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Keep track of Berkman-related news and conversations by subscribing to this page using your RSS feed reader. This aggregation of blogs relating to the Berkman Center does not necessarily represent the views of the Berkman Center or Harvard University but is provided as a convenient starting point for those who wish to explore the people and projects in Berkman's orbit. As this is a global exercise, times are in UTC.

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August 13, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Lebanon ramps up interrogations of online activists

A July 24 demonstration against social media arrests in Lebanon. Photo by Hasan Shaaban, used with permission.

Lebanese security agencies are ramping up the interrogation and censorship of online activists and journalists over social media posts, and sparking renewed debate over the limits to freedom of speech in the country.

Over the past few weeks, at least 10 activists were interrogated by Lebanese security agencies, eight of them by the Internal Security Forces’ Cybercrimes Bureau, over Facebook and Twitter posts. This compares to 18 people summoned by the agency in the six years between 2010-2016, according to research by Social Media Exchange, a local NGO that works on internet policy.

Though Lebanese law contains protections for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, insulting the president, the Lebanese Army, religion or the flag can result in up to a three-year prison sentence and heavy fines. Slander, libel and defamation laws have also increasingly been used by politicians and representatives of big businesses to question and prosecute activists and crack down on critical online speech.

In most of these cases, the subject matter of the offending posts included calls for online activism, jokes or sarcastic comments about religious figures, and alleged criticism of the president and other politicians.

Three recent cases threatening free speech in Lebanon

Imad Bazzi

On July 17, activist and blogger Imad Bazzi was called in for interrogation by the bureau, over a post calling for online activism against the controversial Lancaster Eden Bay resort. The seaside developments project has been heavily criticized over the legally dubious manner of its construction and subsequent opening, on what is by Lebanese law designated as public land.

After initially postponing the interrogation due to surgery, Bazzi was called in once again and attended his interrogation on July 27, refusing to sign a pledge committing not to criticize Eden Bay again, he told local news channel LBCI.

Maj. Gen. Albert Khoury, the head of the Cybercrimes Bureau, told LBCI that Bazzi had been summoned based on a complaint filed by representatives of the resort, who alleged he had caused indirect damages to its reputation. Bazzi had suggested to his followers to post negative online reviews of the resort, in what Ayman Muhana, the director fo SKeyes, described as legitimate online activism.

Mohammad Awwad

Journalist Mohammad Awwad was detained and questioned by General Security on July 20 over Facebook posts reported to be critical of politicians and religious leaders.

The Daily Star quoted Awwad as saying the officials included President Michel Aoun, the head of the Higher Shiite Council, the Sunni Grand Mufti and the Maronite patriarch. Awwad claimed that he had not addressed any of these officials in his recent posts, and said he was not informed of which posts exactly he was interrogated for, nor was he told who had filed the complaint against him.

“Social media websites are the only platforms of freedom available to us. If they are that bothered by it, let them shut down the internet in the whole country,” he was quoted as saying.

Khaled Aboushy

Facebook user Khaled Aboushy was interrogated on July 24 by the Lebanese Army Intelligence over an image he shared depicting President Aoun and his two son-in-laws Gebran Bassil and Chamel Roukoz -both prominent politicians- next to the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and his two sons Bassel and current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Aboushy captioned the post “whats the difference?”

Aboushy told SKeyes he was beaten upon his arrest and held for two days, only being released after signing a pledge not to criticize Aoun or Bassil again.  

The pledges interrogators at the Cybercrimes Bureau often try to get activists to sign are widely reported to have no legal basis.

New agency, old laws

The Internal Security Forces’ Cybercrimes Bureau is the avenue through which most of these interrogations take place.

Established in 2006 to strengthen the Lebanese state’s online security capabilities in the digital age, the Cybercrimes Bureau has caused controversy over its apparent arbitrary enforcement of aged laws dating back to the 1943 Penal Code.

Many activists are being interrogated on the basis of articles 473 and 474 of that legal text, which say that anyone who ”disparages” the name of god or religion can be imprisoned for between one month and several years.

A March 2016 report by a Lebanese NGO focused on freedom of expression, the Samir Kassir Foundation’s Center for Media and Cultural Freedom (SKeyes), said the agency’s conduct often amounts to censorship of free speech.

Addressing how the Penal Code is used by the agency to target online speech, the report notes:

The law is being applied online, where the audience of defamatory speech has been multiplied by literal millions and any post, comment or even ‘share’ online can be deemed defamatory if the complainant is powerful enough and alerts the ISF


While Lebanon does not have explicit, stand-alone anti-cybercrime or anti-terrorism laws, the anti-defamation articles fulfill a similar purpose of both directly targeting activists and dissidents and, by using these cases to set an example, intimidating online journalists, bloggers and Internet users from speaking about certain subjects, thus paving the way for self-censorship and the chilling of speech.

SKeyes estimates that, over the past two years, arrests targeting activists and journalists increased threefold from 10 per year to 30.

Rights groups say the bureau’s censorship role has been particularly evident in recent weeks, with a flurry of activists being detained, forced to delete posts and sign pledges to refrain from publishing “slanderous” content again and, in one case, being prohibited from making any online statements for a month.

Jad Shahrour of the Center for the Defense of Media Freedoms in Beirut told Aljazeera that crackdowns on freedom of expression have been on the rise since Aoun’s term began in late 2016 and that 60 percent of activists interrogated by authorities were summoned following complaints from President Aoun and the FPM party, which has the largest bloc in parliament.

Online activist and comedian Charbel Khoury was briefly detained on July 20 over a sarcastic joke on the medical miracles performed by St. Charbel, a religious figure revered by many in Lebanon.

The activist was released after signing a pledge not to address religion in his posts and deactivate his Facebook account for a month. The complaint against Khoury was filed by a religious organization, the Catholic Media Center, The Daily Star reported.

In a related case, journalist with local Arabic-language daily Al-Akhbar, Joy Slim, was interrogated by the bureau over a joke she made on Khoury’s post. In a column for the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, she wrote about what she described as a “dystopian” experience at the hand of the authorities:

لم يكن ينقص التحقيق معي في مكتب مكافحة جرائم المعلوماتية إلا كاهناً ومذبحاً. أخذ الضباط في قوى الأمن الداخلي الذين حققوا معي على عاتقهم محاولة إعادتي إلى طريق الخلاص المسيحي. من أول الأسئلة التي طُرحت عليّ في التحقيق الذي استمرّ خمس ساعات، هو إذا كنت «معمدّة» (حاصلة على رتبة العماد)، إذ يبدو برأيهم أن أحداً لا يكتب نكتةً في موضوع ديني، إلا إذا كانت تسكنه «أرواحٌ شريرة».

Only a priest and an alter were missing from my interrogation at the Cybercrimes Bureau. The ISF officers who interrogated me troubled themselves and tried to return me to the Christian path of salvation. During the interrogation that lasted five hours, among the first questions were whether I was ”baptised”, as according to them no one writes a joke about religion unless they are inhabited by ”devil spirits”.

Public outcry

On July 24, two activists were summoned on the same day as a hundreds-strong public protest that took place in downtown Beirut, against the increased crackdown on online speech, under the banner “Against Repression.”

“I was brought up in a family where we used to talk about how all the Arab writers who were being oppressed would to come to Beirut for asylum,” Mariam Majdoline, one of the organizers, was quoted as saying by The Daily Star.

“You cannot bring us up with a mentality of freedom and then try to oppress us.”

by Timour Azhari at August 13, 2018 02:08 PM

August 11, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Condemnation of independence activist draws a red line for Hong Kong's press freedom

Foreign correspondents’ club. Hong Kong government photo via HKFP.

This post is a roundup of reports published between August 4 -10, 2018 on Hong Kong Free Press. The republication is based on a partnership agreement.

A recent war of words between Hong Kong's former chief executive and the local Foreign Correspondents’ Club shows how Beijing is forcing Hong Kong journalists, both local and international, to toe its political red line.

The incident began when the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) announced on July 30 that political party leader Andy Chan Ho Tin would be giving a talk at the Club on August 14, entitled “Hong Kong Nationalism: A Politically Incorrect Guide to Hong Kong under Chinese Rule”.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China with more economic and personal freedoms than the mainland, a set-up known as “One Country, Two Systems.” In recent years, Beijing has pressured Hong Kong to pass new laws that strengthen the “One Country” part of the principle.

Soon after, a representative from the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China in Hong Kong visited the FCC and urged them to reconsider the decision.

Chan is the convener of the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), which advocates for Hong Kong's full independence from China. Last month, the Hong Kong police society registration department issued a legal recommendation to the Security Secretary to ban the HKNP as a political party. Citing the Section 8(1)(a) of Hong Kong's Societies Ordinance, the department said this would be “in the interests of national security, public safety, public order, protection of freedom and rights of others”.

Upon reviewing HKNP's past activities and Andy Chan’s talks, police authorities concluded that HKNP was a threat to national security. The recommendation stated:

The HKSAR Government should not wait until a political movement has recourse to violence before intervening…Even if the political movement has not yet made an attempt to seize power and the danger of its policy is not imminent, the HKSAR Government should take preventive measures as HKNP’s movement has started to take concrete steps in public to implement a goal incompatible with the laws.

Police handed Chan a 900-page dossier detailing his and the party's activities and articulating their proposal to ban the group. Chan must respond to the dossier by September 4.

Announcement for lunch talk by Andy Chan. Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong website.

The visit to the FCC by China's Foreign Ministry was not necessarily an indicator of any problem. Media organizations in Hong Kong are accustomed to receiving “political advice” from Beijing representatives.

But tensions began to escalate when former Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung “CY” Chun-ying stepped in and slammed the FCC for crossing a so-called “red line”:


Hong Kong independence is clearly and definitely a red line. Advocating Hong Kong independence is equal to advocating the spit up of the country and is an infringement on China’s sovereignty and territorial completeness. Today the FCC invites Andy Chan to talk about Hong Kong independence, tomorrow it could invite others to talk about Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet independence. What would Hong Kong become?

In response to CY Leung's comment about the “red line”, Victor Mallett, the first vice president of FCC, reinstated the value of free speech.

Leung then issued an open letter on Facebook, in which he compared the hosting of Andy Chan to criminal and terrorist activities:

Presumably then you will defend your decision by also arguing that those who oppose Taiwan independence would be given equal opportunity to present their views. Following this logic, you most probably will not draw any line against criminals and terrorists. As I said, we ought to be gravely concerned.

He further claimed that FCC had been paying a “token rent”. In comments, his followers advocated that the Hong Kong government should take back the property.

Leung's claim was rebuked by former FCC board member Francis Moriarty as an ill-informed threat:

Leung is dead wrong about the rent…When I left the FC Board three years ago, we were paying in the vicinity of HKD $550,000 (USD $70,060) per month and were entirely responsible for the historic building's maintenance.

Chris Yeung Kin-hing, chairman of Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKAJ) saw Leung's comment as “blatant political pressure”:

Leung is essentially asking the FCC to cancel the talk by Chan and stop inviting similar guests in future, or else the lease might not be renewed or even be taken back earlier… That’s blatant political pressure.

But CY Leung’s argument has been echoed by many pro-Beijing media outlets and politicians. On August 8, a group of 30 protesters took to the street and demonstrated outside FCC in Central demanding the cancellation of Andy Chan’s talk.

FCC has resisted the political pressure and the talk is still set to take place on August 14. Nevertheless, the political pressure has taken effect on other local media outlets.

The head of the city’s public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong Leung Ka-wing said in a regular meeting on 9 of August that the broadcaster should not be used to advocate Hong Kong independence and banned live streaming of Andy Chan’s speech at FCC. RTHK programme staff union explained that the decision on whether to live-cast an event or not is usually made by section head of different program teams after internal deliberation. It is unusual for the head to hand down a decision in this manner.

More than half of local media owners in Hong Kong also serve on Beijing-appointed government bodies such as the National People’s Congress. Even though there is no law in place to prosecute media outlets for featuring political dissents, the FCC saga sends a strong signal to media owners and their news management teams on where the “red line” lies. The effects are more than chilling.

by Hong Kong Free Press at August 11, 2018 05:17 PM

August 09, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Russians are facing criminal prosecution for sharing memes online, thanks to anti-extremism laws

A meta-meme circulating on Russian social media. COP looking at MEME: “Is this a criminal case?”

Imagine you’re online and you see an amusing Game of Thrones meme likening the resurrection of one of the main characters, John Snow, to the resurrection of Christ. Chuckling to yourself, you re-post it on your social media page and promptly forget about it.

A few days later, the police raid your apartment and charge you with extremism. In addition to facing years in prison, you’re frozen out of your bank accounts.

Welcome to the reality that unsuspecting social media users across Russia are now facing as authorities ramp up their campaign against online extremism.

Though prosecutions for online posts are nothing new in Russia, this latest round has attracted special attention because many of them are based exclusively on memes. Daniil Markin, a 19-year-old resident of the town of Barnaul, was recently charged under Article 148 of the Russian Criminal Code, for “insulting the feelings of religious believers” for posting several memes on religious themes, including the aforementioned Jon Snow meme.

As a result of the charges, he has been added to a national register of extremists and had his bank accounts frozen. In an interview with Meduza, Markin said:

Я считаю, что для определенного процента людей это могло показаться оскорбительным, но не настолько, чтобы заводить уголовное дело.

I can see how for some people this could be offensive, but not so much that they could press charges.

Markin’s situation isn’t unique, not even in his city of Barnaul. In a June 23 Twitter thread, fellow Barnaul resident Maria Motuznaya described how a group of policemen came to her apartment with a search warrant, interrogated her about memes she had posted (some of which were racist, others offensive to religious sentiment) and confiscated her phone.

While Motuznaya initially laughed it off, the police taunted her, telling her that another woman had also thought it was a game until she was put behind bars for three years. Motuznaya was later charged with extremism under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code.

While the memes Markin and Motuznaya posted could easily offend religious sentiments, they did not represent a direct threat, incitement to violence, or promotion of an extremist or violent ideology. And the Russian internet is full of memes like this. So what tipped off authorities? And how did they so swiftly identify Markin and Motuznaya?

Both cases began with tips from a pair of students at a local higher-ed institute. Neither defendant knew these individuals personally. Because of this, Markin feels there’s something more to his prosecution.

Оперативники обнаруживают меня каким-либо образом, предлагают студенткам написать заявления за определенные „плюшки“ на учебе или даже финансовую помощь.

The officers find out about me somehow and suggest that these students file a complaint for extra study “perks” or even financial support.

The situation may be less of a coincidence than it seems. Pressure on police in Russia to weed out extremism has created many situations in which authorities choose a target and then seek out justification for prosecution.

Motuznaya also suggested an ulterior motive during her interrogation. She had previously made several posts about Alexey Navalny, a Russian opposition figure known for his anti-corruption campaigns. It is unclear whether this had any bearing on her arrest.

The theory of memes-as-pretext, however, seems more and more plausible. Just recently, a journalist from the city of Tuva was arrested for posting two articles in 2014 that were accompanied by photos of Adolf Hitler and Nazi youth groups. This journalist had an activist past, as she wrote on issues affecting quality of life in the city and was campaign manager for Ksenia Sobchak, a liberal candidate in the 2018 Russian presidential elections.

How are social media companies responding?

Social media companies also play a pivotal role in identifying these memes and the people who post them. Vkontakte, one of the two most popular social networks in Russia, has been under fire for “ratting out” their users to the authorities and readily giving away their personal details for prosecution. Under Russian law, administrators of social networks are obligated to gather and store users’ personal information for six months, and provide access to these materials when requested by the authorities. For years, Vkontakte has been only too eager to comply with such requests.

An avalanche of recent negative coverage of criminal cases against social media users prompted the tech giant Mail.Ru, which owns Vkontakte, to release a statement condemning the practice of jailing people for memes. Observers were quick to point out's hypocrisy.

As Mediazona, an independent online outlet focused on police brutality and political show trials in Russia, put it:

Vkontakte (which provides most of the assistance in criminal cases for sharing [of memes]) condemns criminal cases for sharing.

Authorities see arrests as a sign of progress — the more, the better

Why has Barnaul become such a flashpoint for these types of cases? The regional office of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s main federal investigative agency, has since 2016 been leading a campaign to tackle online extremism among young people. Nationwide, human rights experts estimate that roughly 5000 people have been arrested for sharing some type of “extremist” content online.

In July 2018, a public-service announcement video was released explaining efforts at clamping down on extremist behavior online. The announcement defined this behavior as, among other things, anything promoting separatism, religious discord, or hatred towards others on ethnic or religious grounds.

The video ends with the following appeal:

Ведь человечество — это содружество разных культур, каждая из которых интересна и духовно богата. Нет плохих или хороших, мы — единое целое.

After all, humanity is a community of different cultures, each of which is fascinating and spiritually rich. There aren’t bad or good ones, we are all one united whole.

At face value, this might be a laudable sentiment. But why the sudden interest in meme-based posts? Ilya Shepelin, a correspondent for the independent Russian news outlet Dozhd, explained it this way:


Два года назад в Алтайском крае зарегистрировали экстремистских преступлений на 10% меньше, чем следовало. 26 вместо 29. В результате «край оказался в немногочисленной группе регионов, показавших отрицательную статистику по выявлению преступлений».

Просрали цифры, получили нагоняй от федерального министерства — и ух, как взялись за работенку. Ни одной картинки с патриархом и Игрой престолов не пропускают, на всё заводят дела.

И в 2017 году край показал резкий рост «выявленных экстремистских преступлений» почти вдвое больше — на 73%. Теперь седьмое место среди регионов России. Есть чем гордиться.


Two years ago, when the Altai region reported on extremist crimes, they registered 10% less than they should have. 26 instead of 29. As a result, “the region found itself among a small group of regions showing that instances of extremist crimes had fallen.”

They fudged the numbers and got a scolding from the federal ministry, and man, how they went to work. They don’t let a single image of the patriarch or Game of Thrones pass by, they’re pressing charges over everything.

And so in 2017 the region showed a dramatic increase of “instances of extremist crimes”, almost two times more, 73% more. Now they’re seventh among Russia’s regions. Something to be proud of.

Stuck on Russia's federal register of terrorists and extremists

The ramifications of these “extremism” charges, which fall under criminal code articles 282 and 148, continue long after one’s sentence has ended. When charged under these articles, an individual is permanently placed on the federal register of terrorists and extremists. Once on the list, one cannot withdraw more than 10,000 rubles (around 150 US dollars) at a time and cannot use their credit or debit cards.

These two consequences combine to create an unsavory third problem: being officially labeled a terrorist makes potential employers extremely hesitant to hire you. And if they do, they are obligated to jump through extra regulatory hoops just to pay taxes related to your employment.

Because of this, those on the list often find themselves punished with poverty and diminishing prospects both in terms of career and even housing. Who would rent to, much less give a mortgage to, an official terrorist or extremist?

As one human rights lawyer put it,

About a quarter of the cases of persecution “for words” under extremist and terrorist articles are criticism of the authorities, separatist propaganda, criticism of the annexation of Crimea and so on. 75% of the rest of the cases are likes and reposts on social media.

A meme of one's own

With the increase in prosecutions over meme-sharing the issue itself has of course become a meme of its own.

Below, one user employed the “Is this a pigeon?” meme to demonstrate how memes have become the basis for criminal cases:

Now it’s something like this.
Meme captions: “Me” on the man, “meme” on the butterfly.
Bottom text: Is this a criminal charge?

Another used characters from the sci-fi movie Interstellar, toying with the film’s idea about space travel and time-dilation to reference the surreal situation in Barnaul:

Background sign: Barnaul.
Bottom text: One meme here is equal to seven years.

Others went for an even more meta approach. Well-known Russian blogger and Twitter user Anatolii Kapustin wanted to draw attention to the fact that memes can lead to jail time now, and created the Twitter account “Text memes you can be jailed for”, which draws on actual memes that have triggered extremism charges and are now being assessed in court.

Kapustin describes image memes in text format, using direct quotes from court documents, as a way to post memes while avoiding criminal charges. Here are a few examples:

Image #71: A photograph showing Patriarch Kirill [note: head of the Russian Orthodox Church] blessing a room. Text: “Patriarch Kirill brought the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) the newest anti-virus.

Image #61: An image of Stalin and Mussolini with the caption: Fascism is the most terrifying ideology of the 20th century.

Image #41. A black man with the text “You’re just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony, create a masterpiece?. Below, another character, with the caption: “And you’re just a [racial slur].”

Image #33: A man holding sneakers with the caption: “For the 300th time, New Balances were created specially for Russian nationalists!”

The range of themes reflected in these memes, from despicably racist to lightheartedly irreverent, demonstrates that the authorities’ anti-meme-extremism campaign is too broadly defined to be effective at actually removing threats and incitement to violence from online platforms.

Even if the anti-extremism campaign’s goals are taken at face value, the fundamental question (here and in many other countries) remains: What role should law enforcement play in ensuring hateful and objectionable content is deleted from social networks?

In the Russian case, with authorities’ reliance on disproportionately harsh jail sentences and seemingly indefinite financial repercussions, it is clear that Vkontakte’s abdication of its role in self-moderation is hurting its users. Rather than handing over users’ data so that authorities can prosecute them for racist and “edgy” memes, the company should be more proactive in monitoring posts and taking down content that can easily be described as offensive, in a consistent, transparent and accountable way.

It wouldn’t be easy, but as the global debate over moderating social networks continues, the alternatives currently available, arrests or rampant toxicity, show that they’ve got to try.

by Christopher Moldes at August 09, 2018 08:49 PM

Netizen Report: Bangladesh protests trigger mobile network cuts, journalist arrest

Traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital. Photo by Mashrik Faiyaz via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Students in Bangladesh are demanding safer roads — and directing traffic — in response to a bus collision that killed two students who were walking beside a busy road on July 29.

Protests began peacefully but turned violent on August 3 when rumors of rape and kidnapping triggered confrontations between police and protesters, with police resorting to tear gas and rubber bullets.

The rumors primarily traveled through WhatsApp groups and coincided with infiltration of protesters by the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the youth arm of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party.

At the same time, the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission ordered service providers to reduce mobile phone network signals so that only 2G networks were operational. This did not cut off messaging services, but it also made it impossible to share multimedia and live video, which many protesters were using in an attempt to show what actually was happening and to debunk false claims.

Among those who were sharing video online was photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who was covering the protests on Facebook Live. On August 5, plainclothes police officers abducted and later arrested Shahidul. He was beaten while in police custody and later hospitalized.

In Venezuela, journalists are under pressure, news sites are blocked and newsprint keeps disappearing

A deafening boom that interrupted a speech by Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has become the latest cause for media suppression in the country. Multiple mainstream media outlets have since reported that the sound and subsequent panic was caused by a drone carrying explosives, in what may have been at attempt to assassinate Maduro. But local accounts of the details of the incident contradict one another. Journalists have paid a heavy price for trying to find out what really happened — 11 reporters have since been arrested and forced to destroy photos and video taken at the event.

One of Venezuela’s most popular independent news sites, El Pitazo (The Whistle), was taken down for the third time in 11 months. The site is no longer accessible on any of Venezuela’s major internet service provider networks, and its owners have received no notification regarding the ban from telecommunications regulators. The news outlet has created multiple alternate domains in previous instances, but these too have been blocked.

Meanwhile, news outlets that produce print versions are struggling with chronic shortages of newsprint in the country. Caracas Chronicles blog reports that 40 newspapers have discontinued their print editions since 2013. And these days, even pro-government newspapers are finding themselves short on paper.

Iran re-routes Telegram and keeps arresting Instagrammers

The Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) changed the routing or pathway of internet protocol addresses for the Telegram messaging app for one hour on July 30. The change sent users’ traffic to the TCI instead of to Telegram’s servers, rendering the app unusable, even when users employed censorship circumvention tools such as virtual private networks.

Targeting and arrests of Instagram users in Iran has also persisted following the May arrests of Instagram celebrities. Eight female Instagram models and 38 behind-the-camera crew members were arrested in the southern Hormozgan province on July 16.

Malaysian lawyer arrested for questioning monarchy on her blog

Malaysia’s newly-elected government made big promises to overhaul the country’s outdated and authoritarian laws affecting free speech, but these have yet to come to fruition. While there have been some improvements — news sites like Sarawak Report have been unblocked, and sedition charges against popular cartoonist Zunar have been dropped — old habits die hard. Lawyer and activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri was summoned by the police in late July for questioning the role of monarchy in politics on her blog. Fadiah is now under probe for posting allegedly seditious online content.

Bots-for-hire in Indonesian elections

Alongside Kenya, India, Mexico, the US and dozens of other countries, social media bots and influencers-for-hire are increasingly a necessity for Indonesian political parties. In late July, The Guardian reported that bots and fake accounts were used to influence voters in the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Election. Influencers used a range of tactics, from repurposing  articles to discredit opponents, to fabricating positive coverage of their candidate, to innocent posts talking about food and music in an effort to make accounts appear “authentic”. Research by CPIG (in Indonesian) on the issue, locally known as the “Buzzer Phenomenon”, highlighted the fact that there are no rules in place to curb such practices by political candidates.

It was revealed in March 2018 that Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL group, had a hand in influencing previous elections in Indonesia. Although there is no evidence that people associated with SCL were involved in the most recent elections, the group’s approach may have had some influence on tactics that were employed this time around.

Google wants to go back to China

A report by The Intercept published on August 1 cited interviews and internal documents indicating that Google may soon launch a censored version of its search engine in China. Google left the Chinese market in March 2010 following criticism for complying with the government’s censorship regime. This hasn’t changed — if anything, it has become more stringent — but Google’s priorities apparently have.

Google has offered no specific information on the move to the public, and Chinese authorities have denied that any big changes are on the horizon. US Senators have appealed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai to re-think the move and answer several questions about the company’s intentions, citing China’s human rights record.

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by Netizen Report Team at August 09, 2018 07:02 PM

August 08, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
India's biometric ID system takes more heat, after Google admits it coded helpline numbers into Android phones

Collecting an image of a man's iris for Aadhaar. Photo by Kannanshanmugam, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0

The debate on interception of private communications in India took a new turn recently after the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) — a federal agency responsible for India's national ID database, Aadhaar — denied inputting a UIDAI helpline number in several Android user's devices.

The Aadhaar Sampark Kendra (helpline in Hindi) number, 1-800-300-1947, was intended to provide automated and agent-based support to users. But it no longer works. It was replaced with the simpler four-digit 1947 about two years back.

While there is no inherent harm in having the phone number in one's phone contacts, some Indians were unhappy that they were not asked for their consent before the number was added to their devices. While some found that it was there from the time they obtained the device, others report that the phone number appeared following a software update.

These instances have left people suspicious that UIDAI might be capable of accessing personal data from their devices.

After more than a week of discussions in many media publications and social media, Google admitted that in 2014 it had “inadvertently coded” two numbers into the Android SetUp Wizard — distress helpline number 112 and the general helpline number, 1-800-300-1947.

The Aadhaar system is now used widely for identity authentication in myriad public and private institutions, from banking to healthcare to employment. While it is not intended to be used for individual profiling, this could be an outcome of the massive use (and misuse) the system, a reality that has elevated fears of India slowly becoming a surveillance state. With a growing list of incidents of system malfunctions and personal data leaks, Aadhaar has failed to gain public trust.

In a recent attempt to prove the strength of Aadhaar to the public, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) chairman Ram Sewak Sharma on July 28 shared his Aadhaar number publicly on Twitter, hoping to show that no harm could be done by revealing the same.

This impulsive step provoked hackers and developers, who soon found Sharma's cellphone number, email and physical addresses, date of birth, airline miles number, an alleged photograph with a family member, and a prank of ordering a phone in his address with a cash on delivery option.

He nevertheless continues to defend Aadhaar as being leak-proof and protective of privacy.

Despite of UIDAI's tweet asking users to not reveal their Aadhaar numbers publicly, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Electronics and Information Technology and of Law and Justice, followed the lead of Sharma and revealed his own Aadhaar number during a public meeting.

Aadhaar has been criticized largely for what technical experts say is a defective design that in many cases has made the privacy of many Indian citizens vulnerable.

by Subhashish Panigrahi at August 08, 2018 04:21 PM

August 07, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
As Malaysia's new government marks 100 days in office, is free speech still under threat?

Activists gather in support of lawyer and activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri who was summoned by the police for allegedly posting a seditious blog article about the monarchy. Photo from Facebook page of Daniel Mizan Qayyum

As it approaches its 100 days in office, has Malaysia's new government fulfilled its promises to protect freedom of expression?

On May 9, 2018, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) party defeated Barisan Nasional (BN) which had held power for the past half century.

During the campaign period, PH released a manifesto pledging to review and potentially abolish regulations that undermine free speech. These include the Sedition Act 1948, Prevention of Crime Act 1959, Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, and the Anti-Fake News Act 2018.

Since the election, Malaysians have seen some improvements. Independent news websites such as the Sarawak Report and Medium have been unblocked. The travel ban on political cartoonist and activist Zunar, a fierce critic of former PM Najib Razak, has been lifted. But other outspoken voices are still under pressure.

Lawyer under probe for blogging about monarchy

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) warned that despite the campaign pledge of PH, “violations against freedom of expression are still occurring.”

The group cited the case of lawyer and activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri who was summoned by the police last July for questioning the role of monarchy in politics in her blog. Fadiah is now under probe for posting an allegedly seditious online content.

CIJ advised the police and the government to stop using draconian laws while parliament is considering the repeal of these measures:

We call upon the Government to make clear its stand on freedom of expression; to condemn this investigation; and to speedily institute a moratorium on all oppressive laws pending their repeal and/ or amendment…If Malaysia is to undergo true democratisation critical, respectful discourse and debate needs to be fostered and protected.

Kua Kia Soong, adviser to the human rights group Suaram, defended Fadiah and appealed for tolerance of dissenting views:

The article written by Fadiah certainly did not constitute incitement to hatred or violence. She was expressing an opinion on an issue of public interest.

Her right to freedom of expression as a social activist and intellectual must be respected because such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broad-mindedness that our founding fathers and mothers wanted for our democratic society and especially now, the supposedly “new Malaysia”.

Officials ask for patience

Deputy Minister Hanipa Maidin, in Prime Minister's Department, reiterated the commitment of PH to repeal repressive laws but asked for patience as the government prepares for broader reforms in the bureaucracy:

I only hope the people can be a little more patient with us, just as we have been very patient with BN over the past 60 years…This is because there is far too much damage left by the previous regime for us and for you. This is not an excuse, but a sincere request from us.

Another official affirmed the intention of the government to remove controversial laws such as the Anti-Fake News Act and the Security Offences Special Measures Act (SOSMA).

Sedition cases against cartoonist Zunar dropped

A welcome development was the decision of the government to withdraw the nine sedition cases it filed against political cartoonist Zunar. This was confirmed by Zunar himself through his Twitter account:

Zunar was a prolific and prominent cartoonist who criticized the corruption and other abuses of the previous government. Aside from being charged with sedition, his drawings were confiscated by the police and he was prevented from leaving the country.

The Penang police also said they will return a collection of Zunar's books, t-shirts, and other artworks that they confiscated from him in 2017.

Malaysians continue to face significant challenges as they campaign for greater freedom and democracy in a society undergoing transition in governance. It is reassuring that the new government has not yet reneged on its vow to pursue legislative reforms that will strengthen media freedom and human rights protection.

But a growing number of Malaysian citizens and civil society groups are reminding the government to take decisive action. This was also the message of 36 civil society groups which signed a statement calling for the upholding of freedom of expression:

We hope this new government is in fact new, and will back up their rhetoric with committed and decisive action. In these crucial early days, as the government sets the tone for its administration, we hope to see a genuine departure from the old oppression, and a transition into a Malaysia where all ideas can be discussed peacefully and our constitutional rights exercised maturely.

by Mong Palatino at August 07, 2018 07:24 PM

August 06, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Landmark ruling in Angola acquits journalist Rafael Marques of all charges

Rafael Marques de Morais | 2015 Allard Prize ceremony | Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 3.0

A court in Luanda has acquitted journalist Rafael Marques and editor Mariano Brás of charges of insulting the Angolan state in what many considered a milestone for the country's press freedom.

Marques was charged in June 2017 after publishing an article in October 2016 alleging that then-Attorney General João Maria de Souza had engaged in corrupt dealings to acquire beachfront property where he built a residential compound. The article was published on independent news website Maka Angola, of which Marques is the founder and editor.

Mariano Brás, the chief editor of the newspaper O Crime, which published the article in print, was facing the same charges. Marques was additionally being accused of “offending an organ of sovereignty” for allegedly having offended the ex-president José Eduardo dos Santos in the same piece.

At the latest hearing on July 6, judge Josina Falcão, who was presiding the case at Luanda Provincial Court, stated that the journalists merely “fulfilled their duty to inform” and dismissed all the accusations against both men.

While this was not the first time that Marques was brought to trial for his journalistic work, it was indeed the first time that the Luanda Provincial Court acquitted him — in the previous cases, he merely had the sentence suspended.

The case was followed by various news outlets as well as activists on social media. This is one of the first highly profile court cases during the government of João Lourenço, who succeeded the long-serving president José Eduardo dos Santos in September 2017.

Angolan activist Luaty Beirão, who was present at the trial, tweeted as it unfolded, up to the moment of the sentence:

“It is the understanding of this court that truth exists in the text published by the defendant and that he did nothing more than fulfil his obligation to inform the public. We do not perceive that there was any intention to defame the plaintiff”.

1st Tweet: “It was proved during this trial that the process of land acquisition, at the origin of the article by the defendant which triggered the case which today comes to its end, is tarnished by irregularities”. Conclusion? Who committed a crime? Who should have been in the dock? The messenger?

2nd Tweet: The day of passing sentence

1st Tweet: After 3 hours of reading what seemed to be a doctoral thesis, we get to the interesting part: Mariano Brás, innocent of all charges, @RafaelMdeMorais, innocent of all charges.

2nd Tweet: “The court understands that we would be erring if, as a society that wants to evolve, we decided to punish the messengers of bad news. In taking public positions, it is necessary to become used to being scrutinized and criticized. If you cannot stand the heat, you cannot work in the kitchen”

After the hearing, Marques, who was awarded World Press Freedom Hero in 2018 by the International Press Institute, said that the court's decision was “historic”. He ensured the public that he “will continue denouncing all those who harm the country”.

A new beginning for Angola?

Some civil society organizations are hopeful that the court’s decision recognizing Rafael Marques’ innocence marks the beginning of a new era in Angola’s court press freedom.

In an interview with DW África, Alexandre Solembe, president of the Institute for Social Communication in Southern Africa in Angola, said he had no doubts that the result would have been different if José Eduardo dos Santos, the former Angolan president for several decades, was still in power.

Under the former president’s time in office, there were numerous cases of harassment of journalists and activists who were critical of the government.

Similarly, the news was welcomed by the African Federation of Journalists, an organization which brings together professionals in social communications from across the continent:

For Human Rights Watch, it was a victory for press freedom, as highlighted by the organization's researcher for Africa, Zenaida Machado:

The unexpected ruling is a victory for freedom of the press in a country where the media has been on a tight leash, with authorities often repressing coverage of cases of corruption involving government officials, through intimidation and abusive use of defamation laws. Following today’s historic court ruling, the Angolan government should now go further and seek to amend the 2017 media law so that journalists are able to do their jobs in a free environment.

The African network of reporters, RSF África, also welcomed the case, stating that it was a positive sign for investigative journalism:

by Dércio Tsandzana at August 06, 2018 06:45 PM

Iran’s telecommunications company illegally rerouted Telegram app traffic

Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot. Graphic by stephan salt for Noun Project.

Below is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Center for Human Rights in Iran website.

In a new move aimed at tightening the state-imposed ban on the Telegram messaging app, the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) temporarily rerouted Telegram app traffic on July 30, in clear violation of domestic law.

For one hour, the routing or pathway of Telegram’s internet protocol addresses changed so that users’ traffic was routed to the TCI instead of Telegram’s servers. This rendered the app unusable, even when users employed censorship circumvention tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs).

What does the border gateway protocol do?

The BGP protocol enables internet routers to find each other. For example, if you want to access the Telegram app, the best path to the app’s servers will be determined by routers that connect you to their stored IP addresses, which are updated when changes take place. As such, BGP allows routers to exchange information on how users can best access desired destinations.

Speaking to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), internet security expert Hamid Kashfi explained that this type of “hijacking” is like changing your home address to receive mail at someone else’s residence. He explained that the method used “border gateway protocols” (BGPs), which enable routers to find one another.

“When you don’t have physical access to a target network inside the country, the easiest way to control its traffic is by hijacking internet data through BGPs,” Kashfi told CHRI.

This is not the first time Iran has resorted to illegal methods to expand its filtering policies. But this time, the move could have global implications. By altering the routing of Telegram traffic, Iran may cause other servers in the world to also update their routing. This will likely result in a spate of incorrect IP addresses that could also disrupt internet traffic in other countries.

Commenting on the development, Washington Post tech reporter Drew Fitzgerald tweeted on July 30:

The TCI hijacked border gateway protocols, which manage how data is transferred across the internet. This is not only a violation of Iran's Computer Crimes Law, it also seals the reputation of Iran’s Telecommunications Ministry as a violator of internet freedom.

Responding to this action, Iran’s Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi tweeted on July 30, “Based on reports I’ve received so far, between 4 and 6 a.m. on July 30, the TCI was engaged in changing its topology and consolidating its provincial network in Shiraz and Bushehr [cities].”

“If confirmed, the TCI’s misdeed, whether intentional or not, will trigger a heavy fine,” he added. “The matter is under investigation by the Communications Regulatory Authority (CRA) of The I.R. of Iran.”

By blocking international access to the website, the TIC committed sabotage and hacked the network in violation of articles 736 and 737 of Iran’s Computer Crimes Law, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison and a maximum fine of 40 million rials (approximately $906 USD).

Further investigations by CHRI

Research by CHRI show that on July 17, 2018, Iran also attempted to block international access to banned domestic websites by sabotaging and interfering in the data traffic, in violation of its own Computer Crimes Law.

When a user outside Iran tried to access, the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company (TIC) inserted code into that website that redirected users to a different website,, which displays a list of websites recommended by Iranian authorities.

The list is no longer displayed because authorities have removed the filter on the website.

The responsible authority for this action was the TIC, which operates under the Telecommunications Ministry. All ministries in Iran operate under the president, who appoints the head minister.

It is unknown how many websites in Iran have been made inaccessible via this method.

Screenshot of the code inserted into the website.

Screenshot of the code inserted into the website.

Why the BGP filtering method is ineffective

Implemented less than two months after Iran blocked access to Telegram, the move appears to be designed to strengthen the ban by rerouting access requests to servers inside Iran. This method was previously used by the government of Pakistan in February 2008 when it extended its filtering to international BGP routes and redirected most of YouTube’s traffic to Pakistan.

Although this filtering method can be temporarily effective, it is also easily recognizable and can be corrected by international routers within a maximum of two to three days.

Kashfi commented: “Despite what the public might think, this kind of attack is technically very simple. In truth, it’s a deliberate mistake intended to change the main route of internet service providers.”

Asked if he thinks Iran’s action was accidental or deliberate, Kashfi responded, “Governments usually do it deliberately and then say it was accidental. Since blocking Telegram in Iran is a strategic matter, it’s very, very unlikely it was accidental.”

by Center for Human Rights in Iran at August 06, 2018 04:46 PM

Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam detained over student protest coverage

Image via the Facebook page of DRIK.

Late on the night of August 5, 2018, Bangladeshi photographer and activist Dr. Shahidul Alam was forcibly abducted from his house in Dhanmondi, Dhaka by men in plainclothes.

Alam is the founder of both the Drik Picture Library and the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and a vocal journalist on issues related to rule of law and the public interest.

It was soon confirmed that a team of the Detective Branch (DB) of police had detained Shahidul from his residence, with the intention of interrogating him over his Facebook posts about ongoing student protests in the capital, Dhaka.

Secondary school students of different educational institutions in the Bangladesh capital have taken to the streets since July 29 demanding improved road safety and rule enforcement, after two of their classmates were killed due to reckless driving by public bus. The students are also demanding justice for the victims.

Detained for covering the student protests

Shahidul Alam has been covering the ongoing student protests in Bangladesh in his Facebook and Twitter accounts and discussing the protests on Facebook Live.

More than one hundred students were injured over the weekend as the police resorted to excessive force, including firing rubber bullets and tear gas at thousands of peaceful student protestors.

The protests took a violent turn on August 4 when rumors of student protestors being kidnapped, raped and killed began to spread online, but independent media sources at the Dhaka Tribune along with students themselves and a fact-hecking Facebook group called Jaachai (fact-check) have denounced these messages as false and debunked doctored photographs. Nevertheless, many students came out to the streets to protest the deaths. Several violent confrontations between protestors and police have ensued since. Mobs allegedly associated with Bangladesh's ruling party have also attacked demonstrators and journalists who were covering the attacks.

