Arab springtime: Is the web reaching new heights?
The year 2010 firmly established the role of social networks and the Internet as mobilisation and news transmission tools. In 2010 alone, 250 million Internet users joined Facebook and by the end of the year, the social network had 600 million members. In September that year, 175 million people were Twitter users – 100 million more than in the previous year.
The Western media had praised the Internet and its “liberator” role during the 2009 Iranian revolution. According to The New York Times, the demonstrators “shot tweets” back at bullets. However, Twitter was then used mainly by the diaspora. “The Net Delusion,” a theory advanced by Evgeny Morozov, an Internet expert, casts doubt on the Internet’s role as a democratisation tool. Although the Internet is certainly used by dissidents, it is also used by the authorities to relay regime propaganda and enforce a police state.
The Internet remains above all a tool used for the better or the worse. In the most closed countries, it creates a space of freedom which would not otherwise exist. Its potential to disseminate news irritates dictators and eludes traditional censorship methods. Some regimes use it – mainly on Facebook and Twitter – to monitor dissidents and infiltrate their networks.
Nonetheless, the terms “Twitter Revolution” and “Facebook Revolution” have become watchwords with the events that rocked the Arab world in late 2010 and early 2011. The “online” movements were coupled with “offline” demonstrations, hastening the fall of dictators. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings turned out to be, first and foremost, human revolutions facilitated by the Internet and social networks.
Facebook and Twitter served as sound boxes, amplifying the demonstrators’ frustrations and demands. They also made it possible for the rest of the world to follow the events as they unfolded, despite censorship. The role of cell phones also proved crucial. Citizen journalists kept file-sharing websites supplied with photos and videos, and fed images to streaming websites.
The Tunisian authorities had imposed a media blackout on what was going on in Sidi Bouzid. Since the so-called “traditional” media had failed to cover the protest movements that were rocking the country, at least at their beginning in December, their role as news sources and vectors was taken over by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and news websites like Nawaat.org. Facebook in particular acted as a platform on which Internet users posted comments, photos and videos. The Bambuser streaming site also had its moment of glory. Everyone was able to track the events as they happened. The online calls for demonstrations spread to other countries: Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, and even China and Vietnam, etc.
Control 2.0 gains strength
Censorship and repression intensify
Authoritarian regimes’ latest strategy is no longer to use pure and simple blocking as it is to use, but rather online tampering and propaganda. Naturally countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran are still practicing strict filtering, which they tend to tighten during periods of unrest, notably with regard to micro-blogging sites and social networks. Meanwhile, their netizens keep on learning new ways to circumvent censorship. China in particular has reinforced its “Electronic Great Wall” and is tackling the anonymity of Internet and cell phone users. Uzbekistan, Syria, Vietnam – to name but a few – have enhanced their censorship to stifle the echoes of the revolutions agitating the Arab world. Currently, one out of every three Internet users is unable to access a free Internet. Net censorship is becoming the norm. Around 60 countries are implementing some form of Internet censorship, which entails either content filtering or netizen harassment. Others may well join their ranks in the months and years to come. For the first time, Bangladesh has blocked access to certain sites because of videos deemed offensive to the Prophet. Cambodia is censuring news sites.
Blogger and netizen arrests have continued and remained at the same level in 2010 as in 2009. As of this writing, 119 netizens are behind bars, as compared to 120 in 2009. Although 2010 saw the release of several popular bloggers such as Kareem Amer in Egypt a few days after serving his sentence, and Adnan Hadjizade and Emin Milli in Azerbaidjan, the authorities are finding new ways to hinder bloggers’ and cyberdissidents’ freedom of action. The number of false releases – such as that of Mongol cause activist Hada, in China – or forced disappearances, is growing, and so are house arrests. As for self-censorship, which is hard to quantify, it appears to have gained ground.
The world’s biggest prisons for netizens remain: China (77 netizens), Vietnam (17) and Iran (11). A new wave of arrests in Vietnam preceded the January 2011 Communist Party Congress. The Chinese regime launched a series of arrests in February 2011 following online calls for demonstrations triggered by the Arab uprisings. The authorities feared that they would spread. For the first time in China, Twitter users were arrested for their posts on the social network.
