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Archives for : Global Network Initiative

Grassroots activists in Pakistan have set an example for digital rights activism.

Jillian C. York . Aljazeera

Fighting online censorship when legal action fails

A new plan for internet filtering could put Pakistan on par with Iran and Saudi Arabia, activists say [EPA]

San Francisco, CA – When, in late February, Pakistan’s Telecommunications Authority (PTAissued a call forproposals on a large scale internet filtering system to allow for the blocking of up to 50 million URLs (with, it should be noted, a processing delay of “not more than 1 milliseconds [sic]”), Pakistani rights activists were more than a little peeved. While censorship (either online or offline) in the Islamic Republic is no new thing, the new move – presumably designed to entice Western companies to the country – would potentially put Pakistan on par with countries like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia in terms of sites blocked.

Of course, Pakistan is not China, Iran or Saudi Arabia. It is, at least in theory, a democracy, with freely held elections. And yet, when it comes to the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression, citizens find themselves increasingly with no say in the matter.

Grassroots advocacy

Therefore, when faced with the PTA’s latest plans, grassroots organisations knew exactly what they had to do. Rather than appeal to their representatives, they took to the internet, calling on technology companies not to respond to the call for proposals.

http://www.aljazeera.com/AJEPlayer/player-licensed-viral.swfAre we entering an age of cyber-censorship?

Their efforts were echoed and supported by a number of international organisations, including the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Article 19, the Global Network Initiative, Access, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (where I work), and made it to the pages of theNew York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others. As a result, a number of technology companies, including Cisco and McAfee SmartFilter (both of which, it should be noted, sell their censorship wares to other countries), made statements refusing to sell to the PTA.

Advocacy group Bolo Bhi has been vocal in their opposition of the filter. In one blog post, they explain how the system would affect citizens, noting: “Such a system will give the government extra muscle to go after ‘activists’ – ‘liberals’ – ‘troublemakers’ – You and I. Anyone who is a hindrance, becomes a target.”

Indeed, such a system would likely have the same capabilities as Bahrain’s, which allowed authorities to intercept emails and SMS, which were then read aloud to detainees, or Syria’s, notoriously used to spy on activists. Surveillance of that degree is dangerous and has no place in any of these countries, let alone one that purports to be democratic.

All of this pressure led the PTA to backtracking; on March 19, an article in the International Herald Tribune-affiliatedExpress Tribune declared the filtering plans shelved. As Islamabad-based digital rights group Bytes for All quicklynoted, however, the news item was not followed up by a press release from the government, leading them to believe that the piece was “a strategic move to put an end to the raging protests”.

Like Bytes for All, Bolo Bhi doesn’t see the fight as being over. In a recent letter addressed to the Ministry of Information Technology, the ICT Research and Development Fund, and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and signed by eight additional organisations, the group wrote:

While it has become common knowledge that surveillance and censorship technologies are often used in Pakistan, the extent to which this is taking place has only recently become apparent with public reports on censorship and surveillance technologies by a large number of international companies. We also understand the Pakistan government may attempt to involve an academic institution in developing the system, making the biggest victim of this technology also a contributor.

A model for digital rights activism

Born from the bottom up and supported by (not, crucially, initiated by) international organisations, the efforts of local groups serve as a model for digital rights activism. Their actions were strategic, targeting the appropriate stakeholders, their collaboration with international groups built on consensus.

Furthermore, Bytes for All and Bolo Bhi were well-placed to understand the limitations of legal efforts and instead, chose the best possible path for advocacy: targeting the very businesses their government sought to attract.Another element of these groups’ success is in bypassing the “us vs. them” mentality, a strategy discussed in the 2010 anthology Digital Activism Decoded.  In the book, chapter authors Sem DeVillart and Brian Waniewski wrote, “It is tempting for organisations to adopt competitive strategies toward peers engaged in like or complementary efforts,” recommending that groups engaged in online advocacy avoid the competitive structure of corporations.

As a result, the IT Ministry has verbally committed to issuing a statement against the filtering system, says Bolo Bhi CEO Sana Saleem, who adds that they had been reluctant to meet with civil society groups directly in the past.

“I strongly feel that the campaign success is because of consistent pressure from organisations globally,” wrote Saleem in a recent e-mail, “Even though we have still only received verbal commitment, I believe that the success lies in how we planned the campaign to focus on issues such as businesses, trade, academia and economy steering the debate from the more controversial issues of blasphemy.”

As sure as the PTA will continue their attempts to censor, the efforts of groups like Bytes for All and Bolo Bhi show no signs of abating. And with the support of international groups – which help by raising their voices to a fever pitch – they may just win.

Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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Tweet, Tweet Justice: Company’s Censorship Policy Probed

twitter logo map 09

twitter logo map 09 (Photo credit: The Next Web)

By Meg Roggensack
Senior Advisor, Business and Human Rights, Human Rights First

In her 2010 landmark speech on internet freedom, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton laid out her vision for one internet where access to information isn’t defined by geographic boundaries or political regimes. Today, that vision is even more remote, as evidenced by Twitter’s recent announcement that it would comply with host governments that wish to censor messages.

Twitter made clear that it will censor only after legal review, be transparent about its decisions unless precluded by local law, and ensure that messages censored in one country are available in others. These are important steps and align with commitments made by the tech companies that belong to the Global Network Initiative (GNI). This also puts Twitter on the same side as other companies trying to address the human rights impacts of their global ICT operations – as opposed to those who are not even in the conversation.

But is Twitter’ s policy adequate? Does it propel Secretary Clinton’s vision forward? We at Human Rights First think Twitter is on the right path, but can do better – by making clear the principles for evaluating the legitimacy of requests, and by mounting tough challenges to requests that conflict with national and international guarantees of free expression.

As Secretary Clinton observed in her speech, “The internet will be what we make of it…we need to [take affirmative steps to] synchronize our technological progress with our values.” This can only happen if Twitter and other companies in the ICT sector work harder to realize this vision of a single, unified internet. We’re concerned that Twitter’s new policy is likely to encourage more censorship, not less.

How will Twitter’s new policy affect the overall integrity of its global service? Will there be any jurisdiction where the entirety of Twitter’s messages will be available to users, as Secretary Clinton envisioned, or will Twitter’s service be a Swiss cheese of big and small holes, reflecting censorship preferences around the globe?

Twitter has proven in the past that there’s a better way to handle these requests. It successfully challenged a U.S. federal court’s gag order associated with Wikileaks and then informed the targets of the subpoena so that they could challenge the order. In conveying its new policy, Twitter should make clear that it will aggressively challenge these restrictions, based on available national and international rights guarantees. Many authoritarian governments have broad constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and/or have signed on to international treaties. Twitter should use these guarantees to elaborate and publish its criteria for screening such requests, and should mount constitutional challenges when pressed. This would leave no doubt about Twitter’s commitment to internet freedom.

Twitter was instrumental to the Arab Spring as one of the few platforms that activists could use to organize and disseminate their views. One year later, Twitter’s role in bringing about political reform is even greater. As Human Rights First heard from a prominent Egyptian pro-democracy leader two weeks ago, Twitter has become the platform for activists. It is easy to use, quick, and searchable.

Without the ability to freely view and post tweets, Twitter’s users, including pro-democracy and human rights activists, can’t communicate, organize, and advocate in real time. Even if the rest of us are able to read tweets that repressive governments censor, tweets that are not accessible to the original posters and their networks are deprived of their utility and transformative power.

Twitter should build on the important safeguards it has announced. And Twitter’s dilemma should spark all ICT companies to think carefully about how the choices they make today will affect the internet we use tomorrow.

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