Emergency medical teams say they have treated more than 100 protestors who have been injured.

In an attempt to curb rapidly-spreading rumors, mobile internet speed was brought down to a minimum level (2G) shutting down 3G and 3G broadcasts.

Booked under ICT act over media comments

Alongside his social media coverage of the protests, Alam apparently angered the authorities and the ruling party after he gave a TV interview on Sunday evening with Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera where he talked about the recent situation in Bangladesh and criticized the government.

Expat blogger Rumi Ahmed posted a transcript of the interview on Facebook. Here is an excerpt:

I think what we need to do is to look at what has been happening in the streets today. The police specifically asked for help from these armed goons to combat unarmed students demanding safe roads. I mean how ridiculous is that. Today, I was in the streets, there were people with machetes in their hands chasing unarmed students. And the police are standing by watching it happen. In some cases, they were actually helping them…

According to the latest reports, the police have received a seven-day remand to question Shahidul Alam in connection with an ICT Act case filed on August 6, 2018. He was taken to the court barefoot and barely able to walk. He appears to have been beaten while in custody.

Exiled journalist Tasneem Khalil Tweeted:

The police have not yet mentioned why he was detained but referred to the case which accuses him under section 57 of the ICT Act of “abusing” an electronic platform in order to spread “lies” among the population and with the intent to “invalidate and question” the government on the international stage, damage law and order, spread “fear and terror”.

The provisions of Section 57 of Bangladesh's notoriously broad 2013 Information and Communication Technology Act of Bangladesh have been used to slap hundreds of lawsuits against journalists and online activists to curb the freedom of speech online over the past few years.

Blogger and activist Vaskar Abedin writes on Facebook:

শহীদুল আলম কোনো গুজবকে সত্যের মতো অভিনয় করে প্রচার করেননি। একজন অ্যাক্টিভিস্টের মতো করে ডেটা, ফ্যাক্ট আর নিজের তোলা ছবি নিয়ে ফেইসবুক লাইভে গেছেন। তিনি কাউকে আহ্বান জানান নাই উস্কানি দিয়ে, তিনি কেবল পরিস্থিতি বিশ্লেষণ করেছেন নিজের উপস্থিতি জানান দিয়ে। বেশিরভাগ লাইভ ভিডিওতে তিনি ইংরেজিতে কথা বলেছেন। যেসবের ভোক্তা এই আন্দোলনের মূল নিউক্লিয়াসের কেউ নয়।

অথচ তার বিরুদ্ধে তথ্যপ্রযুক্তি আইনে আন্দোলনের উস্কানিদাতা হিসাবে মামলা হয়েছে। এমন বিষয়গুলো খুব বিব্রতকর।

Shahidul Alam did not make up stories to spread rumors. Like a true activist, he presented the facts on Facebook live with his photographs and data. He did not provoke anyone or direct anyone, he just analyzed the situation explaining what he saw on the streets. He spoke in English mostly in his Facebook Live broadcasts and the target audience of which are not the people involved in the protest, but the wider (international) community.

But he was sued under the ICT act for acting as a provocateur. This is very embarrassing.

Amnesty International has released a statement which read:

Shahidul Alam must be immediately and unconditionally released. There is no justification whatsoever for detaining anyone for solely peacefully expressing their views. His arrest marks a dangerous escalation of a crackdown by the government that has seen the police and vigilantes unleash violence against student protestors.

by GV South Asia at August 06, 2018 04:44 PM

August 03, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
If Google goes back to China, it will be on the government's terms. What will that mean for human rights?

A Google music search product launch in Beijing, 2009. Photo by Keso via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

report by The Intercept published on August 1 says that tech giant Google may soon launch a censored version of its search engine in China.

Drawing on internal documents from Google and an interview with a source from the company who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the independent media outlet reported that the company is developing a customized version of its Android search application (app) for the Chinese market. Code-named “Dragonfly”, the app would automatically identify and censor websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Wikipedia, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Global Voices and many others that are currently blocked by China's so-called Great Firewall.

Google left the Chinese market in March 2010 following criticism for complying with government censorship orders. But in recent years, under the leadership of Sundar Pichai, who became Google's Chief Executive Officer in 2015, the tech giant has tried very hard to reconnect with the Chinese market despite considerable human rights implications.

When Google left the Chinese market, executives cited concerns over human rights, censorship, and blocks on access to information. And these conditions haven't changed — China enacted a cybersecurity law in 2016 that strengthened China's already-stringent online censorship and surveillance practices and made it obligatory for foreign companies operating in China to turn over user data, including the encryption keys, upon official request.

The Intercept source says the Dragonfly project accelerated after a December 2017 meeting between Pichai and the Chinese Communist Party’s top ideologue, Wang Huning. Google staff apparently have already performed a demonstration of the app for Chinese government officials. If released, the app will have to compete with Baidu, the native search engine that presently dominates China's market.

Google may be prepared to compromise human rights principles for the Chinese market. But it will still depend on the Chinese government to grant its entry.

Internal documents also indicate that the search app will be operated by a joint venture partnership between Google and a China-based company (yet to be identified). This is a standard approach for foreign companies wishing to operate in China.

Sources for The Intercept say the finalized version of the app could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending official approval. But this may not come easily. On August 3, Chinese state-affiliated media outlet Securities Daily denounced the Intercept report and quoted a Chinese analyst saying that Google could not re-enter China in the near future.

The recent experience of tech giant Facebook in China may provide a cautionary tale to its Silicon Valley competitor. Just two days after Facebook announced plans to open an innovation center in China, its Cyberspace Administration stepped in and barred Facebook from receiving a license to operate.

It is unclear what will happen next. While Google may not be able to enter China any time soon, the Intercept story reveals a disturbing trend among United States-based tech giants that appear prepared — even eager —  to sideline human rights principles in order to grow their businesses.

The anonymous source from Google told The Intercept:

I’m against large companies and governments collaborating in the oppression of their people, and feel like transparency around what’s being done is in the public interest […] what is done in China will become a template for many other nations.

The news about Google’s plan has attracted a lot of discussion among Chinese Twitter users. Many have been critical of the move.

One Twitter user referred to the recent activities of Apple in China and its subsequent rise on the stock market, a potential motivator for other companies to enter China:

Today Apple Inc. has sprung up again. Its market value is now more than US$100 billion dollars. The key factor behind its growth was the 40% increase in i-phone sale in Chinese market in Q3. In the context of a China-US trade war, the market has been worried about the future of Apple. But the strong performance in the Chinese market in Q3 has boosted the market confidence. The market is starting to believe that Apple Inc. has found its way out of the US-China trade war with its “country specific” business strategy. This is likely the motivation behind Google’s “re-strategizing”.

Apple Inc. transferred operation of its iCloud data center in mainland China to a local, state-managed corporation called Guizhou-Cloud Big Data in February 2018. While the company stressed that it still controls the encryption keys for user accounts and had not handed these to the local partners, Chinese users still worry that their privacy may be jeopardized.

There is no question that Google would be subject to the same regulatory requirements that led them to leave China in 2010, but it seems that Google's priorities may have changed. This could significantly impede on the human rights of users in China — and potentially elsewhere, depending on how product and service infrastructures are built.

Thus far, Google has not commented on the Intercept's report.

by Oiwan Lam at August 03, 2018 08:30 PM

Killing speech softly: How the world’s biggest tech companies are quietly censoring critical expression in the Middle East

Graphic by Omar Momani for 7iber (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This post is published as part of an editorial partnership between Global Voices and Ranking Digital Rights.

Following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a message reflecting on religion, free expression and the controversial editorial line of the magazine.

“A few years ago, an extremist in Pakistan fought to have me sentenced to death because Facebook refused to ban content about Mohammed that offended him.

We stood up for this because different voices — even if they're sometimes offensive — can make the world a better and more interesting place,” Zuckerberg wrote on his page.

Later that same month, Facebook agreed to restrict access to an unspecified number of pages for “offending prophet Muhammad” in Turkey at the request of local authorities.

Turkey is notorious for the number of requests it makes to internet companies to remove content for violating its local laws, but it is not the only government in the Middle East to resort to such tactic to silence critical voices.

While a number of the region’s governments sometimes make direct requests for content removal — along with exerting “soft” pressure through other means — the failures of tech giants in moderating content in the region is a much bigger and more complex problem.

Abuse of flagging mechanisms

Across the region, social media platform “flagging” mechanisms are often abused to silence government critics, minority groups or views and forms of expression deemed not to be in line with the majority’s beliefs on society, religion and politics.  

In 2016, Facebook suspended several Arabic-language pages and groups dedicated to atheism following massive flagging campaigns.

This effectively eliminated one of the few (in some cases, the only) spaces where atheists and other minorities could come together to share their experiences, and freely express themselves on matters related to religion. Across the region, atheism remains a taboo that could be met with harassment, imprisonment or even murder.

“[Abusive flagging] is a significant problem,” Jessica Anderson, a project manager at which documents cases of content takedowns by social media platforms, told Global Voices.

“In the Middle East as well as other geographies, we have documented cases of censorship resulting from ‘flagging campaigns’—coordinated efforts by many users to report a single page or piece of content.”

Flagging mechanisms are also abused by pro-government voices. Earlier this year, Middle East Eye reported that several Egyptian political activists had their pages or accounts suspended and live-streams shut down, after they were reported by “pro-government trolls.”

“What we have seen is that flagging can exacerbate existing power imbalances, empowering the majority to ’police’ the minority,” Anderson said. “The consequences of this issue can be severe: communities that are already marginalized and oppressed lose access to the benefits of social media as a space to organize, network, and be heard.”

Failure to consider user rights, in context

This past May, Apple joined the ranks of Facebook and Twitter — the more commonly-cited social media platforms in this realm — when the iTunes store refused to upload fives songs by the Lebanese band Al-Rahel Al-Kabir. The songs mocked religious fundamentalism and political oppression in the region.

A representative from iTunes explained that the Dubai-based Qanawat, a local content aggregator hired by Apple to manage its store for the region, elected not to upload the songs. An anonymous source told The Daily Star that iTunes did not know about Qanawat’s decision, which it made due to “local sensitivities.” In response to a petition from Beirut-based digital rights NGO SMEX and the band itself, iTunes uploaded the songs and pledged to work with another aggregator.

This case does not only illustrate how “local sensitivities” can interfere with decisions about which types of content get to be posted and stay online in the region, but also shows that companies need to practice due diligence when taking decisions likely to affect users’ freedom of expression rights.

Speaking to Global Voices, Mohamad Najem, co-founder of SMEX pointed out that both Facebook and Twitter have their regional offices located in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which he described as one of the “most repressive countries” in the region.

“This is a business decision that will affect free speech in a negative way,” he said. He further expressed concern that the choice of having an office in a country like the UAE “can sometimes lead to enforcing Gulf social norm[s]” on an entire [Arab] region that is “dynamic and different.”

Location, location, location

Facebook and Twitter have offices in the UAE that are intended to serve the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region that is ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse, and presents a wide range of political viewpoints and experiences. When companies are pressured by oppressive governments or other powerful groups to respect “local sensitivities,” they are being complicit in shutting down expression of such diversity.

“Platforms seem to take direction from louder, more powerful voices…In the Middle East, [they] have not been able to stand up to powerful interests like governments,” Anderson said.

Take, for example, Facebook’s willingness to comply with the Turkish government’s censorship demands. Throughout the years, the company was involved in censoring criticism of the government, religion and the republic’s founder Ataturk, Kurdish activists, LGBT content and even an anti-racism initiative.

Facebook’s complicity with these requests appears to be deeply ingrained. I spoke to a Turkish activist two years ago who told me that he believed the platform “was turning into a pro-government media.” Today, the platform continues to comply, restricting access to more than 4,500 pieces of content inside the country in 2017 alone. Facebook is not transparent about the number and rates of requests it complies with.

“The biggest shortcoming in [the] ways platforms deal with takedown requests is [their] lack of understanding of the political contexts. And even if there is some kind of idea of what is happening on the ground, I am not entirely sure, there is always due diligence involved,” Arzu Geybulla, a freelance writer who covers Turkey and Azerbaijan for Global Voices said.

In conference settings, representatives from Facebook are routinely faced with questions about massive flagging campaigns. They maintain that multiple abuse reports on a single post or page do not automate the process of the post or page being removed. But they offer little concrete information about how the company does see and respond to these situations. Does the company review the content more closely? Facebook representatives also say that they consult with local experts on these issues, but the specifics of these consultations are similarly opaque.

And the work of moderating content — deciding what meets local legal standards and Facebook’s own policies — is not easy. Anderson from said: 

Content moderation is incredibly labor intensive. As the largest platforms continue to grow, these companies are attempting to moderate a staggering volume of content. Workers (who may not have adequate knowledge and training, and may not be well paid) have to make snap decisions about nuanced and culturally-specific content, leading to frequent mistakes and inconsistencies.

For activists and human rights advocates in the region, it is also difficult to know the scope of this problem due to lack of corporate transparency. Cases like that of iTunes may be occurring more often than is publicly known — it is only when someone speaks out about being censored that these practices come to light.


by Afef Abrougui at August 03, 2018 07:38 PM

August 02, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Officials blame WhatsApp for spike in mob killings, but Indians say vicious party politics are at fault

Mobile phone kiosk in Bangalore, India. Photo by Victor Grigas, retouched by Wikimedia Foundation. CC BY-SA 3.0

After a spate of more than 20 mob lynchings driven by rumors spread on social media, the Indian government on July 20 threatened to punish WhatsApp for its inability to control fake news.

India's Ministry of Information and Technology issued an official statement describing WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, as an “abettor” in these crimes.

Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad chided WhatsApp and told a news daily: “They cannot evade responsibly and accountability for the messages, particularly those which are leading to killings.”

This may be a first step towards the Indian government taking legal action against the Silicon Valley company. But would legal action against Facebook actually help put an end to the killings?

Many Indians say that party politics and political manipulation, when combined with a technology like WhatsApp, are the real source of the problem. Sufyan Sadiq summarized the dynamics on Facebook:

WhatsApp is a big black hole of fake news in India that's used by the mischief mongering right-wing groups more often associated with BJP that ends up in someone's killing carried out by a lynch mob. This app is still evolving as a principal KillerApp in India…

Thus far, WhatsApp has responded to criticism by purchasing full-page advertisements in Indian newspapers offering readers ways to spot fake news. The platform has also placed new limits on forwarding of messages and introduced a label for messages that are forwarded, in an apparent effort to signal to users that a message may not have been written by its sender.

Some Indians appreciated the forwarding measure, while others think WhatsApp could do much more. But many are asking why the government hasn't taken more responsibility for the lynchings, which represent a serious threat to public safety.

India's WhatsApp lynch mob crisis

Lynch mobs formed on social media have claimed the lives of at least 34 people in India since 2014. Here are cases documented thus far in July 2018:

July 1: A spate of doctored videos spread on WhatsApp led to the mob lynching of five men in Maharashtra state, who were wrongly targeted for being kidnappers. The lynch mob subsequently threatened to set fire to police officers in an effort to confirm the victims’ deaths.

July 2: Four men were attacked in Maharashtra's Malegaon district as rumors spread about a child abducting nexus. A timely intervention from officials saved their lives.

July 8: Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath were lynched by a mob in Northeast India's Assam on June 8, 2018, over viral rumors spread via Facebook, WhatsApp and eventually word-of-the-mouth.

July 13: A mob of 200 attacked five friends, wrongly believing they were child kidnappers, in the southern state of Karnataka. The mob killed Mohammad Azam, a UK-educated IT professional and seriously injured two others. The mob also attacked police officials who sought to intervene.

July 21: Rakbar Khan, who was wrongly suspected of illegally transporting cows, was killed by a mob in Rajasthan that beat him with sticks.

July 25: Four men were assaulted by a mob in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh for ferrying a bovine carcass. Police intervention spared their lives.

It is difficult to determine precisely how many people have been victims of mob violence. A Wikipedia chronicle of WhatsApp-related mob violence produces 56 results on this page. Independent data journalism website IndiaSpend claims that there have been 89 incidents of lynching since 2014, affecting 290 victims and killing 34. Minority Muslims, who account for 14 percent of India's population, have been the victims of 56 percent of these crimes.

What led to this public safety crisis? It's more than just WhatsApp.

The rise of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India in 2014, which practices a unique brand of hard-line Hindu nationalism, has coincided with an increase in Islamophobia and a series of proposed (and some enacted) laws banning or limiting the consumption of beef, as the cow is a sacred animal in Hindu tradition.

Rajasthan and New Delhi have seen the murders of 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq who was killed for procuring beef, followed by Umar Mohammad, Rakbar Khan and dairy owner Pehlu Khan, all documented by Global Voices. Some of these incidents have been committed despite the victims possessing permits.

Like those mentioned earlier, these murders appear to have been sparked by online misinformation campaigns that often carry a strong Islamophobic bent. These appear to come from various sources, including state-sanctioned IT cells.

Dhruv Rathee, a vlogger from India, interviewed a former IT cell member for the right-wing BJP on how multiple pages on Facebook and numerous WhatsApp groups have spread fake news and misinformation campaigns to gain electoral leverage:

Writing for The Tribune of India, Aditi Tandon called mob lynching a “political tool” and said that law enforcement has become “part and parcel” of the attacks:

The violence we have seen over the past four years follows a trend. Mob lynching is a political tool being used to polarise society. Law enforcement has also become part and parcel of the attacks. Police officers who act fairly are transferred. The idea is to create a fear psychosis by unleashing the mobs on a certain community.

There are ongoing efforts to push back against these campaigns by de-bunking videos that have been falsely labeled or doctored. For years, fact-checking websites such as AltNews, SMHoaxSlayer, and BOOM have been verifying fake news to create awareness. BOOM found that one of the videos that triggered lynching of five men in Maharashtra's Dhule region was from Syria — a video of children who died of a nerve gas attack five years ago was being used to spread paranoia amongst the masses. While their efforts are critical, the scale of the problem well outweighs their capacity.

Many Indians say that the government and law enforcement agencies must take greater responsibility for the crisis, but this may be difficult to engineer, with the BJP in power.

In an opinion piece for Bloomberg, business writer Mihir Sharma points out that lynch mobs in India are not new — while WhatsApp has contributed to the problem, he says, it is not the source. He points instead to a lack of policing and political will:

It’s particularly odd that the government is demanding “accountability and responsibility” from a phone app when some ruling party politicians are busy spreading divisive fake news. How can the government ask WhatsApp to control mobs when those convicted of lynching Muslims have been greeted, garlanded and fed sweets by some of the most progressive and cosmopolitan members of Modi’s council of ministers?

The Supreme Court weighs in

One government branch that has spoken out on the issue is India's Supreme Court, which recently recommended the government enact new laws to prevent lynching and mob violence. The SC bench headed by justice Dipak Mishra asked the Indian parliament to deal with lynching as a special and separate offense and “a recurrent pattern of violence which cannot be allowed to become the new normal.” He said:

A special law in this field would instill a sense of fear of law amongst the people who involve themselves in such kinds of activities. There can be no trace of doubt that fear of law and veneration for the command of law constitute the foundation of a civilized society.

Following this, the Indian government on July 23 2018, has set up two panels to understand the need for a new law to prevent lynching.

The report will be submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who leads the very government that has fostered this culture of intolerance.

While Mark Zuckerberg and other technology platform founders should experiment with new ways to curb fake news and rumor-mongering on their platforms, the Indian government needs to do much more to protect public safety for all Indians. Ensuring mob justice is punished and the rule of law is enforced will save the lives of many minority communities including Muslims, Dalits, and minority tribal groups.

by Vishal Manve at August 02, 2018 02:01 PM

August 01, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Russian journalists killed in Central African Republic

Orkhan Dzhemal, 51, a veteran war reporter from Russia, killed on July 31, 2018, in Central African Republic // Screenshot from Echo of Moscow, YouTube

Three Russian journalists were killed on the night of July 30 in Central African Republic, at a checkpoint outside the country’s capital Bangui.

Veteran reporter Orkhan Dzhemal, award-winning filmmaker Aleksandr Rastorguev and cameraman Kirill Radchenko were shot and killed by unidentified assailants who emerged from the bushes at roadside when they arrived.

The attack took place amid an on-going conflict between the country’s government and various rebel groups.

Their deaths were confirmed by the Investigations Control Center (TsUR, Tsentr Upravleniya Rassledovaniyami), an investigative reporting outlet funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil magnate currently living in exile in London.

According The Moscow Times, Russia has supplied arms and deployed training teams to aid CAR government security forces.

According to TsUR, on whose assignment Dzhemal, Rastorguev and Radchenko went to CAR, the journalists were pursuing a news tip about a group of armed Russian mercenaries sighted in the African country.

This armed group's existence has never been officially acknowledged, although numerous journalistic investigations pinpointed the so-called ‘Wagner Group’ in hotspots such as Syria and Eastern Ukraine. Although he is consistently denying the allegations, the ‘Wagner Group’ is widely believed to be funded by Evgeny Prigozhin, a powerful businessman with strong ties to Vladimir Putin, sanctioned by the U.S. for his alleged — and, again, never acknowledged — involvement in the 2016 presidential elections.

Dzhemal, Rastorguev and Radchenko were highly respected media professionals, recognized by the industry. Orkhan Dzhemal was a renowned war reporter, his career stretching back to the early years of Russia’s independent press. Alexander Rastorguev was praised for his vivid chronicle of Russia’s failed anti-Putin opposition surge in his 2013 documentary “The Term” (Srok.) Kirill Radchenko worked as a TV reporter in war zones such as Syria.

by RuNet Echo at August 01, 2018 01:40 PM

July 31, 2018

Joi Ito
Ding! Earned First Higher Degree.

34581570_10156015313486998_718869846225321984_o.jpgIn 2011, when we announced that I would join the Media Lab as the new Director, many people thought it was an unusual choice partially because I had never earned a higher degree - not even an undergraduate degree. I had dropped out of Tufts as well as the University of Chicago and had spent most of my life doing all sorts of weird jobs and building and running companies and nonprofits.

I think it took quite a bit of courage on the part of the Media Lab and MIT to hire a Director with no college degree, but once we got over the hump, some felt it was a kind of "badge of honor." (I'm also sure, not everyone felt this way.)

Jun Murai, father of the Japanese Internet and my mentor in Japan, who is the Dean of the Graduate School of Media and Governance at Keio University in Japan, had been encouraging me to complete a PhD in his program. We had been discussing this in earnest from June 2010,when they confirmed that Keio would be OK with awarding a PhD to someone without a Bachelor's or a Master's degree. When I joined the Media Lab, I asked the co-founder and first Director of the Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, whether it would help me if I completed the PhD. He recommended (at the time) that I not complete the PhD because it was more interesting that I didn't have a degree.

Eight years later, I am often referred to as "the academic" when I'm on panels; I advise and work with many students including PhD students. It felt that it was time to finish the PhD. In other words, one product of my profession is degrees and I felt like I needed to try the product. Even Nicholas agreed when I asked him.

The degree that I earned is a "Thesis PhD" which is a less common type of PhD that you don't see very much in the US. It involves writing about and defending the academic value and contribution of your work, rather than doing new work in residence in an institution. The sequencing and the ordering is different than typical PhDs.

The process involved writing a dissertation and putting together a package that was accepted by the university. After that, a committee was formally constituted with Jun Murai as the lead advisor and Rod Van Meter, Keiko Okawa, Hiroya Tanaka, and Jonathan Zittrain as committee members and thesis readers. They provided feedback and detailed critique on the thesis, which I rewrote based on this feedback. Oh June 6, I defended the thesis publicly at Keio University and, based on the questions and feedback from the defense, I rewrote the dissertation again.

On June 21 I had a final exam, which involved a presentation to the committee of all of the changes and responses to the criticisms and suggestions. The committee had a closed-door discussion and formally accepted the dissertation. I rewrote, formatted, and polished the dissertation some more and submitted the final version in printed form on July 20.

Finally, on behalf of the committee, Jun Murai prepared and presented the case at a faculty meeting on July 30, 2018 where they voted and awarded the PhD.

Although by definition and according to rules the dissertation is entirely my own work, I couldn't have done it without the help of my advisors, collaborators, and all of the people I've worked with over the years.

While I started this project mostly to understand the process and "see what it was like" to work on a degree, I learned a lot during the process of researching, reading, and talking to people about my dissertation. The dissertation, titled "The Practice of Change", is available online both in PDF and in LaTeX as a GitHub repo. It's a summary of a lot of the work that I've done so far, a question about how we understand, design solutions for, and try to address the current challenges to our society, and how the work going on at the Media Lab might be applied to or provide inspiration for people trying to work on addressing these challenges.

In some ways, the dissertation feels like I've gone around and kicked a dozen hornet's nests. I've mostly stayed out of extremely academic discourse in the past, but the process of trying to understand a number of different disciplines to try to understand and describe the context of my work has caused me to wade into many old and new arguments. I'm sure that many of my forays into various disciplines will cause annoyance to those well versed in those disciplines, but those constructive criticisms that I've received about my treatment of various disciplines have surfaced an exciting array of future work for me.

So while I do not believe that I have yet become a "serious academic" or that I will be focused primarily on research and academic output, I feel like I've discovered a new lens through which to look at things -- a new world to explore. It reminds me of entering a new zone in a game like World of Warcraft where there are new quests, new skills, new reps to grind, and lots of new things to learn. So fun.

by Joichi Ito at July 31, 2018 10:05 AM

July 28, 2018

Joi Ito
Resisting Reduction: A Manifesto

Designing our Complex Future with Machines

While I had long been planning to write a manifesto against the technological singularity and launch it into the conversational sphere for public reaction and comment, an invitation earlier this year from John Brockman to read and discuss The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener with him and his illustrious group of thinkers as part of an ongoing collaborative book project contributed to the thoughts contained herein.

The essay below is now phase 1 of an experimental, open publishing project in partnership with the MIT Press. In phase 2, a new version of the essay enriched and informed by input from open commentary will be published online, along with essay length contributions by others inspired by the seed essay, as a new issue of the Journal of Design and Science. In phase 3, a revised and edited selection of these contributions will be published as a print book by the MIT Press.

Version 1.0

Cross-posted from version on PubPub where there are interesting comments and feedback. Please link to and comment there.

Nature's ecosystem provides us with an elegant example of a complex adaptive system where myriad "currencies" interact and respond to feedback systems that enable both flourishing and regulation. This collaborative model-rather than a model of exponential financial growth or the Singularity, which promises the transcendence of our current human condition through advances in technology--should provide the paradigm for our approach to artificial intelligence. More than 60 years ago, MIT mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener warned us that "when human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood." We should heed Wiener's warning.


As the sun beats down on Earth, photosynthesis converts water, carbon dioxide and the sun's energy into oxygen and glucose. Photosynthesis is one of the many chemical and biological processes that transforms one form of matter and energy into another. These molecules then get metabolized by other biological and chemical processes into yet other molecules. Scientists often call these molecules "currencies" because they represent a form of power that is transferred between cells or processes to mutual benefit--"traded," in effect. The biggest difference between these and financial currencies is that there is no "master currency" or "currency exchange." Rather, each currency can only be used by certain processes, and the "market" of these currencies drives the dynamics that are "life."

As certain currencies became abundant as an output of a successful process or organism, other organisms evolved to take that output and convert it into something else. Over billions of years, this is how the Earth's ecosystem has evolved, creating vast systems of metabolic pathways and forming highly complex self-regulating systems that, for example, stabilize our body temperatures or the temperature of the Earth, despite continuous fluctuations and changes among the individual elements at every scale--from micro to macro. The output of one process becomes the input of another. Ultimately, everything interconnects.

We live in a civilization in which the primary currencies are money and power--where more often than not, the goal is to accumulate both at the expense of society at large. This is a very simple and fragile system compared to the Earth's ecosystems, where myriads of "currencies" are exchanged among processes to create hugely complex systems of inputs and outputs with feedback systems that adapt and regulate stocks, flows, and connections.

Unfortunately, our current human civilization does not have the built-in resilience of our environment, and the paradigms that set our goals and drive the evolution of society today have set us on a dangerous course which the mathematician Norbert Wiener warned us about decades ago. The paradigm of a single master currency has driven many corporations and institutions to lose sight of their original missions. Values and complexity are focused more and more on prioritizing exponential financial growth, led by for-profit corporate entities that have gained autonomy, rights, power, and nearly unregulated societal influence. The behavior of these entities are akin to cancers. Healthy cells regulate their growth and respond to their surroundings, even eliminating themselves if they wander into an organ where they don't belong. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, optimize for unconstrained growth and spread with disregard to their function or context.


The idea that we exist for the sake of progress, and that progress requires unconstrained and exponential growth, is the whip that lashes us. Modern companies are the natural product of this paradigm in a free-market capitalist system. Norbert Wiener called corporations "machines of flesh and blood" and automation "machines of metal." The new species of Silicon Valley mega companies--the machines of bits--are developed and run in great part by people who believe in a new religion, Singularity. This new religion is not a fundamental change in the paradigm, but rather the natural evolution of the worship of exponential growth applied to modern computation and science. The asymptote of the exponential growth of computational power is artificial intelligence.

The notion of Singularity--that AI will supercede humans with its exponential growth, and that everything we have done until now and are currently doing is insignificant--is a religion created by people who have the experience of using computation to solve problems heretofore considered impossibly complex for machines. They have found a perfect partner in digital computation--a knowable, controllable, system of thinking and creating that is rapidly increasing in its ability to harness and process complexity, bestowing wealth and power on those who have mastered it. In Silicon Valley, the combination of groupthink and the financial success of this cult of technology has created a positive feedback system that has very little capacity for regulating through negative feedback. While they would resist having their beliefs compared to a religion and would argue that their ideas are science- and evidence-based, those who embrace Singularity engage in quite a bit of arm waving and make leaps of faith based more on trajectories than ground-truths to achieve their ultimate vision.

Singularitarians believe that the world is "knowable" and computationally simulatable, and that computers will be able to process the messiness of the real world just like they have every other problem that everyone said couldn't be solved by computers. To them, this wonderful tool, the computer, has worked so well for everything so far that it must continue to work for every challenge we throw at it, until we have transcended known limitations and ultimately achieve some sort of reality escape velocity. Artificial intelligence is already displacing humans in driving cars, diagnosing cancers, and researching court documents. The idea is that AI will continue this progress and eventually merge with human brains and become an all-seeing, all-powerful, super-intelligence. For true believers, computers will augment and extend our thoughts into a kind of "amortality." (Part of Singularity is a fight for "amortality," the idea that while one may still die and not be immortal, the death is not the result of the grim reaper of aging.)

But if corporations are a precursor to our transcendance, the Singularitarian view that with more computing and bio-hacking we will somehow solve all of the world's problems or that the Singularity will solve us seems hopelessly naive. As we dream of the day when we have enhanced brains and amortality and can think big, long thoughts, corporations already have a kind of "amortality." They persist as long as they are solvent and they are more than a sum of their parts--arguably an amortal super-intelligence.

More computation does not makes us more "intelligent," only more computationally powerful.

For Singularity to have a positive outcome requires a belief that, given enough power, the system will somehow figure out how to regulate itself. The final outcome would be so complex that while we humans couldn't understand it now, "it" would understand and "solve" itself. Some believe in something that looks a bit like the former Soviet Union's master planning but with full information and unlimited power. Others have a more sophisticated view of a distributed system, but at some level, all Singularitarians believe that with enough power and control, the world is "tamable." Not all who believe in Singularity worship it as a positive transcendence bringing immortality and abundance, but they do believe that a judgment day is coming when all curves go vertical.

Whether you are on an S-curve or a bell curve, the beginning of the slope looks a lot like an exponential curve. An exponential curve to systems dynamics people shows self-reinforcement, i.e., a positive feedback curve without limits. Maybe this is what excites Singularitarians and scares systems people. Most people outside the singularity bubble believe in S-curves, namely that nature adapts and self-regulates and that even pandemics will run their course. Pandemics may cause an extinction event, but growth will slow and things will adapt. They may not be in the same state, and a phase change could occur, but the notion of Singularity--especially as some sort of savior or judgment day that will allow us to transcend the messy, mortal suffering of our human existence--is fundamentally a flawed one.

This sort of reductionist thinking isn't new. When BF Skinner discovered the principle of reinforcement and was able to describe it, we designed education around his theories. Learning scientists know now that behaviorist approaches only work for a narrow range of learning, but many schools continue to rely on drill and practice. Take, as another example, the eugenics movement, which greatly and incorrectly over-simplified the role of genetics in society. This movement helped fuel the Nazi genocide by providing a reductionist scientific view that we could "fix humanity" by manually pushing natural selection. The echoes of the horrors of eugenics exist today, making almost any research trying to link genetics with things like intelligence taboo.

We should learn from our history of applying over-reductionist science to society and try to, as Wiener says, "cease to kiss the whip that lashes us." While it is one of the key drivers of science--to elegantly explain the complex and reduce confusion to understanding--we must also remember what Albert Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."1 We need to embrace the unknowability--the irreducibility--of the real world that artists, biologists and those who work in the messy world of liberal arts and humanities are familiar with.


The Cold War era, when Wiener was writing The Human Use of Human Beings, was a time defined by the rapid expansion of capitalism and consumerism, the beginning of the space race, and the coming of age of computation. It was a time when it was easier to believe that systems could be controlled from the outside, and that many of the world's problems would be solved through science and engineering.

The cybernetics that Wiener primarily described during that period were concerned with feedback systems that can be controlled or regulated from an objective perspective. This so-called first-order cybernetics assumed that the scientist as the observer can understand what is going on, therefore enabling the engineer to design systems based on observation or insight from the scientist.

Today, it is much more obvious that most of our problems--climate change, poverty, obesity and chronic disease, or modern terrorism--cannot be solved simply with more resources and greater control. That is because they are the result of complex adaptive systems that are often the result of the tools used to solve problems in the past, such as endlessly increasing productivity and attempts to control things. This is where second-order cybernetics comes into play--the cybernetics of self-adaptive complex systems, where the observer is also part of the system itself. As Kevin Slavin says in Design as Participation, "You're Not Stuck In Traffic--You Are Traffic."3

In order to effectively respond to the significant scientific challenges of our times, I believe we must view the world as many interconnected, complex, self-adaptive systems across scales and dimensions that are unknowable and largely inseparable from the observer and the designer. In other words, we are participants in multiple evolutionary systems with different fitness landscapes4 at different scales, from our microbes to our individual identities to society and our species. Individuals themselves are systems composed of systems of systems, such as the cells in our bodies that behave more like system-level designers than we do.

While Wiener does discuss biological evolution and the evolution of language, he doesn't explore the idea of harnessing evolutionary dynamics for science. Biological evolution of individual species (genetic evolution) has been driven by reproduction and survival, instilling in us goals and yearnings to procreate and grow. That system continually evolves to regulate growth, increase diversity and complexity, and enhance its own resilience, adaptability, and sustainability.5 As designers with growing awareness of these broader systems, we have goals and methodologies defined by the evolutionary and environmental inputs from our biological and societal contexts. But machines with emergent intelligence have discernibly different goals and methodologies. As we introduce machines into the system, they will not only augment individual humans, but they will also--and more importantly--augment complex systems as a whole.

Here is where the problematic formulation of "artificial intelligence" becomes evident, as it suggests forms, goals and methods that stand outside of interaction with other complex adaptive systems. Instead of thinking about machine intelligence in terms of humans vs. machines, we should consider the system that integrates humans and machines--not artificial intelligence, but extended intelligence. Instead of trying to control or design or even understand systems, it is more important to design systems that participate as responsible, aware and robust elements of even more complex systems. And we must question and adapt our own purpose and sensibilities as designers and components of the system for a much more humble approach: Humility over Control.

We could call it "participant design"--design of systems as and by participants--that is more akin to the increase of a flourishing function, where flourishing is a measure of vigor and health rather than scale or power. We can measure the ability for systems to adapt creatively, as well as their resilience and their ability to use resources in an interesting way.

Better interventions are less about solving or optimizing and more about developing a sensibility appropriate to the environment and the time. In this way they are more like music than an algorithm. Music is about a sensibility or "taste" with many elements coming together into a kind of emergent order. Instrumentation can nudge or cause the system to adapt or move in an unpredictable and unprogrammed manner, while still making sense and holding together. Using music itself as an intervention is not a new idea; in 1707, Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician, said, "Let me make the songs of a nation, I care not who makes its laws."

If writing songs instead of laws feels frivolous, remember that songs typically last longer than laws, have played key roles in various hard and soft revolutions and end up being transmitted person-to-person along with the values they carry. It's not about music or code. It's about trying to affect change by operating at the level songs do. This is articulated by Donella Meadows, among others, in her book Thinking in Systems.

Meadows, in her essay Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, describes how we can intervene in a complex, self-adaptive system. For her, interventions that involve changing parameters or even changing the rules are not nearly as powerful or as fundamental as changes in a system's goals and paradigms.

When Wiener discussed our worship of progress, he said:

Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.6

Instead of discussing "sustainability" as something to be "solved" in the context of a world where bigger is still better and more than enough is NOT too much, perhaps we should examine the values and the currencies of the fitness functions7 and consider whether they are suitable and appropriate for the systems in which we participate.


Developing a sensibility and a culture of flourishing, and embracing a diverse array of measures of "success" depend less on the accumulation of power and resources and more on diversity and the richness of experience. This is the paradigm shift that we need. This will provide us with a wealth of technological and cultural patterns to draw from to create a highly adaptable society. This diversity also allows the elements of the system to feed each other without the exploitation and extraction ethos created by a monoculture with a single currency. It is likely that this new culture will spread as music, fashion, spirituality or other forms of art.

As a native Japanese, I am heartened by a group of junior high school students I spoke to there recently who, when I challenged them about what they thought we should do about the environment, asked questions about the meaning of happiness and the role of humans in nature. I am likewise heartened to see many of my students at the MIT Media Lab and in the Principles of Awareness class that I co-teach with the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi using a variety of metrics (currencies) to measure their success and meaning and grappling directly with the complexity of finding one's place in our complex world.

This is brilliant, sophisticated, timely. Question, what do you want to do with this manifesto? Socio-economic political cultural movement? To begin with, who do you want to read this? In what spaces?I know people who are working on this on the political side. I am interested in the arts and sciences ie buildable memory cultural side.

Don't know if people would agree with my conclusions here, but I've been working on developing my music in relation to housing issues around the Bay Area recently.I believe that it's important for us to develop a sensibility for diversity not just as an abstract exercise, but in ways that reflect our day to day lives. We're in need of new visions of how we plan to co-exist with one another, and I do think that artists have the ability to pave the way here in very real ways.

I'm also heartened by organizations such as the IEEE, which is initiating design guidelines for the development of artificial intelligence around human wellbeing instead of around economic impact. The work by Peter Seligman, Christopher Filardi, and Margarita Mora from Conservation International is creative and exciting because it approaches conservation by supporting the flourishing of indigenous people--not undermining it. Another heartening example is that of the Shinto priests at Ise Shrine, who have been planting and rebuilding the shrine every twenty years for the last 1300 years in celebration of the renewal and the cyclical quality of nature.

In the 1960s and 70s, the hippie movement tried to pull together a "whole earth" movement, but then the world swung back toward the consumer and consumption culture of today. I hope and believe that a new awakening will happen and that a new sensibility will cause a nonlinear change in our behavior through a cultural transformation. While we can and should continue to work at every layer of the system to create a more resilient world, I believe the cultural layer is the layer with the most potential for a fundamental correction away from the self-destructive path that we are currently on. I think that it will yet again be about the music and the arts of the young people reflecting and amplifying a new sensibility: a turn away from greed to a world where "more than enough is too much," and we can flourish in harmony with Nature rather than through the control of it.

1. An asymptote is a line that continually approaches a given curve but does not meet it at any finite distance. In singularity, this is the vertical line that occurs when the exponential growth curve a vertical line. There are more arguments about where this asymptote is among believers than about whether it is actually coming.

2. This is a common paraphrase. What Einstein actually said was, "It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience."

3. Western philosophy and science is "dualistic" as opposed to the more "Eastern" non-dualistic approach. A whole essay could be written about this but the idea of a subject/object or a designer/designee is partially linked to the notion of self in Western philosophy and religion.

4. Fitness landscapes arise when you assign a fitness value for every genotype. The genotypes are arranged in a high dimensional sequence space. The fitness landscape is a function on that sequence space. In evolutionary dynamics, a biological population moves over a fitness landscape driven by mutation, selection and random drift. (Nowak, M. A. Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Harvard University Press, 2006.)

5. Nowak, M. A. Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Harvard University Press, 2006.

6. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (1954 edition), p.42.

7. A fitness function is a function that is used to summarize, as a measure of merit, how close a solution is to a particular aim. It is used to describe and design evolutionary systems.

by Joichi Ito at July 28, 2018 01:52 PM

July 27, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: Russia and Sudan join the ranks of countries looking to outlaw ‘fake news’

Fake newsstand. Image by via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

While media and technology experts in the west have thrown themselves into the fraught and potentially impossible task of figuring out how to identify and reduce the impact of so-called “fake news”, governments around the world are also taking measures against the scourge.

