests of bloggers and digital activists are taking place in U.S.-allied Arab countries.
Nasser Weddady, who has been involved in many campaigns to free persecuted bloggers in the Arab world, commented on this subject by saying that:
Arab activists have been using internet-based tools to demand democratic reform in their societies for the last 5 years-at least. This has led many bloggers, activists, and journalists to be tortured or sent to jail by their governments. It is a misnomer to expect Arab activists to trust Western (US or otherwise) funding or motives when Western governments are too often silent when they (the activists) are being persecuted by their governments.
The hyped and ideological market of circumvention technology
For many, including the Obama administration, the 2009 Iran elections protest provided the first high magnitude event that showcased how technology can be used in face of politically motivated censorship and repression. This has been clearly reflected in Clinton Speech about Internet Freedom in which she honored Iran with seven mentions. The avalanche of media attention and hype that came about during the post-elections protest, while galvanizing a good portion of Western public opinion against the already hated Islamic Republic, has also created a new context in which almost anyone can market his “support” for democracy under the same umbrella of Internet Freedom. When established circumventions tools providers and promotors were prostituting their achievement in helping Iranian circumvent Internet filtering, many new entrants are claiming the same space, helped in that unethical mission by journalists, politicians and by the blatant silent from the field’s experts. After all, anticensorship efforts and the aggregation of online analysis and data during major events, like the Iranian case, are being perceived, at least by those who own the data and design the tools, as a powerful political lever and as prospective business. “The entire battle over the Internet has boiled down to a battle over resources said Shiyu Zhou, founder of the Falun Gong’s Global Internet Freedom Consortium which is behind Freegate, among other circumvention tools targeting Chinese Internet users. “Suppose we have the capacity to make it possible for the president of the United States at will to communicate with hundreds of thousands of Iranians at no risk or limited risk? It just changes the world. ”said Michael Horowitz, an advisor of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. And in May, 2010, after years of lobbying campaign in Washington, the State Department took the decision to fund the Global Internet Freedom Consortium offering the group $1.5 million to provide software to circumvent Internet censorship.
This came about after many reports surfaced in the media suggesting that Freegate, which introduced a Persian-language version, helped prominently the Iranian Internet users access and disseminate information about the post-elections protests. Then came the news about the much-touted tool that according to careless media coverage, family connections, and an important award was determinant for Iranian dissidents to organize the post-elections protests and communicate with the outside world. A tool designed by a 26-year-old San Francisco hacker who didn’t have knowledge or interest in Iran’s affairs until the recent protests, seemed to have been successful in outwitting Tehran’s censorship machine.
Everything sounds good until you start searching for the keywords “Haystack“ and the Censorship Research Center. You will end up visiting two websites, with many donate buttons and claims but little to zero information about the tool and the researchers. While the website of the software does not offer any download link, neither does the Censorship Research Center website does not provide any research about censorship. Carrying the motto “Good luck finding that needle”, you’ll ended up searching for Haystack itself, but with no luck in finding it (read the comments here). Despite all this, and despite the fact that no one has ever tested the security of the tool, Austin Heap and his Censorship Research Center got the U.S. government to provide required authorization to export their anti-filtering software into Iran. “We are working to try to help information continue to flow freely into and out of Iran as well as within Iran. We have issued a license to a company with technology that would enable that to occur,”U.S Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in March 2010.
Arash Kamangir, a very active Iranian blogger based in Canada who is analyzing the Persian blogosphere, was also curious to know about Haysatsk. He has been asking many Iranians on Twitter and Facebook whether they used the tool:
How can people from the outside help people who are caught up in these closed-down spheres become active. This question has an implicit assumption inside it; we, the outsiders, are going to respect the oppressed and are going to ask them what they need. Then we are going to evaluate our products based on what these users say about them. Have we done that? I am not familiar with Access Now, but I have frequently asked my contacts inside Iran using Twitter and other social networks and they have always, with no exception, told me that they have had no successful encounter with Hay Stack. To me that means Hay Stack is not working. This is in fact a modest conclusion, because I do not personally know any single Iranian who has actually been able to use Hay Stack. So, maybe rather than asking “Does Hay Stack work?” we should ask “Does Hay Stack exist?” And by that we certainly mean exist like “this desk exists” and not like “fairies exist”.
