Author Archives: Irene Poetranto

Cyber Steward Shahzad Ahmad Wins Freedom of Expression Award

Cyber Steward Shahzad Ahmad, Director of Bytes for All (B4A), has won the Doughty Street Advocacy Award as part of Index on Censorship’s 2014 Freedom of Expression Awards. The award was given on March 20, 2013 during the award ceremonies at the Barbican Centre in London. Ahmad was nominated in the advocacy category which recognizes activists fighting for free expression around the world. Ahmad recently appeared in a video developed by Index on Censorship speaking of the work he and B4A have performed promoting digital rights and monitoring censorship in cyberspace. In his acceptance speech, Ahmad recognized B4A’s role as part of a movement “to educate, and raise people’s awareness of their digital rights” and to “continue to provide the knowledge and language that can empower everyone to participate in this dialogue, in our country and globally, as technology evolves.”

Index on Censorship is a global organization headquartered in the United Kingdom dedicated to promoting free expression and combating censorship. For 14 years, the Freedom of Expression Awards have recognized prominent activists, journalists, writers, and other advocates for free expression around the world. These advocates include Pakistani women’s education activist Malala Yousafzai, whistleblowing organization Wikileaks, and Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat.

Ahmad’s leadership as director of B4A has led to the creation of many remarkable campaigns promoting digital rights and free expression. B4A has filed several court petitions to combat censorship and surveillance in Pakistan, including their campaign to overturn the ban on YouTube and to investigate the use of commercial surveillance software FinFisher in the country. In 2013, the organization received an Avon Communications Award for their “Take Back the Tech” campaign, developed to empower women in the use of online technology and to raise awareness on gender-based violence. Despite facing many personal and professional challenges, Ahmad has demonstrated an impressive commitment to promoting free expression in Pakistan and is a highly deserving recipient of this award.

Updates on Bytes for All and the “YouTube Case”

Bytes for All (B4A) is continuing its battle at the Lahore High Court against Internet censorship in Pakistan. The court case has highlighted the ongoing censorship of YouTube in Pakistan, a result of the video sharing site’s refusal to block the controversial “Innocence of Muslims” video. B4A is pursuing this case in collaboration with the Media Legal Defense Initiative, a non-governmental organisation that supports the rights of journalists and independent media around the world.

On March 13, 2014, the nineteenth session of the hearing began with a statement presented on behalf of Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman, who was unable to personally appear before court due to unspecified security concerns. The statement cited the Supreme Court order to censor the “Innocence of Muslims” video as the basis for blocking all of YouTube and clarified that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) lacks the capability to filter specific pages. The statement also revealed that the government was attempting to obtain censorship technology similar to that used by the Chinese and Saudi Arabian governments. Past research has shown both Saudi Arabia and China censor Internet traffic heavily. B4A’s legal counsel argued against the practicality of any form of Internet censorship and stated that the blocking of YouTube had given the controversial video more publicity due to the curiosity aroused by the government’s ban. Despite the expectation that the court would make a decisive verdict regarding the case, the hearing concluded with an adjournment for a later date.      

During the eighteenth session of the case on March 11, 2014,  the presiding judge Justice Mansoor Ali Shah noted that Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered only the blocking of the “Innocence of Muslims” video and not all of YouTube. Justice Shah also emphasized the value of YouTube as an educational platform.  Minister Rehman did not attend this session as well, the fourth time he has failed to do so since being summoned to appear in person before the court.

B4A has been fighting to overturn the censorship of YouTube in Pakistan since January 2013 when the organization filed a petition challenging the legality of Internet censorship. B4A has long promoted free expression and digital rights through projects such as “Access is My Right,” a campaign developed to raise awareness around issues such as Internet censorship, digital rights, and freedom of expression in Pakistan. B4A has also assisted the Citizen Lab in researching the presence of filtering products developed by Canadian technology company Netsweeper  in Pakistan.

B4A files suit against UK government

Cyber Stewards Network partner Bytes for All (B4A) is working together with Privacy International (PI) to sue the government of the United Kingdom over their Tempora surveillance program. Tempora is the code name for a project initiated by Britain’s signal intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). It allows for access by the GCHQ to cable networks passing through the UK, including phone and Internet traffic. The massive amount of data collected through this program is also made available to GCHQ’s American counterpart, the National Security Agency.

