All About Better Broadband, Better Lives

Tag archive

Article 19

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.

U.S. Technology Could Thwart Chinese Internet Censorship

in Net Neutrality by

By William G. Korver, Reporter, BroadbandCensus.com

WASHINGTON, June18 – Technologies exist that allow Chinese internet users to evade government censorship, but their deployment is being thwarted by American companies based in China, panelists said Wednesday at a hearing of the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

A technology called Psiphon allows internet users to bypass China’s requirement that all foreign Web sites go through one of three gatekeeping firewalls, said Ron Deibert, speaking on behalf of the Open Net Initiative, which developed Psiphon.

The Open Net Initiative is a partnership of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, and Cambridge University, Oxford University and the University of Toronto. Deibert is director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto.

Deibert said that Psiphon may be an answer to allow people in China to circumvent Beijing’s purposeful and repeated attempts to hinder free speech. Without the technology, an internet user attempting to access a Web site restricted by the Chinese government is confronted with an “error” screen on his or her computer.

Xiao Qiang, director of China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed with Deibert that China would not be able to conduct internet censorship without the cooperation of U.S. companies like Cisco Systems, which manufacturers internet routers.

Qiang said that more and more evidence is now surfacing about how the Chinese are blocking websites, enabling better means of circumventing such censorship.

Both were testifying on a panel about access to the Internet and Chinese filtering as a part of a two-day hearing before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which was held in a Senate office building. Several members of the commission were worried about Beijing’s interpretation of Psiphon – particularly if it there were a concerted effort to promote its use by the United States – as an act of information warfare.

Established by Congress in 2000, the commission’s purpose is to monitor, investigate and submit an annual report on the economic relations between the U.S. and China. Of its twelve members, three each were selected by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and the Senate.

All panelists on the internet filtering panel agreed that China’s efforts to control the Internet were rampant in the rural areas. But Randoph Kluver, director of the Institute for Pacific Asia at Texas A&M University, who initially spoke on an earlier panel about information control and the media, said that there are a number of holes in what has been dubbed the “Great Firewall of China.” As a result, China’s cities are relatively free from censorship, he said.

Still, as a result of widespread internet filtering, the majority of the population knows little or nothing of the protests and uprisings in Myanmar, said Lucie Morillon, the Washington representative for Reporters Without Borders, who also spoke on the panel with Kluver.

Qiang said that a free and open internet is more pressing than ever because China has now surpassed the U.S. as the country with the most internet users. The enormous rise in the number of internet users is partially due to the increase of cell phones with internet acces, he said.

Responding to questions posed by commission member Patrick Mulluy, the panelists said that Article 19 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which has been signed by the People’s Republic of China, obligates the nation to permit freedom of the press.

In China, Kluver said, economic benefits almost always trump rights perceived as political. Agreeing, Morillon said that in global rankings of a free and independent press, China is fifth from the bottom.

Unlike the West’s traditional embrace of freedom of the press, some 80 percent of Chinese internet users believe the Internet should be controlled, said Kluver. Most of these Chinese consider the government of China to be the most appropriate internet censor.

Disagreeing, Dan Southerland, executive editor of Radio Free Asia, said that the number of nomadic and rural Chinese listening to RFA broadcasters – or bribing rural officials to capture RFA’s satellite signal – demonstrated support for a free press. Southerland, speaking on a panel about China’s grappling with ethnic unrest and outbreaks of infectious diseases, questioned Kluver’s findings.

Morillon echoed Southerland’s perspective by noting that Beijing has routinely engaged in random repression aimed to remind journalists that government officials are watching. Morillon was heartened by Beijing’s decision to lessen restrictions on foreign journalists, at least until the end of October, as a positive but far-from-adequate development.

Beijing’s tendency to suppress knowledge of emerging infectious diseases backfired during the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, said retired Col. Susan Puska. It resulted in a further spreading of the disease, potentially endangering the U.S. Speaking on the infectious diseases panel, she said Beijing only responds after leaks to the outside world occur.

Southerland stated his opinion that the Chinese media “initially [did a] pretty good job” at openly and honestly reporting on the March earthquake. The Chinese media has often made unflattering comparisons to the U.S. government’s widely-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina with the generally-praised response of the Chinese military to the recent March earthquake, Morillon said.

Beijing repeatedly blames the foreign press for various internal failures, the panelists said. A government insinuation that foreigners might be responsible for a particular problem often results in full-scale demonstrations against the West, such as a recent anti-CNN movement. This allows the government to circumvent potentially damaging issues with little backlash, the panelists agreed.

To help encourage a more robust domestic Chinese press, Southerland suggested that the U.S. fund schools of investigative journalism for members of the Chinese media.

Go to Top