Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: December 2011 (page 1 of 5)

To a Better 2012

It’s with a conflicted heart that I put to bed 2011.  For me, on a personal level, it was a year of both great triumph and great tragedy.  As many of you know, not long after moving across the country, far from my family, I lost my father.  I must admit, it was both easier and harder being far away as he got sicker; it was also difficult at times to enjoy the wonderful opportunities that came my way.  I spent several nights in hotel rooms in faraway places–Belgium, Israel, Tunisia–with no appetite for going out, something that those who know me might find hard to believe.  And at the same time, my work, my new job has done nothing but excite me, provide me with new opportunities and ways of fighting for the cause I’ve made my life.

But forget the personal – 2011 was an incredible year, period.  I watched from afar as my friends in Tunis and Cairo took part in the powerful revolutions that  toppled governments.  I also watched as friends in Damascus and Manama suffered the wrath of their regimes, and as friends in Casablanca experienced great disappointments.  And I watched friends–four, in fact–get jailed, in Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain.

2012 already promises challenges: SOPA is still under consideration, American companies are still selling surveillance equipment to authoritarian governments, bloggers are still under threat, Egypt is still under military rule, Syria is still a mess…the list goes on.  But–as luck would have it–these are the types of challenges I look forward to taking on.

Personally, I’m looking forward to more travel, more time with friends, and more accomplishments.  I avoid resolutions–aside from a small one, this year, to eat more vegetables–but it never hurts to attempt more thoughtfulness.

To 2012!

On Anonymity, Privacy, Rights, and Responsibility.

This week, I stepped in the middle of a petty fight between two bloggers on opposite ends of the political spectrum. The first, Richard Silverstein, had put up a post in which he claimed to have come across the real identity of anonymous blogger “Aussie Dave”, on Facebook. My immediate thought, upon seeing the screenshots of the Facebook page, was that it was fake. A blogger, who has been blogging anonymously for nearly ten years, does not make the rookie mistakes of a) putting his address on Facebook and b) linking his real life Facebook page to his anonymous blog. I pointed this out to Silverstein (in fewer words), who claimed that the information was trustworthy and had been emailed to him, and that the blogger had inadvertently connected his blog to his Facebook page. To the latter, I commented, “Oh good” and left it at that.

The next morning I awoke to dozens of tweets and emails (which were, it is worth noting, all from someone at the same New Jersey IP address who clearly doesn’t understand how anonymity [doesn't] work) attacking me for “supporting” the outing of an anonymous blogger. Reading into it further, I discovered that I’d been right: the whole thing was a setup designed to entrap Silverstein, who fell right for it. Despite that, I continued to be bombarded by slanderous comments attacking me and the organization for which I work.

Now, before I continue to today’s developments, let me point out a few things:

a) I don’t actually know Richard Silverstein. So while EFF has been derided as a “supporter” of his, the only connection is the fact that I am friends with his very public Facebook profile and that I occasionally read his blog. On my own, personal, time.

b) I did not, and do not, support Silverstein (or anyone’s) outing of an anonymous blogger, regardless of personal politics or personal opinion of another person.

c) None of my comments have had anything to do with politics, and I resent being accused of such. Contrary to “Aussie Dave”‘s claims, we have spoken in the past, and, having read his blog, I don’t like the guy, but…

d) Once again, that has no bearing on his right to be anonymous.

So, this brings me to today. On my way out of the house a couple of hours ago, I checked my mobile to see if Twitter was back online after maintenance, and sure enough, it was. And checking my mentions, I learned (from Aussie Dave himself) that Silverstein had “outed” Aussie Dave, this time for real, posting a slew of personal information including a link to his real Facebook profile, which included photographs of his children.

It would appear that Silverstein discovered Aussie Dave’s identity using a very basic WHOIS tool that allows one to see the domain history of a given URL. And while Aussie Dave later used proxies to renew his domain, he initially bought it using his real name and email address. Silverstein then linked that to other personal information that was publicly available online.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I neither support nor approve of this, and I sincerely hope Aussie Dave and his family are not at any real risk for it.

