Technology > Internet / Web >
Free speech, Freedom, Censorship
A Threat to Internet Freedom
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New York Times 10 July 2014
New rules proposed by the F.C.C.
divide the Internet into fast lanes and slow lanes,
central concept of "net neutrality."
Produced by: Brian
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free speech on the
internet / web / online freedom
web freedom USA
John Perry Barlow USA
(...) former cowpoke,
and lyricist for the Grateful Dead
whose affinity for wide open spaces
and free expression
transformed him into a leading defender
of an unfettered internet (...)
a free and open internet
1996 > USA > Section 230 of the Communication
Way back when AOL was a big tech company
and people reached the World Wide Web via dial-up
Congress added a provision to federal law
that has had a profound effect
on every aspect of our democracy and public life.
It’s called Section 230 of the Communication Decency
and it ruled that internet platforms,
or message boards as they then were largely called,
are not legally liable for false or defamatory
posted by users.
Although no one could have imagined it at the time,
the 1996 legislation made possible
the explosive growth of the modern internet.
Freed from the threat of being sued for libel,
Facebook, Twitter, Reddit
and other corners of cyberspace
became places where literally billions of people
felt free to say whatever they wanted,
from robust political disputes
to false accusations of horrific acts
to the spread of disinformation and lies.
People often wrote actionable things
about others but were seldom,
if ever, sued personally for what they had said,
the only recourse allowed under the new law.
Also, individuals were less attractive targets
for costly lawsuits than wealthy corporations.
The protection from legal liability proved essential
to the explosive growth of the internet platforms,
allowing them to remove posts that contained hate
and other graphic material
that might drive away users or advertisers.
But at the same time,
they did not have to read,
research and “moderate,” in their terminology,
every vituperative, spite-laced statement
put on their sites by users.
https://www.propublica.org/article/nsu-section-230 - February 2020
https://www.propublica.org/article/nsu-section-230 - February 2020
internet regulation UK
Internet regulation > rules
Federal Communications Commission >
network neutrality USA
is the most important
At its heart is a question
that anyone who uses the Internet
ought to care about:
Will the future of the Internet
resemble that of cable
a service in which business deals
between content companies and
influence which content you see
on your devices?
Or will it function more or less
like the free-for-all place it’s
a communications network
where the latest innovation
Netflix, Hulu, Snapchat or Vine)
doesn’t need to cut a special deal
with Comcast to garner a
delete a post on
block Internet content
Iran's cyber-police force > Fata
censorship > cyberpolice > China
Egypt > YouTube access
Esc & Ctrl:
a new series about controlling the internet - video
Does the net's liberating power
need to be defended
from the traditional
that fear it?
Jon Ronson's Esc & Ctrl
will look at attempts
control the online world.
The Pentagon's own Internet
Corpus of news articles
Technology > Internet >
Free speech, Freedom, Censorship
Web Freedom Is Seen to Be Growing
as a Global Issue in 2015
JAN. 1, 2015
By VINDU GOEL
and ANDREW E. KRAMER
SAN FRANCISCO — Government censorship of the Internet is a
cat-and-mouse game. And despite more aggressive tactics in recent months, the
cats have been largely frustrated while the mice wriggle away.
But this year, the challenges for Silicon Valley will mount, with Russia and
Turkey in particular trying to tighten controls on foreign-based Internet
companies. Major American companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google are
increasingly being put in the tricky position of figuring out which laws and
orders to comply with around the world — and which to ignore or contest.
On Wednesday, Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, signed the latest version
of a personal data law that will require companies to store data about Russian
users on computers inside the country, where it will be easier for the
government to get access to it. With few companies expected to comply with the
law, which goes into effect Sept. 1, a confrontation may well erupt.
The clumsiness of current censorship efforts was apparent in mid-December, when
Russia’s Internet regulator demanded that Facebook remove a page that was
promoting an anti-government rally. After Facebook blocked the page for its 10
million or so Russian users, dozens of copycat pages popped up and the word
spread on other social networks like Twitter. That created even more publicity
for the planned Jan. 15 event, intended to protest the sentencing of Aleksei A.
Navalny, a leading opposition figure.
Anton Nosik, a prominent Russian blogger whose work has been censored by
regulators, said it was absurd for a government to think it could easily stamp
out an article or video when it can be copied or found elsewhere with a few
clicks. “The reader wants to see what he was prevented from seeing,” Mr. Nosik
said in an interview. “All that blocking doesn’t work.”
Instead, that prompted the government to switch tactics, moving Mr. Navalny’s
sentencing to Dec. 30 with little notice in an attempt to diminish protests.
The Turkish government faced similar embarrassment when it tried to stop the
dissemination of leaked documents and audio recordings on Twitter in March. The
administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister and is now
president, ordered the shutdown of Twitter within Turkey after the company
refused to block the posts, which implicated government officials in a
Not only did the government lose a court fight on the issue, but while Twitter
was blocked, legions of Turkish users taught one another technical tricks to
evade the ban, even spray-painting the instructions on the walls of buildings.
“We all became hackers,” Asli Tunc, a professor of communication at Istanbul
Bilgi University, said in a phone interview. “And we all got on Twitter.”
Despite such victories for free-speech advocates, governments around the world
are stepping up their efforts to control the Internet, escalating the
“The trendlines are consistent,” Colin Crowell, Twitter’s global vice president
of public policy, said in a phone interview. “There are more and more requests
for removal of information.”
Pakistan, for example, bombarded Facebook with nearly 1,800 requests to take
down content in the first half of 2014, according to the company’s most recent
transparency report. Google’s YouTube video service has long been blocked there.
