“Internet Rights and Wrongs”

Posted February 15th, 2011 at 5:53 pm (UTC-4)
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UPDATE, 18:30 UTC: There will be a live webchat produced by the US State Department on Sec. Clinton’s “Internet Rights and Wrongs” speech starting at 19 hours UTC.  Guests will include State Department Special Advisor on technology Alec Ross.

You can access it by clicking here.

17:00 UTC: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is speaking live in Washington DC in what was billed as a major address on Internet freedom.  We’ll have a recap very shortly; in the meantime you can watch it live via webcast here, and we’ll be tweeting out updates.

Love in Zeros and Ones

Posted February 14th, 2011 at 3:41 pm (UTC-4)
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Faiza Elmasry | Washington, D.C.

In today’s fast-paced world there are more ways to communicate than ever – e-mail, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and other types of social media. Relationship experts say such connections can help fuel passion and have already changed the way people date and fall in love.

But technology can cause people to fall out of love, too. Read the rest of this entry »

The Revolution Will Be Televised – and Tweeted

Posted February 10th, 2011 at 10:56 pm (UTC-4)
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Who Got The News First…And Who Got It Right?

UPDATE 11:05am ET: Today’s announcement from Vice President Omar Suleiman Friday that Hosni Mubarak was stepping down from the Presidency was transmitted instantaneously via the ‘old’ and ‘new’.  TV news channels over the world carried the announcement from Egyptian State TV live, and the Internet lit up.  Twitter momentarily crashed due to overload.

But the question still remains: are the ‘new’ media like Twitter and Facebook as reliable as the ‘old’ – like TV and radio?  Last night, the answer was no.  We will continue to track this evolving story.

Posted Thursday, Feb.10, 9pm ET: Exactly when the troubles for the government of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak began is a question that has no definite answer.  Arguably it started long before protesters began filling Tahrir Square late January.  And with Mr. Mubarak’s carefully worded address to the nation Thursday night, it’s end may be equally fuzzy.  But at this point it seems clear: Mr. Mubarak intends to remain in office until the full transfer of power in September.

As events in Egypt, and earlier Tunisia, have unfolded there’s been a growing debate over the roles played by ‘old’ technologies like TV and radio, and the ‘new’ ones – meaning Twitter, Facebook and other digital social media.  Both in terms of covering the events, but also possibly influencing them as well. Read the rest of this entry »

“Saudiwoman” Weighs In on Protests

Posted February 8th, 2011 at 4:31 pm (UTC-4)
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And Why An “Internet Kill Switch” May Not Exist

Periodically we like to share a few of the stories and posts from across the web that caught our eye.  While there’s no editorial thread necessarily connecting all these together, it’s probably no surprise that several of the more provocative items we’ve found recently relate to the unrest in the Arab world.

Saudiwoman’s Weblog: For more than three years, Riyadh resident Eman Al Nafjan has been chronicling her life as a woman and a post-graduate student in Saudi Arabia’s capital and largest city.  It’s a fascinating and often frank look into a society that’s largely closed to outside eyes, and notable for a nation that doesn’t always look favorably on critical opinions.

Her most recent post, “The Arab Revolutions Effect on Saudis“, details how Saudis are reacting to the turmoil in other Arabic nations.  She notes:

“All over the country, all these Saudis who rarely watch or read the news and their only interests in doing so are for more local social openness or conservativeness (depending on their background), are now carefully observing what’s going on in neighboring countries. Saudis who didn’t know what the channel number for AlJazeera News was on their receivers now have it saved on their favorites list. University and high school students are now watching the news and social media feeds in their study breaks instead of a rerun of Friends. It’s a new atmosphere. The thing lacking is analysis or a discussion on what it means for us.” Read the rest of this entry »

Arabs Find – and Lose – Their Voice Online

Posted February 4th, 2011 at 3:34 pm (UTC-4)
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Digital Connections Sprout in a Difficult Environment

The images collected over the last two months have been nothing if not compelling.

Masses of Tunisians surrounding government office buildings as President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees the nation.  Thousands of Yemenis filling the streets of Sanaa to protest the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.  Cairo’s massive Tahrir Square occupied by Egyptian men, women and children in defiance of government curfew.