In an email interview for this article, Amin Sabeti, another Iranian active blogger agrees with Arash Kamangir’s remarks about Haystack: “Haystack has a very good cover by western media like the BBC (Persian and English channels) or some newspaper like Guardian, but I asked many people inside of Iran about it, but all of them (I mean 100%) answered me they just read and watched some news about Haystack and they never ever used it. I can conclude “Haystack” is not a tool, it is just a name.” Amin went further to voice skepticism about the U.S Internet Freedom policy towards Iran. “During the post-election protest, the U.S and other countries didn’t help in Iran. They just used the Green Movement like propaganda against Iran’s regime for their benefits. For example, U.S congress passed a law for helping Iranian people to bypass filtering and lifting sanctions to allow the downloading and using of their technology. But from October 2009, we didn’t see any action and in some cases like with sourceforge.net, Iranian users cannot download its software, even the open sourced ones. On Youtube’s project “Life In A Day”, Iranian people cannot participate and post their videos, simply because they are Iranian!“
Much has been written recently about Haystack which has led to what it seems to be a fiasco. “We have halted ongoing testing of Haystack in Iran pending a security review. If you have a copy of the test program, please refrain from using it,” said a notice on the Haystack website amid heavy criticism. And I just heard that Haystack’s lead developer and Censorship Research Center’s board members, Karim Sajad Pour, Abbas Milani and Gary Sick have resigned form.
Now, the hype is building around yet another successful circumvention tool. Called Collage, using steganography techniques, it will hide controversial messages in user-generated content. “As far as we know, Collage is the first anti-censorship system to store messages inside user-generated content (e.g., on Flickr, YouTube, etc.) such that a censor can block/corrupt some of this content and users will still be able to retrieve their messages,” Sam Burnett, one of the researchers behind the project. The researchers seem not to be aware of the crucial fact that most censors do ban Flickr and/or Twitter and/or YouTube and/or Facebook. Countries like Iran, UAE, Syria, Tunisia and China are already blocking access to more than one of these websites, if not to all of them. Also, if the social media websites that this tool will be relying on are not blocked yet, somewhere, this will give some “legitimate” excuses for censors to block them.
Both old and new circumvention technology groups, share with the U.S political class, media and research centers the same obsession with Internet filtering in Iran and China. Even Tor, the most respected security and privacy software which is getting some funding from the U.S Department of Defense and the State Department has joined the chorus of the hyped “helping the Iranians” access the Internet and published its initial data on what the Tor network is seeing from Iran: “Measuring Tor and Iran“.
In order to have a clear picture about the disparity in the level of coverage of Internet control in different countries by three major circumventions tools providers/promoters, I searched the Twitter timelines of Tor project, Psiphon and Sesawe, trying to find which countries are attracting most of their public attention and I found a quite relevant pattern:
While Haystack and Freegate are the kind of “ideological circumvention tools” openly targeting specific countries, mainly China and Iran (like many NGOs that have been created in the West since the 2009 post-election protest), it’s overwhelming clear that other circumvention tools providers and promoters, who claim to address Internet filtering globally, have their attention drawn towards almost the same countries. Sesawe, that presents itself as “a global alliance dedicated to bringing the benefits of uncensored access to information to Internet users around the world“, has followed its counterparts’ pattern in giving a preferential attention to Iran and China in disregard with what’s going on in other countries “where Sesawe matters“. Psiphon, the award winning anti-censorship technology, is giving much attention in the form of tweets to Iran and China too and has been promoting Psiphon proxy nodes via Twitter.
It is obvious to say that we do not expect to see the same attention or support against the mass wave of censorship that recently heat the Tunisian or the Bahraini Web. Even the mass Gmail phishing attack that targeted the accounts of Tunisian anti-censorship activists and Human Rights advocates has come and gone without any notice from our dedicated Internet Freedom “zealots”.
3. Governmental involvement is too risky for digital activists. Why?
In sum, there are many other reasons to be skeptical about the prospects of the US involvement in support of Internet freedom under authoritarian regimes that can cause a huge damage to that same freedom, thereby achieving the opposite results than the “well-intentioned” and proclaimed ones.