But what counts as “fake”? It depends on who you ask.

On the heels of recent legislation in Malaysia, Philippines, Brazil and France, the latest draft laws on “fake news” come from Sudan and Russia.

Our partners at SMEX reported earlier this week on Sudan’s newly approved Law on Combating Cybercrimes, which would impose steep fines and/or up to one year in prison for “anyone who uses the internet, or any means of communications, information or applications to disseminate any news, rumor or report, knowing it is fake, to cause public fear or panic, threaten public safety and offence the reputation of the State.”

The government says they also want to regulate online publishing. Dr. Sami Abdelhalim Saeed, a specialist in legal reforms in Sudan who spoke with SMEX, emphasized that even with relatively low internet access levels in Sudan, “social media plays a major role in criticizing government policies, and online platforms allow the journalists to publish articles banned by security services in newspapers.”

Meanwhile, the State Duma in Russia — a country that has distinguished itself in many regions as a industrial-strength creator of fake news — is considering a bill that would outlaw inaccurate posts on social media platforms and any website with more than 100,000 daily visitors.

The law would require websites to take down factually inaccurate posts within 24 hours of them being notified of their existence, or face fines of up to 50 million rubles, about USD $800,000.

This would put the onus on websites and social media companies to determine what is inaccurate. Given the stakes, it is highly likely that companies and websites would err on the side of caution and censor all material that might fall afoul of the law, in an effort to avoid fines.

The proposed law is only in the lower house of parliament at the moment. But if it were to pass, it would give the Russian government an even stronger hand in decided what counts as “fake news”.

Israel backs off cyber bill — but this won’t change much for Palestinians

Last week, the Netizen Report focused on a bill before legislators in Israel, that would have required social media platforms to remove “terror inciting’’ content from the internet. The bill was unexpectedly blocked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told media that the law could “damage freedom of speech,” and that he blocked its passage “in order to ensure the right of the citizens of Israel to freely express criticism on the internet.” Although originally proposed in an effort to force Facebook and other social media platforms to remove content that Israel deems “incitement”, the bill later was expanded to apply to all websites.

Palestinians already face a disproportionate amount of censorship and legal threats in response to online criticism of Israel and online advocacy for basic human rights protections. Palestinian free speech and human rights advocates expected this law to make things even worse for their communities, but do not expect its failure to generate any positive change.

As students protest, state orders a five-day internet shutdown in Manipur, India

The government in the state of Manipur, India suspended internet services from July 20-25, in what it described as an effort to curb the spread of “provocative” messages on social media. Local experts say that the suspension was triggered by rising tensions between police and student protesters led by the Manipur University Student’s Union. The New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre’s internet shutdown tracker has confirmed 92 regional internet shutdowns thus far in 2018.

Indian student jailed over a WhatsApp message sent by another user

A university student in Madhya Pradesh, India has been in pre-trial detention for five months, for being the administrator of a WhatsApp group where an “objectionable” message, sent by another user, was reported to police. The student, Junaid Khan, has been charged with sedition, and with violating India’s IT Act. His family says he was not the administrator of the group at the time the message was sent, and that he had been given this status as a default — not by his own choosing.

Fake news-peddling ‘Macedonian teenagers’ were actually adults linked to US politicians

A joint investigation by the global journalists’ network Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and BuzzFeed News revealed that the first among the infamous networks of disinformation websites from the Macedonian city of Veles were not started by “Macedonian teenagers,” as was widely reported surrounding US elections in 2016, but by several adults connected to right-wing politicians in the US. They’ve also inspired some teen copycats, who later claimed no political affiliation.

Without establishing a direct link to the Veles phenomenon, the investigative reporters also discovered that a Russian operative who specialized in running “troll factories” had a working visit to Macedonia in 2015, at the height of its political crisis, during which Macedonia’s Russia-supported right-wing populist government was grappling with deep popular discontent over corruption.

Indonesia blocks Tik Tok for porn and other ‘inappropriate content’

On July 3, the Indonesia communications ministry blocked the Chinese video-making and sharing app Tik Tok – globally the most downloaded app in the first quarter of the year – while promising to unblock it once it removed all pornography, blasphemy and other inappropriate content. A week later, it had unblocked the app after it said the app agreed to censor content. In the lead up to Indonesia’s national children’s day, the app encouraged users to create educational videos for kids.

Turkey blocks Blogspot, briefly

The internet censorship analysis group Turkey Blocks confirmed numerous user reports that the Google-owned blogging platform Blogspot — a leading platform in Turkey — was blocked by major internet service providers in Turkey on July 24, leaving millions of blogs inaccessible for subscribers. Access to the platform was restored as of July 25. Turkey’s ICT authority, which oversees internet blocking orders, provided no public information on the matter.

News site censors articles implicating Philippine Senate President in rape cover-up

Philippines new site has removed multiple articles from its site that reported on Philippine Senate President Vicente Sotto’s alleged attempt to cover up accusations of rape of a local actress in the 1980s. In response, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines issued a statement, saying: “…this humiliating self-censorship  betrays not only the spirit in which the Inquirer was founded, it  betrays a profession whose practitioners have fended and continue to fight off all attempts to muzzle it.”

Threats against free speech continue under Malaysia’s new government

This statement by CIJ highlights the continuing threats against free speech even after the victory of the opposition last May. The statement cites the sedition case filed against a lawyer-activist who blogged about the relationship of the monarchy and the political elite in Malaysia.

New research


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by Netizen Report Team at July 27, 2018 03:04 PM

July 25, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Attack by municipal guards signals rising threats against journalists in Ukraine

A member of the Municipal Guard attacks a journalist with teargas. Photo by Tomikage via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The year 2018 has thus far been a difficult one for journalists in Ukraine.

On June 4, 2018, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir issued a public statement condemning Ukraine's Spokesperson of the General Prosecutor, who had published a list of “traitors” against the state, which included two independent journalists. Désir called the move “unacceptable and dangerous” and urged authorities to intervene ensure that all state authorities uphold protections for media freedom.

A recent incident in which journalists were assaulted by city Municipal Guard workers suggests that the problem of state authorities and contractors seeking to stifle media activity may be widespread. In the city of Odessa, a dispute arose between a local law firm and several members of the Municipal Guard, a team of security workers who operate independent of law enforcement institutions, at the order of Odessa's city administration.

Three journalists came to the site of the dispute on July 13, where 40 municipal guard workers had come to remove several iron parking posts, at the city's behest. Conflict arose between the municipal guard workers and the law firm staff, who said that the parking posts belonged to their company.

Municipal Guard workers openly attacked the journalists with teargas and rubber clubs. The video below shows some of what happened next. The editor-in-chief of Unsolved Crimes newspaper was attacked by the municipal guard while filming. Vitaly Tkachenko, of Obshestvennyi Priboi newspaper, was hit in the chest and face several times by municipal guard employees.

Municipal Guard worker Grazevich Alexander shouts at the camera:

F*ck off from here, why are you filming me?! I will break your camera now and your face too!

Denis Razdorozhny, the inspector of the security department of the Municipal Guard, tells the journalists:

The boys were instructed to do everything by blood or in a normal way!

Journalist Miroslav Bekchiv, of Obshestvennyi Priboi newspaper, was forced into a car and eventually brought to the police station. While in the car, he was beaten and threatened by Yuri Savchenko, the first deputy head of the Municipal Guard of Odessa City Council, and Evgenyi Miroshnichenko, the deputy head of the Municipal Guard.

In the video, Yuri Savchenko can be heard saying:

Get the motherfucker into the car.

Evgenyi Miroshnichenko then says:

Listen you, fucking shit! I'm not going to take you to the police station, but will sort things out in a different manner! I'll take you to another place from which nobody comes back!

Bekchiv was later taken to a hospital, where doctors said that he had sustained traumatic brain injuries, signs of suffocation and eye burns.

On July 18, 2016 the Primorsky Court of Odessa placed two employees of the Municipal Guard, Oleinik Pavel and Gratsevich Alexander, under provisional house arrest. Both of them were informed before by the prosecutor’s office that they will likely be charged for under laws against “unlawful acts committed by officials by prior conspiracy” and “threat of murder, violence or destruction or damage to the property of a journalist”, both of which fall under Ukraine's penal code.

Though disturbing for Odessa residents, the incident did not come as a surprise — this not the first time the Municipal Guard has taken such measures.

While the Municipal Guard is licensed to perform security guard activities and is financed by Odessa's taxpayers, it has no relation to law enforcement bodies of Ukraine. According to the law, it has no other rights, except to provide security. It has no right to dismantle property. But in this case, city officials deployed the Municipal Guard to do just that.

The story shed additional light on the worsening state of security for journalists in Ukraine. According to data from the National Union of Journalists in Ukraine, not a single prosecution resulted from the 90 attacks on journalists that took place in 2017. As the community waits to learn the fate of Miroslav Bekchiv, who remains in serious condition, questions of how to protect media workers in the face of heightened threats are looming large.

by Kanykei Tursunbaeva at July 25, 2018 09:40 PM

Ghanaians challenge their government over a telco monitoring program, claiming privacy violations

A computer lab at the University of Ghana. Photo by SandisterTei (Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0).

Ghanaian citizens and political advocates took their government to court over plans to implement a so-called “Common Platform”, a technical system that would allow regulators to monitor revenues accrued by telecommunication companies operating in the country.

Challengers say the system will monitor more than just revenues, warning that it will allow for easy government snooping on calls and messages.

Officials say they want to implement the system in order to monitor telecommunication companies in Ghana and ensure they are paying the right amount of taxes. The platform is owned and operated by a third-party company, Kelni GVG.

In July, two petitioners, Sara Asafu-Adjaye and Maximus Ametorgoh, appealed to the Human Rights Court in the capital, Accra, to hear their case. They argued that the system would infringe upon fundamental rights to privacy. The petitioners work in the technology and design sectors.

They urged the court to “prevent the Ministry of Communications and other defendants from allowing a third party, Kelni GVG, to have access to their private data.”

If and when it is implemented, the Common Platform will be operated by Kelni GVG, under contract with the government.

The company will have the ability to connect with communication systems of telecommunications companies and access their revenue patterns, in what appears to be an effort to increase tax revenues from the telecommunications and internet sector.

When the third party connects its monitoring system node to the network of the telecommunication companies, they have access to both revenue accrued and all the data of subscribers including the content of voice calls and text messages.

In June 2018, the Ghanian Chamber of Telecommunications corroborated the petitioners’ point, explaining that the Common Platform “has the capacity to actively or passively record, monitor or tap into the content of any incoming or outgoing electronic communications traffic such as voice.”

Multiple other groups have spoken out against the plan, including Occupy Ghana and the IMANI Centre for Policy and Education, which raised concerns about the privacy dimensions of the plan, and the business interests of government and corporate actors who will benefit from the Kelni GVG contract. Parliamentarian Ras Mubarak has also threatened to sue the government and telcos if the deal goes through.

Before the High Court, on 10th July 2018, Asafu-Adjaye and Ametorgoh argued that the “intended connection to the Common Platform is in breach of Act 864 and ultimately the applicants’ fundamental human right to privacy of their correspondence and communication, as protected by Article 18 (2) of the 1992 Constitution.”

In support of the argument, Don Derrick responded to Ametorgoh's Facebook post:

This is good. We all need to be concern about privacy. if they want access to revenue, they can get that with an API [Application Programming Interface] but if they want full access to data, communications, financials and logs, that is a very nasty move. I am with you Maximus. Keep up with the Good work.

On Facebook, Gyebiba Ebony raised the question of what constitutes the privacy infringement with the Common Platform and compared this to a breach of privacy by some social media platforms.

In response, Ametorgoh explained that the Common Platform will connect to “all the nodes of the network instead of just the billing system node”:

They can intercept the content of the communication. The system is not supposed to have the capability to intercept or access the content.

[In contrast,] You decide what you post on social media. It’s called “social” media. If you share private content here, that’s up to you. You can’t even share some kinds of images here.

But the Human Rights Court in Accra, Ghana dismissed the petition raised by Asafu-Adjaye and Ametorgoh.

In the ruling, the court indicated that the two Ghanaians did not provide any real evidence to back their claims of privacy breach if the Common Platform should be implemented and that their argument was based merely on public sentiments and debates.

Franklin Cudjoe, a major supporter of Asafu-Adjaye and Ametorgoh's petition and the executive director of IMANI, indicated that the telecommunication companies did acknowledge that the Common Platform, when implemented, has the tendency to breach customer privacy and that the court ignored this evidence in its the ruling.

Emmanuel Kyeremanteng Agyarko, a member of parliament, argued that the tendency of a platform to cause a breach of privacy does not mean it will, by all means, breach privacy.

The Common Platform is likely to be implemented regardless of the final hearing because the court indicated that the State could suffer irreparable damage if an injunction is granted.

The petition submitted by Asafu-Adjaye and Ametorgoh was dismissed as of July 10, 2018. But opposition from civil society and even some legislators can be expected to continue.

by Kofi Yeboah at July 25, 2018 06:03 PM

Social media users are trying to combat harassment in Pakistan — but will state institutions do their part?

“No More Silence.” A demonstration by Eunice McFarling of the US Air Force, as part of the Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month in April, 2016. Photo by Denise M. Nevins, released to public domain.

In most countries around the world, gender-based harassment is an old problem. But in the digital era, with hashtag movements such as #MeToo, and social media platforms where evidence of harassment can go viral, the balance of power between harassers and their targets appears to be shifting.

A recent example comes from Pakistan, where video showing a man following and harassing a group of women went viral on Facebook and Twitter, leading to public condemnation and ultimately to his arrest.

In 2016 in the Kalash Valley, in the Chitral region of northern Pakistan, Aimal Khan began following a group of women and filming them with his phone. He made derogatory comments towards them, and continually asked them to pose for pictures with him, despite their refusal and their threats to report him to police. Khan even claimed that he himself was a police officer.

While it is not clear when the video was made, Khan posted it on YouTube on 19 July 2016. Two years later, a Facebook page named ‘Islamabadians’ uploaded the video on the social networking website and it went viral. People started tagging the police, urging them to arrest the man. On 19 June, 2018 the Chitral Police responded saying they were trying to track his location.

In the meanwhile, another video surfaced where Aimal Khan was seen apologizing for the incident. On 22 June, he was arrested by the Chitral police, who sent women police officers to carry out the arrest. Police also clarified that Khan was not a police officer, as he had previously claimed.

Online, people expressed support for the arrest.

But questions were also raised, specifically in reference to the laws under which Khan was taken into custody.

To the dismay of many, Aimal Khan was released on bail soon after. He is awaiting trial.

Global Voices spoke to the District Police Officer Chitral Mr. Furqan Bilal, who said:

Aimal Khan was released on bail soon after as he was charged under a bailable Section of the Law. In the First Information Report Aimal Khan has been charged under Sections 354 (assaulting a female), 419 (cheating by personation), 294 (engage in obscene act in public places) and 341 (wrongful restraint) of the Pakistan Penal Code instead of Pakistan Electronic Cyber Act. His trial is to be held soon.

Activists are concerned about the laws used in the First Information Report. Although Pakistan's Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act covers harassment of this nature, and could have been brought to bear in Khan's case, the law was not passed until August 2016, after the incident in Chitral had already occurred.

Nighat Dad, a law and technology expert who runs the non-profit Digital Rights Foundation and contributes to Global Voices, explained to Global Voices that the Pakistan Penal Code in itself does not have any provisions for video-linked incidents related to harassment.

Dad also spoke about social media playing a major role in Aimal Khan’s arrest, pointing to the impact of public outcry around the matter and its likely effect on the police response. She noted that the immediate arrest sent “a good message for the masses” but that it would be up to law enforcement and judicial institutions to carry the issue forward and ensure that justice is served.

Such incidents are not new. In July 2017, Meenah Tariq of Lahore went to Hunza Valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan for sightseeing. She was harassed by some young men along the way. Since she did not know of a means to lodge a complaint against them, she took their pictures and launched a social media campaign that soon went viral.

In Tariq's case, it appears that state institutions responded in a meaningful way. When Hunza Assistant Commissioner Anas Goraya learned of her experience, he set up a help line in Hunza to deal with such cases.

Tariq shared the outcome of the story on Facebook, where she described how difficult it was to share her story online — and endure the wave of harassment that followed — and the subsequent feeling of vindication she experienced after learning about the help line:

How many times have you been told it is useless to complain? It is useless to speak up, nothing will ever change? Here is proof that this isn’t always the case. Here is proof that we do need to keep speaking up about issues we face, having these conversations, sparking dialogue even when it’s difficult.

Aimal Khan's arrest following public outcry on social media is a good sign. But in this case, the question remains: will justice prevail?

by Advox at July 25, 2018 01:49 PM

July 21, 2018

Joi Ito
My email and task management protocol

November 2010
November 2010, before I "settled down" with a "real job."

The last blog post I wrote was about how little time I have to do email and the difficulty in coping with it. Often when I meet new people, they quickly take a look at my blog and read the top post, which in this case is a whiny post about how busy I am - fine, but not exactly the most exciting place to start a conversation. The fact that I haven't written anything really interesting on this blog since then is a testament to the fact that I haven't solved my "busy problem", but I thought I'd give you an update on the somewhat improved state of things.

After the last post, Ray Ozzie pointed out in the comments that I was looking at the problem the wrong way. Instead of trying to allot partial attention to doing email during meetings, he suggested I should instead figure out how to effectively process email where the input and output flows are balanced. I took his feedback to heart and have embarked on trying to make my inbox processing more efficient. In case it is useful for people, here are a few protocols that I've instituted.

While I don't get to inbox zero every day, I get to near inbox zero at least once a week. I feel that I'm mostly on top of things, and if I'm unable to do something or meet someone, it is because I really am unable to do it, rather than just accidentally missing it. This feels much better.

My next step will start after the new year, when I'll start scheduling exercise, learning and "mindfulness pauses" into each day and pushing my bar for saying "yes" to requests much higher to try to make room for this.

So far, I've implemented the following steps, which you, too, might find effective:


My signature file says, "Tip: Use NRR to mean No Reply Required - thank you!", and I've tried to make it a "thing" for my associates to let each other know when you are sending a message that doesn't need a reply. This cuts down on the "thanks!" or "OK!" type emails.


I use Sanebox which is a service that sorts your email behind the scenes into various folders. Only people who you have written email to in the past or people or domain names that have been "trained" end up in your inbox. You train Sanebox by dragging email into different folders to teach it where they should go or you can program domains, or certain strings in the subject line to send the message to a particular box. I have four folders. "Inbox" which is where the important messages go, "@SaneLater" where email from people I don't know go, "@SaneBulk" where bulk email goes and "@SaneBlackHole" where things go that you never want to see again.


Gmail has a nifty feature that allows you to give access to your inbox to other people. Two people have access to my inbox to help me triage and write replies. They also keep an eye on "@SaneLater" for messages from new people who I should pay attention to. Requests requiring actions or replies that are substantial go to Trello. (More below about Trello.) Information requests, requests that need to be redirected to someone else, or meetings that I can't possibly attend get processed right in my inbox. Email that needs a reply but won't take more than a few minutes ends up getting converted into a ticket in Keeping and assigned to whoever should be involved. (More on Keeping below.)


We have a Media Lab Slack channel and any interaction that can be settled on Slack, we do on Slack and try not to create email threads.


Trello is a wonderful tool that allows you to track tasks in groups. It's organized very much like a "Kanban" system and is used by agile software developers and others who need a system of tracking tasks through various steps. Trello lets you forward email to create cards, assign cards to people to work on, and have conversations on each card via email, a mobile app and a desktop app.

I have two "boards" on Trello. One is a "Meetings" board, where each meeting request starts life in the "Incoming" list with a color coded tag for which city the request is for or whether it is a teleconference. I then drag meetings requests from "Incoming" to "Someday Soon" or "Schedule" or "Turn Down."

The cards in "Schedule" are sorted roughly in order of priority, and my team takes cards from the top of the list and starts working on scheduling them in that order. Meetings where we have suggested dates and are awaiting confirmation go to the "Waiting For Confirmation" list, and cards that are confirmed end up in "Confirmed" list. If for some reason a meeting fails to happen, then its card gets moved to "Failed/Reschedule", and when meetings are completed, they end up in "Completed." At least once a week, I go through and archive the cards in the "Completed" list after scanning for any missing follow-up items or things that I need to remember. I also go through "Incoming" and "Someday Soon" lists and make more decisions on whether to schedule or turn down meeting requests. And I try to check the priority ranking of the "Schedule" list.

In addition to the "Meetings" board, I have a "To Do" board.

The To Do boards has a similar "Incoming" list of things that others or I think might be something worth doing. When I've committed to doing something, I move it to the "Committed" list. When something isn't done and instead gets stuck because I need a response from someone, it moves to a "Waiting" list. Once completed, it goes to "Completed" and is later archived after I've given myself sufficient positive feedback for having completed it. I also have "Abandoned" and "Turn Down" and "Delegated" lists on this board.


Keeping is a tracker system very similar to what a customer support desk might use. It allows you to convert any email into a "ticket" and you can create an email address that is also the email address for the ticket system. More people have access to my ticket system than my inbox. Once an email becomes a ticket, everyone on the team can see the ticket as a thread, and we can put private notes on the thread for context. Keeping manages the email exchange with the "customer" so that anyone can take care of responding to the inquiry, but the people who are assigned to the email have it show up as "open" in their personal list. When a thread is taken care of, the ticket is "closed" and the thread is archived. Threads that are still not finished stay "open" until someone closes it. If someone replies to a "closed" thread, it is reopened.

Keeping is a Chrome and Gmail plug in and is a bit limited. We recently started using it, and I think I like it, though some of us use a desktop mail client which limits features you can access such as assignment or closing tickets. Keeping also has a bit of a delay to process requests which is annoying when we're triaging quickly. Keeping also can be redundant with Trello, so I'm not positive it's worth it. But for now, we're using it and giving it a chance to settle into our process.

You can book me

I've found that 15-minute office hours are an effective (but tiring) way of having short, intense but often important meetings. I use a service called It lets me take a block of time in my calendar and allow people to sign up for 15-minute slots of it via the website, using a form that I design. It automatically puts the meeting in my Google calendar and sends me an email and tracks cancellations and other updates.


I have a number of people who are good at editing documents ranging from email to essays and letters. I use Google docs and have people who are much better than me copy edit my writing when it is important.

by Joichi Ito at July 21, 2018 03:32 PM

July 19, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Activist Naïm Touré sentenced to prison over Facebook post in Burkina Faso

Screenshot from a video of Naim Traoré explaining his case via Droit libre TV on YouTube

Activist Naïm Touré appeared before the criminal chamber of the High Court of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso on 27 June 2018, where he was convicted on multiple charges related to a Facebook post, including “demoralizing the defense and security forces.” Here is an excerpt of what Touré wrote on Facebook in June 2018:

À toutes les forces de défense: restez là assis seulement bras croisés. Vous risquez fort de tous trépasser ici dans l'exercice de vos fonctions sans que ces politicards que vous protégez nuit et jour ne lèvent le petit doigt pour vous assister en cas de problème comme c'est le cas de votre collègue feu Mdl Yassia (Paix à son Âme). Donc je dis et le répète que le politicien de la majorité actuelle MPP n'a rien rien à foutre de vos putaines de vie.

To all the the defense forces, please make sure you stay put with your arms crossed for a while. otherwise you are likely to be killed while on duty and none of these politicians who you protect day in and and day out will lift a finger to assist you in case of a problem as was the case of your colleague Mdl Yassia, killed in combat (may he rest in peace). So I say it all over again: the politician of the current majority party MPP do not give a damn about your freaking life.

At the end of the proceedings, the public prosecutor called for one year of imprisonment. On 3 July 2018, the final verdict was made public: Touré was sentenced to 2 months in prison without appeal  for “provocation without any ensuing consequences”.

He was arrested and remanded in custody by the national police force on 14 June 2018 for expressing outrage on his Facebook page concerning the fate of a policeman who was injured during an anti-terrorist operation and who, one month later, was still waiting for a medical evacuation.

The Ouagadougou-based website summarized the charges against him as described by one of his attorneys, Prosper Farama:

Il lui est reproché trois infractions : la première, il aurait participé à une opération de démoralisation des forces de défenses et de sécurité (FDS) par une publication sur sa page Facebook. La 2e infraction, c’est d’avoir proposé aux FDS de former un complot contre la sûreté de l’Etat. La 3e ; c’est incitation de troubles à l’ordre public

He is accused of three offenses: first, participating in an attempt to demoralize the defense and security forces (FDS) via a post on his Facebook page; second, making a proposition to the FDS to conspire against State security; third, inciting disorderly conduct.

At the trial, which involved about ten attorneys, Touré pleaded not guilty, according to Armand Kinda on

Pour l’accusé, son poste en date du 13 juin sur le réseau social facebook n’avait pas pour but de « participer à une entreprise de démoralisation des Forces armées nationales » comme l’estime le procureur du Faso. Selon les explications données par Naïm Touré à la barre, « ce poste a été fait pour informer l’opinion et pour dénoncer l’attitude des autorités (actuelles) qui ont une lenteur administrative », en ce qui concerne le retard constaté dans la procédure d’évacuation du pandore blessé pendant l’opération de démantèlement du réseau de terroristes le 22 mai 2018 à Rayongo où le gendarme François De Salle Ouédraogo y a perdu la vie.

Touré affirmed that the post dated 13 June on Facebook wasn’t meant to represent any participation in an attempt to demoralize the national Armed Forces” as judged by the public prosecutor. Touré explained before the court that “this post was created to inform the public and to denounce the attitude of the (current) authorities, and their slow-reacting administration,” regarding the delayed evacuation procedure of a cop who was injured during an operation to dismantle a terrorist network on 22 May 2018 in Rayongo, where the police officer François De Salle Ouédraogo lost his life.

Human rights activists and many of Touré's contacts on social media have shown support regarding his legal situation. Burkina resident Rodolphe Somd likened what Touré wrote on Facebook to an exchange between colleagues or friends about the situation in their country:

Des zélés en quête de postes de nomination ont induit nos autorités en erreur. Bien au contraire de mettre Naïm en prison, on aurait dû le remercier du fait qu'il desarme consciemment ou inconsciemment toutes entreprises des fds [Forces de sécurité] allant dans ce sens. Bien entendu son poste anticipe voire dejoue tout projet allant dans ce sens en ce qu il éveille un peu plus la vigilence des autorités sur un probable coup de force. Alors libérez ce morpion qui ne constitue aucune menace contre la sureté de l'Etat… Or facebook est un autre cabaret où ce qui s y dit ne devrait pas avoir plus d importance…

A few zealots seeking political appointments have led our authorities astray. Rather than putting Naïm in prison, they should thank him for neutralizing any plotting along those lines on the part of the fds [Security forces], whether he did so consciously or not. It’s clear that his post preempts and may frustrate any such plans given that it has caused the authorities to become somewhat more vigilant regarding a probable coup de force. So just free this little pest who represents no national security threat… Facebook is another world where what is said should not be taken seriously…

For local media examining the content of Touré's post (which was shared 525 times on Facebook), it was difficult to comprehend the accusations made against him.

The Burkina news site Kelgueka says that such accusations ought to be ridiculed since it would take much more than that for the military to rebel:

De telles accusations pour des militaires déjà en rébellion, c’est l’hilarité. Quand aux causes des révoltes ou rébellions dans les armées, au Burkina comme ailleurs, elles sont pareilles pour la majorité des cas. En 2011 , les mutineries avaient été suscitées par l’humaine condition. Blaise Compaore recevant la troupe s’était rendu à l’évidence de la misère de celle-ci. Chez Ouattara en côte d’Ivoire, les révoltes ont eu pour cause essentielle les impayés de soldes.

Récemment au Sahel, les bruits des mécontentements étaient liés à la non tenue d’engagements pris par l’autorité en lien avec les conditions de vie et de travail dans cette mission périlleuse de la lutte anti terroriste. Jusqu’à preuve du contraire, outre la gestion de l’armée et très rarement les manipulations occidentales pour des visées politiques, l’armée ne s’est jamais mise en situation de révolte par le fait de l’opinion publique.

To make such accusations when the soldiers have been on the brink of rebellion for so long is just ridiculous. The reasons for military revolts and rebellions are in most cases the same in Burkina Faso as everywhere else. In 2011, the mutinies were provoked by the human condition. Blaise Compaore received the troops and was forced to acknowledge the miserable state they were in. In Côte d’Ivoire, the main reason for the revolts was unpaid salaries.

Recently, in the Sahel, the rumors of discontent were linked to the non-respect of commitments made by the authorities relative to the living and working conditions in the perilous struggle against terrorism. Until it can be proven otherwise, apart from the management of the army and, very rarely, Western manipulation to political ends, the army never revolts because of public opinion.

Touré was arrested several days before the second Summit of the African League of Bloggers and Cyber-activists for Democracy, hosted by the organization Africtivistes, in the capital of Burkina Faso.
In his opening remarks, Cheikh Fall, the coordinator of Africtivistes, explained that Ouagadougou was chosen to host the second summit three years after the first edition because of “the role that activists have played there in various socio-political crises, such as their resistance to the military coup in September 2015.”
He then discussed the difficult situation that activists find themselves in on the African continent, citing pressure, exile, and prison as part of the difficulties that African activists face.
He made sure to highlight the case of Touré, directly addressing the President:

Cette tribune est pour nous, Monsieur le Président, une occasion pour vous demander au nom de tous les Africtivistes pour une clémence pour toutes ces personnes notamment Naim Touré du Burkina Faso…

For us, Mr. President, this platform is a chance to ask you, in the name of all Africtivistes, for clemency toward all the activists currently under arrest, in particular Naïm Touré from Burkina Faso…

Luandino Vieira, a writer based in Sénégal,  argued that arresting a Burkinabe icon of cyber-activism while activists from all over the continent are meeting in Ouagadougou simply creates disorder:

Alors qu’ on va réunir la crème des cyberactivistes africains, avec l’onction du gouvernement burkinabé, ça fait désordre d’arrêter une des icônes du cyberactivisme burkinabè. Naïm, n’a jamais été pris à défaut sur les informations qu’il a livrées. Que lui reproche-t-on donc de dire les choses avec un certain ton. On veut le domestiquer. Or, du peu que je sais de lui, c’est peine perdue. Les autorités burkinabè devraient plutôt le considérer comme un allié et en tant que lanceur d’alerte le protéger au lieu de chercher à le museler. Libérer Naïm Touré !

While the most prominent African cyber-activists will be meeting soon, the arrest of an icon of Burkinabe cyber-activism shows the duplicity of the Burkinabe government and will only create disorder. Naïm was never proven wrong about the information he shared. Why then should he be criticized for adopting a certain tone? They want to bring him to heel. But from what little I know about him, it’s a lost cause. Rather than arresting an icon of Burkinabe cyber-activism, the authorities should consider him as an ally and as a whistleblower – protect him instead of trying to muzzle him. Free Naïm Touré!

Touré's case has inspired a great deal of support from African civil society. Safiatou F. Lopez Zongo, the president of the National Cooperation Framework of Civil Society Organizations (Cadre de concertation national des organisations de la société civile in French), recalls that freedom of expression is a constitutional right:

Je viens d’apprendre l’arrestation du cyber-activiste NAÏM TOURÉ et sincèrement, je suis dépassée, le pouvoir creuse sa tombe chaque jour un peu plus et c’est désolant. La liberté d’expression est un droit Constitutionnel dans notre pays, chers Mogho puissants du moment, libérez le petit NAÏM TOURÉ. C’est tout simplement un abus de pouvoir et tôt ou tard le pouvoir sera entre les mains d’autres personnes et ça risque d’être compliqué pour certains d’entre vous. …

Alors, si consciencieusement vous savez que le peuple est déçu, il n’y a qu’une seule chose à faire, changez votre fusil d’épaule, au lieu de la chasse aux sorcières, travailler à gagner du crédit auprès du peuple qui vous a fait confiance…

I just learned of the arrest of the cyber-activist Naïm Touré and honestly, it is beyond me, the powers that be continue to dig their own graves and it’s devastating. Freedom of expression is a constitutional right in our country. Dear, powerful monarchs of the moment: free little Naïm Touré. This is a plain abuse of power. Sooner or later that power will be in the hands of others, and things could get complicated for some of you…

So, if upon reflection you realize that the people are disappointed, there is only one course of action to take: change tack. Instead of conducting a witch-hunt, work to earn the respect of the people who have put their trust in you….

Burkinabe Facebook user Paz Hien remembers what Naïm Touré once confided to him:

Un jour, Naïm Touré m'a dit ceci : “les gens me guettent. Certains mêmes me l'ont dit ouvertement qu'à la première occasion ils vont me mâter. Mais ça ne m'inquiète pas. Plus ils me menacent, plus je suis engagé. Et s'il arrivait que je meurs un jour, svp ne trahissez pas la lutte. Souvent certains pensent que je suis contre eux, et finalement ils se rendent compte que c'est pour eux que je me suis battu car moi je n'y gagne rien directement. Nous avons un devoir d'honnêteté mon frère”.

Ces propos sonnent en moi depuis hier!

One day, Naïm Touré said to me, “I am being watched. Some people have even told me outright that at the first chance they get, they’ll take me down. But that doesn’t worry me. The more they threaten me, the more committed I become. And if someday I die, please don’t give up the struggle. Often, people think that I am against them, but since I don’t stand to gain anything directly, they end up realizing that it’s for them I’m fighting. We have to be honest, brother. These words resound in me since yesterday! FREE NAÏM TOURE.

This is the third time that Naïm Touré has appeared in court for posts on his Facebook page.

The first case against him was filed in 2016, for a separate attempt to attract the attention of authorities to the case of an injured military serviceman, the Chief Warrant Officer Moussa Nébié, alias Rambo. He was prosecuted again in 2017 for “public injury and defamation” of the then-special counsel to the National Assembly president, Elisée Antoine Zong Naba.

by Abdoulaye Bah at July 19, 2018 09:34 PM

Access denied: How Uganda’s social media tax is turning news and information into luxury goods

A demonstration against the social media tax on July 11, 2018. Photo shared widely on Twitter.

Ugandans took to the streets of Kampala on July 11 to demand an end to a tax scheme that has upended communication, information and payment methods for mobile users across the country. Petitioners are also challenging the constitutionality of the tax in court.

Imposed on July 1, the new law forces Ugandans to pay a daily tax on “over the top” (OTT) mobile apps including — but not limited to — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Viber, LINE, Snapchat, Skype, LinkedIn, Tinder and Grindr.

The law also places a 1% tax on the use of mobile money, which is now the required method for recharging SIM cards.

Taken together, these new policies will make it more costly for Ugandans—especially those living in poverty—to communicate and perform everyday tasks using their mobile devices.

President Yoweri Museveni says the tax on social media is intended to curb online gossip and increase public revenues. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that the tax will do much more than limit conversation.

  • The social media tax costs too much. For Uganda’s poorest residents, it raises internet connection costs by 10%.

  • The social media tax violates net neutrality. It creates a two-tiered system in which accessing the “whole internet” is more expensive than accessing “some internet.”

  • The social media tax leaves Uganda’s poorest residents with less access to information.

  • The social media tax turns the right to free speech on major internet platforms into a privilege, available only for those who can afford to pay.


This tax costs too much

Ugandans now literally encounter a paywall each day when they set out to use any of the 58 OTT applications identified in the regulation. If they wish to proceed, they must pay a fee of 200 Ugandan Shillings (USD $0.05).

With Uganda's average GDP per capita at USD $604, daily use of social media or messaging apps could eat up three percent of the average Ugandan's annual earnings. This comes on top of the cost of a mobile phone handset, a talk/text/data plan, and the 1% tax on recharging SIM cards.

According to the Uganda-based Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), the tax will cause Uganda’s poorest residents to see their internet connection costs increase by 10%. Using just 1GB of data will now cost nearly 40% of their average monthly income.

It remains to be seen to what extent the new tax will drive down internet use and access in Uganda, where internet penetration was estimated to be at nearly 22% in 2016, according to World Bank data.

An MTN vehicle in Uganda, November 28, 2005, CC BY 2.0

A violation of net neutrality

The tax also squarely violates network neutrality, the principle that service providers should treat all internet traffic equally, and not block or throttle access to online content and services.

Uganda does not have legal protections for net neutrality, and both the government and telcos have violated the principle in the past, with tiered pricing and social media blocking.

In addition to censoring social media during elections (at the government’s behest), telcos have offered special packages that give users access only to WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, for a rate lower than that of a full data plan. Although it is not technically zero-rating, the package has a similar effect: it offers some savings to users who use only these applications. At the same time, it makes the “whole internet” more expensive than just “some internet”, and pushes users with limited budgets towards dependency on these particular applications.

While the new tax violates net neutrality, it simultaneously eliminates the benefits of packages like these — this particular offer was priced at 200 USh per day, but with the new tax, the cost officially doubles. For people who were able to pay the price of the special package, but not much more, the tax may mean they’ll be cut off from these services altogether.

Limiting access to information (to those who can afford it)

The original rationale for the tax was described by President Museveni as follows:

I am not going to propose a tax on internet use for educational, research or reference purposes… these must remain free. However, olugambo (gossip) on social media (opinions, prejudices, insults, friendly chats) and advertisements by Google and I do not know who else must pay tax because we need resources to cope with the consequences of their olugambo.

Museveni’s categorization of social media use as a luxury activity exposes significant gaps in the government’s understanding of how people use and depend upon these technologies.

As any experienced user in the region knows, WhatsApp is not just a place where people chat and gossip idly. In Uganda (similar to many countries in Africa and Latin America) WhatsApp is a key platform for distribution of community information, news, and public alerts during emergencies. Poorer Ugandans who cannot afford the tax will thus be excluded from these already-existing networks of information and news distribution. While they can build new methods for information exchange, this requires time, labor and know-how that are hard to come by, especially for people living in poverty.

Ugandans showed their opposition to the country's new social media tax at a gathering on July 6, 2018.

The popularity, versatility and usability of apps like WhatsApp and Facebook — combined with discounted offers of service, as mentioned above — also mean that for many people (in Uganda and across the globe), these services are the only online service they know how to use.

As Ugandan activist and Global Voices author Prudence Nyamishana wrote:

The tax ignores a critical lack of digital literacy, particularly among poor Ugandans. When I interviewed women living in Bwaise, a slum in Kampala, I learned that for them, WhatsApp and Facebook are the internet. These are the only platforms they know how to use. So with the new tax, they will be cut off altogether.

Many Ugandans are now using VPNs to circumvent the tax, but the government is also threatening to block these services.

Turning free speech into a privilege

While the government seems to be eager to increase tax revenues coming from the telecommunication sector, Ugandan activists are questioning the government’s real intentions, particularly in light of Uganda’s recent history of online censorship.

Voters line up at a polling station in Nyendo Masaka, Uganda, on February 18, 2011. Photo by Peter Beier. Copyright Demotix.

During the last presidential election in February 2016, the Uganda Communications Commission forced operators to block access to social media services. Over the past few years, authorities arrested several users over posts critical of the government and President Museveni, under the 2011 Computer Misuse Act.

‘’For Ugandans, the social media levy isn’t just another tax’’, wrote Ugandan journalist Lydia Namubiru for Quartz Africa. ‘’It is the latest in the government’s efforts to punish and discourage online expression’’.

Government stands by tax, telcos silent

After promising to review the new measures last week, the Ugandan government is still standing by its decision to tax the use of OTT services. A bill to amend the 2018 Excise Duty Act, which was submitted to the parliament on July 18, provides for a reduction of the tax on mobile money withdrawals from 1% to 0.5%, but offers no change to the social media tax.

In the meantime, service providers operating in the country have been mostly silent. While one small operator, Smile, offered to pay the tax on the behalf of its customers for three months (in a likely attempt to attract more business), the three biggest providers, MTN Uganda, Airtel India and Africell only released a notice to the general public announcing the implementation of the new taxes.

“The telcos are not reacting because they are protecting their own interests,” Prudence Nyamishana told us. “Being oligopolists, they can behave the way they want without putting people at the centre of their interests.”

With the absence of a strong and independent regulator to defend the interests and rights of users, Ugandan activists are left on their own to fight this tax. While the Uganda Communications Commission, which regulates the telecommunication industry, is  ‘’independent’’ on paper, all members of its board are appointed by the ICT minister and approved by the government. In addition, a bill proposed by the government and approved by the parliament last year eliminated a system of parliamentary checks and balances on the ICT minister’s supervision of the communications sector.

With these regulations in place, the UCC can only obey government orders, and this is best reflected in the commission's support of the social media tax. Ibrahim Bbossa, the UCC’s consumer affairs manager told local media that the government is ‘’right’’ and ‘’has been insightful’’ in implementing this tax because ‘’voice tax is about to disappear’’. The commission also ordered operators to block VPNs to prevent users from bypassing the paywall.