B4A and PI have argued that the Tempora program violates the European Convention on Human Rights’ privacy safeguards. They also argue that the program directly violates the limits of lawful surveillance outlined in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which regulates the power of British authorities in conducting surveillance. Another major criticism is that it “discriminate[s] against non-UK nationals,” meaning that they “currently receive even fewer legal protections than the communications of those who reside in the UK,” even though the cables monitored by the GCHQ carry a significant amount of international web traffic. B4A highlighted their own organization as an example of how the program disproportionately targets foreign nationals. As some of B4A’s Internet traffic goes through the UK, especially traffic routed through Virtual Private Networks based in Great Britain, their communication is liable for interception and monitoring. Given the sensitive nature of their human rights work in Pakistan involving confidential correspondences with lawyers, NGOs, public officials, partner organizations, and other stakeholders, B4A sees the potential for scrutiny by foreign intelligence agencies as particularly alarming.

The case has been lodged with the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal based on an earlier suit lodged by PI over the Tempora program. The suit is asking that the program be made illegal and that the GCHQ destroys all unlawfully obtained material. B4A has lodged similar complaints in Pakistan regarding secret surveillance programs. In May 2013, the organization lodged a petition with the Lahore High Court asking the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the country’s telecommunications regulatory agency, to investigate the presence in Pakistan of FinFisher, a commercial surveillance software. In October 2013, B4A initiated a contempt of court charge against the government for not appearing in court to address the petition.

 

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Cyber Stewards and Citizen Lab present work at 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting

This article was authored by Cyber Stewards Network members at the 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting

Cyber Stewards Walid Al-Saqaf, Hisham Al-Miraat, Ramsey George, and Reem Al-Masri, along with Citizen Lab affiliates Morgan Marquis-Boire and Lidija Sabados, were among the participants of the fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting, which took place in Amman, Jordan during 20-23 January.

On the second day of the event, Walid Al-Saqaf and Ramsey George organized a two-hour workshop to introduce the Cyber Stewards Network to interested participants. Walid and Ramsey described the Cyber Stewards Networks and its objectives and also provided a background on the Citizen Lab as a whole with a special emphasis on its work in researching Internet censorship and surveillance.

Walid Al-Saqaf illustrated how being a part of the network has benefited him tremendously in his research and activism. He indicated that the network allowed him to engage with others through the Cyber Dialogue Conference in Toronto as well as the most recent Internet Governance Forum, which took place in Indonesia last year.

Walid said he felt that the Cyber Stewards Network had the potential of finding ways to create bridges between Internet researchers and activists from the global south with counterparts in the global north. He added that the events he attended through the network were of immense value for him to expand his own network and support his research around Internet censorship and circumvention in the Arab world.

Meanwhile, Ramsey George used the workshop to highlight the work that he and his colleagues at 7iber have been involved with through the Cyber Stewards Network. One of these projects is a research blog called ‘Wireless,’ which attempts to discuss issues around Internet governance, freedom of expression and access online. Ramsey expressed his ambition to work on data visualization in connection to Internet infrastructure in the Arab region and specifically in Jordan. This project would place special emphasis on growing privacy concerns in light of users’ ignorance about who controls the different network components through which their data flows.

Participants in the meeting expressed interest in the Cyber Stewards Network and highlighted the importance of such initiatives in creating greater understanding between scholars and activists interested in Internet issues. Participants raised a proposal to expand the network by allowing non-members to participate through mailing lists and other forms of communication.

Walid Al-Saqaf and Morgan Marquis-Boire were among four participants on a panel moderated by Jillian York. Walid warned against sacrificing free speech in the name of better privacy protection, while Morgan argued that censorship is now easy to detect and bypass whereas surveillance is becoming of greater concern. In response, Walid argued that the excessive focus on surveillance is increasingly putting free speech in the background, which is a particularly grave concern to activists in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. He said that while the US and other Western states may take free speech taken for granted, the Arab world still lags behind and activists need to remain focused on efforts to fight oppressive practices against bloggers and other netizens. He argued, “In a prison cell I have all the privacy I need, but I cannot reach the world to say what I want.” After a heated debate between the two sides, the discussion concluded with a mutual agreement that surveillance and censorship are inextricably intertwined and represent two sides of the same coin.[1]



