The Web’s Spread Doesn’t Mean A Freer Internet
This is the story of “Ammar” and his online activities in Tunisia just before the recent fall of the government of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. It’s a tale of how social networks, and the spread of the Internet, have come to play a significant role in the life of a nation.
But it may not end how you imagine.
Much has been made recently of how the web is changing the social dynamics in countries around the world – particularly those in the Middle East experiencing unrest. It’s common now for news reports to highlight the web as a tool for social change, allowing activists to share video, organize protests and build mass movements. Some have gone even further, adopting terms such as the “Twitter revolution” or the “Facebook revolution.”
Which brings us to “Ammar”. For years, the government of Ben Ali ran one of the world’s most repressive Internet censorship programs – routinely imprisoning bloggers and slicing off access to large swaths of the Net. So pervasive was the blocking that Tunisians decided to give the anonymous censors an identity – and “Ammar” was born.
In the weeks leading up to January’s protests, as activists rallied online “Ammar” was quietly busying himself on Facebook. Specifically, as Alex Madrigal notes in The Atlantic, regime authorities were swapping out identifying information of thousands of Tunisian Facebook users, simultaneously deleting their pages while stealing valuable personal and contact information. The breech compromised thousands of online users, leading to an unknown number of arrests and even a counter-attack by Anonymous.
The government eventually fell, spurred in part by activists’ use of digital media. However, as the story of “Ammar” demonstrates, what the Internet gives, it can take back as well.
Of course it isn’t just Tunisia – or even the Mideast – where clampdowns like this are happening. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir recently promised to use sites such as Facebook to “…crush the opposition…” while in Malaysia, the non-profit Reporters Without Borders relates:
“Many opposition and news websites have fallen victim to distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) in the run-up to tomorrow’s election in Malaysia’s eastern state of Sarawak (on the island of Borneo), which is posing a challenge to Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s 30-year-old rule of the state.”
Reports from Bishkek suggest the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are “intentional(ly) blocking” anonymizer websites such as ‘hidemyass‘ that allow web-users to conceal their identify. The Belarus government of Alexander Lukashenko has moved to tighten control of the Internet even further following recent bombings in Minsk. And there are more.
Web-blocking has become so common that one activist group, “Global Voices”, is compiling a gallery of screen-grabs of block-notices from around the world. It’s a rapidly growing collection.
These incidents, and many more from around the world, are documented in the new report “Freedom on the Net 2011“, written by the non-profit group “Freedom House.” And the trend lines are not encouraging.
As the number of Internet users has exploded over just the last five years – notably in Asia with an estimated 850 million people online – the report authors conclude so, too, have efforts by governments to limit and control access and use.
While some nations may be of little surprise – China, Saudi Arabia and Iran for example – the trend isn’t limited to those nations with the poorest human rights records. For example, the report’s authors write:
“In countries where the authorities had already shown some tendency toward politically motivated controls over the internet, the negative trend accelerated dramatically, and new institutions were created specifically to carry out censorship. In Pakistan, for example, where temporary blocks have been common in recent years, a new Inter-Ministerial Committee for the Evaluation of Websites was established in mid-2010 to flag sites for blocking based on vaguely defined offenses against the state or religion. In Thailand, the government has long blocked internet content and taken legal action against users, particularly those posting information that is critical of the monarchy.”
Some Internet corporations are taking note of these trends – and a few are even working to combat it…among them, Yahoo!.
“This cuts two ways,” says Ebele Okobi-Harris, director of Yahoo’s Business and Human Rights program:
“Governments have the responsibility to protect citizens. There are governments that are interested in controlling the Internet in ways that we would agree with. For example when you look at child porn, or you look at things like trying to stop fraud. At the same time you do see governments – and I think it’s been most clear when you look at the examples in the Middle East but you can look back even a little bit further (when) you look at the Ukraine – where governments have been faced by popular revolutions that have been fueled by the connections people have been able to make on the Internet.”
And it’s those connections that a growing number of governments find potentially threatening.
In an effort to protect freedoms online, Yahoo! has joined with a number of other firms in something called the Global Network Initiative, a coalition focused on “…the internationally recognized human rights of freedom of expression and privacy.”
Yahoo! is also one of the first Internet firms with an office dedicated to meshing promotion human rights with best business practices. This, in an intensely competitive industry that hasn’t always made decisions based on intangibles such as ‘freedom promotion’, is notable by itself.
“These issues are very complicated,” she says, noting that one person’s ‘good government protection’ may be another’s ‘censorship.’
Listen to our complete interview with Ebele Okobi-Harris here:
But Okobi-Harris says her office is no fig leaf and that Yahoo! is moving the issues of human rights one step further. Reports such as “Freedom on the Net”, she says, will factor in to all future business decisions. Still, there’s little doubt that controversy will continue:
“It’s always in our best interests to have as much freedom and as much exchange as possible, and I think that’s what makes our business unique. We are uniquely aligned with the human right of free expression.”
A coda: it seems despite a change in government, “Ammar” is back and up to his old tricks – these days harassing the blog “ZigZag” for posting information critical of Mohamed Sakhr El Matri, the son-in-law of Tunisia’s current President Mohammed Ghannouchi.