This tax will not prevail without a fight

The day after the tax was implemented, petitioners filed a court case against the government, arguing that the tax violates citizens’ rights to freedom of speech and access to information, as defined by the Ugandan Constitution of 1995. These rights are also protected under international treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Uganda is a signatory to both documents.

Online, #Notosocialmediatax campaigns have coalesced on both Facebook and Twitter, with major celebrities and some political leaders calling on the government to reconsider the tax. And in the streets, protests have drawn huge crowds of supporters — and police, who have used teargas and violence to break up demonstrations.

Citizen are awaiting a response to the amendment proposed on July 19, and petitioners are awaiting a court date to challenge the law’s constitutionality.

by Afef Abrougui at July 19, 2018 08:10 PM

Netizen Report: Israeli legislators look at new laws that would stifle speech and surveil the public

Memorial for the victims in Gaza held outside the Palestinian embassy in Bucharest. Picture taken from @RomaniaPalestineSolidarity on Facebook.

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Israeli legislators are pushing multiple bills that would further restrict speech by activists and journalists critical of its policies in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory.

The first bill would place restrictions on the filming and photographing of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), prescribing a five-year prison term against anyone convicted of “filming, photographing, and/or recording soldiers in the course of their duties, with the intention of undermining the spirit of IDF soldiers and residents of Israel.” If a court ruled that the photographer's intention was to “harm [Israeli] state security,” the penalty would extend to ten years in prison.

The “Prohibition Against Photographing and Documenting IDF Soldiers” would also criminalize the dissemination of the photos or footage on social networks and mainstream media.

The second bill would streamline processes for government officials to demand that social media platforms remove online content considered “incitement to violence,” and is set to be approved by the Knesset.

A third proposal, the Cyber Security and National Cyber Directorate Bill, would create a government unit tasked with identifying and monitoring cybersecurity threats. The bill would give this unit the authority to access (hack into) private or organizational devices and extract data from them, without prior court approval.

According to Nadim Nashif, executive director of the Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh), located in Haifa, the unit’s authority to hack into devices and confiscate data has “always been enforced against Palestinians.” Nashif says the government is now trying to legitimize and codify these practices into the law.

Ugandans take to the streets — and the courts — to reverse social media tax

Protesters hit the streets of Kampala on July 11, demanding an end to Uganda’s so-called “social media tax,” which puts a levy on the use of 58 different websites and applications, including WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. Demonstrators reported that police broke up protests using teargas and physical force, and that several protesters were arrested. Petitioners have also taken the government to court over the tax, arguing that it violates Uganda’s constitution and human rights commitments.

Popular singer Bobi Wine has been a leading voice in the protests on the street and on Twitter, where he tweeted:

Iran airs video of forced confessions by Instagram detainees

On July 9, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting TV network aired video of a series of forced confessions by three high-profile Iranian Instagram users who have been in detention since early May 2018 for posting videos of themselves engaging in “illicit activities” such as dancing. The arrests and subsequent confessions have sparked a broad public outcry.

Kenyan man arrested for calling government leaders ‘devil worshippers’

A man was arrested under Kenya’s new cybercrimes law over a Facebook post in which he described a local legislator as a “devil worshipper.” According to County Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) Zachary Kariuki, the post also suggested “County Senator Ledama ole Kina had allegedly sold his soul to the ‘devil’ and that the MCAs were executive’s bark dogs.”

US court jails man for failing to unlock his phone

After they stopped William Montanez for a minor traffic violation, police in the US state of Florida searched Montanez’ car and found and seized a small amount of marijuana and two mobile phones, which they later presented in court, along with a search warrant. When the judge asked Montanez to unlock the phones, he refused to do so and was promptly jailed for 180 days. TechDirt blogger Tim Cushing described the incident as a “fishing expedition” that could end with Montanez spending “an indefinite amount of time in jail without ever having been convicted of a crime.” His lawyer is appealing the case.

Ecuadorian tweep suffers a third suspension for satire

The satirical Twitter account Crudo Ecuador (currently @CrudoEcuador4), well known for commentary and mockery of now-former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, was suspended for the third time by Twitter this week. The account’s administrator, who spoke with local NGO Usuarios Digitales, shared a screenshot of the notification sent by Twitter, which indicated that the account had been suspended for “demonstrating characteristics consistent with automation” (or bot activity), despite the account being run by a real person, who posts original messages. The suspension may be part of Twitter’s effort to purge bots and other false accounts.

Honduras goes after hate on social media

Legislators in Honduras are considering a proposed law on cybersecurity and hate speech that would obligate website operators to block or moderate “illegal content” and “discriminatory expression” on their sites. Failure to follow the law could result in fines of up to USD $42,000. UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye and Inter-American Commission for Human Rights Special Rapporteur Edison Lanza have asked the Honduran government for further information about the law, and Access Now is encouraging followers to tweet about the harms the law could bring for free expression.

Why does my iPhone crash every time I type ‘Taiwan’?

It has been less than five months since Apple handed ownership of its mainland China data center to the state-owned company Guizhou-Cloud Big Data. Last week, a peculiar bug in iPhone software raised suspicion among Apple users that the company is bowing to requests from the Chinese government. According to cybersecurity researcher Patrick Wardle, certain iPhone models with a Chinese language setting and China location setting were experiencing device crashes when they typed “Taiwan” or received messages with the Taiwanese flag emoji. Apple has released the latest iOS version  11.4.1 to fix the problem.

New research



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by Netizen Report Team at July 19, 2018 07:52 PM

July 18, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
What will it take to #savetheinternet in Europe? The view from Romania

Members of European Parliament (MEPs) from Romania who voted in favor of defending the rights of Internet users: Renate Weber, Adina-Ioana Vălean, Laurentiu Rebega and Traian Ungureanu. Collage by Global Voices, CC-BY, incl. Wikipedia PD photo.

YouTube says that every 60 seconds, 400 hours worth of video is uploaded to its servers. From silly cats, to public protests, to soft porn, YouTube is ever-expanding for one major reason: you don’t have to ask permission to upload. If you break the rules, you find out on the other side — for now.

A landmark copyright reform effort proposed in the European Union (EU) could radically upend this system by requiring user-generated content platforms like YouTube to assess the ownership of a piece of content — whether it be video, audio, text or image — before a user can successfully upload the file.

On July 5, the European Parliament rejected the negotiation mandate of the leading committee on the Copyright Directive, JURI. This means that while the proposed directive put forth by JURI has been rejected, debates are still open and any of the 751 MEPs can submit new proposals and amendments. In September, there could be a new vote on this proposal.

Nearly one million people signed petitions and more than 40,000 of European citizens wrote emails to members of European Parliament arguing for modifications to the directive that would ensure protection of their rights and interests.

First put forward by the European Commission in September 2016, the proposed Copyright Directive was intended to be a key part of the EU’s package of measures designed to create a Digital Single Market in the EU, that would streamline networked technologies in order to foster economic and market growth. But this proposal could only detract from the modernisation of the copyright legislative framework within the EU.

Copyright proposals currently being pushed by European governance bodies do not take into account the nature and potential uses of networked digital technology.

By far the most controversial article of the Copyright Directive  is Article 13, unofficially dubbed “the censorship machine” by the open internet advocacy network European Digital Rights (EDRi). The article attempts to hold online service providers liable for the content that users upload. Currently, if an user uploads content that infringes on someone else’s rights or breaks some law, the user is liable and the service provider or platform is protected from liability. If the service provider or platform were to be held liable for the actions of the users, it would become risk-averse. Most likely, this would cause a sea change in the baseline abilities of such platforms, and shift their focus away from user participation and sharing. It would be the end of open sharing.

We have seen a smaller-scale version of this phenomenon play out with the comment sections of various sites: when the site owner/administrator begins to observe undesired behavior on their site, they often  start moderating the comments, lightly at first and increasingly strictly as the times goes. And it all ends up with the author or publication disabling the comment section altogether. In the case of Article 13, online platforms would be forced to implement automatic filtering mechanisms to make sure before every upload that the file being uploaded is not infringing anyone’s copyright.

How would this automatic filtering work? The online platforms would need to implement a filtering based on algorithms used to detect whether a piece of content is infringing or not.

This is very easily said but next to impossible to accurately implement in practice. The number of cases involving content removed in error for alleged copyright infringement are too numerous to count. Two especially absurd examples are  a video of a purring cat was accused of copyright infringement by two record labels,  and a Harvard lecture on copyright issues that was taken down because… claimants said the video violated copyright of a pop song.

The second most controversial article of the EU proposal is Article 11, which introduces a new right for press publishers called “ancillary copyright” (also known as “The Link Tax”).  This is not new in Europe — it was first introduced in Germany and then in Spain, in both cases under intense lobbying from the large press publishers. And in both cases, it proved to be a spectacular failure. Under this new right, the press publishers may need  to ask for payment from people quoting their online content. If the proponents had gotten their way, simply linking to online content would require a fee as well.

This would cause huge imbalance between press publishers and everyone else on the Internet. When ancillary copyright was implemented in Germany, Google News used their market dominant position to negotiate special privileges with press publishers, exempting them from the tax altogether. But smaller news aggregators that didn’t have Google News’ size to swing around, had to close up shop. In Spain, where the law didn’t allow press publishers to waive their fees (similar to Germany), Google News closed up shop as well.

What happened in Spain afterwards was even more striking: A new company appeared, allegedly a dynamic success story of a startup, which provides an Android application on which you can access news articles. While it seemed like a great solution at first, it was soon revealed to be owned by German corporation Axel Springer — the main driver behind this type of legislation in Germany, as well as in Spain and at the European level.

What are the reactions from Romania?

At European level there are large numbers of individuals and organizations involved in this project. We at the Association for Technology and Internet (ApTI) tried to contact the Romanian MEPs, in order to impress upon them the legal, economic and educational effects of some of the articles in this copyright reform proposal.

Out of 32 Romanian MEPs, only four rejected the negotiation mandate of JURI committee, in favor of defending the rights of Internet users both in Europe and in the world at large. Two of them publicly stated their stance on this matter on Facebook.

Renate Weber (ALDE, Independent):

…in opinia mea, libertatea in raport cu internetul nu inseamna ca tot ce e continut de internet trebuie sa fie gratuit. Sunt de acord cu protectia drepturilor de autor si cu faptul ca platformele online trebuie sa gaseasca formule prin care autorii, artistii in general sa fie protejati si platiti in mod adecvat pentru utilizarea operelor.

Problema e ca formularea actuala a art. 13 nu reuseste un just echilibru intre respectarea drepturilor de autor si obligatiile impuse platformelor online. Dar mai ales, ceea ce lipseste din acest articol este protectia utilizatorilor individuali (end users). Pentru a se conforma cerintelor din art. 13 platformele online vor fi obligate sa introduca filtrarea automata a continutului online, asta inseamnand inclusiv afectarea oricarei uploadari, oricat de nevinovata ar fi ea.

Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung a rezumat cel mai bine: uploadarea, urcarea unui video pe YouTube, sau pe Twitter, de la aniversarea unui copil va deveni imposiba daca in fundal canta Beyonce. Aceste instrumente automate nu pot nici macar sa fie conforme cu directiva privind drepturile de autor care prevede exceptii in cazul parodiilor, al criticilor, etc.

Dar trebuie sa precizez ca de fapt uploadarea devine imposibila daca utilizatorul este european. Vad din nou aici tipul de abordare care a fost folosit in cazul ACTA: impunem reguli cat mai stricte pentru europeni in vreme ce utilizatori de pe alte continente vor face in continuare ce vor dori. Nu pot fi de acord cu asa ceva, mai ales ca de data asta ar fi vorba inclusiv de sanctionarea unor comportamente complet nevinovate sau de sanctionarea creativitatatii utilizatorilor individuali europeni.

Asadar, voi vota impotriva unui mandat care sa permita inceperea negocierilor, insa acest lucru nu va fi suficient. Nicio dezbatere in Plenul PE, chiar daca ea e un instrumemt democratic in procedura legislativa, nu este momentan de ajuns. E nevoie de un nou text care sa rezolve toate aceste probleme care sa gaseasca un just echilibru intre libertatea utilizatorilor de internet de a uploada, cu protejarea drepturilor de autor si respectarea dreptului utilizatorilor europeni de internet de a se exprima liber, comparativ cu utilizatorii de internet de pe alte continente.

…I want to point out that, in my opinion, freedom on the Internet does not mean that all Internet content should be free of charge. I agree with copyright protection and the fact that online platforms have to find formulas where authors and artists generally are protected and paid for the use of works.

The problem is that the current wording of Art. 13 does not achieve a fair balance between respect for copyright and the obligations imposed for online platforms. But what is critically missing from this article is the protection of end users. To comply with the requirements of Art. 13, online platforms will be required to introduce automatic content filtering online, including the impact of any uploads, even if it is legal.

Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung summed it up as follows: uploading a YouTube or Twitter video of a child’s birthday will become impossible if Beyoncé is playing in the background. These automated tools cannot even comply with the copyright directive that provides for exceptions to parodies, criticisms, etc.

But I have to say that uploading is actually impossible if the user is European. I see here again the type of approach that has been used in ACTA: we are imposing stricter rules for Europeans while users from other continents will continue to do what they want. I can not agree with this, especially as this time it would include the sanctioning of completely innocent behaviors or the sanctioning of the creativity of individual European users.

So I will vote against a mandate to start negotiations, but that will not be enough. Debates in the EP plenary, even if there is a democratic instrument in the legislative procedure, are not enough. There is a need for a new text to solve all these problems, that will find a fair balance between the freedom of internet users to upload, protecting copyright and respecting the right of European internet users to express themselves freely, as compared to internet users from other continents.

Adina Vălean (EPP, PNL):

I believe the success of a normative act lies in broad support from all those involved. Today we would not be in this situation if the proposal of the Legal Committee were not controversial. This shows us that we need to continue the debate and find the means and legal instruments by which the entire creative industry in Europe is genuinely protected without creating obstacles to innovation and the digital economy. That is why I voted against the proposal of the Legal Committee on the Copyright Directive.

Adina Vălean's statement on Facebook.

At this juncture, we still need to convince MEPs to submit actual amendments that should guarantee the rights of European citizens.

On August 26 there will be Save the Internet Action Day, an event meant to involve as many individuals and organizations as possible, to send a clear message to EU representative in finding the proper legislative measures to be further implemented.

by ApTI (Association for Technology and Internet) at July 18, 2018 05:04 PM

‘If it isn’t recorded, it didn’t happen': Israel moves to restrict photo documentation of military activity

If adopted, a proposed bill could ban the filming and photographing of Israeli soldiers on duty. Photo by Flickr user Tal King (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When Israeli police brought in bulldozers to demolish the Palestinian village of Khan al-Ahmar on 4 July, the small community of 200 people did not stand still.

Photos and videos shared online showed local residents and activists climbing into and blocking bulldozers. Israeli forces responded by assaulting and arresting protesters, leaving 35 injured and 11 detained.

One video that made the rounds online showed Israeli military officers ripping off the headscarf of a woman protester as they were beating her, before wrestling her to the ground and taking her away.

Such violent encounters with the Israeli military and security forces have long been commonplace in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory. Documenting and speaking out against such encounters is possible and has become much easier in the past decade, with the advent of smart phones.

But it may soon become more difficult — or even illegal. Israeli legislators are pushing two bills that would further restrict speech by activists and journalists critical of its policies in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory.

The first bill would place restrictions on the filming and photographing of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), prescribing a five-year prison term against anyone convicted of “filming, photographing, and/or recording soldiers in the course of their duties, with the intention of undermining the spirit of IDF soldiers and residents of Israel.” If a court ruled that the photographer's intention was to “harm [Israeli] state security,” the penalty would extend to ten years in prison.

The “Prohibition Against Photographing and Documenting IDF Soldiers” would also criminalise the dissemination of the photos or footage on social networks and mainstream media. 

The second bill would streamline processes for government officials to demand that social media platforms remove online content considered “incitement to violence”, and is set to be approved by the Knesset.

Knesset member Robert Ilatov described the first bill as a response to “harassment” of Israeli soldiers by “left-wing operatives” at the Gaza-Israel border, where IDF officers have violently dispersed protests.

Since 30 March 2018, thousands of Palestinians living in the besieged Gaza Strip have gathered at the border with Israel for the ”Great March of Return” protests, marking 70 years since 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee during the creation of the state of Israel, events known as Nakba in Arabic (translated as catastrophe or disaster).

The protesters are demanding the right to return for those who were displaced and their descendants, along with an end to the 11-year Gaza blockade. Since protests began in late March 2018, Israeli forces have killed at least 138 protesters and injured thousands.

Journalists targeted by Israeli fire on Gaza border

Two journalists were killed and several others injured when they were hit with live ammunition fired by Israel Defense Forces (IDF), while covering the ”Great March of Return” protests.

On 6 April, Yaser Murtaja, one of the founders of the independent news agency Ain Media (“Eye Media”), was shot by Israeli forces. He died later that night of his injuries. “When shot, he was wearing a vest with the inscription ‘Press’ that clearly identified him as a journalist,” Reporters Without Borders said.

On 25 April, Ahmed Abu Hussein, a Palestinian photographer for the Gaza-based Voice of the People Radio, died from bullet injuries to his abdomen after he was shot by Israel forces on 13 April while covering the protests. On 8 June, AFP photographer Mohammed al-Baba was shot below in the leg while covering the protests. Many other journalists were injured as well.

In a 15 May statement, RSF submitted a request to the International Criminal Court to investigate “the direct shots that IDF snipers have fired at some 20 Palestinian journalists during the “March of Return” protests in Gaza.

Why shield soldiers from public scrutiny?

In its explanatory note, the bill refers to “a worrying phenomenon of documentation of Israeli soldiers” by non-governmental organizations engaged in documenting violations against Palestinians.

One such organization is The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, better known as B'Tselem. On 4 July, B’Tselem’s field researcher director Kareem Jubran was arrested as he was filming preparations for the forcible removal of the community of Khan al-Ahmar, before he was released the same day.

“As an organization, we have had staff members beaten, harassed and arrested,” B’Tselem spokesperson Amit Gilutz told Global Voices. Giltuz views the bill as part of a government led campaign that portrays those who “advocate for the human rights of all people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea” as ‘traitors’.”

“What is clear is that the documentation of the reality that Israel is trying to hide – instead of changing – will continue nonetheless,” he said. 

While the bill's adoption may not stop activists and rights groups from documenting Israeli policies and practices in occupied territories, its impact will particularly be felt among Palestinian communities and activists.

Nadim Nashif, the executive director of the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, told Global Voices:  

This bill aims solely for censorship of commonplace Israeli forces’ human rights violations under the motto of “if it isn’t recorded, it didn’t happen.” If passed, it will dangerously increase the impunity of Israeli soldiers and further endanger Palestinians that have already been stripped of almost all means to protect themselves and advocate for their basic human rights.

Palestinians resisting the occupation already face a myriad of threats and restrictions, including violence, administrative detention, imprisonment and repressive laws. Those who turn to social media to criticise human rights violations and Israeli occupation policies or to simply show the everyday realities of occupation face arrests and prosecution for incitement.

The ‘Removal of Terror-Inciting Content from Social Media’ bill

And there's the second bill. The Removal of Terror-Inciting Content from Social Media Bill would criminalise content the Israeli government considers an “endangerment to personal, public or national security,” or speech that “could severely damage the Israeli economy or infrastructure,” local media reported.

This would double down on existing practices of prosecuting people for online speech and asking social media companies to remove allegedly inciting content. Incitement to violence is already illegal under Israel's 1977 penal code and under the 1945 Emergency Regulations.


In September 2016, Palestinian activists documented numerous suspensions of personal Facebook accounts of Palestinian journalists and media pages. Four editors at the Palestinian Shehab News Agency and three journalists from Al Quds News Network, which both have millions of followers, had their personal accounts shut down. Supporters responded, protesting online under the hashtag #FBCensorsPalestine. Facebook later apologized for the suspension and said that it was mistake.

Critics say the bill represents a threat to freedom of expression. A new report by the Israel Democracy Institute concluded that the bill sets a “dangerous legal precedent” and “opens the door to the dangers of state censorship”.

According to the report's authors Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler and Rachel Aridor-Hershkovitz:

The use of administrative law ex parte, with no admissible evidence to determine whether a criminal act has been committed, is an unprecedented international juridical act.

Social media companies, Facebook in particular, already face accusations of “complicity” in censoring Palestinian speech. One of the bill's initiators Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked declared that Facebook complies with ”most of the state's requests to remove inciteful [sic] content”.

“Instead of protecting freedom of expression online, social media companies are almost blindly following Israeli government requests for removal,” Nashif said.


by Afef Abrougui at July 18, 2018 07:30 AM

July 13, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
In India, regulators are deciding the fate of sensitive data behind closed doors

A biometric data collection center in India. Photo by Bishwarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

On August 2017, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India unanimously upheld the privacy of Indian citizens as a fundamental right.

Since that time, a series of campaigns, petitions and legal battles citing this ruling have ensued, many of them arguing against India’s biometric identification programme, known as Aadhaar. They charge that Aadhaar runs afoul of the court verdict.

These critiques have made it clear that India needs a stronger definition of “data”, personal, sensitive and otherwise. This has been known for some time, and there have been numerous privacy bills and legislative efforts to address personal data privacy in India, from the IT Act of 2000 (which guarded individuals from privacy breach from the corporate sector), to a 2011 Personal Data Bill (which was proposed but never passed), to a 2012 committee report proposing criteria for a privacy protection law.

Despite all these efforts, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology formed a new committee in August 2017, that also intended to draft a data protection law.

Headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice B.N. Srikrishna (and thus titled Srikrishna Committee), the committee's job is to “ensure the growth of the digital economy while keeping personal data of citizens secure and protected.”

Committee efforts have not been transparent

Although it has existed for nearly a year's time, the Committee has yet to release meeting minutes or a draft of the bill that they are developing.

On June 23, 2018, online media outlet The Print reported on a leaked copy that the outlet had obtained, along with a report from the committee stating that the bill will “not apply to any processing activity that has been completed prior to this law coming into effect.” This triggered consternation among civil society and privacy advocates, as it indicates that the data protection act will have no bearing on the Aadhaar system.

The only official document released by the committee has been a November 2017 white paper on data protection which left many citizens with more questions than answers. It reflected uncertainty regarding the level of control over how much data can be stored and limited to the country itself, and failed to describe what rights individuals hold over their own data.

Critics lament pro-Aadhaar bias and lack of civil society representation

Along with the Srikrishna Committee’s output, leading scholars and lawyers have criticized the committee for demonstrating a lack of transparency, over-representing the interests of people who are in favor of — or stand to gain from — Aadhaar, and lacking representation from civil society.

A group of lawyers in India wrote a letter to the Committee, putting forth their concerns regarding the bill and emphasizing the need to review the Aadhaar data processing scheme in its entirety. The letter explicitly states that Aadhaar stands in conflict with data privacy and argues that the data protection law that could be citizen-centric.

Noted researcher and expert on law and poverty Dr. Usha Ramanathan spoke about this at a consultation held by the Committee in Bengaluru, as tweeted by civil engineer and internet researcher Srinivas Kodali:

Usha Ramanathan asking for the expansion of data protection committee and how there is no civil society representation plus individuals in committee having a conflict of interest by supporting #Aadhaar

Others have charged that consultations have been too short or lacking sufficient structure to accomplish the task at hand.

The composition of the committee has also been at issue. Vidhi Centre of Legal Policy, a team of lawyers, headed by Arghya Sengupta is currently working on the Data protection Bill, even when they contributed in the drafting of Aadhaar Act and later defended it in court as well.

Here is Bangalore-based lawyer Malavika Prasad's thread on the role of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy:

Researcher Malavika Raghavan published a thread on Data Protection:

The committee is expected to release a draft of the bill in late July 2018, just as the Aadhaar verdict is also awaited.

As the Supreme Court edges closer to a final judgment on the constitutional validity of its biometric scheme, all eyes will be on the terms set by the Sri Krishna Committee which will define the contours of data protection and privacy in India for the foreseeable future.

by Devika Sakhadeo at July 13, 2018 01:02 PM

July 11, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Iranian authorities arrest ‘Instagram celebrities’, in effort to assert control over social media

A screenshot of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB)'s documentary that aired the forced confessions of the detainees they called “Instagram celebrities,” including the 18 year old Maedeh Hojabri.

This article was written by Mahsa Alimardani for ARTICLE19. You can see the original ARTICLE19 statement here

When the high-profile Iranian Instagram users Maedeh Hojabri, Elnar Ghasemi, Shadab Shakib and Kami Yousefi were arrested in May 2018, it signaled a new phase in state efforts to control expression on Instagram.

The arrests of these high profile Instagram users sparked a worldwide outcry after the government forced the 18-year-old Hojabri to confess to the “crime” of posting videos of herself dancing.

Tension around Instagram has been mounting since the start of 2018, when protests spread across the country and Iranian authorities temporarily blocked online platforms Instagram along with Telegram. Both sites are extremely popular in Iran.

By the end of April, Telegram was fully blocked — but Instagram remained open. Instead of blocking the platform, it appears that authorities are instead using it to track the activities of Iranians, and control Instagram content by arresting those who are not following the laws of the land.

The judiciary began threatening to filter Instagram at the beginning of July 2018, arguing that it has enabled the “illicit activities” of so-called Instagram celebrities.

What happened to Maedeh Hojabri

Hojabri had been inactive on social media since May — but her fate was unknown until 9 July, when the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) TV network aired a forced confession video that included several of the detained Instagram users, including Hojabri.

Although these videos did not air until July, it appears that the detainees were forced to give their confessions shortly after their arrest. A male detainee identified as Kami Yousefi indicates that it is the month of June throughout his confessions. In one moment, a person behind the camera asks a female detainee if her family knew she was arrested. She responds, telling the camera: “they realized when they came to our house to arrest me this morning.”

A silhouette image of Maedeh Hojabri crying and confessing to posting videos of herself dancing on Instagram on the national broadcaster.

On 3 July 2018, the deputy Prosecutor General Hajatoleslam Mohamad Mosadegh indicated to semi-official Fars News that there had been “activities under the title of celebrities in cyberspace and fraudulent profiteering.” The deputy prosecutor said that because of these concerns, the Prosecutor's office had to “cut off the hands of these people [from Instagram] and bring confidence back to society.”

Officially, no charges have been filed against the detainees. However on the day of the broadcast, the head of Tehran’s cyber-police (known as FATA), Touraj Kazemi, told the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) that the administrators of multiple “criminal” Instagram pages had been detained, largely in Tehran, and that “appropriate measures” were being taken. Kazemi indicated that these arrests were associated with various “celebrities of Instagram pages.” Psychologist Dr. Hagh Ranjbar, interviewed by IRIB in their 9 July broadcast, referred to the issue as “the societal ills of the celebrities of Instagram pages who try to promote themselves.”

Video of IRIB documentary on Instagram arrests in Persian.

According to Article 638 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, dancing is considered a “sinful act” and can be punished with two months imprisonment and 74 lashes (see the full details of Article 638 below). Similar charges were brought in May 2014 against several Iranians who made and shared a fan-video for the Pharrell Williams song “Happy” on social media.

Due process violations persist

The forced confessions contribute to long-standing concerns regarding violations of due process in the country’s judicial system, and the use of the state broadcasting system to promote government narratives on arrested human rights defenders, journalists, academics and social media users. IRIB broadcasts have previously been used to promote conspiracy theories against dual nationals Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe and Seyed Kavous-Emami.

In a 2014 report, the Center for Human Rights in Iran demonstrated how forced “confessions” are often extracted under the threat torture, and then broadcast by the state-run IRIB media to justify politically motivated prosecutions.

Since December, Iranians have faced new hurdles to accessing the internet and engaging in online speech — there have been shutdowns of foreign traffic, censorship of the widely used Telegram messaging platform, and many arrests of social media users, journalists, activists and human rights defenders.

In reaction to the judiciary’s statement that Instagram would be filtered, Rouhani’s Minister of Information Communications and Technology tweeted that these were false rumors. Instead, he said the unfiltering of Twitter, which has been blocked in Iran since 2009, is the real consideration.

The issue that’s been followed for the filtering of various Internet services is not new. The unfiltering of of Twitter is in line to be discussed in the next meeting of the working group to determine offensive content. What’s new in this is the discussion of this irrelevant news by certain media to distract public opinion from the issue of transparency in the matter of currency devaluation.

Similar statements were made by this Minister in the weeks before the Judiciary blocked Telegram in late April.

Rhetorically, the Rouhani administration has long argued for greater freedoms of online. But the events of recent months make these promise ring hollow.

Further information

Article 638 of the Iranian Islamic Penal Code:

Anyone in public places and roads who openly commits a harām (sinful) act, in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes; and if they commit an act that is not punishable but violates public prudency, they shall only be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes.

Note – Women, who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab, shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of fifty thousand to five hundred Rials.

by Article 19 at July 11, 2018 09:28 PM

What's happened to digital rights over the past seven years? 300 editions of the Netizen Report will tell you

Protests in Budapest, October 2014. Photo by Marietta Le, used with permission.

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in internet rights around the world.

This week, we're looking back at seven years of covering global digital rights news in celebration of our 300th edition!

When we first launched the Netizen Report in 2011, we set out to create weekly record of how people around the world were exercising free expression through technology — and the barriers and threats they faced.

We have covered the digital rights ramifications of social movements from Hong Kong to Ukraine to Venezuela, attacks on digital activism from Cuba to Bahrain to Tanzania, and internet-focused legislation in more than 100 countries on every continent.

‘Netizen’ is not just a clever portmanteau

The term first came into use in mainland China, where online communities began to refer to themselves as wǎngmín (网民, literally “net-citizen”) and wǎngyǒu (网友, literally “net-friend”).

Beyond the clever wordplay, these communities built spaces where people could speak up, criticize and debate in a way that was not possible in Chinese society. Netizens intentionally identified themselves as active citizens on the internet, in sharp contrast to their existence in real life.

In countries like Ethiopia, Morocco and Syria our team has followed the trials and prison terms of bloggers and online activists whose work sparked widespread change for their communities and triggered enduring legal threats from their own governments.

We are not writing about digital rights in principle or in theory — we are writing about how they play out for real people. Week after week, our team of volunteers work to show how online expression has become a formidable force in public life and how this empowers communities and political movements alongside state and other powerful actors.

Over time, our reports have tracked how one sweeping event — an environmental disaster, a refugee crisis, a violent attack — can trigger a wave of reaction that results in threats to online rights around the world. And we have followed the remarkably global trends in legal repression of speech that affect so many people around the world, but don’t always make the headlines.

Here are some of our all-time favorite editions of the Netizen Report, showing the range and depth of our work since 2011.


Working in the public interest can get you arrested: Digital activists under fire

The rights of an individual speaking truth to power lie at the core of Global Voices’ advocacy work. Week after week, we have covered threats against freedom of speech, ranging from arrests of the #Istanbul10 activists in Turkey to prosecution of the Zone9 bloggers in Ethiopia to multiple years of fatal attacks on bloggers in Bangladesh.

Demonstrators call for capital punishment for war criminals in Bangladesh, 2013. Photo by Mehdi Hasan Khan via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Post-Charlie chilling effects: Censorship in the name of national security

The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris sparked critical debate over the importance of free expression, and led several governments in the EU and beyond to restrict free speech and increase their surveillance powers. This  is just one of many instances where governments have used the threat of violent extremism as a justification for limiting free speech and other fundamental rights — an enduring theme for the Netizen Report.

“I am Charlie … and I am Muslim.”


In ‘state of emergency’, internet shutdowns leave citizens struggling to connect

Political upheaval and public protest in many countries has triggered a “state of emergency”, justifying the suspension of many fundamental rights and enduring internet shutdowns. This edition focused on Ethiopia and Venezuela, just two of the many countries where shutdowns have occurred. We've also covered internet and social media shutdowns in China, Syria, Pakistan, Cameroon, Iran, Togo, India, Iraq, Egypt, Gabon, D. R. Congo, Somalia, and Sudan.

A student demonstrator speaks to National Guard members in Venezuela, during protests in 2014. Photo by Jamez42 via Wikimedia Commons (CC0)


You can’t encrypt, but we can spy: The Hacking Team leaks

A massive leak of internal documents from the Italian surveillance software firm Hacking Team proved that governments were spying on journalists, human rights advocates, and political opposition groups — this confirmed years of suspicion and evidence of malware targeting that we documented in the Netizen Report. Our community covered the impact of these events in Bahrain, Ecuador, Egypt, Lebanon, Mexico and Serbia.

Cartoon by Doaa Eladl via Flickr, Web We Want ( CC BY-SA 2.0)


Activists demand answers from Facebook

As a community of writers and activists, we’ve faced censorship, harassment and direct threats because of our activism on Facebook since the early days of the platform. The Netizen Report archive shows countless examples of discrimination and harassment on the platform, highlights our in-depth research on Free Basics (Facebook’s project to create an “internet on ramp” for people in developing countries), and has documented the uproar from activists demanding answers from the platform following the Cambridge Analytica revelations.

A protester near the Teacher Students Centre (TSC) of Dhaka University. The poster reads “How many excuses more? Open Viber, Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook NOW.” Photo by Zaid Islam, under copyright. Used with permission.

With an ever-evolving team of writers, researchers, activists and human rights experts from 41 countries (full list below) and the steadfast support of Global Voices editors, we’ve produced 300 editions of the Netizen Report since 2011.

This week on Twitter, join us in raising a virtual glass to our collective efforts. Here’s to many more years of capturing the global story of human rights and internet!

Yours truly,

The Netizen Report Team


Abir Ghattas, Afef Abrougui, Alex Laverty, Alexey Kovalev, Amira Al Hussaini, Angel Carrión, Arzu Geybullayeva, Asteris Masouras, Bojan Perkov, Corey Abramson, Diego Casaes, Dragan Kucirov, Elaine Díaz, Elizabeth Rivera, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Endalk Chala, Filip Stojanovski, Firuzeh Shokooh Valle, Georgia Popplewell, Hae-in Lim, Hisham Almiraat, Inji Pennu, Ivan Sigal, J. Tadeo, James Losey, Janine Mendes-Franco, Jessica Dheere, Jillian York, Joey Ayoub, Juan Arellano, Juke Carolina, Karolle Rabarison, Kevin Rothrock, Kofi Yeboah, L. Finch, Laura Vidal, Leila Nachawati, Lisa Ferguson, Lova Rakotomalala, Don Le, Marietta Le, Mahsa Alimardani, Marianne Díaz, Mohamad Najem, Mohamed ElGohary, Mong Palatino, Nevin Thompson, Nwachukwu Egbunike, Oiwan Lam, Pauline Ratze, Rayna St, Rebecca MacKinnon, Renata Avila, Rezwan, Rohith Jyothish, Sadaf Khan, Sahar Habib Ghazi, Salma Essam, Sarah Myers West, Silvia Viñas, Solana Larsen, Suzanna Lehn, Taisa Sganzerla, Talal Raza, Tanya Lokot, Tetyana Bohdanova, Tom Risen, Torie Bosch, Weiping Li and Yuqi Chen have contributed to one or multiple Netizen Reports since 2011. 

Netizen Report contributors come from Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Japan, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Russia, Serbia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Syria, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United States, Venezuela and Vietnam.


Subscribe to the Netizen Report


by Netizen Report Team at July 11, 2018 02:50 PM

July 09, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Chinese mobile phone cameras are not-so-secretly recording users’ activities

Graffiti art of surveillance camera. Published and labeled for reuse on Pixabay.

It has been widely reported that software and web applications made in China are often built with a “backdoor” feature, allowing the manufacturer or the government to monitor and collect data from the user's device.

But how exactly does the backdoor feature work? Recent discussion among mobile phone users in mainland China has shed some light on the question.

Last month, users of Vivo NEX, a Chinese Android phone, found that when they opened certain applications on the phone, including Chinese internet giant QQ browser and travel booking app Ctrip, the mobile device’s camera would self-activate.

Different from most mobile phones, where a camera can be activated without giving the user any signal, the Vivo NEX has a tiny retractable camera that physically pops out from the top of the device when it is turned on.

Vivo NEX retractable camera. Photo by Vivo NEX, via We Chaat.

Though perhaps unintentionally, this design feature has given Chinese mobile users a tangible sense of exactly when and how they are being monitored.

One Weibo user observed that the retractable camera self-activates whenever he opens a new chat on Telegram, a messaging application designed for secured and encrypted communication.

While Telegram reacted quickly to reports of the issue and fixed the camera bug, Chinese internet giant Tencent instead defended the feature, arguing that its QQ browser needs the camera activated to prepare for scanning QR codes and insisted that the camera would not take photos or audio recordings unless the user told it to do so.

This explanation was not reassuring for users, as it only revealed the degree to which the QQ browser could record users’ activities.

After the news of the self-activated camera bug spread, users started testing the issue on other applications and found that Baidu’s voice input application has access to both the camera and voice recording function, which can be launched without users’ authorization.

A Vivo NEX user found that once she had installed Baidu's voice input system, it would activate the phone’s camera and sound recording function whenever the user opened any application — including chat apps, browsers — that allows the user to input text.

Baidu says that the self-activated recording is not a backdoor but a “frontdoor” application that allows the company collect and adjust to background noise so as to prepare for and optimize its voice input function. This was not reassuring for users — any microphone collecting background noise would also unquestionably capture the voices and conversations of a user and whomever she speaks with face-to-face.

How does camera snooping affect people outside China?

These snooping features have not just affected people from mainland China, but all of those from outside the country who want to communicate with friends in China.

As the Chinese government has blocked most leading foreign social media technologies, anyone who wants to communicate with people in China has little choice but to install applications made in China, such as WeChat.

One strategy for increasing one's mobile privacy when using Chinese-made applications is to keep all insecure applications on one device and assume that these communications will be recorded or spied upon, and to keep a second device for more secure or “clean” applications. When using an encrypted communication application like Telegram to communicate with friends in China, one also has to make sure that their friends’ mobile devices are clean.

Baidu has been notorious for snooping into users’ private data and activities. In January 2018, a government-affiliated consumer association in Jiangsu province filed a lawsuit against Baidu’s search application and mobile browser for snooping on users’ phone conversations and accessing their geo-location data without user consent. But the case was dropped in March after Baidu updated its applications by securing users’ consent for control over their mobile camera, voice recording, geo-location data, even though these controls are not essential to the application's functionality.

In response to public concern about these backdoor features, Baidu and other Chinese internet giants may defend themselves simply by arguing that users have consented to having their cameras activated. But given the monopolistic nature of Chinese Internet giants in the country, do ordinary users have the power — or the choice — to say no?

by Oiwan Lam at July 09, 2018 09:03 PM

Uganda's tax on social media will widen the digital gender gap

June 2018 Women’s Protest Working Group march in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by Katumba Badru, used with permission.

On July 1, Uganda implemented a new daily tax on the use of social media and messaging platforms, on the grounds that — in the words of President Museveni — social media is a “luxury good”.

This tax will unquestionably widen the digital divide for all Ugandans of lesser means. But the results may be worst for women, who already face high barriers in accessing and using the internet.

According to a scorecard by the World Wide Web Foundation, in Uganda, the cost of 1GB data comprises 22% of the average monthly income. Countries that have expensive internet such as Uganda and Mozambique have the lowest numbers of women online. Regionally, only one in nine women in Africa has access to the internet. Only about 37 percent of women surveyed in ten selected cities in the world, including Kampala, were found to be using the internet compared to 59 percent men.

Research conducted by the Women of Uganda Network and the Web Foundation indicates that as a result of feminised poverty, many Ugandan women who are dependent on subsistence agriculture cannot afford to buy a smartphone or data bundles. Those who can afford mobile devices and services often face barriers of language and low literacy.

Culture and society play a role in the digital gender gap too. In Ugandan society, there are entrenched norms of negative thinking towards women’s participation and engagement in public spaces. This extends to spaces like cafes and telecentres, where internet access is often available. Patterns of gender inequality, as reflected in political participation and representation in decision-making structures, along with disparities in economic opportunities, access to education (and thus literacy), and division of labour within the economy all contribute to the digital gender gap.

Yet still, some Ugandan women have come online. The digital revolution gave Ugandan women a voice online to politically engage, speak truth to power, dismantle the patriarchy, seek counsel from their friends, access information, connect with clients, market their products, start charities, form psychosocial support groups, coordinate savings groups, organize neighborhood supervision for kids when they are away, and so much more. President Museveni is missing something when he says that social media is for gossip. And even if it was, communication is a basic human need.

The tax also ignores a critical lack of digital literacy, particularly among poor Ugandans. When I interviewed women living in Bwaise, a slum in Kampala, I learned that for them, WhatsApp and Facebook are the internet. These are the only platforms they know how to use. So with the new tax, they will be cut off altogether.

If only the government of Uganda adhered to the 2016 UN Human Rights Council resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, they would know that the internet should be open. Article 6 seeks to “bridge the gender digital divide and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of all women and girls.” And article 10 condemns “measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law, and calls upon all States to refrain from and cease such measures.”

