Internet Silence In Syria – UPDATED

Posted November 29th, 2012 at 3:55 pm (UTC-4)

Claims That “Terrorists” Cut The Web Fall Flat

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Update December 3, 1330 UTC: Renesys’ Jame Cowie writes on the company blog that Internet service has been almost fully restored in Syria. Traffic began flowing into and out of Syria at 4:30pm Damascus time on Saturday afternoon:

“The restoration was achieved just as quickly and neatly as the outage: like a switch being thrown. Does that mean that we believe the government (or the opposition) threw the switch? Frankly, the data available just don’t support attribution at this point, despite all the speculation.”


At 12:26 pm, Damascus time, on Thursday afternoon, the nation of Syria disappeared from the Internet. Practically speaking, at least.

“In the global routing table, all 84 of Syria’s IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the Internet,” writes James Cowie, chief technology officer at Renesys, in the company blog:

“Looking closely at the continuing Internet blackout in Syria, we can see that traceroutes into Syria are failing, exactly as one would expect for a major outage. The primary autonomous system for Syria is the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment; all of their customer networks are currently unreachable.”

The precise moment nearly all of Syria’s Internet went dark. (courtesy Renesys)

Never mind the techno-lingo. What this means is that, for the moment, computer networks outside of Syria have no paths or gates to enter and transmit data into the nation. Computers within Syria similarly have no means of ‘talking’ to the rest of the world. The only other way to cut Syria off from the Internet as effectively would be to actually sever the lines.

The government of Syria quickly blamed “terrorists” for the Internet outage, but several factors raise doubts about that claim.

First is the timing: the blackout comes amid numerous reports of increased fighting around Damascus International Airport. Second, scattered reports coming out of Syria suggest that both mobile and land line phone service have become spotty, particularly in and around the capital city. Both factors hint at what may be a government that is either concerned about its stability, or perhaps preparing for a major offensive that it would rather the rest of the world not know about.

But most suspicious is the manner of the Internet shutdown itself. As Cowie notes, presently 100% of all the Internet address paths into Syria are failing. Another firm, Akamai, that monitors Internet traffic like Renesys, has confirmed the timing and near totality of this blackout. While data is still being analyzed, it appears initially to some that the cutoff mirrors that in Egypt in January of 2011. Then, the Mubarak government was the first to try erasing itself from the web by removing BGPs, or Border Gateway Protocols, from the web – an outage that was also first picked up by Renesys. Writing then we noted:

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.

Terrorists, even very sophisticated ones, might be able to take down a few service providers, or create havoc at specific websites or networks. But the only entity that can effectively destroy every Internet map into and out of the nation is the national government itself.

For the moment, Renesys’ James Cowie tells VOA that he’s not yet sure about the technical reasons for Syria suddenly going dark, but it seems likely who’s to blame:

“We can’t see how they did it yet, but we can infer that the Internet was probably turned off in some central location.  That could be the result of a government decision (“flipping a switch”), or it could be a side effect of an opposition action (power outage, facility destruction).    Anything short of facilities destruction would be the ‘best case’ because it implies that the Internet could be brought back online as quickly as it was taken away.

Several outside activist groups, aligned with the Syria rebels, say they are working on building temporary bridges to the Internet for those inside Syria via land line phones, but the security of those lines has not been established.

We’ll keep you updated.

Facebook Powergrab?

Posted November 23rd, 2012 at 11:53 am (UTC-4)

Should Facebook Users Be Able To “Dislike” Privacy Changes? 

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

There’s an old truism in public relations: if you have bad news to announce, look for a good time when people are distracted to bury the story.

That may, or may not, have been the motivation for Facebook to propose a significant policy change in its governance on Wednesday this week – a day that many Americans were traveling or preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday and the rest of the world was nervously eying the Middle East.

Facebook’s latest request may not get too many likes. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Billed as an “Update to Governing Documents” on its corporate blog, the changes would in all likelihood seriously limit its users input into policy changes on issues such as privacy. Currently, major changes to Facebook rules or policies are put up to something like a vote: if 7,000 users comment registering their displeasure, the proposed change is put up to a vote for all Facebook users. Votes would then be considered legitimate if 30% of all Facebook users participate by voting – a hurdle that’s never been met.

In its Wednesday announcement, Facebook Vice President Elliot Schrage proposed modifying that so that votes would no longer automatically be triggered by the quantity of comments, but by what he calls their quality. Schrage writes:

“In the past, your substantive feedback has led to changes to the proposals we made. However, we found that the voting mechanism, which is triggered by a specific number of comments, actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality. Therefore, we’re proposing to end the voting component of the process in favor of a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement.”

Part of that more meaningful engagement would be live chats and an “Ask the Chief Privacy Officer” forum where users can submit questions for public discussion. But with approximately 1 billion subscribers, one might question the genuine usefulness of such forums. A roomful of 30 people can quickly degenerate into chaos given a controversial issue; a roundtable of a billion is simply inconceivable.

