Archive for Civil Liberties

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Minister, Tarek Kamel, was secretary and co-founder of the global Internet Society’s Egyptian Chapter (which is no longer active).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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