Risks for grassroots activists
I will start this paragraph with two anecdotes.The first: Before and during the protest that followed the controversial Iran election of June, 2009, two U.S government grantees ran what is called “Iran Program” aimed to train Iranian bloggers and activists on Internet security, circumvention, digital activism and advocacy. During these two workshops, they brought about 12 young activists from inside Iran to a city in Europe where I attended one of the workshops as trainer. Since the second workshop that took place during the protests, at least 3 out of the 12 didn’t go back to Iran for security reason, one was arrested in Iran and then managed to run out of the country to Europe where he/she is seeking asylum. The second: one day before the anti-censorship rally in front of the Tunisian Ministry of communication technologies that was planned to be held on May 22, 2010, to protest the Internet filtering policy in the country, a female blogger and journalist, and assistant professor at a university of Tunis was arrested and investigated for seven hours. She was questioned about her online activities, her relation with Tunisian bloggers and journalists and her trips abroad. She was also questioned about her relation with the U.S embassy in Tunis and was informed that her attendance of a three-day workshop for North African bloggers that was held in February 2010 in the Moroccan city Rabat and funded by Search for Common Ground (SFCG), a non-governmental organization based in Washington DC, could be perceived as espionage and lobbying foreign bodies, an act which, according to the newly adopted amendment to Article 61bis of the Penal Code that criminalizes contacting “agents of a foreign power to undermine the military or diplomatic situation in Tunisia”, could be punishable by up to 20 years in prison, with a minimum sentence of five years. Curiously enough, on January 21, 2010, exactly four months before her arrest, the same female blogger was invited, amongst several other Tunisian bloggers, by the U.S. embassy in Tunis to follow Hillary Clinton’s speech “Remarks on Internet Freedom”. The blogger, who attended that meeting, was open enough, and may be naïve enough, to have written about it on the Tunisian Weekly Tunis Hebdo.
The same trend is happening elsewhere. From China, to Burma, to Tunisia, to Cuba, to Egypt, to Zimbabwe, both U.S government grantees and non-U.S government grantees are being financed and sometimes created from the ground up to run programs or support initiatives targeting bloggers and activists living under authoritarian regimes. An increasingly important database of activists names, contact information and affiliations is being build, aggregated, mapped and sometimes shared between tens of governmental and non-governmental bodies in a clear and careless violation of privacy and confidentiality. One can imagine the risk that would involve this kind of data aggregation for the on-the-ground activists if one day it falls into the hands of any of the eager authoritarian regimes. A Palestinian bloggers who attended our Arab bloggers meeting in Beirut in 2008, has been arrested in his way back to the West Bank by the Jordanian Security services. He has been investigated for hours about the meeting and he has been forced to hand over the program of the meeting, and the names of the attendees. The same incidents happened with activists from Syria, Tunisia and Egypt. The last one, one of the most repressive regime towards bloggers and activists, has even made of investigating and confiscating bloggers’ electronics devices (i.e: cellphones, laptops, flash drives) from an almost daily practice at the Cairo international Airport and TrueCrypt and other tools and techniques of data encryption on which activists and bloggers are trained won’t be of any help in front of torture, detention, and the fabrication of charges.
Brutal alteration of the digital activism field through money and foreign agendas
The other downside of this has been an unprecedented mushrooming of new NGOs and research centers that are hungry for money under the prospects of the huge amount of funding allocated by the U.S. and other Western governments and donors with the noble aim to better understand and support digital activists and bloggers in closed societies. The informal, decentralized and generic nature of native digital activism is being altered by the mechanism of funding and its bureaucratic procedures with a final result of 1) turning the good and talented activists into powerless social agents and bureaucrats spending their time in writing proposals and reports instead of being active. 2) Recruiting a horde of charlatans who are claiming to be “activists” but are out there to make a career for themselves with zero interest in activism or in the struggle for human rights. And as more dollars pour into this field, the high risk of alienating digital activism most vibrant pioneers from its base of supporters will ultimately occur. What we don’t want to see is a vibrant digital activism trading money for credibility and losing its legitimacy due to the sources of funding. On the other hand, as more foreign money flows, native digital activism will innovate less or will innovate to only impress western attention and not to have a real impact on the grassroots level. Nasser Weddady, the U.S-based Mauritanian blogger and activist, echoed similar sentiments:
A potential pitfall of Western interest in Arab internet-based activism is the belief that tools and technologies are per se going to change the harsh realities of the Middle East as a civil rights desert. Any amounts of funding will not significantly alter the fact that as long as online activism is NOT translated into real world actions, funding will only be a poisoned gift to Arab activists. Their credibility will be undermined, their otherwise positive entrepreneurship will be wasted once foreign support dries up after a predictable disappointment due to their inability to deliver any tangible results.