And the government briefly succeeding in getting Twitter to block certain
“blasphemous” or “unethical” tweets last year until the company re-examined
Pakistani law and determined the requests didn’t meet legal requirements.
It’s not just autocratic regimes that are pressing for limits on free speech. In
the European Union, a court ruling last year established a “right to be
forgotten,” allowing residents to ask search engines like Google to remove links
to negative material about them. Now privacy regulators want Google to also
delete the links from search results on the non-European versions of its service
because anyone in Europe can easily get access to the alternate sites.
Free-speech activists view Facebook, the world’s largest social network with
1.35 billion monthly users, as the company most inclined to work with
governments and do whatever is necessary to keep its service up and running.
Last spring, while Twitter was blocked in Turkey and YouTube was shut down,
Facebook removed contested content and continued to operate. It has a dedicated
team of outside lawyers who field censorship requests from the Turkish
government and then recommend to corporate officials whether content should be
“Facebook can be quite important to the people who use it, so we try to make
sure it remains accessible,” a company spokesman said. “We aggressively push
back on unlawful or overly broad government requests.”
Twitter, which has about 284 million monthly users, styles itself as the world’s
town square and a global champion of free speech, conforming to the letter of
censorship laws while winking at workaround strategies, like users changing the
location listed on their profile to evade specific blocks that apply in a
For Turkey’s opposition movement, Professor Tunc said, Twitter “basically
created an opening, a refreshing alternative, especially during the protests.
And they know that. They act like a defender of freedom.”
As the biggest player, Google, whose YouTube service seems to draw the
particular ire of foreign governments, has been forced into fights on many
fronts. It is still viewed by many as a hero for its decision to pull out of
China in 2010 rather than continue to censor search results there.
The company explained its philosophy at that time: “We have a bias in favor of
people’s right to free expression. We are driven by a belief that more
information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the
While China remains a thorn in the side of most Western Internet companies —
Facebook and Twitter are basically blocked there — Russia is the current flash
point in the censorship wars.
Over the summer, the Russian government began demanding that anyone with at
least 3,000 daily visitors follow rules similar to those applying to a media
company and face content restrictions. So far, Twitter and Facebook are simply
passing those requests along to their users without making sure anyone complies.
Many do not, but so far the Russian government has not pressed the issue.
But the pressure may intensify later this year. Starting Sept. 1, foreign
technology companies are supposed to store data about Russian users on computers
located in Russia and make a software key available to the government that could
be used to unscramble and monitor private Internet communications.
That would give the government leverage in showdowns with tech companies, since
it could simply raid the facility or arrest local employees.
Most Western technology companies have no data centers in Russia and no plans to
“Our data centers are all in the United States,” said Mr. Crowell of Twitter.
“It’s unlikely that our first data center outside the United States will be in
Google, whose search engine is the No. 2 player in Russia after the local Yandex
service, has gone further, announcing recently that it will close its
engineering offices in Russia. Although the company said it had been
consolidating such offices globally, one factor in the closure is the risk of a
raid by Russian authorities.
“If what’s going to happen is that Russians will show up and stick an AK-47 in
an engineer’s nostril, Google is going to make sure that no one in Russia has a
Google engineering logon,” said Ross J. Anderson, a professor of security
engineering at Cambridge University in Britain, who studies privacy and
censorship issues and did some work for Google in the past.
A Google spokesman declined to comment on its Russia strategy, saying only, “We
are deeply committed to our Russian users and customers and we have a dedicated
team in Russia working to support them.”
Twitter and Facebook have more room to maneuver. With far fewer users in Russia
and virtually no advertising there, they can resist the government’s demands
with fewer repercussions.
Robert Shlegel, a member of the Russian Parliament active in shaping the
Kremlin’s Internet policies, said in a phone interview that the Russian
regulations were in many ways a response to the revelations of the former
American intelligence contractor, Edward J. Snowden, about American government
spying through Silicon Valley companies.
“This problem was created by the United States,” Mr. Shlegel said. Mr. Snowden
lives in Russia, which granted him residency as the United States government
sought to arrest him for his leaks.
Russia’s first preference, Mr. Shlegel said, is to persuade other nations to
form a common, international set of rules for social networking sites and
crowdsourced news, clarifying when countries could block pages to comply with
He said that Russian authorities had no intention of blocking American Internet
companies for failing to follow the data storage law. “What we need to do is
have a dialogue,” he said.
And given Western sanctions and the collapse in the ruble’s value, Russia needs
foreign business support, at least in part to prevent its online economy from
grinding to a halt. If strictly enforced, the personal data law, for example,
would close most Internet hotel and airline bookings, sending Russians to stand
in line at travel agencies instead.
Mr. Nosik, the Russian blogger, said that the country’s Internet regulator,
Roskomnadzor, was unlikely to ban American companies like Facebook, if only for
fear that millions of Russians who suddenly lost access to years of photographs,
family memories, love letters and contacts with friends would blame the Kremlin.
Only Mr. Putin could decide to cut off access, he said. “The moment Putin wants
it done, it will be done within minutes and no law will be required,” Mr. Nosik
said. “On the other hand, so long as Putin doesn’t give the command to block
them, they will not be blocked.”
Vindu Goel reported from San Francisco
and Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow.
A version of this article appears in print on January 2, 2015, on page B1 of the
New York edition with the headline: Web Freedom Seen Growing as an Issue.
Web Freedom Is Seen to Be Growing as a Global
Issue in 2015,
a Fine Line on Free Speech
Across the Globe
September 16, 2012
The New York Times
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
SAN FRANCISCO — For Google last week, the decision was clear.
An anti-Islamic video that provoked violence worldwide was not hate speech under
its rules because it did not specifically incite violence against Muslims, even
if it mocked their faith.
