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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.

The list of blogs being aggregated here can be found at the bottom of this page.

September 22, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Saudi Arabia Eases Restrictions on Messaging Apps, But WhatsApp and Viber Are Still Blocked

The Saudi capital Riyadh at night. Photo shared by user apriltan18 on Pixabay under a Creative Commons Licence (CC0)

After more than four years of heavy censorship, Saudi Arabia has eased restrictions on the use of internet-based call and messaging (VoIP) applications.

In a tweet on 13 September, Saudi minister of communication and information technology Abdullah Al-Swaha announced that the ban on VoIP will be lifted within a week, a move that was welcomed by Saudi users who have been fiercely critical of the kingdom's VoIP censorship policies.

From now on, this is going to be the home screen of my mobile phone

Saudi Arabia started blocking VoIP applications in June 2013 when it banned Viber for failing to comply with local regulatory requirements. At that time, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC), which regulates telecommunications in the country, did not specify what these regulations were. Media speculated that the move may have been motivated by the Saudi government's attempt to monitor these applications and to protect local telecom operators from revenue losses, or both.

Since then, the government has partially or fully blocked several more applications including WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook Messenger and FaceTime. By September 2016, the calling feature on LINE was also blocked.

The CITC explained in a statement this week that easing these restrictions “comes in line with modern trends,” reasoning that “reliance on the revenues of (mobile) data and added services is the international trend that operators in the kingdom should follow.”

Tasked with regulating the communications and information technology sector with the aim of achieving “a highly competitive environment for the provision of superior services to end-users and an attractive ecosystem for investors,” the CITC is responsible for censoring thousands of websites and sending requests to social media platforms when authorities wish for them to censor sensitive posts or other content.

The CITC has often been the subject of criticism from Saudis, who have accused it of advancing the business interests of telecom operators by blocking VoIP apps, instead of protecting users’ rights.

In a separate statement, Al-Swaha, who acts as the minister of communication and information technology and CITC chairman, said that the policy change came to offer users “the best services that meet their aspirations and satisfy their needs,” and to “develop a digital society in line with the objectives of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.” Vision 2030 is an economic reform plan by the kingdom aimed at diversifying the economy and decreasing its dependence on oil revenues.

A partial lifting of the ban came into effect on 20 September, and users in Saudi Arabia are now able to make calls using apps such as Line, Snapchat, FaceTime, Skype, Telegram and Tango.

However, other apps including Viber and Whatsapp remain blocked, users and local media reported.

These are the applications that have been unblocked

the retardation continues due to the ongoing blocking of Whatsapp calls. Diffuculties are part of our lives, and no change comes easily

On Twitter, CITC spokesman Adel Abu Hameed said that the ban was lifted on applications that “have met regulatory requirements” in the country. He added that these requirements include: clear mechanisms and measures when dealing with users’ personal data in the kingdom, removing content that violates local laws (a complex task in Saudi Arabia), and the app provider's cooperation with the CITC to handle emergency cases.

It remains unclear how the VoIP apps that have been unblocked meet the above-mentioned “regulatory requirements”, and whether there have been negotiations between the companies that own them and the Saudi government.

Snapchat's recent decision to remove Al Jazeera's Discover Arabic-language channel inside Saudi Arabia at the request of CITC raises concerns that the Saudi government is increasingly pressuring social media platforms and applications to comply with its repressive cybercrime laws. In the midst of a diplomatic Gulf crisis that saw Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt cut ties with Qatar accusing the Gulf nation of supporting “terrorism” and Islamist groups, the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera was also targeted. Saudi Arabia and its neighboring allies issued a list of demands to Qatar, including the shutting down of Al Jazeera.

This is the first time Snapchat finds itself embroiled in a controversy of politically-motivated censorship. According to the company's latest transparency report, Snapchat received no government requests to remove content that would otherwise be permissible under its Terms of Service or Community Guidelines during the second half of 2016.

As Saudi Arabia eases restrictions on VoIP applications, to what extent will the unblocked apps be wiling to comply with the Saudi authorities’ requests for content removal and user data? Saudi Arabia's anti-cybercrime law is one of the most restrictive in the region. It punishes by up to five years in jail the storage and dissemination of content “impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.”

“Users cannot in any case use applications for audio or video calls without the supervision and monitoring of the CITC” the regulator's spokesman said in an interview to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel.  Such measures, he added, are for benefit of users and the public.

by Afef Abrougui at September 22, 2017 07:05 PM

September 20, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: Germany’s New Social Media Law Puts a Price on Hate Speech

The Problem with Censorship is XXXXXXXXX, Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Cory Doctorow via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

A new German law set to take effect in October will impose fines on social networks if they fail to remove “manifestly unlawful” hate speech within 24 hours of being posted.

Under the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, called the NetzDG for short, companies have up to seven days to consider the removal of more ambiguous material.

Germany’s criminal code already defines hate speech, so the law does not create new measures or definitions. Instead, it forces companies to police hate speech or face astronomical fines. The law is unprecedented at the global level, and could have game-changing ripple effects worldwide.

The final draft of the law sets clear punishments for companies that fail to comply and places the burden of determining what messages, images or videos count as hate speech on companies themselves. It also compels companies to create stronger mechanisms for transparency around their processes for taking down content. But it does not prescribe a legal mechanism to appeal the removal of material.

In an interview with BBC, an unnamed Facebook spokesperson said that the law “would have the effect of transferring responsibility for complex legal decisions from public authorities to private companies.”

Even without the law in place, this responsibility already exists in many dimensions. Companies typically have full authority over users’ accounts and postings — when a user’s account is suspended or content is taken down, that person is often unable to access information about how the decision was made, or have direct contact with an actual company employee who can help to resolve disputes. The same is true for users who report abusive content or messages and receive no remedy.

On top of these concerns, there is consensus among the law’s critics that it will result in overcompliance — and thus, increased censorship — by companies eager to avoid fines.

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye said of the law:

With these 24 hour and seven day deadlines – if you are a company you are going to want avoid fines and bad public branding of your platform….If there is a complaint about a post you are just going to take it down. What is in it for you to leave it up? I think the result is likely to be greater censorship.

Rohingyas are being driven out of Myanmar — and off of Facebook

Rohingya activists say that their Facebook posts documenting what the UN now says is the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people in Myanmar are routinely being removed or their accounts suspended. This is particularly significant given the proliferation of anti-Rohingya propaganda online, and the mounting barriers to accessing accurate information about the conflict. These factors make Facebook and other social media platforms a critical space for spreading information about the conflict.

UAE court rules against Indian Facebook user who ‘insulted’ the Prophet

A UAE court upheld the sentence of an Indian migrant worker who was sentenced to one year in prison for posting comments on Facebook that allegedly “disrespected” and “insulted” the Prophet Mohammed. The man claimed that hackers had posted these messages, but this appeal was rejected.

Iranian developers petition Apple to keep their apps online

Iranian app developers are mounting a petition against Apple Inc for blocking their apps from the App Store. In a petition, a group of developers ask Apple CEO Tim Cook to “stop removing Iranian applications from [the] App Store and lift policies that are limiting our access to the products and services offered via Apple’s platforms.”

Multiple developers have reported that when they submit an app for review, they receive a message indicating that the App store “cannot host, distribute, or do business with apps or developers connected to certain U.S. embargoed countries.”

Apple began shutting down Iranian apps in August, the same month US President Trump signed a new sanctions bill into law, but it remains unclear whether the administration meant to impose new restrictions on technology companies. European companies lifted all sanctions against Iran after the negotiation of the 2016 nuclear agreement.

New Research



Subscribe to the Netizen Report



by Netizen Report Team at September 20, 2017 08:06 PM

Sentenced to One Year in Prison for ‘Inciting Protest,’ a Moroccan Journalist Goes on Hunger Strike

Protesters at a sit-in in Imzouren, 14km from the city of Al-Hoceima in the Rif region. Photo by AlhoceimasOfficiel. Used with permission.

Moroccan journalist Hamid El Mahdoui has gone on hunger strike after a court of appeal increased his prison sentence to one year.

In the early hours of 12 September and after a trial that lasted more than nine hours, the appeal court of Al Hoiceima issued a verdict that increased El Mahdaoui's sentence from three months to one year in jail, for giving a speech that they say incited others to protest and break the law under the country's penal code.

El Mahdoui is the director and editor-in-chief of the independent news website He was arrested by Moroccan authorities on 20 July in the Rif region, where he had traveled to cover protests, and was later convicted of inciting protest.

The primary piece of evidence used against him was a 19 July video filmed by a police officer that allegedly shows Mahdaoui inciting people to take part in a 20 July protest that had previously been banned by Moroccan authorities.

The rights to protest and assembly are guaranteed under the Moroccan constitution and the Law on Public Assemblies. Organizers are not required to apply for a prior authorization, but they should notify the authorities of the place, time and date of upcoming protest. However, authorities can ban a protest if they believe that it could disturb public order.

After the court announced a verdict on 12 September, Mahdoui decided to go on hunger strike to protest his unfair trial and the violation of his right to freedom of expression, his wife Bouchra El Khounchafi told the Moroccan edition of the HuffPost.

Al Hoceima and other cities in the Rif region have been shaken by protests since the death of fish vendor Houcine Fekri last October. Mohsin Fekri was crushed to death by a garbage truck while trying to retrieve his fish, confiscated by local authorities. The protests have since grown into a “Hirak” or a movement for jobs and economic development, and against marginalization and corruption. In response, Moroccan authorities resorted to repression, arresting protesters and activists and cracking down on media coverage of the protests.

El Mahdaoui speaking in a video about the crackdown on protesters in El Hoceima. Source: Screenshot from a video uploaded on the journalist's YouTube channel on 28 June.

Local and international human rights groups say Mahdoui did not incite to protest, but only expressed his views about the government ban on the 20 July protest when passers-by who recognized him stopped him and started a conversation with him about the Hirak.

Human Rights Watch analyzed the video and read the transcript used as evidence in Mahdoui's trial:

According to a transcript of the video, Mahdaoui criticized the government’s decision to ban the July 20 protest, saying, “It is our right to protest in a peaceful and civilized manner; (…) I am oppressed and looked down upon, it is my right to express myself and demonstrate.”

Human Rights Watch watched the video and read the transcript and found nothing in either that contains a direct incitement by Mahdaoui to others to participate in the banned July 20 protest. Hajji, the lawyer, said that the court did not provide any other evidence than the video and transcript.

Mahdaoui's independent website,, covers a variety of topics in Morocco including politics, human rights and corruption, and has been reporting on the protests in the Rif region.

Mahdaoui is also known for his outspoken online criticism of the Moroccan authorities. He has more than 97,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel where he provides commentary on the political and human rights situation in Morocco. Over the past months, videos uploaded to his channel included interviews with rights activists and families of arrested protesters, and footage showing police violence against Hirak protesters in El Hoceima and Rabat. On 25 June, Mahdoui published an interview with the parents of the movement's leader Nasser Zafzafi, who has been in jail since 29 May, after a public prosecutor ordered his arrest for interrupting a state-backed Friday sermon critical of the protest movement.

This is not the first time Moroccan authorities have gone after Mahdaoui in relation to his work as a journalist or for expressing himself. According to Reporters Without Borders,”he has been the subject of at least ten legal proceedings of various kinds, including defamation actions”. In June this year, Morocco's interior minister filed a criminal defamation complaint against Mahdaoui after the journalist published a video accusing him of corruption.

On 29 June 2015, a court in Casablanca sentenced him to a fourth-month suspended jail sentence, fined him 6,000 Moroccan Dirhams (640 USD) and ordered him to pay 10,000 Dirhams (around 1070 USD) in damages to the head of the general directorate of national security, for reports published on Badil about political activist  Karim Lachqar, who died while in police custody.

In August 2015, a criminal court in the city of Meknes ordered Badil to shut down for three months and fined Mahdoui 30,000 Dirhams (3,200 USD) for publishing a report on a car bombing in the city. Media reports of the bombing were later denied by the government.

Although the Moroccan government says that Mahdoui's arrest is not related to his work as a journalist, several other journalists have been harassed or arrested by Moroccan authorities for their coverage of the protests in the Rif region. Between 26 May and 22 July, Reporters Without Borders documented the arrests of seven citizen journalists and media workers in relation to their coverage of the Hirak. Morocco also resorted to deporting foreign journalists who were covering the protests, including two Spanish journalists working for El Correo Diplomatico and an Algerian journalist working for the Algiers-based French-speaking El-Watan newspaper.

By quadrupling Mahdoui's prison sentence, Moroccan authorities have shown that they are unwilling to end the media crackdown and create a safe environment for journalists to do their work amid the unrest in the Rif region. In the meantime, the journalist continues his hunger strike.

by Afef Abrougui at September 20, 2017 07:42 PM

Speaking of Independence Is Getting Harder for Hong Kongers

“Hong Kong independence” slogan at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo: Apple Daily, non-commercial use.

The leaders of 10 universities in Hong Kong are condemning “abuses” of free speech on campuses. In a joint statement published on September 15, university chancellors also expressed firm opposition to the idea of Hong Kong breaking away from China.

Two days later, a Hong Kong politician from the pro-Beijing camp labeled those who advocate for independence as “enemies” who should be killed.

The two events highlighted not only the precarious state of free expression in Hong Kong, but also tensions over the city's future. Hong Kongers enjoy more freedoms than their counterparts in mainland China under a principle known as “One Country, Two Systems.” This autonomy is enshrined in Hong Kong's governing doctrine, known as the Basic Law, which went into force in 1997 when the United Kingdom handed the former colony over to China.

According to the Basic Law, the city shall retain its way of life for 50 years, or until 2047. After that date, Hong Kong's fate is uncertain.

What is certain is that in recent years, Beijing has been more forcefully asserting its influence over Hong Kong. Those who support more democratic rights, such as genuine universal suffrage, or outright independence have faced fierce repression.

The university administrators’ joint statement, which was noticeably brief, was perceived as a response to the appearance of pro-Hong Kong independence slogans on campuses since September 4. The statement in full read:


We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities. All universities undersigned agree that we do not support Hong Kong independence and believe that it contravenes the Basic Law.

City University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong Baptist University
Hong Kong Shue Yan University
Lingnan University
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
The Education University of Hong Kong
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
The Open University of Hong Kong
The University of Hong Kong

The statement echoed a comment on September 8 from Carrie Lam, the city's chief executive or top leader, that argued pro-Hong Kong independence messages go against the “One Country, Two Systems” principle and the Basic Law.

Student unions from 12 universities and colleges issued a response:


We treasure free speech, a basic human right. The universities can say they don’t support Hong Kong independence, but students and teachers should have the freedom of speech to discuss Hong Kong independence. Below the undersigned student unions hereby issue this statement of clarification: the discussion of Hong Kong independence is in alignment with Basic Law Article 27 [which guarantees freedoms of speech and assembly], the university administrators should stop confusing the public.

‘Obviously, the statement is in response to political pressure…’

The joint statement did not specify what the “recent abuses” were, but could be referring to incidents such as a Chinese University of Hong Kong student allegedly using the derogatory term “Chee-na” during a row with mainland peers over independence, or messages posted to bulletin board at Education University of Hong Kong taunting a top Hong Kong education official over the suicide of her eldest son.

Au Kar Lun, an experienced media worker, believed the careful wording of the statement points to it being the product of political pressure from Beijing:


Under pressure from a pro-Beijing newspaper and the stability maintenance machine, the heads of 10 universities issued a brief joint statement saying that they do not support Hong Kong independence. The content of the statement is so empty and it is clear that they don’t have consensus. It does not address the context and has not explained their reasoning behind the statement. There is no content and it only serves the purpose of expressing loyalty. Obviously, the statement is in response to political pressure as the clearest message in the statement is, “We do not support Hong Kong independence.”

One concrete example of such political pressure emerged when Leonard Cheng, the head of Lingnan University, said students could discuss Hong Kong Independence in campus. In response, a pro-Beijing newspaper criticized him for indulging the students, and a number of pro-Beijing university council members warned that academic and speech freedoms should not be abused to “cover up illegal acts.”

On citizen media platform, Chu Kong Wai, an alumni of the Chinese University, expressed his disappointment with the university administrators’ statement:


Supporters of the university heads’ statement believe that it is a move to “cut losses” and save the universities from further political intervention under the excuse of cracking down on “Hong Kong independence.” They believe that by condemning the abuse of free speech and reaffirming their stand against Hong Kong independence and their loyalty to the Basic Law, they can maintain space for academia. But they are either too naive or are acting like turkeys [burying their heads in the sand]… The joint statement by the 10 university heads tell us that Hong Kongers cannot even have the right to discuss the mini-constitution. Today we can’t talk about Hong Kong independence, tomorrow we can’t talk about genuine universal suffrage and the day after we can’t even talk about the budget principle of “keeping its expenditure within the limits of revenues” [according to Basic Law Article 107].

‘What’s wrong with killing enemies in a war?’

Opposition to discussion of independence took a turn toward open hostility on September 17 at a rally calling for Hong Kong University to sack Professor Benny Tai for leading the massive pro-democracy protests that took over downtown Hong Kong for three months in 2014.

At the gathering, pro-Beijing figure Tsang Shu Wo exclaimed on stage:

If he advocates Hong Kong independence, he’s not Chinese, he’s an outsider and must be killed.

Julius Ho at a rally on September 17 calling for Benny Tai to be sacked from the University of Hong Kong. Apple Daily photo. Non-commercial use.

His comment was met with chants of “no mercy” by the crowd of thousands, including lawmaker and Lingnan University council member Julius Ho, who remarked later that it was “not big deal to kill pigs or dogs.” He further argued:

If we’re talking about Hong Kong independence, that means war. What’s wrong with killing enemies in a war?

Though a public call to kill is against the criminal ordinance, Secretary of Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung has played down Tsang's and Ho's statements. In contrast, just a month ago, three pro-democracy activists — Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong — were sentenced to between six and eight months in prison for advocating the peaceful protests of 2014.

‘Have we decided Hong Kong’s direction after 2047? Not yet.’

Perhaps the more fundamental issue is why some Hong Kongers want to discuss independence from China in the first place. Hui Fung Ming, a student activist and a graduate of Education University, argued on that debate about Hong Kong as an independent state is necessary given the city's post 2047 future is unclear:


The Basic Law in Hong Kong promises Hong Kong’s way of life will remain unchanged for 50 years. By the time of 2047, Hong Kong’s future will be another round of negotiation. Hong Kong independence is a possibility and option in the negotiation. Have we decided Hong Kong’s direction after 2047? Not yet. A large number of land leases will expire after 2047, and it remains possible that if Hong Kong follows China in adopting the socialist collective system, the land can be confiscated. Is that none of your concern?

Hui Fung Ming continued, saying that Beijing and Beijing supporters’ logic is flawed:


The claim that Hong Kong independence is against the law is false. According to such logic, “One Country, Two Systems” should be the only political system that can be discussed. According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong has adopted “One Country, Two Systems,” so other alternatives should be illegal. But pro-Beijing media outlets keep advocating Beijing to implement “One Country, One System” in Hong Kong, so they are allowed to propose an illegal political system? Why doesn’t Beijing ban them from saying so?… If we can’t deliberate Hong Kong independence in universities, according to the logic, shall the police officers take action in arresting whomever talks about Hong Kong independence in the street? Do you want a Hong Kong like this?

by Oiwan Lam at September 20, 2017 01:57 PM

Evidence of Government Surveillance in Mexico Continues to Mount
Imagen tomada de Pixabay bajo licencia CC0 Creative Commons.

Image taken from Pixabay under CC0 Creative Commons License.

In early September, further attempts to spy on activists in Mexico were confirmed. The president of Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI), an organization dedicated to investigative journalism, received several SMS messages that were intended to infect his mobile device with malicious software.

According to The New York Times, Claudio X. González Guajardo was threatened with Pegasus, a sophisticated espionage tool or “spyware” sold exclusively to governments that was acquired by the Mexican government in 2014 and 2015, with the alleged intention of combating organized crime. Once installed, Pegasus spyware allows the sender or attacker to access files on the targeted device, such as text messages, emails, passwords, contacts list, calendars, videos and photographs. It even allows the microphone and camera to activate at any time, inadvertently, on the infected device.

In an interview with journalist Carmen Aristegui, MCCI investigative journalism director Salvador Camarena pointed out that the messages received by González Guajardo indicated the following (it should be noted that both Aristegui and Camarena also suffered attacks using the same espionage technology):

Abogado, acabo de recibir esta notificación del MP y me URGE que me ayude a dar respuesta. Se lo adjunto (LINK)”

Hola Claudio, aparte de saludarte, paso a compartirte esta nota de Proceso donde hacen mención de tu nombre (LINK)”.

Señor Claudio, le comparto esta nota del Universal donde hacen mención de usted de forma deplorable, mire: (LINK)”.

Couselor, I just received this notification from the MP and he URGES me to help give a response. It is attached (LINK)”

Hello Claudio, apart from greeting you, I'm sharing this note from [the media outlet] Proceso where they mention your name (LINK)”

Mr. Claudio, I want to share this note from El Universal, where they mention you in an unfavorable way, look: (LINK).”

The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto confirmed that the links in each of the messages received by González Guajardo were infected with Pegasus spyware. González Guajardo is the 22nd person not involved with organized crime who researchers have confirmed was targeted with Pegasus in Mexico:

Each of the infection attempts, documented in an investigation jointly conducted by digital rights and civil liberties organizations Article 19, Network in Defense of Digital Rights (R3D), SocialTIC and Citizen Lab, occurred at critical junctures related to the work of espionage targets:

  • Journalist Carmen Aristegui and her team received multiple messages with malicious links while investigating acts of corruption by the Mexican government that involved the presidential couple and specifically President Enrique Peña Nieto.
  • Carlos Loret de Mola was targeted while he was documenting extrajudicial executions carried out by the Federal Police in Tanhuato, Michoacán.
  • The legal team of The Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro Prodh) were targets of this technology while working on various cases such as the forced disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa and acts of sexual torture by police officers in San Salvador Atenco in 2006.
  • The legal defense teams of the families of activist Nadia Vera and journalist Rubén Espinosa, who were murdered along with Alejandra Negrete, Yesenia Quiroz Alfaro and Mile Virginia Martin in 2015, also received suspicious messages at the end of that year.
  • Health rights activists received messages as they prepared a campaign to support a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in the country.
  • Members of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) received infection attempts while leading efforts to pass the citizens’ initiative to combat political corruption in the country, known as “Law 3 out of 3.”
  • Personnel from Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI) were attacked following the publication of a report on the ghost business network headed by the former governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte.
  • The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to investigate the case of the forced disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa was also targeted by Pegasus technology.

Now, following recent revelations by The New York Times, we know that this has not been the only intimidating tactic aimed at hampering the work of the organization and silencing, in particular, its director, González Guajardo.

Not even the diplomatic immunity of the @GIEIAYOTZINAPA prevented that they were the objective of the #SpyGovernment

Similarly, it is no small matter that attempts at espionage have also been directed against members of the National Action Party (PAN), a party opposed to that of the current federal government.

In addition to these revelations, this same week, a former agent of the National Security and Research Center (CISEN), Rodolfo Raúl González Vázquez, publicly denounced political espionage activities attributed to the former governor of Puebla, Rafael Moreno Valle Rosas, and the federal representative, Eukid Castañón Herrera, through the use of spying software developed by the Italian company, Hacking Team.

In early January of this year, The New York Times itself published an extensive report covering, among other things, the use of such software (in particular the ‘Galileo’ Remote Control System) for political espionage during the internal elections of the National Action Party in Puebla, Mexico.

The extensive network of spyware acquired and operated under the administration of the now former-governor of Puebla and aspirant president of the country, Rafael Moreno Valle, had already been evidenced in the investigative journalism carried out by the independent media Animal Político and Lado B in 2015.

Recent statements by former CISEN agent Rodolfo Raúl González Vázquez not only confirm the existence of the network, but also reveal the size of its scope and objectives, which he declared to Aristegui Noticias:

Amantes, vicios y negocios” era lo que los empleados que operaban la red tenían que encontrar entre los adversarios del aspirante presidencial, los activistas, críticos y periodistas e incluso sobre prominentes integrantes de su grupo político.

Lovers, vices, and businesses’ was what the employees who operated the network had to find among the opponents of the presidential candidate, activists, critics, and journalists and even prominent members of his political group.

The abundance of examples and technical evidence unearthed by this range of civil society groups and media outlets strongly indicates that these sophisticated espionage tools acquired by the Mexican government are not being used for legitimate purposes. From the opacity in its acquisition and use, to the many investigations and revelations that have arisen in recent times, it appears more and more likely that these intrusive technologies are being used to intimidate and silence dissent.

by Giovanna Salazar at September 20, 2017 12:50 PM

September 15, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: Online Supporters of Myanmar's Rohingya Face Censorship, Legal Threats

Satellite image from Human Rights Watch. “The Burmese military is directly responsible for the mass burning of Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine State,” said HRW deputy Asia director.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Violence in northwest Myanmar has dominated headlines in recent weeks. More than 100,000 people from the ethnic minority Rohingya group have been displaced from their homes due to clearing operations of the Myanmar military, in response to attacks by a pro-Rohingya insurgent group. Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees, who are mostly Muslim, are crossing into Bangladesh to escape the fighting.

There is plenty of coverage of the situation by various media, ranging from mainstream wire services to independent Rohingya-run outlets like Rohingya Blogger. But it is still difficult to obtain accurate information about the conflict, as journalists both from the region and from abroad have been struggling to gain access to the conflict areas, and local media have a history of being punished for — and barred from — covering the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, has even accused various media of circulating “fake news” on the topic. Her government has established a Facebook page, known as the ‘Information Committee’, that claims to offer verified information about the conflict.

Ample anti-Rohingya propaganda has also spread online, reinforcing the Myanmar government’s contention that Myanmar-born Rohingya are in fact “Bengalis,” or undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh. While many such messages have spread organically, researchers saw a spike of 1,500 new Twitter accounts after clashes broke out on August 25. The accounts are spreading pro-Myanmar government messages and feature hashtags such as #Bengali and #BengaliTerrorists. It is unclear who is behind the new accounts.

The conflict is a hot topic in South and Southeast Asian social media circles, and has proven to be a divisive issue for both citizens and governments in the region.

In Indonesia, which is majority Muslim, a veteran journalist was accused of defamation for comparing former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri to Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi in a Facebook post.

In the post, journalist and documentary filmmaker Dandhy Dwi Laksono wrote that if Myanmar’s government is being criticized for its treatment of ethnic Rohingya, the Indonesian government should similarly be held liable for suppressing the independence movement on the Indonesian island of West Papua. He further compared Suu Kyi’s silence on the persecution of the Rohingya to Megawati’s role as party leader of the government, which has recently intensified the crackdown on West Papuan independence activists. If he is prosecuted for and convicted of defamation, Dandhy could face up to four years in prison.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Indian government requested that Twitter locally censor the above tweet expressing solidarity with the Rohingya. An estimated 40,000 Rohingya live in India, where their citizenship status has been in legal jeopardy due to recent efforts by conservative legislators to render them “illegal” immigrants.

Palestinian human rights activist arrested over Facebook post

Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro was arrested by the Palestinian Authority for criticizing a journalist’s arrest in a Facebook post. The post, which is no longer visible on the platform, denounces the arrest of Ayman Qawasmi, who was arrested after openly criticizing the PA and calling for the resignation of Palestine’s President and Prime Minister. Qawasmi was released, but Amro remains under arrest, charged with stirring sectarian tensions and “speaking with insolence”.

Amro is also facing challenges in an Israeli military court on disputed charges relating to his political protest activities. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a statement expressing concern at his arrest and urging his release.

Salvadoran journalists face violent threats on social media

El Faro and Revista Factum, two highly regarded independent news websites in El Salvador, received violent threats on social media targeting specific journalists who have been covering corruption in the country’s criminal justice system. One threatening tweet said Factum and El Faro journalists would “end up like Christian Poveda,” a French-Spanish journalist killed by members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in 2009.

The Head of the Salvadoran National Police, Howard Cotto, and Vice President Oscar Ortiz said they were aware of reports of illegal activity by police officers and promised to open an investigation.

Japanese activists take to the streets, stomp on hateful tweets

Demonstrators gathered outside Twitter’s Japan headquarters in Tokyo, demanding the company take more action to rein in hate speech. Tokyo No Hate, a volunteer collective of activists, led the demonstration by covering the sidewalk in front of the office with printouts of abusive tweets. Protesters symbolically stomped on the tweets before crumpling them up and depositing them in recycling bins.

Chile doubles down on data retention (literally)

A secret decree by the Chilean government recently made public by investigative journalists modifies the country’s law about the interception of communications. It extends requirements for companies to retain data on digital communications made in Chile from one to two years, and asks companies to store additional metadata on communications. It also contains provisions that could stymie the use of encryption technologies that would hinder the delivery of this information. The Santiago-based digital rights group Derechos Digitales says the law may be unconstitutional.

If you wanna run a chat group in China, be ready to censor your friends.

New regulations in China will make chat group administrators responsible — and even criminally liable — for messages containing politically sensitive material, rumors, violent or pornographic content, and news from Hong Kong and Macau that “has not been reported by official media outlets.” This represents a bold policy shift by extending the work of regulating online content beyond government workers and companies to the users themselves.

The new rules also require Internet chat service providers such as WeChat and QQ to verify the identities of users and keep a log of group chats for at least six months. The rules require the companies to moderate users’ access to chat services depending on their “social credit” rating: those who break rules may see their rights to manage group chats suspended and be reported to the government. Group managers will be seen as responsible for the management of the group.

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by Netizen Report Team at September 15, 2017 02:24 PM

September 14, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Twitter Tells Kashmiri Journalists and Activists That They Will Be Censored at Indian Government's Request

Kashmiri woman protestor dares a policeman to stop her from moving ahead during restrictions imposed in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Administered Kashmir. Photo by Ieshan Wani, used with permission.

Dozens of people who have tweeted about the conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir or shown sympathy for Kashmiri independence movements online may soon be censored on Twitter, at the request of the Indian government.

The US-based social media company sent notices to users explaining that the Indian government had reported certain tweets and Twitter accounts for violating Section 69A of India's Information Technology Act.

Section 69A of India's IT act allows the government to block online content and censor when it believes the ‘said’ content can threaten the security, sovereignty, integrity or defense of the country.

Prominent Kashmiri journalist Wasim Khalid was among those who received notice that his tweet may be removed. In an interview with Anadolu news agency, Khalid explained:

At first, I thought it was a joke, one of those fake emails you keep getting but then I looked more carefully and it was actually an email from Twitter. It is an attempt at intimidating those who post the truth that will never be shown by Indian media. It is meant to close this little window of social media where Kashmir appeared to the world as it exists on the ground. They doesn’t want the world to see how it keeps its hold on Kashmir and that is why they want Kashmiris blocked from social media.

It is an attempt at intimidating those who post the truth that will never be shown by Indian media. It is meant to close this little window of social media where Kashmir appeared to the world as it exists on the ground.

The notices appear to be part of a broader effort by the Indian government to limit online criticism of its military actions in the region. More than half a million Indian military personnel are deployed in India's northernmost state Jammu and Kashmir, where many Kashmiris reject Indian rule over Kashmir and have been fighting for independence or a merger with Pakistan, since 1989. During the recent clashes following elections, the heat of the violence was felt on social media.

In two separate requests, dated 16 August and 24 August, Indian authorities asked Twitter to suspend more than two dozen Twitter accounts and censor more than 100 tweets.

Twitter submitted Indian authorities’ official letter to Lumen, an open database of internet takedown requests. It reads:

Based on recommendations of the committee and looking at the sensitivity of the request, it is hereby directed to Twitter to block/remove 115 Twitter handles/tweets in the interest of public order as well as for preventing any kind of cognizable offense.

Shortly thereafter, Twitter notified the account holders in an email that several of the account holders shared publicly. The email read:

The correspondence claims that your account is in violation of Indian law. Please note we may be obliged to take action regarding the content identified in the complaint in the future. Please let us know by replying to this email as soon as possible if you decide to voluntarily remove the content identified on your account.

What (and who) was blocked?

None of the official documents released by either Twitter or the Indian government offer case-by-case explanations of why these particular tweets and accounts were singled out. A cursory glance at the accounts reveals a handful of ideological groups that perpetrate extreme violence, but aside from these, many of affected accounts belong to common citizens — activists, journalists, and civilians who have utilized the platform to highlight the atrocities Kashmiris face.

Journalist Muhammad Faysal described rising significance of social media in the Kashmir Valley:

With the increasing reach of the internet and the emergence of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, Kashmiris began questioning Indian rule in Kashmir and reporting on human rights abuses. They posted videos of Indian armed forces torturing civilians, mutilating bodies of militants and vandalising public property.

Social media has become a potent tool to counter state-approved and biased narratives of mainstream Indian media, which often likens Kashmir’s armed insurgency to Islamic extremism, and justifies state aggression against Kashmiri civilians.”

Government officials have indeed taken notice of social media's potency in the region. In April and May 2017, authorities ordered mobile internet operators to shut down services in Jammu and Kashmir for days on end. Social networks including Twitter and Facebook also were intermittently blocked.

According to data on internet shutdowns collected by the Software Freedom Law Centre in New Delhi, Kashmir has recorded 29 instances of internet shutdowns since 2012. These figures are the highest in India. Kashmiri activists use social media to highlight violations of human rights and even everyday struggles in the heavily militarised zone. When tensions rise or protests ensue, the internet is often the first casualty.

One especially powerful tweet by Khalid, which was among those reported to Twitter, pertained to an image of a young man being used as a human shield by Indian forces in Kashmir.

Twitter's partial censorship strategy

The government also requested that Twitter remove tweets from accounts of people outside of India. Among them were Pakistani journalist and  political analyst Sabena Siddiqi and University of California professor Huma Dar, who is an advocate of human rights for Kashmiris and Dalits (the low caste community in India facing prejudice and attacks.)

American law professor Khaled Beydoun was also on the list, due to this tweet:

Despite what some may think, a user's citizenship is not a relevant factor in determining the legality of their tweets. Twitter maintains a “country withheld” policy, under which the company may censor specific tweets in just one country, in response to a government order proving that the tweets are illegal under local law.

The policy reads:

Many countries have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content….if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time….Upon receipt of requests to withhold content, we will promptly notify affected users.

This is not the first time US-based social media companies have grappled with the conflict in Kashmir. In 2016, social media giant Facebook ran into a major controversy after censoring journalists and activists who were posting pro-Kashmir content.

Technology policy expert Pranesh Prakash urged Twitter to challenge the order, citing a similar past effort by Yahoo.

Since 1990, an independence movement has been brewing in the Kashmir Valley. The region is the most militarized zone in the world and has faced numerous challenges including arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and violent use of pellet guns by India's armed forces. In 27 years, more than 70,000 Kashmiris have been killed and many more have been injured or arrested in Indian military crackdowns. The latest weapon in this conflict seems to be the stifling of voices on social media platforms. As Prakash puts it, the question now is whether Twitter will summon the strength to challenge these requests in court.

Also read our Special Coverage: The Kashmiri People Versus the Indian State


by Vishal Manve at September 14, 2017 11:56 AM

September 13, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Keeping His Story Alive: The Creative Legacy of Bassel Khartabil

Bassel Khartabil (Safadi). Photograph by Joi Ito (CC BY 2.0)

More than one month after his execution was confirmed, supporters continue to pay tribute to the memory of Syrian developer Bassel Khartabil Safadi and honour his legacy.

An open technology leader in Syria who was active in projects including Creative Commons and Wikipedia, Bassel played a pivotal role in extending online access and open knowledge to the public in Syria. He was detained by the Assad regime on 15 March 2012, and disappeared from his prison cell in October 2015. On 31 July, 2017 his family learnt that he was executed by the Syrian government shortly after his disappearance.

Since then, friends, colleagues and admirers of Bassel and the values that he stood for have found myriad ways to honor his life and continue supporting the kinds of work that most inspired him.

Bassel was remembered at Syrian New Waves, a program of Syrian film, visual art, music and talks that took place at the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam from September 8-10.

In her opening speech, event curator Donatella Della Ratta, a writer and scholar who was a close friend of Bassel, described how Bassel started filming what was happening, when the uprising in Syria broke out:

I met him several years ago in Damascus behind a computer. He was the smartest computer engineer that I have ever met. He was loved by everyone and wanted by several companies in Silicon Valley.

When the uprising started in Syria in 2011, I was there, I saw him changing from the adorable but very geeky computer nerd that he was to a very dedicated citizen of a country which was trying to undergo a very big change. He took this, the camera phone and started filming, so he became one of those people who film endlessly, and upload and share because they want the world to see what is happening in a country that just dared to ask for more freedom and dignity: very basic needs.

She goes on:

Like Bassel, so many young Syrians have taken mobile phones instead of weapons to fight their struggle against the regime who has treated them as [if] they were carrying weapons and they were enemies of the country.

Bassel loved his country and [he] was killed by a regime who reputed him a traitor for having showed the world that in fact there was indeed once something called a peaceful revolution in Syria. Bassel wanted the world not to ignore Syria and not to forget. He wanted a living evidence of the atrocities committed by the regime and so he made images. He died to produce an image evidence, while the regime is well alive and in a good shape and trying to get rid of all these images and their makers…

The program celebrates the work of a new wave of Syrian filmmakers and visual artists “that places contemporary Syrian image-making in a perspective wider than looking at it as a mere visual evidence from a war-torn country.”

A number of non-profit organizations including the Wikimedia Foundation, Mozilla and Creative Commons announced the Bassel Khartabil Free Culture Fellowship to honour Bassel's contributions to free culture and the open web. The fellowship “will support outstanding individuals developing the culture of their communities under adverse circumstances” and strongly encourages applications from the Levant region of the Middle East. Global Voices is also an organizational partner for the fellowship.

Creative Commons also established the Bassel Khartabil Memorial Fund to support “projects, programs, and grants to individuals advancing collaboration, community building, and leadership development in the open communities of the Arab world”.

Tributes to Bassel have also come in the form of song. On 5 September, the Disquiet Junto, an open community of musicians released “A Future In Commons: A Tribute To Bassel Khartabil,” a compilation of songs composed over the years that incorporate Bassel's words, his letters and even his own voice.

The group describes the album as an attempt to “extrapolate sound from the poetic language of his correspondence” and to “keep his story alive even after he was no longer.” Here are two songs that we selected from the album:

A Future In Commons: A Tribute To Bassel Khartabil by Ya Wha?
A Future In Commons: A Tribute To Bassel Khartabil by Westy Reflector

by Afef Abrougui at September 13, 2017 10:16 PM

Taiwanese Activist Was Forced to Confess on Camera to ‘Smearing the Chinese Government,’ Allies Say

Taiwanese activist Lee Mingche reads his confession in a mainland Chinese court. The videotape of the trial was released on various social media platforms. Screen capture from Miaopai.

After more than five months in detention, Taiwanese activist Lee Mingche pleaded guilty to writing articles that Chinese authorities say “subverted state power.”

The trial, held September 11 in a court in Yueyang city in China's southern Hunan province, was videotaped and streamed for the public on various social media platforms including Weibo, a popular service similar to Twitter.

