Archive for Free Speech

Net governance is a game – play it to win

by David Solomonoff

While we take the Internet for granted as an essential part of everyday life, decisions are being made behind the scenes that affect its future and the lives of everyone who relies on it. Net users are like players in a game where the rules are unknown and can change at any time.  Decisions are made by technologists, government regulators and legislators, nonprofits and civil society groups — with a great deal of influence by special interests — far from public view or understanding.

The recent announcement by Department of Commerce that the United States would relinquish part of its controlling role in managing the Internet Domain Name System (DNS), although long in the offing, was accelerated by fears of US control of the Net in the wake of recent NSA spying scandals.

The DNS essentially controls real estate in cyberspace by translating a human-understandable domain name like “google.com” to an Internet Protocol (IP) address that computers understand.

In October 2013 leaders of organizations responsible for coordination of the Internet technical infrastructure globally met in Montevideo, Uruguay, to consider current issues affecting the future of the Internet. In the Montevideo Statement on the Future of Internet Cooperation they expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance. They also called for accelerating the globalization of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) who manage the DNS, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.

On March 14, 2014 the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community. NTIA asked ICANN, as the IANA  functions contractor and the global coordinator for the DNS, to convene a multistakeholder process to develop a proposal for the transition. In addition, NTIA explicitly stated that it would not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.

That fear of repressive government control of the Net also inspired three bills, H.R. 4342  (ih) – Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters Act of 2014, H.R. 4367  (ih) – Internet Stewardship Act of 2014 and H.R. 4398  (ih) – Global Internet Freedom Act of 2014 to be introduced to the US Congress to prevent or delay the transition.

Supporters of the transition say critics betray their lack of understanding of Net governance with the proposed legislation. Several human rights and civil liberties groups supporting the transition wrote a letter arguing that the move would actually be preemptive and would sustain the current multi-stakeholder model.

The 800 pound gorilla in the room is ICANN itself which has been criticized for lacking transparency and accountability. Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project writes:

When the U.S. Commerce Department announced that it would end its control of the domain name system root, it called upon ICANN to “convene the multistakeholder process to develop the transition plan.” Many people worried about ICANN’s ability to run a fair process. As an organization with a huge stake in the outcome, there were fears that it might try to bias the proceedings. ICANN has a very strong interest in getting rid of external oversight and other dependencies on other organizations.

It was in this environment that the Brazilian President  Dilma Rousseff  (who herself was a victim of NSA spying) organized the NETmundial Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance which was co-sponsored by ICANN. Concurrently with the conference, she signed the Marco Civil da Internet, a bill that sets out new guidelines for freedom of expression, net neutrality and data privacy.

Wired UK compared NETmundial to a game:

To set the scene for a Brazilian meeting over internationalising the internet, we compare the little-known world of internet governance with the greatest spectacle in football

As Brazil gears up to host the 2014 World Cup, another world game is gathering pundits and crowds. Far from the flashy arena, this other contest is over Internet governance. It’s about how, and by whom, the paradigmatically ‘unowned’ internet is managed.

Quietly waged by smooth corporate strategists, diplomats, and tech-geeks, the fight over net governance goes to the heart of global politics and economics. The bets, most curiously, run close to those in football. Brazil and Germany are leading the charge, with several other European and South American teams as potential challengers. The big question is whether they can nudge perennial football underdog and undisputed internet champion, the United States, from the top spot.

The analogy between Internet policy and games is not new or inaccurate – in 2007 Google hired game theorists to assist in their strategy in an FCC auction for wireless spectrum.

Like any other game with winners and losers, there was disappointment in the outcome of NETmundial.

Sara Myers of Global Voices, an Internet freedom group wrote:

Provisions addressing net neutrality and the principle of proportionality were not included in the final version, and a section on intermediary liability lacked safeguards to protect due process and the rights to free expression and privacy.

But the greater problem for Internet governance and Internet freedom is how few Net users even know that the Internet is governed or managed at all. While recent surveys in the US show an alarming decline in understanding of how the US government works, the number of people who even know what ICANN is is probably far smaller.

