Saudi Arabia Blocks Twitterers It Doesn’t Like

I’m still moving at just-back-from-vacation speed instead of blog speed, so Evgeny Morozov over at Foreign Policy is way ahead of me on this story about the Saudis blocking the Twitter accounts of two human rights activists who were saying things the Kingdom didn’t appreciate about its rights record. He cites Reporters Without Borders for the background:

Nasser, who keeps a blog called Mashi Sah (“That’s not true”) said his Twitter messages included references to the human rights situation and governance in Saudi Arabia and links to human rights sites. Abdelkhair, a human rights lawyer and head of a Saudi human rights organisation, had also referred to human rights violations in his “tweets,” the short text messages that are Twitter’s speciality. Ahmed Al-Omran, a blogger who first drew attention to the situation, said it was the first time the authorities had moved against Twitter users in Saudi Arabia

According to the OpenNet Initative’s Saudi profile in their recent report on filtering in the Middle East region, Saudi Arabia blocks political content pervasively, has one of the most restrictive media environments in the region and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists is one of the ten worst places to be a blogger. ONI concludes:

Saudi Arabia publicly acknowledges censoring morally inappropriate and religiously sensitive material, but the authorities also filter oppositional political sites and sites focused on human rights issues. In addition, the state has introduced new surveillance measures at Internet cafés and has announced plans to start a system that will require local sites to register with the authorities.

Saudi citizens have started to use the Internet for online activism, but the authorities have arrested several online writers and blocked their content. A local human rights group expressed interest in legally challenging the government’s censorship of human rights sites.

Evgeny holds Berkman’s Jonathan Zittrain’s feet to the fire on the supposed resiliency of Twitter to blocking, and although he concedes that you can still access the two blocked Twitter accounts here in the US, he’s right that that won’t matter so much to someone trying to read them in Riyad. [Still, it might be possible to access these accounts in the Kingdom using other Twitter aggregating tools, similar to how one might easily get around filtering of blogs or news sites by using an aggregator--Correction and update: This approach wouldn't actually circumvent Twitter blocking in Riyad because it would still have to retrieve the data from Twitter, as Evgeny notes in his comment below]. In any case, I imagine that the more the media (and, ahem, bloggers) keep talking about Twitter’s use in highly censored media environments, the more it will become a target of filtering by the censors.

Iran Moves to Enforce New Cyber Law

Al Jazeera is reporting that disputed President Ahmadinejad is moving to enforce a new Internet law that would force ISPs in the country to retain information created by their users for up to three months. According to government-backed Press TV, the law requiring capture of user content will make users “more safe.” However, given the role of the Internet in sharing information about formal and informal protests of the unresolved election results, it is hard to see how this law is anything but another way for the government to limit speech within the country. Our own Rob Faris is quoted on this count:

Rob Faris, a research director at the Harvard University’s Berkman Centre, told Al Jazeera that the new law could serve as an additional tool for the authorities to keep an eye on cyberspace.

‘For blogs that include restricted content, this legislation could give authorities one more way to go after them, though this doesn’t seem needed. The government has not been constrained in the past by a lack of legal instruments.’

Not everyone in the country appears overly concerned, since Iranian users have grown adept at getting around existing censorship and filtering efforts by the government. As Iranian blogger Potkin Azarmehr told Al Jazeera:

Given how internet savvy the young Iranians are and the help they are getting from Iranian expats, whatever law Ahmadinejad passes, there will be a way round it.

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Internet Newspapers Blossom in Iran

internet-newspapers-iran

Hamid Tehrani has an excellent post on the emergence of underground, online newspapers that have sprung up since the disputed Iranian election. He argues that these newspaper allow Iranians to communicate in the face of increased repression. Hamid writes:

Dozens of journalists and bloggers have been imprisoned, pro-reformist websites have been filtered and a few not-yet-banned reformist journals such as Etemad Meli are under intensified surveillance. Under such difficult circumstances for the media, we are witnessing a new phenomenon inside Iran: the emergence of “underground” Internet newspapers.