Museveni says that social media is a luxury good and that people have a choice to use it or not. Listening to him say these things really hurts. This is 2018. While the rest of the world moves towards artificial intelligence, innovation around the internet of things and free internet access in public places, Uganda is marching in the opposite direction.

If only the members of parliament, the president’s many advisers and the Ministry of ICT would stop for just a moment to listen to the outcry of the Ugandan people — which has been loud and clear since the tax came into effect on July 1 — they would repeal the tax.

by Prudence Nyamishana at July 09, 2018 09:01 PM

July 06, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Ugandans say #NoToSocialMediaTax because it exploits women, youth and the poor

Ugandans are standing up against a new tax on social media and Mobile Money.

On July 1, 2018, the Ugandan government started taxing citizens a fee of 200 Ugandan Shillings (USD $0.05) for using social media, raising substantial condemnation from Ugandans.

With Uganda's average GDP per capita at USD $604.00, daily use of social media or messaging apps could eat up three percent of the average Ugandan's annual earnings.

The fight to resist the social media tax took a legal twist on July 2 when concerned citizens approached the courts, claiming that the tax violates Uganda's constitution.

Petitioners argued that the tax contravenes the human rights of Ugandans as enshrined in “the specified provisions of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda”.

Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation reports:

The petition, filed by a team of young advocates under their Cyber Law Initiative (U) Limited and four individuals, Mr Opio Bill Daniel, Mr Baguma Moses, Mr Okiror Emmanuel and Mr Silver Kayondo against the attorney-general, is challenging the Constitutionality of the (200 USH) [$0.05 USD] daily charge for access to social media platforms.


The petition is particularly targeting several sections of the Excise Duty Amendment Act 2018, which provided for taxes on Over The Top (OTT) services from mobile telephone usage.

The tax threatens fundamental rights to freedom of speech and access to information which are not only guaranteed by the Ugandan Constitution but also protected under international treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — Uganda is a signatory to both documents.

The petitioners also implored the court to issue an order that will permanently halt payment on the social media tax. PCTech magazine reports:

They want the court to issue an order, permanently stopping the government and all her agencies, authorities and officials from imposing any tax on internet or social media usage. In addition, they also want an order, directing the government and government regulatory body of the communications sector; Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) to only regulate OTT services in a manner that guarantees free access, net neutrality, and open internet.

Ugandan lawyer Silver Kayondo vowed to “fight up to the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights”:

The Global Voices community, which we represent, has also taken a stand on the issue and organized a tweetathon in solidarity with activists in Uganda, set to take place on Monday, July 9.

#NoToSocialMediaTax campaign poster. (Image designed by Innocent Amanyire @NinnoJackJr and used with permission)

As the legal battle ensues, questions around equity, justice, and access remain and need further investigation. According to a survey by the National Information Technology Authority, 77 percent of Ugandans cannot afford basic internet usage costs and only 22 percent of the total population currently uses the internet.

Rather than investing in infrastructure that could expand Ugandans’ access to broadband connectivity, the government has imposed a social media tax seriously limits access while bringing more money to its own coffers.

Critics see the tax as a form of double taxation because airtime and data were already taxed. Now, many users say they simply can not afford to pay the extra 200 USH per user per day to access web-based social and communication platforms, also known as over-the-top (OTT) services.

The tax widens the internet access gap not just for Ugandan youth and the poor, but also for women, furthering the gender digital divide.


Ugandan youth on social media frontlines feel the social media tax squeeze

Uganda struggles with one of the highest unemployment rates in East Africa. A 2014 Ugandan census report indicated that out of over 18 million people between the ages of 14 and 64, 58 percent were unemployed. At the same time, 52 percent of Ugandans owned mobile phones and 71 percent of these users live in rural areas, according to a 2014 report by the Uganda Communications Commission.

Youth ages 15 to 24 years old are on the frontlines of smartphone usage and make up 28 percent of the population. Many rely on their phones and on WhatsApp to engage in businesses that run on mobile money. They say they feel that the social media tax will only stifle entrepreneurship, ease of business, and creativity.

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) points out that just one gigabyte (GB) of data will now cost users nearly 40 percent of their average monthly income:

An affront to already over-burdened citizens

The social media tax comes on the heels of the controversial social media “gossip tax” in April 2018 and is seen as an affront to already over-burdened citizens. At that time, President Museveni wrote:

I am not going to propose a tax on internet use for educational, research or reference purposes… these must remain free. However, olugambo (gossip) on social media (opinions, prejudices, insults, friendly chats) and advertisements by Google and I do not know who else must pay tax because we need resources to cope with the consequences of their lugambo.

The government's categorization of social media platforms as a luxury activity exposed a deep lack of digital literacy among policymakers in the Museveni government.

Ugandan journalist Daniel K. Kalinaki succinctly summarized the impact of both the “gossip tax” and the “social media tax” on everyday Ugandan citizens:

There are basically two problems with the social media tax. First, it shoots the wrong person twice: A Facebook user has already paid tax on the mobile phone, data and electricity; they are, except in a few cases, the product, not the revenue. The tax is like taking money at the gate then also charging for the seats in an empty stadium.

Secondly, people generally don’t gossip or insult others for a living; they do so because they are idle, sad and often unemployed. Imposing a tax to keep them quiet is the cyber equivalent of asking starving people who don’t have millet to eat red velvet chocolate cake instead. This and the mobile money tax have taken many young and poor people, including many in the countryside who have never paid a direct tax, through the organ grinder of our tax system. You can hear the screams from Kidera to Kyotera.

by Nwachukwu Egbunike at July 06, 2018 09:48 PM

#NoToSocialMediaTax: Join Global Voices for a July 9 tweetathon against Uganda's social media tax

#NoToSocialMediaTax tweetathon poster by Innocent Amanyire / @NinnoJackJr

Join the Global Voices Sub-Saharan Africa team (@gvssafrica) for a multilingual tweetathon demanding an end to the taxation of social media in Uganda.

On July 1, the Ugandan government began enforcing a new law that imposes a 200 shilling [US$0.05, £0.04] daily levy on people using internet messaging platforms, despite protests to the contrary from local and international online free speech advocates.

This move, according to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, has the dual purpose of strengthening the national budget and also curtailing “gossip” by Ugandans on social media. It was also popular among local telecom providers, who do not directly benefit from the use of foreign-based “over-the-top” services such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp.

The polic was preceded with an order to register all new mobile SIM cards with the National Biometric Data Centre. The measure also forces Ugandans to only use mobile money accounts in order to recharge their SIM cards and makes it mandatory to pay a one percent levy on the total value of transaction on any mobile money transaction.

These new policies make it more costly for Ugandans — especially those living in poverty — to communicate and perform everyday tasks using their mobile devices.

On July 2, civil society and legal advocates in Uganda filed a court challenge against the law, arguing that it violates the country's constitution.

A protester demonstrates his opposition to Uganda's social media tax at a gathering on July 6, 2018.

On July 6, concerned citizens and civil society advocates issued a joint press statement [see below] calling on Ugandans to avoid paying the tax by using alternate methods to exchange money and access social media, and to join a “National Day of Peaceful Protest Against Unfair Taxation” on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.

The Global Voices community and our network of friends and allies wish to support this and other efforts to demand an end to the tax. We believe that this tax is simply a ploy to censor Ugandans and gag dissenting voices.

We believe social media should be freely accessible for all people, including Ugandans. The Ugandan social media tax must go!

On Monday, July 9, beginning at 14:00 East Africa Time, we plan to tweet at community leaders, government and diplomatic actors, and media influencers to increase awareness and draw public attention to the issue. We especially encourage fellow bloggers and social media users all over the world to join us.

#NoToSocialMediaTax: A tweetathon against Uganda's social media tax

Date: Monday, July 9, 2018

Time: 14:00 – 17:00 East Africa time / 11:00 – 14:00 GMT / Check your time zone

Hashtag: #NoToSocialMediaTax

Host: Global Voices Sub Saharan Africa

Tweets you can use:

  • Freedom is free, not taxed. You cannot ban online speech in #Uganda. We say #NotoSocialMediaTax
  • Netizen rights are human rights! #NotoSocialMediaTax in #Uganda
  • Social media is free, keep it free in #Uganda! #NotoSocialMediaTax
  • Don't stifle online free speech. Resist! #NotoSocialMediaTax
  • Dark days in #Uganda… Taxing the untaxable! #NotoSocialMediaTax
  • Ugandan government should provide for the welfare of citizens not tax them to death! #NotoSocialMediaTax
  • #NotoSocialMediaTax in #Uganda. May this never become the norm.



Convened on Friday, 6 July, 2018 at 2.00PM

On Tuesday, 3 July, 2018, we young people and youth leaders from various student guild governments, musicians and artistes, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises and the Parliament of Uganda held a Press Conference at which we expressed our serious reservations and grave concerns about the amendment to the Excise Duty (Amendment) Act which levies a tax on social media access and an extortionist one per cent (1%) charge on Mobile Money transactions.

We implored the Speaker to recall Parliament from recess and asked the Leader of Government Business to table a motion to repeal the amendment by Friday, 6 July, 2018. The deadline elapsed a few hours ago and we are here to announce the way forward:

i) We invite citizens and subscribers to stop transacting via any of the Mobile Money services and as an alternative, rely on physical payment methods so as to avoid paying the unfortunate tax;

ii) We further encourage citizens to use available options to stay online without paying the daily two hundred Uganda shillings (200/-) per day to access social media sites;

iii) We also call upon Members of Parliament to expedite the process of recalling the House but also to conduct consultations in their constituencies regarding this matter;

iiii) Finally, we are declaring Wednesday, 11 July, 2018 as a National Day of Peaceful Protest against Unfair Taxation. In this regard, we invite citizens to deliver petitions to their Members of Parliament and to dress up in red coloured attire as they go about their daily business. We have already notified the Uganda Police Force and a copy of the notification is available.

We will continue engaging our respective constituencies and leaders to protest, reject and continue the boycott until the poorly thought-out taxes are rescinded. As young leaders, we have undertaken research and consultations and are willing to suggest better avenues and models of taxation that are sustainable and beneficial to both the citizen and the state.


Global Voices coverage of social media regulation in Uganda:

by Nwachukwu Egbunike at July 06, 2018 03:50 PM

July 03, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Lebanese journalist sentenced to prison in absentia, for ‘defaming’ foreign minister on Facebook

Fidaa Itani could face four months in prison

Picture of Fidaa Itani taken from his Facebook profile. Photo credit: Wassim Naboulsi

A Lebanese journalist was convicted in absentia of defaming acting Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Gebran Bassil in a Facebook post.

A court in the western Lebanese city of Baabda sentenced Fidaa Itani to four months in prison and a fine of 10 million Lebanese lira (roughly USD $6660) on June 29, 2018.

Fidaa Itani is a journalist who focuses on Syria and the refugee crisis.

The Facebook post in question leveraged a complex critique of political and military actions by various powerful actors in Lebanon. Itani decried raids carried out by the Lebanese army in Arsal last year, which resulted in the death of Syrian citizens in detention. He also criticized the continuous nationalist push for the forced removal of refugees on Lebanese territories.

Itani went on to express concern about the Lebanese political party and militant group Hezbollah. Itani has publicly opposed Hezbollah's military intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime.

Shortly thereafter, lawyers for the army and the presidency filed a lawsuit against Itani. On top of this, he began receiving direct threats from people associated with Hezbollah. In short order, he fled the country and sought exile in the UK.

In an interview with the francophone Lebanese newspaper L'Orient le Jour, Itani explained that the original suit, filed by lawyers claiming to represent the Lebanese president and the army, seems to have vanished and now been replaced by the case brought by Gebran Bassil.

Je ne sais pas comment la première action judiciaire a disparu, ni ce qui a été concocté dans ce cadre entre les services de renseignements de l’armée et le président de la République, ou encore le Hezbollah (également visé par le post, et dont les intimidations contre M. Itani sont derrière son départ pour Londres, NDLR). Il semble toutefois que Gebran Bassil se soit porté volontaire pour intenter une action à leur place.

I don't know how the first legal action disappeared, nor what was cooked with the case between services of the military intelligence and the president of the republic, or even Hezbollah. Although it seems that Gebran Bassil volunteered to institute an action in their stead.

Itani also said that he had not received official confirmation of the sentence, and only heard the news from media reports. He also told Maharat Foundation, a free speech NGO, that acting Minister Bassil has filed a total of nine cases against him, including this one.

Reacting on both Facebook and Twitter, Fidaa Itani was unsurprisingly critical of the judge's decision. Sharing an article citing his prison sentence, he commented: “More repression and more robberies.”

The sentence of Itani was reported, criticized and denounced by some Lebanese and international organizations.

In an email sent to reporters, Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, said:

Sentencing a journalist to four months in prison for a critical Facebook post is an outrageous attack on free speech that lays bare the lack of meaningful protections for freedom of expression in Lebanon. Lebanon’s new parliament should act quickly to abolish laws that criminalize defamation, which are disproportionate, unnecessary, and violate international human rights law.

Indeed, Lebanon's penal code criminalizes defamation and makes special provisions against insulting the president, the flag, and other public officials. The country's military code criminalizes “insulting the flag or army”. These offenses all are punishable with fines and prison time, and offer no special exception for journalistic work.

According to Freedom House 2016 Report on Lebanon:

Lebanese journalists complain that media laws are chaotic, contradictory, and ambiguously worded. Provisions concerning the media, which justify the prosecution of journalists, can be found in the penal code, the Publications Law, the 1994 Audiovisual Media Law, and the military justice code.

Rising pressure on free expression in Lebanon

In Lebanon's legal landscape, court cases against journalists are not a new phenomenon, but such incidents have multiplied in recent months, with a smattering of charges against journalists, TV show hosts, and commentators.

On January 24, 2018, TV comedy show host Hisham Haddad was prosecuted for making jokes at the expense of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

In March 2018, the owner of the website Lebanon Debate was sentenced to six months in prison and was ordered to pay 10 million Lebanese Lira, after being found guilty of libel in a case brought by the Director General of Customs.

In November 2017, prominent Lebanese TV host Marcel Ghanem was prosecuted for obstruction of justice after he resisted charges brought against two of his guests, both Saudi journalists, who denounced Lebanese President Aoun and Minister Bassil of being “Hezbollah's partner in terrorism.” The case against Ghanem was dropped.

In another article written by L'Orient Le Jour, Marcel Ghanem was reported saying that the arrests of journalists and their convictions was the result of “muzzling practiced by the ruling powers under the cover of the struggle against terrorism or Israel”.

But public prosecutors are not the only legal entities bringing charges of defamation and libel against media workers. On January 10, 2018, the Lebanon's notoriously harsh military court sentenced in absentia Lebanese journalist and researcher Hanin Ghaddar for defaming the Lebanese army at a conference held in the USA in 2014. Her sentence was later overturned.

Ten days later, military intelligence summoned human rights defender Ovada Yousef over Facebook posts. Yousef told Human Rights Watch that he was detained by the military and police for four days.

Maharat Foundation, a media and free speech NGO, has called for Lebanese judicial authorities to take into account the right of criticism against public persons:

 تطالب “مهارات” المجلس النيابي الجديد بالتسريع لإقرار الاصلاحات التي تقدمت به مهارات مع النائب غسان مخيبر وأبرزها الغاء عقوبة الحبس ومنع التوقيف الاحتياطي عن كل من يعبر عن رأيه بأي وسيلة ضمنها الانترنت وتوسيع مفهوم نقد الشخص العام.

Maharat also calls on the new parliament to speed up the reforms it has introduced with the MP Ghassan Mukhaiber, notably the abolition of the prison sentence and the preventive detention of anyone expressing his opinion by any means, including the Internet, and broadening the concept of public criticism.

Time will tell if their initiative amounts to real change in the country's free speech environment.

by Hassan Chamoun at July 03, 2018 07:36 PM

June 28, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: As Erdogan’s reign continues, journalists remain under attack — are translators next in line?

Demonstrators bound for Taksim Square in June 2013. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

As Turkish voters went to the polls on June 24 to cast their ballots — and ultimately re-elect incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a fourth term in office — internet users braced themselves for darkness.

Since the social movements that emerged in Istanbul in 2013, social media sites like Twitter and YouTube have been knocked off the internet periodically. Wikipedia has been blocked altogether since April 2017.

Shortly before the election, the Ministry of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications asserted the power to block “abnormal” content on social media during elections. This led to anticipation of more blocked websites, but also demonstrates a higher level of transparency than in the past. This may be in part a response to pressure from open internet advocates and researchers both in and outside the country.

Technical researchers affiliated with NetBlocks are still gathering results from technical testing during the election. NetBlocks confirmed to Global Voices that there were various power cuts that day, and that Erdogan’s party, the AKP, pressured Vodafone not to supply temporary cell towers for opposition rallies.

Turkey has been in a continuous state of “national emergency” since the July 2016 attempted military coup. Though this is now set to expire in July, local experts suspect that  the government’s efforts to control information about matters of public interest will continue.

Journalists and human rights defenders have paid a heavy price for their work to hold power to account in the country, facing harassment, arrest and prosecution,  alongside people who have simply criticized Erdogan on social media.

The Istanbul office of news website was raided amid a new investigation launched against its editor, Ali Ergin Demirhan, who was detained last year on allegations that he had was tried to delegitimize the results of the referendum. Censorship researchers have found that has been blocked at least 61 times in Turkey, since its inception.

Alongside the popular targets of journalists and human rights defenders, another less common class of online actor has come onto the radar of Turkish authorities: translators.

A growing number of active social media users are rising to prominence in various parts of the world by translating news and social media reports for interested audiences. This is also a potent strategy for increasing attention around important live events, such as protests or trials.

On June 21, Turkish social media user and translator Sebla Küçük was indicted and charged with disseminating “terrorist propaganda” on Twitter. The offending tweets contained only translations of news bites from English-language media sources on Turkey’s Afrin offensive in northern Syria earlier in 2018.

Küçük told Diken news website that she suspects the real motivation of the prosecutor is her translations of the trial of former Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla.

“Obviously [the prosecutor] was troubled by my translations concerning the Hakan Atilla trial, but since they couldn’t find anything about them, they filed a case with baseless evidence,” she said.

New EU Copyright Directive could kill the internet

The European Union has come one step closer to passing the Copyright Directive, a region-wide policy initiative that could upend the free flow of information online in Europe and the world.

On June 20, the EU Legal Affairs Committee voted in favor of the directive, which requires major web platforms like Facebook to buy licenses from media companies before linking to their stories and seeks to implement an “upload filter” that would assess all content for copyright infringement before it could be uploaded to the internet. The sky-high technical barriers of such a system have not yet deterred EU leaders. Alongside the Wikimedia Foundation (which administers Wikipedia), dozens of technologists, internet policy experts, and advocates have spoken out against the policy.

Ethiopia unblocks 264 websites!

A total of 264 websites, some of which were censored in Ethiopia for more than ten years, were unblocked this week at the behest of the country’s new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. Among those unblocked were multiple news sites that run critical coverage of the government and political parties, which had not only been censored, but triggered the arrests of dozens of media workers under the previous government.

Ethiopia’s new government is gradually asserting its power after the transition from former PM Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned in February 2018 amid widespread public protests, rising levels of violence and a fracturing of the ruling coalition.

Egyptian news site censored after only nine hours online

Despite the barriers and threats to doing journalism in Egypt, some people are still trying it. Just nine hours after the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information launched a news portal featuring stories about human rights protections and violations in Egypt, the site was blocked on all ISPs.

Chinese authorities are not amused by John Oliver

Chinese authorities have added the name of British American comedian John Oliver, and the name of his news comedy show, Last Week Tonight, to a list of sensitive terms that trigger automatic deletion of posts on Chinese social media platforms Weibo and WeChat. The move came shortly after Oliver in a recent episode offered a biting (and comical) critique of Chinese government crackdowns on political and religious expression.

Facebook users in Cambodia face legal threats over posts

In the run-up to the July 29 elections, three Facebook users in Cambodia have been brought to court on accusations of violating the country’s newly passed lèse majesté law, which criminalizes the act of insulting the monarchy.

Indonesian authorities can now intercept ‘any conversation’ that could be linked to terrorist acts

Indonesia’s new anti-terror law allows authorities to “…intercept any conversation by telephone or other means of communication suspected of being used to prepare, plan, and commit a Criminal Act of Terrorism.” Many fear the law could be used as justification for surveilling human rights defenders or journalists. Human Rights Watch raised the alarm about the provision in a recent analysis.

Also in Indonesia, spiritual book author Alnoldy Bahari was found guilty of spreading hate speech on Facebook, a violation of the 2008 Electronic Information and Transaction Law. A district court in West Java sentenced Bahari to five years in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of 100 million rupiahs (USD $7,155) fine. Amnesty International and SAFEnet have condemned the decision as a violation of due process rights.

Is Trump's fundraising friend selling surveillance tech to Turkey?

Reports from The New York Times and more recently by The Intercept indicate that a defense company called Circinus run by Donald Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy is building web tracking and surveillance software. Although their authenticity has not been confirmed, documents leaked to The Intercept appear to be intended to sell the company’s technical services to the governments of Turkey, Romania, the United Arab Emirates and Cyprus.

The Circinus website also boasts domestic surveillance services for police and prison administrators. According to the company’s website, these services “[allow] for the collection, aggregation, and analysis of all inmate communication (Skype, instant messaging, email, social media) as well as the ability to monitor activity and data extraction.”

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by Netizen Report Team at June 28, 2018 07:01 PM

With Elections Approaching, Pakistani Journalists and Activists Face Rising Risk of Assault, Abduction

A photo of ransacked house. Image via twitter account of Raza Rumi (Editor Daily Times)

With national elections less than one month away, Pakistani journalists and activists are seeing a rise in attacks and intimidation of themselves and their loved ones.

This election will mark the second time a democratic transition of power will occur in the country's history. The first peaceful transition was in 2013, when Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) handed the reins of government over to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). Prior to 2008, no democratic government had completed its five years in office.

Against this backdrop, attacks on journalists and activists demonstrate the will of powerful forces — of which there are various in Pakistan — to keep power in the hands of certain actors, and to prevent independent voices from holding power to account.

Marvi Sirmed

On June 21 in Islamabad, Daily Times correspondent and human rights defender Marvi Sirmed found her home had been ransacked after she and her family returned from a visit to Lahore. Two laptops, one smartphone, passports of family members and some other travel documents were taken.

Daily Times Editor Raza Rumi Tweeted:

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed serious concern the raid on Sirmed's home. In a statement issued on June 23, the Commission has said:

Our council member Marvi Sirmed’s long-standing record as a human rights defender speaks for itself in an environment that is increasingly hostile to criticism, much less dissent. That the family’s travel documents were stolen along with their laptops and smartphone, and their home so deliberately ransacked, are not the marks of commonplace burglary

Ahmad Goraya

Activists and journalists in Pakistan are also seeing a rise in threats against their family members. Pakistani blogger Ahmad Goraya, who resides in the Netherlands and is known on Facebook for his satirical critiques of Pakistan's military, claimed on Twitter that men from Pakistan intelligence agency ISI visited his elderly parents on June 20. According to Goraya, they told them they had “loud and clear orders” to abduct and torture his father and attack his family, all to teach Goraya a lesson.

This is not the first of Goraya's encounters with such forces. In January 2017, Goraya went missing for nearly three weeks. After he was released, he told the BBC that he believed the people who kidnapped and tortured him were linked with a government institution.

HRCP condemned this threat tactic as well:

The Commission made a public statement following the incident:

The Commission has also expressed its alarm at the growing frequency with which human rights defenders are being targeted. HRCP calls for a public and transparent investigation of the incident to make it clear that such callous attempts to intimidate human rights defenders or their families are unacceptable and unconstitutional. This ugly state of affairs simply cannot be allowed to continue.

Gul Bukhari

Earlier this month, journalist and activist Gul Bukhari was abducted in Lahore. She was on her way to Waqt TV Studio for a talk show when she was intercepted by unknown persons.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent organization working to promote press freedom worldwide, expressed alarm over Bukhari's disappearance and called on the police to ensure her prompt and safe return:

After a brief disappearance Bukhari was back home and spoke out via Twitter expressing her appreciation for all those who joined hands for her well being including friends, family, colleagues as well as supporters in civil society and journalism.

Concerns about freedom of expression and press censorship are also growing in the run-up to the election. In recent months, the Jang Group’s Geo TV has been pushed off the airwaves across most of the country. A number of newspaper editors have been forced to drop dissenting columns from newspapers. Some journalists, including Asad Kharal, have been assaulted publicly for being critical in their writings.

In Pakistan, many such incidents have political motives and the attacks on journalists often go unsolved. In the current climate, with the dominance of the military, a lack of electoral reforms, low levels of literacy, and the marginalization of left-wing movements, Pakistan’s obstinate adherence to democracy is a testament to the country’s resilience and belief in the power of elections.

by Anas Saleem at June 28, 2018 01:36 PM

June 25, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Freedom segregated: China to set up open internet zone on tourist island

Haikou, capital of Hainan province. Public domain photo via Wikipedia.

Netizens in mainland China are expressing outrage over a proposal of the Hainan government that would enable access to overseas social media platforms that are otherwise censored in China.

The policy was met with firm criticism when it was released on June 21, on the provincial government website. Some described it as being “unfair” to other provinces, charging that it gives special privileges to the Hainan, an island province in the South China Sea that is popular among foreign tourists. Others called the policy a form of “information apartheid.”

A day later, the document was withdrawn from the site and all online criticisms were removed.

On the list of 25 measures included in the provincial government's “Three year action plan to boost international tourism in Hainan” is a plan to create special zones where visitors (foreign tourists and business people) would have open access to popular foreign social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The document stresses that the action plan was in alignment with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to transform the touristic island into a free-trade port by 2020.

China has strict control over its domestic internet and does not allow its citizens to access the majority of websites hosted outside the country.

The Hainan government’s plan to grant tourists access to popular social media sites seems like a step toward openness for outsiders. But many mainland Chinese netizens have responded with concern  over what appears to be a double standard.

Tellingly, most of the critical comments about the action plan have been deleted from social media platforms. Below are some collected by Radio France Internationale:


This plan is the most shameless kind of reverse discrimination. Piece of trash!


Resist the discriminatory measure.


If visiting Twitter, Facebook is appropriate and harmless, why [are they] only granting foreigners access but not Chinese?


Back to the semi-feudal and semi-colonial stage.

Though the Hainan government has taken down the document, the policy is likely to remain as is, given that Haninan has been designated as a special economic region by the country's top leader.

In April 2018, President Xi declared that the central authority of the Chinese Communist Party had decided to support the Hainan plan to set up a free trade harbour and would create space to experiment with economic development.

Twitter user @yjpc1989 said he had anticipated this development a year prior:

Last year, I told my friend that Hainan would become a country within a country. Now it has come true.

“Hainan province has plans to construct an internet oasis for tourists and let them use the internet in a normal way.”

Baozi [“the Bun,” a nickname for President Xi] is no fool. The measure is intended to strengthen inland control — to create a Cultural Revolution on the continent while turning Hainan into Hong Kong.

Why do you think Mao [Zedong] did not take Hong Kong back? Because they needed a window [steam valve]? Otherwise Jiang Qing could not have produced so many movies. The Hong Kong-ization of Hainan will create an adventure land where the privileged can connect with western culture.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China with a high degree of autonomy. Chung Kin Wah, a professor in Hong Kong, agreed that such “special freedoms” are a theme in Chinese history. He wrote on citizen news outlet

三十多年前。當年,有一些特許店,只容許外國人或訪客進入,必須以外幣或「外匯券」付帳。當時還沒有互聯網可以上,但資訊流通也不是同樣受限制,同樣是內外有別?當年,只能在對外開放的大型酒店賓館,例如廣州的白天鵝及東方賓館,或北京的北京飯店,才可以買到 Newsweek, Time 及Economists。如果在海南這個特中之特的特區,只許外國人可以自由正常上網,又有什麼值得大驚小怪之處?必須一分為二,所謂「正常」,只對某些人是,對其他人便是「不正常」。所謂「自由」,也只是有選擇的,還得看永遠正確的共產黨如何為國民的自由下定義設界線。

About 30 years ago [in mainland China], there were some special shops set up for foreigners or visitors. They had to pay with “foreign exchange coupons.” At that time, there was no internet, yet the control over the flow of information was the same. At that time, people could only buy Newsweek, Time and the Economist in big hotels or guest houses like the White Swan or Dongfang Guesthouse in Guangzhou or the Beijing Guesthouse in Beijing.

So the plan to allow foreigners to go online freely in Hainan, a distinctive special region, is not such a big deal. Things have to be segregated. For some people, [open internet access] is normal, for others, it is abnormal. This so-called “freedom” is a line drawn by the forever-correct Chinese Communist Party for its people.

Hong Kong and Macau are thus far the only two cities which enjoy open internet access. The freedom of the two ex-colonial cities was written into their mini-constitutions under the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” when their sovereignty were transferred back to China in 1997 and 1999 respectively.

by Oiwan Lam at June 25, 2018 05:25 PM

Vietnam’s new Cybersecurity Law could further undermine free speech and disrupt businesses

An Internet Cafe in Vietnam. Flickr photo by toyohara (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A new cybersecurity law in Vietnam may usher in a new era of increased online censorship, privacy-invasive data processing methods, and deprivation of internet connections for organizations and individuals who publish “prohibited” content.

Critics say the law could worsen attacks on freedom of expression and negatively affect the business prospects of technology companies.

Drafted by the country’s Ministry of Public Security, the law was passed by the National Assembly on June 12, 2018 despite the rare public opposition expressed by some lawyers and netizens. The legislation goes into effect on January 1, 2019.

The law also places significant regulatory requirements on foreign technology companies. Similar to China’s Cybersecurity Law passed in 2017, Vietnam’s new law requires Internet companies to store data locally and establish headquarters or representative offices in Vietnam.

Article 26 of the law obliges foreign tech companies to:

“establish mechanisms to verify information when users register their digital accounts”;

“provide user information to the specialized task force for cyber security protection under the Ministry of Public Security upon receiving written requests”;

“erase information, prevent the sharing of information that has content” prohibited by the Vietnamese government “within 24 hours of receiving a request” from the Ministry of Information and Communications or Ministry of Public Security; and

“not provide or stop providing services on telecommunication networks, Internet, and value-added services for organizations and individuals that publish on cyberspace” content prohibited by the Vietnamese government.

Human Rights Watch identified some of the broad provisions that could be used by authorities to arrest and detain activists and critics of the state:

Prohibiting “the use of cyberspace” to “prepare, post, and spread information” that “has the content of propaganda opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” or “offends the nation, the national flag, the national emblem, the national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people, and national heroes” (Articles 8 and 15);

Prohibiting the use of cyberspace “to organize, carry out, collude, urge, buy off, dupe, entice, train, or coach people to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” or “to distort history, deny revolutionary achievements, [or] undermine national solidarity” (Article 8);

Prohibiting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, including “psychological warfare,” “defamatory propaganda against the people’s administration,” “false information intended to seriously harm human dignity or honor or cause damage” – but no requirement that the person putting forward the information has to know it is false;

“…information that propagandizes, urges, campaigns, incites, threatens, causes division, [or] entices people to gather and cause disruption” (Articles 8 and 15).

Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam, explained why the law is necessary for the country:

There are people who take advantage of the Internet to instigate protests and disruptive behavior aimed at overthrowing the government. We need this law to protect this regime.

The government also argued that the law will create tech jobs and enhance the digital economy. But Asia Internet Coalition has a different view:

…these provisions will result in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses and SMEs to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam.

Authorities said foreign companies including Google and Facebook say they intend to comply with the new law. Amnesty International responded, reminding the companies of their commitments to human rights:

Your company has a responsibility to respect the right to privacy and freedom of expression. This responsibility exists over and above domestic legal requirements.

Amnesty International calls on your company to challenge the draft law and make known to the Vietnamese government your company’s principled opposition to implementing any requests or directives which violate fundamental human rights.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Asia also expressed concern about the law:

Public protests against the law

On June 10, tens of thousands of Vietnamese rallied across the country to protest the two bills — the cybersecurity bill (which was then still in draft) and a law on Special Economic Zones (SEZ), a proposed regulatory scheme that would loosen market, investment and communications restrictions in areas of the country where foreign businesses are located, in an effort to boost the economy.

Demonstrators were focused primarily on SEZs, which many believe will allow China to exploit the country’s resources.

But activists also mobilized support for the campaign against the passage of the proposed Cybersecurity bill.

Activists estimated that more than one hundred people were arrested at the protests, among them a US citizen, William Nguyen.

On June 11, 74 lawyers submitted a petition to the parliament criticizing the loopholes in the cybersecurity bill which they said violate the human rights provisions enshrined in the country’s Constitution. They attached an online petition signed by more than 40,000 citizens calling on the Parliament to reject the bill.

Despite this rare public display of dissent, the National Assembly deliberated on the Cybersecurity bill on June 12 and passed it with 423 votes of approval and 15 objections while 28 had no opinion on the measure.

Legislator Nguyen Lan Hieu wanted authorities to specify the agency responsible for deciding whether a piece of online content is deemed illegal and suggested that this should be left in the hands of the courts.

Vietnam Right Now noted that the emergence of legislative opposition to the bill proves that the measure is divisive and controversial:

The sign of some dissent in the National Assembly is an indication of how controversial the new law is seen.

Even such limited opposition is extremely rare in a body normally seen as a rubber stamp legislature that is selected, directed and manipulated by the Communist party and its affiliate organisations.

ASEAN Today published an editorial underscoring the real intent of the Vietnamese government:

Despite the government’s claims, control is at the heart of the new legislation.

With Vietnamese offices, the government could pressure companies to administer stricter censorship. They could also pressure them into revealing individual dissident identities.

Data localisation will erode user anonymity and pose a threat to government critics.

Before the passage of the Cybersecurity Law, Vietnam is notorious for using vague laws to persecute individuals accused of conducting “anti-state propaganda”. The new law, once it takes effect next year, could legitimize an intensified crackdown on groups and individuals who have been using the Internet to promote religious freedom, environment protection, democratic reforms, civil liberties, and peaceful activism.

by Mong Palatino at June 25, 2018 02:19 PM

June 22, 2018

Ethan Zuckerman
Media and provenance

On Wednesday, June 20th, Matt Smith and Aura Bogado broke a harrowing story about the Shiloh Treatment Center, south of Houston, TX, one of the contractors the Trump administration is using to house migrant children who were separated from their parents. Their report for Reveal, a Center for Investigative Reporting publication, and The Texas Tribune is based on an analysis of federal court filings, which allege that children held at Shiloh have been forcibly subdued with powerful psychiatric drugs. Released at a moment when media attention has been focused on separation of children from their families at the US/Mexico border, the story was widely shared online – as of this morning, Reveal’s tweet about the story had been retweeted 22,000 times.

The story gained attention for reasons other than its harrowing revelations. When Reveal tried to “boost” their post on Facebook, the platform alerted them that they were “Not Authorized for Ads with Political Content”. This is a new safety feature implemented by Facebook in the wake of scrutiny towards the company’s role in the 2016, permitting over 3000 ads to be illegally posted by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency, with the goal of sowing discontent in the US. Facebook is in a tough bind – they need to vet purchasers of political ads far more carefully than they have been, but thus far, their algorithmic review process is flagging some stories as ads, and allowing some ads to pass through unscreened. And Facebook Ads VP, Rob Goldman, didn’t help clarify matters by telling Reveal “…this ad, not the story, was flagged because it contains political content.”

Last night, one of the authors of the Reveal story, Aura Bogado, pointed to another problem she and Matt Smith are experiencing:

One of the long-standing patterns of the news industry is the tendency to copy reporting someone has already done. In the days when most people subscribed to a single newspaper, this copying served a helpful civic function – it helped spread news to multiple audiences, helping citizens have a common basis of news to inform democratic participation. A very clear journalistic ethic emerged around this practice: you prominently credit the publication that broke the story. You’ll see even fierce competitors, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, do this with their biggest scoops.

The internet has changed these dynamics. On the one hand, there’s no longer any civic need to copy stories – you could simply link to them instead. But there’s also a powerful financial incentive to make any story your own – the ad clicks. This story, written by Andrew Hay and bylined “Reuters staff”, shows how easily original reporters and outlets can disappear – it contains original reporting, in that it has a novel quote from Carlos Holguin, a lawyer for the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, who’s cited in the Reveal piece… but it doesn’t mention Smith and Bogado, the Texas Tribune or Reveal. (Reuters is not the only outlet that’s scrubbed provenance from this story. But they are a publicly traded company with 45,000 employees, $11 billion in annual revenue, and have been in the news industry since 1851. They should know better.)

This is not only a shitty thing to do, it’s a profitable thing to do. Reuters gets the ad views from the story they largely rewrote, while the two non-profits responsible for the original reporting get nothing, not even credit.

I’ve been thinking about this problem for some time, because the origins of important news stories is one of the main uses for Media Cloud, the system we’ve been developing for almost a decade at Center for Civic Media and the Berkman Klein Center. One of our first publications, “The Battle for Trayvon Martin: Mapping a Media Controversy online and offline” is at its heart a provenance paper, trying to understand who first reported on Trayvon’s death as a way of understanding how the story turned into a national conversation on race and violence. (TL;DR: Trayvon’s family worked with civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump to pitch the story to Reuters and CBS: This Morning. It was well over a week before the internet began amplifying the story with petitions and protests.) Rob Faris and Yochai Benkler’s massive Media Cloud analysis of the 2016 US Presidential elections focuses on provenance, tracing influential stories in mainstream media publications to their origins in the fringes of the right-wing blogosphere that surround Breitbart, Gateway Pundit and others.

Media Cloud works by ingesting (usually via RSS, sometimes via scraping) all the stories from tens of thousands of media publications, multiple times a day. We can often trace the provenance of a story by identifying an appropriate search string – “Shiloh” AND (migrant* OR drug*) might work in this case – and looking to see what stories hit our database first. Often a story breaks in several places simultaneously – that’s often an indicator that it was written in reaction to a statement made by a public official or a corporate leader, not the result of long investigative reporting. This process is imperfect and requires the input of knowledgeable humans to create search strings. What if we could automate it?

We’re working on this problem, looking to create automatic signatures that identify clusters of related stories. Duncan Watts is working on it at MSR as well, generating “fingerprints” for these clusters that rely in part on named entities. And obviously Google has a clustering system working that they use to organize related stories in Google News. With automated signatures and clustering, combined with a deep database of stories collected many times a day, we might be able to identify the initial stream that leads to a later media cascade.

Attention in US mainstream media to “Larry Nassar” from January 2017 to present, via

What then? Well, that would depend on what media platforms did with this data. Consider a major, ongoing story like Dr. Larry Nassar’s abuse of US gymnasts. That horrific story was uncovered by the Indy Star, who began a massive investigative series on sexual abuse within US gymnastics in August 2017, months before Nassar’s name became a household word. When platforms that aggregate, distribute and monetize news – Apple, Google, Facebook – share revenues with publishers, maybe they should check against a provenance service to find out whether they’re rewarding someone who did original journalism, or someone who’s simply chasing clicks. Perhaps one or more platform would end up sharing revenues between the publisher that captured the clicks and the one that initially sponsored the investigation.

Could this ever really happen? Yes, but it would require not only the technology to work, but for there to be pressure from readers for ethically sourced journalism. It took a great deal of work for consumers to demand that their coffee be sustainably grown and that Apple look into whether suppliers are using child labor. What Bogado and her colleagues are asking for is good for anyone who cares about the long-term future of journalism. We need more resources to investigate stories like the abuse of children at the hands of the US government. We don’t need hundreds of news outlets rushing to cover the same stories. Establishing – and rewarding – provenance of stories that start with investigative journalism could help shift the playing field for original reporting.

by Ethan at June 22, 2018 07:21 PM

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: Who will be next? Venezuela’s political crisis sees a new wave of censorship, media repression

A student demonstrator speaks to National Guard members in Venezuela, during protests in 2014. Photo by Jamez42 via Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Online censorship and repression of social media users are reaching new heights in Venezuela, where citizens continue to protest dire economic and public health conditions wrought by the country’s ongoing political crisis.

It has become extraordinarily difficult for journalists to report the news, as they face regular accusations of “disturbing public order” or “threatening the revolution”. Social media users who actively engage with a broad public on various civic issues are also being targeted.

In mid-May, popular Twitter user Pedro Jaimes, who offered climate, meteorological and air traffic reports to nearly 80,000 followers, went missing. Shortly before his disappearance, Jaimes had tweeted about the pathway of an airplane carrying Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, information that is available to the public through online news outlet Efecto Cocuyo.

On June 15, more than a month after he went missing, Jaimes called family members to inform them that he had been detained inside El Helicoide, the military facility turned prison belonging to the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN).

