Tag Archives: Citizen Lab

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.


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

The Cyber Stewards Network Speak Out on PRISM

In June 2013, news broke out in media outlets around the world of a secret program operated by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) regarding the collection of information directly from several major U.S. Internet companies. The program, referred to as “PRISM”, involves data collection on a large scale from phones, streams of Internet traffic, and content stored by Internet companies. Despite denials by major Internet companies of their complicity with the NSA regarding this program, leaked reports have also indicated the agency paid millions of dollars to major technology companies to cover the costs of the program.

The revelation of the NSA’s PRISM program has raised concerns around the world over potential harms to online privacy. As the program’s efforts are directed primarily at non-American citizens, it is clear this is an issue of global concern, especially considering the dependence so many Internet users have worldwide on products and platforms developed by U.S. based companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook.

In a CNN op-ed Ron Deibert, (Director, Citizen Lab) suggested that the revelation of the program’s existence will ultimately prove detrimental to Internet freedom. Authoritarian regimes may now cite PRISM as an excuse to tighten and restrict Internet access for their citizens while simultaneously engaging in a digital arms race to offset the United States’ intelligence capabilities. Deibert explained that it is incumbent on the United States to fully “consider the international implications” of actions done by government agencies in the pursuit of domestic security. In a separate article on the use of metadata by security agencies, Deibert also emphasized the need for citizens to ask the “big questions about the appropriate checks and balances of security agencies in a liberal democratic society as we undergo such a profound Big Data revolution.”

Partners in the Cyber Stewards Network have joined the chorus of voices speaking out against the program and its implications on domestic safeguards for data protection across the world. Alberto Cerda, International Program Director of Chilean NGO Derechos Digitales, wrote in an op-ed that the “violation of fundamental rights has a global character. What good is it for me to be protected in Chile if it’s actually the US government that’s violating my rights?” Derechos Digitales has cautioned users to be mindful of what content they upload on any network.

Ramiro Alvarez Ugarte, Director of Access to Information for Asociación por los Derechos Civiles, has also suggested that the PRISM revelations should force netizens in countries outside of the US—such as his native Argentina—to look at the powers that domestic intelligence agencies wield, especially where governmental oversight of these organizations is lacking. Ugarte has also participated in discussions on privacy rights in Argentina with other like-minded organizations in the context of the PRISM revelations.

The PRISM revelations have encouraged other Stewards to advocate for greater knowledge on data protection techniques. Lobsang Gyatso Sither of the Tibet Action Institute has placed increased emphasis on the use of encryption technology in his own everyday work and when training Tibetans on practices for securely transmitting sensitive information. Nathan Freitas, Director of the Guardian Project (an initiative to develop secure mobile applications) and  a member of the Tibetan Action Institute, expressed concern that the disclosure of the United States’ surveillance activities will erode the “moral high ground” from which the country has pressured the Chinese government to curtail its own digital spying.

The PRISM controversy is one of many issues involving surveillance that is part of the global campaign for Internet freedom and the freedom of citizens from unwanted privacy violations. ‘Gbenga Sesan, CEO of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria has warned of the dangers to citizens of increased government surveillance in the context of the Nigerian government’s multi-million dollar contract with Elbit Systems. Pakistani organization Bytes for All has also submitted a court petition challenging the use of the FinFisher software suite in the country.

Bytes for All Challenges Censorship in Pakistani Court

 A poster from B4A’s “Access is My Right” campaign criticizing the ban on YouTube.

The Citizen Lab has documented a pattern of Internet filtering in Pakistan that is inconsistent and intermittent with with filtering primarily targeted at content deemed to be a threat to national security and at religious content considered blasphemous. In recent years, Twitter, Facebook, and certain pages on Flickr and Wikipedia have been periodically blocked in the country due to what was considered blasphemous content circulating on those sites. Bytes for All (B4A), has been campaigning for the online rights of Pakistani citizens and an active participant in the debate on the use of information communications technologies for sustainable development and strengthening human rights movements in the country.

In January 2013, B4A collaborated with the Media Legal Defense Initiative, a non-governmental organisation which helps journalists and independent media outlets around the world defend their rights, in submitting a petition to the Lahore High Court claiming that the civil and political rights of Pakistanis have been violated in the government’s censoring of various popular sites on the Internet. The censorship of YouTube as a consequence of the site hosting the controversial Innocence of Muslims video in particular was highlighted by the groups. B4A Country Director Shahzad Ahmad, however, argued that the ban is an excuse to “curtail, limit and curb citizen freedom of expression” in Pakistan. Reports by B4A on the court proceedings have indicated that part of the motivation for banning the entire YouTube site was based on the difficulty posed by blocking individual URLs.

The court’s District Attorney General asked the court on April 2013 to dismiss the petition on the grounds that B4A had appealed to Frank La Rue — UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression — through a written Letter of Allegation calling for the end of website filtering in Pakistan. The judge denied this appeal and the court case continues.

Further hearings by the court in August 2013 yielded little movement as Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman and her secretary failed to appear before the Lahore High Court. Around the same time, the Minister also stated that there were no plans to unblock YouTube, and that the government is interested in developing software that can automatically block objectionable content.