In front of the camera, Lee read a statement that praised the mainland Chinese judicial system and said he was deeply regretful of what he had done. His wife and and human rights defenders say the confession was forced.

In the statement, Lee confessed to the “subversive act” of circulating and writing articles that “attacked and wickedly smeared the Chinese government” and “promoted Western-style multi-party democracy” on various social media platforms since September 2012.

The indictment also accused Lee and his co-defendant Peng Yuhua of incorporating a company called “Plum Blossom” in October 2012 and drawing up a plan to advocate for regime change in China. Peng, like Lee, pleaded guilty.

Lee went missing in southern China on March 19, 2017. Ten days later, Beijing confirmed his detention, saying that he was engaged in activities that were “harmful to national security”. In May, authorities said that Lee was being held in Hunan province under investigation for “subverting state power.” He will receive his sentence later this year.

‘This is just another drama staged by the Chinese government’

Lee’s wife Lee Chingyu has been advocating for her husband's release. Before she traveled to mainland China to attend the trial on September 9, she has preempted the “forced confession” in an open statement:


At this moment, I urge all the Taiwanese, if you see Lee Mingche confess against his will in court, with shameful words and behaviors, please forgive him. This is just another drama staged by the Chinese government, it is called “forced confession.”

After attending the trial, Lee Ching-yu had briefly met with her husband. The meeting was videotaped and footage showing him asking his wife not to make further comments on the case was also released online. Lee Ching-yu says he also made these remarks against his will.

Chinese human rights observers have characterized Lee's trial as a political show. Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, commented on Twitter:

The Chinese government’s trial of Lee Mingche is a classic performative trial, the judge, prosecutors and lawyers are just actors who have no judicial function. To this day, there has been no hard evidence that Lee’s speech and actions, which are all peaceful in nature, went beyond the right to free expression and assembly as protected by Article 35 of the mainland Chinese constitution.

Though Taiwanese people were prepared to see Lee being “forced to confess,” many still expressed sadness watching the confession video. Chang Tieh-chih, a human right activist in Taiwan, exclaimed on Facebook:


About Lee Mingche, it is hard to imagine what kind of cruelty he has gone through that makes him says something that is opposite of his personal beliefs. This is so sad.

‘These are usual online activities that all Taiwanese are doing every day’

If the trial was, as some have claimed, a political show, what exactly was the message it was trying to get across? A September 12 editorial from People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, stressed that Lee's trial was a demonstration of China’s power in using law:


Judging from the open trial on September 11, China’s power in using law is convincing. Any effort that attempts to criticize the Chinese political and legal system using this case, or to use the case to achieve personal gain, has failed.

What can’t be denied is that the openness and transparency of the trial shows that no matter if the person is mainland Chinese, or from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan or other countries, any act that attempts to subvert the regime of the People's Republic of China will be punished. Using Lee Mingche’s case to manipulate cross-strait relations [between China and Taiwan] is doomed to fail.

Others think the case shows that using the rights of free expression to criticize the Chinese government, and the right to assembly is subversive to the state. As Hong Kong based human right activist Natalie Hui pointed out on Facebook:


The “evidence” presented to the Chinese court are 40 posts published online, using social media QQ to form e-groups. These are usual online activities that all Taiwanese are doing every day. If this is called “subverting state power,” there are tens of thousand posts criticizing China every day, the Chinese government should be overturned.

Instead of strength, Taiwan professor Chen Ming-fong believed that the trial betrayed China's weakness. Twitter user @BelleSu9 quoted him saying the following:

Professor Chen Mingfong from Taiwan National Chengchi University: China only looks strong on the surface. Its political system is very fragile. Such a conviction is to convict all Taiwanese as guilty. The open trial has drawn a line between China and Taiwan. We are all standing by Lee Mingche because we are all standing by democracy and human rights.

by Oiwan Lam at September 13, 2017 09:35 PM

Journalist Faces Defamation Probe for Comparing Indonesia’s Treatment of West Papua with Myanmar's Rohingya

Cartoon in support of Dandhy Dwi Laksono, drawn by Iwan Sketsa/ @Sketsagram on Twitter and Instagram. Published with artist's permission.

Indonesian police in East Java are investigating a veteran journalist for comparing former President Megawati Sukarnoputri to Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi in a Facebook post.

On September 3, 2017, journalist and documentary filmmaker Dandhy Dwi Laksono wrote on Facebook that Megawati and Suu Kyi are alike in many ways, noting that both are former opposition leaders who now head the ruling parties in their respective countries. Dandhy added that if Myanmar’s government is being criticized for its treatment of ethnic Rohingya, the Indonesian government should similarly be held liable for suppressing the independence movement on the Indonesian island of West Papua.

He further compared Suu Kyi’s silence on the persecution of the Rohingya to Megawati’s role as party leader of the government, which has recently intensified the crackdown on West Papuan independence activists.

Rohingya people born and living in Myanmar are not recognized as citizens by the Myanmar government. In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya civilians have been displaced from their homes due to clearing operations of the Myanmar military in response to attacks by a pro-Rohingya insurgent group in northwest Myanmar. Tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees, who are mostly Muslim, are crossing into Bangladesh to escape the fighting.

West Papua is a province of Indonesia with a vocal independence movement that has called for the creation of a separate state since the 1960s. Human rights groups have documented many cases of abuse committed by Indonesian state forces against activists, journalists, and other individuals suspected of supporting the independence movement.

Dandhy posted his comments on Facebook following a big rally was organized by Muslim groups in Indonesia, condemning the Myanmar government for its treatment of Rohingya refugees.

The youth arm of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) filed a defamation complaint against Dandhy on September 6:

On the whole, (Dandhy’s) opinion was clearly intended to take advantage of the Rohingya incidents in Myanmar in order to insult and spread hatred of Megawati Soekarnoputri as the chairwoman of PDI-P and Joko Widodo as the president who is backed by PDI-P.

He is now under investigation by the police cyber crime unit. If he is prosecuted for and convicted of defamation, Dandhy could face up to four years in prison.

Reacting to the complaint, Dandhy wrote that it is a minor issue compared to the injustices suffered by Papuan activists and Rohingya refugees.

The complaint is the latest case of how the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law is being used to silence dissent in the country.

According to Indonesian digital rights group SAFEnet, at least 35 activists have been charged with online defamation since its enactment in 2008. Aside from Dandhy's case, the group has documented six defamation charges involving activists and journalists in 2017.

Activists were quick to launch a campaign expressing support to Dandhy. They asserted that Dandhy was simply expressing an opinion which should be considered legitimate criticism and not a criminal act.

SAFEnet is encouraging Indonesian netizens to submit reports and testimonies about how the ITE Law is being abused to silence activists like Dandhy and suppress online free speech in general.

Instead of preventing the public from commenting on Megawati, a local investigative portal suggested that Dandhy's case could in fact trigger greater interest in the former president's legacy as a leader, including some of the issues that led to her defeat in the polls.

Activists showing their support for Dandhy Dwi Laksono. Photo from SAFEnet

The hashtag #KamiBersamaDandhy (We Stand with Dandhy) was used on various social media platforms to call for support for the veteran journalist.

Kami bersamamu mas @Dandhy_laksono #kamibersamadandhy

A post shared by Gendo Suardana (@gendovara) on


A post shared by Beni Fuad Ismail (@benifuadi) on

by Mong Palatino at September 13, 2017 09:08 PM

China Makes Chat Group Administrators — i.e. Regular Users — Criminally Liable for Unlawful Messages
The Great Firewall of China. Image from Digital Trends.

The Great Firewall of China. Image from Digital Trends.

New regulations in China will make chat group administrators responsible — and even criminally liable — for messages containing politically sensitive material, rumors and violent or pornographic content.

The regulations also demand that all chat room users in mainland China verify their real identity.

Introduced by the Cyberspace Administration of China on 7 September, the “Regulation on the Management of Internet Chat Group Service” represents a bold policy shift by extending the work of regulating online content beyond government workers and companies to the users themselves. Indeed, chat group administrators are merely users of chat services like WhatsApp, WeChat and QQ who create and manage groups that might chat about anything from childcare to the Communist Party congress.

From 8 October onward, chat group administrators will become a key human resource in China's internet control infrastructure.

Dovetailing with China's new regulation on the management of online comments, the news rules will also force chat service companies (such as WeChat and QQ) to punish users who have not verified their identities or who have violated other terms of use, such as posting scams, rumors or politically sensitive material. Users who violate these rules will have certain account privileges suspended, and have their social credit scores lowered.

The regulations also require that the companies record, monitor and retain users’ chat records for at least six months and notify authorities whenever they spot abusive use of group chats.

The initial regulation, issued by the Cyberspace Administration, stressed that group administrators should be responsible for the contents posted on the chat group. But it did not specify what exactly these responsibilities would be. The Public Security Bureau soon after stepped in, presenting nine types of content that should not be posted on chat groups:

Regulation on the Management of Internet Chat Group Service: Prohibited Content 
Effective 8 October, the following types of content will be prohibited in chat groups on China-based messaging platforms:

1. Sensitive political content
2. Rumors
3. Internal documents [of the Chinese Communist Party and government units]
4. Content that is vulgar, pornographic, violent or shows drug-related criminal acts
5. News from Hong Kong and Macau that has not been reported by official media outlets
6. Military information
7. State secrets
8. Videos from anonymous sources that insult or destroy police’s reputation
9. Other illegal information

Chat group administrators who fail to remove prohibited content from chats can face criminal charges or administrative detention.

In addition to the list, the Public Security Bureau also presented a number of past cases, cited below, in which chat group administrators were punished through criminal prosecution or “political consequences.”

Case one: Insulting police officers

A man from Jieshou county of Anhui province was frustrated by traffic police, who had established a late night checkpoint for drunk driving. In a chat room that he created, he wrote: “Are they nuts? Checking in the rain? [They are] a bunch of assholes who just want money.” As the insulting comments created negative social impact within his circle, the man was detained for five days for picking a quarrel.

Case two: Online petition

On 27 June 2016, several party members from Qianjiang city in Hubei province violated the law by illegally using a WeChat group to circulate a petition against a construction plan for a pesticide factory. The incident led to a public rally and obstructed public order. Recently, nine members of the chat group received party discipline, five received discipline warnings and 40 had to be re-educated. The administrator of the group received a discipline warning as he did not stop the petition and channelled the opinions in the chat group.

Case three: Indecent and obscene articles

A young person in Shenyang city created a 100+ member chat group. One of the members in the group kept sending out messages about a “big hit movie” and asked other group members to pay for access to [what turned out to be] a pornographic video. As the group administrator did not stop the member from selling the videos in the group, the police arrested him under the charge of “distributing obscene material.”

Case four: Gambling activities

A man from Fuxin prefecture of Liaoning province abused the “red envelope” function [a way to send money, as a gift] in several chat groups for gambling purposes between June to August 2015. The court sentenced the man to 2.5 years with a three-year suspension and a fine of RMB 50,000 yuan [approximately USD $8,000].

It is not clear whether these users’ activities were observed by chat service companies, chat group administrators, or some combination of the two.

Following the introduction of China's regulation on “rumors” in 2013, many netizens migrated from open social media platforms (such as Sina Weibo, similar to Twitter) to chat services for sharing information, because these tools allowed them to create closed groups and have semi-private conversations.

But in recent years, multiple netizens have been arrested due to the political nature of their comments on private chat groups. These new regulations seem to codify the practices behind these arrests and suggest that censorship over chat group messages will soon be much more robust.

On Weibo, netizens are anticipating how the new regulation might affect group chats that use dark humor:


Hi, I want to give a red envelope in my group…. pls fill up a form and ask your leader to sign the approval.


In the future, all resturants should redesign their tables for just one person and vehicles should only have one seat. You should pre-register before you meet a new friend. Then there will be peace on earth.


In the future, every chat room who have a undercover CCP member stationed.


Support the party and new government regulations! Group administrators are responsible for group members’ illegal behavior! I hope very soon that village heads will be responsible for villagers’ illegal behavior, that county heads will be responsible for county residents’ illegal behavior, and that city heads will be responsible for citizens’ illegal behavior… all crimes would then vanish and we can fulfill the dream of communism in our generation.

要不直接断网吧 回到石器时代

Why not just cut the internet cable and return to the stone age?

The new regulations will go into force on 8 October.

by Oiwan Lam at September 13, 2017 03:15 PM

Joi Ito
Dealing with email and my partial attention problem during meetings


I currently have to deal with five hours or so of email a day and each day is packed with meetings, many as short as 15 minutes and 1 hour meetings being booked only in extraordinary circumstances. I have a list of 100 or so names of people that I've promised to meet, many who are very angry because we haven't been able to even book a meeting on my calendar.

I aggressively turn down all kinds of request and am aggressively resigning from boards and other obligations, but each day, I receive a steady flow of meeting requests that I just can't turn down.

I've chosen this path and I'm not complaining about the fact that I'm busy.

My concern at the moment is that the urgency and the rate of inbound email requires that in addition to the 2-3 hours of email in the morning and the 2-3 hours of email in the evening, I must diligently triage email during the day. Right now, depending on how much of my attention is required in a meeting, I keep an eye on my email and direct partial attention to my device and not my meeting. As someone who (ironically) co-teaches a class on awareness, I realize that this is both rude and a very poor way to have an effective meeting. People who know me well have gotten used to it, but for many people, it's disconcerting and disappointing.

I've thought about what I can do about this. The obvious answer is to try to check email between meetings, but that would mean that I would have to reduce the number of meetings since my meetings are so short. I could also ignore more of my email. I'm already unable to respond to many important email requests and reducing my responsiveness in email would also cause harm. At some level this is just a matter of being completely overcommitted, and I am doing my best to try to deal with that, but I was wondering if there might be some clever way to deal with the "partial attention during meetings" problem.

One idea that I had was to schedule several hours of email time during the day interspersed with "no devices / full attention" meeting times. When someone signed up for a meeting, we would ask if they needed full attention and if so, they would end up in the "full attention slot" queue or get booked a month or so out when my next "full attention slot" was available. On the other hand, if all they wanted was for me to be available to provide opinions or make decisions as part of a broader meeting or if the person didn't mind my partial attention during meetings, we could book the meeting in a "partial attention" slot which could be scheduled sooner. I would use un-booked partial attention slots to catch up on email if no one wanted such a slot.

This feels a bit too clever by half and maybe difficult to communicate to a person not familiar with my problem.

The other idea that I had was just to ask at the beginning of a meeting, "do you want this to be a laptops closed meeting or do you mind if I keep my eye on urgent email and triage?" I'm not sure if everyone would ask for my full attention or if I'd have a selection bias where only people confident enough would ask for my full attention and that those people who really needed my attention but were too polite would end up with my partial attention.

Lastly, I could just be a bit more mindful in the meetings and try to read the room better. I am generally pretty good at figuring out when the meeting requires my full attention, but as anyone who has seen someone trying to do this knows, one probably thinks they are doing this better than they actually are and in any case, it appears disrespectful to anyone who isn't used to people in this mode.

Any suggestions? Any thoughts on my crazy ideas? I know many of you will say, "You're just overcommitted. Just say 'no' to more stuff." OK. I will and I am, but I think I will still have some variant of this problem even if I'm just replying to earnest questions from students that I think deserve some sort of response.

Update: I've decided to take Ray Ozzie and other people's advice and focus on clearing my inbox and getting things off my plate and not multitask during meetings. I'm now using Trello somewhat effectively with small team to help me with my triage and followup. It's mostly working, but I'm trying not to do email during meetings - unless I have some sort of emergency going on.

by Joi at September 13, 2017 12:35 PM

September 12, 2017

danah boyd
Data & Society’s Next Stage

In March 2013, in a flurry of days, I decided to start a research institute. I’d always dreamed of doing so, but it was really my amazing mentor and boss – Jennifer Chayes – who put the fire under my toosh. I’d been driving her crazy about the need to have more people deeply interrogating how data-driven technologies were intersecting with society. Microsoft Research didn’t have the structure to allow me to move fast (and break things). University infrastructure was even slower. There were a few amazing research centers and think tanks, but I wanted to see the efforts scale faster. And I wanted to build the structures to connect research and practices, convene conversations across sectors, and bring together a band of what I loved to call “misfit toys.”  So, with the support of Jennifer and Microsoft, I put pen to paper. And to my surprise, I got the green light to help start a wholly independent research institute.

I knew nothing about building an organization. I had never managed anyone, didn’t know squat about how to put together a budget, and couldn’t even create a check list of to-dos. So I called up people smarter than I to help learn how other organizations worked and figure out what I should learn to turn a crazy idea into reality. At first, I thought that I should just go and find someone to run the organization, but I was consistently told that I needed to do it myself, to prove that it could work. So I did. It was a crazy adventure. Not only did I learn a lot about fundraising, management, and budgeting, but I also learned all sorts of things about topics I didn’t even know I would learn to understand – architecture, human resources, audits, non-profit law. I screwed up plenty of things along the way, but most people were patient with me and helped me learn from my mistakes. I am forever grateful to all of the funders, organizations, practitioners, and researchers who took a chance on me.

Still, over the next four years, I never lost that nagging feeling that someone smarter and more capable than me should be running Data & Society. I felt like I was doing the organization a disservice by not focusing on research strategy and public engagement. So when I turned to the board and said, it’s time for an executive director to take over, everyone agreed. We sat down and mapped out what we needed – a strategic and capable leader who’s passionate about building a healthy and sustainable research organization to be impactful in the world. Luckily, we had hired exactly that person to drive program and strategy a year before when I was concerned that I was flailing at managing the fieldbuilding and outreach part of the organization.

I am overwhelmingly OMG ecstatically bouncing for joy to announce that Janet Haven has agreed to become Data & Society’s first executive director. You can read more about Janet through the formal organizational announcement here.  But since this is my blog and I’m telling my story, what I want to say is more personal. I was truly breaking when we hired Janet. I had taken off more than I could chew. I was hitting rock bottom and trying desperately to put on a strong face to support everyone else. As I see it, Janet came in, took one look at the duct tape upon which I’d built the organization and got to work with steel, concrete, and wood in her hands. She helped me see what could happen if we fixed this and that. And then she started helping me see new pathways for moving forward. Over the last 18 months, I’ve grown increasingly confident that what we’re doing makes sense and that we can build an organization that can last. I’ve also been in awe watching her enable others to shine.

I’m not leaving Data & Society. To the contrary, I’m actually taking on the role that my title – founder and president – signals. And I’m ecstatic. Over the last 4.5 years, I’ve learned what I’m good at and what I’m not, what excites me and what makes me want to stay in bed. I built Data & Society because I believe that it needs to exist in this world. But I also realize that I’m the classic founder – the crazy visionary that can kickstart insanity but who isn’t necessarily the right person to take an organization to the next stage. Lucky for me, Janet is. And together, I can’t wait to take Data & Society to the next level!

by zephoria at September 12, 2017 02:34 PM

September 11, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
At Twitter's Tokyo Office, Protesters Stomp on Hateful Tweets
twitter hate speech

Protesters tread on printouts of abusive tweets in front on Twitter headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, on September 8. Screencap from IWJ official YouTube channel.

On Friday, September 8, about one hundred demonstrators gathered outside Twitter Japan's Tokyo headquarters to demand that the company do more to rein in harassment and hate speech on its network.

Tokyo No Hate, a volunteer collective of activists, led the demonstration, highlighting Twitter's seeming reluctance to tackle the problem.

The group had reported a series of discriminatory and hateful tweets to the company on September 3 and asked Twitter to remove the tweets by September 7. They pledged to demonstrate the next day in front of Twitter's Japan headquarters if the company failed to do so.

Kyobashi (Chuo-ku, Tokyo). “Hate speech” covers the sidewalk in front of Twitter Japan's head office.

Borrowing tactics from a recent protest in Berlin and organized using the hashtag  (“Meet in front of Twitter on 09/08), protesters gathered in front of Twitter's Tokyo office on September 8 and covered the sidewalk with print-outs of tweets communicating sexist, racist and violent messages.

Sign: “Stop ignoring discriminatory tweets. Every day frightening. Every day unbearable. Every day agonizing. Help us, please.”

Activists displayed hundreds of abusive tweets, some of which were photographed and shared on Twitter itself.

Tweet: ‘Chon’ (a slur used against Koreans) are savages, aren't they?

Hate speech is not limited to just racial discrimination.

Middle tweet: Women are an inferior species, and therefore must be extinguished.

With sex crimes, the victims are the most blame, especially women.

Ultimately, participants were encouraged to tread on the printed tweets, and at the end of the demonstration the tweets were ceremonially deposited in a recycling bin.

More offensive tweets identified by the demonstrators have been translated into English by activist Takahiro Katsumi in this Twitter Moment.

Could Twitter do better?

With 40 million active users — accounting for about 30% of the national population — Twitter is one of Japan's most popular and commonly social networks.

While Twitter does take some measures to keep threatening and hateful speech off its network (including the recent suspension of a user who threatened to kill a mosquito), there are complaints that other kinds of threats and harassment on Twitter are ignored.

Toshiki Kino, an internet activist and former chairperson of Tokyo No Hate, told Global Voices that Twitter has been “completely inactive” in regulating hate speech against ethnic minorities in Japan:

Hate speech against ethnic minorities people in Japan—mainly against Korean and Chinese people, but also against the Ainu [indigenous residents of Japan] on the Internet has been a very serious problem in recent years, but Twitter Japan has been completely inactive in terms of regulating such remarks. There is much hate speech on Twitter to choose from, but you'll see lots of serious examples if you search for “朝鮮人” [‘chosenjin’, a derogatory epithet for Korean people.]

Although Twitter does not explicitly prohibit hate speech, their official rules forbid users from attacking or threatening a person on the basis of their identity traits. This rule reads as follows:

You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.

While Twitter asks users to abide by this and other rules, it has no hard and fast mechanism for enforcing them. If you want a hateful or threatening tweet removed, you may file a report with the company. Then, it is up to Twitter's moderators to determine whether or not the tweet actually violates company rules.

This method can be helpful if you see just a few hateful tweets each day, but such tweets often come by the hundreds and can swiftly become unmanageable for any user. And it is likely that the problem is similarly daunting for people moderating these reports (the company provides almost no public data on the issue.)

Indeed, in many cases, several of which were highlighted by the No Hate protesters, hateful tweets are reported but not removed. The company has long faced criticism that its moderation system is no match for the scourge of hate speech online, but thus far, it has not devised an alternative solution.

Don't shoot the messaging platform

Some observers wonder why the activists are targeting Twitter, rather than going after the groups that create abusive content online.

In a series of tweets, researcher Vivian Shaw, who has covered the evolution of the anti-discrimination movement in Japan since 2011, explains that anti-racism activists in Japan have pressured the Japanese government to pass legislation addressing hate speech and worked with local authorities to help address the problem.

Japan's national parliament, the Diet, passed the country's first-ever law addressing hate speech in May 2016. The law defines hate speech in Japan, but it does not criminalize it. Instead, the law compels the central government, prefectures and municipalities, such as the city of Osaka, to devise measures against hate speech.

The challenge now, according to Shaw, is that local governments say they have neither the resources nor the technology to police abusive content online. Because Twitter creates the environment in which these messages are circulated, activists argue that the company should be doing more to combat it. If hate speech were officially a crime in Japan, Twitter would be under greater obligations to mitigate the problem. But the Diet has not taken things this far.

At the end of the protest in Tokyo on September 8, protestors entered the lobby at Twitter's headquarters in Japan, hoping to meet with the company. The activists were unsuccessful, although the protest did generate significant discussion on Twitter itself.

While the protestors did not get to meet with Twitter, the company did acknowledge their concerns in the leadup to the demonstration on September 8. In a tweet made earlier in the week, Twitter Japan did mention it plans to increase the number of moderators “to resolve issues promptly” (早急な問題解決に).

Thanks to so many of you for expressing your concerns to Twitter. While we wish (to make Twitter a place) where everyone is comfortable expressing their opinions, we'll sincerely take your feedback to heart. Twitter has recently increased the number of moderators in Japan, and is working to resolve issues promptly. Please continue to provide us with your feedback.

by Nevin Thompson at September 11, 2017 06:36 PM

#PotongSteam: Malaysian Gamers Blast Blocking of Website Over ‘Fight of Gods’ Video Game

Screenshot of ‘Fight of Gods’ video game introduction uploaded on YouTube

Malaysian gamers have criticized the decision of the Malaysian Communications Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to temporarily block the website of game distribution platform Steam which allows downloads of a new game called ‘Fight of Gods’. MCMC deems the game to be offensive and a “threat to the sanctity of religion and interracial harmony in the country.”

MCMC unblocked Steam once the latter removed the controversial game from its website.

‘Fight of Gods’, which was developed by a Taiwanese gaming studio and released earlier this month, features several deities and religious figures such as Odin, Amaterasu, the Buddha, Jesus, Moses, and Zeus among others in a mortal combat game.

For MCMC Minister Salleh Said Keruak, the game might disrupt peace and religious harmony in the country:

“(To ensure) solidarity, harmony and wellbeing of the multiracial and multireligious people in the country are the main objectives of the government. The government will not compromise with any action that can jeopardise these objectives.

Malaysia has a predominantly Muslim population. In recent years, hardline Islamic clerics and other conservative religious leaders have criticized the government for its failure to strictly enforce Islamic teachings.

PQube, the publisher of the ‘Fight of Gods’ game, insisted that it does not aim to offend any religion:

Fight of Gods is a video game that takes a humorous approach to religion in the same way that other entertainment formats have – across television, film, books and theatre.

The game is not promoting any religious agenda and is not designed to offend. The description of the game on the digital platforms through which it is distributed provide clear guidance on the nature of the game and its content so that people can freely choose whether or not to play it.

We are disappointed that such freedom of choice is not given to everyone and in particular that the game has been forcibly removed from sale in Malaysia, although no direct communication has been received by us as to the reasons for this. Nevertheless we respect any rules and censorship imposed in any given territory.

PQube also added that the game does not feature any reference to Islam.

The blocking of Steam, which has some 2,000,000 users in Malaysia, angered gamers who were unable to access their favorite games.

The Facebook page of MCMC was flooded with comments from Steam users demanding the unblocking of the popular gaming website.

Facebook user Shah Rizar is one of those who criticized the MCMC:

Dear MCMC, you should realize that you were blocking access to legal software that Malaysians can purchase, but you also jeopardized the potential revenue and reputation for many Malaysian Game Developers. There are also thousands of students in Malaysia studying game development, and actions like these successfully erode everyone's confidence in an agency that is supposed to be at the forefront in protecting EVERYONE's rights.

Steam became accessible again after MCMC acknowledged that the ‘Fight of Gods’ game had been removed from the website.

Meanwhile, the power of MCMC to shut down websites was questioned by Malaysian Bar constitutional law committee co-chairman Surendra Ananth:

Some have argued that Section 263(2) [Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998] allows the MCMC to block content. However, that section only states that licensees shall assist the MCMC as far as reasonably necessary in preventing the commission or attempted commission of an offence.

It cannot be read in a manner to empower MCMC to block online content. This would be a violation of Section 3(3), which expressly provides: ‘Nothing in this act shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the internet.’

The Twitter hashtag #PotongSteam (Cut the Steam) was used by netizens to link to the controversy. Potong Steam is a Malaysian slang term for killjoy or buzzkill. Many of those who used the hashtag were gamers, who are usually politically apathetic.

Below were some of the tweets that featured the hashtag #PotongSteam:

by Mong Palatino at September 11, 2017 04:33 PM

Violence in Northwest Myanmar Sparks an Information War Online with Anti-Rohingya Hate Speech and Fake Photos

An example of a pro-Rohingya hate speech post disparaging Buddhists in Myanmar, who are accused of committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people. Screenshot from Twitter, September 4.

Myanmar’s internet exploded with hate speech, fake news photos, and racist narratives after the Myanmar military clashed with Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on August 25, 2017, near the Bangladesh border in the northwestern part of the country.

The violence lasted for days with the Myanmar government immediately declaring ARSA a terrorist group while launching aggressive ‘clearance operations’ in the villages of Rakhine state. The government and ARSA blamed each other for civilian casualties caused by the conflict.

As the violence continues, the Myanmar government has tried to assist in relocating non-Muslim ethnic peoples in the area, but Rohingya civilians, of which there are roughly one million, have been less fortunate. Thus, tens of thousands of Muslim Rohingya refugees are crossing the Bangladesh border to escape the fighting.

While multiple ethnic groups have been affected by the conflict, the international media has emphasized the Myanmar government's treatment of non-militant Rohingya people fleeing the violence, and there have been many reports of atrocities perpetrated by the military against the Rohingya. Meanwhile, local media outlets have highlighted the deaths of people from other ethnic groups living in the area, reportedly due to the attacks made by ARSA.

The international community has urged the Myanmar government to stop the violence and take action to help the refugees. However, some in Myanmar have criticized the international media, calling them biased for ‘ignoring’ the plight of the local Buddhist population who were also displaced by the fighting between the government and ARSA.

Attacks on international narratives

Although the publication of hate speech propaganda and fake news photos has plagued Myanmar’s online space in recent years, it became heavily violent again after August 25. These tensions have generated an “information war” online with a spate of malicious online propaganda seeking to re-frame the dominant international narrative about the conflict.

Heavily present in these images is the mischaracterization of the Rohingya as Bengalis. Rakhine state is home to many minority ethnic groups such as the Rakhine, Mro, Rohingya and Dai-net. In contrast to the other groups, the Myanmar government does not recognize the Rohingya, who are mostly Muslim, as an ethnic group. Instead, they are referred to as “Bengali.”

A widely shared illustration comparing the “world view” or international perspective on the conflict with “reality”. Screenshot from Twitter, September 4.

Bengalis are one of the largest ethnic groups in South Asia. But in Myanmar, Bengali has taken on its own meaning. It has become a derogatory word to refer to the Rohingya as undocumnted immigrants from Bangladesh. This designation along with the slur ‘kalar‘ has evolved into racist slander often directed toward the Rohingya in Myanmar, both online and off.

Other images decry international media houses for focusing on the plight of the Rohingya.

A widely shared image on Myanmar's current conflict, implying that international media allegedly are ignoring the deaths of non-Rohingya minorities in Rakhine. Screenshot from Twitter, September 4.

The image below insinuates that the Rohingya have somehow lured international sources into spreading misinformation about the situation:

A widely shared hate speech image on Myanmar's current conflict, implying the Rohingya have too much control over the international media. Screenshot from Twitter, September 4.

Images like the ones above and other far more graphic representations of these ideas have gone viral within social media networks in Myanmar.

Coordinated online smear campaigns

In addition to what is clearly organic sharing and re-posting of these images, some observers have noticed trends in sharing that appear to be coordinated.

Independent analyst Raymond Serrato detected a strange spike of 1,500 new Twitter accounts with provocative hashtags that appeared after the August 25 clash. Many of the dubious accounts have spread pro-government messages that also feature hashtags such as #Bengali or #BengaliTerrorists. It is unknown who is behind the accounts, but the trend echoes similar “Twitter brigade” phenomena in a variety of countries including India and the United Arab Emirates.

In another instance, a campaign on Facebook has been urging users to give negative reviews to BBC Burmese Service and Voice of America (VOA) Myanmar pages with one star for reporting on the Rohingya, while urging users to give five stars to the Myanmar State Counselor Facebook page. Identical page reviews from unique accounts (see examples below) indicate that this is a coordinated effort to discredit the media outlets.

BBC Myanmar Facebook page reviews. Screenshot by the author on August 25.

Reviews on VOA page. Screenshot by the author on September 4.

Coordinated online smear efforts have also extended to hacking. Local newspapers also reported that several Myanmar government websites were hacked last week, allegedly in retaliation for the government's treatment of Rohingya refugees.

False and misattributed photographs

It is difficult to obtain accurate information about the conflict, as journalists both from the region and from abroad have been struggling to gain access to the conflict areas. This has left a void of verified information and images from the center of the conflict, which too often is being filled by images that have been doctored or that came from other countries altogether. Such photos are being used by both sides to advance their propaganda.

Below are two examples of an anti-Rohingya hate speech posts (note the hashtag terminology):

An example of anti-Rohingya hate speech post. Screenshot taken September 4.

Here are some examples of pro-Rohingya photos that were later proven to have come from Nepal and Indonesia:

An example of a fake news post with reused photos. The image on the upper left side appears on a website reporting Nepal flooding on August 13. The upper right and lower left images need to be confirmed for authenticity as they only appeared on Twitter after the violence. The lower right side image is from Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Screenshot from Twitter, September 4.

The Myanmar government has set up an official Facebook page, known as the ‘Information Committee’ an official Facebook page to serve as a platform offering verified information about the situation in Rakhine, but given the circumstances, this too must be taken with a grain of salt.

With conflicting propaganda and fake news flooding the internet and limited access to conflict zones, post-conflict conditions remain difficult to verify.

This post was written by a guest contributor who wished to remain anonymous, due to security concerns.

by Guest Contributor at September 11, 2017 01:25 PM

September 08, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Palestinian Human Rights Defender Arrested For a Facebook Post

Photo of Palestinian human rights defender Issa Amro. Source: Twitter account of Youth Against Settlement

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is continuing its crackdown on free speech in the West Bank, this time arresting prominent Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro for criticizing a journalist's arrest in a Facebook post.

Issa Amro, who is based in the West Bank city of Hebron, is the coordinator and co-founder of the grassroots organization Youth Against Settlements, which documents human rights violations committed by Israeli military and settlers. He is a recognized human rights defender by the European Union and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As one of the more prominent Palestinian advocates for non-violent resistance, Amro also faces legal challenges from the Israeli government. In a separate case before an Israeli military court, he is facing 18 charges, including disputed charges of incitement to violence, stemming from his political protest activities. His trial began on September 3, but was immediately adjourned to October 22. UN human rights experts, Amnesty International and multiple US legislators have condemned the charges against Amro.

According to Amro's brother, he was summoned by the Palestinian Preventive Security Forces on the morning of 4 September and officials then interrogated him over a Facebook post, in which Amro had criticized the PA for arresting journalist Ayman Qawasmi the day before.

Qawasmi heads a local radio called Manbar al-Hurriya, which was raided by the Israeli army on September 3 and ordered to be shut down for six months due to alleged “incitement”. Qawasmi was later arrested by PA security forces for openly criticizing the PA and calling for the resignation of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.

The actual Facebook post could not be retrieved as Amro's Facebook account is no longer visible on the platform, presumably due to deactivation or deletion. However, a screenshot was saved and published by Youth Against Settlement. In the post, Amro denounced the arrest of Qawasmi and called on the PA to respect and protect freedom of expression and opinion, and its international obligations.

Qawasmi was released on 6 September, but Amro remains under arrest. On 6 September, the Palestinian public prosecutor's office extended Amro's arrest for 24 hours and charged him with stirring sectarian tensions and insulting the PA president, or “speaking with insolence”.

In a statement published by Youth Against Settlements, Amro said prior to his arrest:

All my writings on social media are part of the freedom of opinion and expression stipulated by the Palestinian Basic Law and are protected by all international laws and conventions.


My arrest will not affect my defense of human rights and the rights of journalists to exercise their work freely and without pressure from the government.

On 6 September, Youth Against Settlement tweeted that Amro is going on a hunger strike to protest his unlawful arrest:

Amnesty International condemned his arrest, calling it a “shameless attack on freedom of expression” and called for his immediate release. “Issa Amro’s arrest is the latest evidence that the Palestinian authorities are determined to continue with their repressive campaign against free speech,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also published a statement Monday expressing concern at Amro’s arrest and urging his release.

In recent months the PA has stepped up its crackdown on media and press freedoms, and free speech online, arresting journalists and activists, blocking websites of opponents and critics, and adopting a draconian cybercrime law. Amro's only crime is that he spoke out against the arrest of Qawasmi and free speech violations committed by the PA. Now he himself has become the target.

by Marwa Fatafta at September 08, 2017 08:22 AM

September 07, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: Togo Government Shuts Down Internet and SMS as Protests Escalate

Demonstrators in Lome, Togo on September 6. Photo shared on Twitter by Farida Nabourema @Farida_N.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Internet and mobile SMS fell into a total blackout in the West African nation of Togo on the morning of September 7.

Anti-government protests have been surging in the capital Lomé, with opposition leaders now demanding that President Faure Gnassingbé step down. On September 5, users began reporting that mobile internet connections were spotty and that social media sites like Facebook were inaccessible altogether.

By the morning of September 7, the same researchers told Global Voices that all internet networks (mobile and fixed connections) were down, and that all mobile SMS and mobile money transactions were being blocked.

Network testing firm Dyn and West African digital rights group Internet Without Borders, which has members in Togo, verified these reports through technical tests.

In a broadcast by Togolese Victoires FM radio station, Public Service Minister and government spokesperson Gilbert Bawara confirmed that the internet had been cut for security reasons. “Even in most developed countries, authorities take control of telecommunications in some cases,” he said.

Protesters’ primary objective is to prevent legislators from allowing President Gnassingbé, who has been in power since 2005, to run for another term. The president succeeded his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who held power for 38 years.

While the shutdown has made it difficult for Togolese demonstrators to report what they’re seeing on social media, blogger Farida Nabourema was sending tweets from the Togo-Ghana border, where she reported that she was able to get a signal.

The shutdowns violate international human rights protections for free expression and access to information and contravene a 2016 UN resolution that condemned intentional disruption of internet access by governments.

They are also preventing hundreds of local startups and companies from working and delivering their services, simply because their work relies on internet access. A recent Deloitte study demonstrated that an internet shutdown can cost a country up to 1.9% of the daily GDP.

Indian journalist and Modi critic shot dead

Veteran Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot to death outside her home in Bangalore on September 5. Lankesh took a strong oppositional stance against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in her journalism, and was convicted in 2016 of defaming two politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In recent interviews, she expressed concerns about the state of free speech in India after being harassed and targeted with death threats online. One of her last tweets read:

The police investigating her killing have yet to arrest any suspects.

Chinese man jailed for selling VPNs

Chinese authorities sentenced a man to nine months in jail for selling virtual private networks to circumvent internet censorship. The man was convicted of “providing software and tools for invading and illegally controlling the computer information system,” an unusual characterization of VPNs. Chinese authorities announced a crackdown on unauthorized VPN services earlier this year.

Communist leaders urge Chinese tech firms to join the party

At a recent symposium, Chinese Communist Party officials urged the country’s internet firms to strengthen their “party building” efforts. In an effort that is likely intended to enforce greater party control over the internet, tech companies are facing pressure to set up CCP branches, which typically serve an advisory role within the company, though in some cases they may do more. This push may function in tandem with China’s new cybersecurity law, which empowers authorities to shut down sites violating “socialist core values.” At least 34 Beijing-based internet firms now have party branches, including Weibo, Jingdong, Sohu, 360 and Lets TV.

UN experts decry media censorship in Egypt

The UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, and Human Rights and Counter Terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aloáin, expressed “grave concerns” over the Egyptian government’s increasing blocking of websites. At least 21 news websites are reportedly blocked in the country, including MadaMasr, Al Watan, and Huffpost Arabi, as are the websites of human rights organizations including Reporters Without Borders. There is no public record of which sites are blocked, making it difficult to verify the total number. “In the case of the widespread blockings in Egypt,” they wrote “the blockings appear based on overbroad counter-terrorism legislation, and they lack any form of transparency and have extremely limited, if any, judicial control.”