One such prisoner is no other than Liu Xiaobo – the winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, the only Nobel Peace Prize laureate currently in jail. The announcement of this news in December 2010 resulted in an unusually violent crackdown by the authorities: any reference to this award on micro-blogging sites is being censored and they are questioning or placing under house arrest hundreds of supporters and friends of the human rights activist and freedom defender.
In Iran, imprisoned netizens were sentenced to death for the first time. Blogger Hossein Derakshan, known as the “father of the Iranian blogosphere,” received the most severe prison sentence: 19.5 years.
In this “Control 2.0” era, several tested methods are used simultaneously by the authorities to prevent dissidents from ruling the web and to maintain better control over the regime’s disinformation.
Broader recourse to propaganda and manipulation
First, the use of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) cyberattacks has become commonplace, as has phishing, which involves stealing user passwords. One of the episodes which received the most media coverage is undoubtedly the pirating of Google’s website and those of some 20 other companies in China in late 2009 and early 2010. Vietnam also uses cyberattacks to muzzle dissident opinions. Independent news websites based abroad and those which discussed bauxite mining were targeted in 2010. Burma not only attempted to immobilise several independent online media, but also tried to shift the blame for the bandwidth speed slowdown on hackers acting against the country’s interests. Another weapon used by dissidents in Iran was the “Green Cyber Army,” which attacked some government websites. The “Hackivists Anonymous” group paralysed the Tunisian president’s and parliament’s website in January 2011 as part of its “Operation: Tunisia.”
In 2010, authoritarian regimes sought to control their country’s Internet connection speeds by slowing down bandwidth during elections or periods of social unrest. Connection speed became the barometer of a country’s political and social situation. Iran has become an expert in this technique, and used it just before and during every demonstration organised by the opposition. Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s divested regimes also resorted to it. Often such disruptions are accompanied by jamming or shutting down cell phone networks in the areas concerned, such as Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Another Iranian strategy which proved successful in Belarus during the demonstrations over the re-election of President Lukashenko was redirecting users of opposition websites (or those critical of the regime) to pseudo-sites with similar, yet more pro-government, content.
In addition, every government seeking to control the net has vested itself with a cyberpolice force equal to its ambitions and which, particularly on social networks, closely monitors dissident activities. It has also deployed groups of “sponsored” bloggers paid to post online pro-regime comments, thereby eclipsing critical opinions. Russian brigade and “50-cent party” bloggers are experts at this. Initially, the authorities had used repression to counteract their opponents’ use of the Internet, but now they are displaying their own content.
Internet disruptions: A drastic and costly measure
Extreme measures which ultimately failed were taken in Egypt, and then in Libya, to try to put an end to protest movements against the incumbent leaders. In the evening of 27 January 2011, Egypt virtually cut off Internet access for five days, causing its economy a loss of at least USD 90 million, according to the Organisation for European Co-Operation and Development (OECD), which shows to what extent the Internet is an integral part of the global economy and essential to a country’s economy. In Libya, the authorities first severed Internet access on 19 February, then maintained strong Internet disruptions after that and cut it off again on 3 March. It was not the first time that Internet access was totally suspended in a country. This occurred in 2005 in Nepal and in 2007 in Burma. However, such measures stir up strong reactions worldwide and further exacerbate demonstrators’ resentment. It also induces the latter to resort to more creative ways to freely distribute information, despite the odds. Netizens have either resumed using earlier Internet methods (modem, fax, etc.) or have adopted the latest generation of technologies (phone-based tweet system set up by Google and Twitter).
Burma learned its lessons from the 2007 Internet suspension and undertook a broad revamping of its national platform, to make certain that access providers would provide distinctly separate services to the population, the government and the military, thereby ensuring that the junta will be prepared, in the next crisis, to cut off Internet access to its citizens without being directly affected itself. Certain regimes sometimes intentionally maintain infrastructural problems to keep their populations from having Internet access. The 2011 commissioning of the fibre optic undersea cable linking Cuba to Venezuela, which expanded bandwidth potential, therefore will eliminate one of the Cuban regime’s excuses about access problems.