Recently the Governance Lab at New York University developed a series of proposals to make ICANN more “effective, legitimate and evolving”. The most interesting was Enhance Learning by Encouraging Games:

ICANN must take seriously its commitment to engage its global stakeholder base in decision-making, especially those who are ultimately impacted by those decisions …. ICANN could make the complexities of Internet governance and ICANN’s work more open, accessible and interesting to people with games and activities aimed at the next generation … The use of game mechanics in decision-making contexts can bolster ease and equitability of participation (enhancing legitimacy); produce incentive structures to target expertise (enhancing efficiency); and mitigate complexity through simple rules (enhancing adaptability and the ability to evolve).

While the Gov Lab has not yet begun development of such games, another group has. Media artist Josephine Dorado and game developer Jeremy Pesner, working with the Internet Society (disclaimer: as President of New York Chapter of Internet Society I am also involved in development) are modifying reACTor, their online game to promote social activism, to specifically address issues involving Internet governance and Internet freedom.

Several years ago the Internet Society explored several alternate scenarios for the evolution of the Internet in a series of animated videos. These videos are a model for the type of scenarios the game will explore. Combined with feeds from news media, activist organizations and the Internet Society’s extensive documentation on Internet governance and policy, the game will award points and prizes to players who most effectively work for an open Internet.

To integrate the game with real-world action, POPVOX, a non-partisan platform which facilitates constituents contacting US legislators and regulators, will be used. Net governance organizations like ICANN could also be integrated.

reACTor re-envisions news engagement, online activism and mobile gaming. It connects news with augmented activism: calls to action inspired by news and sustained by gameplay.

Online activist movements have previously been organized by different actors, around different issues and on different platforms. reACTor is the unified platform that activist organizations as well as game players can easily add new actions to.

reACTor brings news and activism into the 21st century by closing the gap between becoming informed and becoming involved.

Let the game begin!

 

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Envisioning Occupy Wall Street as software, service

by David Solomonoff

The impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement goes far beyond a traditional protest around specific issues. The ability to rapidly respond to changing situations, a horizontal rather than vertical structure and an open source approach to developing news tools and strategies will be as significant in the long term – perhaps more so. The medium is definitely the message here.

 

In Forbes, E. D. Kain writes about how Occupy Wall Street protesters are engaging in a roll-reversal where the surveilled are surveilling the surveillers:

If the pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis had happened before smart phones and video phones, it would have been the word of the protesters against the word of the police. If this had all happened before the internet and blogs and social media, it would have taken ages before the old media apparatus would have found the wherewithal to track down the truth and then disseminate that information.
Now the incident goes viral … Strangely, though, the police act as though these new realities don’t exist or don’t matter.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/11/19/maybe-its-time-to-occupy-the-police-state/

 

In The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal suggests one their biggest accomplishments has been to facilitate other protests in the same way a software interface allows programmers to access and re-purpose data on the Internet:

Metastatic, the protests have an organizational coherence that’s surprising for a movement with few actual leaders and almost no official institutions. Much of that can be traced to how Occupy Wall Street has functioned in catalyzing other protests. Local organizers can choose from the menu of options modeled in Zuccotti, and adapt them for local use. Occupy Wall Street was designed to be mined and recombined, not simply copied.
This idea crystallized for me yesterday when Jonathan Glick, a long-time digital journalist, tweeted, “I think #OWS was working better as an API than a destination site anyway.”
API is an acronym for Application Programming Interface.

What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet. So, to make the metaphor here clear, Occupy Wall Street today can be seen like the early days of Twitter.com. Nearly everyone accessed Twitter information through clients developed by people outside the Twitter HQ. These co-developers made Twitter vastly more useful by adding their own ideas to the basic functionality of the social network. These developers don’t have to take in all of OWS data or use all of the strategies developed at OWS. Instead, they can choose the most useful information streams for their own individual applications (i.e. occupations, memes, websites, essays, policy papers).

The metaphor turns out to reveal a useful way of thinking about the components that have gone into the protest.

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/print/2011/11/a-guide-to-the-occupy-wall-street-api-or-why-the-nerdiest-way-to-think-about-ows-is-so-useful/248562/

John Robb examines their progress from the perspective of military strategist John Boyd:

The dynamic of Boyd’s strategy is to isolate your enemy across three essential vectors (physical, mental, and moral), while at the same time improving your connectivity across those same vectors. It’s very network centric for a pre-Internet theoretician.

Physical. No isolation was achieved. The physical connections of police forces remained intact. However, these incidents provided confirmation to protesters that physical filming/imaging of the protests is valuable. Given how compelling this media is, it will radically increase the professional media’s coverage of events AND increase the number of protesters recording incidents.