Open science research site blocked in Russia

Sci-Hub, the world’s largest free and open scientific research database, was recently blocked in Russia — though not by Russian regulators. In fact, the website’s founder, Alexandra Elbakyan, elected to block online visitors from Russia due to what she described in a letter posted on Sci-Hub’s homepage as “persecution” that she was facing from Russian scientists who did not want their works to be accessible free of charge. Elbakyan, who is from Kazakhstan, began the project in 2011 in a simple effort to increase access to scientific and medical research in Kazakhstan and other countries where universities often do not have access to large western-owned research databases.

Apparently, Twitter’s rules protect mosquitoes

A Twitter user in Japan was banned from the service for making a death threat against a mosquito. His tweet included a picture of a dead insect.

New Research



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by Netizen Report Team at September 07, 2017 06:29 PM

September 06, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Cambodia Daily Closes Down After Government Threatened It with Hefty Tax Bill

#SavetheDaily. Source: Facebook page of Cambodian Center for Human Rights

Cambodia Daily printed its last issue on September 4, 2017 after the government slapped it with a $6.3 million tax bill.

The paper’s owner, Deborah Krisher-Steele, explained how the tax case led to the closure of the paper which started operation in 1993:

The power to tax is the power to destroy. And after 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part Cambodia’s free press. The Daily has been targeted for an astronomical tax assessment, leaks and false statements by the tax department and public vilification by the head of government.

Cambodia Daily appealed for audit and negotiation with regard to the tax issue but the government refused to reconsider the case. Some think the tax department’s unwillingness to address the petition of Cambodia Daily reflected the stance of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had earlier accused the people behind the hard-hitting paper of being “thieves” and “servants of foreigners”.

Cambodia Daily started operations in 1993. Source: Facebook

Media groups like the Southeast Asian Press Alliance believe the closure of Cambodia Daily is linked to the 2018 elections:

We view these closures as part of a broader campaign to muzzle critical voices and to clamp down on freedom of expression ahead of the July 2018 national election. Media freedom is a fundamental component of any democracy, and it must be preserved in order for next year’s election to be free and fair.

Cambodia's ruling party has been in power for three decades. It continues to dominate local politics but it lost many seats in the 2013 general elections.

Aside from Cambodia Daily, radio stations that broadcast programs of the political opposition in 19 provinces have stopped operating due to alleged licensing violations.

The alleged government crackdown on critical voices has not only targeted the media but also foreign NGOs and opposition leaders.

The government’s representative to the UN office in Geneva denied allegations that only critical media houses were targeted:

The fact is that currently numerous newspapers, non-governmental organizations, and radio stations are in operation freely and harmoniously in Cambodia except a handful of them, why? Because the latter do not fulfill their duties in respecting the existing law and regulation of the host state.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan insisted that the filing of a tax case against Cambodia Daily is not politically-motivated:

The Daily itself is speaking with political intentions to cover up that they don’t want to pay taxes. They wrote to the prime minister to help. This has nothing to do with prime minister – it is an issue with the department of taxation.

The last edition of Cambodia Daily. Source: Facebook

Alan Parkhouse, an editor of Khmer Times, expressed concern about the situation of local journalists working for Cambodia Daily. But at the same time he also wrote about other financial matters involving the paper:

The Daily, which for most of its 25 years operated as a non-profit NGO newsletter training local journalists, also never paid to use stories from news agencies like Reuters or Agence France Presse and in the past it never paid for the right to reprint stories from major newspapers in the United States.

This free access to wire services and lifting rights from other papers was done under the guise of being a charity or NGO newsletter set up to train local journalists.

Whatever the liability of Cambodia Daily, the paper was not given enough time to respond to the tax case and other violations it allegedly committed.

The statement issued by the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia summarizes the concern of human rights groups about the political impact of the closure of a popular newspaper:

…the Kingdom lost a significant aspect of its media diversity. It lost a training ground for a generation of Khmer journalists. It lost a beacon of free speech. It lost its most prolific chronicler of current affairs, a paper whose 24 years of daily editions will long serve as a first draft to modern Cambodian history.

by Mong Palatino at September 06, 2017 05:50 PM

A Year After Newspaper Ban, Independent Media Remain Under Siege in Oman

“The website has been suspended by decision of the information minister”, a note on the homepage of the banned Azamn newspaper says.

It has now been more than a year since Omani authorities closed the independent Arabic-language newspaper Azamn over its coverage of corruption in the Sultanate. Yousef Al-Haj, one of the paper's editors, remains in prison, serving a one-year jail sentence. Two other Azamn editors, Ibrahim Al-Maamari and Zaher Al-Abri were also detained and put on trial, but later released.

Oman has been ruled since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who came to power after overthrowing his father, Said Ben Timor. Since then, he has held the most important positions in the country besides being its sole Sultan: Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Minister of Finance, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chairman of the Supreme Council of Planning, and President of the Central Bank.

The Sultan’s years of ruling have been characterized by the persistent efforts of the security forces, especially the Internal Security Service (ISS), to confiscate public freedoms, including freedom of the press, and to torture and intimidate human rights defenders, independent journalists, bloggers and other activists, and imprison them. Authorities are systematically curtailing peaceful and legitimate activities in the field of human rights and preventing citizens including activists from expressing their views freely – whether online or offline– about the public affairs of their country such as corruption in government agencies and institutions.

The targeting and closure of Azamn newspaper and the imprisonment of three of its editors last year is a severe blow to press freedom in the country. Azamn is an independent newspaper that reported on corruption in Oman (which is an absolute monarchy) since its establishment in 2007, until it was banned by the authorities in August 2016.

On 28 July 2016, security forces arrested Ibrahim Al-Maamari, Azamn's editor-in-chief, after the paper published an article on 26 July 2016 entitled “supreme parties tie the hands of justice”, which addressed corruption in the judiciary, and the interference of senior officials in judicial decisions. The report accused government officials of pressuring judges in the country's Supreme Court to overturn a verdict in an inheritance case

The July 26, 2016 edition of Azamn newspaper which featured on its front-page a report with the headline: “supreme parties tie the hands of justice”. Photo source: the Facebook page of Azamn

On 3 August 2016, the ISS summoned Zaher Al-Abri, member of the editorial committee, to appear before the Special Division, and detained him upon arrival. On 09 August 2016, the ISS arrested deputy editor Yousef Al-Haj, who was acting as the newspaper's editor-in-chief after Al-Maamari’s arrest. The newspaper was closed indefinitely after the Minister for Information gave the order that “the publication and circulation of the newspaper by all means, including online, is not allowed starting on 9 August 2016.”

On 26 September 2016, the Court of First Instance in Muscat held its final hearing in the trial of Al-Maamari, Al-Haj, and Al-Abri, and issued prison sentences against them. The court also ordered the newspaper to close permanently. Al-Maamari and Al-Haj were both convicted of “disturbing public order”, “misuse of the Internet”, “publishing details of a civil case”, and “undermining the prestige of the state.” Al-Haj was further found guilty of violating a publication ban and slanderThey were both sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of 3000 Omani Riyals (US $7,800) each and banned from working as journalists for one year. Al-Abri was sentenced to one-year imprisonment and fined a thousand Riyals (US $2600) after being found guilty of using “an information network [the Internet] for the dissemination of material that might be prejudicial to public order.” His bail was set at 5000 OR (US $13000), and he had already been released on 22 August 2016 prior to sentencing.

At a hearing held on 26 December 2016, the Court of Appeal acquitted Al-Abri while sentencing Al-Haj to one year in prison and Al-Maamari to six months in prison, to include the time they spent in detention. On 10 April 2017, Al-Maamari was released from the Central Prison in Muscat, after serving his six-month sentence, leaving Al-Haj in prison serving his one-year sentence.

The court of appeal also revoked the decision to shut down “Azamn” newspaper which was issued by the Ministry of Information.

Despite the court's decision to lift the ban on Azamn, the Omani government has continued to target the newspaper. On 8 January 2017, the Minister of Information issued a directive that extended the closure of “Azamn” for three months. On 8 May 2017, the Minster of Information personally signed another directive which extended the closure of “Azamn” for an additional three months – once again challenging the Court of Appeal's decision to re-allow the newspaper to publish.

The ongoing closure of Azamn and the targeting of its journalists is not the only case of press freedom violation that has recently taken place in Oman. Other violations include the blocking of the website of the independent magazine Mowatin and exercising pressure on Albalad, the country's first independent online newspaper, to put an end to its operations.

By continuing to close Azamn and imprison its journalist Al-Haj, it seems that Omani authorities are still unwilling to put an end to the broader crackdown on press freedom.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) urges the authorities in Oman to:
1. Immediately and unconditionally release Yousef Al-Haj;
2. Provide a secure environment for Azamn newspaper to carry out its journalistic work;
3. Protect freedom of the press in the country; and
4. Ensure in all circumstances the ability of human rights defenders and journalists in Oman to carry out their legitimate human rights work without fear of retaliation and without any restrictions, including judicial harassment.

The Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) is an independent, non-profit and non-governmental organisation that works to provide support and protection to human rights defenders (including independent journalists, bloggers, lawyers, etc.) in the Gulf region and its neighbouring countries by promoting freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. This post was written by the center's executive director Khalid Ibrahim.


by Gulf Center for Human Rights at September 06, 2017 05:31 PM

On WhatsApp, Fake News is Nearly Impossible to Moderate. Is That a Bad Thing?

Image via Pixabay. From Public Domain.

With the number of social media users in India rapidly rising, the dissemination of fake news has become a widespread phenomenon in recent years.

So-called “information overload” has made it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, and in some cases, misinformation spread via social media appears to have precipitated real-life violence, sometimes with fatal consequences.

In one recent incident, Twitter users in India expressed their anger when a ruling party member shared an image taken out of context, in what seemed like an effort to stoke social tensions during a riot in the Indian state of West Bengal. Several such images were circulated through social media to skew public opinion in this period. In 2015, a possibly fake image circulated via WhatsApp and was later linked to the subsequent lynching of a Muslim man in India, on the suspicion that he had slaughtered a cow.

In India, reporting misinformation to police can be a first step towards prosecuting its sender under Indian laws like Section 67 of the IT act, if the information is perceived as likely to be “harmful to young minds”, or section 468 of IPC if the news is considered “detrimental” to someone's reputation. But policies like these are hard to implement effectively, routinely running afoul of protections for free expression.

Online civil society is also increasingly proactive, with the emergence of several hoax-slaying initiatives run by do-gooders from different spheres of life who try to expose fake news for what it is. But research has shown that civilian reporting of fake news is often not swift or thorough enough to curb the problem.

At the moment, the most likely mitigators of fake news online may be the social media companies themselves. But experts are still undecided on whether or how companies might change their behaviors — by choice or by regulation — in order to diminish the problem.

Facebook's “trending” tweaks

As a major venue for the spread of fake news, Facebook has found itself at the center of this debate. After the 2016 US election, critics charged that the prevalence of false stories smearing Hillary Clinton, spread mostly on Facebook, may have shaped the outcome of the US election. These allegations triggered an ongoing debate about how Facebook might moderate misinformation on their network, along with multiple technical tweaks by Facebook, in an attempt to make its network less friendly to fake news distributors.

Most recently, Facebook updated its “Trending” feature formula. Unlike in the past, when the posts with maximum engagement appeared in the “Trending” section, now only those posts that have been shared by other “reputable sources” will appear in the Trending section. Users are also invited to contribute to the system by reporting false news stories directly to the company.

But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says it is difficult to rely on feedback from users, who may flag potentially correct content as wrong, for vested reasons. In fact, recent research seems to indicate that most people fail to distinguish between real and fake online content. This, along with the fact that most of the news that we receive on social media sites are from those in our close circles (and therefore people we generally trust), makes social media an ideal platform for propagating fake news.

The only thing that is certain is that there are major pitfalls for any entity — whether a company, a government, or an individual — that aims to separate out the real from the fake.

Thanks to encryption, WhatsApp can't moderate messages

While misinformation continues to circulate on standard social media platforms, all of the above examples from India reportedly went viral on WhatsApp. As the internet-based messaging app has become a key platform for disseminating news and information, for groups of friends and media houses alike, it has also increasingly served as a mechanism for distributing fake news.

But the picture becomes more complex when it comes to news and information spread through WhatsApp.

WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook) is the leading messaging app for mobile users outside of the US. It is often easier to access via mobile phone than Facebook or other platforms that carry a higher volume of content and code.

But in contrast to the technology that supports Facebook, which allows the company can see and analyze what users post, WhatsApp operators have no way of seeing the content of users’ messages.

This is because WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, where only the sender (on one end) and receiver (on the other end) can read each other's messages. This design feature has been a boon for users — including journalists and human rights advocates — who wish to keep their communications private from government surveillance.

But when it comes to the proliferation of misinformation, this presents a significant hurdle. In a recent interview with the Economic Times, WhatsApp software engineer Alan Kao explained that WhatsApp's underlying encryption makes it difficult to tackle the challenge of fake news, as WhatsApp operators have no way of seeing what kind of information is being spread on their networks, unless it is reported to them directly by users.

Like other Facebook-owned products, WhatsApp has a policy on acceptable use which prohibits the use of the app, among other things, to publish “falsehoods, misrepresentations, or misleading statements.” But this seems more like a suggestion than a hard and fast rule. The app doesn't offer a user-friendly way to report violating content, apart from its “Report Spam” option. In its FAQ on reporting “issues” (i.e. problems) to WhatsApp, the company writes:

We encourage you to report problematic content to us. Please keep in mind that to help ensure the safety, confidentiality and security of your messages, we generally do not have the contents of messages available to us, which limits our ability to verify the report and take action.

When needed, you can take a screenshot of the content and share it, along with any available contact info, with appropriate law enforcement authorities.

While it is easy to see why the company would encourage users to report violating behavior to law enforcement, this might not render the best outcome in a country like India (alongside many others.) Indeed, there have been several cases of arrests of people who have criticized politicians on WhatsApp. And in April 2017, an Indian court ruled that a WhatsApp group administrator could even be sentenced to jail time for “offensive” posts.

No matter what, it seems there is always the risk of the powers-that-be taking undue advantage of their influence over internet activity.

by Ellery Roberts Biddle at September 06, 2017 05:30 PM

Iran's Foreign Minister Says He Won't Tweet in Persian Because of Twitter Censorship

The popular, western friendly foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has announced he will not Tweet in Persian, since Twitter is banned inside the country.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has more than 800,000 followers on Twitter, despite the fact that Twitter is blocked in Iran.

In a recent interview with the Iranian government's official website,, Zarif explained that he only tweets for foreign audiences in English and Arabic, and not in Persian, asserting that his purpose is not to reach audiences inside of Iran, where Twitter is blocked and prohibited.

Twitter was one of the two platforms filtered in the lead up to the 2009 Presidential elections, alongside Facebook. Many Iranians wondered why Facebook and Twitter continue to be censored, when other social media like Instagram and Telegram operate with free reign.

President Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013 on a electoral platform that paired promises of a more open internet with a rhetoric of greater freedoms in general. Yet during Rouhani's first term as president (he was re-elected in May 2017) Iranians didn't see his administration deliver on promises to remove technical blockades on both Facebook and Twitter.

Since then, many have questioned the propriety of Rouhani administration officials, including Minister Zarif, using these filtered platforms.

What happened to Rouhani's early promises to open up the internet?

In a widely shared Twitter exchange in 2013, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey questioned the Iranian president’s decision to use the platform, given that it is inaccessible for other Iranians inside the country.

But Rouhani's response to Dorsey rings hollow one month into his second term, especially as his most popular minister (Zarif) appears to have acquiesced to this state of censorship.

The legal implications of using these platforms has been questioned by hardline figures, including the Deputy Prosecutor General of Iran, and the head of Iran's Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content (CCDOC) Abdul Sayyed Khoramabadi, who stipulated as recently as August 2017 that membership in filtered social networks such as Twitter was a “violation.” He also noted that the use of Twitter by Rouhani administration officials was “problematic.”

On the other hand, many point to the fact that members of the government can often access uncensored internet, which gives government officials a privileged position for access to information, putting them on unequal footing with the rest of the country. It is widely known that access to the internet in government offices, or even international headquarters belonging to the United Nations, do not face the same hurdles as regular citizens. This 2009 blog post (in Persian) instructing Iranian Internet users on how to connect to the unfiltered internet of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasters offers a popular illustration of the issue. 

Zarif, who won widespread popularity across Iran for finalizing the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1, drew international attention when he became the first to break news of the negotiations, through his own Twitter account.

Zarif's 2 September statement, however, are increasing concern among Iranians that Rouhani's promises of a more open internet in Iran may never be fulfilled.

من از توییتر فعلا با توجه به مقررات داخلی به‌عنوان ابزار پیام‌رسانی، صرفا در سطح بین‌المللی استفاده کرده و به همین دلیل هم هیچ‌گاه توییت فارسی نداشته‌ام و توییت‌هایم را به انگلیسی و عربی ارائه کردم تا در فضای بین‌المللی با این رسانه که بسیار هم در فضای دیپلماسی رسانه‌ای موثر است مورد استفاده قرار بگیرد.

البته معتقدم که می‌تواند یک وسیله موثر هم برای داخل باشد. برای پیام داخلی تلاش کردم از اینستاگرام استفاده کنم؛ گرچه من در اینستاگرام تازه‌وارد هستم و بیشتر روی توییتر تمرکز داشتم، ولی از اول سال ۹۶ در اینستاگرام حضور پیدا کردم که امیدوارم از آن مسیر هم بتوانم با استفاده از یک روشی که در ایران مورد قبول و مورد استفاده است از این طریق ارتباط خوبی با دوستان عزیز در داخل کشور هم داشته باشم.

Currently since Twitter faces internal regulations as a social media platform, I only use it on the level of international relations and for this reason I never tweet in Persian, and only post in English or Arabic, so within the international context I can utilize this platform which is ideal for being effective in the diplomatic space.

Of course, I do think it can be an effective tool for inside the country as well. For internal communications platforms I have made an effort to use Instagram; although on Instagram I am just learning how to use it and have more experience on Twitter, but since the beginning of 1396 (March 21 was the start of the Persian year 1396) I've started using Instagram regularly, and I'm hoping that through this method which is allowed and used widely by Iranians, I can find a way to have good communications with my dear friends inside of Iran as well.

But a quick scan of Zarif's tweets suggests a different reality — in fact, it includes numerous tweets in Persian. A post from 25 February 2016 even encouraged Iranians to participate and vote in the 2016 parliamentary elections:

Widespread and smart participation in the elections guarantees a strong national authority and a better future. Tomorrow we will all vote so that no one anywhere will be able to threaten an Iranian.

Indeed, Zarif's recent Twitter posts have ceased to contain Persian language content. Since securing the 2015 nuclear deal, Zarif has gotten pressure from hardliners for betraying the country, who believe he conceded too much to the west in the deal. The fact that Zarif used Twitter to encourage Iranians to vote for the 2016 parliamentary elections — and not the 2017 presidential elections — might be a sign of his effort to reduce controversy over the platform, which is largely kept filtered by the hardline political faction placing pressure on him.

New ICT Minister triggers concern among human rights advocates

Rouhani also appointed a new Minister of Information, Communications and Technology in late August. While celebrated for being the youngest member of cabinet in the Islamic Republic of Iran's history at 36, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi's credentials come largely from his previous work developing Iran's surveillance infrastructure. He also played a role in interrogating and imprisoning activists while working with the Ministry of Intelligence under the hardline and populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fact that has caused alarm among activist and human rights defenders.

Jahromi too is active on Twitter and has indicated he would like to remove the filter on Twitter given the “right circumstances”, which he says would require negotiations with Twitter. This has raised concern that Twitter will cooperate with the Iranian government to allow a limited, censored version of Twitter, perhaps similar to what they now offer in Turkey.

It remains unclear if Twitter will engage in such negotiations — the company has given no public indication as to whether they will cooperate or not. When responding to an inquiry on the matter from BBC Persian, a spokesperson replied: “We do not have any opinions or comments on this issue.”

by Mahsa Alimardani at September 06, 2017 03:09 PM

In Quest for ‘Ideological Security’, China Pushes to Extend Communist Party Influence Inside Tech Firms

Remixed from pixabay's image.

At a recent symposium of the Chinese Communist Party, officials urged internet firms to strengthen their “party building” efforts, in order to maintain “ideological security” within their firms.

This marks a new phase in Chinese president Xi Jinping's campaign to enforce party control over different kinds of corporations, which has extended far beyond collective-owned and local private companies to encompass joint ventures with foreign firms and listed arms of state-owned enterprises on the Hong Kong stock market. These companies are facing rising pressure from the government to set up party branches intended to fortify their loyalty Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Internet firms form a critical component of this strategy.

In fact, the first  ‘party building’ symposium for internet companies was held in Beijing soon after Xi Jinping launched the campaign in 2016. Weibo, Jingdong, Baidu, Sohu, 360 and Lets TV had already set up their party branches back then.

Following the Soviet model of a planned, ideologically-bound economy, party branches are present in all state and collective-owned enterprises (SOEs). At the end of China's Cultural Revolution, former CCP leader Deng Xiaoping introduced a series of reforms intended to reduce the power of the CCP in the corporate sector, and to replace the planned economy with a market economy. The reforms also encouraged the development of new small-to-medium-sized private enterprises, privatization of SOEs, and foreign investment in joint corporations.

Companies that came about in this new economic sector were not required to establish a party branch. But now informal political pressure to do so is getting stronger and stronger.

The campaign to press private and foreign firms to establish a party branch is intended to strengthen the leadership and control of the CCP in the economic sector. Similar to the media sector, which has been asked to parrot the party line, the CCP expects online media outlets to flood the Internet with positive energy, in lockstep with the party itself.

Setting up a party branch is an effective way to show loyalty to CCP. Companies that have a party branch typically get allocated funds for party committee activities, which include elections, meetings and gatherings. A corporate party committee typically serves as an advisory body within the company, but because the CCP is part of the Chinese state apparatus, the committee's influence often goes beyond a mere advisory role.

In less than one year, at least 34 Beijing based Internet firms have established party branches. The total number of CCP members working in these firms has reached 6,000, according to Tong Liqiang, head of Beijing cyberspace affair office ‘s report during the “party-building” meeting.

In this context, some private and foreign owned corporate tried to “entertain” the Chinese government's call by appointing mid-ranking staff members to head their Communist Party committees. But the CCP wanted its members to occupy more influential positions.

Du Feijin, Beijing’s party propaganda director, called for stepping up party leadership and enrolling more employees into the party among Beijing-based internet firms. During the recent August 25 party-building meeting, cyber security powerhouse was presented as a model in the incorporation of the party-leadership into the firm.

Qi Xiangdong, the party secretary of, extolled party members who have played increasingly important role in the company:


In the process of setting up party branch [in the firm], the most important strategy is integration, the integration of party and business. [For example] in the past five years, with the development of Internet +, there have been more and more cyber-attack. The mission of the firm has been extended from the protection of individual's online security to the protection of national and military security… Last year, 360 has chosen to exit from the U.S stock market and transformed into a security firm owned by Chinese. The decision has all the staff's support. Now the company has more than 800 party members and the ratio is 8 percent [among all the employees]. The ratio of party member is 15 percent in the whole 360 corporate. Among the 40 partners, 10 are party members, the ratio is 25 percent. The more important posts in the company, the higher ratio of party members.

Even smaller scale enterprises are compelled to set up a party branch. Ofo, China’s popular bike-sharing startup, established a party committee on July 1, the birthdate of the Chinese Communist Party. Dai Wei, founder of Ofo, became party secretary of the company, asserting that party building “could promote company’s development.”

The party-building campaign has also worked in tandem with China's new cybersecurity law. It has empowered the authorities to shut down any websites with content that violates “socialist core values.” In June, a large number of entertainment media outlets on social media were shuttered on these grounds.

Indeed, among all of China's internet firms, the CCP wants primarily to obtain a stronger grasp over content service platforms and social media outlets. In addition to giant content service platforms like Baidu and Sina, smaller scale but influential content platforms like the question and answer platform Zhifu, location based friend-finder Momo, book and film review platform Douban, social media based News Headline, and keyword based news subscription platform Yidianzixun have all set up party branches.

Zhifu, Chinese question and answer platform, had its first party meeting on August 22. The site's chief editor, Yu Yangyang, is also the party secretary. Yu vowed to be loyal to the CCP during the party meeting:


To be loyal to the party, share the party's concern, pay responsibility and duty to the party.

As the site's chief editor, he said he would

坚持党管媒体原则, 通过知乎平台传递“社会正能量”。

Stick to the principle of media led by party. Would use Zhihu as a platform to spread positive energy to the society.

By February 2017, Zhihu had more than 9 billion page views per day, and 69 million registered users, 20 million of whom visit the site each day, on average. The question and answer site has become one of the most influential knowledge production platforms in Chinese-speaking world.

Even China’s cartoon video website,, has built a party committee in Shanghai, which was mockingly described by one internet user as “magical socialism”. Just two months ago, Bilibili was blocked for hosting too much foreign entertainment content.

As explained by state-affiliated media outlet Guangcha, Internet companies’ party building has significant impact on the ideological front. The commentator cited the example of PPTV, a Chinese video streaming website:


PPTV has made huge investment on TV drama, In the Name of People, and turned the drama into a hot topic online. Party members in the Internet companies recite: Internet firms should take up the responsibility to produce positive energy contents and products.

Most of the Internet companies in China are privately owned or under joint ventures. Some are listed in Hong Kong or the US stock markets. Establishing Communist Party committees, which could exercise special power to advise their boards on operational, personnel and strategic matters, could damage shareholders’ interest and market integrity.

More importantly, if internet firms are acting as an extension of the CCP by exercising ideological control over individual citizens, users’ rights and privacy will be further threatened. The recently published “Regulation on the Management of Internet Comments,” for example, specifies that comment service operators should manage their users by rating their “social credit” and to restrict people with low credit from making comments. If such “management” is taking over by party members within corporations, who see the online public sphere as an ideological battle field, dissenting voices would very likely be blacklisted.

Just a decade ago, many Chinese people saw the internet as a liberating force that could help people speak out against injustice and make change. But now, as major operators of the Internet are under strict political control, the once open and free space is looking more and more like a virtual panopticon.

by Oiwan Lam at September 06, 2017 01:50 PM

Gauri Lankesh, a Journalist Who Was Critical of India's Right Wing, Is Gunned Down Outside Her Home

Gauri Lankesh in 2012. Image from Flickr by Hari Prasad Nadig. CC BY-SA 2.0

Veteran Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot to death by assailants riding motorcycles on September 5, 2017, outside her home in the tech hub of Bangalore, highlighting how increasingly dangerous India is becoming for reporters.

Lankesh, 55, was the editor of a Kannada-language tabloid called Gauri Lankesh Patrike that took a fierce stance against Hindu nationalist organizations and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In November 2016, Lankesh had been convicted of defaming two politicians from India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which Modi is the leader, and sentenced to six months in prison. According to reports, she had secured bail and was appealing the case.

In a series of recent interviews with various Indian publications including and NewsLaundry, Lankesh had stated she was worried about the state of free speech in India after receiving hatred and vitriol online.

Police are investigating her killing and have not arrested any suspects.

The Press Council of India, the official body representing journalists, condemned Lankesh's violent end and stated:

Whatever differences she had with anyone, it was certainly not the way to attack an outspoken journalist who was defenseless and had nothing to offer by way of resistance. Such attacks on the freedom of press will not be tolerated.

And several protests across India have been planned by various journalist groups.

‘Anybody talking in support of human rights…is branded a Maoist supporter.’

India slipped by three spots to 136th out of 180 countries in the 2017 Press Freedom Index published by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. The report highlighted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's “brand of nationalism and growing self-censorship” as contributing to the slide.

And in May 2017, Indian media watchdog The Hoot said 54 journalists had been attacked in India in the last 16 months, and seven had been killed (although there was only “reasonable evidence of their journalism being the motive for the murder” in one of the cases).

Lankesh's death was the latest in a series of murders not only of journalists, but of outspoken figures who challenged Hindu nationalism, or “Hindutva politics,” and promoted a secular, diverse India. In 2016, leftist ideologue MM Kalburgi was shot dead in a similar manner in Bangalore.

For years, Lankesh had warned of the shrinking space for alternative thought in a climate dominated by Hindu nationalists. In November 2016, she told Indian website NewsLaundry about her struggle to fight against right-wing politics:

Unfortunately, today anybody talking in support of human rights and against fake encounters [extrajudicial killings] is branded a Maoist supporter. Along with that, my criticism of Hindutva politics and the caste system, which is part and parcel of what is considered ‘Hindu dharma’, makes my critics brand me as a ‘Hindu hater’. But I consider it my constitutional duty to continue – in my own little way – the struggle of [12th-century Hindu philosopher] Basavanna and [20th-century Indian social reformer] Dr. Ambedkar towards establishing an egalitarian society.

In March 2017, she spoke at the National Convention of Human Rights Defenders on “Reclaiming Rights and Asserting Freedom” in Delhi:

Now death threats has become a common factor in Karnataka. Whether it is attacks on pubs and homestays, in the name of cultural protection of women or attack on dalits….in the name of cow protection.

And just days before her murder, Gauri tweeted about the Rohingya crisis and India's stand on their plight. She also expressed her displeasure over “infighting” amongst those opposing right-wing politics and propaganda.

‘This is an assassination on democracy’

Indians took to Twitter to express their shock over Lankesh's killing. Karnataka's Chief Minister Siddaramaiah tweeted strong words:

Prominent Indian journalists Barkha Dutt and Sagarika Ghose weighed in:

Member of Parliament and former minister Shashi Tharoor tweeted:

Here's what Suman Sen Gupta, a cultural activist from Kolkata, said:

And Mumbai-based Anjali Damania questioned:

by Vishal Manve at September 06, 2017 01:28 PM

September 05, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
50 Shades of Erdogan's Propaganda

Thousands protest in Istanbul against corruption and Erdogan's government in Dec. 2013. A banner with Fethullah Gulen and PM Erdogan's pictures reads: “One is no better than the other”. Fulya Atalay for Demotix.

Joseph Stalin described the work of writers as being akin to the “engineering of human souls.” He was referring not just to any type of writing, but to the writing of propaganda.

Today in Turkey, under the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), this type of “engineering” has proven relatively successful. Immediately following the 2013 Gezi Park protests, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to convince his political base that the protests were nothing but the work of an “international interest lobby”.

He has wielded the myth of the “parallel lobby” — a label for opponents real and invented — in countless public speeches ever since. Pro-government media have been essential in helping to get the message out.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour was indignant after Turkish pro-government daily Takvim published a fake interview with her in which she ‘confessed’ to being forced to cover the Gezi protests in a way that cast a negative light on Turkey. Screenshot taken from Hurriyet Daily News report on the subject.

From the CIA, to the international Jewish conspiracy, to an interest rate lobby, to Lufthansa Airlines, to a mysterious telekinetic attack by dark forces; the list of so-called “lobbies” has become extensive. But only one man was sufficiently controversial to offer up the real, living and breathing enemy to take state propaganda to the next level.

Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher and visionary, was Erdogan's ally before he became his enemy. After AKP's first landslide victory in 2002, the pair worked together to re-shape Turkish politics, long-dominated by a secular military elite. But as Erdogan looked to extend his power, Gulen's undoubted influence inside the government became a hindrance. By the time the Gezi protests took place, it had reportedly collapsed. Since a coup attempt the government blames on Gulen took place last year, vicious attacks on the preacher's network in the government-controlled media have reached a crescendo.

An enemy image

While there remain credible suspicions regarding Gulen's involvement in the 2016 failed coup attempt, other charges leveled at him verge on ridiculous.

Among these are the suggestion, prompted by Erdogan himself, that Gulen's movement may have been responsible for shooting down a Russian plane that allegedly entered Turkish airspace during a mission in Syria in late 2015. Ankara was looking to repair damaged relations with Moscow at the time Erdogan made the claim.

Pro-government tabloids also alleged that the assassination of Russia's envoy in the country in 2016 was the work of a Gulenist hand. Photo taken from the website of the ‘Silenced Turkey’ advocacy group.

Clearly, Fetullah Gulen and his movement serve the same broad and convenient purpose that Trotskyites and Tsarists did for Stalin. They help the autocrat lend credibility to actions that would otherwise make no sense, and in doing so, defeat his real enemies: truth and democracy.

In a Washington Post blog exploring why authoritarian leaders resort to lies, Xavier Marquez notes:

In open democracies, a public commitment to certain implausible claims (e.g., the claim that Barack Obama was a Muslim, or was not born in the U.S.) may draw sharp lines between groups, mobilizing supporters while enraging the opposition without being “literally” believed. But implausible lies are more important in the murky environments of many authoritarian regimes, where secrecy and fear make it difficult for rulers to know if their subordinates are truly loyal. These regimes typically need to “dramatize” their cohesion, showing in convincing ways that they are in fact unified to deter internal challengers.

Indeed, peddling “implausible claims” has become a norm in Turkey. In the crackdown that followed last year's failed military coup, more than 100,000 employees lost their jobs.

The government sees Gulenist enemies of the state wherever it wants to, especially in what remains of the free press.

Crackdown International

Erdogan's crackdown has extended itself to international visitors and foreign governments as well.

On July 5, Turkish police stormed a training for Turkish human rights defenders on one of the Istanbul islands, arresting all of the participants as well as two trainers from abroad. The case has now been internationally branded as #Istanbul10. Those detained have been accused of “committing a crime in the name of a terrorist organization without being a member.”

Turkey's foreign ministry has let the world know that it believes the Gulenist scourge is active beyond the country's borders, too.

Outside Turkey, Gulen is best known as an educator, with schools using his approach to education located in nearly one hundred countries across the world. Even before the 2016 coup, Turkey had begun putting heavy pressure on many countries — notably in Africa and Central Asia — to close the schools. That pressure has been ramped up in the aftermath of the failed putsch.

Ironically, prior to Erdogan's fallout with Gulen, the schools were seen as institutions of excellence that created Turkophiles in much of the developing world and contributed to the country's growing “soft power”. Writing for Al-Monitor back in 2015, Fehim Tastekin noted the counter-productive nature of the drive to close the schools.

Unfortunately, if the intensity of state propaganda over the last few years is any indication, Erdogan and AKP have moved well beyond considerations of “soft power”.

by Arzu Geybullayeva at September 05, 2017 12:23 PM

September 01, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Macau Journalists Told to Write More Positive Stories in Wake of Deadly Typhoon

Flooding in Macau after Typhoon Hato. Photo: Macau Concealers/Facebook.

Below is a compilation of reports written by Catherine Lai and Karen Cheung originally published by Hong Kong Free Press between August 28 and 30, 2017. The post below is published on Global Voices as part of a partnership agreement.

Authorities in Macau, a special administrative region of China, are attempting to control the narrative around the aftermath of Typhoon Hato by ordering journalists to minimise critical reporting, barring Hong Kong journalists from entering the city, and cracking down on rumors.

Typhoon Hato swiped through Hong Kong and Macau on August 23. While Hong Kong, also a special administrative region of China, was relatively unaffected, the storm caused power outages, severe flooding, and at least 10 deaths in Macau, and is said to have been the worst storm the region has seen in 53 years.

Upon a request made by Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui, the Macau garrison of China's People’s Liberation Army deployed on August 25 to conduct storm relief work. At the same time, the chief of the city's weather observatory, Fong Soi-kun, resigned and is being investigated by the Ombudsman in relation to the disaster following public complaints that city response and rescue efforts have been insufficient.

Against this backdrop, Macau police arrested two people, aged 73 and 68, on suspicion of releasing false information via mobile chat groups and private messages alleging that the authorities had sought to cover up the discovery of bodies in a car park during the typhoon.

Article 181 of the Macau Penal Code forbids citizens from spreading information which damages the credibility of any individual or institution which exercises public authority.

The Macau Journalists’ Association announced on Facebook that at least five media outlets, all members of the association, had instructed staff to publish more “positive” stories.

According to the post, employees from these media outlets were told to:

report more on good people and good deeds, actively spread positive energy throughout society, and decrease [reports] holding the government, especially the highest officials, accountable.

The association condemned the order as an act to “fool the public and distort the profession of journalists,” and said its purpose was to divert attention away from the government’s dereliction of duty. It expressed anger, saying it would follow up on the matter. It also asked the public to support the work of journalists in reporting the truth.

A media worker who wished to remain anonymous told independent news site Apple Daily that journalists would not be permitted to report in the field if they did not write more positive stories. They said that they received a call from their boss telling them that the tone of their reporting must be “harmonious,” and “if you don’t submit, then you don’t get to do [the work].” They said that other professionals in the industry knew of journalists in similar situations.

The association said that the value of journalism lies in warning the public, verifying information, finding the root of the problem, holding officials accountable and scrutinising their work, and preventing the same thing from happening again:

But after the storm hit Macau, the plan to deal with the flooding had not even come out, and we only saw the government busy clearing the noise, using ridiculous reasons to refuse entry to outside journalists; and [compelling] multiple local outlets to conduct self-censorship at almost the same time… with the intent to divert public attention and cover up the root of the problem.

Authorities said journalists ‘posed a threat to internal security’

Macau authorities refused entry to at least four Hong Kong journalists over the weekend of August 26.

The journalists intended to report on the destruction and clean-up efforts following Typhoon Hato. But Macau immigration said that they “posed a threat to internal security,” citing the Internal Security Law.

Mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong has questioned the Macau government’s decision to request the help of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in clean-up work. Many Hong Kong opinion leaders have criticized Macau's governance and dependence on mainland China.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association released a joint statement expressing “deep regrets” over the Macanese government’s actions:

We urge the Macau government to respect press freedom and not to arbitrarily restrict the rights of entry and exit of journalists in Macau…They were not trouble-makers. It was unreasonable for the Macau authorities to say they posed a threat to internal security. A number of Hong Kong journalists had been rejected entry to Macau in recent years. We have expressed deep regrets over the Macau authority’s arbitrarily restrictive immigration policy.

The Macau Portuguese and English Press Association also slammed the ban:

[The Macau Portuguese and English Press Association] finds the explanation given by the local authorities incomprehensible and unsatisfactory and cautions that this move, similar to previous ones of the same kind, tarnishes the international image of the [special administrative region] regarding press freedom.

Victor Chan Chi-ping, the head of Macau’s Government Information Bureau, was asked about the internal orders at a press conference. He denied knowledge of the situation, and said:

The government only supports the media – we never interfere with the internal issues of media outlets.


by Hong Kong Free Press at September 01, 2017 03:54 AM

August 31, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
India’s Latest Internet Shutdown Hits Haryana and Punjab

India internet shutdown map, January 2010 – March 2017. Created by the Centre for Communication Governance (CC BY)

Internet and mobile services were shut down for several days in the northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab over a court ruling in the criminal case against guru Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the controversial leader of the hugely popular Dera Sacha Sauda sect.