Online, it’s no different.  Even with Egypt’s temporary Internet & mobile blackout, the web has been flooded with talk about protests – much of it not in English.  Arabic script is showing up on Twitter and Facebook with increasing frequency, and blogs are becoming tools for organizing mass protests.

Much like Tahrir Square, pro and anti-government Arabic activists are staking out territory to occupy online.  And as Tahrir has become a battleground, so too has the Internet.

“One has to wonder at some point the futulity [sic] of being a keyboard warrior in a country where nothing seems to matter to its people anymore,” wrote the popular Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey – not in 2011, but in 2007.

For years, “Sandmonkey” – who keeps his true identity anonymous for security reasons – covered Egyptian politics and repression, often with biting comment.  2007 brought another periodic crackdown by the Mubarak government to silence online dissent, and Sandmonkey was pulled from the web, in part for writings such as this:

“Our security situation is dire, and not only in Egypt, but rather all across the middle-east. Bloggers have been intimidated by the authorities in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Bahrain, just to name a few. It seems like the period of hope and reform that the bloggers of those countries have pushed for and represented in the past 2 years is now coming to an end, with the authorities more and more focused and intent on shutting us up, using everything from intimidation to imprisonment. And we have no defenders, no one to protect us, or champion our causes or lobby for our rights and safety.”

Eventually Sandmonkey came back, and continued his provocative commentary.  Now in 2011, to no one’s surprise, his blog has been shuttered again by Egyptian authorities – but not before fellow bloggers reprinted his last post.

His story is not unique, or new.  Egyptian authorities are currently rounding up activists thought to be using the web to organize protests.  Elsewhere, bloggers have long been targeted across the Middle East, often with intimidation, prison, or worse.

For those interested in merely surfing the web, things aren’t much better.    VOA’s Aida Akl recently surveyed the many obstacles put in the way of those online in Arabic nations:

“Libyan authorities don’t bother to block internal websites. Instead, they block Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that link citizens to external servers like Google’s, effectively isolating them from the world.

“Morocco does very little blocking and maintains a more open online environment than most in the region.  Lebanon does not filter, according to Jillian York, OpenNet Initiative Project Coordinator at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, while Saudi Arabia does less filtering than Syria.”

And governments – or at least their supporters – are fighting back as well.

Mobile service provider Vodafone announced that Egyptian officials have shut down text services, except at times to send scripted pro-government messages.  Since Egypt came back online,  social networks have seen a surge of pro-Mubarak sentiment – some of dubious origins.

For example, this Twitter user – Manal – shares no personal information and has only 3 followers.  The account has only been active in the last 24 hours – just about the same time Egypt has been back online – but Manal has already managed 58 tweets, all of them pro-Mubarak.

Listen to a montage of “Speak2Tweet” messages from Egypt:

However, the Internet is notoriously difficult to control, and those who felt threatened or isolated before may be finding a new home on the web.   On-scene videos are being posted to YouTube, as are still images sent via Twitter.   Those without Internet access can share their stories online with the new “Speak to Tweet” service, and thanks to “I Am In Tahrir,” people from around the world can now share their thoughts and support in a virtual Tahrir Square.

One thing seems certain: these online battles will likely continue long after protesters have left Tahrir Square.

Egypt Comes Back Online

Posted February 2nd, 2011 at 1:25 pm (UTC-4)
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The Internet Fights Back Against a Blackout, and Wins

Early reports Wednesday morning are that Egyptian ISPs have reversed course and are once again making Egypt visible to the Internet.

Real-time graph showing the Egyptian ISPs reconnecting through Border Gateway Protocol to the Internet. (Courtesy: the Renesys Corporation)

The Renesys Corporation, which was the first to note and track Egypt’s erasing of the BGP maps into and out of the nation, is now confirming an about-face.

Co-founder James Cowie, writing on Renesys blog, notes:

“Egyptian Internet providers returned to the Internet at 09:29:31 UTC (11:29am Cairo time). Websites such as the Egyptian Stock Exchange, Commercial International Bank of Egypt, MCDR, and the US Embassy in Cairo, are once again reachable.  All major Egyptian ISPs appear to have readvertised routes to their domestic customer networks in the global routing table.”

Earlier this week we discussed just how Egyptian authorities managed to pull the entire nation off-line, using the much-discussed but never-before-attempted trick of erasing the “map” of Egyptian computer nodes and addresses from the Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP, lists.