The White House was not so sure, and it asked Google to reconsider the
determination, a request the company rebuffed.
Although the administration’s request was unusual, for Google, it represented
the kind of delicate balancing act that Internet companies confront every day.
These companies, which include communications media like Facebook and Twitter,
write their own edicts about what kind of expression is allowed, things as
diverse as pointed political criticism, nudity and notions as murky as hate
speech. And their employees work around the clock to check when users run afoul
of their rules.
Google is not the only Internet company to grapple in recent days with questions
involving the anti-Islamic video, which appeared on YouTube, which Google owns.
Facebook on Friday confirmed that it had blocked links to the video in Pakistan,
where it violates the country’s blasphemy law. A spokeswoman said Facebook had
also removed a post that contained a threat to a United States ambassador, after
receiving a report from the State Department; Facebook has declined to say in
which country the ambassador worked.
“Because these speech platforms are so important, the decisions they take become
jurisprudence,” said Andrew McLaughlin, who has worked for both Google and the
White House. Most vexing among those decisions are ones that involve whether a
form of expression is hate speech. Hate speech has no universally accepted
definition, legal experts say. And countries, including democratic ones, have
widely divergent legal approaches to regulating speech they consider to be
offensive or inflammatory.
Europe bans neo-Nazi speech, for instance, but courts there have also banned
material that offends the religious sensibilities of one group or another.
Indian law frowns on speech that could threaten public order. Turkey can shut
down a Web site that insults its founding president, Kemal Ataturk. Like the
countries, the Internet companies have their own positions, which give them wide
latitude on how to interpret expression in different countries.
Although Google says the anti-Islamic video, “Innocence of Muslims,” was not
hate speech, it restricted access to the video in Libya and Egypt because of the
extraordinarily delicate situation on the ground and out of respect for cultural
Google has not yet explained why its cultural norms edict applied to only two
countries and not others, where Muslim sensitivities have been demonstrably
Free speech absolutists say all expression, no matter how despicable, should be
allowed online. Others say Internet companies, like governments, should be
flexible enough to exercise restraint under exceptional circumstances,
especially when lives are at stake.
At any rate, as Mark L. Movsesian, a law professor at St. John’s University,
pointed out, any effort to ban hateful or offensive speech worldwide would be
virtually impossible, if not counterproductive.
“The regimes are so different, it’s very, very difficult to come up with one
answer — unless you ban everything,” he said.
Google’s fine parsing led to a debate in the blogosphere about whether the video
constituted hateful or offensive speech.
Peter J. Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, said Google was justified
in restricting access to the video in certain places, if for no other reason
than to stanch the violence.
“Maybe the hate speech/offensive speech distinction can be elided by the smart
folks in Google’s foreign ministry,” Mr. Spiro wrote on the blog Opinio Juris.
“If material is literally setting off global firestorms through its
dissemination online, Google will strategically pull the plug.”
Every company, in order to do business globally, makes a point of obeying the
laws of every country in which it operates. Google has already said that it took
down links to the incendiary video in India and Indonesia, because it violates
But even as a company sets its own rules, capriciously sometimes and without the
due process that binds most countries, legal experts say they must be flexible
to strike the right balance between democratic values and law.
“Companies are benevolent rulers trying to approximate the kinds of decisions
they think would be respectful of free speech as a value and also human safety,”
said Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor at Harvard.
Unlike Google, Twitter does not explicitly address hate speech, but it says in
its rule book that “users are allowed to post content, including potentially
inflammatory content, provided they do not violate the Twitter Terms of Service
and Rules.” Those include a prohibition against “direct, specific threats of
violence against others.”
That wide margin for speech sometimes lands Twitter in feuds with governments
and lobbyists. Twitter was pressed this summer to take down several accounts the
Indian government considered offensive. Company officials agreed to remove only
those that blatantly impersonated others; impersonation violates company rules,
unless the user makes it clear that it is satirical.
Facebook has some of the industry’s strictest rules. Terrorist organizations are
not permitted on the social network, according to the company’s terms of
service. In recent years, the company has repeatedly shut down fan pages set up
In a statement after the killings of United States Embassy employees in Libya,
the company said, “Facebook’s policy prohibits content that threatens or
organizes violence, or praises violent organizations.”
Facebook also explicitly prohibits what it calls “hate speech,” which it defines
as attacking a person. In addition, it allows users to report content they find
objectionable, which Facebook employees then vet. Facebook’s algorithms also
pick up certain words that are then sent to human inspectors to review; the
company declined to provide details on what kinds of words set off that kind of
Nudity is forbidden on Facebook, too. This year, that policy enmeshed the social
network in a controversy over photographs of breast-feeding women. Facebook
pages were set up by groups that objected to the company’s ban on pictures of
exposed breasts, and “nurse-ins” were organized, calling on women to breast-feed
outside Facebook offices worldwide.
The company said sharing breast-feeding photos was fine, but “photos that show a
fully exposed breast where the child is not actively engaged in nursing do
violate Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.”
Just this month, a New Yorker cartoon tripped over Facebook’s rules on exposed
breasts. On its Facebook page, the magazine displayed a cartoon that contained
the topless figures of a man and women. The illustration was removed for
violating Facebook’s naked breast decree.
Facebook soon corrected itself. With “hundreds of thousands” of reported
complaints each week, the company said, sometimes it makes a mistake.