Meanwhile, accessing basic information and communication platforms online is becoming ever-more difficult. With electrical grids faltering for lack of maintenance and periodically deactivated in an effort to ration energy, internet access is never a guarantee. Yet web-based news and communication systems are increasingly the only way that Venezuelans can exchange and obtain information independent of the state.

In early June, the websites of two major news outlets, La Patilla and El Nacional, were blocked, along with access points for the Tor Network, which enables internet users to circumvent online censorship. Major pornography websites have been blocked as well, in what may be an attempt to test the country’s online censorship capacity. In some countries, these types of measures have been a precursor to efforts to increase online censorship.

Palestinian journalists targeted with assault, mobile phone seizure

Journalists covering a labor rights protest in Gaza on June 19 reported to MADA (the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedom) that they were assaulted and had their mobile phones and cameras either confiscated or destroyed by uniformed people associated with the Hamas movement, which rules the Gaza Strip.

At a June 15 protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah, journalists reported that Palestinian Authority security forces used similar tactics in an effort to stop them from filming and reporting on the protest.

Nigerian student suspended for lamenting school’s poor infrastructure

Kunle Adebajo, a law student at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan, was suspended for two semesters for writing an article that was deemed critical of the university administration. On April 20, Kunle Adebajo wrote an opinion article, “UI: The irony of fashionable rooftops and awful interiors”, which described the deplorable state of infrastructure in student residences in his university. University administrators then summoned Adebajo to a disciplinary panel, which described Adebayo's article as “rude, defamatory and insubordinate” and issued his suspension.

In an article for Sahara Reporters, Fisayo Soyombo, an award-winning investigative journalist and an alumnus of University of Ibadan, described the disciplinary action against Adebajo as “a clear uppercut on press freedom.”

Cuban authorities revoke press credentials from renowned blogger

Veteran blogger and former BBC correspondent Fernando Ravsberg, an Uruguayan journalist who has made his home in Cuba since the late 1990s, was denied press credentials by Cuban media regulators for the first time. Ravsberg had long used earnings from his work as an accredited foreign journalist to support his popular blog “Cartas desde Cuba” (Letters from Cuba), where he writes critical commentary about public life and politics in Cuba, and where a single post regularly garners hundreds of comments from readers. Ravsberg reflected on the move in his own words:

Over these past 10 years, they have tried to tame me with kind words of advice, hidden threats, with breaking my teeth, demanding that I be expelled from the country, and ‘warnings’ directed at my children. None of this has worked until now, but removing my foreign media credentials has allowed them to give Cartas a coup de grace.

In Nicaragua, pro-government forces seem to be changing peoples’ WiFi network names

With anti-government protests still raging in Nicaragua, hundreds of people reported in mid-June that their SSID (their Wi-Fi network names) had spontaneously changed in the middle of the night. All of those reporting the change were subscribers to Claro, a subsidiary of the Mexican telecommunications giant América Móvil.

WiFi networks were renamed “QuitenLosTranques,” which means “StopTheBarricades” — a reference to a common local protest tactic of blocking roadways. This message has been used consistently, and as a social media hashtag, by government actors and supporters online. Barricades have been popping around the country in an effort to pressure President Daniel Ortega to leave power and protect communities from state violence.

Program in India offers free phones to poor — but won’t ensure privacy

A mobile phone access initiative is offering free mobile phones to female heads of household living below the poverty line in the northeast Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Although the phones come free of any monetary charge, people who join the program must provide their national ID numbers — associated with India’s controversial Aadhaar national ID scheme — and sign a document giving the government “consent to use those Aadhaar numbers.” An investigation by independent news site showed that participants have not been told how the government might use their Aadhaar numbers.

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by Netizen Report Team at June 22, 2018 03:25 PM

June 21, 2018

danah boyd
The Messy Fourth Estate

(This post was originally posted on Medium.)

For the second time in a week, my phone buzzed with a New York Times alert, notifying me that another celebrity had died by suicide. My heart sank. I tuned into the Crisis Text Line Slack channel to see how many people were waiting for a counselor’s help. Volunteer crisis counselors were pouring in, but the queue kept growing.

Celebrity suicides trigger people who are already on edge to wonder whether or not they too should seek death. Since the Werther effect study, in 1974, countless studies have conclusively and repeatedly shown that how the news media reports on suicide matters. The World Health Organization has adetailed set of recommendations for journalists and news media organizations on how to responsibly report on suicide so as to not trigger copycats. Yet in the past few years, few news organizations have bothered to abide by them, even as recent data shows that the reporting on Robin Williams’ death triggered an additional 10 percent increase in suicide and a 32 percent increase in people copying his method of death. The recommendations aren’t hard to follow — they focus on how to convey important information without adding to the problem.

Crisis counselors at the Crisis Text Line are on the front lines. As a board member, I’m in awe of their commitment and their willingness to help those who desperately need support and can’t find it anywhere else. But it pains me to watch as elite media amplifiers make counselors’ lives more difficult under the guise of reporting the news or entertaining the public.

Through data, we can see the pain triggered by 13 Reasons Why and the New York Times. We see how salacious reporting on method prompts people to consider that pathway of self-injury. Our volunteer counselors are desperately trying to keep people alive and get them help, while for-profit companies reap in dollars and clicks. If we’re lucky, the outlets triggering unstable people write off their guilt by providing a link to our services, with no consideration of how much pain they’ve caused or the costs we must endure.

I want to believe in journalism. But my faith is waning.

I want to believe in journalism. I want to believe in the idealized mandate of the fourth estateI want to trust that editors and journalists are doing their best to responsibly inform the public and help create a more perfect union.But my faith is waning.

Many Americans — especially conservative Americans — do not trust contemporary news organizations. This “crisis” is well-trod territory, but the focus on fact-checking, media literacy, and business models tends to obscure three features of the contemporary information landscape that I think are poorly understood:

  1. Differences in worldview are being weaponized to polarize society.
  2. We cannot trust organizations, institutions, or professions when they’re abstracted away from us.
  3. Economic structures built on value extraction cannot enable healthy information ecosystems.

Let me begin by apologizing for the heady article, but the issues that we’re grappling with are too heady for a hot take. Please read this to challenge me, debate me, offer data to show that I’m wrong. I think we’ve got an ugly fight in front of us, and I think we need to get more sophisticated about our thinking, especially in a world where foreign policy is being boiled down to 140 characters.

1. Your Worldview Is Being Weaponized

I was a teenager when I showed up at a church wearing jeans and a T-shirt to see my friend perform in her choir. The pastor told me that I was not welcomebecause this was a house of God, and we must dress in a manner that honors Him. Not good at following rules, I responded flatly, “God made me naked. Should I strip now?” Needless to say, I did not get to see my friend sing.

Faith is an anchor for many people in the United States, but the norms that surround religious institutions are man-made, designed to help people make sense of the world in which we operate. Many religions encourage interrogation and questioning, but only within a well-established framework.Children learn those boundaries, just as they learn what is acceptable insecular society. They learn that talking about race is taboo and that questioning the existence of God may leave them ostracized.

Like many teenagers before and after me, I was obsessed with taboos and forbidden knowledge. I sought out the music Tipper Gore hated, read the books my school banned, and tried to get answers to any question that made adults gasp. Anonymously, I spent late nights engaged in conversations on Usenet, determined to push boundaries and make sense of adult hypocrisy.

Following a template learned in Model UN, I took on strong positions in order to debate and learn. Having already lost faith in the religious leaders in my community, I saw no reason to respect the dogma of any institution. And because I made a hobby out of proving teachers wrong, I had little patience for the so-called experts in my hometown. I was intellectually ravenous, but utterly impatient with, if not outright cruel to the adults around me. I rebelled against hierarchy and was determined to carve my own path at any cost.

have an amazing amount of empathy for those who do not trust the institutions that elders have told them they must respect. Rage against the machine. We don’t need no education, no thought control. I’m also fully aware that you don’t garner trust in institutions through coercion or rational discussion. Instead, trust often emerges from extreme situations.

Many people have a moment where they wake up and feel like the world doesn’t really work like they once thought or like they were once told. That moment of cognitive reckoning is overwhelming. It can be triggered by any number of things — a breakup, a death, depression, a humiliating experience.Everything comes undone, and you feel like you’re in the middle of a tornado, unable to find the ground. This is the basis of countless literary classics, the crux of humanity. But it’s also a pivotal feature in how a society comes together to function.

Everyone needs solid ground, so that when your world has just been destabilized, what comes next matters. Who is the friend that picks you up and helps you put together the pieces? What institution — or its representatives — steps in to help you organize your thinking? What information do you grab onto in order to make sense of your experiences?

Contemporary propaganda isn’t about convincing someone to believe something, but convincing them to doubt what they think they know.

Countless organizations and movements exist to pick you up during your personal tornado and provide structure and a framework. Take a look at how Alcoholics Anonymous works. Other institutions and social bodies know how to trigger that instability and then help you find groundCheck out the dynamics underpinning military basic training. Organizations, movements, and institutions that can manipulate psychological tendencies toward a sociological end have significant power. Religious organizations, social movements, and educational institutions all play this role, whether or not they want to understand themselves as doing so.

Because there is power in defining a framework for people, there is good reason to be wary of any body that pulls people in when they are most vulnerable. Of course, that power is not inherently malevolentThere is fundamental goodness in providing structures to help those who are hurting make sense of the world around them. Where there be dragons is when these processes are weaponized, when these processes are designed to produce societal hatred alongside personal stability. After all, one of the fastest ways to bond people and help them find purpose is to offer up an enemy.

And here’s where we’re in a sticky spot right now. Many large institutions — government, the church, educational institutions, news organizations — are brazenly asserting their moral authority without grappling with their own shit.They’re ignoring those among them who are using hate as a tool, and they’re ignoring their own best practices and ethics, all to help feed a bottom line. Each of these institutions justifies itself by blaming someone or something to explain why they’re not actually that powerful, why they’re actually the victim. And so they’re all poised to be weaponized in a cultural war rooted in how we stabilize American insecurity.And if we’re completely honest with ourselves, what we’re really up against is how we collectively come to terms with a dying empire. But that’s a longer tangent.

Any teacher knows that it only takes a few students to completely disrupt a classroom. Forest fires spark easily under certain conditions, and the ripple effects are huge. As a child, when I raged against everyone and everything, it was my mother who held me into the night. When I was a teenager chatting my nights away on Usenet, the two people who most memorably picked me up and helped me find stable ground were a deployed soldier and a transgender woman, both of whom held me as I asked insane questions. They absorbed the impact and showed me a different way of thinking. They taught me the power of strangers counseling someone in crisis. As a college freshman, when I was spinning out of control, a computer science professor kept me solid and taught me how profoundly important a true mentor could be. Everyone needs someone to hold them when their world spins, whether that person be a friend, family, mentor, or stranger.

Fifteen years ago, when parents and the news media were panicking about online bullying, I saw a different risk. I saw countless kids crying out online in pain only to be ignored by those who preferred to prevent teachers from engaging with students online or to create laws punishing online bullies. We saw the suicides triggered as youth tried to make “It Gets Better” videos to find community, only to be further harassed at school. We saw teens studying the acts of Columbine shooters, seeking out community among those with hateful agendas and relishing the power of lashing out at those they perceived to be benefiting at their expense. But it all just seemed like a peculiar online phenomenon, proof that the internet was cruel. Too few of us tried to hold those youth who were unquestionably in pain.

Teens who are coming of age today are already ripe for instability. Their parents are stressed; even if they have jobs, nothing feels certain or stable. There doesn’t seem to be a path toward economic stability that doesn’t involve college, but there doesn’t seem to be a path toward college that doesn’t involve mind-bending debt. Opioids seem like a reasonable way to numb the pain in far too many communities. School doesn’t seem like a safe place, so teenagers look around and whisper among friends about who they believe to be the most likely shooter in their community. As Stephanie Georgopulos notesthe idea that any institution can offer security seems like a farce.

When I look around at who’s “holding” these youth, I can’t help but notice the presence of people with a hateful agenda. And they terrify me, in no small part because I remember an earlier incarnation.

In 1995, when I was trying to make sense of my sexuality, I turned to various online forums and asked a lot of idiotic questions. I was adopted by the aforementioned transgender woman and numerous other folks who heard me out, gave me pointers, and helped me think through what I felt. In 2001, when I tried to figure out what the next generation did, I realized thatstruggling youth were more likely to encounter a Christian gay “conversion therapy” group than a supportive queer peer. Queer folks were sick of being attacked by anti-LGBT groups, and so they had created safe spaces on private mailing lists that were hard for lost queer youth to find. And so it was that in their darkest hours, these youth were getting picked up by those with a hurtful agenda.

Teens who are trying to make sense of social issues aren’t finding progressive activists. They’re finding the so-called alt-right.

Fast-forward 15 years, and teens who are trying to make sense of social issues aren’t finding progressive activists willing to pick them up. They’re finding the so-called alt-right. I can’t tell you how many youth we’ve seen asking questions like I asked being rejected by people identifying with progressive social movements, only to find camaraderie among hate groupsWhat’s most striking is how many people with extreme ideas are willing to spend time engaging with folks who are in the tornado.

Spend time reading the comments below the YouTube videos of youth struggling to make sense of the world around them. You’ll quickly find comments by people who spend time in the manosphere or subscribe to white supremacist thinking. They are diving in and talking to these youth, offering a framework to make sense of the world, one rooted in deeply hateful ideas.These self-fashioned self-help actors are grooming people to see that their pain and confusion isn’t their fault, but the fault of feminists, immigrants, people of color. They’re helping them believe that the institutions they already distrust — the news media, Hollywood, government, school, even the church — are actually working to oppress them.

Most people who encounter these ideas won’t embrace them, but some will. Still, even those who don’t will never let go of the doubt that has been instilled in the institutions around them. It just takes a spark.

So how do we collectively make sense of the world around us? There isn’t one universal way of thinking, but even the act of constructing knowledge is becoming polarized. Responding to the uproar in the news media over “alternative facts,” Cory Doctorow noted:

We’re not living through a crisis about what is true, we’re living through a crisis about how we know whether something is true. We’re not disagreeing about facts, we’re disagreeing about epistemology. The “establishment” version of epistemology is, “We use evidence to arrive at the truth, vetted by independent verification (but trust us when we tell you that it’s all been independently verified by people who were properly skeptical and not the bosom buddies of the people they were supposed to be fact-checking).

The “alternative facts” epistemological method goes like this: “The ‘independent’ experts who were supposed to be verifying the ‘evidence-based’ truth were actually in bed with the people they were supposed to be fact-checking. In the end, it’s all a matter of faith, then: you either have faith that ‘their’ experts are being truthful, or you have faith that we are. Ask your gut, what version feels more truthful?”

Doctorow creates these oppositional positions to make a point and to highlight that there is a war over epistemology, or the way in which we produce knowledge.

The reality is much messier, because what’s at stake isn’t simply about resolving two competing worldviews. Rather, what’s at stake is how there is no universal way of knowing, and we have reached a stage in our political climate where there is more power in seeding doubt, destabilizing knowledge, and encouraging others to distrust other systems of knowledge production.

Contemporary propaganda isn’t about convincing someone to believe something, but convincing them to doubt what they think they know. Andonce people’s assumptions have come undone, who is going to pick them up and help them create a coherent worldview?

2. You Can’t Trust Abstractions

Deeply committed to democratic governance, George Washington believed that a representative government could only work if the public knew their representatives. As a result, our Constitution states that each member of the House should represent no more than 30,000 constituents. When we stopped adding additional representatives to the House in 1913 (frozen at 435), each member represented roughly 225,000 constituents. Today, the ratio of congresspeople to constituents is more than 700,000:1Most people will never meet their representative, and few feel as though Washington truly represents their interests. The democracy that we have is representational only in ideal, not in practice.

As our Founding Fathers knew, it’s hard to trust an institution when it feels inaccessible and abstract. All around us, institutions are increasingly divorced from the community in which they operate, with often devastating costs.Thanks to new models of law enforcement, police officers don’t typically come from the community they serve. In many poor communities, teachers also don’t come from the community in which they teach. The volunteer U.S. military hardly draws from all communities, and those who don’t know a solider are less likely to trust or respect the military.

Journalism can only function as the fourth estate when it serves as a tool to voice the concerns of the people and to inform those people of the issues that matter. Throughout the 20th century, communities of color challenged mainstream media’s limitations and highlighted that few newsrooms represented the diverse backgrounds of their audiences. As such, we saw the rise of ethnic media and a challenge to newsrooms to be smarter about their coverage. But let’s be real — even as news organizations articulate a commitment to the concerns of everyone, newsrooms have done a dreadful job of becoming more representativeOver the past decade, we’ve seen racial justice activists challenge newsrooms for their failure to cover Ferguson, Standing Rock, and other stories that affect communities of color.

Meanwhile, local journalism has nearly died. The success of local journalismdidn’t just matter because those media outlets reported the news, but because it meant that many more people were likely to know journalists. It’s easier to trust an institution when it has a human face that you know and respect. Andas fewer and fewer people know journalists, they trust the institution less and less. Meanwhile, the rise of social media, blogging, and new forms of talk radio has meant that countless individuals have stepped in to cover issues not being covered by mainstream news, often using a style and voice that is quite unlike that deployed by mainstream news media.

We’ve also seen the rise of celebrity news hosts. These hosts help push the boundaries of parasocial interactions, allowing the audience to feel deep affinity toward these individuals, as though they are true friends. Tabloid papers have long capitalized on people’s desire to feel close to celebrities by helping people feel like they know the royal family or the Kardashians. Talking heads capitalize on this, in no small part by how they communicate with their audiences. So, when people watch Rachel Maddow or listen to Alex Jones, they feel more connected to the message than they would when reading a news article. They begin to trust these people as though they are neighbors. They feel real.

No amount of drop-in journalism will make up for the loss of journalists within the fabric of local communities.

People want to be informed, but who they trust to inform them is rooted in social networks, not institutions. The trust of institutions stems from trust in people. The loss of the local paper means a loss of trusted journalists and a connection to the practices of the newsroom. As always, people turn to their social networks to get information, but what flows through those social networks is less and less likely to be mainstream news. But here’s where you also get an epistemological divide.

As Francesca Tripodi points out, many conservative Christians have developed a media literacy practice that emphasizes the “original” text rather than an intermediary. Tripodi points out that the same type of scriptural inference that Christians apply in Bible study is often also applied to reading the Constitution, tax reform bills, and Google results. This approach is radically different than the approach others take when they rely on intermediaries to interpret news for them.

As the institutional construction of news media becomes more and more proximately divorced from the vast majority of people in the United States, we can and should expect trust in news to decline. No amount of fact-checking will make up for a widespread feeling that coverage is biased. No amount of articulated ethical commitments will make up for the feeling that you are being fed clickbait headlines.

No amount of drop-in journalism will make up for the loss of journalists within the fabric of local communities. And while the population who believes that CNN and the New York Times are “fake news” are not demographically representative, the questionable tactics that news organizations use are bound to increase distrust among those who still have faith in them.

3. The Fourth Estate and Financialization Are Incompatible

If you’re still with me at this point, you’re probably deeply invested in scholarship or journalism. And, unless you’re one of my friends, you’re probably bursting at the seams to tell me that the reason journalism is all screwed up is because the internet screwed news media’s business model. So I want to ask a favor: Quiet that voice in your head, take a deep breath, and let me offer an alternative perspective.

There are many types of capitalism. After all, the only thing that defines capitalism is the private control of industry (as opposed to government control). Most Americans have been socialized into believing that all forms of capitalism are inherently good (which, by the way, was a propaganda project). But few are encouraged to untangle the different types of capitalism and different dynamics that unfold depending on which structure is operating.

I grew up in mom-and-pop America, where many people dreamed of becoming small business owners. The model was simple: Go to the bank and get a loan to open a store or a company. Pay back that loan at a reasonable interest rate — knowing that the bank was making money — until eventually you owned the company outright. Build up assets, grow your company, and create something of value that you could pass on to your children.

In the 1980s, franchises became all the rage. Wannabe entrepreneurs saw a less risky path to owning their own business. Rather than having to figure it out alone, you could open a franchise with a known brand and a clear process for running the business. In return, you had to pay some overhead to the parent company. Sure, there were rules to follow and you could only buy supplies from known suppliers and you didn’t actually have full control, but it kinda felt like you did. Like being an Uber driver, it was the illusion of entrepreneurship that was so appealing. And most new franchise owners didn’t know any better, nor were they able to read the writing on the wall when the water all around them started boiling their froggy self. I watched my mother nearly drown, and the scars are still visible all over her body.

I will never forget the U.S. Savings & Loan crisis, not because I understood it, but because it was when I first realized that my Richard Scarry impression of how banks worked was way wrong. Only two decades later did I learn to seethe FIRE industries (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) as extractive ones.They aren’t there to help mom-and-pop companies build responsible businesses, but to extract value from their naiveté. Like today’s post-college youth are learning, loans aren’t there to help you be smart, but to bend your will.

It doesn’t take a quasi-documentary to realize thatMcDonald’s is not a fast-food franchise; it’s a real estate business that uses a franchise structure to extract capital from naive entrepreneurs. Go talk to a wannabe restaurant owner in New York City and ask them what it takes to start a business these days. You can’t even get a bank loan or lease in 2018 without significant investor backing, which means that the system isn’t set up for you to build a business and pay back the bank, pay a reasonable rent, and develop a valuable asset.You are simply a pawn in a financialized game between your investors, the real estate companies, the insurance companies, and the bank, all of which want to extract as much value from your effort as possible. You’re just another brick in the wall.

Now let’s look at the local news ecosystem. Starting in the 1980s, savvy investors realized that many local newspapers owned prime real estate in the center of key towns. These prized assets would make for great condos and office rentals. Throughout the country, local news shops started getting eaten up by private equity and hedge funds — or consolidated by organizations controlled by the same forces. Media conglomerates sold off their newsrooms as they felt increased pressure to increase profits quarter over quarter.

Building a sustainable news business was hard enough when the news had a wealthy patron who valued the goals of the enterprise. But the finance industry doesn’t care about sustaining the news business; it wants a return on investment. And the extractive financiers who targeted the news business weren’t looking to keep the news alive. They wanted to extract as much value from those business as possible. Taking a page out of McDonald’s, they forced the newsrooms to sell their real estate. Often, news organizations had to rent from new landlords who wanted obscene sums, often forcing them to move out of their buildings. News outlets were forced to reduce staff, reproduce more junk content, sell more ads, and find countless ways to cut costs. Of course the news suffered — the goal was to push news outlets into bankruptcy or sell, especially if the companies had pensions or other costs that couldn’t be excised.

Yes, the fragmentation of the advertising industry due to the internet hastened this process. And let’s also be clear that business models in the news business have never been cleanBut no amount of innovative new business models will make up for the fact that you can’t sustain responsible journalism within a business structure that requires newsrooms to make more money quarter over quarter to appease investors. This does not mean that you can’t build a sustainable news business, but if the news is beholden to investors trying to extract value, it’s going to impossible. And if news companies have no assets to rely on (such as their now-sold real estate), they are fundamentally unstable and likely to engage in unhealthy business practices out of economic desperation.

Untangling our country from this current version of capitalism is going to be as difficult as curbing our addiction to fossil fuels. I’m not sure it can be done, but as long as we look at companies and blame their business models without looking at the infrastructure in which they are embedded, we won’t even begin taking the first steps. Fundamentally, both the New York Times and Facebook are public companies, beholden to investors and desperate to increase their market cap. Employees in both organizations believe themselves to be doing something important for society.

Of course, journalists don’t get paid well, while Facebook’s employees can easily threaten to walk out if the stock doesn’t keep rising, since they’re also investors. But we also need to recognize that the vast majority of Americans have a stake in the stock market. Pension plans, endowments, and retirement plans all depend on stocks going up — and those public companies depend on big investors investing in them. Financial managers don’t invest in news organizations that are happy to be stable break-even businesses. Heck, even Facebook is in deep trouble if it can’t continue to increase ROI, whether through attracting new customers (advertisers and users), increasing revenue per user, or diversifying its businesses. At some point, it too will get desperate, because no business can increase ROI forever.

ROI capitalism isn’t the only version of capitalism out there. We take it for granted and tacitly accept its weaknesses by creating binaries, as though the only alternative is Cold War Soviet Union–styled communism. We’re all frogs in an ocean that’s quickly getting warmer. Two degrees will affect a lot more than oceanfront properties.

Reclaiming Trust

In my mind, we have a hard road ahead of us if we actually want to rebuild trust in American society and its key institutions (which, TBH, I’m not sure is everyone’s goal). There are three key higher-order next steps, all of which are at the scale of the New Deal.

  1. Create a sustainable business structure for information intermediaries (like news organizations) that allows them to be profitable without the pressure of ROI. In the case of local journalism, this could involve subsidized rent, restrictions on types of investors or takeovers, or a smartly structured double bottom-line model. But the focus should be on strategically building news organizations as a national project to meet the needs of the fourth estateIt means moving away from a journalism model that is built on competition for scarce resources (ads, attention) to one that’s incentivized by societal benefits.
  2. Actively and strategically rebuild the social networks of America.Create programs beyond the military that incentivize people from different walks of life to come together and achieve something great for this country. This could be connected to job training programs or rooted in community service, but it cannot be done through the government alone or, perhaps, at all. We need the private sector, religious organizations, and educational institutions to come together and commit to designing programs that knit together America while also providing the tools of opportunity.
  3. Find new ways of holding those who are struggling. We don’t have a social safety net in America. For many, the church provides the only accessible net when folks are lost and struggling, but we need a lot more.We need to work together to build networks that can catch people when they’re falling. We’ve relied on volunteer labor for a long time in this domain—women, churches, volunteer civic organizations—but our current social configuration makes this extraordinarily difficult. We’re in the middle of an opiate crisis for a reason. We need to think smartly about how these structures or networks can be built and sustained so that we can collectively reach out to those who are falling through the cracks.

Fundamentally, we need to stop triggering one another because we’re facing our own perceived pain. This means we need to build large-scale cultural resilience. While we may be teaching our children “social-emotional learning”in the classroom, we also need to start taking responsibility at scale.Individually, we need to step back and empathize with others’ worldviews and reach out to support those who are struggling. But our institutions also have important work to do.

At the end of the day, if journalistic ethics means anythingnewsrooms cannot justify creating spectacle out of their reporting on suicide or other topics just because they feel pressure to create clicks. They have the privilege of choosing what to amplify, and they should focus on what is beneficial. If they can’t operate by those values, they don’t deserve our trust. While I strongly believe that technology companies have a lot of important work to do to be socially beneficial, I hold news organizations to a higher standard because of their own articulated commitments and expectations that they serve as the fourth estateAnd if they can’t operationalize ethical practices, I fear the society that must be knitted together to self-govern is bound to fragment even further.

Trust cannot be demanded. It’s only earned by being there at critical junctures when people are in crisis and need help. You don’t earn trust when things are going well; you earn trust by being a rock during a tornado. The winds are blowing really hard right now. Look around. Who is helping us find solid ground?

by zephoria at June 21, 2018 01:26 AM

June 19, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Can the United States connect Cubans to the internet? A historical review from the Cuban perspective

Illustration: MONK (Periodismo de Barrio). Used with permission.

The inaugural meeting of the Cuba Internet Task Force (CITF) was held on February 7, 2018 and led by the State Department’s Assistant Deputy Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, John Creamer.

What was said is already well-known: Low internet access in Cuba is mainly the result of a political decision by the government. The hourly cost is prohibitively expensive. Access to the internet is vital for the development of civil society, independent journalism, and the protection of human rights. Increasing access to the internet could contribute to improvements in health, agriculture, tourism, and provide new opportunities for business.

No direct fiber optic cable connection exists between Cuba and the United States, a piece of infrastructure that would allow the country to quickly restore connectivity if it were lost after a hurricane.

To understand why this was under discussion, we must go back to the beginnings of the CITF.

On January 23, 2018, the State Department announced the official creation of CITF in accordance with the Presidential National Security Memorandum, as a further step of intentionally strengthening United States policy toward Cuba since June 2017.

The stated objective was to “examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access and freedom of expression in Cuba.” That paragraph hit mainstream national news the next day and spread like wildfire across international media, blogs and social media.

The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) delivered a note to the US chargé d'affaires in Havana eight days later, saying that the actions described in the paragraph were an attempt “to flagrantly violate Cuban sovereignty.”

All funding needed for the organization and operation of CITF would be provided by the Western Hemisphere Affairs Office and participating agencies.

CITF was to be composed of departmental and agency representatives from the United States government and by non-governmental organizations or private entities related to the Internet.

Two subcommittees were created after the first meeting: “one to analyze the role of media and the flow of free and unregulated information in Cuba and another to explore access to the Internet within the country.” So it is likely that the Cuban reader of this article is being accompanied by a member of the subcommittee dedicated to the role of independent media from his office.

In summary, what CITF must deliver to the Secretary of State and the White House when its work is completed in 2019 is a report with recommendations.

Requesting recommendation reports to increase Internet access in Cuba is not just another one of Donald Trump’s quirks. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have done so before him. Before Bill Clinton, the Internet did not exist in Cuba (recall that it was during his administration the island's first Internet connection was finally authorized in 1996).

It was during his administration the island's first Internet connection was established in 1996, in relative sync with other countries in Latin America.

Illustration: MONK (Periodismo de Barrio)

Is it technologically possible to connect Cubans to the internet without the government knowing about it?

Ask Alan Gross. For those unfamiliar with him, he is a US citizen who traveled to Cuba and passed through customs five times with portable satellite communication equipment intended to provide Internet access to several Jewish communities in the country (at least in principle). Gross was not a philanthropist, but a contractor of the private company Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI). In 2008, DAI was subcontracted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), with the aim of increasing Internet access in Cuba.

Gross was sentenced to prison in Cuba for 15 years in 2011 and released after five, as part of negotiations by the administration of Barack Obama, when the two countries re-established diplomatic relations.

The series of unfortunate events that led Gross to imprisonment began with the administration of Bill Clinton and the signing of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996. This federal law was created and passed in order to strengthen the embargo against Cuba, seek sanctions against Castro's government and support government change. Interventions like the one that landed Gross in prison years later were fostered by the Helms-Burton Act.

Working under the fiscal agency of his small company, JBDC LLC, Gross signed a subcontract in February 2009 with DAI for a payment of $258,274.00. This included the purchase of the technology needed to establish Internet access networks via satellite in Cuba. The proposal, called “ICT4Cuba” or by its trade name “ICTs For the Island,” had “to train a primary group on the use and maintenance of information technologies and terrestrial and non-terrestrial communications currently available in the market.” Over longer term prospects, the pilot project would help establish a practical base to improve the management of transition initiatives toward democracy through the construction of technological networks, but JBDC would first work with the Jewish and then the Freemasons communities.

Gross made his first trip to Havana just a month later, in March 2009. According to the transcript of the trial held in the Provincial Court of Havana on March 11, 2011, “he was able to carry in the technology without being detected by customs at José Martí International Airport and then pass along equipment to the BGAN unit that allows satellite communication in the synagogue of the Jewish community in Havana.”

On the night of December 3, 2009, before his fifth return to the United States, Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities and charged with crimes against state security.

After his arrest, he was transferred to Havana’s Villa Marista prison and then to Carlos J. Finlay military hospital, where he was kept in maximum security. After 14 months of detention, he was accused of having committed “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the State,” of being involved in “a subversive project aimed at overthrowing the revolution,” and of  violating Article 91 of the Penal Code due to the work he was doing for DAI and USAID. Results of the trial as decreed by the Supreme Court: 15 years’ deprivation of liberty.

Alan and his wife Judy Gross sued the US government for negligence by repeatedly sending Gross to do work for which “the government knew he was ill-prepared, without providing the most basic education, training, or warnings required in the directives by the government itself.” But they lost the suit. The most they achieved was an agreement with DAI for an unpublicized settlement.

On March 22, 2016, at the Havana Grand Theatre, Obama delivered a speech to the Cuban people:

The Internet should be available across the island, so that Cubans can connect to the wider world — and to one of the greatest engines of growth in human history. […] And I can tell you as a friend that sustainable prosperity in the 21st century depends upon education, health care, and environmental protection. But it also depends on the free and open exchange of ideas. If you can’t access information online, if you cannot be exposed to different points of view, you will not reach your full potential. And over time, the youth will lose hope.

In the context of detente and with the objective of “increasing access to communications for Cubans and their ability to communicate freely,” US telecommunications companies were authorized to “establish the necessary mechanisms and infrastructures to provide Internet and telecommunications services on the island.” In addition, the commercial sale of “certain communications devices, software, applications, hardware, and other services for the establishment and updating of systems related to communications” was permitted.

So Cuba, are you feeling lucky?

Since 2014, representatives from Google periodically visited Havana. In 2016, Google opened a technology space at the studio of Kcho, an artist who until recently had close ties to the Cuban government and Communist Party. Located in the outlying city section of Playa, the Google + Kcho.Mor studio offered free internet access to the public, on 20 Chromebooks, which people could use for one hour at a time, if they provided state ID first. At the time of its opening, Google's Brett Perlmutter said that the company was confident that the project would be part of a broader cooperative effort to bring Internet access to the Cuban people.

In May of that same year, T-Mobile announced an interconnection and roaming agreement with the Telecommunications Company of Cuba, S.A. (ETECSA), which enabled the expansion of communications between the United States and Cuba, offering cheaper (but still relatively expensive) voice calls for US customers who wanted to keep in touch with friends and family in Cuba, as well as data plans for customers traveling to the island. As a result of the agreement, T-Mobile Simple Choice plan customers  could “call landlines and cordless phones in Cuba from the US for $.60 a minute.”

ETECSA also had roaming agreements with Verizon Wireless, based in New York; Sprint, based in Overland Park, Kansas; and AT&T, based in Texas. At AT&T, data cost $2.05 per megabyte.

Trump’s Task Force isn’t the first – and neither does it appear to be the last – of a US administration. We will have to wait until October 2019 to know what they’re going to recommend to the White House and State Department.

Over time, US authorities have tried two different models for expanding Internet access in Cuba: the Alan Gross formula, under which initiatives were carried out in secret or semi-secret terms; and the Obama model, where in the US government openly and publicly sought to push for change, while still carrying out some semi-secret intervention programs.

The former method bysteps Cuban authorities (and specifically the ETECSA monopoly) entirely, defying customs laws, installing technologies in communities of interest (such as religious groups, political opponents, youth, etc.), and in the case of Alan Gross, ending with a 15-year prison sentence, reduced to 5 after intense negotiations. Nevermind maintenance costs of operations unmaintainable even for USAID, or, in the most laughable of cases, a possible ultimate outcome of Cuban civil society more interested in downloading pornography than political news.

The latter, in which talks with the Cuban government and ETECSA kicked off with Obama's announcements in December 2014, has not managed to significantly increase access, lower costs, or promote free flow of information within the island.

Ultimately, the biggest achievements of these efforts have only thus far culminated in faster downloads on Havana's Google servers (under the eye of ETECSA) of singer Marc Anthony and music group Gente de Zona YouTube videos.

by Periodismo de Barrio at June 19, 2018 04:43 PM

June 15, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: New rules in Cambodia and Tanzania force independent media to quiet down — or shut down altogether

A newsstand advertising The Citizen, an independent newspaper in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo by Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

With elections approaching in July, Cambodia’s National Election Committee has published a set of plans intended to monitor and control online news.

A new inter-ministry working group, formed to investigate media outlets deemed to be spreading “fake news”, has put forth a new regulation that bans journalists from including “personal opinion or prejudice” in their reporting, publishing news that “affects political and social stability”, conducting interviews at polling stations or broadcasting news that could sow “confusion and loss of confidence” in the election. Violations are punishable by fines of up to USD $7,355.

The Ministry of Information will be empowered to censor websites and social media pages found in violation of the regulation. Internet service providers will be required to install software that enables the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications to “easily filter or block any websites, accounts or social media pages that are deemed illegal”.

These measures follow the demise of the country's only two independent newspapers — The Phnom Pehn Post and The Cambodia Daily. After receiving crippling tax bills, the Daily ceased its operations in September 2017, while the Post's owner sold the newspaper. The publication now belongs to Sivakumar S Ganapathy, who is the managing director of a Malaysia-based ASIA PR company that has worked on behalf of Cambodia’s ruling party and Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Meanwhile in Tanzania, a much-maligned “blogger tax” goes into effect on June 15, and will require bloggers and independent website owners to register and pay roughly $900 USD per year to publish online.

If blogs and other types of online content, such as YouTube channels, operate after June 15 without a license, they may be punished by a fine “not less than five million Tanzanian shillings” (around $2,500 USD), or imprisonment for “not less than 12 months or both.”

Multiple major independent news sites have preemptively closed up shop, saying that the costs are high — both financially and legally. The extremely popular Jamii Forums — which has been dubbed both the “Tanzanian Reddit” and “Swahili Wikileaks” — has shut itself down last week on grounds that the law creates insurmountable regulatory barriers for sites like Jamii. In December 2016, Tanzanian police arrested Maxence Melo, co-founder, and director of Jamii Forums, for refusing to disclose information on its members, a demand made under the Cybercrimes Act.

Reporters Without Borders has called on the government to scrap the new regulation.

Bangladeshi secular writer and activist assassinated in public

Bangladeshi secular writer Shahzahan Bachchu was shot and killed near his home town of Munshiganj. Bachchu was known as an outspoken activist for secularism, and printed poetry and books on humanism and free thought. He was reportedly dragged out of a pharmacy and gunned down by men on motorcycles.

Bachchu’s death follows a series of attacks on humanists and freethinkers in Bangladesh, including the murders of writers and digital advocates Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananto Bijoy Das and Niloy Neel, among others. In the past, government officials including the prime minister Sheikh Hasina have blamed the attacks on atheists for criticizing religion.

Algerian blogger gets 10 years in prison for video interview

Algerian blogger Merzoug Touati was sentenced to ten years in prison in late May for reporting online about austerity strikes, job protests, and human rights violations. Touati, who has been in jail since January 2017, was convicted of providing “intelligence to agents of a foreign power likely to harm Algeria’s military or diplomatic position or essential economic interests” after posting an interview with an Israeli official online. Touati is expected to appeal the sentence.

Facebook user in India arrested for complaining about poor infrastructure

A man from Kerala, India was arrested by police after writing a Facebook post about a damaged road, calling on a local politician to repair it. The politician alleged that the post was “defamatory” and that insulted her gender and religion. She filed a complaint with police who subsequently made the arrest. The man was released on bail shortly afterward.

Russian journalist forced to resign over Instagram comments

Russian reporter Alexandra Terikova was forced to resign for posting an Instagram video of kindergarten students singing a song for Russian President Vladimir Putin and then giving an interview about the video to an independent channel. The video was posted alongside a sarcastic hashtag and a message critical of the jingoistic tone of the song.

A death sentence and a viral video mark the end of Telegram in Iran

An Iranian man is facing the death penalty for posts made on his Telegram app channel, where he allowed users to freely post their opinions. Hamidreza Amini will go to trial on June 25 on charges of “insulting the prophet”, “insulting the supreme leader”, “acting against national security”, “propaganda against the state” and “disturbing public opinion”.

Amini was held in solitary confinement and interrogated without access to legal counsel after his arrest. He went on hunger strike on June 3 to protest his conditions and was hospitalized but then transferred back to prison before receiving adequate treatment, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

The Iranian Judiciary issued an order on April 30 to block Telegram on national security grounds. Since then, a parody song about the filtering of Telegram by the Iranian musical group DasandazBand has gone viral on social media, poking fun at government attempts to get Iranians to adopt the state-owned messaging platform Soroush platform.

Leading news sites blocked in Venezuela

Two Venezuelan news outlets that have managed report on the country’s ongoing political and economic crises for the past four years were knocked offline on major state-affiliated internet service provider networks during the first week of June. Anecdotal evidence and technical testing confirmed that both La Patilla and El Nacional were inaccessible on CANTV, the country’s largest telecommunications provider, which is controlled by state authorities.

The block followed a court-issued fine of one billion Venezuelan Bolivares (about USD $10,000) against El Nacional, on claims by the state that the newspaper had inflicted “moral damages” on United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) Vice President Diosdado Cabello, when he served as president of the National Assembly.

Pakistani political party website blocked

Ahead of elections in Pakistan on July 25, the website of a political party named Awami Workers Party was blocked on multiple ISPs in Pakistan for at least three days. Despite writing to election commission and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (which is responsible for the blocking), party officials have been given no explanation for the block.

Brazil Electoral Court kicks off new fake news regulation

On June 7, Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE) ordered Facebook to take down “untruthful information about [presidential] candidate Marina Silva” within 48 hours of the ruling. This was the first time that an injunction has been issued based on a 2017 resolution intended to regulate the spread of disinformation during the 2018 elections.

The court ruled in favor of the presidential candidate and her political party Rede, which challenged five links posted in 2017 by the right wing page “Partido Anti-PT” (the Anti-Worker's Party, in Portuguese) claiming Silva was being investigated by Operation Car Wash, a major money-laundering investigation involving more than 100 Brazilian oil executives and politicians. There have been no formal accusations of corruption against Silva. The page has more than 1.7 million followers.