On August 25, the special Criminal Bureau of Investigation court reached a verdict that the guru would serve 20 years in prison for two counts of rape. The decision led to the eruption of violent protests, mainly among his followers, in the Haryana and Punjab provinces as well as some parts of Uttarakhand. At least thirty people died and hundreds were injured as a result.

Ahead of the chaotic dissent, authorities suspended internet and mobile phone services in the Haryana and Punjab provinces, home to over 25 million people.

According to the Haryana Additional Chief Secretary Ram Niwas, the order was intended to prevent any disturbance of peace and preserve public order.

But the reality was not so simple. The shutdown disrupted the lives of citizens across the provinces who were unable to communicate using SMS, 2G, 3G, 4G, CDMA, GPRS systems. India is the world's second largest mobile phone market after China and much of its burgeoning digital economy depends upon mobile phone networks across the provinces.

In combination with the physical riots, the shutdowns affected myriad aspects of civic life, from garbage collection to schools to commercial traders.

As of August 29, mobile internet and SMS services were restored in Haryana province.

In 2016, the UN passed a non-binding resolution to protect freedom of expression by condemning active disruption, shutdown, or suppression of the internet which is fundamental to information sharing and access. But this has not had much impact on the prevalence of internet shutdowns in India, despite criticism that they are ineffectual and stifling of individual and press freedoms.

Although different institutions use unique technical criteria to define a shutdown, none dispute that they have risen rapidly in India in recent years. According to the New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre, India has seen 106 internet shutdowns since 2012.

In the Indian state of West Bengal, the internet was shut down on June 18 to control the recent unrest caused by the pro-Gorkhaland separatists. The ban has been extended by the local authorities a few times, thus leaving the region without connectivity for more than two months.

On August 7, the Indian Ministry of Communication released a memo intended to codify the process for imposing an internet shutdown through two channels: by the central government and by the state government, whose requests must be reviewed within 24 hours of their submission.

In their analysis of the order, local tech policy blog Medianama noted that it does not explain how shutdown agreements are reached. As shutdowns already infringe on the UN’s resolution for freedom of expression online and enact collective curfew on all internet users, the new rule has worrying implications not just for internet freedoms but for the economic and social order of an increasingly digital India.

Follow the Software Freedom Law Centre's Internet Shutdown Tracker for up-to-date records of shutdowns across India.

by Riana Patel at August 31, 2017 08:58 PM

India’s Supreme Court Says Privacy Is a Fundamental Right. How Did This Happen?

Equipments to capture biometrics information under Aadhaar. Image from Flickr by Julian Correa. Public Domain.

Last week, a nine-judge bench of India's supreme court issued a unanimous ruling that Indian citizens have a fundamental right to privacy.

The historic decision could have significant implications for India's biometric identity scheme or Aadhaar (Hindi for “foundation”), the world's largest biometric identification programme.

Aadhaar was launched in 2009 in a stated effort to eliminate ghost, duplicate and fraudulent IDs that its proponents said were disrupting the delivery of financial and other social services and causing “leakages” in government revenue. Aadhaar is implemented by the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI).

Last week's judgment must be seen within the context of a series of citizen petitions to the court attempting to challenge the implementation and linkage of the biometric ID to various government welfare schemes and services.

September 2013: First Interim Order Restricting Aadhaar

On September 23, 2013, the Supreme Court of India passed an interim order in response to a batch of petitions that argued that Aadhaar violates fundamental rights of equality and privacy.

The petitions specifically challenged the linkage of Aadhaar with various welfare schemes. In their response, the court held that “no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card inspite [sic] of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory.” Since then, the court has stated several times that Aadhaar cannot be mandatory until all the cases are heard in court and disposed of.

Theoretically, this made Aadhaar optional. However, various government bodies continued to link Aadhaar to more benefits and services.


March 2015: Privacy is not a “guaranteed right”

In 2015, citizens petitioned the court challenging the constitutionality of Aadhaar. Then-Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, representing the central government, argued before a three-judge bench of the supreme court that privacy is not a “guaranteed right,” and that there were “inconsistencies” in the previous apex court orders, despite nearly thirty years of jurisprudence on privacy in India to the contrary.

The government went on to argue that citizens will have to waive certain fundamental rights in order to have access to government benefits. To settle the matter, the court decided that the challenge would have to be resolved by a nine-judge constitution bench that would consider the overarching question of whether Indian citizens have a fundamental right to privacy or not.

But it took many months for the court to assemble this bench to hear the case.

In the meantime, more than 108 services– ranging from bank account access, to key healthcare procedures, to school enrollment — that citizens cannot access without an Aadhaar ID. Yet the UIDAI still maintains that the scheme is voluntary.

March 2016: The Aadhaar Act (and the leaks that followed)

While petitioners continued to wait for the court to form this bench, in March 2016 the government passed the Aadhaar Act.

Soon after, the law was reported to have disrupted welfare schemes across the country, ‘leaked’ citizens’ data, and from some advocates’ perspectives, become an instrument of surveillance. At one point, Aadhaar even had an officially sanctioned trolling programme to attack critics of the scheme on social media.

Government proponents of the scheme, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made several claims about the benefits of Aadhaar as a tool for combating identity fraud in welfare schemes. But civil rights activists and researchers have shown these claims to be dubious.

The magnitude of the Aadhaar scheme and its increasingly broad application to the many processes of everyday life left many advocates concerned that even if the court finally heard the case and upheld petitioners’ arguments, Aadhaar would have bcome so pervasive that it would become impossible for anyone to reverse the process.

July 2017: ‘Indians have a fundamental right to privacy’

Nearly two years after petitioners challenged the constitutionality of Aadhaar, the supreme court finally convened a nine-judge constitution bench to determine whether Indian citizens will have a right to privacy was formed in July 2017.

During the course of the hearing, the tone of the government shifted to endorsing a ‘Data Protection Act’ instead of a full-fledged fundamental right to privacy. This was yet another attempt on the part of the government to dilute the right.

On top of that, it suggested some names for a committee that would formulate the law, the composition of which raised some eyebrows.

In spite of such heavy odds stacked against the petitioners, the supreme court delivered a unanimous verdict that Indian citizens do have a fundamental right to privacy.

Twitterati were quick to point out that Aadhaar is still around.

While the 547-page judgment will have implications on a host of pending cases, the government's response to the judgment is telling.

The law minister was quick to state that the judgment does not affect the biometric scheme. However, a day after the judgment, government officials close to the development feel that they will need to “ring-fence” Aadhaar and demonstrate to the supreme court that the scheme does protect privacy of Indian citizens.

by Rohith Jyothish at August 31, 2017 05:26 PM

Netizen Report: Vietnam Targets ‘Illegal Cyber Information’ — and Political Speech

Internet cafe in Vietnam. Photo by Ivan Lian via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in internet rights around the world.

Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang called for tougher controls on the internet, charging that “hostile” entities online had “undermined the prestige of the leaders of the party and the state, [bringing about] a negative impact on cadres, party members and people.”

Quang, who is a former minister of public security, also vowed to increase online surveillance in the name of protecting national security.

His comments come on the heels of a public consultation on Vietnam’s new draft Law on Cybersecurity, which was written by — and gives broad powers to — the Ministry of Public Security. The draft includes special provisions around “illegal cyber information” that “incites any mass gatherings that disturb security and order, and anti-government activities in cyberspace.” The law also sets new standards for “critical systems,” stipulating that operators of such systems must store system data on Vietnamese soil, but it does not offer a clear definition of “critical systems”.

Assuming it goes into effect, the Law on Cybersecurity will increase the government’s ability to control independent voices online, which are already heavily scrutinized and regularly silenced under Vietnam’s Penal Code.

In late July, multiple bloggers and human rights defenders were arrested and charged with “conducting activities aimed at attempting to overthrow the state” under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, which carries a minimum sentence of 12 years in prison and a maximum sentence of capital punishment. Among those arrested were the founding members of the Brotherhood for Democracy, a network of activists involved in community building and mobilising across Vietnam.

Prominent Vietnamese human rights lawyer and blogger Nguyen Van Dai was also charged under Article 79, on top of a previous charge under Penal Code Article 88 for allegedly “conducting propaganda against the state.”

A recipient of Human Rights Watch’s Hellman-Hammett Award in 2007, Dai has been detained for more than 600 days without trial. The new charges will allow police to extend their investigation period for an additional 20 months.

In India, public security threats bring network shutdowns

An internet blackout in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal, India, has been ongoing for two full months, following the deaths of citizens in a violent clash between security forces and separatists calling for an independent Gorkhaland. The situation has severely impacted daily life in the region, as businesses, students, and journalists grapple with the effects of the ban.

Meanwhile, in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, internet and mobile services were shut down for several days surrounding the announcement of the court verdict in a criminal case against Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the controversial leader of the hugely popular Dera Sacha Sauda sect. Ram Rahim was found guilty of rape by a special Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court, a decision that triggered outrage among his followers, who took to the streets in protests that in some cases led to clashes with police and other citizens. Authorities say that more than 30 people have been killed in the ensuing violence.

Indian Supreme Court says ‘privacy is a fundamental right’

In a historic decision, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy is “intrinsic to [the] right to life.” The right to privacy will become part of India’s constitution, after the court considered multiple citizen petitions challenging the legalities of India’s national biometric digital ID system, Aadhaar. The court did not issue a judgment on the constitutionality of Aadhaar, but called on the government to create a robust scheme for data protection.

Mexican journalist assassinated after posting video online

Mexican journalist Candido Rios was murdered on August 22 in a gun attack in Hueyapan de Ocampo, Veracruz, the ninth journalist to be assassinated in the country this year. Rios, known by his colleagues as “Pavuche,” was the founder of the weekly newspaper La Voz de Hueyapan. Shortly before his death, Rios posted a video making strong accusations against political figures of Hueyapan de Ocampo. In the video he said, “We do not use firearms. They kill us knowing that our weapons don't shoot bullets. Our weapons shoot truth.”

Macedonian man fined 400 euros for insulting Erdogan

A Macedonian court applied the lese-majeste portion of its criminal code for the first time since its independence in 1992, punishing an anonymous person for insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Facebook. The person will have to pay a fine of 400 euros or serve a prison sentence.

Venezuela’s new assembly goes after hatred online

The newly inaugurated Venezuelan National Constituent Assembly is seeking to regulate the use of social media to combat hate crimes with a new draft law. The text of the law is not available online, but it allegedly punishes “hatred” on social media with prison sentences of up to 25 years.

Venezuela’s vilification of social media is nothing new. In 2010, the government (then led by Hugo Chavez) was already accusing online networks of inciting hatred and violence, and those who use them routinely risked arrest for political speech. In 2014, a draft law proposed by the governing party sought to classify online protest as “cyberterrorism.”

Cambodian tax authorities target non-state media

Cambodian authorities revoked the licenses of multiple outlets, including Moha Nokor FM 93.5, which carries Radio Free Asia and Voices of America, and threatened to close others allegedly due to violations of the country’s tax and licensing laws. The independent political program Voice of Democracy also experienced disruptions after the station was ordered to stop broadcasting. Media groups expressed concern that the closure orders were politically motivated, meant to silence critical voices in the lead-up to the 2018 general elections.

On the Chinese internet, real names will soon be the norm

The Cyberspace Administration of China announced a new regulation that requires netizens to register with their real names in order to post comments online, a decision that will significantly reduce space for discussion and place a burden on sites required to implement identity verification systems. The regulations appear to be part of a broader scheme to integrate a social credit system into Chinese internet platforms, which will rank individuals on the basis of their online speech and other factors. Comments deemed harmful or abusive will likely be a key factor in the calculations of the system. The commenting regulation will take effect on October 1.

Denmark approved surveillance tech sales during Arab uprisings

Denmark’s foreign ministry approved the sale of surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia and the UAE despite human rights concerns about how it would be used, according to the Danish foreign minister. Earlier this year, the BBC published an investigation into the Danish subsidiary of UK-based BAE Systems, which was selling surveillance technologies that may have been used to monitor and target individuals involved in the Arab uprisings of 2011-2012. The systems were sold to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Morocco and Algeria, and were used in Tunisia before the fall of Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali. The ministry said human rights considerations were “only one part” of their overall assessment of the business decision.

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by Netizen Report Team at August 31, 2017 05:22 PM

August 30, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
The Evolution of China's Great Firewall: 21 Years of Censorship

Images remixed by Oiwan Lam.

In September 1987, a Beijing laboratory sent what became China's first email. The message, to a German university, read: “Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner of the world.”

The development of internet infrastructure in the past few decades has enabled Chinese people to continue crossing the “Great Wall” and communicate with the rest of the world. But Chinese authorities soon threw up another wall to prevent the people from accessing information they deemed threatening to the Chinese Communist Party.

In 1996, Beijing enacted a set of interim provisions for governing computer information, and in 1998, the Ministry of Public Security launched the Golden Shield project — a national filter that blocks politically sensitive content from entering the domestic network.

This censorship tactic scheme has long been nicknamed the Great Firewall, and has undergone periodic upgrades since it was first introduced, given that people's efforts to cross the Great Firewall have been non-stop. Some describe the interplay between the Great Firewall and Chinese netizens as an ongoing “prison break”.

Recently, Hong Kong-based investigative journalism platform the Initium reviewed the concurrent evolution of the Great Firewall and tools used to circumvent it. Below is a summary and partial translation of key points in the Chinese report.

First stage: The Golden Shield blocks domain names and IP addresses

The first generation of the Golden Shield was a domestic filter that blocked specific domain names and server IP addresses:

「牆」就像一個邪惡的郵差,只要看到你的信封上寫上 Google 或 Facebook 等網站的地址,就會直接將信件丟棄。

The Great Firewall is like an evil mailman; whenever he sees Google or Facebook addressed on the envelope he will just toss the letter away.

By using an overseas server, i.e. a proxy server, people could still go around the wall and visit any sites they wanted:

就好像你將一封希望寄給 Google 的信,先寄給一位認識好郵差的朋友,再由他幫你轉寄給 Google。

It is like you plan to send a letter to Google; you can first send the letter to a friend who knows a nice mailman and then the mailman can forward the letter to Google.

Second stage: The Golden Shield implements keyword censorship

The keyword-filtering system of Golden Shield was upgraded to detect the content of the websites that netizens visit, even if the internet connection is going through a proxy. If there is “sensitive content” communicated along the network connection, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is reset:


In this case, the Great Firewall acts like an information inspector; it can tear open your letter and toss it away if sensitive content is found.


Pathways for Censoring a Weibo Post. Graphic by Citizen Lab (CC BY 2.5)


To prevent such inspection, Chinese netizens started using virtual private networks, or VPNs, to bypass the Great Firewall. Originally, VPNs were used by global corporation to protect business secrets; their internal communications traveled within a private network and were encrypted to make sure that no third party could detect the messages sent through the network.

In other words, a VPN server outside China could safely transmit a Chinese netizen's visit requests to any third-party website.

Third stage: Great Firewall begins detecting VPNs and other circumvention tools

With support from the government, the developers of the Great Firewall finally managed to identify weaknesses in VPNs. They found that there are some obvious features of the commonly used VPN protocols, such as IPSec, L2TP/TPSec and PPTP, which often use specific ports. When processing the encrypted connection, it leaves a distinctive trace.

Again, the Great Firewall was upgraded to detect such “irregular” connection traces:


It's like even if the Great Firewall can’t read your letter, it can analyze the intention of the letter based on the handwriting and how often the punctuation appears.

In 2011, the Great Firewall blocked two major VPN protocols, PPTP and L2TP, temporarily. But the economic damage of blocking protocols was huge. The Great Firewall since has been upgraded to slow down or reset individual VPN connections.


VPN diagram, shared widely online.


To solve the problem, open source developers from Github collectively developed a new tool, Shadowsocks.

Same as a VPN, Shadowsocks is circumvention technology. It encrypts communication between the user and the website they wish to visit, but the connection is hard to detect for third party because Shadowsocks allows users to choose different encryption methods and appoint a random port.

Moreover, Shadowsocks is an open-source project, so even if the original developer were to delete the codes published at GitHub under pressure from authorities, other developers could carry on the development and maintain variants such as ShadowsocksR and V2Ray.

As the Chinese government has blocked more and more websites, including non-political online game sites, photo-sharing sites and social media platforms, the demand for circumvention tools has grown. Some individual developers have build successful businesses by providing circumvention apps to individual netizens using Shadowsocks.

After Apple upgraded its operating system to iOS 8 in 2014, the company's devices started to open VPN-related API programming ports, which enable other developers to build privately-owned encrypted VPN apps. Since then, proxy apps supporting Shadowsocks protocols have flourished. People need only to install and open the app and they can connect to websites banned by the Chinese government, making it easy for casual internet users to access websites outside the Great Firewall.

But Chinese authorities are keeping a close eye on all of this.

Fourth stage: Cyber security laws target anonymity and VPNs

In addition to constantly upgrading the Great Firewall, Beijing has also introduced new laws to criminalize VPN service providers.

On January 22, 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced a “Notice on Clearing Up and Regulating the Internet Access Service Market”, which states:

without approval by the telecommunication management departments, one must not create on his own accord, or hire, dedicated lines (including virtual private networks VPNs) or other information channels to conduct cross-border business activities. Basic telecommunication enterprises leasing dedicated international lines to users, should create a centralized user archive, and make clear to the users that the terms of use of those lines are limited to internal office use, and that the lines must not be used to connect to domestic or overseas data centers or operations platforms to conduct telecommunication operations business activities.

On June 1, the controversial “Cyber Security Law” officially took effect, giving far-reaching rights to the supervision department, strengthening internet operator responsibilities and duties, and demanding real-name registration of individual internet users. The monitoring system is similar to the “pre-crime” operation in the US science fiction movie “Minority Report”.

The legislation directly compelled Apple to take down VPN apps from its China app store in July. Amazon's China partner also issued a warning to its customers against the use of its cloud server for setting up a VPN server. It said that once they discover clients using unapproved VPNs, it would shut down their services.

The pressure directed towards individual developers and users of VPNs is severe. Starting in July, news of police harassment of proxy software developers and proxy software users has appeared regularly.

One developer shared on Twitter on how he was identified by the police. He said the police located his IP address through his QQ number which was shown in the App store. The police visited his apartment and forcefully demanded that he remove the app. He later vowed not to upload his proxy app again.

In Shenzhen, some internet users have been located by the police due to their frequent connection to proxy software. Their internet connection service was cut and they were forced to write a letter promising they would never use the software again to resume the connection.

These increased crackdowns have frightened individual circumvention tool developers and users. Among the developer community, one developer said they are left with two options:

要絕對安全,只有兩條路:一個是不做中文版,包裝成類似 ExpressVPN 這樣的海外公司;另一個……我前天見了一個朋友,他說他認識工信部的人,可以幫我申請 VPN 銷售許可證。這樣就可以徹底洗白了。

There are two ways to go to be absolutely safe, one is by not making the Chinese version of the app, and promoting your app as if it’s from a foreign company like Express VPN; and the other way… I met a friend a few days ago, he said he knows someone who works at MIIT and he can help me get a VPN sales permit. In this way, the business can be totally legit.

However, getting a license means working with the government to spy on VPN users’ online activities. The developer further explained:


Of course you have to follow the government rules to register user identity, keep login records; and we will have to give whatever data the government requires in the future…actually few users care about privacy, what they want is to just get over the wall. As long as we have users we can make money…

Technically speaking, circumvention technologies have outwitted the Great Firewall. Yet the new legal regime has changed the rules of the game. Today, Chinese netizens who want to be connected with the external network must choose to either give up their privacy and subscribe to licensed VPN services or overcome their fear of police harassment and register with overseas circumvention tools.

After three decades, the dream of crossing the Great Wall and reaching every corner in the world has given way to a nightmare which sees people's freedom under threat.

by Oiwan Lam at August 30, 2017 03:40 PM

August 29, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Murdered Mexican Journalist Cándido Ríos: ‘Our Weapons Do Not Shoot Bullets. Our Weapons Shoot Truth’
Cándido Ríos Vázquez. Imagen ampliamente compartida en Twitter.

Cándido Ríos Vázquez. Photo widely shared in Twitter.

Mexican journalist Cándido Ríos, also known by locals and colleagues as “Pavuche,” was murdered on August 22, 2017, in a gun attack in Hueyapan de Ocampo, Veracruz, on Mexico's east coast, according to local sources.

Independent news outlet Animal Político gave more details about his death:

Ríos, conocido entre sus colegas como “Pavuche”, falleció mientras era trasladado al hospital debido a las heridas de bala de alto calibre que recibió, según dijeron a AFP fuentes conocedoras del caso.

Ríos, known as “Pavuche” among his colleagues, died while being transported to the hospital after having been wounded with a firearm of high caliber, sources familiar with the case told AFP.

Ríos’ name joins the list of journalists who have been murdered in Mexico this year, which includes Salvador Adame, Miroslava Breach and Javier Valdez. According to freedom of expression advocacy group Article 19, Ríos is the ninth journalist assassinated in the country in 2017.

Ríos was the founder of the weekly newspaper La Voz de Hueyapan and had reported for local newspaper Diario Acayucan for over 10 years. His work included coverage of corruption and police. Animal Político pointed out:

El periodista era conocido por su larga trayectoria cubriendo nota roja, y por haber tenido conflictos con algunos exalcaldes de la región debido a su labor periodística.

The journalist was known for his career as a crime reporter and for having conflicts with some former town mayors in the region due to his work.

Twitter user Diana Gabriela shared an excerpt of a video that Rios filmed himself, just nine days before being murdered, in which he makes strong accusations against political figures of Hueyapan de Ocampo. In the video, he asserts: “We do not use firearms. They kill us knowing that our weapons don't shoot bullets. Our weapons shoot truth.”

Shockingly, Ríos was under the local authorities’ protection after he had received threats to his life over to his journalistic work. Newspaper La Jornada reported:

Jorge Morales, de la Comisión Estatal de Atención y Protección a Periodistas, informó que Cándido Ríos tenía presentadas varias denuncias contra algunas autoridades municipales de la región, por agresiones a su persona.

Jorge Morales, from the State’s Commission to Serve and Protect Journalists, reported that Cándido Ríos had filed several complaints against some of the region's political figures for aggressions against his person.

News site Huffington Post elaborated:

Su afán por denunciar injusticias le ganó amplia popularidad entre los lectores, pero también enemigos como el exalcalde de Hueyapan, su pueblo natal, quien lo amenazó de muerte en numerosas ocasiones, según recuerda su colega y director del Diario de Acayucan, Cecilio Pérez.

His tireless efforts to denounce injustice brought him popularity among readers, but also enemies like the former mayor of Ríos’ hometown Hueyapan, who threatened him with death several times, said his former colleague Cecilio Perez, director of Diario de Acayucan.

Meanwhile, news portal MX Politico shared his picture on Twitter:

Traditional media outlets in the country have provided minimal coverage to Ríos’ murder. Some have published different versions about the reasons behind his assassination. Online national news outlet Milenio highlighted a comment from a Mexican government official who stated that Ríos was not the target of the attack in which he died:

El periodista Cándido Ríos Vázquez no era el objetivo del ataque en el que murieron él y otras dos personas frente a una gasolinera en el municipio de Hueyapan de Ocampo, dijo Roberto Campa Cifrían, subsecretario de Derechos Humanos de la Secretaría de Gobernación.

Journalist Cándido Ríos Vázquez was not the target of the attack in which he and two other people died at a gas station in Hueyapan de Ocampo, Veracruz, said Roberto Campa Cifrian, deputy secretary of the Human Rights of Secretariat of the Interior.

Jaqueline Dorantes shared the following message among her followers:

Mexico has become an incredibly dangerous place to work for journalists, who are often threatened or assaulted for doing their job. Follow our special coverage about the several crimes against journalism in Mexico, and the impunity that surrounds these cases.

by J. Tadeo at August 29, 2017 02:13 PM

August 28, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Chinese Tech Firms Are at the Cutting Edge of Artificial Intelligence — But at What Cost?

Image remixed by Oiwan Lam. Source via Pixabay

Chinese technology companies have found themselves at the forefront of developing artificial intelligence (AI) technology. As of this summer, they have robust support from the state to continue this work.

In late July, the Chinese State Council released a plan detailing how it will encourage the development of AI by 2030 through the creation of a new AI Plan Promotion Office in its Ministry of Science and Technology.

The Chinese government's comprehensive plan, dubbed “Artificial Intelligence 2.0”, has come with many millions of dollars worth of investment into research, start-ups and advanced military projects, all aimed at making China epicenter of future development of AI.

But such rapid development may come at a cost. As Twitter user @bluebird0605 put it:

I have conversations with many AI experts who returned from the US. They said China had a more open attitude toward new technology, for example the implementation of facial recognition technology is a lot easier in China than elsewhere. The other side of their view is: their success is built upon the lack of awareness on individual rights.

Indeed, China has caught up with the US in recent years when it comes to researching and implementing AI. This was evident at the 2017 Annual Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, a historically US-dominated conference that featured a long list of Chinese companies and developers this year.

Hong Kong academic Willy Wo-Lap Lam echoed the words of @bluebird0605 when he described this evolution:

Both Chinese and foreign experts reckon that China has the most advanced — and cheapest — AI-enabled surveillance technology in the world. The reason is simple: China has the fastest-expanding market for facial recognition and similar know-how. This is coupled with the absence of enforceable laws and regulations protecting citizens’ privacy.

Netizens and researchers have known about state authorities’ use of AI to facilitate censorship in China for some time. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab noted in a November 2016 report that keyword censorship has become “dynamic”, reflecting current events and popular issues on social media, likely thanks to AI. The Citizen Lab more recently demonstrated evidence that AI-driven censorship has enabled simultaneous image filtering in one-on-one chats.

But surveillance of all kinds has also become a key component of this initiative. China launched a fully digitalized and all-embracing grid for stability maintenance under the Central National Security Commission (CNSC), which is the country's top security organ established in 2013 and chaired by the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In 2014 President Xi set up the Central Leading Group on Cyberspace Affairs, which answers directly to the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization led by Xi, to crack down on “destabilizing elements” in cyberspace.

Facial recognition technology has since been a major source of big data in China, as reported by Hong Kong-based Citizen News:


Over the past seven to eight years, major cities in China have set up more than 170 million surveillance camera in airports, train stations, subways, highways, major roads, office buildings and shopping malls. By 2020, the number of surveillance devices will be increased to more than 400 million […] It has been widely reported in mainland Chinese media that the traffic police have used the facial recognition to identify jaywalkers. However, sources from activists say that the Chinese police have a database of dissidents’ facial characters and if their faces appear on surveillance camera footage in airports, subways or a major road, the system will send that information to the public security bureau.

With full cooperation from the country's social media and e-commerce platforms, this system enables China's top security authorities to extend their grasp on citizens’ data and make deft calculations concerning the political inclinations of any individual who participates in public life, both online and off.

Under the Chinese government AI plan, by 2020 the value of China’s core AI industry is targeted to exceed 150 billion RMB (over USD $22 billion) in value, with AI-related fields valued at 1 trillion RMB (nearly USD $148 billion). To fulfill the set target, it encourages collaboration with foreign academic institutions and private sector groups by providing research and start-up funding. Time will tell whether these partnerships will lead to greater protections for — or at least disagreement over — individual rights.

by Oiwan Lam at August 28, 2017 05:47 PM

August 27, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Cambodia Shutdown of Media Outlets: Tax and Licensing Issue or Censorship?

Staff members of Cambodia Daily hold placards calling for the protection of press freedom in Cambodia. Source: Facebook

Cambodia has threatened to close down six media outlets in the past three weeks: one daily newspaper, two foreign media services and three local radio stations. The government has said these media companies violated the country’s tax and licensing laws, but several media groups and the political opposition believe the closure orders were meant to silence critical voices ahead of the 2018 general elections.

The English-language Cambodia Daily, established in 1993 as a social enterprise, is being accused of failing to pay taxes. The publisher has denied the charge.

Furthermore, the paper was reportedly not given the opportunity to appeal or negotiate the tax case.

Meanwhile, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) in Cambodia — both sponsored by the US government — were also threatened for not being registered with the tax department.

The license of Moha Nokor FM 93.5, which broadcasts both RFA and VOA content, as well as opposition party programs, was also revoked by the government.

Voice of Democracy (VOD) also experienced a disruption in its 3 provincial stations. It was initially reported that the disruption was a technical problem, but later it was confirmed that the radio station was ordered to stop broadcasting. VOD hosts programs that are critical of the ruling party that has been in power for the past three decades.

Yi Chhor Vorn, director of Moha Nokor, is trying to clarify the government’s reason for shutting down the radio station:

They told me the reason they closed is because we did not inform them about information of air-time sales to the clients. But I think we have been doing our job already. We pay tax, we have a license and of course we follow all the guidelines.

The abrupt closure of media companies is seen by several groups as a form of political harassment by a ruling party which lost a significant number of seats in the 2013 general election.

PA Nguon Teang of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media warned that the “suppression of independent media will badly affect the country's election processes.”

Chak Sopheap of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights asserted that “without a free media, the rich and powerful’s chokehold over public life in Cambodia would be complete.”

Overseas Press Club of Cambodia issued a statement supporting Cambodia Daily, one of only two English language dailies in the country:

The Cambodia Daily has a history of running stories that have angered the government leading many to believe the tax department is being used to target critics ahead of the 2018 general elections.

Edgardo Legaspi, Southeast Asian Press Alliance executive director, urged Cambodia to observe due process in handling the cases involving the media:

It appears that the Cambodian government has been using legal technicalities to hide behind its real aim of silencing independent voices. The government has prioritized shutting down of media outlets over providing fair procedures to address their liabilities.

Legaspi added that Cambodia’s licensing laws are vague and that the government should have opted to sit down with media companies accused of failing to comply with the country’s regulations instead of closing them down.

But Information Minister Khieu Kanharith denied that the government is harassing independent media.

The ministry has shut some radio stations because they violated their contract. We have reviewed some other radio stations, which also rent time to VOA and RFA, and they remain open.

He also insisted that the issue involving Cambodia Daily is solely about tax violations:

I think reporters at the Cambodia Daily should not demonstrate for freedom of the press because it is not a freedom of the press issue, it is the tax law being implemented.

Aside from closing down several media outlets, Cambodia is also clamping down on foreign NGOs which has led many institutions and even foreign governments to express concern about the deteriorating political situation in the country.

by Mong Palatino at August 27, 2017 04:04 PM

China to Ban Anonymous Online Comments, Blacklist Users
The Great Firewall of China. Image from Digital Trends.

The Great Firewall of China. Image from Digital Trends.

As of October 1, 2017, Chinese netizens who have not registered their user accounts with online platforms under a new real name system will not be able to post comments on online content, while bans await trouble-makers.

The Regulation on the Management of Internet Comments” was announced by the Cyberspace Administration of China on August 25. The regulation specifies that platforms that provide services for netizens to comment on original content, including films, posts, online games or news, should force users to provide their authentic identity via an individual user account system before posting. Platform operators should not offer such services to those who have not verified their identity.

The regulation will dramatically reduce space for online comments as large number of unauthenticated users will not be able to write original posts and leave comments. Moreover, many platforms will be unable to bear the burden of the identity verification system.

Real name registration for online comment

According to Article 2 of the regulation, commenting services refer to websites, mobile applications, interactive platforms, news sites, and other social platforms that allow or facilitate users to create original content, reply to posts, leave comments on news threads or other items in the form of written text, symbols, emojis, images, voice messages or video.

The responsibilities of comment service operators, according to Article 5, include the verification of user identities, the setting up of a comment management system to pre-screen comments on news, preventing the spread of illegal information and reporting comments to the authorities.

Controversially, the regulation also specifies in Article 9 that comment service operators should manage their users by rating their ‘social credit’, an algorithm to measure a person's overall “goodness” as a citizen

Those with low credit should be blacklisted from posting and prevented from registering new accounts to use the service. At the same time, state, province and city-level cyberspace affairs offices will set up a management system to evaluate the overall social credit of comment service operators on a regular basis.

Goodies and baddies

The Orwellian social credit system for regulating internet users’ activities was revealed in 2014 and the Chinese government authorized a number of credit service agencies to collect, evaluate and manage peoples's credit information the following year.

According to the Chinese government's Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System, the system aims to measure and enhance “trust” between and among government, commercial sectors and citizens and to “strengthen sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, social sincerity and the construction of judicial credibility.” However, the allocation of individual credit is not transparent and the current regulation on comment services indicates that individual online speech is a key factor in its calculation.

A commentary from the state agency Xinhua attempted to justify the government’s new policy by arguing that the regulation is intended to stop the pollution of online spaces with disinformation and pornographic or violent content.

It stated:


The Internet can be borderless, but comments should have boundaries. If there are no principles, freedom can turn into “terror”; without management, indulgence could harm the development of the [online] industry. If we continue to indulge [netizens], online comments might become a swell of negative energy and the “poisonous grass” of cyberspace.

Earlier this month, the Cyberspace Administration launched investigations into popular Chinese social networks WeChat, Sina Weibo and Baidu Tieba for suspected violations of China's Cybersecurity Law.

China started to implement real name registration across social media platforms in 2011. But large number of users refused to authenticate their identities prior to the stated deadline of March 2012. Representatives of social media negotiated with the government for a more flexible schedule with a clearer legal framework.

Since 2012 a series of laws and regulations have been introduced to require Internet service providers, Telecoms, Apps stores and content service providers to adopt real name registration for their services.

Thus far only national and large-scale social media and content service operators have implemented real name registration and they have not introduced measures to penalize unauthenticated users beyond limiting the circulation of their posts.

‘Banning comment is the objective’

The majority of small-to-medium-size local websites and forums have not implemented real name registration because they simply don’t have the capital and infrastructure to do so. The new regulation compels such websites to shut down their interactive features.

Tech-blogger William Long who has discussed the issue with regulators in the past wrote in his blog:




I have discussed with the relevant authorities how small forums and websites can implement real name registration. Their view is, they can either shut the comment section down or ask their users to verify their identity by providing mobile phone verification codes.

Owners of small websites can only afford a few hundred yuan to hire a server. The cost of mobile verification is RMB 6 cents per message. They would have to spend RMB 6 yuan per 100 comments. If their competitors deliberately overload them by posting a few thousand comments a day, they will not be able to afford the cost [of verification]. In the end they will be forced to ban comments.

Good. Because banning comments is the [government's] objective.

Most online comments on the regulation have been hidden on social media — some threads show only two comments out of hundreds, while on others the comment section has been shut down. The majority of comments do not appear on a search.

Below are some of the critical comments gathered from various discussion threads on Weibo that have survived the cull:


With or without real name registration, they know who you are. What they intend to do is to make you fearful.


I always use my real name. It is you [the authorities] who are afraid of opening up the comment thread.


[Authorities] are shameless in their desire for stability.


This is pathological. With so many websites, they all have to adopt real name?


Back to the Qin Dynasty.

by chrisrickleton at August 27, 2017 10:24 AM

August 25, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Macedonian Citizen Fined 400 Euro For Insulting Turkish President Erdoğan on Facebook

Photo by Flickr user zeevveez. CC BY 2.0

For the first time since the country gained independence in 1992, a Macedonian court has applied the lèse-majesté (royal insult) portion of the Criminal Code in order to protect a president — though not the president of Macedonia.

In their ruling, which concerned a Facebook post referring to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the court found the citizen guilty of posting “ironical statements and insult[ing] a leader of a foreign country.”

According to reports by Anadolu Agency and local media, the person, known only by the initials EA, bears Macedonian and Turkish citizenship. EA will have to either pay around 400 euros or serve a prison sentence.

The proceedings before of the Macedonian Criminal Court opened after the Turkish ambassador to Macedonia, Tulin Erkal Kara, filed charges against EA in late 2016, when Macedonia's previous government was still in power. The court issued its ruling in mid-July and the ruling became public on August 24.

Article 181 of the Macedonian Criminal Code protects the “reputation of a foreign country” and stipulates that “a person who has the intention to publicly ridicule a foreign country, a flag, a coat of arms, an anthem or a head of state or a diplomatic representative will have to pay a monetary fine.”

But not a single judge in the history of the country's independence has used this article to sentence someone for insulting a foreign country, flag, coat of arms, anthem or a head of state. On social networks, Macedonian citizens reacted to the news about this case with outrage and dismay.

A Macedonian Court has sentenced someone for insulting Erdoğan? Because of a Facebook post? This is a joke??

Filip Medarski, a prominent lawyer from Skopje, tweeted that Macedonian Criminal Code Article 181 and the verdict from the judge are inconsistent with the practices of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR):

The article itself, and especially the verdict are contrary to the Strasbourg law practice. [ECHR is based in Stratsbourg]
The most famous case in this context is: [Eon Vs. France]

Since Macedonia is a member of Council of Europe, the decisions of this court are binding for its judiciary.

In a statement for the Meta News Agency in Skopje, Medarski said that such a crime may exist in the Macedonian Criminal Code, but in another form because in principle, it should defend the symbolic aspect of flags, coats of arms and other representations of a state, in deference to the institution of the state — not to the individual who holds office.

“But here it is not about insulting the president as an institution, but an insult to the actual person currently in office, in this case – Erdoğan”, Medarski said, adding that this was also noted by the ECHR and in the verdict that he cited in his tweet.

In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights heard Eon Vs. France, a case that concerned the 2008 visit of now former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to the French city of Laval, where a citizen named Hervé Eon waved a small banner reading “Get lost, you prick” (Casse toi pov’con). Sarkozy himself had used the same phrase earlier that year at an agricultural rally, for someone that wasn't so keen on greeting him. It later became a frequently used banner at different demonstrations and on the internet.

Eon was arrested and prosecuted for offending the President. He was found guilty and made to pay a fine of 30 euros. Later that decision was confirmed by the Court of Appeal in France and even by the highest court in the French judiciary, the Cour de Cassation. The applicant was immediately arrested and prosecuted for offending the President, an offense under the 1881 Freedom of the Press Act.

Consequently, Eon asked the European Court of Human rights to recognize that his sentence infringed his right to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Eventually the ECHR confirmed that his freedom of expression had been violated. The Court concluded that by echoing the phrase used by the president, Hervé Eon had used “satirical impertinence” to express his criticism.

Unlike France, Macedonia has a record of high levels of corruption in all segments of society, low levels of respect towards the rule of law and undeniable attempts to restrict media freedoms and interfere with the judiciary. This was highlighted in the last report from the US State Department's Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. “Political interference, inefficiency, favoritism toward well-placed persons, prolonged processes, violations of the right to public trial, and corruption characterized the judicial system,” the report read.

In May 2017, Macedonia ushered in a new government that introduced a bold and optimistic reform plan in order to expedite the country's processes of integration into NATO and the EU, that were stalled by the previous rule of right-winged VMRO-DPMNE party and their inclination towards Russia. A major aspect of these plans is comprehensive reform of the judiciary.

by Ellery Roberts Biddle at August 25, 2017 11:27 PM

Venezuelan Government Wants to Regulate Hatred on Social Media
Imagen de Esther Vargas en Flickr. Usada bajo licencia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image by Esther Vargas via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Venezuela's National Constituent Assembly (ANC) — which came into power just days ago on inaugurated on 21 August — is seeking to regulate the use of social media in order to clamp down on what it describes as “hate crimes.”

