Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: Clinton

Why I Don’t Believe in “Net Freedom”

For the past two weeks, Tunisia has been racked with unrest following the December 17 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young, educated vendor whose produce stand was confiscated because Bouazizi failed to show a permit.  The protests sweeping the country have resulted in further censorship from authorities, whose stronghold on the Internet has increased as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are blocked.

In the past year since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought Internet freedom to pertinence in her much-lauded speech at the Newseum, the rhetoric surrounding net freedom has continued to focus mainly on Iran and China.

Though Tunisia has always been part of the rhetoric–Clinton mentioned it twice, in reference both to increased filtering and to the effects of censorship on business–it has never been at the forefront of the net freedom discussion, despite evidence that its censors are among the most sophisticated and the most pervasive in the world.  Despite being under the guise of democracy (not unlike Iran) and secularism (not unlike Syria), Tunisia censors media and Internet at the surface level, and also regularly imprisons those who speak out or protest against the regime, including bloggers (in 2009, Tunisia was ranked by CPJ as one of the ten worst places to be a blogger).

The State Department’s Internet freedom policy, to many, appears generally to reflect broader U.S. policy.  We want to overturn Iran’s regime, so we make special requests to Twitter to ensure it’s not shut down during crucial periods, but we ignore the interrogation and arrests of bloggers in our ally, Egypt.  We want to save the Iranians, so we loosen up export controls to allow junk products like Haystack to reach them, while doing nothing about the similar restrictions placed upon Syrians.  When we look to China, we see business opportunities, and so we focus on strengthening those through freeing up the Internet, while secular allies like Tunisia–which do a great job of faking progress to the world–go largely ignored.

And it’s not as if we can pretend we had no idea: In a recently-released WikiLeaks cable, our own diplomats can be seen referring to Tunisia as a “police state,” with “little freedom of expression.”  We’ve known that, and we’ve said nothing.

The State Department is not the media, but when Hillary Clinton calls out a country (as she has done with both China and Iran), the media listens.  And as of yet, the media has barely touched on either the protests or the pervasive censorship happening in Tunisia.  The Guardian‘s Brian Whitaker (who, to his credit, recognizes what a big deal this is) asks whether media coverage really matters (after all, the media coverage given to Iran did nothing to overturn the regime).  Though I think Whitaker certainly has a point, I think what matters more is the awareness that such media coverage creates.  Two years ago, most Americans knew little about Iran: now they know that a large swath of the populace is fighting against their regime.  Most Americans know very little about Tunisia, but the awareness that media coverage would create would teach them.  And perhaps that awareness would then push people to fight harder for an egalitarian Internet freedom initiative from their own government.

And this is why I don’t believe in the Net Freedom agenda anymore.  If we as a nation truly believed in Internet freedom, then we would focus not only on those countries that might benefit us (a free Iran, a capitalist China) but on all of those nations where citizens are restricted from speaking out.  We would loosen the export controls on Syria–not just Iran–to allow Syrian citizens access to communications and circumvention tools, and we would give our ally Tunisia–secular, egalitarian Tunisia–incentive to stop oppressing its citizens.  If the United States of America were still truly about freedom, we would do these things, because an ally that oppresses its citizens is no ally at all.

How the U.S. Censors Arabs

In my spare time, I’ve been doing a lot of talking to activists and reporters about two issues that are getting very little coverage in the U.S., despite both being facets of U.S. policy. The first is H.R. 2278, which eatbees has done a better job than I ever could of explaining here. For those of you who are link-lazy, eatbees explains it in one paragraph:

On December 8, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 395 to 3, a resolution specifically naming three Arab TV stations — Al Manar, Al Aqsa, and Al Rifadayn — as “terrorist owned and operated” channels that broadcast “incitement to violence against the United States.” The resolution stated that any satellite provider that broadcasts these stations, or others to be named later, would be considered a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” under the law. The president would be required to report to Congress each year concerning “anti-American incitement to violence” on TV stations across the Middle East, covering 19 nations from Morocco to Iran.

