17 Apr 2012
“The ubiquity of the Internet has added an additional layer of complexity to issues of government censorship. It is both an unrivaled tool for speech and an incredible tool for monitoring and surveillance.”
The above paragraph is an excerpt of the description of the Global Censorship Conference that was held at Yale Law School March 30 - April 1. I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Lina Attalah, Managing Editor of Al Masry Al Youm (AMAY), discussing case studies of censorship.
The panel discussed censorship in different countries including India, Brazil, USA. Lina and I talked about Egypt and Syria respectively.
Lina talked about censorship during, and after, the Jan 25 revolution that toppled the Mubarak regime. In his attempts to reign in the revolution, Mubarak first attempted to block social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. When that failed, he ordered ISPs to cut off internet access in Egypt entirely.
During those days, Speak2Tweet emerged, and it allowed Egyptians to call specific numbers and record voice message that were automatically tweeted for the world to hear. Meedan helped with the effort to recruit and manage volunteer translators and set up a website to publish transcription and translation of more than 1600 voice messages to Speak2Tweet.
Earlier this year, Lina faced another form of censorship in repressive environments — self-censorship. Egypt Independent, an English language weekly publication that Lina manages, had their second issue internally censored after an article criticizing the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) “raised objections from the chief editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm, our Arabic-language sister paper after Egypt Independent had gone to press.”
The Egypt Independent team decided to discontinue printing until they secure their own license separate from Al Masry Al Youm. This will ensure their editorial independence and relieve AMAY from repercussions of the material Egypt Independent publishes.
Censorship in Syria is synonymous with the Ba’ath regime. After independence, over 150 publications were established in Syria. When the Ba’ath Party came to power after a coup in 1963 they banned all publications except for a newspaper issued by the party, considering them “anti-revolutionary” publications.
The number slowly grew to 3 national state-owned publications over the years. Private publications were allowed after 2000 and generally avoided covering politics.
The regime’s modus operandi of censorship and banning extends to other mediums and technologies. Satellite TV was initially banned, Internet was initially introduced to the public around 2000 and has been heavily monitored and censored ever since. Even seemingly harmless technologies like GPS were banned until very recently.
Facebook, Youtube, and Blogger were all blocked in 2007. The internet was providing spheres for like-minded Syrians to discuss and exchange ideas and experiences, as well as organize and campaign for social and legislative change. Several bloggers and online journalists were arrested and received prison sentences ranging 3-5 years on average.
When the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt happened. The Assad regime unblocked youtube and facebook after blocking them for years. It was a demonstration of “confidence in the people” according to Syrian officials. The move was nothing more than the regime flexing its muscles and showing off its total control of the population.
The regime was overconfident. Protests in Syria started on March 15 aided by social media for organizing and disseminating information about the protests and the brutal crackdown.
In the past year, Assad tried various methods to censor communication between activists, and stem the tide of information coming out from citizen journalists in the country. Internet is cut off repeatedly in areas where military crackdown is taking place; several communication apps and platforms such as Skype, whatsapp, and VoIP are now blocked; the Internet connection speeds are throttled countrywide. This makes it extremely hard for Syrians to communicate, find critical information relevant to their situation.
In addition to that, the regime used social media platform as an intelligence tool. Arrested activists were forced to handover their login information exposing the information of their contacts and previous communication logs. There’s also evidence that the regime spread malware and used man-in-the-middle attacks to steal login credentials and spy on activists.
SOPA/PIPA, CISPA, and beyond
Unfortunately, online censorship isn’t limited to authoritarian repressive regimes. Meedan has participated in a global campaign to oppose Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the US that would have had dire implications to the freedom of speech worldwide.
SOPA and PIPA were defeated, but now another bill is being introduced with even worse implications on privacy and freedom of speech online. Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011 (CISPA) is controversial cybersecurity legislation that would negate existing privacy laws and allow companies to share user data with the government without a court order. Visit the EFF to take part in the campaign against CISPA.
The fight against censorship is an uphill battle. It is ongoing, and every netizen can — and should — take part.