Why Did Pakistan Shut Off Twitter?

Posted May 22nd, 2012 at 8:13 pm (UTC-4)
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Debate And Rumors About Censorship Swirl

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

It only lasted for about 8 hours, but that was long enough to start a whole new round of Internet rumor and worry.

On Sunday, May 20th, Pakistani telecommunications authorities suddenly blocked all access to the micro-blogging site Twitter, effectively shutting off the service within Pakistan. Then, just as suddenly, service was restored that evening, leaving behind angry web activists and charges about why access was cut off in the first place. The official reason given: concerns about an event that’s come to be known as “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”

As background, in 2010, a Seattle-based cartoonist, angered by death threats made by some Islamic activists against the animation team behind South Park, urged people to draw images of the prophet Muhammad on May 20 and post them online. Free-speech advocates quickly turned the idea into a satiric event, which drew worldwide headlines and angry responses from those Muslims who consider images of any of the prophets to be blasphemous.

At the time authorities in Pakistan were so angered that they blocked access Facebook until the social network agreed to remove pages promoting the event for users in India and Pakistan. (The cartoonist, Molly Norris, has since distanced herself from the event after receiving what the FBI called a “very serious” threat.)

This year the event came back, and so did worries about inflamed public opinion. So prior to May 20, the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority, or PTA, requested that Facebook and Twitter remove any pages, images or references to Draw Muhammad Day. This time around, Facebook complied but Twitter did not, and thus Twitter was briefly censored. (For its part, Twitter released a statement saying its policy is to comply with local court orders regarding content, but it received no such notice from Pakistan.)

By now, with service restored and May 20 come and gone, the issue should have faded. Yet some free-speech and democracy advocates in Pakistan are trying to keep it alive, arguing that they see a more sinister motive at work by the government.

“The government is trying to test the waters to see what the response on such censorship is,” Shahzad Ahmad of the group Bytes For All tells the Christian Science Monitor. “We foresee more control on access of information, like we have seen in the past, when elections are near.”

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Iran’s Coming “Halal” Intranet

Posted May 16th, 2012 at 5:58 pm (UTC-4)
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Is Tehran Turning Its Back On the World Wide Web?

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

For years, the Iranian government has been threatening to pull the plug on the world wide web, sealing the nation and its people off from the rest of the Internet. Officially, Tehran says it wants to create a “halal” Internet, or one free from outside “impurities” or temptations. Unofficially, it’s believed the ruling clerics are uncomfortable with the free flow of news and opinions coming from outside Iran, and how democracy advocates inside the nation have used the web to organize. Periodic cyber-attacks, like the Stuxnet virus, only compound the worries.

Very often these threats would rise and fall in close relation to national events, such as upcoming elections or rumors of national protests. For example, earlier this February, with elections nearing, there were renewed rumblings about pulling the country offline. Additionally, the official Iranian office of cyber-police issued new rules requiring online cafes to install video cameras and ask for identification before letting anyone on the net. The government also stepped up efforts to block social network sites like Facebook and Twitter, and slowed Internet traffic to a trickle. Then once the elections passed, the pressure and rhetoric subsided. Just as in years past.

Google traffic report on Iran showing major, but short-lived constriction of Internet traffic

Now, those threats appear to be ramping up once more. Last week, the government announced a prohibition on all banks, telephone companies and other commercial enterprises from using foreign-based email service for its communications. According to the rule, those firms may now only use email services with the .ir top-level domain, effectively banning Gmail, Hotmail and many others. Then on Monday, the semi-official Mehr news service announced that Iran’s main oil terminal on Kharg Island was being taken offline for an unknown period of time due to a cyber-attack.

A source at the National Iranian Oil Company told Reuters that a virus had been detected inside the terminal’s command and control systems, but offered little other information. Of course it’s been impossible to independently verify what actually happened at the Kharg facility. But given Iran’s experience with Stuxnet, and later with the Duqu virus, a new infection at Kharg is a real possibility.

The larger question is whether this is just another momentary squeezing of the Internet, or a sign that officials are seriously working to take their nation off the web. If they can, that is.

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“Shading” The Truth In China

Posted May 11th, 2012 at 3:11 pm (UTC-4)
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Weibo censorship in the Chen Guangcheng case

Alice Xin Liu

The twists and turns of the fate of blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng has had much of China’s online community in its thrall.

wo images featuring blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng are seen during a protest in front of the Chinese central government's liaison in Hong Kong (AP/Vincent Yu))

On April 27 Chen arrived in the US embassy from his native Shandong, where he had escaped from house arrest.  Despite news of the event being censored, Chinese internet users quickly became aware of his situation. This was especially true on Weibo – the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. To bypass the censors, netizens used nicknames concocted for Chen Guangcheng, including “Shawshank” and “Sunglasses.” But even these terms were soon blocked.

On May 2 things took a dramatic turn when he left the embassy under the guidance of U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke to seek medical treatment at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital. It was said that he had left of “his own volition”.