Everyone who is familiar with the Arab world and the so-called broader Middle East, know the sensitivity of foreign funding, not only in the eyes of local regimes but also and most importantly in the eyes of the masses. Foeign money delegitimizes political and social activism. And once delegitimized, activism cannot influence social and political changes and cannot be supported by the rest of the society. Also, all those who are knowledgeable about the digital activism field in the Arab world know that the most effective initiatives are the ones that are not funded by any NGOs and rely entirely on the personal and voluntary-based efforts. In sharp contrast with the former, the new funded digital activism initiative is the less successful. In the Arab world, we are already witnessing how foreign funding is altering digital activism into political marketing and business. More fancy websites that focus on the aggregation of content around sexy topics (i.e: youth, gender, minorities, LGBT, interfaith dialogue), cool mashups, slick badges, dominance of the English language at the expense of local languages, good communication channels with the West, Western big media and the NGO crowd at the expense of local rooted communication channels with the masses and local activists. This shift could affect the inner nature of the digital activism movement in the Arab world. An activism which does not arise anymore out of necessity to address local needs that are rooted in its native context is no longer activism, but a digital activism businesses.
An activist who loves to invest his or her personal money to pay his hosting and spent most of his free-time in experimenting, coding and implementing projects won’t be the same anymore once he get paid to do the same job. Money has always corrupted activism. When you look at the outcome of the decades-funded work of traditional NGOS in the Arab World you will understand that the same will happen with the activism 2.0. Corrupted elite, without any kind of support by the rest of the society, completely disconnected from the masses, with poor to inexistent impact on the democratization process and a zero effect on the civil and political liberties.
This is not to say that digital activism in the Arab World is not facing financial challenges. But the challenges of being affiliated with the U.S government grantees are much greater. In order to gain not only acceptance of the ideas of change but also support in their own society, digital activism in the Arab world needs to remain independent and try to solve their financial problems at the grassroots level. But Nasser Weddady from Mauritania remains optimistic about the future and the potential of what he calls the “Arab activism 2.0″:
Overall, I remain optimistic because a new generation of cyber activists is slowly emerging and filling in the footsteps of the pioneers who opened the road for them. In my opinion, campaign like the #Khaledsaid campaign in Egypt, or the Sayyeb Sale7 in Tunisia that were developed entirely by individual activists with a vast array of skills show that we have yet to see the full potential of Arab activism 2.0, in fact, I believe these campaigns show that internet-based activism in the Arab World is maturing and is no longer the strict domain of a small elite with foreign-language skills and connections.
Hyper politicization of the Internet and the blogosphere
The politicization of cyberspace is a choice that has to be made by local activists themselves and not by the Washington DC politicians or the Silicon Valley corporates, such as Google. Transforming bloggers into cyberdissidents means putting them under a greater persecution risks. The mass trial in Iran following the 2009 elections protest is there to remind us all that the U.S and Western official involvement and even the hijacking of the legitimate democratic aspiration and struggle of the Iranian people can be very harmful in two ways: 1) the risk of alienating the movement’s base by giving more arguments to the regime to prove that the dissents are working in collusion with the U.S interests. 2) the risk of legitimizing the persecution that will follow. Two major risks that the U.S policy-makers do not seem to have taken seriously into account. A particularly relevant example of the kind of potentially dangerous politicization and hijacking of Arab digital activism is the cyberdissidents.org “organization”. Their about page tells us that “bloggers and internet dissidents in autocratic Middle Eastern countries are already at great risk. We believe that the West has a moral duty to stand up for these brave dissidents who are our greatest allies.” And former US ambassador to the European Union, Kristen Silverberg, has reportedly described CyberDissidents.org as “the leading organization in the world principally devoted to online democratic dissidents.” Despite the hype and the media coverage that CyberDissidents.org has gained, especially in Washington, it’s hard to believe that an organization which has been launched in 2009 can become a leader in defending online democratic dissidents in our region. Secondly, the project offers another kind of challenge as many Israelis and U.S politicians with a strong anti-terror background and linked to the security services in the U.S and Israel are the main architects of these projects and sit in its board. The project itself is an initiative of Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a neo-conservative institute based in Washington, and founded two days after 9/11 attacks. Even the American Conservative accused the FDD of “being funded mainly by a small number of pro-Israel hawks” and described by the Christian Science Monitor as one of the “top neocon think tanks”. The far right-wing politician Nathan Sharansky, who served as Minister for Israel in different departments in Likud governments is the Chairman of CyberDissidents.org. David Keyes a former assistant of former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) who served in the Strategic Division of the Israeli army is specialized on terrorism is CyberDissidents.org director. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism expert from Washington
So when the CyberDissidents.org describes threatened Arab and Iranian digital activists and bloggers as “our greatest allies” it’s very normal that this will harm the ability of these activist to achieve their goals in a regional context marked by strong and legitimate anti-Israeli feelings. Second, CyberDissidents.org is not only using the sacrifices that the on-the-ground activists are making and capitalizing on that in Washington, but they are exposing activists to a great risk of being labeled pro-Israeli. And we really have to wonder if those activists who are now listed and showcased on the CyberDissidents.org website want to be featured there.