That said, for the benefit of all of the other anonymous bloggers out there, a few things need to be said. First, in respect to EFF’s work, as EFF has unfairly been derided by some bloggers, despite having had nothing whatsoever to do with this. Several bloggers have pointed to EFF’s Anonymity issue page, noting that we work to protect anonymous bloggers. This is true. But read further, and you will note the following:

We’ve challenged many efforts to impede anonymous communication both in the courts or the legislatures. We also previously provided financial support to the developers of Tor an anonymous Internet communications system. By combining legal and policy work with technical tools we hope to maintain the Internet’s ability to serve as a vehicle for free expression.

EFF’s actual work in this area is mostly limited to the above: ensuring anonymity remain a legal option on the Internet and providing or supporting tools to help bloggers and other Internet users achieve that goal.

On a personal level, I believe very much in these principles. And yet, with my single, lazy comment of “oh good” I’ve been deemed–in the eyes of Aussie Dave’s crowd–someone who “cheers on” the outing of bloggers I disagree with, someone who goes against my principles, and all sorts of other absurd things I won’t even dignify with a response.

So, do I believe that Aussie Dave is entitled to those rights just like anyone else? Yes, I do. But, just like anyone else, it is his responsibility to protect his own identity online. If you choose to be anonymous, the law should protect that as your right, but the responsibility is on you as an individual to ensure you take all of the necessary precautions to remain anonymous. I can certainly say that I don’t think what Silverstein did is cool, but for all of the anonymous bloggers out there who might be reading, please note: Everything he did involved publicly available information.

Aussie Dave has asked me to call on Silverstein to take down the personal information, in my professional capacity. This is a grave misunderstanding of what I do. In my personal capacity, I certainly could, but I’m not sure what good it would do at this point. Once an anonymous blogger links his personal information to his blog, he has taken a huge risk. And, however unfortunate, once that connection has been made public, it is on the Internet to stay.

Legally, I’m not sure what paths of recourse Aussie Dave might have (I’m not a lawyer). I offered to suggest a few contacts who might be able to offer advice (as I would for anyone in this situation), but he has not responded.

That’s my final word on the matter. I hope that any anonymous bloggers out there will think hard about the information they’ve posted online and whether they are truly protected from those–governments or individuals–who might wish them harm, and that anyone thinking of starting an anonymous blog consider utilizing the following resources:

Do solidarity campaigns really help bloggers?

Edit: A Saudi contact points out that campaigns have been helpful in the cases of Manal al-Sharif and Feras Begnah, but adds: “It seems that only when it’s way too silly to arrest people, massive attention will be given and the government is likely to [surrender].”

When Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy was briefly detained–and beaten–by Egyptian authorities (read her account of that here), there was a concerted and fast-moving effort by her Twitter followers and friends online to quickly mobilize a solidarity campaign for her release, followed–post-release–by much discussion as to whether or not the campaign had actually helped. In Eltahawy’s case, I would wager that her relative fame and dual citizenship played a larger role than anything done online, but the global attention certainly didn’t hurt (for more on this, Zeynep Tufekci has done some fascinating analysis).

Tufekci hints that a campaign like #FreeMona or #FreeAlaa (Abd El Fattah) can improve the situation of other imprisoned Egyptians but doesn’t ask the question of whether campaigns like those can help lesser-known bloggers. As she points out, both Eltahawy and Abd El Fattah are well-known, sympathetic figures. Both received ample attention both from inside and outside of Egypt (by contrast, note how the campaign for Maikel Nabil has lagged). And yet, lesser-known bloggers are regularly made the object of solidarity campaigns: All it takes is one friend, one family member, or one sympathetic blogger from their country to throw up a site and get some attention on Twitter or Facebook. It may take longer, but evidence shows that the majority of these campaigns do result in significant attention. So, the question then, is this: Does that attention really help the individual?

I’ve been wondering this myself for some time, having been involved in numerous solidarity campaigns, including ones where the family of the detainee was somewhat uncomfortable with the campaigning, despite having given permission. There are times when the family or friends think a campaign might make the blogger’s situation worse; in most such cases that I’ve seen, they give in after a few weeks of no changes. Though I don’t think there are any conclusive answers as of yet, I’d like to share what little evidence I have come up with (some of which is, unfortunately, anonymous) to further the discussion.