Charles Custer, who runs blog site ChinaGeeks, explored in the post “Sina’s Softer Censorhip” how “on your own volition” had become a online meme by that evening. In the post, he says that instead of blocking the term, Sina Weibo simply stopped indexing any new posts that used the term. Custer said the maneuver created what he calls “an artificial silence”, where users may think no one is talking about the issue even though there were many posts discussing the matter.

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The Internet’s Archive

Posted May 8th, 2012 at 5:47 pm (UTC-4)
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There’s More Free Stuff Out There Than You May Know

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

May 8, 1977. The setting was Ithaca, New York; Cornell University’s barn-like Barton field house, specifically. On that particular Sunday evening, for the princely sum of $7.50 – $6.50 for students – you could buy one general admission ticket (assuming you could find any for sale) to hear a performance by the Grateful Dead.

For the Dead it was just another gig on an unending tour; the Ithaca stop was sandwiched between New Haven’s Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum and Buffalo’s War Memorial Coliseum.  Fairly to form, the band played 20 songs that night, starting with “New Minglewood Blues” and wrapping with the classic “One More Saturday Night.” Along the way they hit a number of fan favorites like “Fire on the Mountain,” “Not Fade Away” and “Morning Dew.”

At the time, May 8th was just another performance by the Dead, an enduring American band that had long attracted it’s own rolling culture of scruffy fans, hippies, dope-smokers and assorted others who followed the band from show to show. But for true “Deadheads,” it’s much, much more than that. For Deadhead Nation, May 8 is forever known simply as “Barton Hall.”

35 years later to the day, the Dead’s spring 1977 tour is now the stuff of legend, with the Barton Hall show the most celebrated performance of the band’s career. “I started hearing from other Deadheads that the Barton show was famous,” Brad Krakow tells the Cornell Chronicle. One of the lucky attendees that night, Krakow characterized the Dead’s performance as “tight, no mistakes and inspired. It is funny now when friends ask if that is ‘The’ Barton Hall when visiting. It is an icon.”

But don’t take Krakow’s word for it. Download the entire concert and decide for yourself. In fact, why not download every concert the Grateful Dead ever played to compare and contrast? Go ahead – you can do it all for free, and without any copyright worries, thanks to a website called “The Internet Archive.”

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Call of the Weird

Posted May 6th, 2012 at 6:53 pm (UTC-4)
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Thoughts On The Strange World Of Online Ads

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

I’ll admit it. As an organization, we here at VOA can be a rather starchy bunch. Which is usually fitting, given the very serious issues we cover on a daily basis. Still, in general there’s not a lot of laughs to be had on our site.

And that includes this blog. Over the last few weeks we’ve contemplated the hazards of a cashless society, considered the possibility of a cyber-war with Iran and fretted over how much of our lives the Internet is stealing. Whether it’s a crackdown on free speech on the web in Vietnam or a continuing erosion of online privacy, our coverage has tended to see the Internet in serious, if even threatening, terms.

But the web is at least as much about humor, or just plain strangeness, as it is ponderous issues. With few exceptions, it’s a near certainty that any random “cute zoo animal” video or juvenile humor site has more traffic and Facebook “likes” than the most serious of stories from the most august of news organizations.

At times it seems that the Internet was built with funny and weird in mind. Odd and humorous go over well in small doses, which the web readily provides, and they want to be shared with friends, which is what social networks do best.

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“Infocrafting” or Propaganda Online?

Posted May 1st, 2012 at 4:57 pm (UTC-4)
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Rogue “Info Ops” Agents Go After The Wrong Target

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

As many have learned the hard way, protecting your reputation online can be difficult. The way the web works, once just one person publishes something bad or inaccurate about you, it lives forever in the net’s cache. Should you be unfortunate enough to have someone, or even a team of people, who know their way around the Internet writing malicious things about you, it can be impossible to ever fully correct the record. Bad stuff tends to thrive online.

Just ask Tom Vanden Brook or Ray Locker. They’re both reporters at USA Today; Vanden Brook covering the Pentagon for the paper since 2006, and Locker the White House and other agencies. Recently they teamed up to explore what the Pentagon calls “information operations” in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. A term of military art, “Info Ops” is frankly just another phrase for propaganda: the transmission of information, factual or not, with the specific goal of changing beliefs. “Winning the hearts and minds,” as President Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying during the Vietnam war.

USA Today reporter Tom Vanden Brook

Vanden Brook and Locker began digging into the effectiveness of current Pentagon information operations in overseas war zones, and their overall assessment was not positive. “U.S. info ops programs dubious, costly” read the headline in the February 29th story. “From 2005 to 2009, such spending rose from $9 million to $580 million a year mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon and congressional records show,” they write:

“Last year, spending dropped to $202 million as the Iraq War wrapped up. A USA TODAY investigation, based on dozens of interviews and a series of internal military reports, shows that Pentagon officials have little proof the programs work and they won’t make public where the money goes. In Iraq alone, more than $173 million was paid to what were identified only as “miscellaneous foreign contractors.”