North Korea, on the other hand, launched its own pages on the online social networks in 2010, and is said to have initiated its first connections to the World Wide Web. The latter are apparently very limited, however, and are being run by the regime for propaganda purposes.
The new vs. traditional media: Is symbiosis an option?
There is truly no longer any reason for the long-lasting gap between the new and the traditional media. In the last few months, they have proven to be increasingly complementary. According to BBC Global News Director Peter Horrocks, it is imperative for journalists to learn how to use social networks: “It is not an option.” The new media have become key tools for journalists. At the same time, by flooding social networks with news and pictures, Arab revolutionaries were also seeking to ensure that the international media covered news events in order to put pressure on their governments and on the international community. News staff now use Twitter and Facebook to find ideas for news stories, gather first-hand accounts and visuals, and to disseminate their own articles in order to expand their readership. The shelf life of an article no longer ends with the printing of a newspaper; it now has an extended life online.
According to a study conducted on print and web journalists by the Cision research company and George Washington University, 56% of the respondents responded that social media were “important or somewhat important” for researching and writing the stories they wrote. Blogs were still the main source for the respondents (89%). Micro-blogging was a source for 69% of the web journalists. However, these journalists remain cautious: 84% of them were aware of reliability problems with information gathered from the social media. The instantaneous nature of social networks and streaming tools permit real-time coverage of critical events such as natural disasters (earthquake in Chili, floods in Pakistan), demonstrations (in Tunisia, Egypt, etc.), but makes media professionals’ verification work tougher, yet essential. It is sometimes hard to separate the true from the false, which is why it is important to form a network of reliable contacts who can corroborate the “scoops” made by citizen journalists or ordinary netizens.
Any witness of a trivial or historical event becomes a chance informant. Journalists are no longer the only ones who filter information – their work is also being scrutinised by their readers.
Numerous unknown factors persist in the relations between the new and traditional media. Certain newspapers such as the Washington Post prohibit their journalists from offering their personal opinion on the Internet, out of fear that it might be interpreted as the newspaper’s editorial policy. The New York Times and Reuters have issued internal guidelines for using social networks. They encourage their journalists to use them, but also make sure they are aware of the inherent risks involved. Reuters specifies that no scoops should be posted on social networks because the former are reserved mainly for press agency clients. Journalists are free to share their articles online, create an online network, invite comments from readers and post live tweets on the events they cover. However, they must obtain their supervisor’s permission to open a professional account and they are required to maintain separate personal and professional accounts.
WikiLeaks: Inevitable transparency
This collaboration between the new and traditional media is exemplified by changes in WikiLeaks’ strategy. Initially focused on the massive release of unedited confidential documents, the website gradually developed partnerships with several international media leaders ranging from The New York Times to Le Monde, and The Guardian to Al-Jazeera. This strategy allowed it to combine the new media’s assets (instantaneousness and a virtually unlimited publishing capacity) with those of the traditional media (information checking and contextualisation, thanks to journalists specialised in the issues covered). More than 120 journalists of diverse nationalities worked together to decipher the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, and to remove the names of civilians and local informants from said documents in order not to put them at risk. The series of close to 400,000 confidential documents belonging to the U.S. Army concerning the war in Iraq which WikiLeaks released helped to expose the magnitude of the crimes which coalition forces and their Iraqi allies had committed against civilian populations since 2003. Reporters Without Borders denounced the pressure which U.S. and Iraqi authorities have placed on the website and asked these two governments to demonstrate transparency and to reconsider their document classification methods.
Strong pressures are also being placed on WikiLeaks’ collaborators. Founder Julien Assange has been repeatedly threatened. U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, suspected of being one of WikiLeaks’ sources, has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest in May 2010 and is facing life imprisonment. After being subjected to cyberattacks and being dropped by several host sites, WikiLeaks called upon its worldwide supporters on 5 December 2010 to create mirror websites. Reporters Without Borders decided to host one of them on its website. In December 2010 a number of media and websites – including Le Monde, El Pais and Al-Quds Al-Arabi in Morocco – were censored for having relayed the cables. Access to the website is notably blocked in China and in Thailand. The site is accessible in Pakistan, but some pages containing wires about Pakistan are blocked.