But given that Facebook votes haven’t met the 30% threshold in times past, one could argue that this proposal doesn’t change much in practice, but mostly in official rules. Either way, because this is a new and significant proposal, it’s still up to the old system of the automatic triggers.

Meaning any registered Facebook user can leave their comments here; if the comments exceed 7,000 Facebook will put this change up to a vote to all users. Meaning about 300 million people would have to vote yes or no for it to be valid.

Good luck with that.

John McAfee’s Internet Meltdown – UPDATE

Posted November 20th, 2012 at 2:54 pm (UTC-4)

Has The Software And Security Pioneer Gone “Bonkers”?

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

UPDATE December 3, 1400 UTC: There are conflicting reports and rumors swirling whether Belize police have actually captured John McAfee, or if he remains at large. On December1, someone posted a short note on the “Who Is McAfee?” blog. “We have received an unconfirmed report that John McAfee has been captured at the border of Belize and Mexico,” reads the terse post; “More information as it is received.”

Then on December 3, a new post on McAfee’s blog – again, apparently not by McAfee himself – reported that “after losing contact with Mr. McAfee we received a voicemail from an anonymous caller ID. In the message the gentleman stated, ‘John was picked up crossing the Mexican border.’ We have not received word back from this individual…”

10 hours later, a new post appeared, titled simply “I Am Safe.” But the contents of the post are anything but simple:

I apologize for the silence, and misdirection.  I am currently safe and in the company of two intrepid journalist from Vice Magazine, and, of course, Sam.  We are not in Belize, but not quite out of the woods yet.  I will do a more detailed posting later today if all goes well.  My “double”, carrying on a North Korean passport under my name, was in fact detained in Mexico for pre-planned misbehavior, but due to indifference on the part of authorities was evicted from the jail and was unable to serve his intended purpose in our exit plan.  He is now safely out of Mexico.

While some media are reporting McAfee’s catpure, Peter Delevett over at Silicon Beat reports that police in San Pedro, Belize, are denying they have him. As a second source, Jorge Aldana of the San Pedro Sun said on Saturday night “I can tell you positively that John McAfee has not been captured.”

Curiouser and curiouser.


November 20, 2012

“With lots of time on my hands and very little to do with it, I’ve been reflecting on the recent detour my life has taken,” writes someone calling himself John McAfee.  “How did I end up as a murder suspect on the lam?”

So begins the first blog entry on  “Who Is McAfee?”, a website – and a story – that gets more bizarre with each new day.

Let’s back up a bit.

File image from November 8, 2012, of John McAfee (AP/Sofia Munoz)

You may not recognize his name, but if you own a personal computer, chances are you know John McAfee’s work. A former computer programmer for NASA and Lockheed, McAfee in 1987 founded McAfee Associates, a computer security company. His anti-virus programs became wildly popular, and McAfee got very rich, ultimately selling his interest in the firm for $100 million in 1996. (Now renamed simply “McAfee”, the firm remains one of the largest computer security software companies in the world.)

McAfee moved to the Caribbean nation of Belize and spent several years dabbling in various projects. However, a series of bad investments and the global fiscal crunch whittled his fortune to just a few million. And it’s just about here the weirdness began.

Early in 2012 Belize police raided McAfee’s home on the suspicion that he was manufacturing illegal drugs on his property, which McAfee denied. No charges were filed and McAfee was soon released, but some police officials raised public concern that John McAfee was having sex with underage girls living at his house. McAfee accused the police of being little better than thugs hired to rough him up for bribes. The police say McAfee had illegal guns. McAfee says the police shot his dog. The events left a foul taste for everyone.

Then on November 10, McAfee’s neighbor, Gregory Viant Faull, was found dead from a gunshot. Belize police sought out McAfee – they say for simple questioning – but McAfee was nowhere to be found. Officials quickly put out a warrant for his arrest and labeled him the prime suspect in Faull’s murder.

In an interview with Wired magazine that can charitably be called odd, McAfee denied any involvement with Faull’s murder, telling Wired’s Joshua Davis that if the police caught him, he was convinced they would torture and kill him. Since then, the millionaire computer genius says he’s slept under cars, darkened his face with shoe polish, stuffed his nose with a tampon and dyed his hair to remain hidden. McAfee says he’s posed as a drunken German tourist and a Guatemalan salesman – even fooling an AP reporter covering the story. His only companion, he says, is a 17-year-old girl named “Samantha.”

Just how do we know this?

Because while he’s been on the lam, John McAfee also decided to start up a blog: “” Not surprisingly, the blog is generating more questions than answers.

“It’s absolutely him,” says the blog’s administrator, cartoonist and McAfee friend Chad Essley, who says he set up the blog but that its posts are genuinely authored by McAfee while fleeing police. Not everyone’s a believer.