Will France get a “fake” news bill?

The French parliament started debating a government-proposed bill aimed at curbing the “manipulation of information” in the three-month period preceding an election. The law would allow candidates to complain about the dissemination of false information about them online and judges will have 48 hours to decide on a case. During a parliamentary session discussing the bill on 7 June, leftwing and rightwing MPs from the opposition slammed the bill.

New Research



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by Netizen Report Team at June 15, 2018 05:19 PM

Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari shot dead

Shujaat Bukhari, Srinagar based Journalist/Writer and Editor-in-Chief of Rising Kashmir. Image via Twitter account of Shujaat Bukhari

Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of prominent Kashmiri English daily Rising Kashmir, was shot dead in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, sending shock waves throughout the region.

His vehicle was surrounded by a group of suspected militants who opened fire on him and his security personnel. Two security personnel later died as a result of their injuries at a hospital.

Bukhari's colleague said that he had just stepped outside his office after finishing his daily work and was heading to break his fast when the attack took place.

(Warning: Graphic image in the tweet below.)

Bukhari was one of the few moderate and bold voices in Kashmir who stood for dialogue between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

Read more: The Kashmiri People Versus the Indian State

Protests for independence (called “azadi”) and self-rule in the Kashmir Valley have been active since 1989 and ever since, Jammu and Kashmir has been under Indian military presence with statutes such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Public Safety Act giving them wide-ranging powers. The Indian government has officially stated that it believes all of Jammu and Kashmir to be an integral part of India.

An Indian policeman stands near an alley in the uptown of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir. Image by the author via Instagram.

Bukhari had worked for several top national and international publications and written hard-hitting articles, never shying away from taking an unpopular stand. He was special correspondent with The Hindu newspaper from 1997 to 2012 and continued to write for Frontline magazine.

The Press Club of India has expressed its shock and dismay over the incident in the Kashmir valley.

The Editors Guild of India tweeted a statement:

Condolences are pouring in via social media.

Siddharth Varadarajan, the Editor of the Wire news portal, tweeted:

Marvi Sirmed, a member of the executive council of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and special correspondent for the Daily Times Pakistan, tweeted:

This wasn't the first time that Bukhari was targeted.

On July 8, 1996, a militant group abducted 19 local journalists in the Anantnag district and held them as hostages for at least seven hours. Bukhari was among those abducted.

He was also given police protection after an attack against him in 2000.

Student politician Shehla Rashid tweeted:

Former chief minister of Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, tweeted:

According to Reporters Without Borders, Shujaat Bukhari escaped a murder attempt by armed men in June 2006. Shujaat Bukhari told Reporters Without Borders, “It is virtually impossible to know who are our enemies and who are our friends.”

Despite this, the guns couldn't silence his pen.

by Ieshan Wani at June 15, 2018 02:02 PM

June 14, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Nicaraguan protesters and journalists face violent attacks on the streets and online

“Stop the blockades”, a common phrase among Daniel Ortega's supporters referring to the blockades people have made in different cities in Nicaragua to limit people and vehicles circulation as a way of protesting against the government. Detail of the image shared by Twitter user Ricardo Zambrano, widely shared through social media.

Since April 18, 2018, Nicaragua has fallen into chaos and the rights of protesters and media have come under direct threat.

While demonstrators demanding social security and government accountability have endured violent attacks by police, military and other actors, journalists have been attacked and had their equipment and footage stolen. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights estimates that 146 people have been killed in protests and crossfire, including video journalist Angel Gahona, who was shot as he filmed a protest on April 21.

Online censorship and intimidation of journalists and protesters have also been rampant. Multiple independent news outlets have had their websites attacked and in some cases brought down altogether. Just this week, Nicaraguans began reporting that their Wi-Fi networks were being hacked and re-named with a slogan supportive of the ruling government.

As political demands for regime change keep spreading, the effects of these incidents feel ever more acute, limiting access to information when it is needed most.

How it began

The crisis began on April 18, when the government – led by President Daniel Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo, who is also the vice president – unilaterally adopted an executive decree reducing the pension allowance by 5% and implementing additional social security taxes to employers and employees.

In response, retirees and students organized peaceful demonstrations to voice their disagreement but were met with anti-riot police forces and members of the Sandinista Youth parastatal group. Chaos erupted from there. Clashes have since turned violent and some protesters have reported that police are using live ammunition.

After failed attempts at a dialogue with Daniel Ortega for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, many Nicaraguans called for him to resign.

Physical attacks on journalists

Many journalists have faced threats online and in real life since mid-April. In one recent incident on June 10, Josué Garay, a journalist for La Prensa Nicaragua, was assaulted and robbed by people whom he believes are local members of the Sandinista Youth. His passport and cellphone (which contained video footage and information from his investigative work) were stolen.

It appeared the attackers wanted to threaten Garay and prevent him from leaving the country, on the basis of his journalistic activities. Garay shared his testimony on Facebook:

En la madrugada dos hombres entraron a mi casa y directamente, entre amenazas con machete y tubo, me exigieron el celular (corporativo de La Prensa), mi billetera y mis documentos, entre ellos mi pasaporte. Me golpearon la cara y reventaron mi boca. Me sacaron de la casa y tiraron al patio, exactamente al sitio donde boto la basura. Cuando uno de ellos me iba a machetear le pedí que no me hiciera daño y el otro le dijo: “Hay dejalo, ojalá escarmiente”. Gracias a Dios estoy bien. Sin celular, así que toda comunicación por acá. Gracias a quienes han estado atentos y me han ofrecido su casa para quedarme. Dios nos proteja de este régimen.

En the early morning, two men broke in my house and, in between threats [and holding] a machete and a pipe, directly demanded my cellphone (which is a corporate phone from La Prensa), my wallet, my documents, among those my passport. They hit me in the face and burst my mouth. They threw me outside and on the patio, exactly where I throw my garbage. When one of them was going to slice me with the machete, I asked him not to hurt me and the other one said to him: “Leave him, let's hope he'll learn his lesson.” Thank God I am alright. Without a phone, so every communication will be done here [on Facebook]. Thanks to those who have been attentive to me and offered me to stay at their home. God protect us from this regime.

This was not the first time he was attacked. On May 9, police officers threatened Garay and colleagues with firearms while they were reporting. Other journalists from La Prensa, including Uriel Molina and Ivette Munguía, have been assaulted and had their gear stolen by mobs and police. And on June 8, the studio of state-run Radio Nicaragua was set on fire.

SSID hacks

With mainstream media outlets accused of bias towards the government, many Nicaraguans have become especially dependent on the internet to stay informed. But this too is becoming difficult.

This week, hundreds of people reported that their SSID (their Wi-Fi username) had spontaneously changed in the middle of the night. All of those reporting the change are subscribers to Claro, a subsidiary of the Mexican telecommunications giant America Movil.

WiFi networks were renamed “QuitenLosTranques”, which means “#StoptheBarricades” — a reference to a common protest tactic of blocking roadways. This message has been used consistently, mainly as a hashtag, by government actors and supporters online. Barricades have been popping around the country in an effort to pressure Ortega to leave power and protect communities from state violence.

Demonstrators form a tranque in the Nueva Guinea region of Nicaragua. Photo shared on Twitter by Rezaye Alvarez.

This is the internet of the company CLARO in Nicaragua, @ClaroNicaragua. The people are the ones who pay internet service, not the government. Revise this or we won't pay. #sosnicaragua #OrtegaMurilloOut

Claro, which dominates the telecom market in Nicaragua, has publicly stated that the hack happened outside of their control and that they do not wish to engage with any type of political message

While it is clear that the perpetrators of these hacks are on the side of the government, it is not clear exactly who is responsible. But the technical components of such a hack could also allow the attacker to spy on the network activity of the subscriber, suggesting that this may be a tactic intended to intimidate subscribers.

Some Nicaraguans fear that the attacks are being carried out by hackers who support — or are working for — the Ortega government. Others suspect that Claro, the telecommunications company, is to blame. Claro has already been criticized for having complied to the government’s request of taking down three TV channels when the protests first started in April.

Apart from the censorship of [TV] channels that you applied before, the constant errors on Facebook and Twitter which weren't downloading the comments under posts, and you still say that the SSID name change is not your fault?

— #RespectTheCountry

Twitter users share ways to secure people’s SSID and change the username into one of the protests’ mottos, #QueSeRindaTuMadre (#YourMotherShouldSurrender).

Out of nicaragua 🇳🇮 respect the people

by Melissa Vida at June 14, 2018 02:34 PM

June 13, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Leading independent websites go dark as Tanzania’s ‘blogger tax’ deadline approaches

Jamii Forum founder Maxence Melo. Photo via Facebook. Used with permission.

Alongside scores of independent blogs and social media pages, Tanzania's most popular independent news and user comment site, Jamii Forum, have shut themselves down in anticipation of the country's soon-to-be-implemented “blogger tax.”

On June 15, 2018, Tanzanian bloggers will have to register and pay over $900 USD per year to publish online. If blogs and other types of online content, such as YouTube channels, operate after June 15 without a license, they may be punished by a fine “not less than five million Tanzanian shillings” (around $2,500 USD), or imprisonment for “not less than 12 months or both.”

While the registration fee and subsequent fines are steep, many bloggers say the concern is not just about the money but also about the complexity and ambiguity of obliging the new regulations.

Since the directive was first issued by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) on March 16, 2018, Tanzanian bloggers and civil society organizations have responded actively to the new regulations in a variety of ways.

A coalition of the Legal and Human Rights Centre and other civil society organisations including Tanzania Human Rights Defenders, Media Council of Tanzania, Jamii Media, Tanzania Media Women Association and Tanzania Editors Forum created a petition which was presented at the Mtwara High Courts on May 4. The judge asked the team to resubmit their petition on technical grounds, during which time they secured a temporary injunction until May 28. However, their case was ultimately dismissed with the judge arguing that “the organizations failed to demonstrate how they would be affected by the regulations.”

Tanzanian bloggers have creatively protested against the new blogging regulations, openly commenting on the blogging regulations online. Aikande Kwayu, who has blogged particularly about Tanzanian politics and the 2015 elections (and also writes book reviews and flash fiction) suspended her website on May 1 in an act of protest.

Mtega, a tech and development blog owned by Ben Taylor who resides in the United Kingdom, invited Tanzanian bloggers to write guest posts on his blog. Chambi Chachage handed ownership of his blog Udadisi (“Curiosity” in Swahili) on April 27 to Takura Zhangazha, who resides in Zimbabwe. And Elsie Eyakuze put her blog The Mikocheni Report on hold, taking a break to become a “digital refugee”:

On June 11, the extremely popular Jamii Forum — which has been dubbed both the “Tanzanian Reddit” and “Swahili Wikileaks” — decided to shut down, creating big waves on the Tanzanian social media scene.

In December 2016, Tanzanian police arrested Maxence Melo, co-founder, and director of Jamii Forums, for refusing to disclose information on its members, a demand made under the Cybercrimes Act.

On June 12, Elsie Eyakuze tweeted with a reference to how social media has connected people offline in Tanzania, as well as Jamii Forums’ significant role as a platform for whistleblowers leaking documents related to corruption:

In an interview, Jamii Forum founder Maxence Melo told The Citizen: “It is obvious that our platform was being targeted when this regulation was formulated.”

The $900 USD annual license fee is a substantial amount of money in a country where nearly one-third of the population still live in extreme poverty. The requirement to register platforms and obtain a tax clearance certificate may be a bureaucratic hurdle as most bloggers are individuals without registered companies. Blog and online media owners are first required to be granted a license, and then, to make matters more complicated, they must adhere to a rather complex set of regulations.

On June 12, Aikande Kwayu elaborated in a tweet:

On April 12, Ben Taylor explained some of these complexities, highlighting that the regulations require a blog owner “must be able to identify everyone who posts content”, and a blog owner “must cooperate with law enforcement officers” in relation to these regulations.

A screenshot of TCRA regulations detailing questions and definitions related to the new law shared on Twitter.

Taylor suggests that this could entail “demands to reveal the identity of anyone posting on your site, making anyone who posts anonymous comments on blogs, newspaper sites or web forums vulnerable to having their identity exposed.”

In Tanzania, political tensions have risen over the past few years. Since the presidential elections in 2015, Tanzania's opposition has been restricted by a ban on opposition rallies and the stifling of independent media, sanctions, intimidation, and punishment of citizens for criticising President John P. Magufuli of the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM, Swahili for “Revolutionary Party”).

The country's Cybercrimes Act, passed in 2015, has played a significant role in stifling dissent. In 2015 and 2016 alone, at least 14 Tanzanians were arrested and prosecuted under the law, for insulting the president on social media.

Tanzania is not the only country taking control of its citizens’ use of online media in recent months. Uganda and Kenya have recently issued new online restrictions to content production and regulation.

by Pernille Baerendtsen at June 13, 2018 01:27 PM

Iranian parody band sings a love song for Telegram after its block

“Lovers of Telegram” is a parody love song for Telegram, after millions of Iranians were blocked by the government from using it.

Iranian musical group DasandazBand has recently seen their parody love song about the filtering of Telegram go viral on social media.

Think of the American Lonely Island band, but cultivated in the Islamic Republic of Iran and dealing with Iranian issues, and you'll get a sense of the comedy musicians behind DasandazBand. Instead of explicit material such as “I Just Had Sex” or “The Creep,” this musical troupe tackle controversial issues such as travelling with groups of friends that include men and women in “When you have friends who are game for a journey, but nowhere to go.”

Another is “The state of Iranians who go outside of Iran for five days,” which jokes about all the fake luxury such Iranians post on their social media accounts alongside their misplaced sense of being non-Iranian.

When you have friends who are game for a journey but you have nowhere to go 🤦😂

Sponsor: Otaghak

The state of many Iranians when they leave the country for five days. 😂

The music video that went viral from DasandazBand, however, was about the government's decision to censor a platform used by almost all of Iran's internet users: the messaging service Telegram. Iran counted more than 40 million users of the app who relied it for a wide range of purposes including business, entertainment, communicating with friends and family, news, university, work, and politics.

The Iranian Judiciary issued an order on April 30, 2018 to block Telegram on national security grounds, a decision which seems to have been driven by the platforms perceived role of the platform during the January 2018 protests. Other reasons given for the order included Telegram’s failure to relocate its servers in Iran in compliance with Iranian law – i.e. potentially making the data of its Iranian users accessible to authorities – and its refusal to work with the Iranian authorities to regulate content on the platform.

The band released the video on their Telegram channel on May 8, a few days afterward. DasandazBand is based in Iran and maintains a channel on Iranian video host Aparat (YouTube is blocked in Iran), a platform that abides by the Islamic Republic's moral and political guidelines and thus censors content. It's notable, therefore, that DasandazBand has not featured its Telegram music video on Aparat, but only on their Twitter and Telegram accounts – both platforms that are now blocked in Iran.

💔The lovers of Telegram 😂😭@durov@telegram #filter #Telegram #filtering_Telegram 

The lyrics poke fun at the government's filtering of Telegram and their attempts to get Iranians to use the government-developed Soroush platform:

One day you came along and asked me to stay with you, and you promised you'll stay forever too. Now you're not around for me to tell you this, that someone wants to take your place with the name of Soroush.

They say he has everything you have and you'll not be missed that much but everyday I think of you and the walls that separate us, oh Telegram.

Just when I was relying on you, you were suddenly blocked and gone and all I have left is this VPN, that's the only bridge between you and I.

I remember all our groups and memories, what am I going to do with your stickers?

You were with me through all these years, now how can I install Soroush while you still linger?

On Telegram, DasandazBand's small following of only a few thousand saw the video receive over 40,000 views and widely shared and discussed on Twitter as well.

Measurements by the University of Tehran's Social Labs and the Google App store in Iran have both indicated that despite the censorship of Telegram, Iranians are increasingly finding effective circumvention tools to access the app. While usage of Telegram dipped when it was first filtered on April 30, recent weeks have shown usage in Iran slowly returning to former levels.

by Advox at June 13, 2018 10:59 AM

June 12, 2018

Joi Ito
On Tea with Teachers

One of the greatest things at MIT are the student run programs. One program is Tea with Teachers. It's a fun thing where they do short interviews with various "teacher" types at MIT and post them on YouTube. I got to do one with them in September last year and they just posted it last week.

They also let me "highjack" their Instagram feed for a week too.

And I'm sorry about the chicken.

by Joichi Ito at June 12, 2018 04:03 PM

Global Voices Advocacy
Telegram channel administrator could get death penalty for “insulting the Prophet”

Weakened by his hunger strike, prisoner of conscience Hamidreza Amini was transferred to a hospital in hand and ankle cuffs but was returned to prison before the treatment was completed. Photo shared with CHRI and reposted with permission.

Below is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Centre for Human Rights in Iran website.

Hamidreza Amini could face the death penalty if he is convicted of “insulting the Prophet” for the content of his Telegram app channel, a source close to the prisoner of conscience told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on June 5, 2018.

Amini is due to go trial on June 25, 2018, for the charges of “insulting the prophet,” “insulting the supreme leader,” “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state” and “disturbing public opinion,” said the source who requested anonymity due to the sensitivities in Iran around speaking to foreign media.

A 47-year-old mobile phone repairman, Amini was arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Organization in Tehran on December 2, 2017, for activities on his Telegram channel, which he managed under the pseudonym, “Ariyobarzan.”

According to the source who spoke with CHRI,

Hamidreza had created a Telegram channel where anyone could post her/his views, the IRGC held him responsible for everything others had written and when he told the investigator that he did not write those things, he was told that his channel and related groups had been shut down and therefore the IRGC could accuse him of anything they want.

“First of all, anyone is free to express his or her views and that’s what Hamidreza and the people in his group did,” the source said. “But most of the things he has been accused of, including ‘insulting the prophet,’ were written by others… He is being prosecuted for what 3,000 people did.”

Article 262 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code stipulates:

Anyone who swears at or commits qazf [slander] against the Great Prophet [of Islam] (peace be upon him) or any of the Great Prophets, shall be considered as Sāb ul-nabi [a person who swears at the Prophet], and shall be sentenced to the death penalty.

After his arrest, Amini was held in solitary confinement in Evin Prison’s Ward 2-A where he was interrogated without access to legal counsel.

In late February 2018, he was moved to the Great Tehran Penitentiary in Fashafouyeh, 20 miles south of Tehran, without a court order. However, he was returned to Evin Prison on June 3 after going on hunger strike to protest his condition, according to the source.

The source added that Amini was hospitalized for the effects of the hunger strike but transferred back to the prison before the treatment was completed.

by Center for Human Rights in Iran at June 12, 2018 02:49 PM

June 11, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Russian journalist forced to resign for criticizing pro-Putin propaganda on Instagram

Russian police cadets from Volgograd, Russia, singing a praise song for Russian president Vladimir Putin. Screenshot by Runet Echo. Source: YouTube

On May 24, 2018, reporter Alexandra Terikova was forced to resign for posting an Instagram video of kindergarten students singing a song for Russian president Vladimir Putin and then giving an interview about it to an independent channel.

Terikova, who works with N1, a small local TV network in Nizhnevartovsk in western Siberia, posted a video of her daughter and other children in their nursery school singing a song with the chorus “Uncle Vova, we are with you!”

Uncle Vova, we are with you. Now in our kindergarten as well. I’m not actually very keen about any commanders leading my Alisa to a last-ditch battle. #unclevovawearewithyou #staples

The hashtag #staples (#скрепы) is a sarcastic nod to Vladimir Putin's annual address to the Russian parliament in 2012 where he lamented Russian society's lack of “spiritual staples” holding the nation together. She also quotes the song's lyrics (Vova is short for Vladimir):

Двадцать первый век настал, шар земной от войн устал
Население шара гегемон достал
В Евросоюзе мнения нет, Ближний Восток стонет от бед
За океаном лишен власти президент


А нам от северных морей, вдаль до южных рубежей
От Курильских островов, до Балтийских берегов
А на земле сей был бы мир, но если главный командир
Позовет в последний бой, дядя Вова, мы с тобой

А что достанется тому, поколению моему
Дать слабинку, потеряем всю страну
А наши верные друзья, это Флот и Армия
Память дружбы деда красная звезда


Не достанется гряда, самураям никогда.
Грудью встанем за столицу янтаря.
Севастополь наш и Крым, для потомков сохраним.
В гавань Родины Аляску возвратим.

The twenty-first century is here, the planet is tired of wars,
The planet's population is tired of hegemony,
There's no unity in the European Union, the Middle East is languishing in misfortune
And a president across the ocean is robbed of his power.
And our land is the northern seas, all the way to the southern frontiers,
From the Kuril islands to the Baltic shores.
We wish the Earth could live in peace, but if our commander in chief
Beckons to fight the final battle, we are with you, Uncle Vova!
And what will my generation have left,
If we let our guard down and lose the country?
Our truest friends are our Army and the Navy,
The memories of friendship and my grandpa’s red star.
We will never surrender this ridge to the Samurai,
We will defend the amber capital [Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost exclave] with our lives,
We will preserve Sevastopol and our Crimea for future generations
And we will return Alaska to its home harbor in the motherland.


The song initially appeared last November as a music video directed by Anna Kuvychko, a State Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) lawmaker with the ruling party United Russia. The video, starring students from a local cadet school in Volgograd — formerly Stalingrad, the site of the most ferocious and deadly battle of the Second World War — has a ratio of 17,000 likes to 40,000 dislikes on YouTube and caused a massive backlash online for its jingoistic tone and exploiting children for militaristic propaganda: 

On June 6, Terikova gave an interview to TV Rain (Dozhd), an independent TV channel, where she explained that some of her fellow parents in the kindergarten were quite supportive of the performance and cheered on their four and five-years-old kids as they awkwardly sang out lyrics. She protested to the teacher, but her complaints were dismissed, she says.

On June 8, Terikova’s supervisor, her network’s chief executive officer, “very rudely” informed her that “with political ambitions like yours, your place is at the channel you just gave an interview to”, said Terikova in a follow-up interview to TV Rain.

She then posted a photograph of her resignation notice, saying that she was the first Nizhnevartovsk reporter to be fired for her dissident views.

Journalists losing their jobs over critical statements or attending opposition rallies are a common occurrence in Russia. In 2012, Pavel Lobkov, who now works for TV rain, was fired from the NTV channel. In 2015, Konstantin Goldenzweig was fired from the same NTV for giving an interview to a German TV station where he referred to Vladimir Putin's “well-known cynicism.”

by RuNet Echo at June 11, 2018 06:09 PM

Algerian blogger sentenced to ten years in prison, in another blow to free expression

Merzoug Touati. Photo shared on the facebook page of his blog Alhogra

An Algerian court in the city of Bejaia sentenced blogger Merzoug Touati to ten years in prison on 24 May. His crime? Reporting online about anti-austerity strikes, job protests, and human rights violations committed by Algerian authorities.

Touati, who has been in jail since January 2017, was convicted of providing “intelligence to agents of a foreign power likely to harm Algeria's military or diplomatic position or its essential economic interests”, for conducting and posting online an interview with an Israeli official.

On 9 January, 2017 Touati posted an interview with Hassan Kaabia, the Israeli foreign ministry's spokesperson for Arabic-speaking media on YouTube and on his blog, Alhogra, which is no longer online. The interview focused on protests and riots that erupted in the northern province of Bejaia and other parts of the country, with Algerians voicing their opposition to austerity measures including an increase in value-added, income and property taxes, and a decrease in fuel subsidies.

In the interview, Touati asked Kaabia about claims made by an Algerian government minister that foreign powers had meddled in the country's affairs and orchestrated the protests. Kaabia denied any Israeli involvement.

Kaabia also told Touati that before 2000 there was “communication” between the Algerian and Israeli governments, but could not confirm if Algeria hosted a diplomatic office representing Israel in the past.

Algeria and other Arab league governments, with the exceptions of Egypt and Jordan, do not officially recognize or have diplomatic relations with Israel due to the latter's occupation of Palestinian territories. However, some governments currently and in the past have maintained communication channels with or hosted offices representing Israel. Such relations are often kept secret by Arab governments due to the popular support to the Palestinian cause in the region.

Touati is expected to appeal the sentence in the coming weeks.

In a press release, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Regional Director Heba Morayef said:

Merzoug Touati’s arrest, trial and sentence is further proof that freedom of expression remains under threat in Algeria, where the authorities continue to use a range of repressive laws to quell dissent.

Freedom of expression is under siege in Algeria and Touati's conviction is but the latest of a series of legal threats targeting people who cross certain red lines. Many social media users, bloggers and journalists who have cast a discerning eye on ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (who has been ruling the country since 1999), the police, the judiciary, and religious institutions have been subject to legal threats from state authorities.

Blogger Slimane Bouhafs is currently serving a three-year jail sentence over posts deemed insulting to Islam. Saïd Chitour, a media fixer and stringer who worked for international media outlets such as the BBC and the Washington Post, has been in jail for a year now. Algerian authorities accuse him of “complicit relations with a foreign power”.

Despite the threats and the restrictions, a number of activists gathered in Bejaia in the evening of 6 June to demand the release of Merzoug Touati.

Will their calls be heard? Or will they once again fall on deaf ears?

by Afef Abrougui at June 11, 2018 06:08 PM

June 08, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Jogging through Tiananmen Square: What happens when Facebook meets China's censorship regime?

Mark Zuckerberg jogs through Tiananmen Square in March 2016. Photo via Facebook.

In March 2016, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a trip to China.

While in Beijing, Zuckerberg went for a jog. As if he were a regular tourist, posting updates to his buddies back in Silicon Valley, he wrote on his Facebook page:

It's great to be back in Beijing! I kicked off my visit with a run through Tiananmen Square, past the Forbidden City and over to the Temple of Heaven.

This was remarkable on several levels. Facebook has been almost continuously inaccessible in China since 2009, as some of Zuckerberg's followers were quick to point out — practically speaking, how did he post that update? Others remarked on the conspicuous cloud of smog hanging in the background.

But several netizens seized on the particulars of this seemingly harmless act of jogging through Beijing. Tiananmen Square, they noted, is no ordinary public plaza. In the comment field beside the post, an argument broke out between users — much of it written in Chinese — about exactly what happened 29 years ago in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

One user wrote that on that date, 29 years ago this week, 6,400 peacefully demonstrating students were shot and killed by police. Another retorted that only students who attacked police were shot at. Users offered vastly different estimates of how many students died that day.


Multiple users remarked on pollution and human rights after Mark Zuckerberg posted about his jog through Tiananmen Square in March 2016. Photo via Facebook.

It is not surprising that Zuckerberg's followers had such wide-ranging ideas of what truly happened. After all, this history has been systematically disappeared from the public record in China, both online and off.

The 1989 protests and ensuing massacre at Tiananmen Square represent the most sensitive and heavily censored topic on the Chinese internet — conversations like the one on Facebook can scarcely take place on Chinese social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo, if at all.

The Chinese government prohibits all forms of offline and online discussion on the Tiananmen protests. It requires internet companies and platforms to censor websites, stories and academic texts related to the protests, along with all online posts that mention “Tiananmen Square”, “June 4″, and “Hu Yaobang” (the politician whose death sparked the protests). Even images of candlelight, symbolizing a vigil, have been banned in the past.

Facebook is no stranger to this regime. Despite having been blocked in mainland China since 2009, the 2.2 billion user social media network is accessible and popular in Taiwan and in Hong Kong, which is a special administrative region of China that has a semi-autonomous system of governance, but ultimately lies under the thumb of Beijing.

In 2017, approaching the 28th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a user in Hong Kong created a profile picture frame commemorating the victims. Facebook’s picture frame function allows users to change their profile photos in support of a cause. The frame in question, pictured below, carries messages calling for justice for Tiananmen protesters and an end to “dictatorial rule” in China.

Fung Ka Keung (right) and the June 4 profile picture frame. Photo: Fung Ka Keung/HK Alliance, via Facebook.

Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union Chief Executive Fung Ka-keung, who made the frame, received a notification within 24 hours saying that his design was rejected. Facebook said the frame “belittles, threatens or attacks a particular person, legal entity, nationality or group.”

This was a surprising response for a social media platform once lauded for its catalytic effect on social movements against authoritarian governments in countries ranging from Egypt to Ukraine to Venezuela.

Facebook users in Hong Kong protested the removal of the frame and expressed concern that the site was curbing their freedom of expression, in what they suspected was an effort to appease the central Chinese government and perhaps increase Facebook's chances of re-entry into the lucrative Chinese market.

After the incident was reported in the news, the social media giant publicly apologized and approved the frame. In a brief statement, Facebook called the rejection a “mistake”.

But did the company really remove the frame in error? It is impossible to know. Was this the decision of a machine? Of a human moderator who thought the word “vindicate” was reason enough to reject the frame?

Or was it — as Hong Kongers suspected — a more calculated move, intended to kowtow to Beijing?

Just last week, another message promoting solidarity with the Tiananmen protesters was censored on Facebook. The message invited supporters to join an event in Hong Kong called “The Voice of Dissent”, on the eve of the 29th anniversary of the massacre. Automated messages from Facebook identified the message as spam. This may have been a technical designation, due to a generic email address that appeared in the message, but it still raised suspicion among Hong Kongers that something was amiss.

Screen shot of Voice of Dissent message, with Facebook response.

In its current form, Facebook does not offer users a way to ask questions about the company's actions and be guaranteed a concrete, specific answer. When a piece of content is removed from the platform, there is not a meaningful process of appeal where users can expect an explanation of why this piece of content, specifically, was removed.

When we are left to wonder if the reasons are purely technical, or not. For some of us, it is too easy to imagine that, when it comes to China, there is a bigger political agenda at stake.

Between the Cambridge Analytica revelations, congressional hearings in the US and the EU's freshly-implemented General Data Protection Regulation, there is a strong chance that Facebook's ability to monetize user data will soon face new limitations. This means that Facebook will need to find new ways to make money and grow its business. Entering the Chinese market — if the Chinese government will give its blessing — would be a surefire way to secure the company's future.

And when we think back on Mark Zuckerberg happily jogging in the same public space where thousands of students were killed by their the same government that Zuckerberg seeks to appease, it is difficult to imagine that this, like the rejection of the commemorative frame, is just a mistake.

For some years now, Zuckerberg has been too powerful and had too many resources at his disposal not to know how his actions are interpreted by the global public. He cannot claim ignorance at this point in the game, nor can he afford to.

These and many other gestures of good will toward the Chinese government send clear signals of deference to the state and the Chinese Communist Party, and clear signals of disregard to human rights advocates, political prisoners and victims of human rights abuses.

As human rights activist Cao Yuzhou put it:

The floor you stepped on has been covered by blood from students who fought for democracy. But, enjoy your running in China, Mark.

by Ellery Roberts Biddle at June 08, 2018 09:09 PM

Whether or not Papua New Guinea bans Facebook, critics say free speech still under threat

Students in IT class at the Hohola Youth Development Centre. Flickr photo by Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (CC BY 2.0)

Papua New Guinea’s reported plan to ban Facebook for a month has raised concerns about government suppression of free speech.

On 29 May 2018, the Post-Courier newspaper reported on a proposal of the Communications and Information Technology Department to ban the social network in order to analyze its use and protect the safety of users. The article quoted Communications Minister Sam Basil as follows:

The time will allow information to be collected to identify users that hide behind fake accounts, users that upload pornographic images, users that post false and misleading information on Facebook to be filtered and removed…We cannot allow the abuse of Facebook to continue in the country.

Basil even suggested that the government can ask local tech companies to develop a similar platform “that is more conducive for Papua New Guineans to communicate within the country and abroad as well.”

The proposed ban was widely condemned in and outside of Papua New Guinea.

But Basil was quick to deny that the ministry has a plan to ban Facebook and accused the Post-Courier of distorting his statement. The newspaper stood by its story and the reporter who interviewed the minister.

During a subsequent parliamentary session, the governor of the Eastern Highlands province asked about the possibility of regulating and even banning Facebook to stop the spread of misinformation.

Opposition members of parliament accused the ruling party of trying to stifle public criticism. This was what MP Bryan Kramer told the media:

I believe the real intent behind the plan is to silence growing public criticism against the Government in relation to corruption. There is also the issue of prosecuting those who are staunch critics and running anti-corruption campaigns naming high level Government officials.

Kramer also called Basil’s proposal as “dumb” on his Facebook page. After this, Basil threatened that Kramer could be charged and arrested for defamation because of his Facebook post.

Gary Juffa, another member of the opposition, urged his fellow politicians to accept criticism and focus more on debating the other more urgent concerns of the citizens:

Let's debate and act on how our people's feelings are hurt and indeed their well-being is affected because they cannot access the services they deserve rather than be outraged because people have said something about us. Mere words.

The Media Council of Papua New Guinea also released a statement expressing concern about the reported Facebook ban:

While we appreciate that there is available content on Facebook that is classified illegal and deemed detrimental to the future of our people, we feel that any attempt to censor, curb, or restrict our people’s protected right to freedom of expression in any form, is an attack against our freedom as the media.

Facebook ban during APEC Summit?

The opposition also suspects that the government’s Facebook ban could be linked to the country’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit set for later in the year. Basil has denied this.

Paul Barker, the director of the Institute of National Affairs, rejected the idea of banning Facebook during the APEC summit:

It would be a travesty if PNG sought to close down Facebook during the APEC month, making PNG seem rather foolish, as it would be both an attack on embracing technology, undermining the information era and mechanisms for accountability, but also damaging business and welfare.

Writer Scott Waide concurred:

It is a highly embarrassing position to be in as members of APEC discuss the region’s economic future with e-commerce and social media being a pivotal focus of the talks.

Any shutdown of Facebook for any length of time is contrary to the spirit of the discussions where wider access to ICT forms the basis of future economic policies.

He also emphasized the importance of Facebook for small businesses and other needs of the community:

In Lae City where I live, Facebook is a primary means of reporting crimes to the police. The Lae Police Metropolitan Command has a Facebook page linked to its crime reporting systems and toll free number. It is an integral part of policing.

Researcher Kasek Galgal is skeptical about the methodology that the government will use in undertaking an in-depth study of Facebook. He gave this reminder:

If the government is serious about protecting its citizens online, then creating an environment where they can safely use the internet should be the goal, not blocking parts of it altogether.

According to news reports, Facebook has reached out to Papua New Guinea authorities to address the concerns of the government.

by Mong Palatino at June 08, 2018 08:46 PM

Netizen Report: In another blow for free speech, Egypt’s parliament passes cybercrime law

Army truck and soldiers in Tahrir Square, Cairo, January 2011. Photo by Ramy Raoof via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

On June 5, Egypt’s parliament approved a cybercrime law that will dictate what is and is not permissible in the realms of online censorship, data privacy, hacking, fraud and messages that authorities fear are spreading “terrorist and extremist ideologies.”

The law gives investigative authorities the right to “order the censorship of websites” whenever a site hosts content that “poses a threat to national security or compromises national security or the national economy.”

The law also creates a stronger legal basis from which authorities can pursue voices of dissent or political criticism. While the Egyptian government is notorious for censoring websites and platforms on national security grounds, there have been no laws in force that explicitly address this practice until now.

In the month of May 2018 alone, authorities picked up multiple bloggers and well-known social media activists on similar grounds.

On May 23, Egyptian police raided the home of journalist and blogger Wael Abbas and arrested him. His whereabouts are still unknown but authorities confiscated his personal computer, phones, and books, according to a statement published by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). The network condemned the arrest, describing it as a “kidnapping,” given that authorities forcibly entered Abbas’ home, blindfolded him and took him into custody while still in his night clothes.

While Abbas was able to publish a brief sentence on his Facebook account which said: “I am being arrested,” no official statement has yet been issued by the Egyptian authorities on the incident. An Egyptian journalist, known to be closely allied with the authorities, blamed Abbas for publishing “fake news” about military operations in Egypt’s Sinai region.

Just a few days prior, another blogger, human rights activist and labor lawyer Haitham Mohamedein, was seized by Egyptian authorities. He had been accused of a number of crimes, including “using the internet to incite against the state” and “incitement to protest.” He was detained for 15 days while authorities investigated his activities.

Shadi Abou Zeid, who had previously worked as a producer for a well-known satirical show featuring a chatty puppet character named Abla Fahita, was also arrested for “spreading false information on Facebook about the economic and political states of the country with the intention to undermine trust in the Egyptian state.” He is currently in custody as part of a 15-day detention and is awaiting formal charges.

Nigerian woman loses her job over critical tweets

A Nigerian woman employed by the presidential amnesty office lost her job after criticizing Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and President Muhammadu Buhari’s wife Aisha on Twitter. The office described her tweets as a “threat to national security” and dismissed her under public service rules that define “false claims against government officials” as serious misconduct.

Azerbaijani human rights lawyer abducted, detained

Azerbaijani human rights lawyer Emin Aslan was abducted by men in plainclothes just days after re-entering his native country, after completing a law degree in the US. During that time, his Facebook account — which had been deactivated for months — suddenly became active. His phone also appeared to be in use, even though since his return to Azerbaijan, Aslan had not used his phone. More than a day later, authorities revealed that Aslan was in their custody, and was being held in administrative detention for 30 days on charges of “disobeying the police”.

Facebook shared your data in order to create ‘Facebook-like experiences’

Facebook established data sharing agreements with phone and device makers including Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Samsung that granted the companies access to substantial amounts of data on users and their friends without their explicit consent, according to a report by the New York Times. Some partners can retrieve information including a user’s relationship status, religion, political leaning, and events, among other data. In a response, Facebook asserted that the APIs it developed for device makers were necessary to create “Facebook-like experiences” on their devices, and that the partners signed agreements preventing them from using the data for any other purpose.

“We are not aware of any abuse by these companies”, Facebook said, but added that it is winding down access to them and has already ended 22 of its partnerships. The report raises more questions about Facebook’s commitment to privacy protections in the wake of this spring’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the data mining company used data from Facebook beyond the boundaries of the two companies’ initial agreement.

Google drops drone footage analysis program after employee protest

Google announced it will not renew its contract for Project Maven, a controversial project to provide artificial intelligence to the US Department of Defense to aid in analyzing drone footage. Thousands of Google employees signed a petition asking the company to cancel its contract for the project, and dozens resigned in protest.

Civil society calls for input on digital future at the G20

A coalition of civil society advocates working at the intersection of human rights and technology wrote an open letter calling on government participants in the G20 summit in Argentina to ensure that “the evolving digital society supports a healthy web ecosystem and puts people first.” They touched specifically on the importance of meaningful access to ICTs, privacy and data protection rights, freedom of expression, cybersecurity and increased competition in digital services.



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by Netizen Report Team at June 08, 2018 07:53 PM

June 05, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Freedom abroad, fear at home: Azerbaijani human rights lawyer detained for 30 days

Emin Aslan with his fiancée, Nura. Photo by Emin Aslan.

For Emin Aslan, going back to his native Azerbaijan after completing his studies in the US meant seeing his friends, and marrying his fiancée.

As a human rights lawyer, he worried that he might be detained once in Azerbaijan. Prior to leaving the country, he had worked with local non-government organizations and had prepared multiple complaints brought before the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of Azerbaijani citizens.

But after answering a few questions from authorities, he crossed the border and passed through customs. There was less to fear. Or so he thought.

Then everything changed. For me, it began with a message on my phone's screen: “Emin Aslan detained”. It took me a minute to process this news about my friend. I had just spoken with Emin's fiancée two days before and we had made plans to see one another in the coming months. How could it be? The news started circulating online just a few minutes later.

Lawyer Emin Aslan was taken in an unknown direction by plainclothed men today in Baku. There is no information on his whereabouts.

For more than twelve hours, Emin Aslan's whereabouts were unknown. Family members called one police station after another, only to be told that police did not know where Emin was being held. But as his friends and allies began to put the pieces together, the answer became clear.

Acclaimed investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was once a client of Emin's, wrote on Facebook:

Another human rights defender is arrested today.

Emin Aslan is a lawyer. He represented me in several Freedom of İnformation litigations and libel cases when he was one of the lawyers of Media Rights Institute. Three days ago he completed his studies in Syracuse university and came to Azerbaijan.

He is engaged and was planning to marry. Today, he was kidnapped in front of his fiancee, forced to the car and taken in unknown direction. The car, that he was forced to belongs to Mehman Teymurov – officer of Bandotdel – Anti Organized Crime Unit of Interior Ministry – the unit that is notorious for tortures.

Emin Aslan is a human rights defender and he was also mentioned in the famous NGO case which caused arrest of Intigam Aliyev, Anar Mammadli, Rasul Jafarov and myself in 2013-2014. Possible arrest was the reason why he left the country. He thought it might be safe now. No it isn't.

