Posts Tagged Internet Freedom

NYT on Internet Freedom

17 June 2011

The New York Times has lately been doing an admirable job wrestling with the impact of social media, mobile phones and the internet on democracy movements and activism around the world.  Perhaps partly thanks to a certain ambivalence about social media among the paper’s top brass, the NYT has managed to avoid getting too caught up in the “Twitter Revolution!” zeitgeist, and has managed to present both the positive and the negative effects these new tools are having on the global prospects for democracy.

On Wednesday, Neil MacFarquhar had a piece on how activists in Saudi Arabia are taking to the public sphere of the internet for lack of the ability to convene in any real, physical space. Money quote:

Social media, which helped drive protests across the Arab world, seems tailor-made for Saudi Arabia, where public gatherings are illegal, women are strictly forbidden to mix with unrelated men and people seldom mingle outside their family.

Virtually any issue that contradicts official Saudi policy now pops up online, including the status of prisoners being held without trial or a call to boycott municipal elections this September.

Louai A. Koufiah, a Twitter enthusiast, quipped: “Saudis cannot go out to demonstrate, so they retweet!”

And last weekend, James Glanz and John Markoff covered the State Department’s growing and increasingly broad approach to supporting democracy activists using new technology, with a particular focus on constructing mobile networks in places like Afghanistan and North Africa that are entirely separate from the state-run apparatus and thus more (but, note, not entirely) secure.  From that story:

The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught.

But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for communication. It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more audacious and clever and, yes, cooler.

Particularly glad to see them put in that historical context.  We’ve always supported democracy. The “internet freedom” push is simply an effort to defend our values in a modern context.



Social Media in Egypt: A Second Public Sphere

14 February 2011

I’ve been mostly silent on the “social media revolution in Egypt” meme because, frankly, I didn’t want to join an already crowded chorus until enough information had emerged for the beginning of an actual analysis.  Justly or not, the idea of the uprising in Egypt being a “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolt” has become one of the major narratives in the American media.  This shouldn’t be surprising, given the way the same narrative caught on during Iran’s uprising in 2009. And, as Luke Allnutt argued well, there’s an element of the “Twitter revolution” story that’s appealing to Americans because, in some vaguely imperialistic yet satisfyingly altruistic way, it gives us a bit of the credit for the empowerment of the disenfranchised people of Egypt, Tunisia and wherever else.

But it’s becoming more and more clear that in Tunisia and especially in Egypt, social media really have played pivotal roles in driving the uprising. “We are All Khaled Said,” the Facebook group originally created to commemorate the brutal death of a young businessman at the hands of the Egyptian policy, was created last June by Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and activist blogger who has become a reluctant face of the movement since his release from prison and an emotional interview on Egyptian television this week. The group is widely credited with helping catalyze the initial protests last month. The “April 6 Youth Movement,” another Facebook-based, youth-led democracy movement, also helped turn people out to protest, while Twitter has been a constant source of Egypt news for people around the world. (more…)



No “Twitter Revolution,” But a Connected Revolution in Tunisia

18 January 2011

When Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of a government building after being robbed and slapped around by the local police, his desperate and tragic act sparked a tinderbox of anger and resentment against the Tunisian state. As news of Bouazizi’s self-immolation spread, so too did a nationwide wave of protests, and on Friday, longtime dictator Ben Ali fled the country.

With most Western media looking elsewhere, and journalists in Tunisia sharply censored, Twitter became one of the only sources of information about what has come to be called the “Jasmine Revolution.” Among the protesters, Facebook and YouTube allowed them to share stories, videos, and encouragement, while e-mail, text messaging, and other social media were among the ways that Tunisians communicated, rallied, and coordinated their movement. (more…)



Barriers to Information Freedom: Barriers to Trade

18 November 2010

Earlier this week, Google’s public policy shop released a white paper arguing for obstructions to the global free flow of information to be seen as barriers to free trade. The paper came out on the deadline for comments on the Commerce Department’s notice of inquiry on this subject (though apparently the deadline was extended for a few extra weeks– there’s still time!), and took on all the big questions sought by Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force:  How are governments restricting the internet? What is the impact of these restrictions?  What can we do about it? The white paper is a good read, but 25 pages, so, forthwith, a summary and some thoughts:

The white paper outlines the tremendous economic impact and potential of the internet (1.7 billion users! [i.e.: customers] Global markets for local companies!), and then spends considerable time describing the ways that “more than 40″ governments disrupt the free flow of information on the internet, identifying four “common characteristics” of the restrictions.  First, restrictive governments will often impose rules or regulations on online service providers without making those rules clear and publicly available.  Second, governments will block entire platforms or services based on individual pieces of content or the actions of a small number of users. Third, foreign companies are frequently disadvantaged in favor of local companies. And fourth, restrictive governments apply their laws arbitrarily and haphazardly, targeting some violators while ignoring others.