On Web, a Fine Line on Free Speech Across
the Globe, NYT, 16.9.2012,
for Opening Up
Web Access at Schools
The New York Times
By WINNIE HU
Silver Creek High School in Longmont, Colo., held a “graffiti debate” on
censorship on Wednesday: Should schools block Web sites? On sheets of white
butcher paper hanging in the library, they wrote lists of the pros and cons of
New Trier High School in the Chicago suburbs surveyed students about blocked Web
sites after loosening its own Internet filters this year. And in New York City,
students and teachers at Middle School 127 in the Bronx sent more than 60
e-mails to the Department of Education to protest a block on personal blogs and
social media sites.
These were some of the efforts marking the first Banned Websites Awareness Day,
organized by the American Association of School Librarians as an offshoot of
Banned Books Week.
Carl Harvey, the association’s president, said that as more schools had embraced
online technologies, there had been growing concern over schools that block much
of the Internet.
But some school leaders and education advocates have argued that the Internet
can be a distraction in the classroom, and that blocking social media is also a
way to protect students from bullying and harassment at school.
“I think students should have unfettered access to the library,” said William
Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, which publishes history papers written
by high school students, adding that many children already spend too much time
on the Internet.
Phil Goerner, a Silver Creek librarian, said the focus on banned Web sites
encouraged students to wrestle with the thornier issues of censorship. He asked
his students to consider whether schools should block sites espousing neo-Nazi
or racist ideas. “It makes them think about it in deeper ways than if they were
just to say, ‘No, don’t block it,’ ” he said.
Mr. Goerner said he decided to organize the graffiti debate as a reminder to
students that censorship takes away a person’s voice or, in this case, online
privileges. Silver Creek unblocked many social media sites, including Facebook
and Twitter, two years ago after recognizing that they could provide learning
opportunities, he said.
Similarly, New Trier High School stopped blocking many sites this year after
teachers voiced concerns that the filtering had grown oppressive.
Entire categories of Web sites had been blocked, including those that involved
games, violence, weapons, even swimsuits, said Judy Gressel, a librarian. “It
just got to the point that it became hard to conduct research,” she said, adding
that students could not read sites about, say, military weapons for a history
Deven Black, a librarian at Middle School 127 in the Bronx, also said that
filters had blocked a range of useful Web sites. YouTube and personal blogs
where educators share resources can have value, he said. “Our job is to teach
students the safe use of the Internet. And it’s hard to do that if we can’t get
to the sites.”
New Canaan High School, in Connecticut, cut off all access to Facebook, YouTube
and Twitter just for the day to show solidarity with schools without access.
“It’s not even lunchtime, and I’m already dying,” said Michael DeMattia, 17, a
senior, who carries a laptop to school.
In his Advanced Placement Biology class, where lab groups have created a
Facebook thread to collaborate and share data, he could not log in. In honors
comparative literature, his classmates were unable to show a YouTube video
during a presentation.
The Internet, Michael said, has “made cooperation and collaboration inside and
outside of class much better and faster,” adding, “It’s really has become an
integral part of education.”
A Call for Opening Up Web Access at Schools, NYT,
Internet Use in Bahrain Restricted,
February 18, 2011
The New York Times
By JAMES GLANZ
As protests have erupted in Bahrain over the last several
days, the government has severely restricted the access of its citizens to the
Internet, new data from an organization that monitors Internet traffic strongly
The data, collected by Arbor Networks, is the first quantitative confirmation
that Internet traffic into and out of Bahrain has suffered an anomalous drop
over the past days.
Jose Nazario, the senior manager of security research at Arbor, which is based
in Massachusetts, said that the traffic was 10 percent to 20 percent below
expected levels. The measurements gauge the amount of information flowing
through Internet backbone lines into and out of Bahrain.
A fluctuation of that size is generally caused only by natural calamities or
major global sporting events, Mr. Nazario said, leading the company to conclude
that the most likely explanation is that Bahrain is blocking many sites on the
He said that the company could not absolutely rule out technical problems with
Internet carriers inside the country as a cause.
But Jillian York of Harvard, project coordinator for the OpenNet Initiative,
said that the findings were consistent with reports that Bahrainis had been
blocked from various sites, including YouTube and Bambuser.
Internet Use in
Bahrain Restricted, Data Shows, NYT, 18.2.2011,
Found ‘Off’ Switch for Internet
February 15, 2011
The New York Times
By JAMES GLANZ
and JOHN MARKOFF
Epitaphs for the Mubarak government all note that the
mobilizing power of the Internet was one of the Egyptian opposition’s most
potent weapons. But quickly lost in the swirl of revolution was the government’s
ferocious counterattack, a dark achievement that many had thought impossible in
the age of global connectedness. In a span of minutes just after midnight on
Jan. 28, a technologically advanced, densely wired country with more than 20
million people online was essentially severed from the global Internet.
The blackout was lifted after just five days, and it did not save President
Hosni Mubarak. But it has mesmerized the worldwide technical community and
raised concerns that with unrest coursing through the Middle East, other
autocratic governments — many of them already known to interfere with and filter
specific Web sites and e-mails — may also possess what is essentially a kill
switch for the Internet.
Because the Internet’s legendary robustness and ability to route around
blockages are part of its basic design, even the world’s most renowned network
and telecommunications engineers have been perplexed that the Mubarak government
succeeded in pulling the maneuver off.
But now, as Egyptian engineers begin to assess fragmentary evidence and their
own knowledge of the Egyptian Internet’s construction, they are beginning to
understand what, in effect, hit them. Interviews with many of those engineers,
as well as an examination of data collected around the world during the
blackout, indicate that the government exploited a devastating combination of
vulnerabilities in the national infrastructure.
For all the Internet’s vaunted connectivity, the Egyptian government commanded
powerful instruments of control: it owns the pipelines that carry information
across the country and out into the world.
