Please note that I have shifted my regular blogging activity over to my book's website at consentofthenetworked.com. Click here to subscribe to that blog's RSS feed, or subscribe to email updates by clicking on the link under "follow blog by email" in the right-hand column.
Little Khaled was born as Internet-driven activism in another part of the world, Russia, is bringing a new generation of young people - many of whom had never participated in a protest before - into the streets to oppose election results that they believe to have been rigged in the ruling party's favor. One blogger told TIME magazine that he risked reprisals by United Russia supporters to post flyers around Moscow on the eve of the election, calling on people to vote against them. One flyer said:
"One day, your child will ask you, Papa, what were you doing when the crooks and thieves were robbing our country blind?"
People like Alaa, Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi who was arrested on the Jordanian border last weekend, and Ali Abdulemam, the Bahraini blogger who has been in hiding since February, are all fighting for a world in which their own children will be able to speak their minds and participate in opposition politics without going to prison. But what about the rest of us? To echo the Russian blogger's question:
What are we doing to make sure that our children will even be able to use the Internet to fight for their rights speak truth to power?
The war for freedom and control of the Internet continues to rage. To get the full rundown, check out the latest Netizen Report on Global Voices Advocacy. Since September I have been working with the Global Voices team and several volunteers to publish these twice monthly updates on global developments related to the power dynamics between citizens, companies and governments on the Internet. You can even subscribe to them by e-mail here.
Choosing to build a volunteer community was the key decision that made Global Voices possible. Rebecca and I realized that some of the most interesting information we were getting from the developing world wasn't coming from professional reporters, but from volunteers, using their blogs to share their perspectives on local and national events with the wider world. Our first action as a community - the manifesto that continues to inform and govern our decisions today - was co-written by volunteers at our first meeting, and rapidly translated into twenty five languages by volunteers.
While there's a small team of editors and coordinators for whom Global Voices is a job (as well as a passion - we don't pay well enough for anyone to do this for the money!), the lifeblood of our project is our volunteer community. 532 active volunteers are responsible for Global Voices today, part of the 1,904 volunteers who've worked on writing, editing, translating, designing over the seven year life of our endeavour. Volunteers have written more than 58,000 articles on Global Voices, and translated even more. We rely on an even broader community of volunteers - the tens of thousands of bloggers, twitterers and videographers who we feature on our site, the vast majority of whom create not for fiscal gain, but out of passion and dedication - to make our work possible. And we're governed by volunteers: our board of directors serve without pay, giving their time because they care about our work and the sustainability of our community.
As co-founders of Global Voices, Rebecca and I are profoundly grateful to everyone who gives their time and energy to make the world more just, fair, knowledgeable and connected. But we wanted to call attention to two volunteers who've taken incredible risks to work with us. Late last week, Razan Ghazzawi was arrested by Syrian authorities when she travelled to Amman, Jordan to attend a workshop on press freedom. Razan is an active blogger and twitter user, and has written for Global Voices and Global Voices Advocacy. She's one of several brave Syrians who is willing to work under her own name, despite the dangers of arrest, and we hope for her speedy release from detention.
We also recognize Ali Abdulemam, a Bahraini blogger, activist and Global Voices volunteer. Ali remains in hiding today, because he's been sentenced to fifteen years in prison by Bahrain's courts, who accused him of plotting a coup. In fact, Ali was sentenced because he's been a passionate advocate for online speech in Bahrain, and has been arrested and tortured for his work on Bahrain Online and Global Voices. We are profoundly grateful for everyone who volunteers their time and energy to make Global Voices a reality. We pledge to work with you to make possible a world where no one ever need risk arrest to participate in a remarkable community like ours.
-Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon, Global Voices co-founders and volunteers
Last month the U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk sent a letter to the Chinese government requesting information about its censorship practices. The middle kingdom’s response: a polite middle finger. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu declared that Chinese censorship follows “international practice.”