This week, the ANC began debating a draft law entitled “Ley de Convivencia Pacífica, contra la Intolerancia y la Violencia” [Peaceful Coexistence Law, to Counter Intolerance and Violence]. The ANC sees the draft law as part of its mandate to produce a new national constitution within a time frame of two years, for the duration of which all other public authorities have been brought under its supremacy.

In July 2017, the National Constituent Assembly assumed all legislative powers that had previously come under the purview of the National Legislative Assembly, where the opposition held the majority, effectively dissolving parliament and strengthening the Venezuelan government's repudiation of the elected body. The government had previously declared the Legislative Assembly to be in contempt , thus invalidating any actions it may take.

The ANC was formed amid a wave of protests that have racked the country for months, and against a backdrop of serious questions over the legitimacy of its proceedings, in addition to claims of electoral fraud — made even by the same company that provided the technology for the elections — and international refusal to accept its legitimacy.

The chavista administration’s vilification of social media is, however, nothing new: in 2010 the government was already accusing online networks of inciting hatred and violence, and those who use them increasingly risked being arrested. In 2014, a draft law proposed by the governing party sought to classify online protest as “cyberterrorism.”

Delcy Rodríguez, who acts as president of the ANC, stated that:

Las redes sociales se han convertido en la plataforma más grotesca y brutal para atentar contra el pueblo. Esas expresiones, amenazas de muerte, esas expresiones de odio deben acabarse en Venezuela y por eso esta ley va a contener sanciones para el delito de odio, va a contener sanciones y regulaciones en los medios de comunicación.

Social media has become the most grotesque and brutal platform for those who wish to attack the people. These utterances, death threats, these words of hatred must stop in Venezuela and that is why this law will provide for punishment for the crime of hatred and regulation of the media.

Among other criticisms, citizens have pointed out a lack of transparency around the proposed law, the text of which is not available online. Although proponents claim that the law will be discussed “with the people,” it is official practice for these kinds of discussions to be treated as mere formalities, conducted with organised groups supportive of the government.

The draft law against hatred has not been made available for us citizens to read: 

Certain commentators also recalled a series of earlier attacks on freedom of expression, to which the move to regulate social media use can now be added.

Maduro continues to suppress civil liberties by blocking foreign channels and aspiring to control social media. Venezuela is suffering under a full-scale dictatorship.

The draft law, presented to the ANC by president Nicolás Maduro on the very same day that he swore allegiance to the “supra-constitutional and plenipotentiary”, seeks to punish “hatred” on social media with a prison sentence of up to 25 years. Today, with an all-powerful ANC composed solely of representatives from the governing party, it seems unlikely that anything will be able to stop the law from being passed.

by Marianne Diaz at August 25, 2017 08:27 PM

Chinese Police Arrested a Man for Complaining About Hospital Food. Netizens Say It’s Police Abuse.

A netizen complained about hospital food and used food scraps to write the words “tastes bad” in his comment. He was arrested on charges of fabricating facts and disturbing public order. Photos from China Daily's Weibo.

A man in Hubei province was arrested and detained for “disturbing public order” after he posted a negative comment about hospital food in She Xian of Handan City.

According to local media reports, the She Xian police received a complaint saying that someone was making negative remarks online about the price, amount and quality of food in a hospital cafeteria, bringing the hospital bad publicity. Upon investigation, the police concluded that the man, named Zhang, was fabricating information and disturbing public order.

The police arrested Zhang on August 16 and held him in administrative detention at the police station.

The news soon went viral and triggered outrage online. Even state-affiliated media outlets are criticizing police actions. Under public pressure, She Xian police released Zhang and admitted that they misinterpreted the law. The head of the police station had been transferred to another position.

The incident has since been coined “Food Pickygate” (挑食門) by Chinese netizens, to highlight the absurd nature of the arrest and abuse of power by police.

Zhang wrote his post on She Xian’s forum:


The new hospital has moved. The location is far and it is very inconvenient for people. But the facility has improved, so the distance can be excused. There aren’t any street vendors by the new site, so the hospital cafeteria is the only choice. It looks classy but the prices are shockingly high. A bowl of noodles costs RMB 14 yuan!

My god, I am a local peasant, not a tourist. Unwillingly I paid RMB 10 yuan for a set lunch. When I opened the box, just a few piece of melon and leeks. They did give a good amount of potatoes, but where’s the meat?

Where’s the meat? The set said one kind of vegetable and two kinds of meat. There were just three mouthfuls of rice. I asked at the food counter, they said: this is normal as the vegetable and meat are cooked in a big pot. Can’t you see the meat strips? If you want more rice, you can pay more. Though I am a peasant, I have city experience — can you call that tiny bit meat?

The relocation of the hospital has pushed everything to a new level. The quality of care may have improved but the consumption level of She Xian has also risen. In the past, a full meal cost RMB 7-8, now RMB 20 cannot fill up your stomach. Where have the RMB 0.5 yuan congee and RMB 1 yuan bun gone? How about the RMB 4 yuan noodle and the RMB 5 yuan big noodle and the RMB 6 yuan set meal with four side dishes? All disappeared? How about conscience???

The public would not have been aware of the local story if police had not made Zhang's detention a showcase of their campaign to crack down on rumors, via She Xian’s television’s official Weibo account:


100 days of campaign will make She Xian become more harmonious. She Xian’s police have implemented the spirit of the county’s 13th party committee second meeting in its daily operation. With a unified thought, well-planned and swift action, it has successfully cracked down on two cases on fabrication of facts online and disturbing public order.

The 100-day campaign was written in the county’s party committee meeting report released on 16 of August, the date police took action on the two online rumor cases. The first case concerned the spread of misinformation online about the death of a taxi driver. The second case was that of Zhang.

According to an independent netizen’s investigation, Zhang wrote and posted his comments in June. The hospital had given response and local media had followed up on the news. The story should have ended there. But following the spirit of the party meeting, the She Xian police turned the case into a criminal act of spreading rumors.

This did not stop netizens from expression alarm on social media. Here is a selection of comments on one of the news threads on Weibo:

问:哥们,你犯什么事进来的。 答:挑食

[Conversation in a detention cell] Ask: Brother, what brings you here? Answer: Criticising the food in the hospital cafe. Ask back: Brother, what brings you here? Answer: Attempted rape on elevator. Ask: Wow, the sentence is pretty long, right? Answer: Same as you, 15 days in detention.


What has happened on our society? Just arrest all the negative comments in Taobao shop, they affect my business.


So scary, I have deleted all my food comments on social media.


The incident involves a hospital and a man. The police have no role in it. If the hospital believes that the man is spreading rumors and has harmed the hospital, it should take legal action and sue him for libel. Which law empowers the police to arrest the man? The law enforcers have no legal knowledge and have violated the law. This is definitely a civil case — how can it be a public security and criminal case?

In fact, “food pickygate” is not a single incident. The rumor regulation, which was implemented in 2013, has given Chinese police excessive power to arrest netizens who are critical of state-run institutions, the government and party authorities.

Recently, there have been a number of incidents reflecting police abuse of power, as pointed out by Twitter user Zhao Shilong:

The arrest of the food critic of She Xian hospital canteen, the netizen who revealed the casualties in a fatal landslide in Heshun county [of Shanxi], the teacher in Shaanxi who questioned forced donation — all these cases point to the same problem: the excessive and abusive use of police power which is used to protect the interest of government officials. If the public were unaware of the first two incidents, the results would not be reversed. The Shaanxi teacher’s case hasn’t been vindicated… The distortion of law, the infringement of citizen’s right to speech and expression, the lack of mechanism to punish the power abuser are the issues at stake.

by Oiwan Lam at August 25, 2017 03:41 PM

August 24, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
‘Privacy is a Fundamental Right': Advocates Hail India's Supreme Court Ruling

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

The right to privacy — on the internet and everywhere else — has become “intrinsic to [the] right to life,” in the words of India's supreme court.

After years of debate, a panel of nine judges gave this historic verdict on the morning of August 24. The court unanimously ruled that privacy is a fundamental right and will thus become part of the Article 21 and Part 3 of India's constitution, which details the Right to Life and Personal Liberty.

The verdict was handed down after the court considered multiple citizen petitions that challenged the government's move to make Aadhaar — India's national digital ID system — mandatory for various social welfare benefits.

Legal experts and digital rights advocates have been sharing excerpts from the 547-page ruling and hailing the decision on Twitter:

Administrated by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a statutory authority, the Aadhaar system requires citizens to disclose significant amounts of personal and biometric data to the government.

Prior to the ruling, UIDAI declared that privacy is not a fundamental right and assured the public that data in the Aadhaar system was being sufficiently safeguarded.

Yet technical problems in the system have brought serious consequences for the public. System malfunctions have led to massive leaks of citizens’ data (affecting an estimated 130 million people), and have left low-income people unable to receive state food subsidies.

Activists, lawyers, petitioners and many individuals are celebrating the supreme court's verdict on social media with the hashtag #RightToPrivacy, and many also foresee that Aadhaar will soon be in jeopardy. The ruling even compared the Aadhaar system to government wiretapping of private citizens’ telephones.

The verdict has raised the hopes of those who are against Aadhaar. Some have mistaken the verdict as a ruling against Aadhaar, which it is not.

Apar Gupta, a lawyer and human rights advocate based in New Delhi, cautioned that the future of Aadhaar was still subject to authorities’ interpretation of the ruling and subsequent court decisions:

The current government, run by right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, was not pleased with the verdict as it will directly impact the way private data is collected and shared in India. The ruling party has promoted Aadhaar as a core project of the Digital India campaign.

There have arguably been multiple attempts to silence those who went public pointing out the issues with Aadhaar. Some of the most well-researched critiques of the system have come from the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), an inter-disciplinary research organisation in Bangalore that has become a target of the pro-Aadhaar lobby. Shortly after CIS released a report that pointed to security flaws in the Aadhaar ecosystem, the UIDAI accused the organization of hacking into the Aadhaar system themselves.

The UIDAI has gone after other critics as well, including the creator of a video blog post that showed about the vulnerability of Aadhaar data. In response, the UIDAI accused the creator of violating Section 37 of the Aadhaar Act.

The Article 12 of 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights recognizes privacy as a fundamental human right. As of today, India joins 151 countries across the world (with notable exceptions of the United States and Ireland) that recognize the right to privacy in their respective constitutions.

by Subhashish Panigrahi at August 24, 2017 03:49 PM

August 21, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Cambridge University Publisher Removes 300 Academic Articles for the China Market

Cambridge University Press. Image from Cambridge University

[Update August 22, 2017: CUP has reversed its decision and unblocked the banned articles in China.]

Cambridge University Press (CUP) has removed more than 300 academic articles (which were published in the academic journal The China Quarterly) from its website in China, in order to avoid a full shutdown.

In a statement, CUP explained the pressure that they received from China:

We can confirm that we received an instruction from a Chinese import agency to block individuals articles from China Quarterly within China. We complied with this initial request to remove individual articles, to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market.

We are aware that other publishers have had entire collections of content blocked in China until they have enabled the import agencies to block access to individual articles. We do not, and will not, proactively censor our content and will only consider blocking individual items (when requested to do so) when the wider availability of content is at risk.

CUP said it would find a long-term solution to the censorship problem, and has planned meetings to discuss its position with import agencies at the upcoming Beijing International Book Fair.

Criticism of CUP's approach

However, Greg Distelhorst, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor, is critical of CUP's strategy. He left his comments under the publisher's statement:

When a government or party curates your historical record, it uses your reputation to rewrite history.

Students in China will read the ‘leading scholarly journal’ on China and conclude those political taboos can't be that important.

‘If Tiananmen was really important, wouldn't there be some serious analysis by top international scholars? Guess it was just fake news.’

Your academic readers may be aware of the censorship, but this isn't much better.

When a journal silences accurate scholarship for market access, it either means that core principles are up for negotiation…or the commitment to academic freedom was not authentic in the first place.

Award-winning journalist and author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, Louisa Lim, is also critical of CUP's market concern:

Shock over censorship

The China Quarterly is an interdisciplinary journal covering all aspects of contemporary China, including Taiwan. The list of censored pieces deals with contemporary history and politics in China, including studies on the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Cultural Revolution, the Practice of Rule of Law, political development since Deng Xiaoping‘s reform, the country's political model, tension between state and market, Maoist and Marxist ideology, Falun Gong, labour rights movements, and studies about Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

The journal's editor, Tim Pringle, expressed disappointment over the censorship request in a public statement:

The China Quarterly wishes to express its deep concern and disappointment that over 300 articles and reviews published in the journal have been censored by the Chinese import agencies CEPIEC [China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation Ltd.] and CNPIEC [China National Publications Import & Export (Group) Corporation]. We note too that this restriction of academic freedom is not an isolated move but an extension of policies that have narrowed the space for public engagement and discussion across Chinese society.

CEPIEC is the largest state-owned publication import and export enterprise in China, established in 1987 by the Ministry of Education to meet the demands of foreign academic publications from universities and colleges in China. CNPIEC is another large, state-owned cultural enterprise, which was founded in 1949.

Many concerned scholars have spoken out against CUP's censorship. Sam Crane, a teacher of Chinese politics, urged CUP to give up its China-based site:

Anna L. Ahlers, Mette Halskov Hansen and Rune Svarverud, who are former — and forthcoming — authors in The China Quarterly, wrote a note via Twitter to Cambridge University Press and China Quarterly, saying that they were shocked by the decision:

There is no compromise to the idea of a global system of science. Either the PRC [People's Republic of China] takes part in it or not: that is a decision that has to be taken in China, not in Europe/outside. We sincerely hope that the editors of The China Quarterly will react strongly against the move by CUP on behalf of all its dedicated authors and readers. Hopefully CUP will reverse its policy and insist on academic freedom even if Chinese authorities do not.

Greg Distelhorst elaborated his view in an open letter to CUP, which was co-signed by Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor at Cornell University:

Chinese students and scholars reading a censored version of The China Quarterly will encounter only historical facts and scholarly analyses approved by political authorities. Worse Chinese readers will learn this sanitized history directly from the official website of Cambridge University Press.

This censored history of China will literal bear the seal of Cambridge University.

Scholarship does not exist to give comfort to the powerful. Nor is its purpose to find and exploit the largest market.

Christopher Balding, associate professor at HSBC Business School in Shenzhen, launched a petition demanding that CUP refuse the censorship request made by the Chinese government.

Fallout from China's ideological struggle

The pressure faced by CUP and other foreign publishers is the ripple effect of China's internal ideological struggle, which previously mainly targeted Chinese publications.

China has viewed university education as one of the most important ideological battlefields since 2013, when university professors were instructed by the Central Committee General Office of the Chinese Communist Party not to teach seven subjects — including freedom of the press, past mistakes of the Communist Party, and citizen rights.

In 2015, mainland Chinese universities were ordered to ban textbooks that promote Western values. Recently, a professor from Beijing Normal University, Shi Jiepeng, was sacked for calling former leader Mao Zedong “a devil” on social media.

The censorship practice has already affected Chinese academic publications — in Hong Kong, for instance, even philosophy book projects are censored. Baptist University’s Director of Liberal and Cultural Studies, Dr. Wong Kwok Kui, recently revealed that two censorship requests were made by a publisher with a mainland Chinese background. One incident happened in 2016, as reported by Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP):

Last year, when compiling an anthology on Nietzsche conferences, Wong said he was asked by the publisher to request that a writer amend an essay which criticised Xi Jinping as well as China’s policy towards Hong Kong and Taiwan. Wong refused, and the project was cancelled, despite everything being ready for publication.

by Oiwan Lam at August 21, 2017 02:57 PM

August 18, 2017

Ethan Zuckerman
Mastodon is big in Japan. The reason why is… uncomfortable

Remember Mastodon? In April 2017, there was a wave of excitement about Mastodon, a federated social network begun in October 2016 by Eugen Rochko, a 24-year old German software engineer, as an alternative to Twitter. Recent news about CloudFlare’s decision to stop providing services to the Daily Stormer has me thinking about decentralized publishing, one possible response to intermediary censorship. As it turns out, it’s an interesting time to catch up on Mastodon, which has grown in a fascinating, and somewhat troubling, way. (Mastodon is one of the topics of the report Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and I released today, “Back to the Future: the Decentralized Web”.)

The enthusiasm earlier this year about Mastodon centered on the idea that the new distributed service could be like Twitter without as much harassment and hate speech. And indeed, using Mastodon is a lot like using Twitter – specifically, using Twitter through the excellent Tweetdeck client, which Rochko admits was his design inspiration – the structure of the service is sharply different from a centralized service like Twitter.

When you access Twitter (or Facebook, for that matter), you’re connecting to one in a cluster of servers owned by a single company, and managed if they were a single, huge server. There’s a single set of rules for acceptable behavior within the community, and a single directory of users – I’m @ethanz on Twitter whether you’re accessing the server from the US, Japan or South Africa.

Mastodon is different. It’s an open source software package that allows anyone with an internet-connected computer to set up an “instance”. The server administrator is responsible for setting and enforcing rules on her instance, and those rules can vary – sharply – from instance to instance. Each server has its own namespace. I’m @ethanz on, but if you want to be @ethanz on, no one’s going to stop you. In this sense, Mastodon is less like Facebook and more like email – you can have your own address – and your own acceptable use policies – on one server and still send mail to a user on another server.

To have that ability to share messages with users of other servers, Mastodon has to support “federation”. Federation means that I can follow users on other Mastodon instances – you can have an account on and read my posts on It’s a bit more complicated than using a service like Twitter or Facebook, but it has the great advantage that communities of interest can have their own community rules. Don’t want adult content on your server? Fine – don’t allow it. Want to shield your child from adult content? Don’t federate your server with servers that allow NSFW content.

When the geek press began writing about Mastodon in April, the main story was about the community’s explosive growth. Tens of thousands of users joined in April, and some began to speculate that the network could serve as a challenger to Twitter.

It’s hard to say how fast Mastodon is growing, because it’s hard to say how big Mastodon is. The Mastodon Network Monitoring Project does its best to keep up, but servers come online and go down all the time. If you’re running a Mastodon server and don’t register or federate it (perfectly reasonable if you want a community just for people you invite) it won’t register on the project’s dashboard. So we might think of the 1.5 million registered users on ~2400 servers as the network’s minimum size.

Map of Mastodon instances from Mastodon Network Monitoring Project, August 17, 2017

Map those instances, and one thing becomes clear pretty fast: Mastodon is mostly a Japanese phenomenon. The two largest Mastodon instances – and – have over 100,000 users each, significantly more than, the “mothership” site that Rochko himself administers. Three of the top five Mastodon instances are based in Japan, and the Mastodon monitoring project estimates that 61% of the network’s users are Japanese.

In one sense, this isn’t a surprise. Twitter is massive in Japan, where it has more users than Facebook, and is projected to be used by half of all social network users and a quarter of all internet users this year. But that’s not the whole explanation. Instead, we’ve got to talk about lolicon.

(I’m about to talk about cultural differences and child pornography. This is not a defense of child pornography, but it’s going to discuss the fact that different cultures may have different standards about what imagery is and is not acceptable. If that’s not okay with you, back away now.)

In the US, we have a strong taboo about sexualized imagery of children. People who are interested in sexualized imagery of children – whether it’s explicit photography or idealized drawings – are considered pedophiles, and the material they seek out is termed child pornography. (Let’s ignore for the moment the hypersexualization of tween girls in American popular culture – no one said cultural taboos have to be consistent.)

In Japan, there’s a distinction between 児童ポルノ – child pornography – and ロリコン – “lolicon”, short for “Lolita complex”. Child pornography is illegal in Japan and seeking it out would be deeply socially unacceptable. Lolicon, which includes animated cartoons and 2D drawings of young men and women in a way that is undeniably sexualized, sometimes through explicit depictions of sexual acts, is legal, widespread and significantly accepted. As Matthew Scala writes, “If you like ロリコン then you’re a nerd, but that’s not a big deal. It is legal and popular and sold in bookstores everywhere. I cannot emphasize enough that ロリコン is not only legal but really acceptable in Japan. It’s merely nerdy. On the other hand, if you like 児童ポルノ then you’re an evil sicko monster, and 児童ポルノ is highly illegal.” Or, as a Japanese friend of mine put it, “I think the sort of pedophilia tendency is considered nearly normal and tolerated but they are quite strict about the law around it now – not as strict as the US but realize that some things are illegal. But dreaming about these things isn’t illegal.”

(One more time – I’m not defending lolicon here, just explaining that lolicon is a thing, that it’s popular in Japan, and that this has implications for understanding Mastodon’s growth.)

Twitter’s rules about the acceptability of graphic content are vague – intentionally so. (I wrote the terms of service for, one of the first user generated content sites. When you administer a UGC site, vagueness is your friend.) Twitter’s rules state, “Twitter may allow some forms of graphic content in Tweets marked as sensitive media.” Those guidelines give Twitter’s administrators a great deal of freedom in removing lolicon and banning those who post it. You can still find lolicon on Twitter, but the service has evidently been quite aggressive in removing this sort of imagery. Lolicon fans became refugees. Scala, who wrote a helpful article on the migration of lolicon fans to Mastodon, argues that Japanese users had been looking for a Twitter-like platform where they could share lolicon writing and imagery for some time. They’d used earlier, less-user friendly decentralized social networks, and when Mastodon came around, they flocked to it.

And then Pixiv entered the picture. Pixiv is an enormously popular image archive site in Japan, aimed at artists who create their own drawings – it might be analogous to DeviantArt in the US, but focused on drawings, not photography. Lolicon is wildly popular on Pixiv, as you can tell from one of the signup pages.

One of several English language signup screens for Pixiv

In April 2017, Pixiv began hosting a Mastodon instance – – that quickly became the most popular Mastodon server in the world. If you have a Pixiv account, it’s a single click to establish a account. And if you monitor the feed on, you’ll see that a great deal of content features lolicon, much of it behind content warning tags. In response to the growth of, a number of large, predominantly North American/European Mastodon servers stopped federating posts from the Japanese site, as they were uncomfortable with lolicon appearing as part of their feed. Scala reports that Rochko modified the database on to make it possible to “silence”, so that posts only appear if you explicitly choose to subscribe to users of that server.

Needless to say, not every Mastodon administrator is excited that the protocol is being used to harbor lolicon. The terms of service for – the fifth largest Mastodon instance, and the largest based in the US – now explicitly prohibit “lolicon, immoral and indecent child pics”.

Community guidelines for, August 17, 2017

I started down the path to lolicon because I wanted to answer a simple question: was Mastodon growing as fast as it was back in April, and if so, why wasn’t I seeing more friends on the service? The answer seems to be that Mastodon continues to grow, but a major engine of its growth is Japanese erotica. And while I can see the headlines now – “Japanese Child Porn Powers Decentralized Publishing” – let’s be clear: this is exactly what decentralized publishing is good for.

The appeal of decentralized publishing is that it makes it possible to create online communities that operate under all sorts of different rulesets. If Twitter doesn’t find lolicon acceptable, lolicon fans can create their own online community with their own rules.

This is a hot topic at the moment. In the wake of neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, many internet intermediaries – companies and entities that provide services necessary to find, publish and protect online content – have chosen to stop providing services to white nationalist organizations. Matthew Prince, CEO of Cloudflare, a company that provides scaling services for websites, wrote an especially blunt and honest post about his decision to remove the Daily Stormer from his servers, while simultaneously explaining that he personally had far too much power to control what content could be booted from the internet. “I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet.”

Human rights activists have been worried about intermediary censorship for a long time – I wrote a chapter on the topic for the 2010 book Access Controlled. Decentralized publishing solves some of the problems of intermediary censorship, but not all. As white supremacists are booted from platforms like Twitter and Reddit, they may well seek out decentralized platforms where they set their own rules. (Many have migrated to a platform called Gab, which is not decentralized, but has a set of community guidelines that welcome racist, nationalist speech.) Intermediaries like Domain Name Registrars and Content Delivery Networks may still refuse them service, but neo-Nazis on their own Mastodon server won’t be worried that they’ll be kicked off Twitter, like the Lolicon fans were.

The point of decentralized publishing is not censorship resistance – decentralization provides a little resilience to intermediary censorship, but not a lot. Instead, decentralization is important because it allows a community to run under its own rules. One of the challenges for Mastodon is to demonstrate that there are reasons beyond lolicon to run a community under your own rules. This is analogous to a problem Tor faces. People undeniably use Tor to do terrible things online, publishing and accessing hateful content. But Tor is an essential tool for journalists, whistleblowers and activists. It’s a constant struggle for Tor to recruit “everyday” users of Tor, who use the service to evade commercial surveillance. Those users provide valuable “cover traffic”, making it harder to identify whistleblowers who use the service, and political air cover for those who would seek to ban the tool so they can combat child pornography and other illegal content.

Fortunately, there are communities that would greatly benefit from Mastodon: people who’ve grown sick of sexism and harassment on Twitter, but still want the brief, lightweight interaction the site is so good at providing. One of the mysteries of Mastodon is that while many instances were started precisely to provide these alternative spaces, they’ve not grown nearly as fast as those providing space for a subculture banned from Twitter. The Mastodon story so far suggests that sticks may be more powerful than carrots.

While I suspect some advocates for distributed publishing will be disappointed that Mastodon’s growth is so closely tied to controversial content, it’s worth remembering that controversial content has long been a driver of innovations in communications technology – pornography arguably was an engine that drove the adoption of cable television, the VCR and, perhaps, broadband internet. Beyond porn, the internet has always provided spaces for content that wasn’t widely acceptable. When it was difficult to find information and LGBTQ lifestyles in rural communities, the internet became a lifeline for queer teens. Distributed social networks are a likely space for conversations about ideas and topics too sensitive to be accepted on centralized social networks, and it’s likely that some of the topics explored will be ones that become more socially acceptable over time.

Our team at the MIT Media Lab – Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula and myself – are releasing a new report today on distributed publishing, titled “Back to the Future: the Decentralized Web” We end up speculating that the main barriers to adoption of decentralized platforms aren’t technical, but around usability. Most distributed publishing tools are simply too complex for most users to adopt. Mastodon may have overcome that problem, borrowing design ideas from a successful commercial product. But the example of lolicon may challenge our theories in two directions. One, if you’re unable to share content on the sites you’re used to using – Twitter, in this case – you may be more willing to adopt a new tool, even if its interface is initially unfamiliar. Second, an additional barrier to adoption for decentralized publishing may be that its first large userbase is a population that cannot use centralized social networks. Any stigma associated with this community may make it harder for users with other interests to adopt these new tools.

Mastodon is big in Japan… at least, in one subculture. Whether that bodes well or ill for widespread adoption of the platform more globally is something we’ll be watching closely as we work to understand the future of distributed publishing.

by Ethan at August 18, 2017 07:58 PM

Global Voices Advocacy
Malaysian Political Cartoonist Zunar Sues Police for Unlawful Arrest, Seizure of Books

Zunar is demanding the police to return 1,187 books and 103 t-shirts which were seized during his arrest last December 17, 2016. Photo from the Facebook page of Zunar Cartoonist Fan Club

Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee S.M. Anwarul Haque, more popularly known as Zunar, has filed a case against the police for arresting him and seizing his cartoon books and t-shirts on December 17, 2016.

Zunar accused the police of making an unlawful arrest and confiscating a total of 1,187 books and 103 t-shirts during an event which he organized to meet his fans and raise funds. He explains his reason for taking legal action:

My books are not banned and I was only selling them to my fans during the fundraising event. What is wrong with that?

Zunar has been arrested several times in the past few years and charged with sedition for his cartoons that criticize government policies, abuse of power by the ruling coalition that has dominated Malaysia’s politics since the 1950s, and curtailment of civil liberties. Many of Zunar’s cartoon books have also been confiscated by authorities for allegedly threatening national security. Zunar has won recognition in and outside Malaysia as a press freedom fighter. He has won accolades from Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Cartoonist Rights Network International.

His December arrest was tied to a police investigation of him under Section 124C of the Penal Code for “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”

He was interrogated for six hours and released after the police told him that “they will apply a law to ban all my books.” He issued this statement shortly after his release:

I would like to point out my stand: talent is not a gift, but a responsibility. It is my responsibility as a cartoonist to expose corruption and injustices. Do I fear jail? Yes, but responsibility is bigger that fear. You can ban my books, you can ban my cartoons, but you cannot ban my mind. I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.

Zunar could be referring to the corruption scandal involving the prime minister and 1MDB, a state-owned investment firm. The prime minister is accused of pocketing 680 million US dollars through alleged anomalous transactions made by 1MDB.

Zunar’s lawyer, N. Surendran, said the filing of the case against the police is intended to warn authorities about making another illegal arrest:

There will be no more tolerance for this kind of unlawful behaviour against a person whose only crime is to criticise the authorities. That is the democratic right of every Malaysian.

Zunar is demanding the police to return his books and t-shirts.

by Mong Palatino at August 18, 2017 04:33 PM

‘You Can Lock Up Our Bodies, But Not Our Minds': Hong Kong Court Sends 16 Activists to Prison

Three student leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy protests, Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law, were sentenced to jail. Photo: Facebook/Demosisto

Nearly three years after mass pro-democracy demonstrations rocked the city of Hong Kong, 16 young activists were convicted on August 16 of unlawful assembly for their participation in two separate protests challenging the government.

Though the activists were originally convicted and sentenced to community service and suspended jail time, the Department of Justice later filed a re-sentencing appeal, arguing that the original sentences for the activists were “too light”. This week, Hong Kong's Court of Appeal ruled in their favor.

Many within Hong Kong's pro-democracy civic sector see the ruling as a politically motivated move that pushes the city towards a judicial culture that errs on the side of power over rights.

The first case involves 13 defendants including League of Social Democrats (LSD) Vice-Chairman Raphael Wong, Land Justice League convener Willis Ho, and activist Billy Chiu who in 2014 demonstrated to stop the government’s funding request of HK$340 million (approximately US$43.5 million) to develop the northeast New Territories in 2014. Opponents feared the development plan would fail to protect residents and the environment, and argued that the policy-making process surrounding the development was undemocratic.

Some in the group protested outside the Hong Kong Legislative Council, while others attempted to enter the legislature building. All were found guilty of unlawful assembly in 2015 and have already served between 80 and 150 community service hours.

On August 15, the Court of Appeal sentenced 12 of the defendants to 13 months in prison and one to eight months.

Activists against Northeast New Territories development. Via

The second case involves Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, three young activists who played a central role in the 2014 pro-democracy protests. Dubbed the Umbrella Movement, the massive sit-in demanding that the people be allowed to nominate candidates for Hong Kong's top leader lasted for three months.

The trio were convicted of unlawful assembly in July 2016. Wong was sentenced to 80 hours of community service, Law received 120 hours, and Chow received a three-week suspended jail sentence.

On August 17, the Court of Appeal re-sentenced Wong to six months behind bars, Law to eight months, and Chow to seven months.

According to Hong Kong's constitution, called the Basic Law, any individual who received a prison sentence for more than three months is to be deprived of the right to run in legislature and district council elections for five years. The activists will appeal the sentences.

‘You can lock up our bodies, but not our minds!’

In statements on social media, the activists vowed that they would not be intimidated and urged Hong Kong people not to give up.

Willis Ho, one of the activists who challenged the Northeast New Territories development plan, wrote before she was sentenced to 13 month in prison:


I have to admit, I see darkness and despair in our society. I don’t want to spread negative energy but in despair I can see light resisting against the darkness. The light is weak but it exists. I could only see on television the result of the court's decision: my boyfriend and fellow protesters on television in jail. Such a “setback” will make us stronger. We will support and be there for each other. We know that there are people who are with us making changes in different positions.

The decision to plead not guilty and the refusal to express regret over my action is a steadfast statement that the sentence cannot change, it cannot change our belief and make me feel regret.

Willis Ho.

Her mother shared her feelings on Facebook on her daughter’s trial:

今日東北案13被告中 其中有我的至親 折騰三年 終於判了 重
從沒有這樣的經驗 一道殺來 在外的我 情感百般 在内的她 心頭相若
在此 默默遙送支持鼓勵 無論你看見晨曦的日出 和煦的午後 沉鬱的黃昏
我都在 在惦念著你 給你力 給你氣
有天當你回來時 磨練把你更堅實 體現把你更豐富
最想你知道 你是我的驕傲 你沒有錯

Today, among the 13 defendants of Northeast New Territories protest, is my dearest [daughter]. After three years [of trial], the sentence is heavy.

I have never had such an experience before, such a heavy blow. I have mixed feelings and I'm sure she has them too.

I can only send my support in silence. When you see the sun rise, the sun set and the stars at night, I am with you, thinking about you and giving you strength.

When you are back, you will be stronger with a lot more experience.

I want you know that I am so proud of you and you have done nothing wrong.

Another activist from the Northeast New Territories case, Raphael Wong, posted his defense statement on


I don’t seek sympathy, but justice; I am not scared of prison, but silence [of the society]. I have said I have no regrets and would not surrender… the Secretary of Justice said I did not have sincere regrets and should be imprisoned. My sincerity in having no regrets is not to ask for more prison time but to be faithful to myself, to my fellow activists. If that leads to prison, I will face that without regrets. Jesus Christ will be with me.

Villagers [who face forced demolition] in the Northeast New Territories and Wangzhou need us. Please don’t give up. We have to carry on. This is a competition of wills, it is a spiritual war without guns. We need patience, courage and wisdom to carry on the struggle. I firmly believe that justice will prevail!

Nathan Law was given eight months in prison in the second case. He was a legislator who was recently disqualified from office for modifying his oath of allegiance to China during his swearing-in ceremony.

He expressed similar sentiments in his letter to friends:


No matter how high the wall is, how much sunlight its shadow has blocked, I believe that behind the wall the path leads to justice. The sun that nourishes life on Earth still exists…

I serve prison time for those who have participated in the Umbrella Movement and for justice. Don’t feel sorry, be more determined in stepping forward. Although I am in prison, my free spirit will be with those who share our beliefs and values and continue fighting for a better life. Tyranny won’t be overthrown by those who sacrificed but by people who are driven by moral power to collectively make change. Without such collective will to change, our suffering and pain, inside or outside of prison, will become meaningless.

Joshua Wong, a well-known student leader, tweeted before he was sent to the prison:

‘It has ‘created’ the youngest group of political prisoners since the handover’

The Civic political party described the re-sentencing of the activists as “legal terrorism” in a statement (via Hong Kong Free Press):

The Civic Party believes that this sentence, despite being lighter than that given to the Northeast New Territories protesters, exhibits the same principle: the government will stop at nothing in its use of appeal procedures and sentence reviews – what are, in effect, tools of legal terrorism – to deal with protesters and social movements opposed to the establishment. The appeal and jail sentence is a form of institutional violence and political suppression – it has ‘created’ the youngest group of political prisoners since the handover.

The “handover” refers to the transfer of control over Hong Kong, a former British colony, to China in 1997.

Human Rights Watch's China director Sophie Richardson said, also via Hong Kong Free Press:

The justice department’s outlandish application seeking jail time is not about public order but is instead a craven political move to keep the trio out of the Legislative Council, as well as deter future protests.

International society has spoken out, including various US legislators who issued statements condemning the move.

The pro-democracy civic sector has planned a rally for Sunday, August 20 condemning the prosecution of the 16.

by Oiwan Lam at August 18, 2017 02:44 PM

Netizen Report: US Tech Company Bans White Supremacist Group for Being ‘Assholes’

The Problem with Censorship is XXXXXXXXX, Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Cory Doctorow via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Several US technology companies have banned hate groups from their services following an August 12 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly.

The domain hosting service GoDaddy announced it would no longer provide hosting to the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer after the site disparaged Heather Heyer, an anti-racism counter demonstrator who was killed by a man who drove his car into a crowd of protesters.

Google followed suit after the website attempted to register with its service, saying that the Daily Stormer violated their terms of service. Website security firm CloudFlare discontinued its security support for the website soon thereafter, despite its historically absolutist approach to free speech online. The Daily Stormer has now moved to the so-called “dark web,” which is accessible mainly via the Tor network, making it far less visible to the general public.

In an email to staffers that was later published by Gizmodo, CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince explained his decision:

Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.

Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision….It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company….Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.

In a subsequent interview with Gizmodo, Prince emphasized that the “whims” of people like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and himself “shouldn’t be what determines what should be online.” He has since raised concern about the absence of transparency and due process mechanisms within companies like Amazon and Google, which have disproportionate control over what we see online.

Who decides what kinds of content can be on the internet? How do companies make these decisions? Too often, the answers to these questions are not accessible to the public, leaving billions of internet users unable to hold companies accountable for their decisions.

Thai journalist vows to criticize military regime ‘until they take away my smartphone’

Three Facebook users in Thailand were charged with sedition over posts criticizing the government and could face up to 20 years behind bars if convicted. Among them is veteran journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior reporter for the news website Khaosod English. In a subsequent Facebook post, he reasoned:

I insist that I criticize the military regime in good faith […] I will continue to criticize the illegitimate military regime until they take away my smartphone.

Congo squeezes social media in face of clashes

Congolese authorities throttled internet bandwidth to prevent the sharing of images on social media following violent clashes between security forces and the religious separatist group Bundu dia Kongo. The measure appears to have specifically targeted Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter. In a letter quoted by Reuters, postal and telecommunications chief regulator Oscar Manikunda Musata implored internet service providers to “take technical measures to restrict to a minimum the capacity to transmit images” in order to “prevent the exchange of abusive images via social media.”

Egyptian authorities censor leading human rights website

The Egyptian government blocked access to the website of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), which reports on human rights violations across the Arab region, as well as the blog of human rights researcher Ahmed Gamal Ziada. This is the first time a website belonging to a human rights group has been censored in Egypt, and follows the blocking of 21 websites two months ago for allegedly “supporting terrorism,” including the independent news site Mada Masr and the website of the Al Jazeera network.

India becomes the world’s third country to ban

India blocked access to the Internet Archive (, which offers a free service called the Wayback Machine that enables users to access archived versions of webpages. Though no reason was cited by local internet service providers for the ban, BuzzFeed reported it is tied to two court petitions from Bollywood production houses seeking to keep pirated films off the web. In July 2017, was blocked in Kyrgyzstan on grounds that is hosts “extremist” content. Before that, the website was known to be blocked only China.

Philippines’ Duterte hired trolls for 2016 elections

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte confirmed that he hired online commenters during the 2016 election to manipulate social media through trolling and fake accounts. His statement supports the findings of a University of Oxford study which examined the use of troll armies by governments, the military and political parties in 28 countries, including the Philippines.

Will Brazil bump civil society from its internet governance scheme?

The Brazilian government opened a public consultation that could change the composition and powers of the country’s Internet Steering Committee, also known as Researchers expressed concern that the government may be seeking to assert greater control over the country’s internet: Earlier in the year, the Temer administration attempted to freeze the nomination of civil society members to the committee, and backtracked following public protests. plays a key role in Brazilian internet policy and was central in shaping the Marco Civil da Internet framework, which lays out guarantees for Brazilian citizens’ rights online.