Internet experts say similar arrangements are more common in authoritarian
countries than is generally recognized. In Syria, for example, the Syrian
Telecommunications Establishment dominates the infrastructure, and the bulk of
the international traffic flows through a single pipeline to Cyprus. Jordan,
Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries have the same sort
of dominant, state-controlled carrier.
Over the past several days, activists in Bahrain and Iran say they have seen
strong evidence of severe Internet slowdowns amid protests there. Concerns over
the potential for a government shutdown are particularly high in North African
countries, most of which rely on a just a small number of fiber-optic lines for
most of their international Internet traffic.
A Double Knockout
The attack in Egypt relied on a double knockout, the engineers say. As in many
authoritarian countries, Egypt’s Internet must connect to the outside world
through a tiny number of international portals that are tightly in the grip of
the government. In a lightning strike, technicians first cut off nearly all
international traffic through those portals.
In theory, the domestic Internet should have survived that strike. But the
cutoff also revealed how dependent Egypt’s internal networks are on
moment-to-moment information from systems that exist only outside the country —
including e-mail servers at companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo; data
centers in the United States; and the Internet directories called domain name
servers, which can be physically located anywhere from Australia to Germany.
The government’s attack left Egypt not only cut off from the outside world, but
also with its internal systems in a sort of comatose state: servers, cables and
fiber-optic lines were largely up and running, but too confused or crippled to
carry information save a dribble of local e-mail traffic and domestic Web sites
whose Internet circuitry somehow remained accessible.
“They drilled unexpectedly all the way down to the bottom layer of the Internet
and stopped all traffic flowing,” said Jim Cowie, chief technology officer of
Renesys, a network management company based in New Hampshire that has closely
monitored Internet traffic from Egypt. “With the scope of their shutdown and the
size of their online population, it is an unprecedented event.”
The engineers say that a focal point of the attack was an imposing building at
26 Ramses Street in Cairo, just two and a half miles from the epicenter of the
protests, Tahrir Square. At one time purely a telephone network switching
center, the building now houses the crucial Internet exchange that serves as the
connection point for fiber-optic links provided by five major network companies
that provide the bulk of the Internet connectivity going into and out of the
“In Egypt the actual physical and logical connections to the rest of the world
are few, and they are licensed by the government and they are tightly
controlled,” said Wael Amin, president of ITWorx, a large software development
company based in Cairo.
One of the government’s strongest levers is Telecom Egypt, a state-owned company
that engineers say owns virtually all the country’s fiber-optic cables; other
Internet service providers are forced to lease bandwidth on those cables in
order to do business.
Mr. Cowie noted that the shutdown in Egypt did not appear to have diminished the
protests — if anything, it inflamed them — and that it would cost untold
millions of dollars in lost business and investor confidence in the country. But
he added that, inevitably, some autocrats would conclude that Mr. Mubarak had
simply waited too long to bring down the curtain.
“Probably there are people who will look at this and say, it really worked
pretty well, he just blew the timing,” Mr. Cowie said.
Speaking of the Egyptian shutdown and the earlier experience in Tunisia, whose
censorship methods were less comprehensive, a senior State Department official
said that “governments will draw different conclusions.”
“Some may take measures to tighten communications networks,” said the official,
speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Others may conclude that these things
are woven so deeply into the culture and commerce of their country that they
interfere at their peril. Regardless, it is certainly being widely discussed in
the Middle East and North Africa.”
Vulnerable Choke Points
In Egypt, where the government still has not explained how the Internet was
taken down, engineers across the country are putting together clues from their
own observations to understand what happened this time, and to find out whether
a future cutoff could be circumvented on a much wider scale than it was when Mr.
Mubarak set his attack in motion.
The strength of the Internet is that it has no single point of failure, in
contrast to more centralized networks like the traditional telephone network.
The routing of each data packet is handled by a web of computers known as
routers, so that in principle each packet might take a different route. The
complete message or document is then reassembled at the receiving end.
Yet despite this decentralized design, the reality is that most traffic passes
through vast centralized exchanges — potential choke points that allow many
nations to monitor, filter or in dire cases completely stop the flow of Internet
China, for example, has built an elaborate national filtering system known as
the Golden Shield Project, and in 2009 it shut down cellphone and Internet
service amid unrest in the Muslim region of Xinjiang. Nepal’s government briefly
disconnected from the Internet in the face of civil unrest in 2005, and so did
Myanmar’s government in 2007.
But until Jan. 28 in Egypt, no country had revealed that control of those choke
points could allow the government to shut down the Internet almost entirely.
There has been intense debate both inside and outside Egypt on whether the
cutoff at 26 Ramses Street was accomplished by surgically tampering with the
software mechanism that defines how networks at the core of the Internet
communicate with one another, or by a blunt approach: simply cutting off the
power to the router computers that connect Egypt to the outside world.
But either way, the international portals were shut, and the domestic system
reeled from the blow.
The Lines Go Dead
The first hints of the blackout had actually emerged the day before, Jan. 27, as
opposition leaders prepared for a “Friday of anger,” with huge demonstrations
expected. Ahmed ElShabrawy, who runs a company called EgyptNetwork, noticed that
the government had begun blocking individual sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Just after midnight on Jan. 28, Mahmoud Amin’s iPhone beeped with an alert that
international connections to his consulting company’s Internet system had
vanished — and then the iPhone itself stopped receiving e-mail. A few minutes
later, Mr. ElShabrawy received an urgent call telling him that all Internet
lines running to his company were dead.
It was not long before Ayman Bahaa, director of Egyptian Universities Network,
which developed the country’s Internet nearly two decades ago, was scrambling to
figure out how the system had all but collapsed between the strokes of 12 and 1.