Reporters Without Borders wrote to the U.S. Attorney General to ask him not to prosecute Julian Assange and WikiLeaks’ collaborators in view of the fact that the publishing by WikiLeaks and its five associated media of information – even classified – in an effort to inform the public is a activity promoting the right to information guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Internet: The “I love you – me neither” quandary of democracies
In a historic speech on January 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to online freedom of expression as the cornerstone of American diplomacy – a position that she reasserted in February 2011 in an address in which she reminded her audience that “On the spectrum of Internet freedom, we place ourselves on the side of openness.” Nonetheless, the principles raised by Hillary Clinton conflict with the treatment reserved for WikiLeaks. Several days prior to WikiLeaks’ publication of the documents, the Pentagon had asked the media “not to facilitate the leak” of classified documents concerning the war in Iraq, claiming that it would endanger national security. American officials made some very harsh statements about the site’s founder. Judicial action may still be taken against the website. According to Hillary Clinton, “the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft” of government documents. However she stated that “WikiLeaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom.”
Security trends tend to affect the web. Blackberry maker RIM is facing growing pressures from the Gulf States, as well as from Indonesia and India, who are trying to gain access to the content of its secured communications on the pretext of the fight against terrorism.
Apart from national security and cybersecurity, other problems are persuading democratic governments to relativise their commitment to a free Internet. The Internet will be discussed during the next G20 meeting, not from the vantage point of freedom of expression, but of protecting intellectual property. In the name of copyright protection, the French government adopted a law which makes it possible, after issuing warnings, to suspend the Internet connection of an individual suspected of illegally downloading copyrighted files online. This “graduated response” scheme, known as the “three strikes” and introduced by the Hadopi law, has inspired other countries, notably the United Kingdom with its Digital Economy Act. Spain’s Sinde Law also provides measures for website blocking subject to a court order.
In addition, the French Parliament passed an internal security law (“Loppsi 2”) which provides for an administrative filtering of the web – a dangerous principle – in the name of the fight against child pornography. The Australian filtering system, which has already been tested, has been put on hold, even though the government has not totally abandoned this project.
The highly controversial Hungarian media law could have some bad consequences on online media and bloggers because it can impose penalties and contains provisions which may jeopardise the full exercise of journalists’ professions and the transmission of information.
Italy, on the other hand, attempted to regulate the posting of videos online by means of a March 2010 decree. Every website which regularly disseminates videos must now submit a “Statement of Activity” to the Italian Telecommunications Authority (AGCOM). This decree’s scope of application was ultimately reduced to online television stations and no longer applies to traditional websites, blogs, search engines, or electronic versions of dailies, magazines and online betting.
The principle of Net neutrality seems to be increasingly at risk. In December 2010 in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted various measures concerning net neutrality which centred around two principles: that Internet service providers must ensure transparency regarding their Internet management and the prohibition of any discrimination in the manner “legal” contents are transmitted. However, such measures could leave the door open for the filtering of illegal websites and thereby signal the end of the unlimited Internet. Unlike President Obama, the Republican opposition opposes these measures and has challenged the legitimacy of the Commission’s authority to rule on this issue. In France, on the pretext of potential traffic saturation, the Minister of Industry, Energy and the Digital Economy is calling for a regulation of Internet traffic and for abandoning the Net’s absolute neutrality principle.
Corporate social responsibility: More timely than ever
Google has kept its promises and has stopped censuring its search engine’s results in China. Google.cn users are now being redirected to their Hong Kong-based website. Despite the boldness of this move and the cold reception it received from Chinese authorities, the company managed to get its Chinese operating licence renewed in the summer of 2010.