At the end of June, at least two such newspapers were launched: Khyaboon (”Street”) and Kalam Sabz (”Green Word”) where the word “green” is a reference to Mir Hussein Mousavi’s campaign colors. So far, Khyaboon has published 13 issues and Kalam Sabz has published 10. Khyaboon is available only by email and the paper has no website or blog. Kalam Sabz also uses email, but has a website. Both journals are distributed in PDF file format.

Both Khyaboon and Kalam Sabz are firmly against Ahmadinejad and Khamenei’s decision to accept the election results, as well as suppression of the protest movement. This is demonstrated in recent headlines from the two papers:

“What is going on in the silence of Evin prison;”
“Stop forcing confessions;”
“Khatami: It was a velvet Coup against people.”

Hamid’s analysis of political trends in the two papers shows that Kalam Sabz “largely reflects the opinions and statements of reformist leaders and parties” while Khayaboon is more of a “radical-left journal, which criticizes even Mousavi for his inaction.”

Check out the full story on Global Voices; it’s well worth the read.

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Azerbaijan Defends the Honor of Their Donkeys, Silences Critics

Apparently, Azerbaijan’s leaders don’t have much of a sense of humor. Azeri bloggers created this satirical video to poke fun at the government for reportedly paying nearly $180,000 for, well, donkeys, including $18,500 for just one of the beasts. But, corruption is corruption, whether your talking about Boeing KC-767 refueling tankers or pack animals, and the government was not pleased. According to Global Voices, the two were arrested and charged with ‘hooliganism’ after they were attacked in a local restaurant and reported the incident to the police.

Unfortunately, Azerbaijan is one of those countries in the former Soviet region that doesn’t get much attention unless there’s a spat over pipelines for shipping gas and oil to Europe, and that is probably useful for the government in cases like this. Let’s hope enough bad press convinces the Azeri government to lighten up.

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Russia Labeled “Partly Free” in 2009 “Freedom on the Net” Report

By Karina Alexanyan

Freedom House recently released a report examining emerging tactics of government control of digital media, with a focus on 15 countries around the world, including Russia. The report, “Freedom on the Net”, concludes that increasing digital media access and use worldwide is accompanied by more systematic and sophisticated methods of control.

The countries examined were Russia, China, Iran, Brazil, Cuba, Egypt, Estonia, Georgia, India, Kenya, Malaysia, South Africa, Tunisia, Turkey and the UK.

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All Images: Freedom On the Net

The key positive findings of the report suggest that poverty is not necessarily a barrier to new media freedom, that civic activism is growing around the world and that, in many cases, internet freedom exceeds press freedom. On a negative note, there is a continued lack of transparency and accountability, growing legal threats and technical attacks, and an increase in forms of censorship.

The report is organized around a Freedom on the Net index, which scores each country on a scale of 1-100, based on three main categories – Obstacles to Access (governmental, legal, infrastructural & economic), Limits to Content (various forms of censorship and content manipulation, diversity of online news media, and usage of digital media for activism) and Violations of User Rights (legal protections and restrictions, privacy violations and various legal and physical repercussions for online activity).

Based on these parameters, Russia is labeled “Partly Free” with a total score of 51. Specifically, Russia’s scores are:
Obstacles to Access – 11 out of 25
Limits to Content – 17 out of 35
Violations of User Rights – 23 out of 40

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The Russia section of the report begins by positioning the internet in Russia against the elimination of independent television channels in 2000-01 and the tightening of press regulations, labeling it “the last relatively uncensored platform for public debate and the expression of political opinions”.

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First bar: Internet; Second Bar: Traditional Media
Yellow=Partly Free; Purple=Not Free

At the same time, the report points out that “many Russians view the internet as a proper sphere for governmental control.” According to a Levada-Center poll taken in December 2006, almost half the population would either “absolutely agree” or “rather agree” with the statement “It’s time to bring order to the internet.”