Her response is specious given that China operates the world’s most elaborate and opaque system of Internet censorship, as I describe in Chapter 3 of my forthcoming book. Yet Congress has been hard at work to bolster its legitimacy, however inadvertently. The reality is that the PROTECT IP Act now in the Senate, and a new House version called Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), would bring key features of China’s Great Firewall to America. Read my opinion piece in the New York Timesfor more details on how these bills would implement technical and legal solutions that would have the unfortunate result of making the Internet everywhere more like the Chinese Internet.
The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on SOPA at 10am on Wednesday morning (a few hours from now). It will be webcast live on the committee website. The video should also be archived there after the event.
Opposition to SOPA is widespread, bipartisan, and international. The Center for Democracy and Technology is collecting links to blog posts, articles, as well as letters of opposition from human rights groups, Internet engineers, law professors, Internet companies, public interest advocates, consumer rights groups, among others. Allan Friedman at the Brookings Institution has an excellent paper explaining how SOPA and PROTECT IP will make the Internet less secure, sabotaging engineers' long-running efforts to increase the level of security in the global domain name system.
The New America Foundation (where I am a senior fellow) has signed an open letter to the House Judiciary Committee, along with a list of human rights, civil liberties and public interest groups. It argues:
We do not dispute that there are hubs of online infringement. But the definitions of the sites that would be subject to SOPA’s remedies are so broad that they would encompass far more than those bad actors profiting from infringement. By including all sites that may – even inadvertently – “facilitate” infringement, the bill raises serious concerns about overbreadth. Under section 102 of the bill, a nondomestic startup video-sharing site with thousands of innocent users sharing their own noninfringing videos, but a small minority who use the site to criminally infringe, could find its domain blocked by U.S. DNS operators. Countless non-infringing videos from the likes of aspiring artists, proud parents, citizen journalists, and human rights activists would be unduly swept up by such an action. Furthermore, overreach resulting from bill is more likely to impact the operators of smaller websites and services that do not have the legal capacity to fight false claims of infringement.
In Chapter 7 I describe my experience testifying at a March 2010 House Foreign Relations Committee hearing chaired by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA). Berman happens to be one of SOPA’s key sponsors. While the hearing’s stated purpose was to discuss Google’s decision to halt censorship in China and how the United States can support global Internet freedom, committee members devoted considerable time to chastising a Google executive for failing to sufficiently police uploads to YouTube for infringing content. By their standards, YouTube and other similar user-driven sites clearly fall short of SOPA’s requirements. As I point out in the book, The cognitive dissonance on display at that hearing highlighted an inconvenient reality: politicians throughout the democratic world are pushing for stronger censorship and surveillance by Internet companies to stop the theft of intellectual property. They are doing so in response to aggressive lobbying by powerful corporate constituents without adequate consideration of the consequences for civil liberties, and for democracy more broadly.
The public interest letter details some of those consequences:
Relying on an even broader definition of “site dedicated to theft of US property,” section 103 of SOPA creates a private right of action of breathtaking scope. Any rightsholder could cut off the financial lifeblood of services such as search engines, user-generated content platforms, social media, and cloud-based storage unless those services actively monitor and police user activity to the rightsholder’s satisfaction.
In my op-ed I conclude:
The potential for abuse of power through digital networks — upon which we as citizens now depend for nearly everything, including our politics — is one of the most insidious threats to democracy in the Internet age. We live in a time of tremendous political polarization. Public trust in both government and corporations is low, and deservedly so. This is no time for politicians and industry lobbyists in Washington to be devising new Internet censorship mechanisms, adding new opportunities for abuse of corporate and government power over online speech. While American intellectual property deserves protection, that protection must be won and defended in a manner that does not stifle innovation, erode due process under the law, and weaken the protection of political and civil rights on the Internet.