I’m extremely concerned with the greater implications of this bill. Those channels are carried by NileSat of Egypt and ArabSat of Saudi Arabia, two satellite providers widely available across the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. I lived with NileSat for more than two years: it was my entertainment, my news. Beyond those channels, I had access to the MBC and Rotana suites of stations, which encompassed American programming and news, as well as Arab programs and films, often dubbed or subtitled in English. I had access to BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN, and France 24, all in English, which is more than I can say for my cable provider here in Boston (I’ve written about the issues surrounding Al Jazeera in the US).

So, the implication of this bill is that, in order for NileSat and ArabSat to avoid being listed as terrorist carriers, they have to stop carrying Al Manar, Al Aqsa, and Al Rifadayn. I’m not going to make this post about defending those channels, which I’ve only briefly flipped past. But regardless of their content, what the House is doing, essentially, is attempting to influence what people watch globally by threatening satellite providers. If those satellite providers decide to comply and rid themselves of those three channels, the United States government will have effectively silenced those voices not just in the United States but in their countries of origin as well. I highly recommend reading eatbees‘ post if you have any interest in going beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the word “terrorism” and learning what the channels actually broadcast.

The second issue is State Department hypocrisy, namely when it comes to sanctions. I’ve written about the sanctions on Syria here, here, and here, and recently gave a quote to the UK’s Times.

My stance is this: The U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions on Syria, Iran, and Sudan, Cuba and North Korea, in terms of the way they affect software exports and downloads, do little to effect change in those countries’ regimes, harm ordinary netizens, and promote piracy.

I’ve done a lot more reading on the Syrian sanctions than on the other countries, admittedly, so I’ll use that as a test case to explain my point. Last year LinkedIn, for whatever reason (my suspicion is a State Department memo) realized they were in violation of the sanctions and that they needed to block Syrian users, by IP address, from accessing their software downloads (software that is designed for networking, job-searching, and resume-building). They errantly overblocked, cutting off all access to their site (read: software is prohibited, but site use is fine, by law). We complained, they restored access (though apparently not to Sudanese users). They still block the software, of course. If they chose not to, they would likely be saddled with a $500,000 fine. The penalty could be worse.

Can someone please tell me how prohibiting average Syrians from accessing networking software will help topple an authoritarian regime, or stop Syria from funding terrorism? No, you can’t. Because it won’t. Instead, it will prevent some average guy from doing something useful. It will make him angry toward the U.S. or its policy (as well he ought to be!). It will alienate him. It will likely lead him to find another way of getting the software, through a mirror site or a friend’s USB key. He’ll get the software anyway, but he won’t pay for it.

If the hypocrisy isn’t apparent yet, how’s this? Last summer, during the alleged “Twitter revolution” in Iran, the State Department sent Twitter a memo asking them to change their hours of maintenance for the sake of the Iranians. Twitter complied. On the surface, it was a very cool example of technology aiding dissidents, and a “free” government stepping in to help. But let’s remember, Iran is also under sanctions, which means ordinary Iranians cannot download software from U.S. hosts and servers. Which theoretically includes anonymity and circumvention tools. Which are exactly what Hillary Clinton promoted in her speech last week.

My guess is, nobody’s cracking down on those tools. And there are legal exemptions to the sanctions. But how is it just to pick and choose what Iranian or Syrian, or Sudanese citizens have access to? How is it okay to hand them “democracy tools” but refuse them Adobe Photoshop?

My conclusion? It isn’t.

Stay tuned for the next edition of “how the U.S. censors Arabs” for an analysis of Bing‘s filtering of search results in what they call the “Arabian countries.”

Liveblogging the Primaries?

I considered liveblogging the primaries for a moment or two – then it occurred to me that it’s 11:00 pm EST and really – who is reading my blog right now?  Certainly no one in Morocco (it’s 4 am there – if you’re up, go to bed!), doubtful anyone on the east coast…Probably no one at all.

I worked for nearly 12 hours today, finally leaving (an event) at 9:00 pm tonight and getting home just after 10:00; needless to say, I’m exhausted, but I stayed awake hoping that there would be some news…and so far, the most exciting thing is that Huckabee finally dropped out (and I mean that in no offense to Huckabee – a) because he hardly stood a chance and b) because anyone who can garner the support of Chuck Norris is cool with me).

Anyhow, hardly any news – I’m disappointed.  I suppose I was hoping for the best – that is, that Obama beat out Hillary.  No such luck…yet.

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