The report concludes that, while there is little overt technical blocking or filtering in Russia, the legal environment has become more threatening, and there are increasing cases of sophisticated “soft censorship” (described in more detail below) and a rising number of attacks or threats to internet activists and bloggers. Russia joins other “Partly Free” countries like Egypt and Malaysia as a case where “government encouraged improvements in access to ICTs and relatively little censorship are offset by harsh legal environments, state monitoring and a rise in criminal prosecutions.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Russia Blocks Popular History Web Site

In a rare case of Internet filtering in Russia, the popular history Web site Hronos.info has been blocked for publishing Hitler’s Mein Kampf. According to the site’s founder, Vyacheslav Rumyantsev, the site was shut done last week by the site’s ISP, Agava, after a warning from St. Petersburg’s local Ministry of Interior ‘K’ squad, which enforces violations of Russian laws on the Internet.

Similar to what the OpenNet Initiative has seen in a number of other countries, the site was blocked because it violated Russian laws on anti-extremism (Article 280 of the Criminal Code).

In Russia, it appears that ISPs are responsible for violations of the law by their users. The Moscow Times describes how it’s done:

A spokesman for St. Petersburg police, Vyacheslav Stepchenko, said Friday that the site was closed down after the police sent a letter to provider Agava. He said that the law calls for the distributor of information to be warned first, and a criminal case will be opened only if the warning is ignored.

The law applies to the provider, not to the author of a web site, he said. “According to Russian law, responsibility for distribution lies with the owner of the resource, the owner of the hosting.”

The police department sends about 20 warning letters every month, he said.

Two mirror sites are up, with Mein Kampf removed.

carmenOver the weekend, Russian censors also cut part of a South Park episode to edit out a clip that makes fun of Prime Minister Putin. The section that was cut is available at the New Yorks Times Arts Beat Blog. It’s not clear who did the actual cutting. Last year, prosecutors also warned Russian cable channel 2×2, which airs South Park in Russia, that an episode of the show (Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics) could be seen as promoting hatred between religions. A Moscow court later canceled that warning.

UPDATE: The Moscow Times later reported that the Web site’s creator actually thinks that his site was shut down because of criticism of St. Petersburg mayor and Putin loyalist Valentina Matviyenko, and may have had nothing to do with Mein Kamph. The Moscow Times writes:

Rumyantsev said Tuesday that he suspected that the real reason for the closure last week was an article critical of Matviyenko that was posted on the site’s magazine section on June 15, four days before the police warning.

“It was a very quick reaction,” he said. “‘Mein Kamp’ was on the site for two years, and no one lifted a finger.”

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China Fights to Tame Internet During Riots

China’s efforts to limit access to information about ethnic violence in the country, which has resulted in over 150 deaths, shows that the Internet is more difficult than traditional media to control, but not impossible. The OpenNet Initiative reports that China has completely shut off access to the Internet in Xinjiang province and blocked access to Twitter throughout the country. The New York Times also reports that links about the riots have been deleted from Fanfou, the Chinese version of Twitter, as well as popular forums such as Mop and Tianya. The Times also argues that, similar to SMS during post election violence in Kenya last year, the Internet may have helped mobilize rioters:

Internet social platforms and chat programs appeared to have unified Uighurs in anger over the way Chinese officials had handled the earlier brawl, which took place in late June thousands of miles away…photographs that appeared online after the battle showed people standing around a pile of corpses, leading many Uighurs to believe that the government was playing down the number of dead Uighurs. One Uighur student said the photographs began showing up on many Web sites about one week ago. Government censors repeatedly tried to delete them, but to no avail, he said.

‘Uighurs posted it again and again in order to let more people know the truth, because how painful is it that the government does bald-faced injustice to Uighur people?’ said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the government.

A call for protests spread on Web sites and QQ, the most popular instant-messaging program in China, despite government efforts to block online discussion of the feud.

If history is any guide, the Chinese will likely ease their online restrictions when the riots end, but the cat and mouse game will continue. As Michael Wines argues:

Chinese experts clearly have studied the so-called color revolutions — in Georgia and Ukraine, and last month’s protests in Iran — for the ways that the Internet and mobile communication devices helped protesters organize and reach the outside world, and for ways that governments sought to counter them…As the Internet and other media raise new challenges to China’s version of the truth, China is finding new ways not just to suppress bad news at the source, but also to spin whatever unflattering tidbits escape its control.