Speaking with VOA on Tuesday, Cowie referred to this tactic as “…a weapon never used before on this scale.”  He said it was his hope the lesson other nations draw from this is that “…it’s better to stay connected to the Internet” rather than risk social and economic turmoil.

We’ll have much more on this developing story soon.  In the meantime, Renesys prepared this animation, illustrating the minute-by-minute departure of Egypt’s service providers from the global routing table on Friday.

The Hidden Dangers of Social Media

Posted February 1st, 2011 at 4:45 pm (UTC-4)
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Philip Alexiou in Washington DC

How important is it for companies to have a social media policy?  And if the company you work for does have one, do you understand it?  Social media is a fast moving technology that is catching users and companies by surprise.

Imagine writing something unflattering about your co-workers on Facebook, then finding out that your comments were discovered by your boss.

That’s what happened to a woman from New York state we’ll call Mary, who used to work at a call center.  Mary wrote about her office and the people she worked with…and didn’t have much good to say.

Just how bad were her comments?   How about: “…put some of them in an office with a title and try try try to picture them with no ppl skills that want to lead you…INTO HELLLLLLL.”

Or this: “…I  had a finger shaking in my face, was backhanded on the arm while on a call, threatened with a stapler on the back of my head…that’s for starters…”

Mary’s boss fired her a few days later.  The company then put out a note explaining the firm’s social media policy, which prohibits using the company’s name or being disrespectful online.

But Mary says she didn’t mention the name of the company or any of the employees.  She says being fired was unfair.

Unfair or not, author Debbie Weil says people need to use common sense when posting something online, AND also consider who has access to what you put out there.

“Part of having a social media policy is to educate everyone on how to use the platforms,” says Weil:

“So Facebook as we know has a million different privacy settings and if you don’t know what youre doing or paying attention its possible a friend of a friend of a friend can see something you said or posted is somehow inappropriate for organization you work for.”

At the University of North Carolina, the athletic department came across photos of one of its athletes at a Halloween party that the department said were in questionable taste.  The university then began to take a closer look at social network sites used by their athletes.

The result: the UNC football team was banned from using Twitter, leaving students questioning the fairness of the action and their own free speech rights.

“You can’t say that one team one player can do this and another can do this,” says UNC student Shaniqua Marlow.  “I think all athletic teams should have one guideline.”

Echoes fellow student Marseille Mosher: “I think it should be limited in what they say…maybe controlled….but I don’t think it should be taken away because it’s like a freedom of speech basically.”

Debbie Weil says all companies should have a social media policy that is transparent for all to understand.  Her recommendation for individuals using social media is to be open about your identity:

“Companies are slowly beginning to understand this is not a fringe movement, it is not a fringe phenomenon.  It’s real, it’s pervasive 2358 its here to stay and something they need to interweave in all of their communications and marketing.”

According to the social media news site Mashable, just 20 percent of companies worldwide have a social media policy.  Most of those that do say it’s effective.

Erasing Egypt from the Net – Updated

Posted January 31st, 2011 at 4:47 pm (UTC-4)
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And How Low-Tech is Being Enlisted in a High-Tech Battle

UPDATE #1: Mobile Phone Service Returning: News organizations are reporting that mobile phone service is beginning to return in Cairo and some other cities.  Earlier, mobile providers like Vodafone had been ordered by government officials to suspend service to the cities of Cairo, Suez and Alexandria, among other locations.

The headlines appear to tell the story: “Egypt Cuts Internet Links” says South Africa’s Independent, for example.  Or there’s this from the technology blog Ology: “Egypt Pulls the Plug on the Internet“.

But what exactly does that mean? Did somebody use a giant pair of shears to chop through cables?  Or did government officials go to the ISPs and unplug actual computers?

No and no.  It’s becoming clearer just how Cairo managed to yank the Egyptian nation offline, and it resembles nothing so much as a virtual vanishing act.

Nations have adopted different tactics in battling the web.  Burma has taken a heavy hand at the user-end, restricting public access as a means of control.  Chinese authorities maintain an elaborate system requiring thousands of workers and expensive infrastructure, all with an eye to filtering web content as invisibly as possible.  In Iran, officials there periodically slow Internet traffic to a trickle, hoping those online would give up in frustration at the poor performance.