First, we have a recent interview with Alaa Abd El Fattah, an Egyptian blogger and personal friend who was detained for 56 days, and released on December 25. In it, Abd El Fattah says [ at approximately 11:47]:

They knew that they couldn’t torture me because of the solidarity and the media attention, so they just made sure to try to use every other measure to put me at discomfort or add psychological pressure. But every other person arrested in the Maspero incident were tortured severely, and torture is still very systematic at police stations and in prisons.

 

In this case, there’s obviously very little to get excited about: Individuals without the benefit of global campaigns were still tortured, and Abd El Fattah was still detained for 56 days and made uncomfortable. And yet, he believes that the solidarity saved him personally from torture.

An account from Razan Ghazzawi’s blog also suggests that Syrian blogger Hussein Ghrer (whom, I should mention, is not well-known outside of the Syrian blogosphere) received better treatment after his case was amplified by the international blogosphere and media:

The 32 year-old blogger was kidnapped in Damascus in an ambush on 24-10-2011 and was taken to security services branches in Al-Khateeb and Kafaقsouseh, then was transferred to Adra prison, a prison that is considered by activists and revolutionaries as “haven” in comparison to security services, or worse, Air Intelligence service- a place where worst kinds of torture is practiced against detainees.

Ghazzawi, detained from 1-19 December, also stated that the campaign on her behalf was helpful in securing better treatment:

A tweet from Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi.

Azyz Amami, who was detained in Tunisia in January along with Slim Amamou, recalls that he and Amamou also later declared, on Tunisian television, that the international campaign for their release was helpful.

And speaking to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Azeri journalist Eynulla Fatullayev credited international campaigns with saving his life and securing his release.

I have also interviewed–on the condition of anonymity–three other people who have been detained in various countries, and who have been the subject of solidarity campaigns. Each said a variation on the same theme: That they were treated well, and sometimes even given special privileges, because of their status. One mentioned that it bothered him that the same treatment was not extended to his fellow detainees, a reminder that being a blogger is a position of privilege in its own way. Similar to his sentiment is that expressed by recently-released Bahraini blogger Zainab Al-Khawaja, who tweeted the day of her release:

Zainab Al-Khawaja expresses a desire to give attention to lesser-known cases in Bahrain

Al-Khawaja’s sister, Maryam, had also previously suggested that international support was the reason Zainab was not arrested at an earlier instance:

A tweet from Maryam Al-Khawaja suggesting that international support has been beneficial to her sister

But all of the bloggers I’ve spoken to individually have emphasized the importance of permission from family and/or friends before starting up a campaign (a recommendation cited in a recent post I co-wrote for EFF and Global Voices Advocacy). This isn’t always an easy thing to do, of course, and in some cases, may result in no campaign at all (if friends can’t contact family members, for instance).

There is also, I might add, evidence that some campaigns don’t help at all. Take, for example, that of Tal Al-Mallouhi, the teenaged Syrian blogger now imprisoned for two years, for allegedly spying for a foreign government. Despite ample international outcry, including from such prominent organizations as Amnesty International, Mallouhi remains in prison following an unfair trial. On the flip side, a lack of international attention can be detrimental, as Zainab Al-Khawaja points out:

Zainab Al-Khawaja feels that international attention is crucial

Ultimately, the only definitive takeaway from these cases is that authorities are paying attention to them. And that alone is enough to suggest that, in most cases (taking into consideration a blogger’s personal circumstances), solidarity campaigns that draw on international media are beneficial, if only minimally.

So, how can bloggers who are not as well-connected as Abd El Fattah or Eltahawy ensure that their name won’t be forgotten? At a recent event I spoke at in Istanbul, incidentally, a Turkish blogger asked me just that question. My short response at the time was–and I stand by this–to plug in to international networks, something which social media has made incredibly easy. The aforementioned EFF/Advox post puts forward some other recommendations, but I have no doubt there are others, and I look forward to whatever discussion this might generate.

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