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by Netizen Report Team at August 18, 2017 12:16 PM

Ethan Zuckerman
Mistrust, Efficacy and the New Civics – a whitepaper for the Knight Foundation

When things get serious in the media space, my friends at the Knight Foundation rally the troops. Last week, I was invited to a workshop Knight held with the Aspen Institute on trust, media and democracy in America. I prepared a whitepaper for the workshop, which I’m publishing here at the suggestion of several of the workshop participants, who found it useful.

The paper I wrote – “Mistrust, efficacy and the new civics: understanding the deep roots of the crisis of faith in journalism” – served two purposes for me. First, it’s a rough outline of the book I’m working on this next year about mistrust and civics, which means I can pretend that I’ve been working on my book this summer. Second, it let me put certain stakes in the ground for my discussion with my friends at Knight. Conversations about mistrust in journalism have a tendency to focus on the uniqueness of the profession and its critical civic role in the US and in other open societies. I wanted to be clear that I think journalism has a great deal in common with other large institutions that are suffering declines in trust. Yes, the press has come under special scrutiny due to President Trump’s decision to demonize and threaten journalists, but I think mistrust in civic institutions is much broader than mistrust in the press.

Because mistrust is broad-based, press-centric solutions to mistrust are likely to fail. This is a broad civic problem, not a problem of fake news, of fact checking or of listening more to our readers. The shape of civics is changing, and while many citizens have lost confidence in existing institutions, others are finding new ways to participate. The path forward for news media is to help readers be effective civic actors. If news organizations can help make citizens feel powerful, like they can make effective civic change, they’ll develop a strength and loyalty they’ve not felt in years.

To my surprise and delight, the workshop participants needed little or no convincing that journalism’s problems were part of a larger anti-institutional moment in America. I brought in Chris Hayes’s idea that “left/right” is no longer as useful a distinction in American politics as “insurrectionist/institutionalist”, and we had a helpful debate about what it would mean to bring insurrectionists – those who believe our institutions are failing and need to be replaced by newer structures – into a room full of institutionalists – people who see our institutions are central to our open society, in need of strengthening and reinforcement, but worth defending and preserving.

What started to emerge was a two-dimensional grid of left/right and insurrectionist/institutionalist to understand a picture of American politics that can include both the Occupy Movement and Hillary Clinton as leftists, and Donald Trump and Paul Ryan on the right. While the US is currently wrestling with right-wing insurrectionism (and this meeting happened even before neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, VA and the President assured us that some of them were nice people) it’s important to remember that anti-institutionalism comes in a variety of flavors. (One researcher at the meeting observed that the common ground of insurrectionism may explain the otherwise weird phenomenon of Bernie supporters going on to support Trump.)

Mapping politicians on the twin axes of left/right and institutionalist/insurrectionist

Another idea that came up was that the categories of institutionalism and insurrectionism are fluid and changing, because revolutionaries quickly become institutions. When Google came into the search engine game, it was a revolutionary new player, upending Yahoo!, Lycos, Alta Visa and others. Twenty years later, it’s one of the most powerful corporate and civic actors in the world. Understanding that successful revolutions tend to beget institutions is helpful for understanding insurrectionism as a political pole. Some insurrectionists will win their battles and may find themselves defending the institutions they build. (I think fondly of my friend Joi Ito, who spent years as an enfant terrible in Japanese internet circles before becoming surprisingly acceptable as the director of the MIT Media Lab.) Others will hold onto insurrectionism even when their side wins – my friend Sami ben Gharbia moved seamlessly to being a critic of the Ben Ali government in Tunisia to critiquing the new government the Arab Spring brought to power.

Understanding that revolutions beget new institutions made me think of Pierre Rosanvallon’s work on Counterdemocracy, which isn’t as well known in the US as it should be. Rosanvallon observes that, during the French Revolution, a slew of new institutions sprang up to ensure the new leaders stayed true to their values. This wasn’t always a pretty picture – the Terror came in part from the institutions Rosanvallon explores – but the idea that democracy needs to be counterbalanced and bolstered by forces of oversight, prevention and judgement is one worth considering as we examine modern-day institutions and their shortcomings.

When a disruptive entity like Google or Facebook becomes an institution, it’s incumbent on us to build systems that can monitor their behavior and hold them accountable. It’s rare that existing regulatory structures are well-equipped to serve as counter-democratic institutions to counterbalance the new ways in which they work. As a result, there’s at least two ways look for change as an insurrectionist: you can identify institutions that aren’t working well and strive to replace them with something better, or you can dedicate yourself to monitoring and counterbalancing those institutions, building counterdemocratic institutions in the process.

What does this mean for the fine folks working with Knight on news and trust? The press is a key part of counterdemocracy. It needs to hold power responsible. As democratic institutions of power change, counterdemocratic systems have to change as well – nostalgia for how the press used to work is less helpful than understanding the way in which political and civic power are changing, so that the press can continue to act as an effective counterweight. The good news for me was that the folks at Knight are emphatically not holding onto a nostalgic view of the press, trying to return to a Watergate golden age. The bad news? Just like the rest of us, they don’t know what the shape of this emergent new civics is either.

Here’s a prettier version of this paper, hosted my MIT’s DSpace archive. What follows below is a less pretty, but web-friendlier version.

Mistrust, efficacy and the new civics:
understanding the deep roots of the crisis of faith in journalism

Ethan Zuckerman, Center for Civic Media, MIT Media Lab
August 2017

Executive summary
Current fears over mistrust in journalism have deep roots. Not only has trust in news media been declining since a high point just after Watergate, but American trust in institutions of all sorts is at historic lows. This phenomenon is present to differing degrees in many advanced nations, suggesting that mistrust in institutions is a phenomenon we need to consider as a new reality, not a momentary disruption of existing patterns. Furthermore, it suggests that mistrust in media is less a product of recent technological and political developments, but part of a decades-long pattern that many advanced democracies are experiencing.

Addressing mistrust in media requires that we examine why mistrust in institutions as a whole is rising. One possible explanation is that our existing institutions aren’t working well for many citizens. Citizens who feel they can’t influence the governments that represent them are less likely to participate in civics. Some evidence exists that the shape of civic participation in the US is changing shape, with young people more focused on influencing institutions through markets (boycotts, buycotts and socially responsible businesses), code (technologies that make new behaviors possible, like solar panels or electric cars) and norms (influencing public attitudes) than through law. By understanding and reporting on this new, emergent civics, journalists may be able to increase their relevance to contemporary audiences alienated from traditional civics.

One critical shift that social media has helped accelerate, though not cause, is the fragmentation of a single, coherent public sphere. While scholars have been aware of this problem for decades, we seem to have shifted to a more dramatic divide, in which people who read different media outlets may have entirely different agendas of what’s worth paying attention to. It is unlikely that a single, authoritative entity – whether it is mainstream media or the presidency – will emerge to fill this agenda-setting function. Instead, we face the personal challenge of understanding what issues are important for people from different backgrounds or ideologies.

Addressing the current state of mistrust in journalism will require addressing the broader crisis of trust in institutions. Given the timeline of this crisis, which is unfolding over decades, it is unlikely that digital technologies are the primary actor responsible for the surprises of the past year. While digital technologies may help us address issues, like a disappearing sense of common ground, the underlying issues of mistrust likely require close examination of the changing nature of civics and public attitudes to democracy.

The presidency of Donald Trump is a confusing time for journalists and those who see journalism as an integral component of a democratic and open society.

Consider a recent development in the ongoing feud between the President and CNN. On July 2nd, Donald Trump posted a 28 second video clip to his personal Twitter account for the benefit of his 33.4 million followers. The video, a clip from professional wrestling event Wrestlemania 23 (“The Battle of the Billionaires”), shows Trump knocking wrestling executive Vince McMahon to the ground and punching him in the face. In the video, McMahon’s face is replaced with the CNN logo, and the clip ends with an altered logo reading “FNN: Fraud News Network”. It was, by far, Trump’s most popular tweet in the past month, receiving 587,000 favorites and 350,000 retweets, including a retweet from the official presidential account.

CNN responded to the presidential tweet, expressing disappointment that the president would encourage violence against journalists. Then CNN political reporter Andrew Kaczynski tracked down Reddit user “HanAssholeSolo”, who posted the video on the popular Reddit forum, The_Donald. Noting that the Reddit user had apologized for the wrestling video, as well as for a long history of racist and islamophobic posts, and agreed not to post this type of content again, Kaczynski declined to identify the person behind the account. Ominously, he left the door open: “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.” The possibility that the video creator might be identified enraged a group of online Trump supporters, who began a campaign of anti-CNN videos organized under the hashtag #CNNBlackmail, supported by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who took to Twitter to speculate on the crimes CNN might have committed in their reportage. By July 6th, Alex Jones’s was offering a $20,000 prize in “The Great CNN Meme War”, a competition to find the best meme in which the President attacked and defeated CNN.

It’s not hard to encounter a story like this one and wonder what precisely has happened to the relationship between the press, the government and the American people. What does it mean for democracy when a sitting president refers to the press as “the opposition party”? How did trust in media drop so low that attacks on a cable news network serve some of a politician’s most popular stances? How did “fake news” become the preferred epithet for reporting one political party or another disagrees with? Where are all these strange internet memes coming from, and do they represent a groundswell of political power? Or just teenagers playing a game of one-upsmanship? And is this really what we want major news outlets, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and CBS, to be covering?)

These are worthwhile questions, and public policy experts, journalists and academics are justified in spending significant time understanding these topics. But given the fascinating and disconcerting details of this wildly shifting media landscape, it is easy to miss the larger social changes that are redefining the civic role of journalism. I believe that three shifts underlie and help explain the confusing and challenging landscape we currently face and may offer direction for those who seek to strengthen the importance of reliable information to an engaged citizenry:

– The decline of trust in journalism is part of a larger collapse of trust in institutions of all kinds
– Low trust in institutions creates a crisis for civics, leaving citizens looking for new ways to be effective in influencing political and social processes
– The search for efficacy is leading citizens into polarized media spaces that have so little overlap that shared consensus on basic civic facts is difficult to achieve

I will unpack these three shifts in turn, arguing that each has a much deeper set of roots than the current political moment. These factors lead me to a set of question for anyone seeking to strengthen the importance of reliable information in our civic culture. Because these shifts are deeper than the introduction of a single new technology or the rise of a specific political figure, these questions focus less on mitigating the impact of recent technological shifts and more on either reversing these larger trends, or creating a healthier civic culture that responds to these changes.

What happened to trust?

Since 1958, the National Election Study and other pollsters have asked a sample of Americans the following question: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time?” Trust peaked during the Johnson administration in 1964, at 77%. It declined precipitously under Nixon, Ford and Carter, recovered somewhat under Reagan, and nose-dived under George HW Bush. Trust rose through Clinton’s presidency and peaked just after George W. Bush led the country into war in Iraq and Afghanistan, collapsing throughout his presidency to the sub-25% levels that characterized Obama’s years in office. Between Johnson and Obama, American attitudes towards Washington reversed themselves – in the mid 1960s, it was as difficult to find someone with low trust in the federal government as it is difficult today to find someone who deeply trusts the government.

Data from Gallup, derived largely from the National Election Survey

Declining trust in government, especially in Congress – the least trusted branch of our tripartite system – is an old story, and generations of politicians have run against Washington, taking advantage of the tendency for Americans to re-elect their representatives while condemning Congress as a whole. What’s more surprising is the slide in confidence in institutions of all sorts. Trust in public schools has dropped from 62% in 1975 to 31% now, while confidence in the medical system has fallen from 80% to 37% in the same time period. We see significant decreases in confidence in organized religion, banks, organized labor, the criminal justice system and in big business. The only institutions that have increased in trust in Gallup’s surveys are the military, which faced Vietnam-era skepticism when Gallup began its questioning, and small business, which is less a conventional institution than the invitation to imagine an individual businessperson. With the exception of the military, Americans show themselves to be increasingly skeptical of large or bureaucratic institutions, from courts to churches.

Data on the left from Gallup. On the right are my calculations of drops in trust, based on Gallup data.

American media institutions have experienced the same decades-long fall in trust. Newspapers were trusted by 51% of American survey respondents in 1979, compared to 20% in 2016. Trust in broadcast television peaked at 46% in 1993 and now sits at 21%. Trust in mass media as a whole peaked at 72% in 1976, in the wake of the press’s role in exposing the Watergate scandal. Four decades later, that figure is now 32%, less than half of its peak. And while Republicans now show a very sharp drop in trust in mainstream media – from 32% in 2015 to 14% in 2016, trust in mass media has dropped steadily for Democrats and independents as well.

In other words, the internet and social media has not destroyed trust in media – trust was dropping even before cable TV became popular. Nor is the internet becoming a more trusted medium than newspapers or television – in 2014, 19% of survey respondents said they put a great deal of trust in internet news. Instead, trust in media has fallen steadily since the 1980s and 1990s, now resting at roughly half the level it enjoyed 30 years ago, much like other indicators of American trust in institutions.

It’s not only Americans who are skeptical of institutions, and of media in particular. Edelman, a US-based PR firm, conducts an annual, global survey of trust called Eurobarometer, which compares levels of trust in institutions similar to those Gallup asks about. The 2017 Eurobarometer survey identifies the US as “neutral”, between a small number of high trust countries and a large set of mistrustful countries. (Only one of the five countries Eurobarometer lists as highly trusting are open societies, rated as “free” by Freedom House: India. The other four – China, Indonesia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, are partly free or not free. Depressingly, there is a discernable, if weak, correlation (R2=0.162) between more open societies and low scores on Edelman’s trust metric.) As in the US, trust in media plumbed new depths in Eurobarometer countries, reaching all time lows in 17 of the 28 countries surveyed and leaving media contending with government as the least trusted set of institutions (business and NGOs rate significantly higher, though trust in all institutions is dropping year on year.)

So what happened to trust?

By recognizing that the decrease in trust in media is part of a larger trend of reduced trust in institutions, and understanding that shift as a trend that’s unfolded over at least 4 decades, we can dismiss some overly simplistic explanations for the current moment. The decline of trust in journalism precedes Donald Trump. While it’s likely that trust in media will fall farther under a government that presents journalists as the opposition party, Trump’s choice of the press as enemy is shrewd recognition of a trend already underway. Similarly, we can reject the facile argument that the internet has destroyed trust in media and other institutions. Even if we date broad public influence of the internet to 2000, when only 52% of the US population was online, the decline in trust in journalism began at least 20 years earlier. If we accept the current moment as part of a larger trend, we need a more systemic explanation for the collapse of trust.

Scholars have studied interpersonal trust – the question of how much you can trust other individuals in society – for decades, finding robust evidence of a correlation between interpersonal trust at a societal level and economic success. The relationship between interpersonal trust and trust in institutions is less clear: Sweden, for instance, is one of the world leaders in interpersonal trust, but one of the most mistrustful of governments and other institutions. Comparing the 2014 World Values Survey measure of interpersonal trust to the 2017 Eurobarometer survey of institutional trust shows no correlation. (R2=0.032) So while interpersonal trust has dropped sharply in the US (from 48% in 1984 to 31% in 2014, using data from the General Social Survey, the broader world shows fairly stable interpersonal trust. Yet a decrease of trust in institutions is widespread globally, as seen both in the Eurobarometer data and in Gallup OECD data. It’s not just that we trust each other less – people around the world appear to trust institutions less.

It’s also possible that reduced confidence in institutions could relate to economic stress. As numerous scholars, notably Thomas Piketty, have observed, economic inequality is reaching heights in the US not seen since the Gilded Age. The decrease of confidence in institutions roughly correlates with the increase Piketty sees in inequality, which is stable through the 50’s, 60’s and mid-70’s, rising sharply from there.

We might think of an explanation in which citizens, frustrated by their decreasing share of the pie, punish the societal institutions responsible for their plight. But with this explanation, we would expect to see rising inequality accompanied by a steady drop in consumer confidence. We don’t – consumer confidence in the US and in the OECD more broadly is roughly as high now as it was in the 1960s, despite sharp drops during moments of economic stress and a rise during the “long boom” of the ’90s and 2000s. It’s possible that citizens should be punishing governments, banks and businesses for rising inequality, but consumer behavior and confidence doesn’t corroborate the story.

I favor a third theory, put forward by Kenneth Newton and Pippa Norris, called the institutional performance model. Simply put, when institutions perform poorly, people lose trust in them: “It is primarily governmental performance that determines the level of citizens’ confidence in public institutions.” That trust in institutions, easily lost, takes a long time to regain. We might understand the collapse of confidence in US institutions as a set of high visibility crises: Vietnam and Watergate as eroding confidence in the federal government, the Catholic Church sex scandal destroying trust in that institution, the 2007 financial collapse damaging faith in banks and big business.

Newton and Norris developed their theories in the mid-1990s, noting that confidence in public institutions was plumbing new depths. In retrospect, their concerns seem well-founded, as the trends they observed have simply increased over time. In the mid 1990s, Newton and Norris were comfortable positing a relationship between society-wide interpersonal trust and trust in institutions – that relationship is less clear now, because interpersonal trust has remained fairly constant while trust in institutions has decreased. One explanation for the decrease in institutional trust is that institutions have performed poorly, and that citizens are increasingly aware of their shortcomings.

Cultural and technological shifts may have made it easier for institutions to lose trust and harder to regain it. Watergate returned the US press to its progressive-era muckraking roots and ended a period of deference in which indiscretions by figures of authority were sometimes ignored. (It’s interesting to imagine the Clinton-era press covering JFK’s personal life.) An explosion in news availability, through cable television’s 24-hour news cycle and the internet, has ensured a steady stream of negative news, which engages audiences through fear and outrage. The rise of social media fuels the fire, allowing individuals to report institutional failures (police shootings, for example) and spread their dismay to friends and broader audiences. Accompanying the evolution of media technologies is education: in 1971, 12% of Americans had graduated from college, and 57% from high school. By 2012, 31% had college degrees, and 88% had high school diplomas. The citizens of 2017 are better positioned to be critical of institutions than those of 1964.

If we accept any of these explanations for a decrease in trust in institutions, the obvious question emerges: How do we reverse this trend? How do we restore public trust?

It’s worth noting that those most concerned with restoring public trust tend to be elites, those for whom existing institutions are often working quite well. Eurobarometer’s 2017 report focuses on a widening trust gap between a well-informed 15% of the population and a less informed 85%. The well-informed minority scores 60 on Edelman’s trust index, while the less-informed majority is 15 points lower, at 45. The gap between elites and the majority is largest in the US – 22 points separate the groups.

One approach to institutional mistrust is to try and educate this disenchanted majority, helping them understand why our institutions are not as broken as we sometimes imagine. Any approach is unlikely to reach all citizens – some will remain frustrated and alienated, due to disinterest, misinformation, a healthy distaste for being told what to think, or due to the fact that their mistrust may be justified.

TV commentator Chris Hayes encourages us to recognize that those frustrated with institutions constitute a large and powerful segment of society. He suggests that dividing Americans into institutionalists, who want to strengthen and preserve our existing social institutions, and insurrectionists, who see a need to overhaul, overthrow, replace or abandon existing institutions, is at least as useful as dividing the population into liberals and conservatives. Insurrectionists include progressives (Bernie Sanders), libertarians (Rand Paul) and nationalists (Donald Trump), while both Republicans and Democrats are well represented within the institutionalist camp.

The defeat of a consummate institutionalist – Hillary Clinton – by an insurrectionist outsider suggests a need to take rising insurrectionism seriously. What if our citizens now include a large plurality unlikely to be persuaded to regain trust in our central civic institutions?

How mistrust reshapes civics

Assume for the moment that a large group of citizens is mistrustful of existing institutions. How do these citizens participate in civic life?

Low participation in congressional elections is often offered as evidence of the decline in American civic life. But in 2012, only 35 of 435 congressional seats were considered “swing” districts, where voting margins were within 5% of the national popular vote margin – the remaining 92% of districts strongly favor either a sitting Democrat or Republican. The safety of these districts leads to an extremely high rate of incumbent re-election, 95.9%. Combine the very low chance of making a difference in a Congressional election with extremely low trust in Congress (9% in 2016) and it’s easy to understand why many citizens – including some institutionalists – would sit an election out.

When we teach young people how to have a civic voice, we tend to emphasize the importance of voting as a baseline civic responsibility – as the bumper sticker says, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” But at high levels of mistrust, voting doesn’t work very well. If we see Congress, the Senate or the presidency as dysfunctional institutions, either unlikely to accomplish much or to represent our interests, voting for representatives or encouraging them to advance or support legislation doesn’t feel like a powerful way to influence civic processes.

High levels of mistrust present a challenge for protest as well. Unless the goal of a protest – a march, a sit-in, an occupation – is the fall of a regime (as it was with the protests of the Arab Spring), then a protest is designed to show widespread support for a political position and influence leaders. The March on Washington, likely the most remembered event of the civil rights movement as it culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was, after all, a march on Washington. It sought to pressure President Kennedy and Congress to take action on civil rights legislation and is credited with creating the momentum for LBJ to act quickly on civil rights after Kennedy’s assassination.

What happens when protesters no longer trust that institutions they might influence can make necessary social changes? The Occupy movement was widely criticized for failing to put forward a legislative agenda that representatives could choose to pass. Occupiers, in part, were expressing their lack of confidence in the federal government and didn’t put forth these proposals because their goal was to demonstrate other forms of community decision-making. Whether or not Occupy succeeded in demonstrating the viability of consensus-based governance, the resistance of Occupiers to turning into a political party or advocacy organization shows a deep insurrectionist distrust of existing institutions and an unwillingness to operate within them.

The danger is that insurrectionists will drop out of civic life altogether, or be manipulated by demagogues who promise to obviate the complexities of mistrusted institutions through the force of their personal character and will. The hope is that insurrectionists can become powerful, engaged citizens who participate in civic life despite their skepticism of existing institutions. To make this possible, we need to broaden our understanding of what it means to be a good citizen.

There is a tendency to assume that the actions that constitute good citizenship are stable over time. Good citizens inform themselves about issues, vote in elections, contact representatives about issues they care about and, if they fail to be heard, protest peacefully and non-violently. Michael Schudson argues that this model of citizenship is only one of several that has held sway in the US at different moments in our nation’s history. Early in the American republic, “good citizens” would be expected to send the most prominent and wealthy member of their community to Washington to represent them, independent of agreement with his ideology. Later, good citizens supported a political party they affiliated with based on geography, ethnicity or occupation. The expectation that voters would inform themselves on issues before voting, vote on split tickets making decisions about individual candidates or vote directly on legislation in a referendum was the result of a set of progressive era reforms that ushered in what Schudson calls “the informed citizen”.

We tend to see the informed citizen as the correct and admirable model for citizenship a hundred years after its introduction, but we miss some of the weaknesses of the paradigm. Informed citizenship places very high demands on citizens, expecting knowledge about all the candidates and issues at stake in an election – it’s a paradigm deeply favored by journalists, as it places the role of the news as informing and empowering citizens at the center of the political process. Unfortunately, it’s also a model plagued with very low participation rates – Schudson observes that the voting was cut nearly in half once progressive political reforms came into effect. And while we often discuss civics and participation in terms of the informed citizen mode, he argues that America has moved on to other dominant models of citizenship, the rights-based citizenship model that centers on the courts, as during the civil rights movement, and monitorial citizenship, where citizens realize they cannot follow all the details of all political processes and monitor media for a few, specific issues where they are especially passionate and feel well-positioned to take action.

Young people in particular are looking for ways they can be most effective in making change around issues they care about. Effective citizenship, in which individuals make rational, self-interested decisions about how they most effectively participate in civic life, can look very different from the informed citizenship we’ve come to expect. Joe Kahne and Cathy Cohen surveyed thousands of youth in California and discovered that while participation in “institutional” politics (rallies, traditional political organizing, volunteering to work with a candidate) is low, there is strong engagement with “>”participatory politics”, sharing civic information online, discussing social issues in online fora, making and sharing civic media. And while young people may not be volunteering for political campaigns, they are volunteering at a much higher rate than previous generations, looking for direct, tangible ways they can participate in their communities.

We are beginning to see new forms of civic participation that appeal to those alienated from traditional political processes. One way to understand these methods is as levers of change. When people feel like they are unlikely to move formal, institutional levers of change through voting or influencing representatives, they look for other levers to make movement on the issues they care about.

In his 1999 book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig argues that there are four primary ways societies regulate themselves. We use laws to make behaviors legal or illegal. We use markets to make desirable behaviors cheap and dangerous ones expensive. We use social norms to sanction undesirable behaviors and reward exemplary ones. And code and other technical architectures make undesirable actions difficult to do and encourage other actions. Each of the regulatory forces Lessig identifies can be turned into a lever of change, and in an age of high mistrust in institutions, engaged citizens are getting deeply creative in using the three non-legal levers.

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations of widespread NSA surveillance of communications, many citizens expressed fear and frustration. The Obama administration’s review of the NSA’s programs made few significant changes to domestic spying policies. Unable to make change through formal government processes, digital activists have been hard at work building powerful, user-friendly tools to encrypt digital communications like Signal, “>whose powerful encryption has now been incorporated into the widely used WhatsApp platform. Code-based theories of change allow programmers and engineers to become powerful social change actors, making new behaviors possible, whether they increase personal privacy or reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

Market-based theories of change use capitalism’s capacity for scaling to change the behavior of large groups of people. We usually think of Elon Musk as an inventive entrepreneur and engineer, but it’s also possible to think of him as one of the most effective activists working to halt climate change. By building a highly desirable electric car and the infrastructure to charge it at home and on the road, Musk may ultimately reduce carbon emissions as much as legislating global carbon markets. Market-based activists use boycotts, buycotts and social ventures to encourage consumers to make change using their wallets, a technique used since American colonists eschewed heavily taxed British goods, now organized and accelerated through communications networks.

If code-based theories of change are most open to engineers and market levers to entrepreneurs, norms-based theories of change have been embraced by those who make and disseminate media… which in the age of social networks includes the majority of Americans and the vast majority of young Americans. The Black Lives Matter movement is less focused on specific legislative change than on changing social norms that cause many people to see black males, especially young black males, as a threat. Laws are already on the books that should protect black males from police violence. But when a policeman perceives 12-year old Tamir Rice as a threat because he is a young black man playing with a toy, changing the norms of how African Americans are seen by police – and by society as a whole – is a high priority. Online, BLM protesters have focused on making unarmed deaths at the hands of the police highly visible, leading to a surge of media coverage in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, making these incidents at least 10 times as visible as they were before the Ferguson protests. (Forthcoming research from Center for Civic Media.)

Effective citizenship means that people look for the methods of social change they see as most effective. Young people often look for norms-based theories of change, taking advantage of their skills in building and disseminating media. Insurrectionists frustrated with legal institutions or with the behaviors of corporate America look for change through new technology and new ventures.

This shift in citizenship is still emerging. Media often hasn’t caught up with the idea that effective civic engagement happens outside the courts, the voting booth and Congress. This understandable overfocus on law-based theories of change leaves those frustrated with institutions frustrated with media as well. For insurrectionists who see Washington institutions as ineffective and untrustworthy, a strong media focus on these institutions can look like an attempt to maintain their legitimacy and centrality.

One of journalism’s key roles in an open society is to help citizens participate effectively. From close scrutiny of those in elected office to analysis of legislative proposals to editorial endorsements of candidates for office, news outlets help their customers make civic decisions. If mistrust in institutions is changing how people participate in civics, news organizations may need to change as well. We can recommit ourselves to explaining the importance and centrality of our institutions, but we run the risk of being insufficiently skeptical and critical, and the danger that we lose even more trust from our alienated and insurrectionist readers. Or we could rethink our role as journalists as helping people navigate this emergent civic landscape and find the places where they, individually and collectively, can be the most effective and powerful.

Dueling spheres of consensus

Shortly after the 2016 elections, a friend asked me to lunch. A Trump supporter, he knew we had voted differently in the election, and we both wanted to talk about the future of the country under the new administration. But he invited me specifically because he was angered by an article I’d written that grouped Breitbart founder Steve Bannon with alt-right leader Richard Spencer.

My friend explained that he read Breitbart religiously, not because he supports white supremacy, but because he supports net-zero immigration to the US as a strategy for raising the incomes of white and non-white Americans. Breitbart was the only major media outlet he found seriously discussing that policy stance. “If Bannon is beyond the pale, and Breitbart’s beyond the pale, does it mean that my views on immigration are beyond the pale? And what about the millions of Americans who agree with me?”

Research that Yochai Benkler and our team at MIT and the Berkman Center confirmed my friend’s assertion that Breitbart covered matters of immigration much more closely than other media outlets leading up to the 2016 election, focusing on the issue more than 3x as often as right-leaning outlets Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Thanks to the strong influence of Breitbart, we speculate, immigration became the most-reported on policy issue in the 2016 election, despite GOP efforts to soften the party’s stance on immigration to reach Latino voters.

The move of immigration from the fringe of the news agenda to a central topic is a phenomenon addressed by media scholar Daniel Hallin in his 1985 book, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. Hallin argues that we should think of potential news stories as fitting into one of three spheres. In the sphere of consensus, there is widespread agreement on an issue or a position (democracy is the best form of government; capitalism is a good way to build an economy) and therefore it’s not worth our time to discuss. In the sphere of deviance, there is widespread agreement that a stance is beyond the pale (sexual relationships between adults and minors are natural and should be legal; collective ownership of all goods is the best way to end economic inequality) and also not worthy of discussion. The (sometimes very narrow) sphere of legitimate controversy includes the standard political debates within a society, and journalists are expected to show themselves as neutral on those topics legitimate to debate (tax cuts for the wealthy will lead to economic growth; for-profit insurers will only survive with federally mandated medical insurance).

Lobbyists, activists and PR professionals have used Hallin’s spheres to shape what’s at stake in public policy debates. Health insurance companies have worked hard to push the idea of single payer healthcare into the sphere of deviance, rebranding the idea as socialized medicine to associate it with a disfavored economic idea. By citing the small number of scientists who do not see evidence that humans are contributing to climate change, advocates have kept the phenomenon of global warming within the sphere of legitimate debate.

While Hallin’s Spheres are related to the Overton window – the idea that certain policy prescriptions are so radical that a politician could not embrace them without compromising her own electability – being consigned to Hallin’s sphere of deviance has psychological implications that falling outside the Overton window lacks. Advance a policy suggestion that is outside the Overton window and you suffer the disappointment that your idea is discarded as impractical. Stray outside the sphere of legitimate debate into the sphere of deviance, and your position becomes invisible to mainstream media dialog. Journalism scholar Jay Rosen observes, “Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance — as defined by journalists — will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go… chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.”

The growth in media diversity brought about by the rise of the internet and social media means that if your ideas are outside the sphere of legitimate debate, you can simply find a media sphere where you’re no longer in the sphere of deviance. My friend, frustrated that he could not find media debating his ideas on immigration, began reading Breitbart, where his deviant ideas are within the sphere of consensus, and the legitimate debate is about the specific mechanisms that should be used to limit immigration. He is not alone. While less popular than during the 2016 election, Breitbart is the 61st most popular website in the US, close in popularity to the Washington Post. In our data set, which examines how websites are shared on Twitter or Facebook, Breitbart is the fourth-most influential media outlet, behind CNN, The New York Times and politics site The Hill.

The ability to find a set of media outlets compatible with your political views is not new. Even in the days of political pamphlets and early newspapers, it was possible to experience a Federalist or Anti-Federalist echo chamber. The rise of large-circulation newspapers and broadcast media, which needed to avoid alienating large swaths of the population to maintain fiscal viability, led us into a long age where partisan journalism was less common. Even as cable news made partisan news viable again, broadcast news networks and major newspapers maintained aspirations of fairness and balance, attempting to serve the broader public.

Those economic models make little sense in a digital age. As purveyors of wholly manufactured fake news (like the Macedonian teens who targeted content at Trump supporters) know, there is a near-insatiable appetite for news that supports our ideological preconceptions. But it’s important to consider that people seek out ideological compatible media not just out of intellectual laziness, but out of a sense of efficacy. If you are a committed Black Lives Matter supporter working on strategies for citizen review of the police, it’s exhausting to be caught in endless debates over whether racism in America is over. If you’re working on counseling women away from abortion towards adoption, understanding how to be effective in your own movement is likely to be a higher priority for you than dialog with pro-choice activists.

Partisan isolationism is not just purely a function of homophily. The structure of internet media platforms contributes to ideological isolation. While Pariser and others trace these structural effects to Facebook and other highly targeted social media, I argued in Rewire that three different generations of internet media have made it possible to self-select the topics and points of views we are most interested in. The pre-Google web allowed us to self select points of view much as a magazine rack does: we choose the National Review over the Nation, or their respective websites. Unlike broadcast media, which lends itself towards centrist points of view to attract a wide range of ad dollars, narrowcast media like websites and magazines allow more stark, partisan divisions. With the rise of search, interest-based navigation often led us to ideological segregation, either through the topics we select or the language we choose to pursue them – the vegan cooking website is unlikely place to meet conservatives, much as searching for progressive voices on a hunting site can be frustrating. And the language we use to describe an issue – climate change, global warming or scientific fraud – can be thoroughly ideologically isolating in terms of the information we retrieve.

What’s different about social media is not that we can choose the points of view we encounter, but that we are often unaware that we are making these choices. Many people joined Facebook expecting the service would help them remain connected with family and friends, not that it would become a primary source of news. As of 2016, 62% of American adults reported getting some news via social media, and 18% reported often getting news through platforms like Facebook. These numbers are more dramatic for young adults, and likely increased during the 2016 presidential election. Because Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm presents content to you based on content you’ve liked and clicked on in the past, it has a tendency to reinforce your existing preconceptions, both because your friends are likely to share those points of view, and because your behavior online indicates to Facebook what content you are most interested in. Eli Pariser calls this problem “the filter bubble”, building on earlier work done by Cass Sunstein, which recognized the tendency to create “echo chambers” online by selecting media that fits our politics. Pariser argues (controversially) that algorithms used by Facebook and others increase this tendency.

It’s worth noting that the filter bubble problem isn’t inherent to social media. Twitter has pointedly not filtered their timeline, which avoids the filter bubble, but leaves responsibility for escaping echo chambers to the user. While you can decide to follow a different group of people on Twitter, research from Nathan Matias suggests that even highly motivated people are unlikely to make major changes in their online behavior in order to combat biases and prejudices.

Our team at the MIT Media Lab is working on Gobo, a new tool that allows you to filter your Facebook and Twitter feeds differently, using natural language processing and machine learning to build filters that can increase or decrease the political content of your news feed, give you more or fewer female authors, or consciously choose to encounter more news outside of your echo chamber. One of the key questions we seek to answer in buiding the tool is whether people will actually choose to use these filters. One hypothesis we hope to disprove is that, despite complaining about filter bubbles, many people seem to enjoy ideological isolation and may choose settings similar to what they encounter online now.

General interest media, like broadcast television and national newspapers, traditionally saw themselves as having a responsibility to provide ideological balance, global perspectives and diversity in their coverage. (Whether they succeeded is another question – I’ve heard many reports from people of color that they felt invisible in those “good old days” and far more visible in contemporary, fragmented media.) As that business model becomes less viable, because readers gravitate towards ideologically compatible material, it’s worth asking whether platforms like Facebook have an appetite for this work.

Thus far, the answer seems to be no. Facebook has assiduously avoided being labeled a publisher, trying to ensure both an escape from legal liability for content it hosts under the Safe Harbor provisions of US internet law, and to prevent itself from being criticized about exercising poor editorial judgement. The problems Facebook is confronted with are serious. Demands that the platform block “fake news” are challenging, given that most of what’s called “fake news” is not obviously fraudulent. If Facebook begins blocking platforms like Breitbart, it will be accused of censorship of political content, and rightly so.

One possible escape for Facebook is to eliminate algorithmic curation of newsfeeds, moving back to a Twitter-like world in which social media is a spray of information from anyone you’ve chosen to pay attention to. Another is to adopt a solution like the one we are proposing with Gobo, and put control of filters into the user’s hands. It’s an open question whether Facebook would choose a path forward that gives its users more control over their experience of the service.

In considering how platforms enable online discourse, we need to consider the idea that sharing content is a form of civic participation. Part of our emergent civics is the practice of making and disseminating media designed to strengthen ties within an identity group and to distinguish that group from groups that oppose it. Consider the meme-makers competing for $20,000 from Infowars. Many involved don’t believe that CNN is ISIS, as one popular meme allegesas Judith Donath explains, “News is shared not just to inform or even to persuade. It is used as a marker of identity, a way to proclaim your affinity with a particular community.”

Donath’s insight helps explain why factchecking, blocking fake news or urging people to support diverse, fact-based news is unlikely to check the spread of highly partisan news. Not only is partisan news comfortable and enjoyable (I find it reassuring to watch Trevor Noah or Samantha Bee and assume that friends on the right feel the same watching Fox News commentators), spreading this information has powerful social rewards and gives a sense of shared efficacy, the feeling (real or imagined) that you are making norms-based social change by shaping the information environment.

The research Benkler and our Media Cloud team conducted shows how rapidly these partisan ecosystems can come into being. Examining 1.25 million media stories and 25,000 media sources, we gave each media source a partisanship score based on whether people who shared tweets from the Democratic or Republican candidates also shared a story from a source. Stories from the New York Times were more often shared by people who’d retweeted Hillary Clinton than those who’d retweeted Donald Trump, but the effect was much more pronounced with Breitbart: Breitbart was amplified almost exclusively by Trump supporters. Our research shows a tightly clustered set of sites read only by the nationalist right. The vast majority of these sites are very new, most founded during the Obama administration. This community of interest has very little overlap with traditional conservative sources like the Wall Street Journal or the National Review. In our study, those publications are both low in influence and linked to by both the left and right, while the Breitbart-centered cluster functions as an echo chamber.

The emergence of echo chambers like the one around Breitbart further complicates fact-checking. danah boyd explains that in teaching students not to rely on Wikipedia, we’ve encouraged them to triangulate their way to truth from Google search results. On topics covered heavily in the Breitbartosphere but not addressed in the broader media universe, this leads to a perverse effect. Search for information on Pizzagate as the story was being developed on sites like Infowars and you would likely find links to other far-right sites promoting the story. By the time sites like the New York Times became aware of the story and began debunking it, many interested in the faux-scandal had persuaded themselves of its truth through repetition within a subset of closely related websites, to the point where an unstable individual took up arms to “self-investigate” the controversy.

Hallin’s spheres suggests we question whether we are encouraged to discuss a wide enough range of topics within the sphere of legitimate controversy. The problem we face now is one in which dialog is challenging, if not impossible, because one party’s sphere of consensus is the other’s sphere of deviance and vice versa. Our debates are complicated not only because we cannot agree on a set of shared facts, but because we cannot agree what’s worth talking about in the first place. When one camp sees Hillary Clinton’s controversial email server as evidence of her lawbreaking and deviance (sphere of consensus for many on the right) or as a needless distraction from more relevant issues (sphere of deviance for many on the left), we cannot agree to disagree, as we cannot agree that the conversation is worth having in the first place.