I am not against copyright or intellectual property protection - I'm about to publish a copyrighted book. I hope that people will buy it. Its quality owes a great deal to the editors and other professionals whose job it was to help me shape and refine my argument, and to improve my prose. But I don't believe that the defense of my copyright should come at the expense of civil liberties. It is a moral imperative for democracies to find new and innovative ways to protect copyright in the Internet age without stifling the ability of citizens around the world to exercise their right to freedom of speech and assembly on the Internet.
Chapter 9 of my forthcoming book opens with quotes from an infamous April 2011 BBC interview with RIM's co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, in which he ends the interview abruptly after the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones presses him to answer questions about RIM's “arguments with the Indian government and various other governments in the Middle East" over those governments' desire to gain access to Blackberry messages and e-mails. In August 2010, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia threatened to ban BlackBerry services until RIM agreed to allow a satisfactory level of government access to communications sent through RIM devices within the country. India soon followed suit with its own demands for access. Late last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that RIM has set up a facility in Mumbai "to help the Indian government carry out lawful surveillance of its BlackBerry services." The report further quotes a RIM statement which says that "we believe the government of India is now applying its security policy in a consistent manner to all handset makers and service providers in India, which means that RIM should not be singled out any more than any other provider."
There is a larger problem, however. When it comes to censorship in India, the hardworking folks at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore recently concluded that the Indian government is violating not only Indian laws but also the Indian Constitution in the way it handles censorship demands to companies. What are the chances, then, that the Indian government is not violating its citizens' rights in similar ways when it comes to demands for user information to RIM and other mobile service providers? CIS's Pranesh Prakash compared Google's most recent Transparency Report, which reveals the number of content removal and user data requests made between January and June 2011 by the Indian government, and compared that information with an official response to CIS queries on content removal and blocking by the Ministry of Communications & Information Department of Information Technology. Prakash's conclusion:
...it would seem that law enforcement agencies are operating outside the bounds set up under the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, as also the Information Technology Act, when they send requests for removal of content to companies like Google. While a company might comply with it because it appears to them to violate their own terms of service (which generally include a wide clause about content being in accordance with all local laws), community guidelines, etc., it would appear that it is not required under the law to do so if the order itself is not legal. However, anecdotal evidence has it that most companies comply with such 'requests' even when they are not under any legal obligation to do so. This way the intention of Parliament in enacting s.69A of the IT Act—to regulate government censorship of the Internet and bring it within the bounds laid down in the Constitution—is defeated.
As I reported in the book, in April 2011, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology issued new rules under which Internet companies are expected to remove within thirty-six hours any content regulators designated as “grossly harmful,” “harassing,” or “ethnically objectionable.” Indian free speech advocates have vowed to challenge the rules’ constitutionality. Google publicly protested the rules in a statement warning that “if Internet platforms are held liable for third party content, it would lead to self-censorship and reduce the free flow of information.” As Prakash put it then, “The Indian Constitution limits how much the government can regulate citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Any measure afoul of the constitution is invalid.”
More details about surveillance and censorship in India can be found in the India-focused chapter of a new book, Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace, produced by the Open Net Initiative, coming out in December from MIT Press. The India chapter is not currently available online but I discuss India's issues in a related chapter titled "Corporate Accountability in Networked Asia" (The Citizenlab, one of ONI's partners, has made that chapter, along with all of Part I of the book, available online here.) I wrote it late last year and it went into production before the new April 2011 rules came out (academic presses take a long time), but I think the larger point remains very relevant. I compare the role played by companies in facilitating government censorship and surveillance in China to the role of companies in two Asian democracies: South Korea and India. I argue that "efforts to hold companies accountable for free speech and privacy in authoritarian countries like China will face an uphill battle unless companies in Asia’s democracies are pushed by domestic civil society actors to defend and protect user rights in a more robust manner than is currently the case."
The first step is for companies to follow Google's lead in being more transparent about how they respond to government demands. Then civil society organizations in democracies, like India's CIS, will be equipped and empowered with the information they need to push their governments to stop using companies as an opaque and unaccountable extension of state power. RIM can and must recognize that by being evasive with the public it is standing firmly on the wrong side of history.