Mental. These incidents will cause confusion within police forces. If leaders (Mayors and college administrators) back down or vacillate over these tactics due to media pressure, it will confuse policemen in the field. In short, it will create uncertainty and doubt over what the rules of engagement actually are. IN contrast, these media events have clarified how to turn police violence into useful tools for Occupy protesters.

Moral. This is the area of connection that was damaged the most. Most people watching these videos feel that this violence is both a) illegitimate and b) excessive.

http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2011/11/occupy-note-112011-boyd-pepper-spray-and-tools-of-compliance-ows.html

Following on Robb’s point, the videos also increase the moral liability of journalists and politicians who attack and denounce the movement.

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Occupy Albany: Trick Or Treat?

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Happy Halloween! Last weekend, New York Governor Andy Cuomo ordered his dog, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, to have state and city cops chase Occupy Albany campers out of a downtown park in the Capital City. But oops, both sets of cops (and Albany County District Attorney David Soares) balked. Lots of reasons. Some jake, some not. Among the latter, law enforcement concern (according to Soares) that a forcible removal would trigger a simpatico, bad publicity action by the riotous Kegs N’ Eggs SUNY kids up in Pine Hills, aka the Student Ghetto. As if! Beer isn’t being served by Occupy Albany. Question: is Governor Andy snarling about his lack of authority? Will he punish bad dog Jerry by withholding bacon bacon bacon? And finally– can Occupy Albany attract real folks not just the usual aged-in-wood suspects? Here’s hoping. Sincerely.

Andy's Trick or Treat

 

 

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Update: WSJ SafeHouse flawed by poor security, questionable policies

by David Solomonoff

The Wall Street Journal’s attempt to clone Wikileaks with its SafeHouse service for whistleblowers has come under massive criticism, both for its security measure and commitment to protecting its sources.

Jacob Appelbaum, a developer for the Tor anonymity network and a past volunteer for WikiLeaks, immediately spotted flaws in the encryption used when accessing the site.

Rebecca Mackinnon, a research fellow at the New American Foundation, also pointed out on Twitter that the site’s terms of use allow the Journal to turn over sources’ identities to law enforcement.

The Journal responded that, “there is no way to predict the breadth of information that might be submitted through SafeHouse, the terms of use reserve certain rights in order to provide flexibility to react to extraordinary circumstances.” They also promised to fix the security issues.

While Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has denounced direct-to-newspaper sites like this in the past, Dan Gillmore remains hopeful.
“These experiments are worthwhile,” he writes. “But it’s going to take some time before we can call them successes in any respect.”

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WSJ SafeHouse emulates Wikileaks with secure service for whistleblowers

by David Solomonoff

It looks like everyone wants to get in the act now, which is probably a good thing:

Documents and databases … are  almost always hidden behind locked doors, especially when they detail wrongdoing such as fraud, abuse, pollution, insider trading, and other harms … If you have newsworthy contracts, correspondence, emails, financial records or databases from companies, government agencies or non-profits, you can send them to us using the SafeHouse service.

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Hackers fight for freedom with Net tech; ignore politics, psychology at their peril

by David Solomonoff

The temporary shutdown in Egypt of Internet and other telecommunication services, as well as similar interruptions in other Middle East countries experiencing large-scale protests and rebellions, has galvanized hackers and human rights activists as well as U.S. foreign policy makers. The consequences may be not be what anyone expected.

The technologies for secure, private, fault tolerant communication via the Internet exist but have not yet been widely implemented or bundled together in a single, user-friendly system.

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf was asked in a recent interview whether there was technical solution to a government shutdown of the Net. The Internet “is controllable by the government, [so] it’s possible to turn off the Internet,” he said. The solution, mesh networking “can be done without benefit of things like routers provided by Internet Service providers.”

Mesh networking makes each device on a network capable of routing data to any other device, with the ability to rapidly change paths in the event of an interruption or blockage.

A current project of Cerf’s, the Interplanetary Internet, designed to overcome the delays and interruptions to communications during space exploration, could also be adapted to handle a partial shutdown of Net communications by an authoritarian government during a political crisis.