From John McAfee’s Facebook page

“There is so much about the John McAfee soap opera that is unbelievable that it might seem pointless to highlight a single slice of malarkey,” writes Paul McNamara at NetWorkWorld. “Allow me to flag what I consider to be the fishiest tidbit in a tale that just reeks of low tide.”

McNamara notes that the blog’s masthead, which reads “The Hinterlands” is also the title of the soon-to-be-published biography of McAfee…written by Chad Essley. More, in a recent post McAfee says he’s pre-stocked the blog with enough content to last a year – a strange thing for a guy who’s running from the police and sleeping on lice-filled beds, says McNamara.

The blog contains discursive posts about the Mennonites of Belize, the love of young women, accusations of arrests and taunts of the media and police. Some say they read his blog as having said he’s manufactured mass quantities of illegal drugs; others say he just sounds paranoid. “I would go so far as to say bonkers,” said Belize’s Prime Minister Dean Barrow.

Whatever his guilt or innocence, mental health or instability, John McAfee’s story is playing out real-time online. Using the Internet, he is both hiding from view, and putting himself on international display.

Fitting for a man who knows so much about computer security.



Chinese Social Network YY Reaches 400 Million Users

Posted November 20th, 2012 at 8:20 am (UTC-4)
1 comment

Under the leadership of an ambitious CEO, is quietly becoming one of the world’s largest and most innovative social networks.

Ross Slutsky | Atlanta GA

By focusing on engagement instead of just connection, YY is changing the way we think about social media.

David Li might not be a household name in the West yet, but that may soon change.  Li runs the massive social network, and has developed a business model that in some respects is more interesting than that of Facebook. Specifically, where Facebook currently relies on advertising for profit, YY derives revenues from a diverse combination of gaming, music sales and virtual currency transactions.

At a recent tech conference in Shanghai, Li explained, “Before, people did not think that the engagement segment of the market was big enough, but that’s because the technology wasn’t good enough. If YY can continue to improve, in the future you wouldn’t need to have a conference like this in person, where people have to come from all over the world to China to do it.”  Speaking with moderator Frank You, Li continued: “You could do it in a cloud format and allow a lot more people to be engaged. The challenge is to provide this service to tens of thousands of people at the same time and still have the same high quality of voice delivery.”

For Mr. Li, redefining expectations is nothing new. Few could have anticipated that he would grow a simple gaming platform into a massive, multipurpose social portal used by karaoke singers, educators, and gamers alike. Today, YY boasts over 400 million registered users, and according to their latest SEC filing, recently reached a monthly average of 51.7 hours spend on the site for active users.

Implications for Telework

Unlike other social networks that mostly just connect users, Li says that YY wants to engage them.  He envisions YY as a collective action platform that brings large groups of users together with an aim toward solving problems. For example, during the recent “Silicon Dragon” conference, Li highlighted YY’s potential as a telecommuting application by telling a story about a pharmaceutical company with three thousand salespeople who had to educate thirty thousand doctors about a new drug. Previously the company would have had to travel and host costly seminars, but YY’s sophisticated group messaging chat and video capacities enabled them to cut costs and educate the doctors online. Whether Li will attempt to expand YY’s telework capacities remains to be seen.

Plans for Expansion

Game controller

YY recently expanded its platform to enable users to broadcast professional gaming tournaments. If they successfully capture this market, they could hold a powerful position as a cultural enterprise.

As VOA previously reported, YY includes an innovative financial exchange system that enables virtual currency transactions unlike anything available in the West. Talented singers can earn up to $20,000 per month by live streaming performances and related events on the site.

However, YY is also taking on new areas. Their SEC filing includes plans for monetizing YY’s mobile platform by allowing users to purchase virtual items and to develop relationships with new networks of advertisers.

YY’s most ambitious and potentially game-changing plan involves broadcasting e-sports – enabling millions of Chinese gamers to watch competitive gaming tournaments at the same time. Professional gaming has widely been reported as a profitable market in South Korea (see video here and start at 6:45), but also has a considerable presence in China. Given that YY’s core infrastructure evolved from a gaming platform, YY’s managers have an intricate understanding of the Chinese gaming market and may be well positioned for the e-sports market.

If they succeed, YY could become an essential social gaming hub and garner major increases in active user time spent on the site. While Western pro gaming leagues such as Major League Gaming have taken advantage of streaming websites in the past, these leagues are tiny compared to the Asian gaming scene. If it works, YY’s sports broadcasting platform could become as valuable a cultural enterprise as something like the NFL is in the United States.

Seeking out Rich Uncle Pennybags

YY is now attempting a Western IPO with hopes of raising up to 97.5 million dollars. If all goes according to plan, shares will initially trade for between $10.50 and $12.50 on the NASDAQ under the symbol YY, with Morgan Stanley, Citi, and Deutsche Bank underwriting the deal. As promising as YY may seem, whether or not it will trade well on Western markets remains to be seen. According to Forbes, 13 Chinese companies that conducted IPOSin 2012; only two of them are currently trading above their initial offering prices.

