Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: egypt (page 1 of 8)

On the Anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution…

Descending onto Cairo is surreal.  From afar, looking down, it seems as if the green and sand are broken into tiny farmshares; as you get closer, however, you realize that those are actually buildings, all identical, though of varying heights, and laid out in what is actually a rather orderly formation.  Closer still, and you’re struck by how uniform the buildings are in both width and color, how the city appears to be painted in sand.  And the traffic – you can actually see where the bottlenecks occur from the air (and Anas, Damascus traffic doesn’t hold a candle to Cairo; nor, for that matter, to Beirut or even Casablanca, but I digress).

Only now do I understand why a former colleague in Morocco, upon arriving there from Cairo, felt Moroccan cities to be provincial.  Cairo, on the other hand, is anything but.

I just returned on Sunday from one all-too-short week in Cairo.  I was there for Yahoo!’s Change Your World Summit, an event that brought together women

An ad agency uses revolutionary symbolism to promote Egyptian tourism

from Egypt and around the region, to speak about online safety, but stayed for a few (too few, really) days extra, in order to meet with activists, organizations, and of course, friends.

My interest in Egypt stems from the bloggers and activists I’ve met over the years who come from there.  Prior to and during the revolution, they were my lens into Cairo, and on January 25, 2011, when nearly all of them took to the streets, I did my best to support them from my perch in Cambridge, repeating their words from Twitter and phone calls and redirecting media in their direction whenever possible.  But beyond the story of the Egyptian Internet (about which I have some authority), I am no expert, a fact made all the more apparent by my first visit to the country last week.

First Impressions

If at any point I sound orientalist or naive, allow me to explain: Most of my time in the region has been spent in its less-developed cities and countries.  My point of comparison is not Beirut but Meknés; I therefore live each new experience shadowed by my years in Morocco, my point of comparison for the region as if it were my homeland.

I was utterly impressed everywhere I stepped by the utter vibrancy of Cairo.  The graffiti that graced the walls and buildings of Zamalek and downtown that–as my friends pointed out–didn’t exist before the revolution, has become a multi-layered narrative at points: in one spot, a tank–once just a tank–is now crushing protesters; added to that a crowd of Egyptians waving their flags.  The cafés and bars of the city’s centers vary from old and smoky to fresh, modern (and smoky) but are visited by both men and women, often in fairly equal numbers.

Before traveling, friends–many of whom had been to both Morocco and Egypt–warned me in numbers of Cairo’s street harassment, its untiring vendors, its poverty.  The latter I only witnessed briefly, in drives through the city, and therefore cannot comment.  But as for the rest, I fear Cairo’s reputation is at least somewhat unearned.

I asked an American friend who has lived in Cairo for a few years if the lack of harassment I experienced was a side effect of the revolution. She said that she’d never felt unsafe, had never been sexually harassed on the city’s streets.  Another friend, a native Egyptian who’d spent much of her life abroad said she had, but that it’s not as bad as foreigners are lead to believe.  “And anyway, they’re scared of us now,” she explained, referring to the women’s marches that had taken place throughout the year.

The vendors and faux guides were another story: On Friday, I went to the pyramids alone in the afternoon, knowing that the day of prayer would minimize traffic in Giza.  I hadn’t even arrived when the harassment started.  Men would approach the taxi, lean in, and tell me “The pyramids are closed today, ma’am, but I’ll take you to a shop” or “I work at the pyramids, you can pay me as your guide.”  Some had fake ID cards.  I pity the silly foreigners who don’t read ahead.  After purchasing my ticket and heading inside, I expected things to get better, but in fact, they quickly got worse.  Young men with postcards and trinkets bombarded me with attention, while more “guides” attempted to sell me their services for a “mere 200 pounds.”  Harassed, and exhausted, I quickly made my way behind the first pyramid to stage a photo and snare my prey…

Having lived in Morocco for several years, I’m no newbie, and so whipped out a timeless old strategy.  I cannot, of course, divulge, but let’s just say it involves finding the oldest male guide you can, faking a certain identity, and paying him the most you’re willing to shell out, in exchange for him giving you a decent tour and…most importantly, warding off the rest of the harassment.  It worked – $20 and a small bottle of perfume from his “friend’s” shop later, I was on my way back home complete with a memory card full of photos.

Graffiti in Zamalek depicting Alaa Abd El Fattah (and the "#nomiltrials" symbol)

My guide wasn’t too forthcoming with his political opinions but after a decent amount of conversation, I was able to discern that he was simultaneously happy about the ouster of Mubarak and wary of the continued protests.  I asked him about the old regime; “if you had three horses and three children and had to choose which to feed, what would you do?” he responded, elaborating on the corruption of the Mubaraks.  “But,” he added, “the shabab need to give it time.”