Microsoft and Yahoo! continue to practice self-censorship in China. However, Microsoft, after realising that the fight to prevent the pirating of its software in Russia was a pretext used by the authorities to justify the seizure of computers belonging to the media and to NGOs, took measures to supply the latter with pro bono licences. These three U.S. companies have signed the Code of Conduct of the Global Network Initiative, a coalition of NGOs, companies and investment funds seeking to promote good practices in countries which are censoring the Net. For the first time in Egypt, companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google have set aside their reticence and openly sided with protecting online freedom of expression. Facebook believes that “no one should be denied access to the Internet.” Google and Twitter set up a system to enable telephone tweeting in order to bypass net blocking in the country. YouTube made its political news channel CitizenTube available to Egyptians who want to circulate their videos. Users do not run much risk on the site and should benefit in terms of image capabilities.
In the last few months, cell phones – particularly during the Arab Springtime – cell phone communications have been the focus of harsher controls. In countries such as Libya and Egypt, telephone carriers have been forced to occasionally suspend their services in some locations and to transmit SMS to the population. In early February 2011, Vodafone, Mobinil and Etisalat, pressured by the army, sent their Egyptian customers an SMS informing them of a demonstration in support of Hosni Mubarak being held that day. The headquarters of Western foreign companies apparently protested … after the fact.
The Enemies of the Internet 2011 list: New additions and repeat offenders
The most net-repressive countries which deserve the label “Enemies of the Internet” are, once again this year, Saudi Arabia, Burma, China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. They often compound Internet repression with strict filtering, access problems, cyberdissident surveillance and online propaganda.
Tunisia and Egypt have been dropped from the “Enemies of the Internet” list and added to the “Countries under Surveillance” list The lifting of censorship in Tunisia and the collapse of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt are encouraging signs for the future of online freedom of expression in these countries, a right which ranked high in demonstrators’ demands. Nonetheless, vigilance will be needed until the censorship and surveillance apparatus has been dismantled. The authorities must demonstrate transparency in this regard.
Among the countries still “under surveillance”: Australia is still considering implementing a dangerous mandatory filtering system. Bahrain is vacillating between intensifying filtering and releasing bloggers. In Belarus, elections have ushered in a new era of repression against the online media. South Korea is tightening censorship of North Korean propaganda and maintaining a repressive legislative arsenal. In the United Arab Emirates, filtering and surveillance are getting worse. In Eritrea, the police state is keeping its citizens away from the web and monitoring netizens. In Malaysia, bloggers – a more credible source of news than the traditional media – are under constant pressure. In Russia, the government is trying to shape the increasingly influential Russian net to suit its own purposes. Sri Lankan online journalists and media are still victims of violence. In Thailand, the spring 2010 crisis has had negative consequences for online freedom of speech. And in Turkey, thousands of websites are still blocked and legal procedures against online journalists continue unabated.
This year, several countries were added to the Countries under Surveillance list, including France, which enacted a law providing for the administrative filtering of the Net and the “graduated response” procedure as part of the authorities’ idea of a “civilised” Internet. The year 2010 was difficult for several online media and their journalists who had to endure office break-ins, court summons, and pressure to identify their sources.
Venezuela was also placed “under surveillance.” While there is still free access to the Internet in the country despite a climate of increasing tension between the leadership and the dissident media, censorship tools are now in place in the form of an Internet gag law and the growing use of self-censorship. Discussion forums are in the authorities’ line of fire.
Colonel Kadhafi’s Libya also joins this list. Amidst the chaos, the regime has been trying to implement a nation-wide information blackout in an attempt to silence any news about the uprising and the way it was quashed.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all attacks on online freedom of expression. In 2010, the Pakistan regime’s attitude has raised much concern. A judge had ordered Facebook to be fully blocked after it posted videos considered disrespectful to the Prophet. The authorities reversed their decision, but promised to keep monitoring the web. Kazakhstan will need to be observed during the run-up to the presidential election.
As of this writing, protest movements continue to sweep through the Arab world and spread to other countries. They may give rise to new online mobilisations and to crackdowns by certain governments. In 2011, the Internet and new media are still experiencing shock waves from having been caught up in the momentum of all these political changes. The Internet has entered turbulent times in which its impact, power and frailties are likely to be magnified.