Lessons for The West

YY CEO and founder David Li. Though not as famous as Mark Zuckerberg, his vision for engaging social media may be no less profound.

Stock value uncertainties aside, YY is a promising social network that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg might want to take note of. In many respects, Facebook groups fail to truly encapsulate or enable what it means to be in a group. Public groups primarily serve as a means of publicizing various entities and often end up as little more than a public spamming forum. Private groups can sometimes enable cursory threads of conversation, but still aren’t conducive to deeper forms of engagement.

Although Facebook’s Skype integration happened over a year ago, Facebook’s group engagement capacities are still thin compared to Google’s “Hangouts.” What’s more, both Google+ and Facebook fail to impress when compared with YY’s group communication services. Although building out more sophisticated group communications capacities might not yield an instant return on investment, Western social networks may soon be forced to make a choice – either offer proper group functions or don’t offer them at all.

Facebook v. YouFace: A Privacy Faceoff

Posted October 24th, 2012 at 12:29 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

“YouFace Is Looking Less Like A Joke On Privacy

Ross Slutsky | Atlanta GA

Have you heard of a social network called YouFace? If you’re a “30 Rock” fan, that name probably sounds familiar. For those less addicted to comedian Tina Fey, “30 Rock” is a hit TV program in the US, and in a previous season, “30 Rock” had a running joke about a social network called YouFace which served as a broad parody of Facebook in particular, and social media in general.

However, YouFace doesn’t only exist in the 30 Rock universe. As some in the tech community may already know, YouFace is a real Uzbek social network now boasting over 150,000 registered users.

This last summer, Youface received a considerable amount of negative press. But YouFace founder Ayyub Abdulloh says he’s tired of being misunderstood. Ayyub told us, “I started the YouFace network with a friend purely out of an interest in programming. I never expected it to get any attention in the Western press, let alone negative attention.”

With regard to privacy violation allegations, Abdulloh says, “The press accusations that we have somehow misused user data or violated user privacy are completely unwarranted. I did not touch the user’s data and have no right to do so. In my mind, user data belongs to the people. To use their personal belongings without their permission is criminal.”

In light of recent developments, one could reasonably conclude that in important respects, YouFace offers users greater control over data privacy than Facebook.

As Digital Frontiers previously reported, Facebook has frustrating limitations in terms of user control over contact information.  Let’s do a head to head comparison.


On Facebook, you have three different settings for how you display your contact information (everyone, friends of friends, or just friends). However, no matter what, you must make said information available to other members of the social network. Facebook does not enable users to store their contact information while keeping said information private. Let’s check out the alternative:


Unlike Facebook, YouFace respects the fact that some people might not want to publicize their contact information and gives users the option to not make such information available to other members of the social network.

For all of the grief people have given Ayyub, Facebook just might have something to learn from YouFace.


Hey, I’ve Never Met You. And This Is Crazy. But Here’s My Number. Harass Me Maybe.

Posted October 19th, 2012 at 9:38 am (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

Why Facebook Believes Privacy Is Not Its Job

Ross Slutsky | Atlanta GA

Facebook has never had a stellar reputation when it comes to privacy.  Here is the latest annoyance.

Open a new window in your browser, login to Facebook (if you haven’t already) and check your privacy settings.

Click on Edit Settings.

Now go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell, “I’m moderately displeased, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

The default setting is that any of the billion people on Facebook can look you up using the email address or phone number you’ve provided in your account.

You may be thinking to yourself, “This is not so bad.  I will just change the privacy settings so that no one can look me up using my email address or phone number.”

But then when you try to change your settings…

You realize that completely closing off search functionality is not an option.  Granted, you could always remove your email and/or cellphone information from Facebook, but this is an unfriendly arrangement in terms of user control over data.

Just because I put certain contact information on Facebook for friends to access does not mean I want said information to be indexed on Facebook’s internal search system.

Furthermore, by forcing the same privacy standards onto email addresses and phone numbers, Facebook is lumping together control over two very different forms of contact information.  This arrangement is somewhat coercive.

If John Doe is comfortable making his email indexable in search but wants to prevent people from looking him by phone number, he is out of luck.

But none of this should really be a surprise. Facebook’s founder, CEO and guiding force, Mark Zuckerberg, says people really don’t care about privacy anymore. “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” Zuckerberg famously said more than two years ago.

Still, there is no reason for Facebook to do this.  The logical and obvious solution is for Facebook to decouple control over email address accessibility from control over mobile data accessibility.

In other words, cut it out Zuck.



Video Games: The Future of Psychotherapy?

Posted October 2nd, 2012 at 10:00 am (UTC-4)

Ross Slutsky | Atlanta GA 

Do you have too many nightmares?  Maybe you should play more violent videogames.  Little-known research suggests that playing video games might reduce nightmares, amongst other unexpected effects.