Aside from the guide, a few cab drivers, and my hotel staff, however, my interactions were limited to the Twitterati.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course: I was fascinated to hear, over beers, the intricacies in differing opinions between this and that group.  And aside from that, of course, it was wonderful to finally meet so many of the people I’ve interacted with – some since January 25, and some long before.

I only wish I’d had more time: time enough to observe the protests, time enough to see if my friends’ predictions were to come true…but alas, work calls, and I’m grateful for the bit of time I did get to spend in um al-dunya.

The Revolution Continues

There were plenty of other elements to my trip, and not all are fit for print.  Those that are–namely, those pertaining to the days leading up to today, the anniversary of the revolution–I have been unable to fit into the above narrative and will therefore lay out in bullet points; forgive me.

  • Kazeboun, or “liars,” is a campaign whereby activists, armed with a projector and a screen, take up public spaces to show videos made for and about the revolution.  Many of my friends and acquaintances (several of whom do not, contrary to my own pre-formed beliefs, know each other) spoke highly of these efforts, and had taken part in them.  The Daily News Egypt has a short descriptive piece about Kazeboun here, noting how the project “implicitly highlights the importance of public space and its usage to voice political dissent.”
  • Journalism: As an observer for the past year, I’ve been very curious as to how Egyptians have perceived the foreign media’s coverage of the revolution.  And while this subject, frankly, deserves its own blog post, I was surprised to learn that aside from the old establishment (Friedman and his outlet in particular), the American media seems to have done a fair job in representing public opinion–contrast that with Syria, for example.  Of course, there are plenty of instances deserving of criticism, but I was a bit surprised that the American media wasn’t the butt of more jokes.
  • The Mosireen collective, which I had the pleasure of visiting, has a great space that’s open most days from noon until 10pm.  Though I dropped by when it was empty, the collective offers training, technical support, film screenings, and even lends out equipment to would-be filmmakers.  Their YouTube channel, I was reminded repeatedly during my visit, is among the top 5 of Egyptian NGOs and has received more than 2 million hits since its inception.
  • The release of blogger Maikel Nabil, which happened today, was an interesting point of discussion.  I was with a number of people on Saturday night

    A mural memorializing January 25

    when it was first announced, and their views were largely skeptical–as in, “the military is only doing this to look good.”  This sentiment is what I’ve seen echoed all day on Twitter.  Throughout the past ten months of Nabil’s detention, I’ve had a number of private conversations about how the blogger has received little support compared to others because of his pro-Israel views; though that is apparently true, there are a number of people who’ve been fighting hard for his release, as well as the release of others subject to military trials this past year.

  • The question of protest.  I arrived on a Tuesday and spent Wednesday asking people what they thought was going to happen on Friday.  Most said nothing, or that they were not personally going to Tahrir until the 23rd, but nevertheless, Friday actually had considerable turnout.  I spent the 23rd on a plane, and so was unable to follow along with tweets as I usually do, but am keeping my friends–the vast majority of whom planned to hit the streets tomorrow–close in my mind today.

To Regulate (Or Preferably Not): On Mueller’s claim of misdirected resistance to surveillance technology

A pair of blog posts this week from Milton Mueller have sparked multiple conversations filling my inbox (as well as an unprecedented amount of passive aggression, of which I do not approve, but the sheer number of people practicing it makes me reticent to name names). The posts take on the emerging cottage industry of opposition to the export of surveillance tech, largely produced by companies in Western countries and exported to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Now, I don’t mean to use the term “cottage industry” derogatorily, but the flurry of sudden interest around the issue is intriguing and spurred, it seems, in large part, by a series of stranger-than-fiction reports from Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal this year documenting various cases.

Before I take on the task of rebutting some of the arguments in Mueller’s posts–which, by the way, I agree with in large part–I should note my own biases, for the sake of discussion. First, I have been amongst the throngs shouting opposition to the surveillance-industrial-complex. I have been doing it for about three years, while all the while not taking a particularly strong position toward any of the proposed solutions. Second, I largely oppose regulation of this industry by the United States government. This is for several reasons, but in a nutshell: I don’t trust them. If you require more detail, read this piece I wrote about it. Third, I think a lot of the current discussion/advocacy about this topic is unfocused and chaotic, which is a failure on our part. Though I have–along with other folks at some of the top human and digital rights organizations–coordinated a series of calls on the matter, it is admittedly a messy and complicated subject, and we don’t all agree on the solutions, which lends chaos to an already-chaotic situation.