Eben Moglen, a Columbia law professor and software freedom advocate, first proposed the Freedom Box – a tiny device that could provide private, secure, fault-tolerant Internet access using mesh networking – at an Internet Society of New York event in February 2010. He has since founded the Freedom Box Foundation, has some early prototype software and expects to have a fully working device available for under $100 in twelve months. Another project, diaspora, was inspired by Moglen’s proposal and is developing a more privacy-friendly alternative to Facebook. The Freedom Box and diaspora both use a decentralized, peer-to peer model for improved security and to give the user more control.

On February 15, Hillary Clinton’s gave her second annual Net Freedom Speech, which denounced the Egyptian government for it’s Net shutdown. The State Department now has a number of initiatives and grants for the development of Internet censorship circumvention technologies.

But governments often have different agendas and policies for different situations. Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarek was viewed as a “force of moderation” before he became a “dictator” when the geopolitical winds shifted. As Clinton was making her speech, Wired reported that the FBI Pushes for Surveillance Backdoors in Web 2.0 Tools and an antiwar protestor in Clinton’s audience was roughed up when he turned his back to her. Would he have been unscathed if he had tweeted his protest?

Even with the best intentions, high-profile Internet freedom initiatives by nation-states can have unexpected consequences. Evgeny Morozov says of Clinton’s speeches:

Clinton went wrong from the outset by violating the first rule of promoting Internet freedom: Don’t talk about promoting Internet freedom.

The state of web freedom in countries like China, Iran, and Russia was far from perfect before Clinton’s initiative, but at least it was an issue independent of those countries’ fraught relations with the United States.

 

Today, foreign governments … are now seeking “information sovereignty” from American companies … Internet search, social networking, and even email are increasingly seen as strategic industries that need to be protected from foreign control.

The U.S military has developed open source software for secure, private communication on the Internet, however. The Tor project, which develops Tor, a tool for private, encrypted communication on the Internet, is used by many dissidents in authoritarian countries, as well as by Wikileaks, and was originally sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

But not every such project has been as successful. The Haystack program, designed to help Iranian dissidents, actually endangered them because it was easily intercepted by the Iranian authorities due to flaws in its design. It received a huge amount of hype but the developer, Austin Heap, refused to allow security experts to examine it. Nonetheless, the U.S. Treasury Department granted Heap an Office of Foreign Assets Control license to export the software to Iran, in effect endorsing it. By the time it the software bugs became publicly known, the damage had been done.

Open source software advocate and cyberliberties activist Eric Raymond was also helping Iranian dissidents connect to the outside world at that time. He reflects:

… to protect your network, and yourself, you have to accept that you are going to have relatively little information about what your network partners are doing and what their capabilities are …. my rationally-chosen ignorance left me unable to form judgments about whether people in my network were lying to me. More subtly … it left me unable to form judgments about whether they were lying to themselves.

I don’t mean to excuse whatever lies Austin Heap may have told, but I do mean to suggest he may well have been his own first victim.

Open source software, where the inner workings of a program are available for public scrutiny, is essential when developing tools for secure communication in a highly insecure environment.

But open source is not a panacea. Take the case of  OpenBSD, an open source operating system bundled with thousands of applications, which has been optimized for security by a team of the world’s best security experts. OpenBSD is sponsored by a nonprofit foundation and many of the programmers volunteer their time.

At one point the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) gave OpenBSD a grant, then rescinded it when OpenBSD project leader Theo de Raadt made remarks critical of the Iraq war.

In December 2010, de Raadt received an email alleging the FBI had paid some OpenBSD ex-developers to insert backdoors into the software. He was skeptical but immediately made the email public and invited an independent review of the relevant program code. A few bugs were fixed but no evidence of a backdoor was found. So even though the allegations turned out to be false, they succeeded anyway – as a act of psychological warfare – by destroying trust in the OpenBSD project.

George Orwell said

… ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance …. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon–so long as there is no answer to it– gives claws to the weak.

At first it would seem that a social networking service like twitter, recently used by many protesters in the Middle East, would fit Orwell’s definition of a “simple weapon” that “gives claws to the weak”. But in fact the situation is much more ambiguous. Twitter is a for-profit corporation which must maintain large data centers and a complex infrastructure. And they are subject to many financial, legal and political pressures.

Internet freedom initiatives must be independent of political connotations, run on a decentralized infrastructure, and use technology that is subject to public review by security experts. Most importantly, users must have complete trust in the skills and integrity of the people providing those tools and services.