Much as there is no obvious, easy solution to countering mistrust in institutions, I have no panaceas for polarization and echo chambers. Still, it’s worth identifying these phenomena – and acknowledging their deep roots – as we seek solutions to these pressing problems. It is worth noting that the research Benkler’s and my team carried out suggests the phenomenon of asymmetric polarization – in our analysis, those on the far right are more isolated in terms of viewpoints they encounter than those on the far left. There’s nothing in our research that suggests the right is inherently more prone to ideological isolation. By understanding how extreme polarization has developed recently, it might be possible to stop the left from developing a similar echo chamber. Our research also suggests that the center right has a productive role to play in building media that appeals to an insurrectionist and alienated right-leading audience, which keeps those important viewpoints in dialog with existing communities in the left, center and right.

Fundamentally, I believe that the polarization of dialog in the media is a result both of new media technologies and of the deeper changes of trust in institutions and in how civics is practiced. The Breitbartosphere is possible not just because it’s easier than ever to create a media outlet and share viewpoints with the like-minded. It’s possible because low trust in government leads people to seek new ways of being engaged and effective, and low trust in media leads people to seek out different sources. Making and disseminating media feels like one of the most effective ways to engage in civics in a low-trust world, and the 2016 elections suggest that this civic media is a powerful force we are only now starting to understand.

Closing questions

I want to acknowledge that this paper may stray far from the immediate challenges that face us around issues of information quality, in the service of seeking for their deeper roots. My questions follow in the same spirit. For the most part, these are questions to which I don’t have a good answer. Some are active research questions for my lab. My fear is that we may have to address some of these underlying questions before tackling tactical questions of how we should best respond to immediate challenges to faith in journalism.

– How long does it take to recover trust in an institution that has failed? What are examples of a mistrusted institution regaining public trust?
– Is the fall in institutional trust an independent or a joint phenomenon – i.e., does losing trust in Congress lessen our trust in the Supreme Court or the medical system
– Is trust in news media higher or lower in countries with strong public/taxpayer supported media? Does trust correlate positively or negatively to ad support? Privacy-invading tracking and targeting?
– If people don’t trust institutions, who or what do they trust? How do those patterns differ for more trusting elites and for the broader population?

– What forms of participation (from the traditional, like voting, to the non-traditional, like making CNN-bashing memes) are indicators of future civic engagement? Should we be encouraging and celebrating a broader range of civic participation amongst youth? Amongst groups that see themselves alienated from conventional politics?
– Should media attempt to explain and engage audiences more deeply in institutional politics? Will acknowledging the limits of existing institutional politics restore trust in journalism, or damage trust in government?
– Should media celebrate and promote new forms of civic engagement? Will this further decrease trust in institutions? Increase a sense of citizen efficacy?
– What would media designed for increased public participation look like? Are there models in the advocacy journalism space, or in solutions journalism, constructive journalism or other movements?

– Is it reasonable to expect Americans to rely on a single, or small set, of professional media sources that report a relatively value-neutral set of stories? Or is this goal of journalistic non-partisanship no longer a realistic ideal?
– Could taxpayer-sponsored media serve a function of anchoring discourse around a single set of facts? Or will public media be inherently untrustworthy to some portion of American voters? Why does public media seem to work well in other low-trust nations but not in the US?
– Is there a role for high-quality, factual but partisan media that might reach audiences alienated from mainstream media?
– Should media outlets learn from what’s consensus, debatable and deviant in other media spheres and modify coverage to intersect with reader’s spheres? Is shifting the boundaries of these spheres part of how civics is conducted today?

by Ethan at August 18, 2017 01:45 AM

August 17, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
In Tunisia's ‘State of Emergency’, a New Police Protection Law Could Allow More Abuse — With Impunity

Tunisian riot police in the capital Tunis on 6 February 2013. Photo by Amine Ghrabi (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Tunisia has seen many improvements to human rights protections since the 2011 toppling of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. But the abuse of power by police and security forces remains a serious problem.

The parliament is now considering a law that could make it even easier for police to take advantage of their power, with little accountability to the public.

The new draft law on the “repression of attacks against armed forces” would reinforce criminal penalties for various acts that endanger police and security forces, punish speech that is deemed “denigrating” towards the police, and exempt security forces from criminal liability when they use excessive force.

Originally submitted to the parliament by the former government of Habib Essid in April 2015, the law resurfaced on the parliament's agenda in July and has the support of the country's interior ministry and unions representing security forces.

Draft Law on Repression of Attacks Against Armed Forces: Key Articles

  • Articles 5 and 6 criminalize disclosing “national security secrets”, broadly defined in Article 4 as “any information, data and documents related to national security”, which can only be accessed by those authorized to do so. Maximum punishment: 10 years in prison, fines of up to 50,000 Tunisian dinars (USD $20,750)
  • Article 7 criminalizes the unauthorized filming or recording inside security and military headquarters and at sites of military and security operations. Maximum punishment: Two years in prison.
  • Article 12 criminalizes “denigrating” the country's armed and security forces “with the aim of harming public order”. Maximum punishment: Two years in prison, fines of up to 10,000 Tunisian dinars (USD $4,150)
  • Article 18 would shield police from criminal liability for “injuring or killing anyone” when they use lethal force to repeal attacks against their homes, vehicles, police and security headquarters, and the military's arms and ammunition storage facilities, if the force used is deemed “necessary and proportionate” to the danger.

If adopted, the law could have a chilling effect on free expression, artistic freedoms, and media and press freedoms. The bill would also give security forces a green light to act with even more impunity than it already has.

Police abuse in a ‘state of emergency’

Despite reforms intended to curb rights violations following the 23-year rule of Ben Ali, police abuse remains very common.

Under Tunisia's ongoing state of emergency, implemented after multiple militant attacks in 2015, authorities have the power to suspend protests, restrict the right to assembly and freedom of movement, ban publications, and arrest anyone suspected of violating public order.

report released earlier this year by Amnesty International documented several abuses committed in Tunisia's state of emergency including the use of excessive and unnecessary force, house raids without judicial authorization, travel bans, arbitrary arrests, torture and ill treatment.

On top of this, the law addresses several issues that are already covered in other sections of Tunisia's penal code and in the general statutes of the internal security forces. Even before the state of emergency began, authorities were not afraid to put these laws to use.

Blogger Yassine Ayari was imprisoned in 2014 for “defaming the army” and “insulting military high command” through Facebook posts. In 2013, a court sentenced rapper Weld El15 to two years in prison over a rap song in which he called police dogs.

Current laws on police and security forces

  • Military Justice Code Article 91 prescribes a prison sentence of up to three years for insults against the military institution, its flag, dignity and morale.
  • Penal Code Article 125 punishes those convicted of “insulting public officers during the performance of their duties” with one year in jail and a fine.
  • Penal Code Article 128 says that anyone found guilty of “accusing, without proof, a public agent of violating the law” can face up to two years in jail.

These laws have been used to persecute bloggers, journalists, artists and activists for their criticism of the police or the military institution. And existing provisions in the penal and military codes make it difficult to question police conduct or file complaints against members of the security forces.

It is easy to imagine how a new law reiterating some of these provisions, increasing punishments for violations, and introducing even stronger protections against liability for security officers could be abused even further.

‘An assault on security officers is not an easy thing’

If the police and the military are already legally protected from criticism regarding their conduct, why are they seeking to push forward this new law?

Part of their impetus comes from rising fears about security and threats to the safety of security officers. Since late 2012, dozens of security officers and soldiers have been killed in attacks perpetrated by militant groups or while conducting operations against them. In November 2015, 12 presidential guards were killed in a bus bombing claimed by ISIS. A few months prior, attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and on a beach resort in the coastal city of Sousse injured and claimed the lives of dozens of people, most of them foreign tourists.

This past June, police officer Majdi Hajlaoui was injured while on duty during tribal clashes in Sidi Bouzid and later succumbed to his injuries. His death prompted hundreds of police officers to protest outside the parliament on 6 July 2017, demanding better protections and bringing the debate about the bill back to the table.

In its current form, the bill would not offer more protections to police officers on the ground. But it would better shield them from criminal liability when they use lethal force.

Mehdi Bechaouch, a leader at the syndicate representing officers at the General Directorate of Intervention Units, told privately-owned Shems FM radio that police officers “should not find themselves in jail when implementing the law,” and that the state should compensate officers whose properties are attacked in retaliation for their work.

He reasoned that the bill, if adopted, would “deter” such attacks:

It is true that assaulting a public officer [is already a crime]…but a security officer carries weapons, and assaults on a security officer or headquarters could result in the seizure of weapons…[The bill's aim is to] send a clear message to people that an assault on security officers is not an easy thing and that it could pose a great danger to the security of society

Bechaouch specified that the police union supports the criminalization of physical attacks against security forces, but does not support other parts of the law, which was written under a previous government. He said that his union supports the removal of provisions that criminalize the “denigration” of the police as well as the law's second chapter, which criminalizes unauthorized filming and the disclosure of national security secrets.

The union's voice on this issue could have greater impact on decision-making in parliament, as this December will mark the first time in Tunisia’s history that security forces will be able to vote in local elections.

Human rights groups raise concern

With the parliament in summer recess until 1 October, it is unclear when the bill will be discussed in plenary session. The bill has so far only been discussed at the parliament's general legislation committee, which on 13 July heard the interior minister and representatives of police unions. The committee also plans to hear representatives of civil society and human rights groups who reject the bill.

The National Union for Tunisian Journalists, the Tunisian Organization Against Torture, the anti-corruption NGO I-Watch, and Reporters Without Borders released a joint statement on July 14 calling on the Tunisian parliament to “immediately withdraw” the “repressive” bill which “would lay the foundation for a dictatorial police state.” Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also separately called on the parliament to reject this bill.

Parliamentarians are also voicing concern about the bill. On July 18, multiple lawmakers stressed the need to respect human rights at a session of the general legislation committee:

وأكّد بعض النواب من جهة أخرى ضرورة تبنّي المشروع لآليات ناجعة تتعلّق بحفظ حقوق عائلات الأمنيين والإحاطة الاجتماعية بهم، مشيرين إلى وجود مقاربة يصعب التوفيق بين مكوّناتها وهي من جهة ضرورة توفير الإطار القانوني لزجر الاعتداءات على الأمنيين وعلى المقرات السيادية وحماية الحرية العامة وحقوق الإنسان من جهة اخرى.

A number of members of parliament emphasized that it is necessary for the draft to include effective mechanisms to protect the rights of the families of police officers and provide them with social protection, while pointing to a difficult juxtaposition of the need to provide a legal framework to repress attacks on security officers and headquarters of sovereignty with the need to protect public freedoms and human rights.

During that session, Member of Parliament Hassouna Nasfi said that the bill does not really bring “anything new” and does not provide enough protections to security forces in terms of reparations and compensations prescribed to officers who suffer attacks.

Parliamentarian Mourad Hmaidi, from the leftist opposition Popular Front party, agreed. Hmaidi told the National TV that the bill would not bring much benefit and rather would threaten freedoms. “What the police officer and internal security forces and their families need in general is insurance coverage for risks while they are performing their duties,” he said.

In its current form, the bill does not bring meaningful changes to the criminalization of attacks against security forces or to insurance coverage from risks associated with security forces’ work.

The most significant elements of the bill would only shield the security apparatus from criticism, at a time when Tunisia is in need of an open debate about police abuse and misconduct to bring about much needed reforms to the security sector.

by Afef Abrougui at August 17, 2017 09:52 PM

Palestinian Journalists Become First Targets of Controversial Cybercrime Law

A photo collage of the journalists arrested by the Palestinian Authority. Captions read: “journalism is not a crime” and “where are the journalists”. Source: Quds News Network on Twitter

Just a few weeks after it adopted a controversial cybercrime law, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has has gone after five journalists alleging that they “leaked information to hostile entities.”

The government did not identify the entities in question, but four of the journalists arrested work with media outlets affiliated with Hamas, the political rival of the ruling party in the West Bank, Fatah.

On the evening of 8 August, agents from the Palestinian Intelligence Service arrested the five journalists from various cities in the West Bank. The security forces raided their homes and places of work, and confiscated their phones and laptops.

These journalists include Mamdouh Hamamrah from Bethlehem and Ahmed Halayqah from Hebron, both reporters for Al-Quds TV channel; Tariq Abu Zaid from Nablus, a reporter at the al-Aqsa TV channel; Amer Abu Arafah from Hebron, a reporter at the Shehab News Agency; and Qutaibah Qasem from Bethlehem who is a freelance journalist and a blogger for Al Jazeera.

Their arrests come just weeks after President Mahmoud Abbas signed a highly controversial cybercrime law that stifles Palestinians’ freedom of expression online by criminalizing speech deemed harmful to “social harmony”, “state security” and “public order”. While the Public Prosecutor’s office denied at first any link between the new law and the arrest campaign, it later referred to Article 20 of the law as the justification for the journalists’ arrests.

Article 20 stipulates that any person who uses information technologies to publish news that would “endanger the safety of the state, its public order or the internal or external security of the state” will be imprisoned for at least a year or will be fined a minimum of $1400 USD.

The Reconciliation Court issued orders to keep the journalists in detention for a number of days, but they were then released instead on bail on 15 August with no indictment. Relatives of the journalists believe the arrests were a politically motivated retaliation for the June 8 arrest of journalist Fouad Jaradeh, a reporter for the PA's official broadcast TV, who was arrested in Gaza by Hamas officers.

The clamp down on journalists has caused an uproar among other Palestinian journalists and activists who have launched a campaign on social media platforms under the Arabic-language hashtasg #وين_الصحفيين ( ‘where are the journalists’) and (‘Journalism is not a crime’), to demand the immediate release of the journalists, and denounce the PA's use of the cybercrime law to repress media freedom.

The goal of the cybercrime law, which the authority enforced against the journalists, is to silence any voices opposing the government or inciting resistance against the occupation #Journalism_is_not_a_crime

Restricting press freedom and arresting journalists under a vague law is a crime #cybercrime_law_is_a_crime #journalism_is_not_a_crime

The cybercrime law compels journalists to lock their mouths

Holding signs that read “journalism is not a crime”, families of the arrested journalists as well as other activists and journalists protested in Ramallah on 12 August against the PA’s rising repression of media and public freedoms and its passing of the new cybercrime law.

by Marwa Fatafta at August 17, 2017 05:45 PM

August 15, 2017

Ethan Zuckerman
The Village of Peace. And Coca. Lots of Coca.

A year ago, I had the opportunity to go to Colombia for the first time, as part of a delegation from Open Society Foundation. We were trying to understand the affects Colombia’s long guerilla war had on the society and what we might expect from the peace referendum planned for a few months later.

The referendum failed, but the peace didn’t, and Colombia seems to be transforming. I returned to Bogota in November 2016 to speak at a national journalism event. My friends who’d judged the contest marveled that this was the first year where the best reporting was not about the war, but about social issues: homosexuality, drug use, women’s roles in the workforce. “It’s almost like we’re a normal country,” one of the judges told me, laughing.

I wrote about my experiences visiting a small village where coca farming is the primary local industry. I’d hoped to sell the piece to one of my editors in the US, but I couldn’t get any traction. It’s sat open in a browser tab for a full year as I’ve felt guilty about not finding a way to share this story with a wider audience.

Colombia is in the news again, with the demobilization of the FARC in its final steps. And coca, the center of the story I wanted to tell, is back in the news, with record levels of Colombian countryside planted with coca bushes. Once again, authorities are trying to lure coca farmers into growing substitution crops… and once again, the economics of the equation don’t make sense to the farmers.

I re-read the piece today, and I still think it’s important for understanding some of the challenges Colombia still faces, especially in areas outside of the major cities. If you like it, please share it, so I can feel less badly about failing my friends in Lerma by not getting the New York Times or National Geographic to pick this up. :-)

The village of Lerma, Colombia is 700 kilometers from Bogota, 150 kilometers from the border with Ecuador, and a long, long way from anywhere I’ve ever been before. My companions and I flew from Bogota to Popayán, a provincial capital of whitewashed houses, countless churches and cobblestone streets, then took a bus three hours down the Pan American highway, onto smaller roads and ultimately nine kilometers of dirt and gravel. I spent the trip losing my breath at the beauty of the mountain scenery and trying not to lose my breakfast, my nerve or my mind as our driver slalomed through bus-plungeworthy curves.

We had come to Lerma for the reason outsiders ever come to Lerma: coca.

I am a member of the global board of the Open Society Foundations and a team from our organization had come to Colombia to learn about the economic and social challenges the country is facing as it goes through a peace process at the end of a 50 year war with the FARC, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla army which has engaged in terrorism, kidnapping for ransom and drug production and trafficking. We’d come to Lerma to meet farmers who were cultivating coca not to sell for cocaine production, but for licit uses: a nutrient-rich flour, a medicinal tea, for chewing as their ancestors had for centuries.

Posters advertising the festival of coca, and a coca-laced beverage in a home outside Lerma

Posters advertising the festival of coca, and a coca-laced beverage in a home outside Lerma

What we found was more surprising than licit coca. We found a community that had once descended into unimaginable violence and had remade itself into what residents proudly call “a village of peace”.

Our hosts in Lerma met us with lemonade spiked with coca leaf powder and sweet local basil, and lead us into a covered town square, where we sat on concrete bleachers while schoolchildren played chirimía, a local musical style that features reed flutes and drums. After the performance, schoolteacher Tocayo offered a remarkable history of the town to us and to a group of elementary school students.

Leader of the school Chirimía ensemble presents her group

Leader of the school Chirimía ensemble presents her group

In his account, Lerma was a peaceful village where people cultivated plantains, yucca and chickpeas, as well as small coca crops, until the Peace Corps arrived in 1979. Yes, according to local legend, those idealistic volunteers were the agents of Lerma’s destruction, bringing to the rural community the chemical techniques for extracting cocaine from coca leaves. Once the Peace Corps volunteers had done their sinister work, Lerma farmers quickly realized they could make far more money growing and processing coca, so they abandoned subsistence farming and became narcotics providers.

By the early 1980s, Lerma had attracted the attention of the Escobar network, Colombia’s most powerful drug cartel. The cartel bought Lerma’s coca leaves and paste, turning the village into a boom town. Lerma residents put new roofs on their houses, bought cars and motorbikes, and guns. They partied, drinking heavily and partaking of their new crop. The town’s population surged from 400 to 2,000. By 1983, the international market was glutted with cocaine and prices began to fall. Accustomed to their new wealth, Lerma’s residents began mugging each other to make ends meet, and those who hadn’t already arm themselves bought guns.

If other villages in the region were terrorized by the FARC or by M-19, a Bolivarian guerrilla group, Lerma was terrorized by the people of Lerma. Over the course of five years, at least 20% of the town’s population was murdered. The murder rate sparked on Thursdays, the town’s market day, when farmers came in town to sell their crops and spend their money in local bars, where all-day drinking sessions often devolved into gunfights. According to Rudy Gomez, a schoolteacher in Lerma, “La gente decía que si se pusiera una lápida en cada sitio donde había caído un muerto, no habría por dónde caminar” (The people say that if there was a stone at every place where someone died, you wouldn’t be able to walk.)

In 1988, a group of schoolteachers and widows intervened, pressuring bar owners and liquor stores to shut their doors in the hopes of ending the violence. For ten years, Lerma was a dry town, and citizens turned from drinking to rebuilding the town. One of the town’s few university graduates, Walter Giviría, returned to his hometown to teach and invited friends to join him. The young teachers turned empty bars into classrooms, eventually raising enough money to build a sprawling elementary and high school. By focusing on the next generation, the town followed the advice of an old proverb, which says, “For new birds, you need new eggs” – those who’d grown used to easy drug money might not be saved, but the new generation could be.

Presenting the local history and the town seal of Lerma. The "e" in the town's name is a coca leaf.

Schoolteacher Tocayo presenting the local history and the town seal of Lerma. The “e” in the town’s name is a coca leaf.

“We succeeded in making social change,” explained Tocayo, “but not in economic change.” Instead of two murders a week, Lerma experienced a decade without violent deaths. But the village was still desperately poor. Lerma tried to shift from coca to sugarcane, but the switch was economically disastrous. And so, at least 40 families in Lerma grow coca as part or all of their crop.

Our tour guide, “Gato”, led us up a steep mountain path to a farm in the shadow of El Cerro de Lerma, a 2500m peak that dominates the local skyline. We’d been told we were meeting the largest local landholder, and I’d been expecting an elaborate hacienda. Instead, carefully tended low hedges led us to a small, tidy mud brick house surrounded by what appeared to be wild jungle. Once Celima, the farmer, began pointing out that this tree grew oranges, that one tangerines, a third bananas, did I began to understand that the jungle was the farm. To the trained eye, the apparently random explosion of green was a carefully planned garden. We walked past a shallow fish pond, covered with thick netting to deter birds, through thickets of coffee bushes, yucca and pineapple plants.

Showing off the achiote harvest.

Celimo, showing off the achiote harvest.

Turning a corner past an achiote tree, we entered the coca fields, head-high bushes reaching up to strands of barbed wire strung at 2.5m above ground-level as a trellis for the plants. Planted at the feet of each bush were bean plants – the farmer explained that the beans would climb the coca plants. (Using legumes to fix nitrogen to fertilize other plans is a time-honored technique, reportedly taught to colonial farmers in New England by native Americans. Celimo confirmed that he used almost no commercial fertilizer, not out of a desire to seek organic certification, but because it’s expensive and hard to transport to his fields.)

Local politician Gustavo Muñoz borrowed a machete from the farmer and cut chunks for fresh sugarcane for members of our group. I asked why sugarcane had failed as a commercial crop in Lerma, since it clearly grows well in local soils. The answer is complicated, and helps reveal why crop substitution, the coca-combating philosophy promoted by the Colombian government, is having trouble catching on. First, the farmer explained, the US government had sprayed the entire village with herbicides shortly after they’d converted to sugarcane, seeking to kill remaining coca crops. But beyond that frustrating setback, simple economics lead farmers to grow coca. Our host explained that sugarcane takes a year to mature before you can harvest it, while coca will begin producing harvestable leaves within four months. Sugarcane can be harvested once a year, while coca produces four crops a year. And while sugarcane does poorly in drought, coca is extremely drought-tolerant.

We paused to eat cancherina, a mixture of roasted corn flour, quinoa flour, sugar and coca flour into a gritty powder that’s best eaten while drinking lots of water. It’s traditional traveling food in the Andes, and it was good preparation for the next leg of our trip, a 4km hike further into the mountains to another farm, where we saw a legacy of the failed experiment with sugarcane: an iron press designed to extract cane juice from sugarcane.

The sugar press. All we need is horses. And a way to get the product to market. And a bigger press. And sugarcane that grows four times a year.

The sugar press. All we need is horses. And a way to get the product to market. And a bigger press. And sugarcane that grows four times a year.

The press is designed to be operated by horses who pull poles to turn the heavy gears, an unthinkable luxury for most people in the town. (Our group of twenty takes turns riding three horses on the rocky trails, apparently a large percentage of the local equine supply.) And even this press isn’t up to national standards – to sell cane juice to the national sugar company, Gato explains, the farmer would need a much larger, and much more expensive gas-powered press. And if the government provided funding for a gas-powered sugar press? The heavy, hard to transport cane juice is still 6km from town on a rough muletrack. “And so…” his explanation trails off. And so, we grow coca.

And so, we eat coca. Lunch at the farm is a little like dinner with your hippie friends who insist in putting marijuana in everything they cook. Coca flour accents a rich achiote-driven stew full of sweet corn and potatoes. A coca leaf, carrot and lime salad accents guinea hen over rice, or, for the vegetarians, handmade noodles flecked with coca leaf. Unlike your hippie friends, the campesina women can cook, and we linger over a dessert of corn and pumpkin in coconut milk, talking about the role of farmers in Colombian society, who sometimes see themselves almost as an ethnic group distinct from urban Colombians.

And then we pick coca.

It’s really not hard – bushes grow all around the mud-brick buildings and picking involves stripping the leaves from a branch. In three minutes, we filled a huge basket with leaves, which were transferred to a clay oven over a slow fire. After roasting the leaves for half an hour, our hosts offered an explanation that characterized coca leaves as female and a white rock they’re consumed with is male, encouraging us to put bundles of leaves into our cheeks and slowly soften them with our jaws, then take a pinch of white rock and add it to the mass in our mouths. (It seems likely that the rock is sodium bicarbonate, which activates the alkaloids in the leaves.)

In the coca bushes

The leaves are bitter and tangy, but not unpleasant, and they almost immediately numbed my mouth and tongue. And while I didn’t feel high, I did feel surprisingly good, given that the hike back to town, in midday heat and high altitude, was brutal. Gato explained that the people of Lerma routinely walked to the PanAmerican highway, 20 kilometers from town, to demand services from the central government by blocking that critical route, chewing coca all the way.

As my companions shopped for coca-derived souvenirs, I felt like the trip had opened more questions for me than it had answered. How had this village been spared guerrilla violence since conquering its own demons in the 1980s? Was the lovely and peaceful town we were visiting supported by subsistence farming, or was coca production driving the local economy? And where was all that coca going? We were the largest group of visitors the town had ever received, and Gato reported that small groups came roughly once a month – it doesn’t require all that much coca to produce the “hayu” cookies I took home. (Hayu is the local indigenous word for coca, and part of Lerma’s rebranding campaign involves celebrating the virtues of the local herb, Hayu.)

Gustavo Muñoz, local counselor, sugar cane harvester, caballero.

Gustavo Muñoz, local counselor, sugar cane harvester, caballero.

My translator Juan learned more of the truth talking to politician Gustavo Muñoz as we toured the high school’s computer lab. “I’m Colombian. I know that every place that has coca has a master. Who’s the master in Lerma?” he asked. The answer is both complex and encouraging. M-19, the guerrilla army influential around Lerma, demobilized and became a political party in the late 1980s. When a paramilitary – nominally opposed to the FARC and other guerrilla groups, but often just a front for narcotrafficking and extortion – tried to move into the village in the 1990s, the villagers resisted and the paramilitaries couldn’t get a foothold and moved on.

Between its success story of moving beyond cocaine and alcohol towards peace, and its track record of chasing out paramilitaries, the guerrilla army powerful in southern Cauca – the ELN – tends to treat Lerma with some respect. While two ELN camps are within walking distance of the village, our hosts report that their presence in the village is limited to occasional visits by commanders who share their mobile phone numbers and ask villagers to call if “anyone unusual” – aka, paramilitaries – comes to town.

ELN hasta siempre – ELN forever

We got a sense for just how close the ELN is to Lerma as we left town. Shortly after the dirt road turned back to pavement, but before we hit the Panamerican, we passed a house emblazoned with the graffito “ELN hasta siempre” (ELN forever). Two kilometers later, we passed a government checkpoint.

Just we left Lerma for Popayán, Muñoz pulled me aside for a negotiation, asking me to use my (non-existent) pull with Bogota to ensure the government paved the road into town. I explained that I didn’t have any political power, but that I would write about my visit to Lerma and explain that, with a better road, it would be a remarkable destination for ecotourism, for visitors who wanted to learn more about Colombian agriculture and the cultural use of coca.

That’s all true. What’s also true is that the future of towns like Lerma is critical to the future of Colombia. For more than 50 years, Colombia has faced armed insurgencies whose powerbase is in rural areas hundreds of kilometers from Colombia’s cosmopolitan cities. As long as those villages feel invisible to Bogota, as long as they see no economic options beyond coca, they are likely allies to ELN and any other rebel movements outside the current peace negotiations.

(While the national referendum on the peace process is only weeks away, the subject of the peace vote didn’t come up in Lerma until we brought it up. Our friends assured us that they’d all vote for peace, mostly because former president Uribe is urging his supporters to vote no, and they cordially loathe Uribe.)

While the FARC has come to the table, the ELN has not, and there’s no guarantee that peace with the FARC will force ELN into negotiations. One possibility is that ELN may take in FARC dissidents who’ve rejected peace and become more active in kidnapping and cocaine production. Another is that ELN may remain a small force focused on local grievances and not on the national political process. While FARC’s Marxist politics incline it towards seeking political power in Bogota, ELN was founded by Catholic priests steeped in liberation theology who felt Bogota was not helping the poor. While ELN has become criminal organization engaged in kidnapping for ransom, it’s not hard to imagine sympathy for some of their positions from farmers who feel excluded from Colombia’s economic transitions.

Riding, and limping, into Lerma after visiting a farm in the mountains.

Riding, and limping, into Lerma after visiting a farm in the mountains.

The Colombian state needs a much stronger presence in towns like Lerma if it wants to counter the influence of the ELN, and that presence needs to start with aggressive infrastructure-building and economic development efforts. As we navigated endless switchbacks on our return to the provincial capital, we passed farm after farm selling tangerines, a dozen for $0.30, because there’s no good way to bring their products to national and international markets. It’s just too easy for farmers to make coca paste (a crack-like substance smoked locally as “bazuco”) and sell it to guerrilla armies, paramilitaries or any other broker taking advantage of the consequences of America’s failed drug wars: an increase in price with little reduction of supply.

Coca flour cookies and other Lerma souvenirs

Coca flour cookies and other Lerma souvenirs

Can Lerma find a way to build an economy around legal coca? It seems almost impossible. But this is a town that kicked out guerrillas and paramilitaries, bars and guns while searching for peace. Don’t ever underestimate the people of Lerma.

There’s little written about Lerma available online in English or in Spanish. This 2013 piece in Cali’s El País offers a recounting of Lerma’s origin story. This 1995 story from El Tiempo looks at the role of teachers in transforming the town and notes Lerma’s attempts to become a sugar producer.

Should you go to Lerma? Absolutely, yes! And absolutely not!

Let me explain. On the one hand, Lerma is one of the loveliest villages I’ve visited anywhere in the world, and I learned more about Colombian agriculture and rural development in a single day that I could have imagined. (And I almost tried to kidnap one of the cooks because the food was so good.) However, the roads to Lerma are often closed due to protests. And ELN attacks do still occur in the area. We traveled to Lerma by coordinating closely with CASA, a local organization that works on rural development in Cauca state. If you wanted to visit Lerma, it would be wise to coordinate with a local group that knows the area well.

by Ethan at August 15, 2017 10:06 PM

August 10, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
India Bans the Internet Archive and More Than 2,600 File-Sharing Websites to Protect Bollywood

Internet Archive servers. Image from Flickr by John Blyberg. CC BY 2.0

It seems Bollywood is the reason why the Internet Archive (, an online digital library that allows people to find archived versions of webpages via a free service called the Wayback Machine, is blocked in India.

Since August 8, 2017, many Indians have reported they've been unable to access the Internet Archive. Users have received this message when attempting to go to the site:

Your requested URL has been blocked as per the directions received from the Department of Telecommunications, Government of India. Please contact administrator for more information.

No reason was cited by local internet service providers (ISP) or authorities about the ban.

On August 10, 2017, however, BuzzFeed reported that the ban is the result of two court orders issued by the Madras High Court in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu (accessible here and here). The ruling, issued on August 2, 2017, is based on the petitions of two prominent Bollywood production houses, Red Chillies Entertainment and Prakash Jha Productions, to stop file-sharing websites from distributing pirated copies of two recently released Bollywood movies, “Jab Harry Met Sejal”, and “Lipstick Under My Burkha”.

The Internet Archive is a San Francisco-based non-profit and an advocate of free internet. It has been been archiving the web for over 20 years and has preserved “billions of webpages from millions of websites” with the help of its bots that crawl sites regularly.

The ban was first reported by Indian technology news website MediaNama. According to MediaNama, the Internet Archive contacted the Indian government regarding the block but received no response. The report also mentioned that is blocked, but not

Aside from Internet Archive, more than 2,600 file-sharing websites have also been affected by the court decision. The Bollywood film industry has stepped up the fight against piracy, especially the illegal online streaming of movies.

According to the site Internet Live Stats, India has 462.1 million internet users out of a general population of 1.3 billion people in mid-2016. Given those figures, a blanket ban on websites like Internet Archive has immense reach.

by Global Voices at August 10, 2017 11:08 AM

August 09, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Rights Group Website and Columnist's Blog Become Latest Targets of Egypt's Censorship Campaign

Photo by Flickr user Turinboy (CC BY 2.0)

The Egyptian authorities have continued to block websites, this time targeting the site of a human rights group as well as a columnist's blog.

Over the weekend of August 5, the government blocked the website of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), which documents and reports on human rights violations in Egypt and across the Arab region.

In August 6 statement published on Facebook, the rights group slammed Egyptian authorities for the measure, while pledging to continue its work in support of human rights in the region:

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information – in spite of this attack, which is a mockery of the Egyptian law and constitution by the authorities, who are supposed to respect and uphold the law – remains committed to its mission to defending freedom of expression, human rights in the Arab world, exposing the violations in this part of the world, and speaking up for the victims, which is a role that now comes at a very high price more than ever, yet it also became more important than ever before.

[…] ANHRI confirms that it will seek all technical means to overcome the blocking and will not give in to it, and insists that it will continue to do its role.

ANHRI is the first website belonging to a human rights group in Egypt to be censored, since authorities blocked 21 websites more than two months ago, including the independent news site Mada Masr, the Arabic-language edition of the Huffington Post, and the website of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network, for allegedly “supporting terrorism”.

In addition to ANHRI, the blog of columnist and human rights researcher Ahmed Gamal Ziada is no longer accessible in Egypt. Ziada has been using his blog to disseminate the columns and articles he writes for websites and media blocked in Egypt. Now the blog he set up to bypass the censorship machinery of the Egyptian government has itself been targeted. The blog-publishing service Blogger, which hosts Ziada's blog, remains accessible.

A former photojournalist, Ziada spent nearly 500 days in prison after he was arrested in December 2013 by Egyptian security forces while covering a student protest and taking footage of police beating two students. His articles mainly address politics and the human rights situation in Egypt.

On Facebook, he reflected on the government's blocking of his blog and what it means to him:

موضوع حجب المدونات قديم جدًا، لكنه سابقة في عهد عبد الفتاح السيسي، وبعيد عن إن حجب المدونة شئ لا يهم هذا العالم إلا إنه يهمني لسببين:
1 – إنهم قدروا يحسسوني إني بالفعل محاصر؛ اعتقال، محاولة قتل، استدعاءات أمن وطني، حجب مدونة، بالإضافة لحجب كل موقع أنا اشتغلت فيه.
2 – أثبتوا إني مكنتش بكتب على مية، يعني كلامي مؤثر حتى لو لقطاع صغير من القراء.

* عايز أقول إن المدونة بالنسبة لي كنت بأرشف فيها شغلي مش أكثر، وكنت ابتديت أنشر المقالات عن طريقها تفاديًا للحجب، لكن بعد حجبها وخوفهم من الكلام، إيه المانع إني أغير اللينك بتاعها عشان تشتغل أو اعمل مدونة تانية، والجدع يكمل للآخر.

The [tactic] of blocking blogs is very old, but it is a precedence in the era of [President] Abdelfattah al-Sisi, and apart from the fact that the blocking of the blog may not be of importance to the world, it does matter to me for two reasons:

1) They have made me feel that I am indeed under siege; an arrest, an attempted murder, national security summons, blocking [my] blog in addition to every single website I worked for.

2) They have proved that I was not writing for nothing, in other words, my words have an impact even if it is for a small audience.

I want to mention that the blog was an archive for me. I started using it to post articles to bypass censorship. But, now that they have blocked it, and [shown] that they fear [its] words, I can still change the link or create a second blog. The brave continue till the end.

From May 24 to August 6, Egyptian authorities blocked 133 websites, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), which conducted technical tests on the networks of various Internet Service Providers (ISPs) including Orange, Vodafone and Etisalat. AFTE also documented the blocking of services aimed at bypassing internet censorship and browsing the internet privately, known as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). The association reported in its research:

On Monday the 12th of June, we noticed the beginning of blocking websites that provide VPN services. Such practice points to the intent of the Government to continue blocking and filtering the content that Egyptian users could access.

What makes the situation worse, is that these blocking decisions are taken behind closed doors and without a due process that gives Egyptians the possibility to challenge them in court. Now the question is how far is the Egyptian government willing to take its internet censorship campaign and who is it going to target next.

by Afef Abrougui at August 09, 2017 09:58 AM

August 08, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
‘Troll-in-Chief'? Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Admits Hiring Online Defenders During 2016 Election

Soldiers taking selfie photos with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in an army camp in Mindanao. Photo from the Facebook page of Presidential Communications (Government of the Philippines).

A University of Oxford study has caused uproar in the Philippines for examining the administration of Rodrigo Duterte's efforts to manipulate social media through trolling and fake accounts. The findings confirmed what government critics have long suspected while stirring harsh denials by the president's supporters.

Duterte himself, however, later said in a press conference that he had in fact hired online commenters during the election.

Entitled “Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation”, the July 2017 study by Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard focused on the use of cyber troops or troll armies by governments, the military, and political parties in 28 countries.

The researchers made an inventory of the kinds of messaging, tools and communications strategies used across countries as well as the different organizational forms that were deployed by those in power to manipulate public opinion through social media.

They found that in the Philippines, pro-Duterte trolls were engaged in flooding social media with pro-government comments while harassing and trolling social media users with contrary opinions by using of fake accounts and automated bots.

Evaluating the capacities of specific organizations created for gathering cyber troops, the Oxford study outlined that Duterte’s machinery for the 2016 elections not only relied on civil society volunteers and paid citizens, but also hired a private contractor: Nic Gabunada, former advertising executive and former senior vice-president of TV giant ABS-CBN.

Also assessing the organizational capacity of the Duterte cyber army in terms of staffing and budget, the researchers discovered that it is characterized by ad hoc membership with coordination across teams. As much as 200,000 US dollars or roughly 10 million Philippine pesos has been spent to fund the Duterte troll army, which has a regular staff capacity of 400-500 individuals, according to the study.

And as if to confirm the findings of the study, social media trolls and pro-Duterte bloggers quickly took to social media to condemn the Oxford study and Oxford University, flooding the institution’s Facebook page with acerbic posts.

Screenshot of University of Oxford's Facebook page being flooded with pro-Duterte comments.

In a press conference, Duterte admitted that he did hire online defenders but only for the 2016 election campaign:

P10 million ang gastos ko? Ako? Sa election siguro, sa elections ma'am more than…They were all during the campaign.

I spent P10 million? Me? Maybe during the elections, in the elections ma'am, I spent more than that…They were all during the campaign.

Dismissing the idea that government is bankrolling an online army to dominate social media, Duterte swore that he had no more need for defenders online:

Pero ngayon, hindi ko na kailangan [But now, I do not need it]. I do not need to defend myself against attacks. I stated my piece during my inauguration and my campaign.

To cap his spiel, Duterte, tagged by critics as the country's “troll-in-chief” and biggest bully, also attacked Oxford University, one of the world’s leading higher education institutions:

Oxford University? Eskwelahan sa mga bobo ‘yan ah.

Oxford University? That's a school for the stupid people.

But an official of the president's political party denied that the campaign team hired online trolls during the 2016 election:

In the end, it would be best to take Duterte’s outbursts with a grain of salt. With his government regularly being hit for spreading falsehoods and the military establishment itself being criticized for propagating fake news in its counterinsurgency wars, what we now know may just be the tip of the iceberg.

by Karlo Mikhail Mongaya at August 08, 2017 11:29 AM

August 06, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Jailed for Journalism: A Profile of Detained Reporters in Myanmar

(Left to right) The Voice Daily chief editor Kyaw Min Swe, Myanmar Now chief editor Ko Swe Win, The Irrawaddy senior reporter Lawi Weng, DVB senior reporter Ko Aye Nai, and DVB reporter Pyae Phone Aung. / The Irrawaddy

This edited article is from The Irrawaddy, an independent news website in Myanmar, and is republished by Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

The arrest of esteemed investigative reporter Ko Swe Win at Yangon International Airport on the evening of Sunday July 30, 2017, temporarily raised the total number of journalists detained in Myanmar for doing their job since June to five.