Now, Mueller’s posts. The first, published on December 20 and entitled “Technology as symbol: Is resistance to surveillance technology being misdirected?“, starts strong with the premise that the movement against the sale of surveillance tech to repressive regimes–which Mueller applauds for both its publicizing of the issue and its awareness-raising of similar issues in democratic countries–has oversimplified the fight against the regimes using such technology, replacing the target (authoritarian regimes) with another, easier target (makers of the aforementioned technology).

As Mueller rightly points out, “It seems obvious, but gets lost in the shuffle: the problem lies in the users and uses of the technology, not in the equipment or software itself.” He continues, remarking that “this is not, at root, a problem of governments having or not having a specific device or piece of software. It is an institutional problem – one of balancing and routinizing social processes in ways that effectively limit, regulate and distribute political power and hold those who exercise it accountable.”

There is nothing disagreeable in either point, and it can certainly be said that some of the actors advocating for regulation in this space have focused heavily on certain regimes (Syria, Egypt, Libya) whilst turning a half-blind eye to the uses of surveillance technology in the United States, the UK, and other nations with the rule of law. Nonetheless, I would argue that the organizations leading the charge on this issue have been fairly even-handed, attacking restrictions on free expression in democratic and authoritarian countries alike.

Mueller then derides the call for regulation of surveillance technology, stating: “The problem with this approach is that information technology, unlike bombs or tanks, is fundamentally multi-purpose in nature.” On this point, I once again must agree. EFF has consistently chosen not to advocate for regulation of sales (by governments) for the same reason, opting instead to push for regulation at the corporate level and issuing a set of recommendations for companies wishing to do so.

Mueller also points out, as I have before:

Thus, there is little appreciation of the extent to which export controls and other restrictions might retard the overall diffusion and development of information and communication technology, cut off access to good people and good uses as well as bad ones, or restrict our own freedom to use the technology as and how we see fit.

Since I agree with Mueller on this, it’s worthwhile to put forth some of the counter-arguments. Essentially, those who argue for regulations tend to favor a licensing-style of such, in which companies must apply for licenses before being allowed to export their wares to a foreign government (or, in some variations, a foreign government on a particular list of “Internet-restricting countries”). This echoes the current sanctions placed on Cuba, Syria, Sudan, North Korea, and Iran to various degrees. Being well-versed in the regulations on Syria, what this means is that a company–such as Google–must apply for a license before it can release a product (either for sale or for download) in the country. Companies that fail to apply for a license but still make their product available can face severe penalties; violating the Commerce Department’s export controls on Syria, for example, can result in 20 years imprisonment and/or a $1 million fine. This, of course, has a chilling effect for Syrians, as many companies with limited resources find it not worthwhile to apply for the license and restrict their products from the country. Incidentally, EFF has also called for revision of export controls.

In the latter variation, as I mentioned, regulation would be restricted to “Internet-restricting countries,” a punishment for countries that block websites from their citizens’ view. This type of regulation has been presented before, multiple times, as the Global Online Freedom Act (for a timeless criticism of an earlier version of the bill, see Rebecca MacKinnon). The problems with such an approach should be, but somehow aren’t, obvious. First, a question: who creates the list of “good” and “bad” countries? Bahrain, a close ally of the United States, pervasively censors the Internet…would it make it on the “bad” list and would sanctions be levied thus? And even if the list were fair and just, what happens when such technology gets regulated? Do citizens of the “bad” countries suffer like Syrians have for years due to labyrinthine bureaucracy and poorly-worded export regs?

The primary concern about regulations should be, however, that they will do extremely little to curb the sale of surveillance tech. What happens when Cisco refuses to sell to Iran? Huawei steps in. And don’t forget all of those companies that have surreptitiously been selling to embargoed countries all along, such as American company BlueCoat to Syria and Israeli company Allot to Iran.

This is the point at which Mueller’s first post starts to annoy me. After his righteous concerns about export regulation are expressed, he goes on to throw up a giant straw man, advising advocates to “Stop focusing narrowly on information technology, and examine the tools of repression and aggression more generically,” and raising examples such as US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Okay, so perhaps this is not exactly a straw man, but if–as Mueller seems to imply in his second post–his arguments are directed at activists and human rights organizations, rather than say, politicians and journalists, then this is simply unfair. The individual activists taking on this issue–many of whom, I’ve observed, live in the countries where such spyware is being sold–are surely not putting the technology before the arms. And as for the organizations, they’re either semi-single-issue (why would EFF talk about gun sales?) or have been holistically focused, tackling the gamut of human rights abuses, from surveillance to military repression. (I would also add here that current export restrictions on the aforementioned five countries include arms and airplane parts).