The system had been crushed so completely that when a network engineer who does
repairs in Cairo woke in the morning, he said to his family, “I feel we are in
Over the next five days, the government furiously went about extinguishing
nearly all of the Internet links to the outside world that had survived the
first assault, data collected by Western network monitors show. Although a few
Egyptians managed to post to Facebook or send sporadic e-mails, the vast
majority of the country’s Internet subscribers were cut off.
The most telling bit of evidence was that some Internet services inside the
country were still working, at least sporadically. American University in Cairo,
frantically trying to relocate students and faculty members away from troubled
areas, was unable to use e-mail, cellphones — which were also shut down — or
even a radio frequency reserved for security teams. But the university was able
to update its Web site, hosted on a server inside Egypt, and at least some
people were able to pull up the site and follow the emergency instructions.
“The servers were up,” said Nagwa Nicola, the chief technology officer at
American University in Cairo. “You could reach up to the Internet provider
itself, but you wouldn’t get out of the country.” Ms. Nicola said that no notice
had been given, and she depicted an operation that appeared to have been carried
out with great secrecy.
“When we called the providers, they said, ‘Um, hang on, we just have a few
problems and we’ll be on again,’ ” she said. “They wouldn’t tell us it was out.”
She added, “It wasn’t expected at all that something like that would happen.”
Told to Shut Down or Else
Individual Internet service providers were also called on the carpet and ordered
to shut down, as they are required to do by their licensing agreements if the
government so decrees.
According to an Egyptian engineer and an international telecom expert who both
spoke on the condition of anonymity, at least one provider, Vodafone, expressed
extreme reluctance to shut down but was told that if it did not comply, the
government would use its own “off” switch via the Telecom Egypt infrastructure —
a method that would be much more time-consuming to reverse. Other exchanges,
like an important one in Alexandria, may also have been involved.
Still, even major providers received little notice that the moves were afoot,
said an Egyptian with close knowledge of the telecom industry who would speak
“You don’t get a couple of days with something like this,” he said. “It was less
than an hour.”
After the Internet collapsed, Mr. ElShabrawy, 35, whose company provides
Internet service to 2,000 subscribers and develops software for foreign and
domestic customers, made urgent inquiries with the Ministry of Communications,
to no avail. So he scrambled to re-establish his own communications.
When he, too, noticed that domestic fiber-optic cables were open, he had a
moment of exhilaration, remembering that he could link up servers directly and
establish messaging using an older system called Internet Relay Chat. But then
it dawned on him that he had always assumed he could download the necessary
software via the Internet and had saved no copy.
“You don’t have your tools — you don’t have anything,” Mr. ElShabrawy said he
realized as he stared at the dead lines at his main office in Mansoura, about 60
miles outside Cairo.
With the streets unsafe because of marauding bands of looters, he decided to
risk having a driver bring $7,000 in satellite equipment, including a four-foot
dish, from Cairo, and somehow he was connected internationally again by Monday
Steeling himself for the blast of complaints from angry customers — his company
also provides texting services in Europe and the Middle East — Mr. ElShabrawy
found time to post videos of the protests in Mansoura on his Facebook page. But
with security officials asking questions about what he was up to, he did not
dare hook up his domestic subscribers.
Then, gingerly, he reached out to his international customers, his profuse
apologies already framed in his mind.
The response that poured in astonished Mr. ElShabrawy, who is nothing if not a
conscientious businessman, even in turbulent times. “People said: ‘Don’t worry
about that. We are fine and we need to know that you are fine. We are all
supporting you.’ ”
Egypt Leaders Found
‘Off’ Switch for Internet, NYT, 15.2.2011,
U.S. Policy to Address Internet Freedom
February 14, 2011
The New York Times
By MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON — Days after Facebook and Twitter added fuel to a
revolt in Egypt, the Obama administration plans to announce a new policy on
Internet freedom, designed to help people get around barriers in cyberspace
while making it harder for autocratic governments to use the same technology to
The State Department’s policy, a year in the making, has been bogged down by
fierce debates over which projects it should support, and even more basically,
whether to view the Internet primarily as a weapon to topple repressive regimes
or as a tool that autocrats can use to root out and crush dissent.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will lay out the policy in a
speech on Tuesday, acknowledged the Internet’s dual role in an address a year
ago, and administration officials said she would touch on that theme again,
noting how social networks were used by both protesters and governments in the
uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries.
The State Department plans to finance programs like circumvention services,
which enable users to evade Internet firewalls, and training for human rights
workers on how to secure their e-mail from surveillance or wipe incriminating
data from cellphones if they are detained by the police.
Though the policy has been on the drawing board for months, it has new urgency
in light of the turmoil in the Arab world, because it will be part of a larger
debate over how the United States weighs its alliances with entrenched leaders
against the young people inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt.
Administration officials say that the emphasis on a broad array of projects —
hotly disputed by some technology experts and human rights activists — reflects
their view that technology can be a force that leads to democratic change, but
is not a “magic bullet” that brings down repressive regimes.
“People are so enamored of the technology,” said Michael H. Posner, the
assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. “People have
a view that technology will make us free. No, people will make us free.”
Critics say the administration has dawdled for more than a year, holding back
$30 million in Congressional financing that could have gone to circumvention
technology, a proven method that allows Internet users to evade government
firewalls by routing their traffic through proxy servers in other countries.
Some of these services have received modest financing from the government, but
their backers say they need much more to install networks capable of handling
millions of users in China, Iran and other countries.
A report by the Republican minority of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
to be released Tuesday, said the State Department’s performance was so
inadequate that the job of financing Internet freedom initiatives — at least
those related to China — should be moved to another agency, the Broadcasting
Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
“Certainly, the State Department took an awfully long time to get this out,”
said Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN correspondent and expert on Internet
freedom issues who is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. “They
got so besieged by the politics of what they should be funding.”