If they don’t the cure could prove worse than the disease.

Note: Wikipedia has a good list of other anti-censorship software.

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Left, Right, Third Party in Sight?

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Remember the late great Tea Party? The grass roots movement that made the political establishment quake? For one glorious moment it seemed as if a truly independent, average Joe/Joan movement might be gathering steam. A memory from that halcyon time: assorted TV pundits telling Republican leaders that Tea Party people “don’t like you guys either”. To which said leaders would put on a humble face and mumble something about how Republicans had lost their way and needed to get back on track. The big spending, corruption, and support for endless wars were missteps off the path of Republican core values.

In truth, no missteps were made. The Republican core was intact. Albeit shared with the Democrats. Big spending, corruption, and endless wars R both parties.

Though the following factoid has disappeared into the memory hole of ideological rewrites, a goodly number of those initially drawn to the Tea Party did not support endless wars. They supported the troops ’cause that’s a question of loyalty. But adventures-in-nation-building weren’t their thing. They were also concerned about losing civil liberties via Homeland Security overkill. And most Tea Party protesters blamed Wall Street, as much as government, for the financial meltdown of 2008. Lest we forget, the Tea Party really took off when the too-big-to-fail banks and other financial entities that partied with housing bubble paper were bailed out by taxpayers.

For a brief period the left was equally vociferous re the bailouts. But the moment of rapprochement between progressives and Tea Party types, along with the potential for game-changing coalitions, passed when it dawned on the left that coming down too hard on taxpayer infusions and massive government interventions might not set the right tone for passing health care reform. The Tea Party was way suspicious of government (almost as much as the 60’s counter-culture had been) and it was the wrong time to fan such suspicion. Instead ’twas time to ridicule and revile the masses of average Americans who feared that a government redo would make the failings of U.S. health care worse instead of better. That this fear might be based on, say, observation of the role federal policies played in inflating and eventually collapsing the housing market buttered no progressive parsnips. As for the fear that Obamacare would be Homeland Security in a nurse’s uniform, how paranoid was that?

While the left was in the basement mixing up the medicine and the Tea Party was on the pavement thinking about the government, the Republicans seized the time. Coming back strong as champions of the people and enemy of the political elite. (Insert row of laughing emoticons here.) Hoovering up the Tea Party and making it their own. The more the left trashed “tea baggers” the more the independent spark in the Tea Party dimmed. Tea talk started sounding more and more like the type of Republican conservatism dished by Limbaugh & company. Critiques of state capitalism, particularly as practiced during the Bush years, were out. So were thoughts of a third party. Union bashing was in. With public employee unions cast as evil incarnate.

After several years of government hearings and investigations into the 2008 financial meltdown, Republicans and Democrats have been unable to reach agreement on who-done-it. Republicans put the blame on the government sponsored mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; Democrats pin it on an insufficiently regulated Wall Street. No prime movers of subprime sleaze (hello Angelo Mozilo), or political enablers (hello Friends of Angelo), or major Wall Street sludge jugglers (too many for a shout out) have been prosecuted. Nor have new lending regulations staunched the growth of mortgage fraud in taxpayer-backed housing programs. However, we will be able to hang some teachers out to dry.

The concordance of big government and big finance that pumped the housing bubble and hence inflated hauls of real estate derived taxes (including property taxes) was not why so many local governments overextended themselves during the boom years and now face disaster during the bust. The real villains were teachers, firefighters, police officers, sanitation workers, and secretaries in public agencies. Aka Joe and Joan Average with a government job. Who, according to the bashers, are not average at all ’cause they get better benefits and more job security than a private sector employee or a small business owner. That being a private sector employee or a small business owner has its own set of advantages butters no conservative parsnips. The right, which typically decries attempts to stir up class warfare, is passing out flaming torches and whipping up envy. Screaming for folks to be stripped (preferably in public?) of their collective bargaining rights. Working to turn the American middle-class against itself.

And I thought only lefties were into creating social chaos…

Incidentally (or not) while the billionaire Koch brothers donated $43,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, housing and Realtor groups kicked in $43,125. Not that Republicans in general are uniquely blessed by the real estate industries. In New York, another state with budget problems, the NYC real estate crowd has been particularly generous to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

As for Joe and Joan Average, who really represents them? The left or the right? Answer: neither. At least, not reliably. Under certain self-serving circumstances both do an occasional good deed. But when push comes to shove in our state capitalist times, Joe and Joan are on their own. Which is less discouraging than it sounds. Being independent means never having to say you’re sorry for noticing that your representatives, no matter how rhetorically righteous, primarily rep big money conjoined with government power.