All of us experience dreams. Some are good, others are bad. And if you’re lucky, some are lucid.

In case you aren’t familiar with the term, lucid dreaming is a state of consciousness within a dream—you become aware of the fact that you are dreaming without waking up. Sometimes, once you enter a lucid state, you can even take control of what happens in your dream.

According to studies by experimental psychologist Dr. Jayne Gackenbach, there is a correlation between playing video games and increased rates of self-reported incidents of lucid dreaming. These studies seem to indicate that gamers not only are more likely to have lucid dreams than non-gamers, but also that they are better at controlling their dreams once they are in a lucid state. In other words, gamers are more likely than non-gamers to take over their dreams. According to Professor Gackenbach, “[G]aming allows practice in controlling an alternative (nonreal) world like dreams – thus by the time you get to a dream and a familiar, game like, circumstance emerges it’s no surprise that gamers take control.”

Better still, the studies indicate that gamers who take control of their dreams experience fewer nightmares. Although there could be many reasons for the fewer nightmares, one popular explanation in both the academic literature and in various online anecdotes is that lucid dreaming gamers can turn their nightmares into games.

When Your Dreams Follow You:

What is it like to turn the tables on your nightmare? Let’s look at the following example from lucid dreaming enthusiast Peter Casale.

Like many youth growing up in the nineties, Peter discovered Wolfenstein 3D, a popular video game in which you shoot at zombie Nazis (of course) and try to kill Hitler.  The first day that Peter first discovered this game, he played it for hours on end, immersing himself in virtual combat.

Unfortunately, the Nazi hunting would come back to haunt him. That night, when Peter went to bed, he had a vivid and terrifying nightmare in which he was being chased by Hitler through a deserted mansion, until he found himself hiding by a fireplace, hoping Hitler wouldn’t find him.

In spite of Peter’s best efforts, the Hitler character eventually closed in on him. This is often the part of most nightmares where people realize they’re dreaming, and wake up in a cold sweat.

smashing naziism

Some fought the Nazis in World War II. Others fight them in their dreams.

But not Peter.

He exploited his lucidity to the fullest: “I snapped,” he writes.

“This is MY dream! I jumped out of the fireplace and … glared at Hitler…  [I] held up my left arm and suddenly there was a massive machine gun… My right arm followed, another massive machine gun. I leveled them both directly at Hitler. As I pulled the triggers, he turned and ran. I shot after him, laughing. That was the last nightmare I’ve ever had.”

What Would Freud Say?

Although Professor Gackenbach and other disparate researchers have been working on the relationship between video games and lucid dreams over the course of the past decade, it has not been given broader research prioritization.

Therapeutic deployment of video games is nothing new. Numerous US hospitals already deploy virtual reality treatments for war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, Gackenbach’s research presents a broader range of potential implications. When you are lucid dreaming, you are consciously moving through a dream construct operated by your unconscious. As the Wolfenstein story illustrates, lucid dreaming presents a new frontier through which we can interact with subconscious emotions.

This could change the way we think about psychotherapy. If video games are already inadvertently elevating our chances of taking over our dreams, imagine what might happen when video game developers study the psychological literature and build their games with the express intent of inducing lucidity.

Of course, there could be risks associated with such developments. Psychologists don’t yet understand the full range of consequences from tinkering with our dreams.

That said, this uncertainty is all the more reason for psychologists to join Dr. Gackenbach and start giving the relationship between gaming and dreaming the attention it deserves.

-Special thanks to Dr. Tanine Allison for helping me explore emerging topics in video games and making this article possible.

Regulating the Sacred and the Profane

Posted September 30th, 2012 at 11:49 am (UTC-4)
1 comment

Is There A Right To Not Be Offended – And Should There Be?

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

As arguments over freedom of speech go, this one seemed comparatively tame.

Earlier this week in a New York City subway station, Egyptian-American blogger Mona Eltahawy saw an ad that she considered racist and offensive. “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man,” reads the bold-type ad, concluding “Support Israel, defeat jihad.” The ad, which has appeared in New York City and in Israel, is sponsored by a group closely associated with anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller. Observers quickly figured out that Geller’s ad, who previously has said “that Islam is the most antisemitic, genocidal ideology in the world,” was referring to at least some Muslims as “savages.”

Eltahawy, who considers the ad hate propaganda, had had enough. She took a can of pink spray paint from her bag and began covering over Geller’s work. What she didn’t expect is that Geller supporter Pamela Hall was nearby doing an interview for local television. Hall thrust herself in between the ad and Eltahawy, and a argument ensued. “Mona, you think you have a right to do this?” asked Hall.”I do, actually,” Eltahawy shot back; “I think this is freedom of expression just as this (the ad) is freedom of expression.” A fight ensued; not long after two uniformed policemen put Eltahawy in handcuffs and arrested her. (She’s since been released.)