Real-time chart from Jan. 27 showing the number of requests to withdraw Egyptian BGPs. (Graph courtesy Renesys)

Now Egypt has added a new trick to the book.  Shortly after midnight Friday local time, under order by Egyptian authorities, something called Border Gateway Protocols – or BGPs – rapidly began disappearing from the web.

BGPs are like maps used by service providers and traffic routers to deliver data from one computer to another as efficiently as possible.  Erase the map, and the data has no place to go.

“They raised the digital drawbridge,” says Rodney Joffe, senior technologist with the DNS service provider firm Neustar.  Speaking with New Zealand’s “Computerworld“, Joffe likened Egypt’s actions to flipping a virtual kill switch:

“Within a few seconds or at most a couple of minutes, traffic could no longer flow.  For most of the ISPs inside Egypt, there’s no longer a path that tells other networks how to reach them.  One or two minutes, and it’s done.”

Chart showing Internet traffic into and out of Egypt at the time of BGP cutoff (Chart courtesy Arbor Networks)

One tenuous link to the virtual outside world remains.  With only 8% of the Egyptian market, Noor ISP has experienced no disruptions and apparently was not ordered to erase BGP maps…perhaps, as some have speculated, because Noor provides service to the Egyptian Stock Exchange.  However, if Noor goes down, the entire nation of Egypt would literally be invisible to the Internet.

It’s a risky strategy.  As social networking sites and other media are largely invisible to protesters, so, too, is much of the world now inaccessible to everyone in Egypt.   As long as the Internet BGP maps are erased, much of the modern infrastructure of commerce and governance could be wiped out, threatening an already shaky economy.  Those in government may become as blind to what’s happening as those on the streets.

But democracy advocates are fighting back.  This high-tech war is not only enlisting online conscripts from around the world, it’s employing some low-tech solutions.  Computer users with landlines and old-fashioned dial-up modems can access a growing number of ISPs located in Europe and elsewhere to reconnect to the outside web.

Telecomix' logo found on its Egyptian wiki site. (Image courtesy Telecomix)

The loose-knit hacktivist group Anonymous has been scouring phone records for Egyptian fax machines to transmit a variety of documents, from news reports to leaked US State Department cables on Egypt.  Another group, the self-described crypto-anarchist Telecomix, has constructed a wiki providing users with up-to-date information on how to hack into what remaining service exists.

There’s an even more 20th-century solution: shortwave radio.  Amateur operators are sending messages into and out of Egypt employing Morse code, although the use of so-called “Ham” radio has sparked a fair debate among amateur enthusiasts.

And then there’s this twist: while the government of President Mubarak has been trying to block its citizens access to the web, it appears China is working to block its citizens information about Egypt.

VOA’s Stephanie Ho reports that:

“The Chinese government is blocking access to searches for the word “Egypt” on social networking Internet sites in China.  Experts say the move reflects the government’s fears that the protests in Egypt could whip up unrest in China.”

Listen to Stephanie Ho’s complete report on China’s Internet censorship:

UPDATE #2: It appears China is not the only nation that may be concerned about stories regarding Egypt appearing online.  Reuters and other news agencies continue to document an increasing number of news sites that are being blocked in Iran.  Particularly targeted are the news aggregator sites like Yahoo! or Google News; while users can access the homepages to these sites, the click-through links to news stories increasingly are blocked.

Facts and Rumors in Egypt

Posted January 27th, 2011 at 4:17 pm (UTC-4)
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Is Egypt Blocking  Social Media?  Or Is It Not That Simple?

Friday UPDATE: Shortly before midnight local time on Thursday, Egyptian officials ordered nearly all Internet and mobile phone service shut off across the nation.  Officials at several ISPs and mobile service providers, such as Vodafone, issued statements explaining their actions by order of Egyptian authorities.  Rather than trying to block or slow traffic to specific sites – for example to Twitter or Facebook – it appears authorities have opted for a near-wholesale blocking of digital traffic.  Christopher Williams in The Telegraph explores how such a move affects digital communications in and out of Egypt.


It’s a question that many have been asking lately: would the unrest on display in the streets of Tunisia spread to neighboring states?  This week, we may have begun to learn the answer.

Over the last several days, Egypt has seen some of its worst civil disturbance in years.  Protesters in Cairo have clashed repeatedly with security forces, while in Suez a government building was set on fire.