[1] Some Tweets in relation to the panel discussion could be found here: http://seen.co/event/the-4th-arab-bloggers-meeting-amman-jordan-2014-9415/highlight/3123

Argentina’s Biometric Identification System Causes Concerns

Governments’ use of biometric systems have raised privacy concerns and the need for greater transparency and accountability. This is because these systems collect and store individuals’ physical traits such as fingerprints, facial recognition, iris scans, and other personal characteristics. Several countries have already implemented biometric data collection in their national identification cards and passports. Finger-based voting machines have been used in elections in Brazil since 2008 and were introduced in municipal elections in Colombia in 2009. In 2005, Brazil also introduced machine-readable biometric passports. Ingenico, a global electronic transaction company, will be deploying devices where clients can withdrew funds through fingerprint identification in Colombia and the Dominican Republic. Biometric identification has been criticized as being error-prone and unreliable, as well as being fundamentally detrimental to privacy, free expression, and the right to anonymity, especially with regards to vulnerable individuals such as dissidents, whistleblowers, and journalists.

In 2011, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner issued a decree for the creation of a centralized biometric identification system, called the Federal System of Biometric Identification (SIBIOS). Part of an upgrade to Argentina’s National Registry of Persons (RENAPER), the system will be used by several government agencies, including the Federal Police, the Argentine National Gendarmerie, the National Coast Guard, and the Airport Security Police, and connect them into one database. A promotional video of the system claims that it is capable of identifying physical characteristics such as fingerprints and faces, as a means of identification, and therefore, they claim, increasing the capability of these organizations to combat crime.

Members of the Cyber Stewards Network are active in efforts to raise awareness on the use of surveillance technologies such as SIBIOS. Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte of Asociación por los Derechos Civiles in Argentina, a Cyber Steward Network member, has warned that SIBIOS lacks accountability and independent oversight, and has been investigating the extent and scope of the system’s capabilities. In November 2013, a statement signed by several civil society organizations and individuals (including other Cyber Stewards Network members Renata Avila and Paradigm Initiative Nigeria) was delivered to the co-chairs of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The OGP aims to promote transparency and adopt new technologies to strengthen governance.The statement calls for greater transparency among all governments, especially the OGP participating countries, regarding the use of surveillance technology and the export and import of such technology. It also advocates legal reform to existing laws to better protect privacy and human rights. The statement is one of many civil society efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of pervasive government surveillance and we will continue to provide updates as they become available.

 

The Internet as a Catalyst for Change in Yemen

This article was authored by Walid Al-Saqaf. It originally appeared on Global Voices Advocacy.

The economy is suffering, illiteracy levels are among the highest in the world, and most high school and university graduates are struggling to find work. Even worse, the security situation is dire: assassinations, kidnappings, and other violent acts have become routine. This is the state of Yemen today. But one segment of society that is trying to reverse the country’s fortunes is Yemen’s youth. Young Yemenis today could prove the greatest asset in getting the country back on its feet. Technology has a big role to play here.

Young people who are trying to find new ways to find work, engage, do research and get a break from daily hardships have found that the Internet has given them some relief and hope.

The recent launch of Yemen’s chapter of the Internet Society gives me reason to be hopeful. More than 200 people attended the launch event that took place in a remote part of Sana’a City. This leaves me optimistic about the strong desire of Yemenis, particularly youth, to have a stronger, more resilient, more accessible Internet.

Why now?

With so many problems facing Yemen, one of the questions posed by some audience members at the event was ‘Why now?’ hinting at the many other difficulties that Yemen faces -– severe water shortages and power outages have become a daily norm, and many don’t dare leaving home after midnight for fear of armed gangs. In the face of such direct threats to health and safety, some have asked: Why should one invest time, energy and money in the Internet?

The Internet could bring change, foster ideas and ultimately, play an integral role in lifting people from poverty. A small minority of Yemenis have pioneered this space, developing their own businesses on social media or using the Internet to find work. Success stories of Internet-based development and entrepreneurship could inspire more action. Events such as TEDxSanaaTEDxAden and Sanaa Startup Weekend have highlighted these achievements.

These examples were fascinating because the Internet was able to help change lives at a personal level despite a poor and relatively expensive connection. One can only imagine how a more open, easily accessible Internet could impact Yemeni society.