In regards to the resources at China’s disposal, Jonathan Zittrain may have said it best, “Given that it’s a game of cat and mouse they could bring to bear a lot of cats if they had to.”

Cracking Down on Digital Communication and Political Organizing in Iran

tehran_elections

Cross-posted on the ONI Blog

The Internet and mobile phones have taken on a major role in Iranian politics over the last several months. As protests over the contested election results continue in Iran, the government has dramatically increased its control over digital technologies. Many important Web sites have been blocked over the past couple of days, including the Web sites of the opposition parties in Iran, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. While political organizers have learned to leverage the organizing power of Web 2.0 tools, government censors in Iran are quick to shut them down when they are most effective. None of this is surprising; it reflects similar events seen in many places around the world.

Digital tools have been shown to be effective political organizing tools, from the Obama presidential campaign in the US to Ukraine, Colombia and Moldova. As powerful as new technologies may be as political tools, information and communication technologies have also been proven to be exceedingly fragile; in countries where the government has sufficient latitude to interfere with the use of these tools, they are easily disrupted and if necessary, can be shut down entirely.

The role of information and communication technologies in Iranian politics has matured rapidly over the past year. Political opposition groups in particular have adopted new online and mobile phone-based organizing tactics, using Facebook, Twitter, Web sites, email, cell phones and SMS and the full suite of Web 2.0 tools as mechanisms for political organizing. This is has all taken place in a highly restrictive media environment in which the Internet and other forms of digital communication are intensely regulated. Facebook has been blocked and unblocked several times in the past year. The rationale and legal justifications for censoring Internet communications are broad. Anything construed as anti-Islamic or damaging to the Iranian state can be blocked by what amounts to executive fiat, although there are many voices within the institutions charged with blocking web sites in Iran.

Earlier reports that the government shut down the Internet entirely during the June 12 elections appear to be exaggerated. Jim Cowie at Renesys looked at the evidence from international routing data and indeed found evidence of some strange events in Iran’s traffic to the outside.

However, the Internet is still up in Iran, though reports from inside Iran suggest that it is much slower than normal and a broader range of websites are being blocked. The fact that Iran has invested so much in blocking Internet content might mean that they have greater confidence about keeping tight controls over content available in Iran without shutting down the Internet entirely, as Burma had done in the face of popular protests there.

After a large surge in SMS traffic in the run-up to the election, multiple sources inside Iran reported that the country’s SMS networks went down just nine hours before the polls opened. This is unsurprising, as SMS has been used in many places as a powerful tool for organizing protests. Reporters Without Borders reports that the SMS take-down was part of attempt to prevent opposition supporters from collecting election results.

By Saturday, all mobile phone services had been shut off in Tehran. Plans by an organization led by former president Rafsanjani to carry out election monitoring using cell phones might have factored into this decision. Cell phone service was restored on June 14, but SMS continues to be blocked.

Western media sources have covered the news as it unfolds, although some US media outlets have been criticized for not focusing more attention on the events in Iran. The government has not thrown western journalists out of the country, though it has made reporting difficult. The BBC has traced the jamming of one of its satellites, which has interrupted access to radio and television for audiences in Iran, the Middle East and Europe, to a location inside Iran.

Despite the tightening restrictions on communications tools, citizen journalists inside Iran have been hard at work. Video clips are widely available on the net, as are photos of Iranian voters and post-election protests. Although YouTube and DailyMotion are both blocked, we were able to upload a small video to Vimeo. The generally slow Internet speeds will hinder the upload of large files.

ONI has confirmed the expansion of blocking over the past several days, making access to ongoing reporting of events as well as political organizing far more difficult for Iranians. In the past several days, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have been blocked. The English version of BBC is now blocked; the Persian version has been blocked for months. Websites of the major opposition candidates are all blocked, including Mousavi’s website  mirhussein.com) and Karoubi’s website  teribon.com). The blog host, blogfa.com, has been down for several days now, preventing many Iranian bloggers from updating their blogs.