Out of the five, Ko Swe Win, the chief editor of news agency Myanmar Now, is the only one who is not being sued by the military—instead, a follower of the banned nationalist group Ma Ba Tha is prosecuting him for posting on Facebook an article which criticized ultranationalist monk U Wirathu.

Ko Swe Win has since been granted bail from Maha Aung Myay Township Court in Mandalay, but his four colleagues are still imprisoned.

All of the arrests are directly linked to the work of the reporters, exacerbating fears of a clampdown on independent media and casting serious doubts over whether the country is opening a new chapter on press freedom.

Ko Swe Win, Chief Editor, Myanmar Now

Former political prisoner Ko Swe Win, 39, was a senior reporter for The Irrawaddy from 2010-2012. Last year, he was honored by the government for his reporting on the abuse suffered by two child maids in a Yangon tailor shop. He was charged under Article 66(d) after Mandalay resident U Kyaw Myo Shwe, a follower of ultranationalist monk U Wirathu, claimed the chief correspondent insulted the monk in a Facebook post. Later in March 2017, Ko Swe Win faced a second lawsuit for comments made at a press conference concerning the Article 66(d) charge. That same month, the journalist was threatened by three unidentified men.

U Kyaw Min Swe, Chief Editor, The Voice Daily & Weekly

U Kyaw Min Swe, 47, has worked for The Voice Daily for 18 years and is currently chief editor. He was arrested, along with satire columnist Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing, after the Myanmar language publication printed an article which questioned the country’s military policies and the peace process. The pair were charged under both Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act and Article 25(b) of the Media Law, after Lieutenant Colonel Lin Tun of the Myanmar Army filed a suit against them at the Bahan Township police station on May 17, 2017. Ko Kyaw Zwa Naing was later released. [UPDATE: Kyaw Min Swe was released on bail on August 4.]

Lawi Weng, Senior Reporter, The Irrawaddy

Since joining The Irrawaddy a decade ago, Lawi Weng, 39, has been at the forefront—and often the frontline—of reporting on ethnic conflicts in Myanmar. In the past year, he has reported on the Northern Alliance offensive in northern Shan State and clashes between the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and the Myanmar Army-aligned Border Guard Force in Kachin State. On July 28, 2017, the judge presiding over the case accepted the bail request and said he would rule at the next court date on Aug. 4. [UPDATE: The court denied the petition to release the accused.]

Ko Aye Nai, Senior Reporter, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB)

Veteran reporter Ko Aye Nai, 52, has been working for DVB for 11 years, some of them spent in Chiang Mai, Thailand, while the news outlet was in exile. He, along with Lawi Weng and Ko Pyae Phone Aung, were charged under Article 17(1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act for contacting an ethnic armed group, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and were placed in detention in Hsipaw prison. They face sentences of up to three years. “We don’t even have a pen sharp enough to be a weapon,” he said at the first court hearing. “We can die any time by stepping on landmines or being shot. We take risks for our work.”

Ko Pyae Phone Aung, Assistant Broadcast Journalist, DVB

24-year-old reporter Ko Pyae Phone Aung joined DVB one year ago. The journalist's first appearance as a video broadcaster was initially scheduled for July 11, 2017, but he was arrested on June 26, along with Ko Aye Nai and Lawi Weng in Namhsan, on the way back from covering a drug-burning ceremony held by the TNLA to mark the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Abuse.

by The Irrawaddy at August 06, 2017 02:23 AM

Thai Journalist and Two Other Critics of Military-Led Government Face Sedition Charges Over Facebook Posts

From left to right: Pravit Rojanaphruk, Watana Muangsook, and Pichai Naripthaphan.

In the past week, three Facebook users in Thailand were charged with sedition over posts criticizing the military-led government.

Veteran journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk, Watana Muangsook of the Pheu Thai political party, and former energy minister Pichai Naripthaphan were informed by the police about the sedition charges.

The military grabbed power in 2014 and continues to rule the country through a Constitution it passed in 2016. Aside from strictly regulating the media, it has been aggressively prosecuting individuals accused of either insulting the monarchy or criticizing the junta. Thailand implements a Lese Majeste (anti-Royal Insult) law, which critics believe is being abused by the army to silence dissident voices.

Pravit, a senior reporter for the news website Khaosod English, wrote on August 1, 2017 about how he learned of his sedition case:

I received a call from the Deputy Superintendent of the Technology Crime Suppression Division informing me at about 6.40pm that a police of the rank of Police Lieutenant Colonel is charging me of violating sedition law through an estimate 5 Facebook postings. I insist that I criticize the military regime in good faith […] I will continue to criticize the illegitimate military regime until they take away my smartphone.

The police didn’t inform him which of the Facebook posts he wrote have been deemed seditious by the government.

Pravit was previously ‘invited’ by the army to undergo an ‘attitude-adjustment’ session. This unusual detention is the army’s way of dealing with perceived critics in the media and academe.

If found guilty, Pravit can be detained for up to 20 years.

Pichai, meanwhile, served under the former prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is currently facing a corruption case. According to Khaosod English, Pichai posted the following status update on Facebook, which he claimed he wrote with ‘sincere intentions’:

If the government does not solve it in time, the economic situation will keep deteriorating, like a frog in a pot that gradually boils. I hope the Thai government and Thai people will realize this in time, and be the frog that leaps out before the water boils.

Watana is another member of the Yingluck admnistration who is accused by the police of misleading the public about the justice system and the military-led government through a post he uploaded on Facebook.

Both Pichai and Watana were members of the ruling party before the military staged a coup in 2014.

The two politicians were charged in the same week that Yingluck faced the court on corruption charges related to a rice subsidy scheme, prompting some to wonder whether the charges are meant to silence Yingluck's supporters.

News about the filing of sedition cases against junta critics prompted some Twitter users to comment about the restriction of free speech in the country:

One tweet mentioned Prayut, the former army chief who led the 2014 coup and is now the country's prime minister:

The filing of these three separate charges — in the past week alone — against prominent critics of the junta, adds to the growing uncertainty as to whether the military-led government is ready to restore civilian rule and democracy in the country.

by Mong Palatino at August 06, 2017 01:59 AM

August 05, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Behind Bars for 30 Days: EU Leaders Condemn Turkey's Detention of #Istanbul10

Activists in Brussels welcome the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs. Photo shared on Twitter by @@marianne_koch.

A group of human rights defenders have been in jail in Turkey since July 5, after being arrested during a digital security and information management workshop on one of Istanbul’s islands, Buyukada.

Their arrest was met with widespread condemnation from governments and institutions around the world,  and by fellow human rights defenders on social media.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke about the case on July 18, offering solidarity to the group and voicing full support to detainee and German citizen Peter Steudtner:

Wir sind der festen Überzeugung, dass diese Verhaftung absolut ungerechtfertigt ist. Wir werden seitens der Bundesregierung alles tun, auf allen Ebenen, um seine Freilassung zu erwirken.

We are firmly convinced that this arrest is absolutely unjustified. The German government will do all it can, on all levels, to secure his release.

After the ruling that six of the ten rights defenders, including Swedish citizen Ali Gharavi and German citizen Peter Steudtner, would remain in pre-trial custody, the German foreign office summoned the Turkish Ambassador to visit Berlin. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel issued this statement, referring to the other 22 German citizens who have been arrested in Turkey since the attempted coup last year, nine of whom are still on remand:

We regard their detention as excessive and illegal. In each case, we have had to fight for consular access, which is a right guaranteed under international law…. things cannot go on this way. We cannot continue as before. We need to be clearer than we have been so that those responsible in Ankara understand that this type of policy will have consequences…. We demand the release of Peter Steudtner, Deniz Yücel and Meşale Tolu, unlimited consular access, and swift and fair trials for them and the other Germans accused of political crimes.

Gabriel also indicated that travel advice to German citizens would be updated accordingly with information about what could happen to German citizens if they travel to Turkey in the current climate, encouraging them to “exercise caution.”

Other members of the German government have offered support for Steudtner and the group, with the Chairman of the Human Rights Committee writing letters to the Turkish Ambassador to Germany and describing the arrests of this group and of the director of the Turkish section of Amnesty International, Taner Kiliç, as “in no way comprehensible.”

In Sweden, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström issued a statement, with particular attention to Ali Gharavi, one of the detained trainers who is a Swedish citizen:

Det är vår uppfattning att Gharavi befann sig i Turkiet för att delta i ett fredligt seminarium om internetfrihet och mänskliga rättigheter och vi har uppmanat Turkiet att skyndsamt klargöra grunderna för anklagelserna mot honom.)

It is our opinion that Gharavi was in Turkey to attend a peaceful seminar on internet freedom and human rights and we have urged Turkey to quickly clarify the grounds for charges against him.

On July 21, the EU Delegation to the Council of Europe issued a EU local statement:

The EU expresses its serious concern over these arrests, one month after the detention of the Chair of Amnesty International in Turkey, Taner Kiliç. It echoes the concerns expressed by Nils Muižnieks, Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, that “the use of criminal proceedings against human rights defenders for conduct that should be protected under the European Convention on Human Rights is unfortunately an increasingly frequent phenomenon in Turkey.

In a press briefing, the European Commission called for the “immediate release” of the group, calling the detentions part of a “deeply worrying pattern” of imprisonment in Turkey.

A group of UN experts, including the Special Rapporteurs for freedom of peaceful assembly and association; the situation of human rights defenders;  and the independence of judges and lawyers, issued a statement through UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, saying that the arrests were: …having the effect of curtailing people’s rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and is particularly alarming.”

Other United Nations agencies have expressed their stance against the arrests too,  including UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who wrote on July 18:

I accordingly call on the Government of Turkey to immediately release the arrested women’s rights and human rights activists and to provide its support to those, like women’s human rights defenders, who work for the good of their societies.

From the UK, the Minister for Europe, Sir Alan Duncan wrote:

We continue to urge the Turkish authorities to uphold international standards with regard to the rule of law, including the presumption of innocence, and to protect fundamental rights including freedom of expression and assembly.

British MP David Lammy pointed to the persistent lack of evidence to support the charges against the group in his open letter, published on July 14.

On social media, people continue to share links calling for their freedom, including a petition from Amnesty International which has nearly 25,000 signatures, using the hashtags #FreeRightsDefenders, #Istanbul10 and #HakSavunucularınaDokunma.

Amnesty International has organised protests across the world, from Kyiv to Paris, Brussels, Kathmandu, and many more cities worldwide.

Learn more about the detained human rights defenders, and sign the petition to support their release.

by Zara Rahman at August 05, 2017 03:19 PM

August 04, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
‘With Empty Hands But Deep Beliefs,’ Jamal Hosseini Lost His Life Fighting for Human Rights in Iran

Seyed Jamal Hosseini during the very first days of HRAI’s activities in Van, Turkey. Image via HRANA, published with permission.

Activism against repressive governments can often come with life-changing risks. Prison, torture, censorship and exile. Leaving behind your family and the country you call home, only to face the alienation and loneliness of life as a political refugee.

The decision to speak out may have cost Iranian human rights activist Seyed Jamal Hosseini his life.

Jamal, the editor in chief of Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) and the co-founder of Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRAI), spent the majority of his days in exile at his desk in a small apartment in Turkey. His tireless efforts earned him respect among Iranians inside and outside of the country, while making him the target of the Iranian authorities.

On the evening of 4 August, 2014 Jamal never left his desk. His lifeless body was discovered by the police the next day.

To date the circumstances of his death remain shrouded in mystery. No official cause of death for Jamal has ever been found by Turkish authorities, despite an extensive investigation and autopsy. 

On the third anniversary of his death, we are reminded of the sacrifices and dangers faced by political activists in the region. Those activists who maintain their beliefs and resolve to carry on their activities and struggle. Jamal’s story is one of many. His story exemplifies the loneliness of exile, and of those activists who refuse to fade into obscurity or silence their passion to stand up to injustice. He led a life in limbo as a refugee. With his death came the injustice that often surrounds the many senseless deaths associated with repressive authorities.

Roots of resistance in Iran

Jamal’s own passion for political change began at a young age.  His uncle was one of many thousands of activists executed by the Iranian regime in the massacre of political prisoners in 1988. This was his first introduction to the harsh realities of justice in Iran.

Seyed Jamal Hosseini in his home in Turkey. [Photo courtesy of HRANA]

As part of the first generation of Iranians to utilize the Internet as a political tool, Jamal penned numerous blog posts sharply critical of the regime. At night he distributed dissident literature in the city of Zanjan and was a part of Iran’s student protest movements – eventually leading to his brief imprisonment. In 2005, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence identified Jamal’s blogs and raided his home in his absence. At the age of 24, Jamal knew his time in Iran had come to an end and left for Turkey.

In 2006, Jamal and Keyvan Rafiee co-founded Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRAI), which included the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA). Jamal served as an important bridge between underground activists in Iran and a broader community of human rights activists around the globe.

Jamal was instrumental in the operation of HRAI. His duties ranged from technical and administrative work, to writing, reporting and translating. Jamal insisted in advocating for all Iranians, regardless of differences in their backgrounds or ideological beliefs.

“Jamal’s most notable legacy is ‘human rights for all’, which was demonstrated through his work for all sectors, religions and ethnic groups in Iran,” Rafiee told Global Voices.

During the 2009 presidential election HRANA was among the main organizations providing human rights news to the international community and detailing the arrests of political activists. The Iranian regime struck back in 2010 with a systematic and widespread attack against HRAI and its members. State forces rounded up HRAI activists in Iran, a move the ultimately forced HRAI’s budding operation to move its network and infrastructure outside of Iran.

Exile and death in Turkey

Jamal did not seek to promote himself or gain power. He was after neither money nor praise. Jamal maintained that with “empty hands but deep beliefs” he would continue the struggle for human rights along with those inside and outside of the country.

Jamal was the subject of numerous direct threats by the Iranian government. He began receiving anonymous phone calls in 2007. In 2010, this escalated to warnings from the Turkish Ministry of Intelligence.

Rafiee recalls that Jamal made a conscious decision to continue his path despite the threats he faced:

Jamal viewed the difficult moments of his life as a natural consequence of the path he had chosen as an activist. Therefore, he never wanted his body to be returned to Iran if he died, as he wanted to remind others to accept and remain honest about the consequences of their activism.

Today, three years after his passing, his death remains unexplained. A 15-page report by Turkish authorities claimed that the cause of death was inconclusive, because there was a delay in the autopsy, despite the fact that drops of blood were found on him and around his apartment. Friends and family members continue to maintain that Jamal was a healthy individual and that there was no evidence of a ‘natural’ death.

The Iranian regime has a long history of targeting political dissidents abroad, particularly in Turkey. This included a spate of extrajudicial killings in the 1990s, and reports that its embassy staff was engaged in spying and kidnapping within the country. One political prisoner Jamal wrote about was Hojat Zamani, a dissident who escaped to Turkey and was sent back to Iran by the Turkish authorities, only to be executed by the regime in 2003. 

Honoring Jamal's work and mission

Rafiee fondly recalls the evenings he spent with Jamal, sitting behind a keyboard quietly working into the night. “No day goes by that we do not think of Jamal and his dedication.”

As HRANA seeks to continue their activities and Rafiee notes that Jamal serves as an inspiration and an ideal “behind every report we publish, every hardship we endure.”

In an era in which politics is dominated by individual agendas for power and control, Jamal stands out as a testament to quiet resolve and dedication. He demonstrated that in any corner of the world, an individual, however isolated, can use the tools around him to make a difference and challenge the legitimacy of a repressive regime.

Jamal’s legacy is important not only as a symbol of sacrifice but as a reminder that the struggle for human rights continues in Iran, with those on the front lines paying the ultimate price in order to stand up for what they believe in.

by Hamid Yazdan Panah at August 04, 2017 03:49 PM

Five Days After His Essay Went Viral, Chinese Author Apologizes for ‘Imprecise’ Writing on Beijing's Economic Boom

Beijing city. Image from Flickr Michel_china CC: AT-SA-NC.

In other parts of the world, a writer might be thrilled if their online post was read millions of times overnight. But in China, popularity can result in political pressure, especially if the writer is not following the Chinese Communist Party's ideological line.

Recently, Zhang Wumao, the author of a hit essay titled “In Beijing, 20 Million People Pretend to Live” (read the full English translation on Beijing Cream), was forced to apologize to the public for “spreading negative energy.” Less than a day after the essay was posted on a WeChat public account, it had been viewed more than five million times.

Writer Zhang Guochen was born in China's western Shaanxi province, and moved to Beijing at the age of 25 in 2006. He began blogging soon after and has since published two novels: Spring Is Burning and Princess's Tomb. Zhang writes under the pen name Zhang Wumao (“50 cents” in Chinese) likely in reference to China's government-sponsored internet commenters.

Zhang's viral essay commented on Beijing's rapid economic and architectural development and rising economic inequality. It highlights the difficult lives of millions of internal migrants who do not have registered homes in Beijing and therefore do not have the safety net that inherited properties often become for native Beijingers.

Below are excerpts of the essay translated by Megan Pan on Beijing Cream:

Beijingers are very busy, busy all the way until 11 o’clock at night, and even then they are still stuck in traffic on the Third Ring Road; the time cost of socializing in Beijing is too high


I feel complete indifference for this city’s awesome structures and long history. Climbing the Great Wall, I only think of Lady Meng Jiang [who wept for her husband who died building the Great Wall], finding it difficult to stir up that lofty pride for the wonders of the world once more; walking into the Forbidden Palace, I see only one empty building after another, which is even less lively and interesting than my hometown’s pigpen.


In Beijing, this generation of migrants without inherited property are destined to be trapped within the housing system their whole lives. They struggle for decades to buy a house the size of a birdcage, then struggle a few more decades to swap it out for a slightly bigger second house, and if you make strides, congratulations, you can now consider school district housing.


Those who have successfully achieved their dreams are currently fleeing to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the west coast of America. Those who have chased their dreams in vain are also fleeing, they are returning to Hebei, Dongbei, and their hometowns.

And in this city remain 20 million people, pretending to live. In reality, there is no life in this city. Here, there are only the dreams of few and the work of many.

Zhang's essay resonated with a large number of netizens, in particular those who work or have worked in Beijing. Housing prices have soared in Beijing in the past few years, with rates sometimes rising by 5-6% per week, and down payments are as high as 80% for some buyers. For the young working class, it has become more and more difficult to afford a mortgage for a small apartment in Beijing.

Morning rush hour in Beijing. Photo released to public domain.

Some echoed Zhang's view by writing about their own Beijing experience, while others rebuked his stereotypes of “old Beijingers”, in particular the claim that single children born in Beijing have five properties inherited from their grandparents and parents.

The essay was republished on a number of online media outlets. But on July 25, it disappeared from all social media accounts and websites.

Commentary from Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily attacked the essay as “bizarre hype”:


This essay is classic case of bizarre hype. First, attach the label, then stir up emotion. Beijing is not a city with hospitality, old Beijingers are sitting on five properties, 20 million people pretend to live…

The piece stressed that the Beijingers’ struggles are simply what come with beginning a new life, not the result of “pretending” to have a life.

Another commentary piece published by government news outlet Xinhua also accused Zhang of sensationalizing the general problem of urbanization as something specific to the capital city.

Zhang apologized in a July 28 interview with a local media outlet, five days after the essay went viral. In his interview with local media outlets, he said he was under a lot of pressure after the post went viral and he wanted to apologize for acting like a spoiled kid and being “imprecise” in his writing.

The deletion of the post and the author's apology provoked an angry backlash on social media, denouncing the authorities’ suppression of his work. Below are some comments from a news thread on Weibo:


Why apologize? Chinese people have to watch the news on Chinese Central Television (CCTV) only because news of ‘negative energy’ can't be spoken.


Why does he need to apologize? Could it be that the article resonated among thousands of migrants in Beijing? Is it because the author disturbed the public's dreams?

暂不论文章对错 写个文章居然要道歉 呵呵 下次该文字狱了吧

Whether you agree or not, there is no way that the writer of the piece has to apologize in public. A literary inquisition is coming.

The disappearance of Zhang's essay and his subsequent apology come as no surprise in China's current political climate, where authorities have tightened internet controls to ensure social stability in the run-up to a pivotal power reshuffle at the communist party congress in November. WeChat and Weibo have been subject to more severe censorship to make sure that the online public sphere is full of pro-government voices.

by Ellery Roberts Biddle at August 04, 2017 01:57 PM

August 03, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: Tech Community Mourns Open Source Activist Executed in Syria

FreeBassel campaign posters by #FreeBassel Campaign and Kallie Taylor.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

This week, open technology and knowledge advocates around the world mourned the execution of Bassel Khartabil, an open web advocate and close friend of many in the Global Voices community. Bassel was reportedly sentenced to death in November 2015, at which point his whereabouts and condition became unknown. His wife Noura Ghazi learned this week that he was executed in 2015.

Khartabil spearheaded the open source technology movement in Syria, as an avid contributor to global projects like Creative Commons and Wikipedia, and as co-founder of the country’s first open technology lab in Damascus. To honor his country’s historic past, he worked with technologists and architects to virtually reconstruct the ancient city of Palmyra, in hopes of reviving its historical notoriety.

Like so many other peaceful technology developers and activists in Syria and beyond, Khartabil was accused of “harming state security.”  In a December 2012 military field court proceeding, he was interrogated by a judge, but to his family’s knowledge, never received further word on the status of his case.

In The Cost of Freedom: A Collective Inquiry, a book of essays and poems written by artists, thinkers and technologists who knew Bassel, his wife Noura Ghazi reflected on his spirit:

I’ve lived all my life dreaming of Freedom, and Bassel taught me to embrace it…. He has always shared his knowledge with everyone who asked, and has also taught many prisoners to read, write, and speak English. Bassel opened the door to technology for me, he taught me to use both computers and smartphones. He taught me the Internet. He also taught other prisoners to use computers theoretically, without having one in their hands.

Vietnamese blogger sentenced to nine years in prison

In a one-day trial on July 25, the People’s Court in Vietnam’s Hà Nam province sentenced Trần Thị Nga to nine years in prison and five years of house arrest for “conducting propaganda against the State.” The 40-year-old Nga, also known by her pen name Thúy Nga, is a prominent advocate for migrants and land rights. She has also been documenting and campaigning against police brutality on her Facebook page and her YouTube channel. Nga has been frequently intimidated and physically attacked by police for her work.

Facebookers in Kashmir and Brunei pay high prices for ‘anti-national’ speech

A man in Kashmir was detained by police after allegedly writing “anti-national” posts on Facebook. Local residents complained to police about the posts, which appeared after India lost to Pakistan in an international cricket competition. An officer told the Kashmir Observer “We are running a check on whether this person has links with any terror outfit or not. We are also scanning his activities on social networking sites.”

A government employee in Brunei was charged with violating the Sedition Act after he complained on Facebook about new Halal certification regulations released by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Global Voices’ Mong Palatino explained that given Brunei’s stringent media regulations, issues related to civil liberties are not often discussed online. “That's why the [online] conversation about Shahiran's case provides a rare glimpse of how some netizens think about the situation in the country today,” he wrote.

Tech companies respond to state concerns over terrorism on social media

In an effort to more closely examine this connection, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism convened this week in San Francisco. Formed by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, the Forum includes representatives from the tech industry, government, and NGOs to discuss and respond to critiques from the European Commission and other governments that tech companies need to do more to combat terrorism and hate speech on their platforms.

However, activists are criticizing the companies for failing to distinguish between hate speech and genuine criticism. Minority groups in the US report being disproportionately censored when they use social media to call out racism by other users, even when their posts repeat and criticize, word for word, the uncensored hateful posts sent to them by other users. Stacey Patton, a journalism professor at Morgan State University, told the Washington Post:

In the era of mass incarceration, you come into this digital space — this one space that seems safe — and then you get attacked by the trolls and put in Facebook jail. It totally contradicts Mr. Zuckerberg’s mission to create a public square.

Fake news flourishes on Free Basics

New research by Global Voices shows that Free Basics, the “free” mobile version of Facebook, makes it difficult for users to assess the reliability of news articles. The app only allows users to read headlines and the captions of photos, stripping away valuable context that helps users determine the validity of the information in a news report. Given the proliferation of copycat websites spreading fake news, this makes it easier for Free Basics users to spread false information without realizing it.

Forget censorship — Tajikistan will monitor the web instead

Tajikistan’s parliament passed a set of amendments to the country’s criminal law that grant security services the right to monitor and control citizens’ online activities. This includes keeping detailed records of SMS and mobile messages, social media comments, and anyone who visits websites deemed “undesirable”, though it is unclear what sites would qualify. The law also criminalizes making comments that could damage someone’s personal honor or undermine national security, with a minimum punishment of two years in jail. The legislation marks a shift in approach for the Tajik government, away from using censorship to ban controversial websites and services, instead opting to monitor citizens’ activities across the web.

Palestinian Authority rushes through cybercrime bill

On June 24, Palestine passed a new law regulating online transactions, media websites and social networking sites. The law outlines a number of “cybercrimes” that can be punished by up to 15 years in prison or hard labor for life. While it lists a few cybercrimes that should be fought at all costs such as sextortion, fiscal fraud, and identity theft, it also gives the public prosecutor's office unlimited powers to surveil Palestinian citizens, intercept their online communications, and arrest them for airing their opinions and political views online. The law was approved by President Mahmoud Abbas just two weeks later, with no opportunity for input from civil society.

Apple axes VPNs in China

Apple informed customers it will take down VPN services from its app store in China to bring it into compliance with the government’s crackdown on companies offering VPN services to the general public. However, Chinese users can still download and continue using such apps as ExpressVPN if their Apple accounts are registered in overseas app stores with a billing address outside of China.

New Research

  • RECKLESS IV: Lawyers for Murdered Mexican Women’s Families Targeted with NSO Spyware – Citizen Lab


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by Netizen Report Team at August 03, 2017 09:34 PM

No More Jailed Journalists in Macedonia: Zoran Božinovski Free on Bail After 15-Month Detention

Zoran Božinovski leaving the prison, July 15, 2017. Photo by Association of Journalists of Macedonia, used with permission.

On July 14, the Skopje Criminal Court ended the 15-month detention of journalist Zoran Božinovski who was facing charges of criminal association, espionage and blackmail.

Božinovski was released at request of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

The controversial journalist ran a muckraking web portal, which had published leaked information implicating Macedonian politicians in corruption.

He caught the wrath of authorities in 2012 when he became one of 18 defendants in a case code-named “Spy,” which accused a group of people — including former intelligence and police officers, the former director of the Office for Combating Money Laundering, and the former head of cabinet of the president of the Parliament — of spying on behalf of Greece and Hungary.

In 2013 Božinovski was arrested in Serbia where he had sought political asylum, and in April 2016 he was extradited to Macedonia.

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) has struggled to secure the release of imprisoned reporters in Macedonia, including other high profile cases of “selective justice,” like Tomislav Kežarovski, who was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison in 2013, over a 2008 news article in which he revealed flaws of the government's investigation of the death of another journalist, Nikola Mladenov. He spent two and a half years in prison and house arrest until the Appellate Court reduced his sentence.

АЈМ demanded that Božinovski be released from detention too, through continuous public appeals. The other suspects in the same case were released from detention years ago, while the case had been stalled and restarted.

Božinovski's supporters claim the case against him is retaliation for and its implications for Macedonian political leaders.

After Božinovski's release from jail on July 15, AJM released a statement noting that Božinovski's detention made Macedonia the only country in the Balkans region with a journalist behind bars. “Keeping a journalist in detention for almost three years is absolutely unheard of in free and democratic countries,” the statement read.

“Bozinovski's release will separate Macedonia from the group of authoritarian countries in Europe, which includes Turkey, Russia and Azerbaijan, where journalists are constantly persecuted,” said AJM President Naser Selmanin.

Critics of the former Macedonian government, which ruled until May 2017, claim that the whole “Spy” case had been staged for domestic political purposes and selective persecution of individuals targeted by the regime. There is no public record of former government figures accusing EU members Hungary and Greece of undertaking hostile espionage activities towards Macedonia.

The former government, run by right-wing VMRO-DPMNE party, even boasted close ties with Hungarian PM Viktor Orban and gave him a medal of merit just months after it initiated proceedings in the “Spy” case.

On Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, Macedonia slid from 34th place to 123rd place within a period of only five years. Graph presenting the country rank and the average rank for the Western Balkans (WB) region by Metamorphosis using RWB data, via the Internet Freedom Network.

Macedonia suffered severe backsliding from democracy over the last decade, due to state capture performed by the ruling party. It received criticism from international human rights defenders, including the OSCE Representative for Freedom of the Media, for using the judiciary to silence independent media.

The new government has vowed to redeem these wrongs and bring the country back to the path of European integration through comprehensive reforms that will be overseen by the European Union. But the hurdles of bureaucracy, legal loopholes and entrenched support for the former regime within state institutions will make this a long road.

by Marko Angelov at August 03, 2017 07:29 PM

Will Palestine's New Cybercrime Law Pave the Way for More Rights Violations?

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

In a state of secrecy and lack of transparency, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently approved a new cybercrime law that further tightens the noose on Palestinians’ freedom of expression and privacy online.

Palestinian media and civil society organizations have slammed the new law and called for its immediate freeze until it is publicly debated and amended. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, the Independent Committee for Human Rights and the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, among others, have protested the approval of this law given its dangerous implications on Palestinian civil and political freedoms.

The law was prepared discreetly and approved on 24 June 2017 without holding prior discussions with Palestinian civil society organizations and internet service providers. Two weeks later, it was published and enacted with immediate effect as stipulated by the law's Article 61, breaking away from the legal tradition of leaving 30 days before a new law becomes active. Since the Palestinian Legislative Council was shut down in 2007 due to political division, President Mahmoud Abbas has abused his legislative power, which according to the Palestinian Basic Law allows him to approve laws only in case of emergencies.

The new law regulates online transactions, media websites and social networking sites, outlining a number of “cybercrimes” that can be punished by up to 15 years in prison or hard labor for life. While it lists a few cybercrimes that should be fought at all costs such as sextortion, fiscal fraud, and identity theft, it also gives the public prosecutor's office unlimited powers to surveil Palestinian citizens, intercept their online communications, and arrest them for airing their opinions and political views online.

Social Media Exchange (SMEX), which maintains a database on laws that affect digital rights in the Arab world, highlighted in a statement three of the law's highly problematic articles that threaten free speech online and civil and political rights:

  • Article 51 of the law states that, “if a crime is committed online and harms ‘national unity’ or ‘social harmony,’ it will be punishable” by hard labor, ranging between three and 15 years, a sentence impacting all those who partook in the crime.
  • Articles 32 mandates internet service providers to cooperate with security agencies by collecting, storing, and sharing users’ information data for at least three years, in addition to blocking any website on the orders of the judiciary.
  • Article 40 allows the Attorney General or one of his assistants to request the court to issue an order to block any website within 24 hours.
The threat of the cybercrime law, however, doesn't end here. Other potentially oppressive articles include:
  • Article 16 states that anyone who violates ‘public manners’ online could be sentenced to prison for one year, or fined up to 7,000 USD, or both.
  • Article 20 similarly punishes any internet user that owns or manages a website that publishes “news that endanger state safety, its public order, or internal or external security.” Anyone who shares these news could be imprisoned for a year or fined up to around 1,400 USD.
  • Article 31 outlaws any attempt to bypass website blocking or use any system or app to access a blocked website.
  • Articles 35 mandates the court to give the Public Prosecutor's office the right to monitor and record online communications as well as obtaining any log-in data it deems necessary for investigations.
With these references to the importance of ‘social harmony’, ‘public manners’, ‘state security’ and ‘public order’, the law's broad, loosely-defined terms may make Palestinian internet users, especially activists and journalists, vulnerable to prosecution by the Palestinian Authority who can interpret these terms as they wish.

Furthermore, the enforcement of this law extends to outside of the judicial borders of the Palestinian Authority territories and allows for the prosecution of Palestinians living abroad in case they have committed a “cybercrime” as per the definition of the law. This constitutes an imminent threat on Palestinian political activists who are based abroad but have a very wide influence on social media at home. The law does not specify whether the authorities would seek to extradite Palestinians based abroad for committing a cybercrime.

 The law was approved amid multiple violations of Palestinian digital rights and media freedoms committed by the Palestinian Authority. Mousa Rimawi, the Director of the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms which documents such violations pointed that in June this year, the PA violations have surpassed the violations of the Israeli occupation forces which have been responsible for attacking and arresting journalists in the West Bank for doing their job. The latest incidents of the PA's violation of online freedoms included the arrest of several journalists in the West Bank for what they have written on their Facebook pages, and the blocking of more than 20 news sites that belong to political rivals and critics.


by Marwa Fatafta at August 03, 2017 02:06 PM

August 02, 2017

danah boyd
How “Demo-or-Die” Helped My Career

I left the Media Lab 15 years ago this week. At the time, I never would’ve predicted that I learned one of the most useful skills in my career there: demo-or-die.

(Me debugging an exhibit in 2002)

The culture of “demo-or-die” has been heavily critiqued over the years. In doing so, most folks focus on the words themselves. Sure, the “or-die” piece is definitely an exaggeration, but the important message there is the notion of pressure. But that’s not what most people focus on. They focus on the notion of a “demo.”

To the best that anyone can recall, the root of the term stems back from early days at the Media Lab, most likely because of Nicholas Negroponte’s dismissal of “publish-or-perish” in academia. So the idea was to focus not on writing words but producing artifacts. In mocking what it was that the Media Lab produced, many critics focused on the way in which the Lab had a tendency to create vaporware, performed to visitors through the demo. In 1987, Stewart Brand called this “handwaving.” The historian Molly Steenson has a more nuanced view so I can’t wait to read her upcoming book. But the mockery of the notion of a demo hasn’t died. Given this, it’s not surprising that the current Director (Joi Ito) has pushed people to stop talking about demoing and start thinking about deploying. Hence, “deploy-or-die.”

I would argue that what makes “demo-or-die” so powerful has absolutely nothing to do with the production of a demo. It has to do with the act of doing a demo. And that distinction is important because that’s where the skill development that I relish lies.

When I was at the Lab, we regularly received an onslaught of visitors. I was a part of the “Sociable Media Group,” run by Judith Donath. From our first day in the group, we were trained to be able to tell the story of the Media Lab, the mission of our group, and the goal of everyone’s research projects. Furthermore, we had to actually demo their quasi functioning code and pray that it wouldn’t fall apart in front of an important visitor. We were each assigned a day where we were “on call” to do demos to any surprise visitor. You could expect to have at least one visitor every day, not to mention hundreds of visitors on days that were officially sanctioned as “Sponsor Days.”

The motivations and interests of visitors ranged wildly. You’d have tour groups of VIP prospective students, dignitaries from foreign governments, Hollywood types, school teachers, engineers, and a whole host of different corporate actors. If you were lucky, you knew who was visiting ahead of time. But that was rare. Often, someone would walk in the door with someone else from the Lab and introduce you to someone for whom you’d have to drum up a demo in very short order with limited information. You’d have to quickly discern what this visitor was interested in, figure out which of the team’s research projects would be most likely to appeal, determine how to tell the story of that research in a way that connected to the visitor, and be prepared to field any questions that might emerge. And oy vay could the questions run the gamut.

I *hated* the culture of demo-or-die. I felt like a zoo animal on display for others’ benefit. I hated the emotional work that was needed to manage stupid questions, not to mention the requirement to smile and play nice even when being treated like shit by a visitor. I hated the disruptions and the stressful feeling when a demo collapsed. Drawing on my experience working in fast food, I developed a set of tricks for staying calm. Count how many times a visitor said a certain word. Nod politely while thinking about unicorns. Experiment with the wording of a particular demo to see if I could provoke a reaction. Etc.

When I left the Media Lab, I was ecstatic to never have to do another demo in my life. Except, that’s the funny thing about learning something important… you realize that you are forever changed by the experience.

I no longer produce demos, but as I developed in my career, I realized that “demo-or-die” wasn’t really about the demo itself. At the end of the day, the goal wasn’t to pitch the demo — it was to help the visitor change their perspective of the world through the lens of the demo. In trying to shift their thinking, we had to invite them to see the world differently. The demo was a prop. Everything about what I do as a researcher is rooted in the goal of using empirical work to help challenge people’s assumptions and generate new frames that people can work with. I have to understand where they’re coming from, appreciate their perspective, and then strategically engage them to shift their point of view. Like my days at the Media Lab, I don’t always succeed and it is indeed frustrating, especially because I don’t have a prop that I can rely on when everything goes wrong. But spending two years developing that muscle has been so essential for my work as an ethnographer, researcher, and public speaker.

I get why Joi reframed it as “deploy-or-die.” When it comes to actually building systems, impact is everything. But I really hope that the fundamental practice of “demo-or-die” isn’t gone. Those of us who build systems or generate knowledge day in and day out often have too little experience explaining ourselves to the wide array of folks who showed up to visit the Media Lab. It’s easy to explain what you do to people who share your ideas, values, and goals. It’s a lot harder to explain your contributions to those who live in other worlds. Impact isn’t just about deploying a system; it’s about understanding how that system or idea will be used. And that requires being able to explain your thinking to anyone at any moment. And that’s the skill that I learned from the “demo-or-die” culture.

by zephoria at August 02, 2017 01:50 AM

August 01, 2017

Global Voices Advocacy
Global Voices Honors the Life of Open Web Activist Bassel Khartabil, Executed by the Syrian Regime

Bassel Khartabil. Photo by Joi Ito via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

We are deeply saddened to learn about the death of our friend Bassel Khartabil. We mourn his loss and send our deepest condolences to his family, friends and all those who knew and loved him.

A Creative Commons leader in Syria who was active in projects including Mozilla Firefox and Wikipedia, Bassel Khartabil (aka Bassel Safadi) played a pivotal role in extending online access and open knowledge to the public in Syria. He was a close friend of many in the Global Voices community and participated in our 2009 Arab Bloggers Meeting.

In November 2015, Bassel's wife reported that she was contacted by people who identified themselves as Assad government insiders. They told Noura Ghazi that her husband had been sentenced to death, but offered no further information. Bassel's whereabouts and condition were unknown until today, when Noura learned from Syrian officials that he was executed in 2015.

Today and beyond, we honor all of Bassel's work as a leader in the open web movement. And we honor the efforts of many individuals and organizations that advocated for his release over the past five years.

Since the beginning of the protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2011, more than 65,000 people have disappeared, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Untold numbers of those who have been arrested or forcibly disappeared by the regime have faced torture and even executions. As of 2016, at least 17,723 Syrians had died in custody since 2011, according to the international human rights group Amnesty International. The stories of many more people remain unknown.

Read about Bassel's work and life:

by Global Voices at August 01, 2017 08:42 PM

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