Still, Ms. MacKinnon said that she believed the State Department’s deliberations
had been thoughtful and the plan “is going to be effective if it’s couched
within a broader set of policies.”
There are other contradictions in the State Department’s agenda: it champions
the free flow of information, except when it is in secret cables made public by
WikiLeaks; it wants to help Chinese citizens circumvent their government’s
Internet firewall, but is leery of one of the most popular services for doing
so, which is sponsored by Falun Gong, a religious group outlawed by Beijing as
an evil cult.
In the long months the government has wrestled with these issues, critics said,
the Iranian government was able to keep censoring the Internet, helping it
muffle the protests that followed its disputed presidential election in 2009.
Mr. Posner, a longtime human rights advocate, acknowledges that the process has
been long and occasionally messy. But he contends that over the past year, the
administration has developed a coherent policy that takes account of the rapidly
evolving role the Internet plays in closed societies.
The State Department has received 68 proposals for nearly six times the $30
million in available funds. The department said it would take at least two
months to evaluate proposals before handing out money.
Among the kinds of things that excite officials are “circuit riders,” experts
who tour Internet cafes in Myanmar teaching people how to set up secure e-mail
accounts, and new ways of dealing with denial-of-service attacks.
This does not satisfy critics, who say the lawmakers intended the $30 million to
be used quickly — and on circumvention.
“The department’s failure to follow Congressional intent created the false
impression among Iranian demonstrators that the regime had the power to disrupt
access to Facebook and Twitter,” said Michael J. Horowitz, a senior fellow at
the Hudson Institute, who lobbies on behalf of the Global Internet Freedom
Consortium, a circumvention service with ties to Falun Gong.
Mr. Horowitz has organized demonstrations of the service for legislators,
journalists and others. On Jan. 27, the day before the Egyptian government cut
off access to the Internet, he said there were more than 7.8 million page views
by Egyptians on UltraSurf, one of two consumer services under the umbrella of
the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. That was a huge increase from only
76,000 on Jan. 22.
The trouble, Mr. Horowitz said, is that UltraSurf and its sister service,
Freegate, do not have enough capacity to handle sudden spikes in usage during
political crises. That causes the speed to slow to a crawl, which discourages
users. The companies need tens of millions of dollars to install an adequate
network, he said. Under a previous government grant, the group received $1.5
But the experience in Egypt points up the limits of circumvention. By shutting
down the entire Internet, the authorities were able to make such systems moot.
Administration officials point out that circumvention is also of little value in
countries like Russia, which does not block the Internet but dispatches the
police to pursue bloggers, or in Myanmar, which has sophisticated ways to
monitor e-mail accounts.
Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, said
that governments had been shifting from blocking the Internet to hacking and
disabling it. Even in the United States, he noted, the Senate is considering a
bill that would allow the president to switch off the Internet in the event of a
U.S. Policy to
Address Internet Freedom, NYT, 14.2.2011,
Spotlight Again Falls
on Web Tools and Change
January 29, 2011
The New York Times
By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON — Fear is the dictator’s traditional tool for keeping the people
in check. But by cutting off Egypt’s Internet and wireless service late last
week in the face of huge street protests, President Hosni Mubarak betrayed his
own fear — that Facebook, Twitter, laptops and smartphones could empower his
opponents, expose his weakness to the world and topple his regime.
There was reason for Mr. Mubarak to be shaken. By many accounts, the new arsenal
of social networking helped accelerate Tunisia’s revolution, driving the
country’s ruler of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, into ignominious exile and
igniting a conflagration that has spread across the Arab world at breathtaking
speed. It was an apt symbol that a dissident blogger with thousands of followers
on Twitter, Slim Amamou, was catapulted in a matter of days from the
interrogation chambers of Mr. Ben Ali’s regime to a new government post as
minister for youth and sports. It was a marker of the uncertainty in Tunis that
he had stepped down from the government by Thursday.
Tunisia’s uprising offers the latest encouragement for a comforting notion: that
the same Web tools that so many Americans use to keep up with college pals and
post passing thoughts have a more noble role as well, as a scourge of despotism.
It was just 18 months ago, after all, that the same technologies were hailed as
a factor in Iran’s Green Revolution, the stirring street protests that followed
the disputed presidential election.
But since that revolt collapsed, Iran has become a cautionary tale. The Iranian
police eagerly followed the electronic trails left by activists, which assisted
them in making thousands of arrests in the crackdown that followed. The
government even crowd-sourced its hunt for enemies, posting on the Web the
photos of unidentified demonstrators and inviting Iranians to identify them.
“The Iranian government has become much more adept at using the Internet to go
after activists,” said Faraz Sanei, who tracks Iran at Human Rights Watch. The
Revolutionary Guard, the powerful political and economic force that protects the
ayatollahs’ regime, has created an online surveillance center and is believed to
be behind a “cyberarmy” of hackers that it can unleash against opponents, he
Repressive regimes around the world may have fallen behind their opponents in
recent years in exploiting new technologies — not unexpected when aging
autocrats face younger, more tech-savvy opponents. But in Minsk and Moscow,
Tehran and Beijing, governments have begun to climb the steep learning curve and
turn the new Internet tools to their own, antidemocratic purposes.
The countertrend has sparked a debate over whether the conventional wisdom that
the Internet and social networking inherently tip the balance of power in favor
of democracy is mistaken. A new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of
Internet Freedom,” by a young Belarus-born American scholar, Evgeny Morozov, has
made the case most provocatively, describing instance after instance of
strongmen finding ways to use new media to their advantage.