Third party, anyone?

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Mideast protesters reject repressive regimes; remain tethered to tech they can’t control

by David Solomonoff

Protesters fed up with political repression, corruption and poverty (particularly recent food price inflation)  toppled the government of Tunisia. They threaten to do the same in other countries throughout the Mideast as pundits hail the “Twitter and Facebook revolution”. But repressive governments have as much compunction about shutting down communication services as they do about torturing dissidents.

Egypt has cut all Internet access and most mobile phone service as huge protests threaten to topple that government. For a while the ISP Noor remained online – largely because it connects the country’s Stock Exchange and many offices of foreign companies to the outside world. Noor has now been cut off as well.

Interestingly, Egypt and Tunisia have some of the largest percentages of the population online in Africa. Egypt’s Communications Minister, Tarek Kamel, was secretary and co-founder of the global Internet Society’s Egyptian Chapter (which is no longer active). He is still listed as a member of the Board of Trustees on the Internet Society’s website. The Internet Society has strongly denounced the Internet shutdown.

Kamel is widely recognized as the person who brought the Internet to Egypt. He has publicly supported the open development of the Internet. His bio on the Internet Society’s website states that in the early years of the development of the Internet in Egypt, “Kamel’s work extended into liberalization issues such as a tax reduction for ISPs as well as a government/private sector partnership to serve the Egyptian Internet community. He has actively participated in the establishment of community centers in remote areas to bring the Internet to the have-nots.” His role in the shutdown is unknown, although he wasn’t among the cabinet members removed in the shakeup of the Egyptian government in the wake of the protests.

Cutting off most communication with the outside world for an extended period would be economic suicide for any modern, developed country, but temporary interruption – long enough to kill or imprison a large number of protesters without too much visibility for squeamish foreign allies – is viable for a poor country ruled by an elite supported by gifts of military technology from wealthier countries.

The protesters vulnerability is relying on highly centralized communication networks and services while fighting an overly centralized political system. The younger ones probably don’t have any memory of being without mobile phones and the Internet and may have taken them for granted.

To succeed in the face of violent repression and the shutdown of Internet and phone service, they must quickly develop low-tech strategies that are as fast and flexible as the ones that have been lost.

Another approach is to build communication services that cannot be intercepted or shut down. Human rights activists and hackers are already starting to do it with combination of low-cost commodity hardware and free open source software:

  • Landlines still work in Egypt and a French ISP FDN offers free dialup Internet to Egyptians. Instructions to connect to foreign ISP’s via dialup with a mobile phone are also being circulated for those who can use them.
  • For Egyptians who are still able to use their mobile phones, there is Sukey, “a security-conscious news, communications and logistics support service principally for use by demonstrators during demonstrations.”
  • Tech entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar put a call out on Twitter for volunteers to help construct self-configuring unblockable mobile ad hoc networks to prevent government caused blackouts during future protests worldwide
  • We Rebuild, a Europe-based group working for free speech and an open Internet is developing non-Internet modes of communication, including amateur, shortwave and pirate radio as well as a fax gateway, to assist protesters and humanitarian relief efforts. Information on these efforts can be found on their Telecomix news site.
  • Remaining Internet activity is certainly being monitored. The Tor network of anonymous, encrypted proxies has seen a huge increase in Egyptian traffic.

Efforts like these could be the tipping point for the uprisings. In 1989 Czech student protesters received a gift of then state of the art 2400 baud modems from a mysterious man who may have been from the covert-operations wing of the Japanese embassy. Modems were illegal but most Czech police didn’t even know what they were. The students set up BBS systems to coordinate actions throughout the country and successfully overthrew the Soviet communist backed dictatorship.

If you think the problems people in Egypt have could never happen here, you might want to think again. In the U.S. the “Internet kill switch” bill in Congress would allow interruption of Internet services in a “national cyberemergency.” Senator Joe Lieberman, who introduced the bill in the Senate, has described the Internet as a “dangerous place” and promised the bill would protect against  “cyber terrorists”.