These restrictions have real impacts on trade and economic growth, as the next section of the paper argues. With restrictions, companies have a harder time reaching their customers, and even when they do, the degradation of their service lowers its value. When restrictions target “intermediary” companies– search engines, blogging platforms, cloud-based services– the effects are magnified, as they impact not just the blocked service, but other businesses– both local and foreign– that rely on the service for their own business. The ultimate effects of restrictions are lowered revenues for internet companies and others who depend on the blocked services, a high degree of uncertainty that makes it impossible for firms to plan their work, and unfair advantages given– often intentionally– to local, unrestricted businesses.

The white paper suggests three main steps for policymakers to combat barriers to free information/trade on the internet.  First, they must call attention to the restrictions imposed by foreign governments and the effects they have on the global economy. Second, policymakers must take action in instances where restrictions on the free flow of information online are in violation of existing international trade rules. The paper puts particular emphasis on the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which extends the WTO’s jurisdiction over goods to services, including information and communications services.  

Third, they must protect free flows of information in future international trade rules by establishing global openness as the default position, and mandating stronger transparency rules. The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement currently in negotiation already includes language that acknowledges the importance of information freedom in facilitating trade and restricts barriers to any information flow. The paper mentions other trade forums that could be ripe for introducing these ideas, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the Doha Round of negotiations under the WTO, should it move forward.


This white paper is a valuable contribution to a side of the “internet freedom” conversation that has gotten less attention this year.  In her January speech on Internet Freedom, Secretary Clinton made clear that the free flow of information was an economic issue, as well as a strategic issue and a human rights issue. Most discussion, however, has centered on a universal right of access to information, described by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  While compelling and stirringly idealistic (I’ve defended this right on this blog many times before), arguments based on issues of human rights often don’t gain the purchase in the policy world that economic arguments do.  If we’re going to knock down barriers to information freedom– for the sake of human rights, economic interests, Western values, or whatever else– taking the economic approach is likely to be the most effective.

Related to white paper, the Center for Democracy and Technology just published a really interesting blog post about fees charged to Chinese universities by their government for accessing “international data.” Any time a student at a major university in China accesses a news or information portal hosted in another country, they pay a tax. As Google’s paper mentions, restrictions on information freedom have the effect– intentionally, in China’s case– of creating a fragmented internet: individual “intranets” rather than a single, global network. The sort of “data protectionism” that CDT describes inevitably deepens national divides, making the world less global and interconnected, and preserves the disparities in information access that idealists once hoped the internet could tear down. It’s troubling to watch these barriers erected and strengthened.

Back in August, we held an event here at NDN on the global free flow of information, and were fortunate to host Anita Ramasastry, co-chair of the “Free Flow of Information on the Internet” working group in the Commerce Department’s Internet Policy Task Force; she spent much of her talk discussing the trade approach to information freedom.  You can read a summary and watch a video of the event here.



Choosing Evils

20 September 2010

I’m in Budapest this week for a conference co-hosted by Google and Central European University– “Internet at Liberty 2010.” The highlight of this morning’s sessions was a “very short history of the internet and free expression” offered by Rob Faris of Harvard’s Berkman Center; I’d commend you to read Jillian York’s liveblog of that session if you’re curious. The highlight of the afternoon, and what I’ll reflect on, was a conversation looking at the challenges for the internet industry in dealing with the issues surrounding freedom of expression on the internet. In these questions of corporate policy lie much of the current struggle to ensure the free flow of information and freedom of expresion on the internet. And tension between these values and concerns of privacy, security and decency are driving much of the debate.

As Leslie Harris of Center for Democracy and Technology aptly put it in a comment, content hosts like Facebook are, in many ways, the “arbiters of free speech” in our technology-dense world. With the network becoming increasingly global, they often find themselves caught between protecting the value of free speech and obeying the rule of law– what’s free speech in one place might be libelous, or obscene, or just downright felonious somewhere else. So when one country comes to Facebook with a request that they remove some piece of content, Facebook has to make a choice. A choice that Lord Richard Allan, Facebook’s head of European Privacy, describes as choosing the lesser of two evils.

Illustrating one of the evils Facebook has chosen was the scandal earlier this year around the Facebook group “Draw Mohammed Day.” Despite the Pakistani government’s demands to eliminate the group, Facebok deemed it a legitimate expression of free speech. As the inevitable consequence, Pakistan blocked access to all of Facebook for a period of days. In the end, Facebook and the Pakistani government both earned the ire of different groups.

But there have been other instances in which Facebook has chosen to censor content– the conversation today took a zany turn today for a case study on breastfeeding. In the United States, it turns out, breastfeeding in public is against the law. And in compliance with the law, Facebook has taken down thousands of photos of women breastfeeding– including many photos taken outside the U.S., and submitted by users living outside the U.S. But because they’re accessible in the U.S., Facebook won’t host the photos; they could be sued if they did.

It’s certainly a curious position for a company to be in, making decisions about what constitutes free speech and what’s over the line. And it can surely become an uncomfortable position when they make a controversial call. But what’s the altnerative?  The role of the intermediary– Facebook, in this case– is one of the toughest questions for people working on these issues, and incorporates huge concerns about privacy and security. I’m looking forward to more of this discussion tomorrow.  Check back here for more in-depth recap and analysis…

(Unrelated, I was on the radio today– AM 1500 in DC– talking about digital diplomacy. Enjoy.)