Curiously, when a number of activists from the Arab world started using twitter to protest the hijacking of their cause by the right-wing Israeli CyberDissidents.org, we’ve seen a an absurd and naive response from an advisory board member, the Egyptian American Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the same who is now backing Gamal Mubarak’s father-to-son presidential succession, turning the arguments of CyberDissidents.org opponents into a caricature and simplistic religious conflict:
A small group of activists in the Middle East have attacked CyberDissidents.org because some of its members are Israeli. I serve as an advisory board member to this marvelous organization and I am saddened by the attacks on it. CyberDissidents.org promotes freedom of expression in the Middle East, a cause which people of all faiths and nationalities should support. Alongside me on the board of advisers and staff are Sunnis, Shiites, Jews, Iranians, Jordanians, Syrians, Israelis, Sudanese, Canadians, Russians and Americans. If peace is to come to our troubled region, it will be through inclusion, tolerance and understanding, not disqualifying certain people because they happen to belong to a certain ethnic or religious group. I applaud CyberDissidents.org for its tireless advocacy of democratic dissidents.
It is thus up to digital activists to opt for a politicization of their activism depending on their own agenda and context, not those of Washington DC. With their own determination to invest time and money, digital activists in the Arab world are building and sharing their own experiences and knowledge, their own construction of their own culture of social change and by that engaging themselves in getting political power through their own native activism initiatives.
For digital activism in the Arab world to achieve its noble aspirations, it must remain independent and homegrown, tapping its financial, logistic and moral support into the grassroots level or try to seek a support from neutral parties that do not push for any kind of political or ideological agenda. Of course, this does not mean we should be completely disconnected from the global digital activism experience that we need to understand, interact with and learn from. At the present time, we urgently need to resist every governmental attempt to hijack or politicize our space, publicly denounce it and make sure that we are making informed decisions, rather than naively accepting ideologically tinted Internet Freedom funding and support.
If the U.S. and other Western governments want to support Internet Freedom they should start by prohibiting the export of censor wares and other filtering software to our countries. After all, most of the tools used to muzzle our online free expression and monitor our activities on the Internet are being engineered and sold by American and Western corporations. The other problem is that the U.S. and other Western governments are not challenged from the inside about their policy. Our U.S. free speech advocates and dear friends should put more pressure on their own government to halt the export of this kind of tools to our regimes instead of lobbying for more money to help build yet another hyped circumvention tool or support dissidents topple their regime.
Google, instead of using the same mantra of Internet Freedom and instead of cocooning itself in the ideological echo-chamber of the U.S “21st-century statecraft”, should roll out more tools or improve the old ones to help strengthen the digital activism field. I have always advocated for a default https for every blog on Blogger.com. I also called on Google to provide activists groups in countries blocking access to YouTube with alternative IP addresses that enable them to interact with YouTube API without fear. Talking about the U.S private sector companies role in supporting Internet Freedom, blogger and activist Alla Abd El Fattah , point out that the best they should do is to continue on developing a free, neutral and decentralized Internet:
If the U.S companies and non profits want to support democracy in the Middle East the best they can do is continue to develop a free neutral decentralized internet. Fight the troubling trends emerging in your own backyards from threats to Net neutrality, disregard for user’s privacy, draconian copyright and DRM restrictions, to the troubling trends of censorship through courts in Europe, restrictions on anonymous access and rampant surveillance in the name of combating terrorism or protecting children or fighting hate speech or whatever. You see these trends give our own regimes great excuses for their own actions. You don’t need special programs and projects to help free the Internet in the Middle East. Just keep it free, accessible and affordable on your side and we’ll figure out how to use it, get around restrictions imposed by our governments and innovate and contribute to the network’s growth.
Oiwan Lam from Hong Kong recommends the same advices. For the business sector, Oiwan suggests that the U.S companies, like Google, should avoid turning the circumvention into guerrilla war:
The development and promotion of circumvention tools is more or less under the imagination of the cold war rhetoric of the GFW (like Lokman Tsui has pointed out in his thesis). I think we need to have more decentralized and sustainable approach to help people in different situation to get access to the Internet. For example, we can encourage universities to provide their partner university students’ in less open societies VPN access or online proxy access. For online activists, they may need more sophisticated tool. For the business sector, commercially run VPN providers will probably be more effective. Instead of turning the circumvention into a guerrilla war, it is better to embed the tools into people’s daily life and work setting.