Initially, the Metropolitan Transport Authority barred the ads; however U.S. district judge Paul Engelmayer ruled that the ads were protected speech under the Constitution’s First Amendment.  “Our hands are tied,” said an MTA spokesperson. “Under our existing ad standards as modified by the injunction, the MTA is required to run the ad.”

Also under existing MTA rules, defacing any approved ad is an act of vandalism and graffiti, a misdemeanor, which is exactly what Eltahawy was charged with before being released. Which pretty much should have ended that story.

But in this small confrontation, we can see many aspects of the much larger and more troublesome conflicts triggered by those Internet clips of the movie titled “Innocence of Muslims” still churning. Such as: what constitutes free speech?  When can hateful speech be banned, and what is an appropriate reaction to speech one finds repellent? And who decides such things?

“My right not to be offended and insulted overrides a scoundrel’s right to malign the Prophet of Islam in order to satisfy his sick Islamophobia,” writes journalist Khalid Amayreh in an online post. That heartfelt sentiment, while it wouldn’t pass muster in a U.S. court, appears to be one many Muslims are embracing. In other words, a new right: The Right To Not Be Offended.

At this week’s U.N. General Assembly, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading efforts to have all Muslim nations back “international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred,” (although who exactly would make that call is unclear.) Wasting no time at home, Turkish Minister Egeman Bagis told TRT TV “we have now begun working on making insults against (holy) values a crime against humanity upon directives by Prime Minister Erdogan.”

Speaking Saturday with The Washington Post, Yemeni President Abed Rabbog Mansour Hadi echoed this theme, saying “It should not be understood that freedom of expression is freedom of attacking other’s faith.”

Except that it is. At least, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

“Our whole system is premised on the notion that the people of America  get to decide what they say, not the government,” says American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Chris Hansen. “For the most part, we believe the answer to speech with which we disagree is more speech.”

This may seem difficult to understand, but in many places around the world, governments exert real or de facto control over what can be said by whom, making speech not so much free as it is a commodity. Say what the government wants to buy and you’re in; otherwise, you’re out…maybe quite literally, as in the case of the Egyptian Copt blogger Alber Saber who’s been thrown in jail after allegedly posting a link to “Innocence of Muslims.” Remember, unlike Eltawahy who actually defaced someone else’s speech, Saber merely linked to it. And he faces a much stiffer penalty.

“We don’t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression,” Islamic scholar Ismail Mohamed tells the New York Times. “We think it is an offense against our rights.”

The problem is that international law disagrees. “There is not any current right not to be offended,” notes Guy Berger, Director of the Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO.

“The Organisation stands for respect for both freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs and religious symbols. As such it urges the exercise of freedom of expression in a spirit of mutual respect and mutual understanding. This position does not exclude criticism of religions; instead it encourages the use of freedom of expression in forms of dialogue that respect rather than offend a criticised constituency.”

Which, reading through the international bureaucratese, is to say that ideally everyone will respect everyone else and play nicely with each other, but when they don’t there’s really very little that can be done.

Of course, part of the problem is that different nations have different free speech standards. In the US, there’s a reason the right to freedom of speech and assembly is listed first in the constitution – because for many Americans, freedom of speech is the right from which nearly all other civic rights follow. And that includes painful speech, such as groups protesting at the burial of a killed US soldier by holding placards saying “God Hates Fags” and “Pray For More Dead Soldiers,” or hateful speech like burning the flag at a protest. The history of the First Amendment is very often that of an offended majority still recognizing the right of a few to say outrageous things.

But even in the US, not all speech is protected. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater (Schenck v. United States, 1919.) You can, actually, make menacing statements about the President, but not if they intended specific threat to the President’s life, as judged by an objective observer (18 U.S.C. § 879.) But particularly when it comes to opinion about a person, group, belief, politics or activity, pretty much anything goes.

“It’s really a mistake to think that this is about protecting unpopular speech because we agree with it, or because it’s important to be heard,” says the ACLU’s Chris Hansen. “It’s really about making sure that the government can’t decide what speech can and can’t be heard.”

But that’s exactly what some Muslim leaders want to see: an international ban on speech – particularly on the Internet – that Muslims would find if offensive to their prophet. Says Guy Berger:

“With the global character of the Internet as well as circumvention techniques that bypass regulatory limitations, it becomes very difficult for any state to implement a balance.  To the extent that efforts are made, however, they ought to protect freedom of expression by only providing for limitations in terms the international standards in terms of predictability, proportionality and legitimate purpose. Legitimate purpose can include public morals, although the UN Human Rights Committee has cautioned that this ought not to be on the basis of a single tradition and it should not discriminate between person.”