We tested the thirty web sites that receive disproportionate attention from the reformist segments of the Iran blogosphere and about half of these are not blocked, including norooznews.ir, webneveshteha.comemruz.bizemruz.infoyaarinews.com, mowj.ir, maryamshab.blogfa.commirhussein.commasoudbehnoud.com, drmoeen.ir and noandish.com. Among those not blocked include ghalamnews.ir, aftabnews.ir and khatami.ir. (Thanks to John Kelly for the list of sites that we tested. This is derived from the blogosphere mapping work of John Kelly and Bruce Etling).

In response, some pro-democracy activists are targeting government Web sites with DDOS attacks in an attempt to strike back at the current regime. While they have had some success – leader.ir, ahmadinejad.ir, and iribnews.ir were reported to be down – experts worry that the attacks may be used by the Iranian government to justify their own filtering or, worse, may cripple the Iranian network as a whole. (Note: Leader.ir was back up when we tested. Ahmadinejad.ir and iribnews.ir were still down.)

Many years of Internet filtering have prompted the development of circumvention tools by and for Iranians. Many Internet users in Iran have become adept at getting past the Internet censors there. An unintended consequence is that there are many sophisticated users and tools that are prepared to circumvent government attempts to limit access to online sites. This increase in filtering associated with the elections can be expected to increase the demand for access to and knowledge about circumvention technology.

These measures to further limit access to information around the contested election results are not going to help the current the Iranian government if it seeks to build legitimacy.

Facebook and Iranian Election Redux

Hamid Tehrani and CNN report that Facebook is up again in Iran. Berkman’s new Herdict Reporter tells us that over the last few days Facebook was indeed inaccessible to some users in Iran, but, reflecting the distributed filtering model that Iran seems to employ, it was still accessible by some users depending on their ISP. These days I always go straight to Herdict to see what actual users in country are saying about filtering in real time instead of relying solely on press reports, and I’m deeply appreciative of the users in Iran that give us reports of what is blocked. For more on filtering in Iran check out Hamid’s excellent overview at Global Voices. As we’ve cataloged on this blog over the last couple months, it seems that filtering of Internet content by political threats like former president Khatami has been part of an overt strategy by the government.

A number of blogs and traditional media outlets, including those in Iran, reported that Facebook was blocked by Ahmadinejad in an attempt to thwart his more net savvy opponent Mousavi’s online campaign–although Ahmadinejad now denies it. Hamid has been doing a wonderful series on the use of social media by the Presidential candidates including reformists like Mousavi as well as Ahmadinejad and the least effective online campaigner, former Revolution Guard leader Mohsen Rezai. Unfortunately, the campaign has become far less interesting since former President Khatami dropped out in favor of Mousavi, but many speculate he was pressured to drop out since he was a larger threat to Ahmadinejad than Mousavi.

In the end, the Facebook debacle is another black eye on the election process in Iran, which has elements of a democratic election but falls far short of minimal ‘free and fair’ standards due to, first and foremost, the ability of small body of clerics, the Guardian Council, to approve or reject candidates, to say nothing of the limits on free speech and political organization in Iran. Let’s hope that the apparent easing of tensions between the US and Iran leads to an opening in the political process in the country. A smart first move might be for the Obama administration to ease restrictions on US social media providers who have users in Iran.

Roxana Saberi’s Sentence Reduced; Journalist to be Freed Today

According to the BBC, Roxana Saberi’s sentence has been reduced to to a two year suspended sentence, which will allow her to be released and to leave the country. Her appeals trial was much more open than her initial one. It is likely, though, that politics had a great deal more to do with the court’s decision than legal arguments. There were formal requests from the US government, a request from Ahmadinijad himself, to say nothing of a sustained international media and blogging campaigns calling for her freedom. Saberi was noticeably thinner due to a hunger strike she ended only last week for health reasons. This is all, of course, fantastic news, but we should not forget that bloggers and others remain behind bars in Iran for what in most of the rest of the world is simple political expression or normal civic activity.

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