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Arab Spring

New America Foundation: New Media Only Minor Component of Arab Spring

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WASHINGTON, July 14, 2011 – Despite U.S. media portrayals of the Arab Spring as spontaneous and enabled by social media, Middle East experts said Wednesday at New America Foundation that the revolutions were part of a decades-long train of events.

Future Tense, a project of the D.C.-based think tank, held a conference to discuss the role of new media in the Arab revolutions of the past year. The afternoon was filled with several different panels and speakers, all experts on the Middle East or social media that presented to a room overflowing with students, embassy and government officials and media professionals.

Several of the speakers delivered their remarks to the conference remotely.

Sami Ben Gharbia, Advocacy Director of Global Voices, spoke to the conference via Skype from his home country of Tunisia. Gharbia was finally able to return home after having been exiled for several years. Cuban blogger and human rights activist Yoani Sanchez delivered her remarks via pre-recorded video, and was represented at the conference by her translator. Sanchez is currently not allowed to travel by order of the Cuban government.

Middle East youth activist bloggers also delivered their insights on the Arab Spring and the role of new media.

“People are actually not allowed to practice politics in Saudi Arabia,” said Ahmed Al Omran, a twenty-something Saudi blogger held in high esteem by Foreign Policy Magazine. “It wasn’t until I started blogging that I learned about politics.”

Omran, who originally began blogging as a way to practice his English, said that technology and the Internet has given the youth a space to speak openly in a way that the older generation did not have before.

“We know it’s risky,” he said, “but to us, it’s worth it.”

Oula Airifai, who fled Syria in 2005 but has stayed closely involved with Syrian politics, also shared her insights and experiences, as did Omid Memarian, an Iranian journalist who shared his insights on protests of the Iranian elections that were broadcast via Twitter.

New America Foundation has garnered recent attention in the spotlight thanks to media coverage of its project with the State Department that would allow activists in repressed countries to set up alternative mobile mesh internet networks – popularly called the ‘Internet in a suitcase.’

“The suitcase was a visual-aide gone out of control,” said program director Sascha Meinrath. Meinrath, who has been developing this type of technology for more than a decade.

Ian Schuler, Senior Program Manager for the State Department’s Internet Freedoms Program emphasized that the point of these programs not regime change, but to facilitate freedom of expression and to allow activists to communicate not just with the outside world but with each other.

“We should not determine who should have what freedom at what time,” said Schuler. “Facilitating basic rights is the right approach at the end of the day.”

Syria Utilizes “Kill Switch” as Internet Freedom Debate Heats Up

in Africa/Asia/Broadband's Impact/International/Wireless by

WASHINGTON, June 17, 2011 – In the past year, there has been an extensive push for universal access to Internet, seen as the ultimate democratizing tool enabling two-way communication between governors and the governed. But the reality of a ‘digital divide’ leaves the majority of the world’s population without access to the technological infrastructure to support its use. And those who do have access are sometimes more vulnerable to restriction on political basis, as seen in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Such was the case in Syria on June 3, when the government shut down the country’s Internet network. Although fully restored the following day, the country’s 3G, DSL and dial-up were disconnected the same day massive protests and marches were being organized throughout the country to call for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and for “Children’s Friday,” to honor children who had died during the uprisings.

An Internet “kill switch” was used earlier this year in Egypt and Libya, as well as in Iran in 2009, but this was the first recognized occurence in Syria, which has been in a period of political unrest for the past several months and seen violent crackdowns on protestors that have killed more than 1,000 people.

In an almost ironic turn, the Syrian Internet shutdown occured just hours before United Nations Special Rapporteur, Frank La Rue, issued a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on freedom of expression, claiming that Internet access is a basic human right.

In his report, La Rue said he was concerned about the “emerging trend of timed blocking to prevent users from accessing or disseminating information at key political moments,” and that cutting off Internet access is a violation of Article 19 of the UN’s human rights law.

The report and recommendations focus both on a universal right to access content, that is, a political right to communicate freely via the Internet and on the technical infrastructure that enables the communication. Currently, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population is left wanting in this respect.

“Each State should thus develop a concrete and effective policy…to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of population,” said La Rue in the report.

Throughout the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Internet has played a crucial role as dissenters have used social media and various sites to organize and mobilize communities and to get the word out to the world, as in many cases, foreign journalists have been restricted. Social media sites like Facebook and YouTube were banned in Syria until February, and although eventually made accessible, have been monitored by government authorities, especially during protests.

Despite the open nature of the Internet’s architecture, the ability of governments and regulators to control and monitor citizens’ access is worrisome for proponents of Internet freedom, and has led to technological innovations and investments to combat the threat.

Highlighted in the New York Times, one such project is the New America Foundation’s “Internet in a suitcase,” developed by the research group’s Open Technology Initiative. With $2 million in State Department funds, the “shadow” Internet technology would create portable wireless access which could be used in the event of an Internet shutdown, and would be difficult to monitor.

“The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to communicate,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Initiative said in an interview with the New York Times.

With national and transnational organizations weighing in, the focus on freedom of expression through the Internet seems to be in both the technical capacity for communication, and the arguably ideological capacity which results from political frameworks granting citizen rights. While the push for Internet freedom may not have been inspired by the most recent political unrest in the Middle East, or technological innovations like the “shadow” Internet, the two objectives seem to be going hand in hand.

State Department Funds Shadow Internet Networks to Protect Free Speech Rights

in Africa/Asia/Broadband's Impact/International/Mobile Broadband/Wireless by

WASHINGTON, June 13, 2011 – The U.S. State Department has acknowledged funding the establishment of independent “shadow” internet and cell-phone networks in countries with oppressive regimes, according to a Sunday New York Times article.

The effort is part of a broader “liberation technology movement” critical in the recent popular uprisings such as those in China, Iran, Egypt, Libya and Syria – the more recent events are commonly referred to as the “Arab Spring.” The liberation technology refers to the use of information technology to expand political, social, and economic freedom.

In countries like Iran, Libya and Syria these shadow networks and technologies would allow activists to communicate with each other and the rest of the world despite government censorship to prohibit such activity.

According to New York Times sources, one such project, an “Internet in a suitcase,” is being developed by New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, a nonpartisan nonprofit, with the help of a $2 million State Department grant.

The suitcase uses off-the-shelf equipment readily available in various parts of the world, open source software technologies and Wi-Fi to allow users to communicate on the Internet without a central hub.

“Because we chose Wi-Fi as a platform, the software can run on a variety of devices,” said Josh King, a technologist with New America Foundation in an interview with Al Jazeera. “It won’t take an engineer with a computer science degree to be able to deploy it somewhere.”

The news comes days after U.N. Special Rapporteur Frank La Reux released a report that declared government restriction of internet access to be a violation of human rights.

The representatives from the State Department were not available for comment at the time of the publication.

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