But sifting through that careful statement opens a Pandora’s box of legal complexities.  If, for example, Yemeni Muslims offended by the “Innocence of Muslims” clips win a right to have them banned, so don’t Jewish groups who take offense at children’s cartoons that air on Yemeni television that portray Jews as skulking, fang-toothed villains and the U.S. as blood-thirsty dupes of an Israeli cabal have a right to have them stricken?

If an exception is made for “Innocence of Muslims”, what of “The Book Of Mormon,” a light-hearted satire playing to packed houses on Broadway? What of Russian orthodox criticisms of the Baptist church, or the portrayals of Sikhs by both Muslims and Hindus? As someone of Swedish heritage, I’m a little offended when people refer to my fore-bearers as “Chunk-headed Lutherans.” Do I have a right to shut someone else up? Where does it stop?

“That’s exactly the problem, it doesn’t stop,” says the ACLU’s Chris Hansen. “Because if speech can be banned against one group, who’s to say it can’t be banned against another group, or a party, or an ideal, or even the government itself?”

“Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense,” said President Obama at last week’s UN General Assembly:

“Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As president of our country, and commander-in-chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so”

The world is again learning that free speech can hurt. It can be ugly, and it can rouse the deepest felt emotions. In some places it’s limited, or outright banned. But in this interconnected Internet age, can free speech truly be stopped…and should it? And if speech isn’t free, what value is it?  Says the ACLU’s Hansen:

“The truth is everybody, every American, has speech that they would secretly like to suppress, but we have all reached the conclusion that we can’t indulge ourselves on that. There have been times when it’s frayed…the country often doesn’t live up to its ideals. But for the last 75 years, the 1st amendment has been among the most solid of American principles, and the most honored.”

In other words, it’s unlikely that the U.S. Constitution will anytime soon recognize a right to not be offended. Likewise, it’s almost a guarantee that somewhere, sometime, someone will put up something new on the Internet, hurting the feelings and millions and triggering more outrage. As in the past, governments will no doubt exercise their ability to selectively block those parts of the web they feel are spreading offensive material; that, or pressure the web company to voluntarily censor the material itself (as Google often does with material the Thai government feels violates lese majeste.

But as long as people are allowed to speak their minds, at least a few will take offense, and try and act out in whatever way they feel is appropriate, whether that’s shared by international standard or not.

For what it’s worth, Pam Geller’s group originally won the right to post 10 of the “savages” posters around New York City. As of this writing, all 10 have been torn, defaced or completely taken down.

The Guilt Of Inciters

Posted September 14th, 2012 at 3:17 pm (UTC-4)

The “Innocence of Muslims” And The Spread Of Internet Rumor

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Once again, the world is learning the hard way that in the tinderbox of religion and politics, the Internet can be gasoline.

This week’s shocking attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the subsequent killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. embassy personnel, has left the world a more confused and angry place. For the moment, protests that began in Egypt are spreading to U.S. embassies around the world; all seemingly over a 14 minute video that claims to be excerpts from a film called “The Innocence of Muslims.”

Bangladeshi Muslims burning a U.S. flag during a protest in Dhaka, against the film “Innocence of Muslims.” (AP Photo/A.M.Ahad)

Fingers of blame are being pointed in all sorts of directions; among them are those aimed squarely at the Internet and social networking sites for hosting clips of the “movie” that has hurt and angered so many Muslims, and then speeding its spread through social media. It’s just a fact of life now that, given the right moment, a bit of video that has languished in obscurity for months can rocket through the web to millions of people within an hour or two – hardly enough time to even know what it is or where it came from, let alone what it means.

Yet the Internet is also helping to answer those questions, however slowly it’s coming. And much of what people thought they knew about “Innocence of Muslims” simply isn’t true at all.

The producer, a man who called himself Sam Bacile, is apparently Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a bank fraud convict who has used at least a dozen false IDs in the past. Nakoula, as Bacile, told the Wall Street Journal that he was an Israel real estate agent who had gone into hiding in the Middle East. It turns out that Nakoula, whose identity has been confirmed by federal authorities, is a 55-year-old Egyptian-American who in 1997 was convicted of intent to manufacture methamphetamine. He resides in Southern California and is said to be in his house, surrounded by a platoon of reporters.

The original casting call for “Innocence of Muslims” was for a film then titled “Desert Warrior” and billed as a “historical desert drama set in the Middle East.” Its director is said by crew to have been beyond incompetent; its script changed daily but never had a word to say about Islam or the prophet. Actors such as Cindy Lee Garcia say Bacile lied to them about the film’s intent – and then poorly dubbed over much of their original dialogue with inflammatory dialogue (analysts at On The Media have documented many of these clumsy dubs, and what the actors were actually saying.)

“Bacile” told the AP he raised $5 million dollars for the movie from Jewish donors, but anyone who has seen even 30 seconds of the shooting on YouTube can attest that it looks like it cost $5. Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center doubts both the price tag and the involvement of any Jewish contributors. “The fact someone out there ascribed this to Jews is classic anti-Semitic blood libel,” he says.