After all, the very factors that have brought Facebook and similar sites such
commercial success have huge appeal for a secret police force. A dissident’s
social networking and Twitter feed is a handy guide to his political views, his
career, his personal habits and his network of like-thinking allies, friends and
family. A cybersurfing policeman can compile a dossier on a regime opponent
without the trouble of the street surveillance and telephone tapping required in
a pre-Net world.
If Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt has resorted to the traditional blunt instrument against
dissent in a crisis — cutting off communications altogether — other countries
have shown greater sophistication. In Belarus, officers of the K.G.B. — the
secret police agency has preserved its Soviet-era name — now routinely quote
activists’ comments on Facebook and other sites during interrogations, said
Alexander Lukashuk, director of the Belarus service of Radio Free Europe/Radio
Liberty. Last month, he said, investigators appearing at the apartment of a
Belarusian photojournalist mocked her by declaring that since she had written
online that they usually conducted their searches at night, they had decided to
come in the morning.
In Syria, “Facebook is a great database for the government now,” said Ahed
al-Hindi, a Syrian activist who was arrested at an Internet cafe in Damascus in
2006 and left his country after being released from jail. Mr. Hindi, now with
the United States-based group CyberDissidents.org, said he believes that
Facebook is doing more good than harm, helping activists form virtual
organizations that could never survive if they met face to face. But users must
be aware that they are speaking to their oppressors as well as their friends, he
Widney Brown, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty
International, said the popular networking services, like most technologies, are
“There’s nothing deterministic about these tools — Gutenberg’s press, or fax
machines or Facebook,” Ms. Brown said. “They can be used to promote human rights
or to undermine human rights.”
This is the point of Mr. Morozov, 26, a visiting scholar at Stanford. In “The
Net Delusion,” he presents an answer to the “cyberutopians” who assume that the
Internet inevitably fuels democracy. He coined the term “spinternet” to capture
the spin applied to the Web by governments that are beginning to master it.
In China, Mr. Morozov said, thousands of commentators are trained and paid —
hence their nickname, the 50-Cent Party — to post pro-government comments on the
Web and steer online opinion away from criticism of the Communist Party. In
Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez, after first denouncing hostile Twitter
comments as “terrorism,” created his own Twitter feed — an entertaining mix of
politics and self-promotion that now has 1.2 million followers.
In Russia, Mr. Morozov noted, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin has managed to
co-opt several prominent new-media entrepreneurs, including Konstantin Rykov,
whose many Web sites now skew strongly pro-Putin and whose anti-Georgia
documentary about the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 went viral on the Web.
Mr. Morozov acknowledges that social networking “definitely helps protesters to
“But is it making protest more likely? I don’t think so.”
In Egypt, it appears, at least some activists share Mr. Morozov’s wariness about
the double-edged nature of new media. An anonymous 26-page leaflet that appeared
in Cairo with practical advice for demonstrators last week, The Guardian
reported, instructed activists to pass it on by e-mail and photocopy — but not
by Facebook and Twitter, because they were being monitored by the government.
Then Mr. Mubarak’s government, evidently concluding that it was too late for
mere monitoring, unplugged his country from the Internet altogether. It was a
desperate move from an autocrat who had not learned to harness the tools his
opponents have embraced.
a reporter in The Times’s Washington bureau,
is the author of
How Information Ended the Soviet Union.”
Spotlight Again Falls on
Web Tools and Change,
Most Internet and Cell Service
The New York Times
By MATT RICHTEL
cut off nearly all Internet traffic into and out of the country in the largest
blackout of its kind, according to firms that monitor international data flows.
Cellphone networks were also disrupted. Vodafone said in a statement on its Web
site that “all mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend
services in selected areas.” The company said it was “obliged to comply” with
Egypt has been trying to contain growing protests that have been fueled in part
by videos and other information shared over social networks like Facebook and
Renesys, a Vermont-based company that tracks Internet traffic, said that just
after midnight Cairo time, or 5 p.m. New York time, Egyptian authorities had
succeeded in shutting down the country’s international access points.
“Almost nobody in Egypt has Internet connectivity, and there are no
workarounds,” said Jim Cowie, the company’s chief technology officer. “I’ve
never seen it happen at this scale.”
“In a fundamental sense, it’s as if you rewrote the map and they are no longer a
country,” said Mr. Cowie. “I never thought it would happen to a country the size
and scale of Egypt.”
In most countries, the points of access to the global Internet infrastructure
are many and distributed. But Mr. Cowie said that Egypt was relatively late in
widely adopting the Internet, so it has fewer access points. The government can
shut these down with “six, or even four phone calls,” he said.
A Facebook spokesman, Andrew Noyes, said the company had seen a drop in traffic
from Egypt since Thursday. “Although the turmoil in Egypt is a matter for the
Egyptian people and their government to resolve, limiting Internet access for
millions of people is a matter of concern for the global community,” he said in
In an interview, Mr. Noyes said the company was still seeing some traffic coming
in from Egypt, but that it was “minimal.”
An executive at Google, the owner of YouTube, which activists have used to
disseminate videos of the protests, spoke out against the shutdown.
David Drummond, the company’s chief legal officer, said Internet access was “a
fundamental right, and it’s very sad if it’s denied to citizens of Egypt or any
Egypt Cuts Off Most Internet and Cell Service,
Related > Anglonautes
Google > Search engine > Free speech, Censorship > China
social media > Facebook
social media > Facebook Live
social media > Facebook > Mark Zuckerberg
social media > Twitter
other social media
social media > fake news, false stories,
misinformation, disinformation, influence attacks
information, disinformation, misinformation,
media > surveillance, privacy
U.S. Constitution > First Amendment 1791