In particular, the reporters ask hard questions about one of the Pentagon’s largest info ops contractors, Leonie Industries. The firm, they write, was founded in 2004 by a brother and sister team “with no apparent experience working with the military.” Of the $130 million dollars in awarded contracts, the reporters conclude there is little to no oversight, and uncertainty about Leonie’s effectiveness. Worse still, the founders Camille Chidiac and Rema Dupont together owed more than $4 million in unpaid taxes.

Leonie responded quickly. “As of March 23, 2012 all tax obligations for Leonie’s owners have been met,” read the curt post on the firm’s blog.

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The Death Of Cash

Posted April 18th, 2012 at 9:54 pm (UTC-4)
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Is Hard Currency Becoming A Thing Of The Past?

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Daniel Suelo is a man who has figured out how to live without money. Making his home in a high cave near the desert outpost of Moab, Utah, Mr. Suelo lives, eats, sleeps, scavenges and does just about anything else he likes, all without any money. (Yes, he even blogs.) In the fall of 2000, Suelo says he took all the cash he had in the world (about $30)  and left it in a phone booth. He’s been walking away from money ever since. “Money represents lack,” Suelo writes in his journal, kept at the Moab Public Library. “Money represents things in the past (debt) and things in the future (credit), but money never represents what is present.”

Daniel Suelo (Hyoung Chang, AP)

Few of us may have the desire to live as simply, or starkly, as Daniel Suelo. But according to a new report by the Pew Research Center, a growing number of Internet & economic theorists believe the idea of actual physical money – banknotes and coins and such – may be going the way of the typewriter and the buggy whip.

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China’s Internet Catnip

Posted April 16th, 2012 at 1:13 pm (UTC-4)
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Sex, Politics, Murder and the Web

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

In other times, the political excommunication of former Chinese rising star Bo Xilai would have been a relatively simple affair. Bo, the party boss of Chongqing, had for years built himself firm control over what happened in his province, along the way winning something of a reputation as a crusader for the people. But his sharp tongue and unconventional ways rankled Party officials in Beijing, and on April 10 he was suddenly demoted. End of story.

Bo Xilai, in a 2011 file image (VOA/Chinese)

But the Internet loves a scandal, and as scandals go, the story of Bo Xilai seems to have it all (much of it detailed here by VOA’s Matt Hilburn and Kate Woodsome.) Soon after his dismissal a flurry of stories from the official party apparatus suddenly linked Bo to a series of business and bribery deals gone wrong. The mysterious death of longtime friend and British business leader Neil Heywood, first blamed on alcohol poisoning, was quickly tied to Bo’s wife Gu Kailai. For her part, rumors began to float that Gu is volatile, depressed, paranoid or worse, possibly even having had an inappropriately close relationship to Heywood. Then came whispers, quickly swatted down by the government, of dissent among high levels in the nation’s military unhappy with Bo’s removal.

Stories like Bo’s, of course, are nothing new. It wasn’t all that long ago that Jiang Qing, perhaps better known as “Madame Mao,” was at the height of political influence as one of the leaders of the Cultural Revolution. But with Mao Zedong’s death, it didn’t take long for her to be toppled, landing her in prison with the label “counter-revolutionary.”  Of the many opaque factions within the one permitted Chinese Communist party, there are always winners and losers. Bo Xilai has come out on the losing end of that equation. And that, traditionally, should have been that.

Which is exactly where the Internet comes in.

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Censorship on Tomb Sweeping Day

Posted April 10th, 2012 at 1:07 pm (UTC-4)
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Alice Xin Liu

Every year around this time, China marks the Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb Sweeping Day. It’s traditionally marked as a day for the living to celebrate the departed, marked by outings to cemeteries. Celebrants leave tea, burn paper or incense, and generally sweep the tomb down clean and clear.

But this year it was what the Chinese government was sweeping offline that had so many people upset.

Last week, it was revealed the Chinese government had closed 16 websites and detained six individuals for “fabricating or disseminating online rumors.” Many of those rumors center on the latest political scandal: the sacking of Bo Xilai, the popular former Chongqing Communist Party Chief.

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Google Glass Is A Gas

Posted April 4th, 2012 at 7:58 pm (UTC-4)
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A Look At, Or Through, Google’s Latest

Technology and the Internet are all about innovation. Like a shark that must continually swim to pass water over its gills, if a tech company doesn’t innovate, it probably won’t last very long.

Most of the innovations are, frankly, yawns. Some are crazy brilliant, while many others are just crazy. It’s rare that a game changer like the iPhone comes along. And of course, there’s no way of telling if something’s going to be a hit until you give it time to flop.

On Tuesday, Google executives finally unveiled a long-discussed project they’re calling “Project Glass.” Still in its conceptual phase, Google has released a video demonstrating how their glasses might work, hopefully generating a little buzz as well.

In short, “Project Glass” is sort of a smart phone on steroids. The idea is that rather than have a separate device you have to look elsewhere to use, a special pair of wired glasses with a Google interface would allow you to do just about everything your smart phone does without ever having to look anywhere but straight ahead.

So what are people saying? VOA web editor Colin Lovett collected a variety of opinions on Storify, which you can read by clicking here.

So what do you think? Are Google Glasses a hit or a flop?

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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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