When requested for a comment on the court case, Google made a statement saying that “It is Google’s goal to offer local versions of YouTube to more places worldwide, but it takes time…The localization process can be lengthy as we research laws and build relationships with local content creators.”

A hearing on September 19 has been scheduled for the Lahore High Court. Further updates to this ongoing case will be posted as they arise.


Netsweeper in Pakistan

In June 2013, Citizen Lab released O Pakistan We Stand on Guard for Thee, a research report that reveals evidence that Internet filtering software developed by Canada-based company Netsweeper is deployed on networks operated by the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL). PTCL is a formerly government-owned enterprise that currently serves as Pakistan’s largest ISP and the manager of its Internet Exchange Point. Previous research by the OpenNet Initiative indicated that Netsweeper is being used for national-level filtering in India and across countries in the Middle East and Gulf including Qatar, UAE, Yemen, India.

Bytes for All (B4A) has actively campaigned against Pakistan’s national filtering system since the proposal’s inception in 2012. More recently, B4A has raised concerns over the role of Netsweeper’s filtering technology in aiding the Pakistani’s government’s Internet censorship regime. B4A Country Director Shahzad Ahmad argues that censorship in Pakistan has over time shifted toward targeting “secular, progressive, and liberal voices” and that “anything can be banned without debate.” A number of media outlets and non-governmental organizations have spread these concerns, including Reporters Without Borders, Reuters, and Pakistan’s The Express Tribune.

Other organizations such as Bolo Bhi and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have similarly protested against Internet censorship in the country. On July 3, 2013, Bolo Bhi Director Sana Saleem sent a letter to the High Commissioner for Canada in Islamabad urging the Canadian government to stand by its commitment to free expression and to assist the organization in demanding answers from Netsweeper regarding the company’s presence in Pakistan.

The High Commission responded by stating that “Canada expects Canadian companies working overseas to abide by the laws of those countries, and to act in accordance with applicable Canadian laws, ethical standards, and corporate social responsibility best practices.” The letter, signed by High Commissioner Greg Giokas, also stated that it was the responsibility of the Government of Pakistan to manage the use of information technology “in accordance with local law.” In response, Bolo Bhi reiterated its request that the Government of Canada assist them in seeking information on Netsweeper’s sale of filtering technology to the Pakistani government.

Tibet Action Institute: Safe Travels Online Tech Meet

poster-Tibet-event-June2013On 12 June 2013, the Tibet Action Institute (TAI) hosted an event in Dharamsala, India, as part of their Safe Travels Online campaign.

The event began Cyber Steward and TAI Field Coordinator Lobsang  Gyatso Sither and TAI staff explaining security concepts and the use of security tools to members of the Tibetan community, while distributing awareness raising materials and information on secure apps.

Citizen Lab Research Manager Masashi Crete-Nishihata gave a presentation on the Lab’s Targeted Threats research and what they have learned about online threats targeting the Tibetan community. Lhadon Thetong, the director of the Tibet Action Institute, then gave a talk on the importance of digital security, activism and action in the Tibetan community in the context of the movement and struggle for independence. Both talks were translated live in Tibetan and followed by a Q&A session.

The event was covered widely by the Tibetan media, such as Voice of America: Kunleng News (Tibetan) (starting from 11:28 minute mark), Voice of America Radio (Tibetan), Radio Free Asia (Tibetan) (starting from 19:53 minute mark), Voice of Tibet Radio (starting from 24:00 minute mark), Tibet Times (Tibetan), and Phayul (English). In addition, Dechen Pemba, Editor of High Peaks Pure Earth and author for Global Voices who has advised TAI on education programs, wrote an article on promoting digital security awareness among Tibetans who live in exile using both online and offline methods.

Bytes for All Petitions Pakistani Court on Presence of Surveillance Software

On May 13, 2013, Bytes for All (B4A), a Pakistani civil society group and partner in the Cyber Stewards Network, filed a petition with the Lahore High Court on the possible use of the FinFisher product suite in Pakistan. B4A has advocated for the rights of Pakistani netizens to browse the Internet free of censorship and surveillance through numerous court and government actions, including a recent petition submitted in January 2013 in protest of the ongoing censorship of YouTube.

The first hearing took place on May 13, 2013 and resulted in a court decision ordering the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to investigate the use of FinFisher software in the country. The court order further stipulated that the PTA must make a statement to the court by June 24, 2013. Further news on this court case will be posted as updates develop.

B4A’s case is based on evidence revealed by the Citizen Lab on the presence of FinFisher software in 36 countries across the globe, including Pakistan. Developed by Munich-based Gamma International GmbH, FinFisher products are marketed and sold exclusively to law enforcement and intelligence agencies by the UK-based Gamma Group. The company advertises FinFisher as a “governmental IT intrusion” software that can exfiltrate data, intercept email and instant messaging communications, and spy on users through webcams and microphones.

Activists and civil society organizations in other countries have urged government authorities to investigate the use of FinFisher in their respective jurisdictions. Human rights activists in Mexico have filed a request with the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information and Data Protection (IFAI) to investigate FinFisher’s presence two Mexican ISPs. UK-based NGO Privacy International has filed for an application for judicial review regarding the refusal of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to release information about Gamma Group’s export of FinFisher. Privacy International’s case was spurred by revelations that the Bahraini government had used FinFisher software to target domestic activist Ala’a Shehabi.