The disturbances appear to have ebbed somewhat Thursday, but that may only be a temporary pause.  Activists are calling for protests Friday after noon prayers, and Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the IAEA and current Egyptian reform campaigner, said he intends to return from Vienna to join in.

One popular tweet on Twitter regarding the situation in Egypt

Many groups, like the 6th of April Movement, are using Facebook and other social media to organize the protests.  VOA’s Bill Ide notes that while there’s a vigorous debate about just how large a role social media is playing in events, no-one is denying its possibilities.

But are Egyptian authorities so worried about the Internet that they’re blocking parts of it?   Yes, and no.

The Washington Post’s “The Circuit” blog first reported Twitter blocking late Tuesday, and Twitter officials confirmed the reports Wednesday in a tweet.   Facebook meanwhile said as recently as Thursday it does not believe it is being blocked in Egypt.

A tweet from Twitter officials acknowledging their site is blocked in Egypt

However one Egyptian blogger VOA spoke with thinks otherwise.  “That’s a big lie,” said Wael Abbas, author of the popular “misrdigital” blog.  “They started blocking Twitter and Facebook and two opposition newspapers,” he claims, “and one website that we are using to broadcast live video from the streets.”

But the full answer may be more complicated than simply “on” or “off”.  CNet’s “the social” writer Caroline McCarthy points out the wholesale blocking of a website – or even an entire service as recently seen in Cambodia – is a somewhat rough tool.  Quoting Mark Belinksy of the non-profit advocacy group Digital Democracy, a more sophisticated approach is to simply slow down access to some websites so much that users just give up:

“Egypt is going wild and I’m not sure we’ll really have a sense of it until the dust clears,” Belinsky said via e-mail. “Hard to say whether or not it’s just getting overloaded though…(physically severing) Internet was done in Burma after a while but it usually leads to international uproar. What they generally do is slow down the signal to a crawl, as they did in Iran, which they can then say was infrastructure failure or any other made up excuse.”

So what’s really being blocked in Egypt and elsewhere?  Both Twitter and Facebook officials have suggested HerdictWeb as the most up-to-date source on whether sites are being blocked.

A project of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Herdictweb – “the verdict of the herd” – aggregates individual reports of blocked websites  from around the world into one real-time report.  “By crowd-sourcing data from around the world, we can document accessibility for any web site, anywhere,” they claim.

As of 14 hours UTC Thursday, HerdictWeb had logged 57 reports of Twitter being inaccessible from Egypt, and 14 reports that it was.  Compare that to 33 reports of Facebook being blocked, with 37 reports to the contrary.

There are signs other websites are being affected.  Almasry-Alyoum is a popular privately-owned newspaper in Egypt; however as of Thursday VOA access to both its Arabic and English language websites was spotty at best.

And there is a deeper question of whether services like Twitter can ever be fully blocked, even with the resources of a national government.  “Yes, but not very effectively,” writes Joshua Keating in Foreign Policy:

“Unfortunately for the censors, Twitter allows other companies to develop their own applications using its programming interface.  This has led to the development of a plethora of tools that allow users to post to Twitter without ever pointing their browsers to Twitter.com.  These third-party clients still appear to be functioning in Egypt.  There have even been reports of activists updating Twitter through the professional résumé-sharing site LinkedIn.”

It will take time to fully document what Egyptian authorities are or are not doing with the Internet.  However, the story may not end there.    There are new reports the events in Tunisia and Egypt may be inspiring recent protests in Yemen and in Jordan as well.

The Way of Wiki

Posted January 26th, 2011 at 1:54 pm (UTC-4)
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The Web’s Most Overused – and Least Understood – Word

courtesy Creative Commons

Take a short hike around the Internet and it’s almost guaranteed you’ll stumble over a wiki-something.

WikileaksWikipediaWikispaces or Wikispots.   The Apple Corporation has a wiki (although not open to the public)  as does IBM, and GE, and just about every other Fortune 500 firm.  And be careful not to get your WikiMedia mixed up with your MediaWiki.

There are wiki sites for term papers, pop stars who wear meat, and  funny cat pictures.  There’s even a wiki for people who like to throw potluck parties.

But what, exactly, is a wiki?  And do we really need them all?

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What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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