Even calling it a movie feels like an untruth. The Los Angeles Times reports that “Innocence” played just once earlier this year in a seedy theater on Hollywood Boulevard to an audience of less than 10. “The acting was amateurish, the dialogue clunky and the costumes no better than those sold for Halloween,” write Phil Willon and Rebecca Keegan.

They’re being generous, judging by the two clips posted on July 2 by YouTube user “sambacile.” As of Tuesday Sept. 12th, the video only had generated 55,000 views (rising to 2,600,000 by Friday.) Although production values vary from nation to nation, its hard to imagine anyone connected to the web could view them as anything other than amateur nonsense. “The movie is disgusting, offensive, and clearly intended for no other reason than to anger people,” writes Libyan journalist Sarah Abdurrahman. “It is unfortunate that there were some out there who took the bait.”

In short, nearly everything about “Innocence” looks like a fraud, and one apparently designed solely to stir up as much hurt and anger as possible. Mission accomplished. The Internet undeniably has helped spread that outrage with lightning speed to many more millions that might ever before have heard about it, much less actually viewed it. However, the web is now also helping to shine a light on that fraud, and dispel as many of the rumors as possible, for those willing to listen.

As we’ve noted many times before, the Internet by itself is neither good nor evil; it merely amplifies the tendencies and qualities of those using it.

Next week, we hope to look deeper into the role and responsibilities of social media in playing up, or knocking down events such as this.



A Good Ol’ Fashioned Digital Nightmare

Posted September 12th, 2012 at 10:38 am (UTC-4)
1 comment

Ross Slutsky | Atlanta GA

While the sensible thing would be for me to go to bed, a rather creepy dream still lingers in my head. So before I close my eyes and call it a night, I’ll bring my digital delusion to light.

It was midday in a pleasant, if nondescript suburban neighborhood. The sun beamed through a clear sky; cars occasionally pass as I walked with Matt, one of my closest friends from high school, down the sidewalk.

As the two of us walked along, I felt a familiar vibration in my right pocket. However, when I pulled out my iPhone, rather than a new text or update, there was an ominous push notification filled with odd symbols you would normally only find in a corrupted word document. I turned my head—Matt looked down at his phone and grimaced.

“We’ve been hacked, they know our location, and they’re coming for us,” said Matt.

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t know. We can’t risk it though.”

The two of us split up, running in zig-zags through a hellish urban sprawl, disoriented and paranoid.

We eventually reunited in a run-down auto shop to plan our next move. On a laptop, using Tor, I looked up the symbols from the push notification to learn more. Matt was right.  This was real…

Fortunately, soon after, as shadows gathered around the outside of the building, I woke up.

This was my first digital nightmare. Normally my nightmares are run of the mill—like experiencing a head on collision, entering a final exam completely unprepared, or falling from the sky.

Smart phone

Your mobile data may be less secure than you think.

Unfortunately, this nightmare isn’t nearly as far fetched as it sounds. In 2008, just a few years before the Mubarak regime fell in the Arab Spring, Vodafone, a prominent mobile wireless carrier, announced that the Egyptian government had forced them to turn over the personal mobile data of citizens involved in a protest concerning a food shortage.

In addition, last year, the Chinese government announced plans to monitor the location of over 17 million cell phone users in Beijing, reducing the ability of said people to move around unmonitored.

American Unexceptionalism

For some privacy advocates, the United States isn’t exactly setting a good example in terms of civil liberties and mobile data privacy. In August, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that tracking the location of a cell phone without a warrant does not violate the 4th Amendment. As Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead noted, this ruling contradicts the notion emanating from the 4th Amendment that the police should not be conducting surveillance on you without a reasonable suspicion that you’re doing something illegal.

And that’s not all. Two months ago, a Congressional inquiry revealed that cell phone carriers responded to over 1.3 million requests for text messages, phone records, location data, and other information from law enforcement agencies last year. If that’s enough to give pause, consider that the carrier companies have a strong financial incentive to comply with these  requests. Carriers can make a few thousand dollars per request by charging law enforcement agencies surveillance fees; last year, AT&T reportedly took in 8.3 million dollars from surveillance-related activities.

Of course, there were probably good reasons for some of those police requests to collect mobile data. It’s possible that the current arrangement in which law enforcement agencies can access your mobile data by simply writing your carrier a check balances the issues at play. However, if that’s our new social contract, we’ve significantly lowered our expectations of privacy. In light of this, we may be overdue for a national discussion about our mobile data privacy rights.

Nightmares don’t always make sense, but sometimes they’re based on real fears. In my head I can still see the twisted symbols on that push notification. This is one of those dreams I hope never comes true.

Ross Slutsky covers emerging digital technology issues for “Digital Frontiers” from Atlanta, Georgia

What’s Digital Frontiers?

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.

Find us on twitter


May 2021
« Aug