Ismayilova further posted about the car that was seen taking Emin away:

Emin Aslanı aparan avtomobil (90 XG 017) Teymurov Mehman Vaqif oğluna məxsusdur. Eyni adlı adam Baş Narkotiklərlə Mübarizə İdarəsinin əməkdaşı olub. Sonra bu ad soyadlı şəxs Nardaran işində iştirak edib. Mütəşəkkil Cİnayətkarlığa Qarşı Mübarizə İdarəsinin (Bandotdel) əməliyyatçısı qismində. Emin Aslan bandotdeldədir demək.…/files/1%28106%29300%281%29.pdf

The car license plate (number 90 XG 017) that reportedly took Emin Aslan belongs to Mehman Teymurov. The man by the same name worked as an employee of the Department to Combat Drugs. Later, the same name, appeared in Nardaran case as an employee of the Department for Combating Organized Crime [aka Bandotdel]. This means Emin Aslan is kept at “Bandotdel”.

The next day, on June 5, the Department for Combating Organized Crime confirmed it was holding Emin.

Human rights defender Anar Mammadli posted on Facebook:

Vekil Elçin Sadıqova MCQMİ-den (Bandotdel) Emin Aslanın orada olduğunu tesdiq edibler. Ancaq ona Eminle görüş icazesi verilmeyib.

The Department for Combating Organized Crime confirmed with lawyer Elchin Sadigov that Emin Aslan is being held there. However, the lawyer was not allowed to see him.

On June 5, a local court sentenced Emin to 30 days in administrative detention on charges of disobeying the police. The real reasons for his detention are still unknown, leaving his friends and family puzzled.

Although he will remain in police custody for the next 30 days, the sentence of administrative detention (in contrast to pre-trial detention) has left his family with some hope that he will be released thereafter.

Writing on her Facebook, his fiance, Nura, wrote:

Biz indi Eminlә evlilik/viza işlәri ilә mәşğul olmalı idik, amma indi tәcridxana üçün çantasın hazırlayıram. Bu biabırçılıqdı, bu iyrәnclikdi. Bizim hәyatımızdan 30 gün oğurlayıblar vә buna sevinirik.

30 gün nәdir ki, bir göz qırpımında gәlib keçәcәk. Amma yaşadığım stres, mәyusluq hәmişә mәnimlә qalacaq. Amma hәrşeyә baxmayaraq, möhkәmik, başqa yolu yoxdur, onsuz.

Right now, Emin and I were supposed to deal with marriage/visa paperwork but instead I am preparing a bag for him to take with me to the detention center. This is shameful and disgusting. They have stolen 30 days from our lives and yet we are celebrating. What is 30 days anyway, it will pass by in an instance but this stress will always stay with me. Despite everything we are strong, there is no other way.

Emin is a recent graduate of Syracuse University College of Law, in the US, where he completed a LLM degree. After completing his studies, he returned back to his native Azerbaijan on May 30. Four days later, he was abducted.

Prior to leaving for his studies, Emin worked in Tbilisi, Georgia with Human Rights House Tbilisi office. On Facebook, Emin's former colleagues expressed concern about his disappearance and alleged abduction.

Emin Aslan at his graduation from Syracuse University. Photo by Emin Aslan via Meydan TV.

Similarly, the Eastern European Center for Multiparty Democracy issued the following statement:

We have learned today that Mr. Emin Aslan, our former colleague, has been kidnapped in Baku by the unidentified individuals. We are very concerned with his fate in the face of widespread kidnappings and mistreatment of journalists, human rights activists and pro-democracy leaders in Azerbaijan.

While Emin was held incommunicado, his Facebook account — which had been deactivated for months — suddenly became active. His phone also appeared to be in use, even though since his return to Azerbaijan, Emin had not used his phone.

Emin's arrest is one of multiple recent government attempts to persecute the remaining voices of Azerbaijan's civil society. Scores of opposition party members have been rounded up and held on bogus charges. And while many more questions remain unanswered in Emin's case, this illustration by exiled Azerbaijani cartoonist sums it all well.


by Arzu Geybullayeva at June 05, 2018 09:52 PM

June 02, 2018

danah boyd
The case for quarantining extremist ideas

(Joan Donovan and I wrote the following op-ed for The Guardian.) 

When confronted with white supremacists, newspaper editors should consider ‘strategic silence’

 ‘The KKK of the 1920s considered media coverage their most effective recruitment tactic.’ Photograph: Library of Congress

George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi party, had a simple media strategy in the 1960s. He wrote in his autobiography: “Only by forcing the Jews to spread our message with their facilities could we have any hope of success in counteracting their left-wing, racemixing propaganda!”

Campus by campus, from Harvard to Brown to Columbia, he would use the violence of his ideas and brawn of his followers to become headline news. To compel media coverage, Rockwell needed: “(1) A smashing, dramatic approach which could not be ignored, without exposing the most blatant press censorship, and (2) a super-tough, hard-core of young fighting men to enable such a dramatic presentation to the public.” He understood what other groups competing for media attention knew too well: a movement could only be successful if the media amplified their message.

Contemporary Jewish community groups challenged journalists to consider not covering white supremacists’ ideas. They called this strategy “quarantine”, and it involved working with community organizations to minimize public confrontations and provide local journalists with enough context to understand why the American Nazi party was not newsworthy.

In regions where quarantine was deployed successfully, violence remained minimal and Rockwell was unable to recruit new party members. The press in those areas was aware that amplification served the agenda of the American Nazi party, so informed journalists employed strategic silence to reduce public harm.

The Media Manipulation research initiative at the Data & Society institute is concerned precisely with the legacy of this battle in discourse and the way that modern extremists undermine journalists and set media agendas. Media has always had the ability to publish or amplify particular voices, perspectives and incidents. In choosing stories and voices they will or will not prioritize, editors weigh the benefits and costs of coverage against potential social consequences. In doing so, they help create broader societal values. We call this willingness to avoid amplifying extremist messages “strategic silence”.

Editors used to engage in strategic silence – set agendas, omit extremist ideas and manage voices – without knowing they were doing so. Yet the online context has enhanced extremists’ abilities to create controversies, prompting newsrooms to justify covering their spectacles. Because competition for audience is increasingly fierce and financially consequential, longstanding newsroom norms have come undone. We believe that journalists do not rebuild reputation through a race to the bottom. Rather, we think that it’s imperative that newsrooms actively take the high ground and re-embrace strategic silence in order to defy extremists’ platforms for spreading hate.

Strategic silence is not a new idea. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s considered media coverage their most effective recruitment tactic and accordingly cultivated friendly journalists. According to Felix Harcourt, thousands of readers joined the KKK after the New York World ran a three-week chronicle of the group in 1921. Catholic, Jewish and black presses of the 1920s consciously differed from Protestant-owned mainstream papers in their coverage of the Klan, conspicuously avoiding giving the group unnecessary attention. The black press called this use of editorial discretion in the public interest “dignified silence”, and limited their reporting to KKK follies, such as canceled parades, rejected donations and resignations. Some mainstream journalists also grew suspicious of the KKK’s attempts to bait them with camera-ready spectacles. Eventually coverage declined.

The KKK was so intent on getting the coverage they sought that they threatened violence and white boycotts of advertisers. Knowing they could bait coverage with violence, white vigilante groups of the 1960s staged cross burnings and engaged in high-profile murders and church bombings. Civil rights protesters countered white violence with black stillness, especially during lunch counter sit-ins. Journalists and editors had to make moral choices of which voices to privilege, and they chose those of peace and justice, championing stories of black resilience and shutting out white extremism. This was strategic silence in action, and it saved lives.

The emphasis of strategic silence must be placed on the strategic over the silencing. Every story requires a choice and the recent turn toward providing equal coverage to dangerous, antisocial opinions requires acknowledging the suffering that such reporting causes. Even attempts to cover extremism critically can result in the media disseminating the methods that hate groups aim to spread, such as when Virginia’s Westmoreland News reproduced in full a local KKK recruitment flier on its front page. Media outlets who cannot argue that their reporting benefits the goal of a just and ethical society must opt for silence.

Newsrooms must understand that even with the best of intentions, they can find themselves being used by extremists. By contrast, they must also understand they have the power to defy the goals of hate groups by optimizing for core American values of equality, respect and civil discourse. All Americans have the right to speak their minds, but not every person deserves to have their opinions amplified, particularly when their goals are to sow violence, hatred and chaos.

If telling stories didn’t change lives, journalists would never have started in their careers. We know that words matter and that coverage makes a difference. In this era of increasing violence and extremism, we appeal to editors to choose strategic silence over publishing stories that fuel the radicalization of their readers.

(Visit the original version at The Guardian to read the comments and help support their organization, as a sign of appreciation for their willingness to publish our work.)

by zephoria at June 02, 2018 01:39 AM

June 01, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Videos allege Indian media houses promised to favor Hindu nationalism in exchange for cash

Operation 136 Logo. Via Cobrapost. Fair use.

A viral series of videos on social media show that Indian media houses may be accepting large sums of money in exchange for flattering coverage of the ruling party and Hindu nationalist ideology.

With a few exceptions, Indian mainstream media outlets have become notoriously gentle in their journalistic treatment of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So when the New Delhi High Court attempted to block news site CobraPost from publishing a cache of videos showing evidence of collusion between government and media last week, it caught people's attention.

A small media outlet known for taking risks and sometimes employing unorthodox tactics, CobraPost nevertheless went ahead and released the videos on social media.

CobraPost made the videos in a “sting” operation in which one of its journalists posed as a wealthy religious man from a monastery. He approached various mainstream media houses proposing to pay large sums of money before the elections of 2019, to ensure Modi's BJP wins the vote. Most of the publications agreed to join the crusade. Others said they were already on the job.

Some of the videos show prominent executives in media houses agreeing on camera to promote Hindutva ideology (the preferred form of Hindu nationalism of the BJP party) and describing how editorial content could be tailored through strategic public relations, all in exchange for large sums of money in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.

The videos also allege that many news organisations including Benett and Coleman Ltd (publisher of Times of India, Mirror tabloids, Economic Times, et al) had become part of a broader campaign to normalize Hindutva ideology and to polarize the country in an effort to shore up political support for the ruling party.

This campaign has coincided with numerous lynchings of Muslim men, attacks on Dalits (groups historically treated as an underclass in India's caste system) and protests against Muslims offering prayers on Fridays.

Journalist Meghnad commented on the revelations:

CobraPost used no other secondary sources to confirm that these media houses were accepting money for promoting pro-government content. But it is almost open knowledge in India that the practice takes place.

Alongside the ethical questions raised by CobraPost's methods, the videos immediately cast doubt on the editorial integrity of news organisations covering the Modi administration in India's highly polarised political environment.

In a press release quoted by Scroll, CobraPost stated how India's leading publications are willing to “not only cause communal disharmony among the citizens but also turn the electoral outcome in favor of a particular party – and all in return for cash.”

The report has come to light amid a rapid rise of “fake news” websites in India that seem intended to promote religious and communal tension.

Indian regional daily Dainik Bhaskar moved the Delhi High Court to seek an injunction against CobraPost, but the publication stood firm and published its findings.

Major publications including the Times of India, HT Media, India Today, the Zee group, and TV18 have been named in the stinging sensation as well. But since the release of the videos, most of these outlets have stayed mum and avoided reporting on the video revelations.

Politician Yogendra Yadav questioned the coverage of CobraPost in Indian newspapers or lack thereof:

Indian singer Vishal Dadlani questioned the news coverage and BJP's involvement:

On May 31, six days after the videos went public, India Today media group filed a legal notice demanding that CobraPost remove the videos implicating India Today and claiming that their content was manipulated. A subsequent article on the Times of India website described the videos as “a case of doctoring of content and falsification, as no media organisations named in it agreed to any illegal or immoral activity and no contracts were signed.”

YouTube vlogger Dhruv Rathee retorted to trolls questioning CobraPost's journalism and ethics:

Several media personalities and senior journalists also expressed their views on the sting and about editorial integrity.

Prominent media personality Raju Narisetti offered insight on how this affects India's media credibility in the long run:

Indian TV anchor and journalist Rajdeep Sardesai meanwhile questioned the investigations for painting the entire country's media as compromised:

Journalist Sagarika Ghosh followed Rajdeep's lead and said publications she had worked for had never pressured her to cover government agencies in a flattering light.

Independent researcher Akshaya Mukul demanded that India's Editors Guild step in and take action against erring publishing platforms:

Novelist Manu Joseph poked fun at the incident:

Marathi journalist Wagle Nikhil underscored the need for independent media to counter the polarising narrative:

The incident also highlights the degree to which a healthy media environment requires independent streams of funding. Without this, media outlets are often left with little choice but to compromise their coverage at the behest of their benefactors.

by Vishal Manve at June 01, 2018 05:37 PM

Netizen Report: Uganda’s ‘WhatsApp tax’ and SIM card regulations will make it harder to stay connected

Telco ad on a van in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

The Ugandan government approved a new tax law that will apply levies to a range of goods and services, including mobile money accounts and social media services such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

When policymakers first proposed the so-called “WhatsApp tax”, supporters — among them President Yoweri Museveni — argued that it would help to reduce “gossip” on social media. It was also popular among local telecom providers, who do not directly benefit from the use of foreign-based “over-the-top” services such as WhatsApp.

In an interview, Ugandan blogger and Global Voices author Pru Nyamishana told BuzzFeed:

one of the two biggest challenges that we face in internet governance is access. This tax is locking people out….we also believe it is a deliberate move to censor Ugandans and cut down on dissenting voices.

Citing a recent rise in murders and kidnappings, the Ugandan government has also ended a two-month freeze on SIM card sales and ordered telecom companies to register all new mobile SIM cards with the National Biometrics Data Center. It has banned the sale of scratchable recharge cards as well.

Authorities say violent criminals communicate using unregistered SIM cards in order to plan the attacks without being traced.

While the ban on SIM card sales has been lifted, new regulations will now require Ugandans to provide vendors with their national identification cards so that their personal data can be verified on electronic card readers at the time of purchase. Under the new law, which goes into effect July 1, customers will also be made to use mobile money accounts in order to recharge their SIM cards.

In a press statement, the Uganda Consumer Protection Association said SIM card regulatory measures would not reduce the crime rate. Writing about the new tax law, Juliet Nanfuka of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) called it “the latest in a series of government actions that threaten citizens’ access to the internet.”

Taken together, these new policies will make it more costly for Ugandans — especially those living in poverty — to communicate and perform everyday tasks using their mobile devices.

Internet shutdown in India’s Tamil Nadu state following massacre of protesters

After police shot and killed 13 civilians at a public demonstration in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, fixed and mobile internet networks were shut down in three districts at the order of local government authorities. The demonstrators were protesting the expansion of a copper plant that they say is polluting the air and water in their district and putting their health at risk. Videos of police acting violently or cruelly toward protesters have been circulating on social media, leaving many skeptical of the government’s motivations for cutting off internet access.

According to the Software Freedom Law Center of New Delhi, there have been 55 regional internet shutdowns in India so far in 2018.

Papua New Guinea puts a one-month ban on Facebook, citing ‘fake users’

Officials in the southern Pacific island state of Papua New Guinea will impose a one-month-long ban on Facebook, in what they say is an effort to better understand the platform as a catalyst for the spread of false information.

In an interview with The Guardian, digital media scholar and Global Voices author Aim Sinpeng expressed concern about the ban, but also noted that it would have less impact there than in other parts of the world, given the country’s low proportion of internet users. Papua New Guinea has a population of just over eight million and an internet penetration rate of only 12 percent.

UAE human rights advocate faces 10 years in prison for social media activism

Emirati human rights advocate Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in prison by an Abu Dhabi appeals court for allegedly spreading “hatred and sectarianism” and publishing “false information” on social media. He was also issued a one million dirham fine (roughly USD $272,000) for “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE.”

Mansoor, who has been held in detention since March 2017, is among a handful of vocal human rights advocates in the Gulf country and received the 2015 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. He was also jailed in 2011, after he campaigned for democratic reforms in UAE and signed a pro-democracy petition. From this time until his most recent arrest, he faced harassment and surveillance both online and off.

With new software, is helping governments surveil US residents has developed its own facial recognition software, Rekognition, a product the company says can perform “real-time face recognition across tens of millions of faces, and detection of up to 100 faces in challenging crowded photos.”

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union obtained and released emails proving that Amazon has been selling the software to local governments in the US states of Arizona, California and Oregon and that the company had trained and consulted with government officials under a non-disclosure agreement initiated by Amazon.

The organization also co-wrote a coalition letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, demanding that Amazon “stop powering a government surveillance infrastructure that poses a grave threat to customers and communities across the country.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Human Rights Watch were among signatories.

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by Netizen Report Team at June 01, 2018 01:39 PM

May 31, 2018

Global Voices Advocacy
Ukrainian authorities stage journalist's murder, taking ‘fake news’ to the next level

Arkady Babchenko in Tskhinvali, Georgia, in 2008. Photo by anonymous via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The murder of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko broke on May 29, with multiple media outlets reporting that Babchenko suffered three fatal gunshot wounds in the back at his apartment building in Kyiv.

The news shook the world, prompting leaders in media and government to express outrage and condolences to his wife and daughter — until it was revealed, just a day later, that the murder was a fake.

At press conference on May 30, Ukrainian officials brought out Babchenko, clearly alive and well, to the shock of all those around him. Officials explained with pride that the incident was staged by the SBU, Ukraine's domestic intelligence agency, as a part of a special operation to stymie an alleged plot to assassinate Babchenko and 30 other Russian political emigres in Ukraine and other countries. 

A veteran war reporter and a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin's policies, Babchenko fled Russia in 2017 after a controversial post on Facebook where he refused to mourn the victims of a fatal plane crash. It made him a target of a propaganda campaign on Russian state media and provoked numerous threats on his life.

According to the head of SBU, Vasyl Gritsak, the murder of Babchenko was ordered by the Russian security services, who had recruited a Ukrainian army veteran through a local subcontractor. The price for the execution of the murder was reported to be $40,000.

The plan was allegedly foiled after the veteran contracted to assassinate decided to cooperate with Ukrainian law enforcement and is now as a witness in the trial. In order to convince the conspirators behind Babchenko's assassination of its success, SBU faked a photograph of the ‘dead’ journalist, complete with a pool of pig blood, as Babchenko himself revealed during the press conference.

Ukraine's security services were so visibly triumphant during the press conference that some journalists covering Ukraine found it disconcerting:

Other journalists were caught red-faced after sharing heartfelt obituaries and breaking what seemed a genuinely tragic news story at the time:

Associated Press reporter Nataliya Vasilyeva raised concern about the implications of the stunt pulled by Babchenko and SBU on the credibility of the media in general:

The incident deeply undermines the credibility of Ukrainian officials and journalists. And in a region where “fake news” and disinformation already run rampant, the prospect of actual events being faked or distorted sets the bar even higher for journalists seeking to report the truth.

Similar concerns were raised by media freedom advocates. Harlem Desir, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, criticized Ukrainian authorities’ decision:

The Committee for the Protection of Journalists had a similar message:

What is known is that the Ukrainian government has damaged its own credibility. And given the SBU is an intelligence agency, which engages in deception, obfuscation, and propaganda, determining the truth will be very difficult.

After miraculously coming back to life, Babchenko wrote on Twitter that he was “tired” of dying:

Screw them. I won't give them the satisfaction. I made a promise to die at the age of 96, after dancing on Putin's grave and taking a selfie on an Abrams tank on Tverskaya street [Moscow's central thoroughfare] — and I'll do my best to accomplish it. It must be my fate: coming back from the dead every four years. My god, dying is so tiresome. Good morning.

The investigation into Russia's alleged plot to assassinate Arkady Babchenko is pending.

by RuNet Echo at May 31, 2018 08:17 PM

May 30, 2018

Ethan Zuckerman
Six or Seven Things Social Media Can Do For Democracy

Social media doesn’t work the way we think it should. That’s the conclusion many people have come to in the wake of revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s mining of Facebook data to build political profiles and sway elections. Perhaps the concerns go further back, to the election of a US president in 2016 who seems fueled by social media, the more polarizing and divisive the better. Or perhaps it was Brexit that broke you. Or a gunman “self-investigating” the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor, spurious accusations of crisis actors at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and the amazingly inventive web of conspiracies the internet seems to engender. The cyberutopians have retreated, the creators of the modern internet are doing penance and we’re all social media critics now.

Photo by Tim Green, Flickr

Those critics include (suddenly) self-reflective executives at social media platforms, who are desperate for ideas on how their tools can return to society’s good graces. Having learned that platforms manage to metrics, making business decisions to maximize revenues, pageviews or engagement, there’s a new urgency to create a metric that will give us better social media, tools less likely to isolate, polarize and radicalize us. Tristan Harris has preached the gospel of Time Well Spent to newly receptive audiences at Facebook. At Cortico, my MIT colleague Deb Roy is working to define measures of healthy online communities, so Twitter and other platforms can optimize to encourage these behaviors.

These are worthy projects, and I am following both with optimism and interest. But I am concerned that we’ve not had a robust conversation about what we want social media to do for us.

We know what social media does for platform companies like Facebook and Twitter: it generates enormous masses of user-generated content that can be monetized with advertising, and reams of behavioral data that make that advertising more valuable. Perhaps we have a sense for what social media does for us as individuals, connecting us to distant friends, helping us maintain a lightweight awareness of each other’s lives even when we are not co-present. Or perhaps it’s a machine for disappointment and envy, a window into lives better lived than our own. It’s likely that what social media does for us personally is a deeply idiosyncratic question, dependent on our own lives, psyches and decisions, better discussed with our therapists than spoken about in generalities.

I’m interested in what social media should do for us as citizens in a democracy. We talk about social media as a digital public sphere, invoking Habermas and coffeehouses frequented by the bourgeoisie. Before we ask whether the internet succeeds as a public sphere, we ought to ask whether that’s actually what we want it to be.

I take my lead here from journalism scholar Michael Schudson, who took issue with a hyperbolic statement made by media critic James Carey: “journalism as a practice is unthinkable except in the context of democracy; in fact, journalism is usefully understood as another name for democracy.” For Schudson, this was a step too far. Journalism may be necessary for democracy to function well, but journalism by itself is not democracy and cannot produce democracy. Instead, we should work to understand the “Six or Seven Things News Can Do for Democracy”, the title of an incisive essay Schudson wrote to anchor his book, Why Democracies Need an Unloveable Press.

The six things Schudson sees news currently doing for democracy are presented in order of their frequency – as a result, the first three functions Schudson sees are straightforward and unsurprising. The news informs us about events, locally and globally, that we need to know about as citizens. The news investigates issues that are not immediately obvious, doing the hard work of excavating truths that someone did not want told. News provides analysis, knitting reported facts into complex possible narratives of significance and direction.

Schudson wades into deeper waters with the next three functions. News can serve as a public forum, allowing citizens to raise their voices through letters to the editor, op-eds and (when they’re still permitted) through comments. The news can serve as a tool for social empathy, helping us feel the importance of social issues through careful storytelling, appealing to our hearts as well as our heads. Controversially, Schudson argues, news can be a force for mobilization, urging readers to take action, voting, marching, protesting, boycotting, or using any of the other tools we have access to as citizens.

His essay closes with a seventh role that Schudson believes the news should fill, even if it has yet to embrace it. The news can be a force for the promotion of representative democracy. For Schudson, this includes the idea of protecting minority rights against the excesses of populism, and he sees a possible role for journalists in ensuring that these key protections remain in force.

This is perhaps not an exhaustive list, nor is the news required to do all that Schudson believes it can do. Neither does the list include things that the news tries to do that aren’t necessarily connected to democracy, like providing an advertising platform for local businesses, providing revenue for publishers, or entertaining audiences. And Schudson acknowledges that these functions can come into conflict – the more a news organization engages in mobilization, the more likely it is that it will compromise their ability to inform impartially.

In this same spirit, I’d like to suggest six or seven things social media can do for democracy. I am neither as learned or as wise as Schudson, so I fully expect readers to offer half a dozen functions that I’ve missed. In the spirit of Schudson’s public forum and Benkler’s digital public sphere, I offer these in the hopes of starting, not ending, a conversation.

Social media can inform us.

Many of us have heard the statistic that a majority of young people see Facebook as a primary source for news, and virtually every newsroom now considers Facebook as an important distributor of their content (sometimes to their peril.) But that’s not what’s most important in considering social media as a tool for democracy. Because social media is participatory, it is a tool people use to create and share information with friends and family, and potentially the wider world. Usually this information is of interest only to a few people – it’s what you had for lunch, or the antics of the squirrel in your backyard. But sometimes the news you see is of intense importance to the rest of the world.

When protesters took to the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, they were visible to the world through Facebook even though the Tunisian government had prevented journalists from coming to the town. Videos from Facebook made their way to Al Jazeera through Tunisian activists in the diaspora, and Al Jazeera rebroadcast footage, helping spread the protests to Tunis and beyond. The importance of social media in informing us is that it provides a channel for those excluded by the news – whether through censorship, as in Tunisia, or through disinterest or ignorance – to have their voices and issues heard.

Places don’t need to be as far away as Tunisia for social media to be a conduit for information – when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, many people learned of his death, the protests that unfolded in the wake, and the militarized response to those protests, via Twitter. (And as news reporters were arrested for covering events in Ferguson, they turned to Twitter to share news of their own detention.) Social media is critically important in giving voice to communities who’ve been systemically excluded from media – people of color, women, LGBTQIA people, poor people. By giving people a chance to share their under-covered perspectives with broadcast media, social media has a possible role in making the media ecosystem more inclusive and fair.

Finally, social media may be in helping replace or augment local information, as people connect directly with their children’s schools or with community organizations. This function is increasingly important as local newspapers shed staff or close altogether, as social media may become the primary conduit for local information.

Social media can amplify important voices and issues.

In traditional (broadcast or newspaper) media, editors decide what topics are worth the readers’ attention. This “agenda setting” function has enormous political importance – as Max McCombs and Donald Shaw observed in 1972, the news doesn’t tell us what to think, but it’s very good at telling us what to think about.

That agenda-setting power takes a different shape in the era of social media. Instead of a linear process from an editor’s desk through a reporter to the paper on your front porch, social media works with news media through a set of feedback loops. Readers make stories more visible by sharing them on social media (and help ensure invisibility by failing to share stories). Editors and writers respond to sharing as a signal of popularity and interest, and will often write more stories to capitalize on this interest. Readers may respond to stories by becoming authors, injecting their stories into the mix and competing with professional stories for attention and amplification.

Amplification has become a new form of exercising political power. In 2012, we watched Invisible Children use a carefully crafted campaign, built around a manipulative video and a strategy of sharing the video with online influencers. Within an few days, roughly half of American young people had seen the video, and US funding for the Ugandan military – the goal of the campaign – was being supported by powerful people in the US Congress and military. (That the organization’s director had a nervous breakdown, leading to the group’s implosion, was not a coincidence – Invisible Children managed to amplify an issue to a level of visibility where powerful backlash was inevitable.)

Amplification works within much smaller circles that those surrounding US foreign policy. By sharing content with small personal networks on social media, individuals signal the issues they see as most important and engage in a constant process of self-definition. In the process, they advocate for friends to pay attention to these issues as well. Essentially, social media provides an efficient mechanism for the two-step flow of communication, documented by Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz, to unfold online. We are less influenced by mass media than we are by opinion leaders, who share their opinions about mass media. Social media invites all of us to become opinion leaders, at least for our circles of friends, and makes the process entertaining, gamifying our role as influencers by rewarding us with up to the second numbers on how our tweets and posts have been liked and shared by our friends.

Social media can be a tool for connection and solidarity.

The pre-web internet of the 1980s and 1990s was organized around topics of interest, rather than offline friendships, as social networks like Facebook organize. Some of the most long-lasting communities that emerged from the Usenet era of the internet were communities of interest that connected people who had a hard time finding each other offline: young people questioning their sexuality, religious and ethnic minorities, people with esoteric or specialized interests. The spirit of the community of interest and identity continued through Scott Hefferman’s, which helped poodle owners or Bernie supporters in Des Moines find each other, and now surfaces again in Facebook Groups, semi-private spaces designed to allow people to connect with likeminded individuals in safe, restricted spaces.

Social critics, notably Robert Putnam, have worried that the internet is undermining our sense of community and lessening people’s abilities to engage in civic behavior. Another possibility is that we’re forming new bonds of solidarity based on shared interests than on shared geographies. I think of Jen Brea, whose academic career at Harvard was cut short by myalgic encephalomyelitis, who used the internet to build an online community of fellow disease sufferers, a powerful documentary film that premiered at Sundance, and a powerful campaign calling attention to the ways diseases that disproportionately affect women are systemically misdiagnosed. Brea’s disease makes it difficult for her to connect with her local, physical community, but social media has made it possible to build a powerful community of interest that is working on helping people live with their disease.

One of the major worries voiced about social media is the ways in which it can increase political polarization. Communities of solidarity can both exacerbate and combat that problem. We may end up more firmly rooted in our existing opinions, or we may create a new set of weak ties to people who we may disagree with in terms of traditional political categories, but with whom we share powerful bonds around shared interests, identities and struggles.

Social media can be a space for mobilization

The power of social media to raise money for candidates, recruit people to participate in marches and rallies, to organize boycotts of products or the overthrow of governments is one of the best-documented – and most debated – powers of social media. From Clay Shirky’s examination of group formation and mobilization in Here Comes Everybody to endless analyses of the power of Facebook and Twitter in mobilizing youth in Tahrir Square or Gezi Park, including Zeynep Tufekçi’s Twitter and Tear Gas, the power of social media to both recruit people to social movements and to organize actions offline has been well documented. It’s also been heartily critiqued, from Malcolm Gladwell, who believes that online connections can never be as powerful as real-world strong ties for leading people to protest, or by thinkers like Tufekçi, who readily admit that the ease of mobilizing people online is an Achille’s heel, teaching leaders like Erdogan to discount the importance of citizens protesting in the streets.

It’s worth noting that mobilization online does not have to lead to offline action to be effective. A wave of campaigns like Sleeping Giants, which has urged advertisers to pull support from Breitbart, or #metoo, where tens of thousands of women have demonstrated that sexual harassment is a pervasive condition, not just the product of a few Harvey Weinsteins, have connected primarily online action to real-world change. What’s increasingly clear is that online mobilization – like amplification – is simply a tool in the contemporary civic toolkit, alongsite more traditional forms of organizing.

Social media can be a space for deliberation and debate.

Perhaps no promise of social media has been more disappointing than hope that social media would provide the public forum function Schudson celebrated. Newspapers began experimenting with participatory media through open comments fora, and quickly discovered that online discourse was often mean, petty, superficial and worth ignoring. Moving debate from often anonymous comment sections onto real-name social networks like Facebook had less of a mediating effect that many hoped. While conversations less often devolve into insults and shouting, everyone who’s shared political news online has had the experience of a friend or family member ending an online friendship over controversial content. It’s likely that the increasing popularity of closed online spaces, like Facebook groups, has to do with the unwillingness of people to engage in civil deliberation and debate, and the hope that people can find affirmation and support for their views rather than experiencing conflict and tension.

Yet it is possible to create spaces for deliberation and debate within social media. Wael Ghonim was the organizer of the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, one of the major groups that mobilized “Tahrir youth” to stand up to the Mubarak regime, leading to the most dramatic changes to come out of the Arab Spring. After the revolution, Ghonim was deeply involved with democratic organizing in Egypt. He became frustrated with Facebook, which was an excellent platform for rallying people and harnessing anger, but far less effective in enabling nuanced debate about political futures. Ghonim went on to build his own social network, Parlio, which focused on civility and respectful debate, featuring dialogs with intellectuals and political leaders rather than updates on what participants were eating for lunch or watching on TV. The network had difficulty scaling, but was acquired by Quora, the question-answering social network, which was attracted to Parlio’s work in building high-value conversations that went beyond questions and answers.

Parlio suggests that the dynamics of social networks as we understand them have to do with the choices made by their founders and governing team. Facebook and Twitter can be such unpleasant places because strong emotions lead to high engagement, and engagement sells ads. Engineer a different social network around different principles, and it’s possible that the deliberation and debate we might hope from a digital public sphere could happen within a platform.

Social media can be a tool for showing us a diversity of views and perspectives.

If the idea of social media as a space for deliberation and polite dialog doesn’t convince you that I’ve been replaced with a cyberutopian dopplegänger of myself, this assertion might. I wrote a book, Rewire, that argues that social media tends to reinforce homophily, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. Given the apparent track record of social media as a space where ethnonationalism and racism thrive, is it reasonable to hope for social media to operate as a tool for increasing diversity of views and exposure to alternative perspectives.

Yes, but not without conscious intervention to help social networks operate differently than they do now. Contemporary social networks have an enormous amount of potential diversity, but very little manifest diversity. In theory, you can connect with 2 billion people from virtually every country in the world on Facebook. In practice, you connect with a few hundred people you know offline, who tend to share your national origin, race, religion and politics. But a social network that focused explicitly on broadening your perspectives would have a tremendous foundation to build upon: networks like Facebook know a great deal about who you already pay attention to, and have a deep well of alternative content to draw from. Projects like FlipFeed from MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines and from my group at the MIT Media Lab explicitly re-engineer your social media feeds to encourage encounters with a more diverse set of perspectives. If a network like Twitter or Facebook concluded that increased diversity was a worthy metric to manage to, there’s dozens of ways to accomplish the goal, and rich questions to be solved in combining increased diversity with a user’s interests to accomplish serendipity, rather than increased randomness.

Schudson’s suggestion that news could promote representative democracy was intended as a challenge to news organizations to take their democratic responsibilities more seriously. I offer my seventh suggestion for social media in the same spirit.

Social media can be a model for democratically governed spaces.

Users in social networks like Twitter and Facebook have little control over how those networks are governed, despite the great value they collectively create for platform owners. This disparity has led Rebecca MacKinnon to call for platform owners to seek Consent of the Networked, and Trebor Scholz to call us to recognize participation in social networks as Digital Labor. But some platforms have done more than others to engage their communities in governance.

Reddit is the fourth most popular site on the US internet and sixth most popular site worldwide, as measured by Alexa Internet, and is a daily destination for at least 250 million users. The site is organized into thousands of “subreddits”, each managed by a team of uncompensated, volunteer moderators, who determine what content is allowable in each community. The result is a wildly diverse set of conversations, ranging from insightful conversations about science and politics in some communities, to ugly, racist, misogynistic, hateful speech in others. The difference in outcomes in those communities comes in large part to differences in governance and to the partipants each community attracts.

Some Reddit communities have begun working with scholars to examine scientifically how they could govern their communities more effectively. /r/science, a community of 18 million subscribers and over a thousand volunteer moderators, has worked with communications scholar Nathan Matias to experiment with ways of enforcing their rules to maximize positive discussions and throw out fewer rulebreakers. The ability to experiment with different rules in different parts of a site and to study what rulesets best enable what kinds of conversations could have benefits for supporters of participatory democracy offline as well as online.

It’s fair to point out that the social media platforms we use today don’t fulfill all these functions. Few have taken steps to increase the diversity of opinions users are exposed to, and though many have tried to encourage civil discourse, very few have succeeded. It’s likely that some of these goals are incompatible with current ad supported business models. Political polarization and name-calling may well generate more pageviews than diversity and civil deliberation.

Second, as Schudson observed about the possible functions for media, these democratic functions for social media may be mutually incompatible. It’s likely that the communities that favor solidarity and subgroup identity, or turn that identity into mobilization, aren’t the best ones to support efforts for diversity or for dialog. The ways in which different networks may be necessary to accomplish multiple democratic goals points to the fact that we may not need One Network to Rule Them All, so much as we may need a diversity of networks for different purposes. The place where I swap war stories about continuous glucose monitors with fellow type 1 diabetics may not be the place I argue politics – and it may be a massive mistake to collapse those communities and functions into the same platform

Finally, it’s also fair to note that there’s a dark side to every democratic function I’ve listed. The tools that allow marginalized people to report their news and influence media are the same ones that allow fake news to be injected into the media ecosystem. Amplification is a technique used by everyone from Black Lives Matter to neo-Nazis, as is mobilization, and the spaces for solidarity that allow Jen Brea to manage her disease allow “incels” to push each other towards violence. While I feel comfortable advocating for respectful dialog and diverse points of view, someone will see my advocacy as an attempt to push politically correct multiculturalism down their throat, or to silence the exclusive truth of their perspectives through dialog. The bad news is that making social media work better for democracy likely means making it work better for the Nazis as well. The good news is that there’s a lot more participatory democrats than there are Nazis.

My aim in putting forward seven things social media could do for democracy is two-fold. As we demand that Facebook, Twitter and others do better – and we should – we need to know what we’re asking for. I want Facebook to be more respectful of my personal information, more dedicated to helping me connect with my friends than marketing me to advertisers, but I also want them to be thinking about which of these democratic goals they hope to achieve. Second, I don’t believe we should have only one or two social media networks. My hope is a world where we could have dozens of interoperable social networks focused on different goals and purposes. When I’ve proposed publicly-funded social media networks, it’s not because I believe taxpayers should pay for a replacement for Facebook. It’s because I think we need networks that take seriously problems like deliberation and diversity, and I don’t yet see those projects emerging from the market.

In suggesting the roles news has within a democracy, Michael Schudson had the support of Thomas Jefferson, who declared that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. There’s no guarantee that our founders would have embraced social media as a critical pillar of democracy – though I’ve made the case that Franklin, at least, would have found it very familiar. But if our response to the shortcomings of contemporary social media is to move beyond the idea that we should burn it all down, it’s critical that we ask what social media can do for democracy and demand that it play its part.

As I mentioned early in this essay, I’m unconvinced that I’ve identified the correct seven functions for social media in a democracy, or that there’s six or seven. And while I have the intuition that our democracies are better with social media than without them, I’m interested in all arguments, including the argument to burn it all down. I hope you’ll take advantage of participatory media as a space for dialog to offer your thoughts in the comments on this, or in your own writing elsewhere online. Thanks for reading and engaging.

by Ethan at May 30, 2018 03:20 PM

May 28, 2018

Joi Ito
Citing Blogs

On May 13, 2018, I innocently asked:

240 replies later, it is clear that blogs don't make it into the academic journalsphere and people cited two main reasons, the lack of longevity of links and the lack of peer review. I would like to point out that my blog URLs have been solid and permanent since I launched this version of my website in 2002 but it's a fairly valid point. There are a number of ideas about how to solve this, and several people pointed out that The Internet Archive does a pretty good job of keeping an archive of many sites.

There was quite a bit of discussion about peer review. Karim Lakhani posted a link about a study he did on peer review:

In the study, he says that, "we find that evaluators systematically give lower scores to research proposals that are closer to their own areas of expertise and to those that are highly novel."

Many people on Twitter mentioned pre-prints which is an emerging trend of publishing drafts before peer review since it can take so long. Many fields are skipping formal peer review and just focusing on pre-prints. In some fields ad hoc and informal peer groups are reviewing pre-prints and some journals are even referring to these informal review groups.

This sounds an awful lot like how we review each other's work on blogs. We cite, discuss and share links -- the best blog posts getting the most links. In the early days of Google, this would guarantee being on the first page of search results. Some great blog posts like Tim O'Reilly's "What Is Web 2.0" have ended up becoming canonical. So when people tell me that their professors don't want them to cite blogs in their academic papers, I'm not feelin' it.

It may be true that peer review is better than the alternatives, but it definitely could be improved. SCIgen, invented in 2005 by MIT researchers creates meaningless papers that have been successfully submitted to conferences. In 2014 Springer and IEEE removed more than 120 papers when a French researcher discovered that they were computer-generated fakes. Even peer review itself has been successfully imitated by machines.

At the Media Lab and MIT Press, we are working on trying to think about new ways to publish with experiments like PubPub. There are discussions about the future of peer review. People like Jess Polka at ASAPbio are working on these issues as well. Very excited about the progress, but a long way to go.

One thing we can do is make blogs more citation friendly. Some people on Twitter mentioned that it's more clear who did what in an academic paper than on a blog post. I started, at the urging of Jeremy Rubin, to put credits at the bottom of blog posts when I received a lot of help -- for example my post on the FinTech Bubble. Also, Boris just added a "cite" button at the bottom of each of my blog posts. Try it! I suppose the next thing is to consider DOI numbers for each post although it seems non-obvious how independent bloggers would get them without paying a bunch of money.

One annoying thing is that the citation format for blogs suck. When you Goggle, "cite blog post," you end up at... a blog post about "How to Cite a Blog Post in MLA, APA, or Chicago." According to that blog post, the APA citation for this post would be, "Ito, J. (2018, May). Citing Blogs. [Blog post]." That's annoying. Isn't the name of my blog relevant? If you look at the Citing Electronic Sources section of the MIT Academic Integrity website, they link to the Purdue OWL page. Purdue gives a slightly more cryptic example using a blog comment in the square brackets, but roughly similar. I don't see why the name of my blog is less important than some random journal so I'm going to put it in italics - APA guidelines be damned. Who do we lobby to change the APA guidelines to lift blog names out of the URL and into the body of the citation?

by Joichi Ito at May 28, 2018 08:05 PM

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