The second major argument in the first post is presented next. Mueller criticizes some of the advocacy around the sale of certain products, asking: “If you can blame a video surveillance camera for its misuse by repugnant governments, and argue for blocking the movement of those goods, what about integrated circuits, copper wires and lenses that go into them? What about the plastic housings? What about the shipping services that transported the material there?”

Now, if Mueller’s target here is those calling for regulation, I’m with him all the way. But if we’re talking about targeting companies, if we’re working on naming-and-shaming, then I do believe in a strategy of going after companies for their sale of complete products to governments, when the company has credible concern that the product will be used to commit human rights abuses. The vast majority of highly-publicized cases this year have involved the sale of complete systems to decidedly human-rights-abusing regimes like Libya, China, and Syria. I do see a moral obligation in calling out Cisco for its complicity in the Communist Party’s harassment of bloggers. I do see a moral obligation in calling out BlueCoat for its “oh noes, the embargoes!” response to the news that its products were sold to the Syrian regime (in the end, it turned out that BlueCoat was tracking the devices and was aware of their location, even if the sale was not intentional).

But alas, Mueller was talking about the would-be regulators, and therefore I agree:

If you really want to punish, isolate and sanitize your relationship to a repressive government, you cannot limit the sanctions to specific forms of ICT. There must be a comprehensive system of sanctions that prevents anyone in that country from doing any kind of business with the country involved. Even then, the regime may not change; think of North Korea. Even then, there will be leaks or route-arounds.

But then he concludes:

But activists concerned with real social change must think through this problem more deeply, and come up with strategies that strike more directly at the pillars of authoritarianism, censorship and arbitrary power, rather than lashing out at easy domestic targets.

This is why I accused him (a point he’ll refute in post 2) of taking cheap shots at activists. The assumption here is that those involved aren’t thinking about this problem more deeply, aren’t fighting these regimes from multiple angles. And as I wrote in my accusation, if Mueller’s target here is the journalists and the politicians whose shallow thinking culminates in the conclusion that Cisco is the the real enemy, then I digress. But if it’s the activists (again, many of whom are Egyptian, and Syrian, and Chinese), then I say “meh.”

Since Mueller’s second post starts with a refutation of something I said, I feel obliged to point something out. When Evgeny Morozov’s excellent Net Delusion was released this year, it was dismissed by some who felt that the use of the term “delusion” didn’t apply: after all, hadn’t Egyptians just toppled a dictator with the help of social media? I loved Morozov’s book, and so a point that irritated me throughout readings of both critiques of the book and reads through the man’s own columns was the idea that the main target of his arguments against “cyberutopians” were a very narrow subset of the population: namely, those working in the State Department, or even more specifically, Jared Cohen sycophants.

Mueller’s posts thus strike me the same way: Just as he claims his first post “hit a nerve” with advocates (presumably meaning me, since my comment is in the next line), he then goes on once again to target not the advocates but the journalists. And that’s the thing: Mueller’s arguments are largely ones that I agree with (read: no nerves were hit), but the presumed target is off: his real beef seems to be with the journalists who have kept this story going all year. And in a sense, I get it: after all, we digital rights advocates feed off the news reports, and no doubt we wouldn’t have been so loud on the topic were it not for their reporting. If anything, that’s a call for a more tempered approach (which is part of, I assume, Mueller’s point).

In any case, I have no real problems with the second post. Like Mueller, EFF recognized that the reporting on Israeli company Allot’s sale of their NetEnforcer product to an Iranian ISP was a bit overblown. In fact, the story should have served an even better lesson: Sanctions don’t work. But alas, it did not, for most.

Ultimately, as Mueller reiterates near the end of post #2, the problem with the movement (again, lead in large part by journalists, not advocates), is the transfer of target from regime to corporation:

Western corporations and their shareholders do have a moral obligation to refrain from actively pursuing business opportunities with dictatorships when those opportunities involve supplying products and services specifically designed to aid their crimes and repression. But very few technologies are constructed so as to be only usable for crime and repression.

Post-Script: I wrote this a bit stream-of-consciousness, so if in any way I appear to contradict myself, feel free to point out in the comments. Second, I would note that while I see very different targets in journalists vs. advocates, Mueller does not appear to at numerous points, including journalists in “the movement.” In a sense (as I hinted at above), this is fair, for journalists inform advocates on these topics. In another sense, it feels odd to include the supposedly neutral (though I obviously don’t believe that rubbish) journalist in the makeup of a movement such as this one. But again, therein lies the problem, Mueller might posit: the journalists are establishing a certain policy narrative.

I welcome your comments, discussion, debate, etc, below. Just don’t be an asshole and subtweet me. You know who you are.

A Small Reminder

courtesy of WashingtonsBlog

…in case you’re not convinced as to why we shouldn’t trust the US government on this one.

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