ISOC-Yemen is a step towards making Yemen a country more connected to the world.  With a population of 25 million, the majority of whom are under 40, Yemen could become one of the fastest growing countries when it comes to Internet penetration and use. It shows tremendous promise that can help shape the future of the country both at an individual and national level.

Affordability, awareness and transparency

There is much work to be done. At 15%, Yemen’s lowest Internet penetration rate is currently the lowest in the Arab World. The country also lacks 3G connectivity – although this is due in part to the government’s monopoly over telecommunications services, infrastructure has also been decimated by acts of violence – in 2012 alone, fiber cables were cut 180 times in attacks against the state and intertribal conflict.

We must start taking bold and strategic steps to seize the moment and use the Internet to its fullest potential. As ISOC-Yemen, we plan to do this with three primary initiatives.

We plan to engage with Internet service providers and public policy makers in an effort to end the government telecom monopoly once and for all. The current system, in which the country has one ISP operated by the government, has proven unsustainable. Yemen is the only country in the region that does not have 3G connectivity and lacks many services that are taken for granted in the region. It is time to open the market with clearly-defined conditions that will protect consumers and establish an environment of healthy competition. Without competition, government-run services could lag behind, failing to satisfy the needs of the public and the market.

We also will focus on awareness. Yemenis need to wake up to the global information revolution. It is unacceptable for students and teachers not to have email accounts and not understand what the Internet is and how it is used. And we must take advantage of the resources that the Internet can offer, not only for economic development, but also for education.

We also plan to promote transparency and e-government initiatives. Recent history has proven that a lack of transparency has led to corruption that has resulted in greater levels of poverty in Yemen. In many countries new and effective e-government services have brought the elimination middle-men and fixers. Having the government publish valuable and relevant information for public scrutiny will allow the public to hold officials accountable for their actions and to ensure that tax-payer money is spent appropriately.

ISOC-Yemen will undertake many other initiatives—these are merely a starting point. As a civil society organization, ISOC-Yemen can help shape the future of the Internet not only in Yemen, but also in the region. As ISOC is soon establishing a Middle East bureau, Yemen could be a prominent beneficiary and partner of the bureau, due to its pressing need for support, its great market potential, and its strategic location for cable connectivity to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

The bright side

Despite the troubles Yemen faces, I can see a bright side that should not be overlooked. It could be summarized in the youth of Yemen, this untapped resource that can fundamentally change the country’s status from being the least developed in the Middle East, to the most competent, skilled and fastest-growing country in the region. It can do so because it possesses something that other oil-rich neighboring countries do not: a robust youth population that is determined to rise up and defeat the odds with a spirit of hard work and dedication.

I felt from my last visit to Yemen eagerness in the eyes of many young Yemenis who wish to surprise the world, turn the fortunes of the past around, and prove that we could once again become a good world citizen. The Internet could help make that a reality.

ISOC is a non-profit non-governmental organization based in the US with the aim of supporting an open and robust Internet. It serves as the umbrella of Internet Architecture Board, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Engineering Steering Group, and the Internet Research Task Force. Learn more here.

Tibet Action Institute and “Safe Travels Online: Tech Meet” in Toronto

On November 20, 2013, Cyber Steward Network partner Tibet Action Institute (TAI) participated in a panel discussion and tech session titled “Safe Travels Online: Tech Meet” hosted by Students for a Free Tibet Canada in Toronto. The discussion revolved around online targeted threats against activists, members of the Tibetan diaspora community, and their supporters. In attendance were Citizen Lab’s Research Manager Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Nathan Freitas, the Director of Technology of TAI & The Guardian Project, Lhadon Tethong, Director of the TAI, and Lobsang Sithar, the Field Coordinator of the TAI.

 

The TAI held a similar “Safe Travels Online” event in Dharamsala in June 2013, where representatives from the TAI and the Citizen Lab spoke of the dangers of online threats against the Tibetan community and the importance of digital security. The TAI website also hosts an ongoing “Safe Travels Online” video series starring Tibetan comedian Sonam Wangdue promoting security best practices for users of digital technology.

The TAI has long supported digital privacy. The Institute is a partner in the Guardian Project, a program designed to create apps, open-source software, and smartphone solutions designed to prevent online intrusion and guard the privacy of activists, journalists, humanitarians, and ordinary citizens.