Some of our current political leaders, hanging on every word of their consultants and pollsters, and terrified of harsh criticism, might consider hostile online commentary more of an “emergency” than something trivial like say, a collision with an asteroid.

General Douglas MacArthur said, “No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.” Today that vigilance means learning to build and modify the technology that we use rather than being passive consumers of it.

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The New Civility: Another Day, Another Lip Lock

by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

Incredible that 9/11 is almost ten years ago. So much has changed. Including our attitude about free speech. After 9/11, it suddenly felt necessary to lower your voice in restaurants when criticizing the government. Who knows– waxing negative about U.S. policies in the Mideast might cause folks in the next booth to alert Homeland Security that a terror symp was downing a burger at Joe’s Grease N’ Go.

Speaking of grease and go, as the prep for invading Iraq ramped up so did attacks on speech. Pro-war pundits (aka the laptop bombardiers) suggested– or outright declared– that the various progressives, libertarians, and paleocons who expressed doubt about attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, were traitors. Numerous patriots called for the heads of antiwar celebs. Sure, some of the latter were knee jerk anti-American. But since when does getting your britches in a bunch over the opinions of singers and actors qualify as “standing tall”? Then there was our much vaunted free press…

Until polls showed public support was waning, most of the fourth estate banged the drum for the Iraq war and kissed the rump of the Bush administration. Those on the right like to say that the mainstream media is overwhelmingly liberal. Maybe so in sentimental moments. But ultimately they worship at the alter of triumphant big government.

As Iraq wore on, and over several election cycles, tolerance of free speech seemed to be reviving. But the revival never completely took hold. Speech was still more likely to be viewed as a weapon rather than protected expression. The tendency was encouraged– and simultaneously made manifest– by broad, imprecise, and propagandistic terms such as “War On Terror” and “Hate Speech”.

Terrorism and discrimination are specific actions that can be defined and addressed. Terror and hate haunt the human condition. Both also have a non-evil place. Is it wrong to hate cruelty to children? Some wars are just; should military forces on the side of the angels not strive to inspire terror in their enemies?

Note re just wars: the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II did not deem Iraq a just war. The Catholic theory of just wars doesn’t cover speculative ventures. Fighting Nazi invaders is one thing, attacking countries you perceive might pose a threat in the future is another. Self-serving motives are too likely to influence the perception of “threat”. (Catholicism can be so cynical about human nature.) Advocates of the war were annoyed that His Holiness didn’t get American exceptionalism. Neocon Catholic philosopher Michael Novak made like Henry VIII and tried to get the Pontiff to bend. Sorry, no divorce. Catherine is still your true wife.

Circa 1980’s, neocons had lauded John Paul II for his support of Solidarity, the non-governmental labor movement in Poland that triggered the fall of communism throughout the Eastern bloc. But the not-a-just-war decision blotted the Catholic copybook big time. (Besides, who wants to remember good things about unions?) Some on the right were so bugged by the Pope’s intransigence that they borrowed a meme from the left and snarked about pedophile priests. Bipartisanship is indeed possible!

Suppression of speech is another issue on which left and right can come together. Albeit with different apps. The left, which once championed free speech to the max, is traveling fast down the road of suppression. Covering over nasty words the way Victorian ladies allegedly covered furniture legs*. Baying for “civility”. Seeing hidden, murderous intent in political rhetoric and thought crime in dissent. Depicting non-compliant citizens as slaves to the right-wing rhythm. Meanwhile, those on the right who believed being against Bush and the Iraq war was treason, are outraged by those on the left who deem Tea Party talk inflammatory.

Though some may find it difficult to define inflammatory speech (in terms of directly connecting one person’s rhetoric to another person’s destructive action) both left and right have no problem recognizing it. Particularly when folks with whom they disagree are speaking it. As for all of us outside neat little ideological circles, it’s important to remember that suppression of speech, once started, tends to spread.

First they came for Sarah Palin and I snickered ’cause I’m not a right wing nut. Then they came for Keith Olbermann and I laughed ’cause I’m not a left wing loon. Then they– Oh. Wait. Who’s that knocking on my door?

*Victorian ladies are oft said to have covered furniture legs with shawls in order to prevent said legs from arousing impure thoughts in male guests. The story is most likely apocryphal. Myriad photos from the period show plenty of naked leg. On the furniture, not the ladies.

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