A panel discussion at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2011 conference on the role of online media in the Arab Spring revolutions ironically opened one person short: a slated speaker working for democratic freedoms in Bahrain was unable to attend, thanks to delays in her receiving a U.S. visa for the conference. The four speakers in attendance, however, provided an excellent discussion on how the Internet is used and misused in the Middle East.
Deborah Hurley provided the background on Tunisia prior to the recent fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, President of Tunisia from 1987 through last January (although his title should perhaps be in ironic quotes). Hurley was a member of a delegation from the United Nations World Summit on Information Society, reviewing the role of IT in human rights in Tunisia, and found that country, in her words, to be one of the most repressive places on Earth. Despite this, Tunisia was largely unknown in the United States, and was seen in Europe primarily as a venue for a cheap beach vacation.
Tunisia enjoys one of the highest levels of literacy in the Arab world, and, because of policies of the first post-colonial government, has much higher rates of women’s education and entry into the workforce than is common elsewhere in the Middle East. This provided a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it paved the way for high penetration of information technology through the populace, but it also gave the government unfettered ability to control and monitor communications. The state was entirely in control of who received college placement and job openings, based largely on their public and private agreements with the government. But as Tunisia was a U.S. ally, the United States and other Western governments overlooked such issues.
Hurley was followed by Moez Chakchouk, the new CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency, or ITI. This was a bit of a surprise in itself, as the ITI was a primary force behind state repression under Ben Ali. Chakchouk opened his talk by saying that under the prior regime, he would have been unable to attend the conference as either a Tunisian citizen or as a government representative; the very topic of the conference, and the idea that there might be human rights issues at stake, were forbidden topics of discussion.
Under the old ITI, a 404 error — known to the rest of the world as the Web’s “file not found” alert — was more likely to be a message from the Tunisian government about the content of the site. The ITI was the sole source of information technology inside Tunisia, and had complete control over installation and monitoring; if you were on the Internet in the old Tunisia, you were doing so on the government’s terms. Chakchouk’s role is now to implement new technology without the constant threat of surveillance.
Jillian York from the Electronic Frontier Foundation expanded the discussion to Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. The other countries experiencing Arab Spring unrest have seen two failed models: Tunisia tried to clamp down control, then turned off its monitoring as a last attempt at mollification only one day before Ben Ali was forced to abdicate. Egypt simply shut down the Internet, but was then forced to turn it back on after this action literally sent people into the streets.
So the other nations experiencing uprisings seem to have decided that instead of these tactics, they’ll simply arrest anyone saying disagreeable things online. Video sharing sites have largely been shut down; this is what caused many people to turn to Facebook. It’s not that Facebook itself is the de facto platform of choice; it’s more that when it remains accessible, it becomes a destination.
York believes that there are core issues that can generate domestic upheavals from a previously apolitical population: one of these is government censorship, another is the use of torture against those who have been detained for anti-government activities. But the examples of Egypt and Tunisia, two countries with high technology usage, do not apply directly to other nations. In Libya, only 5 percent of the population was online before the Qaddafi government shut the Internet off entirely. In Syria, this number is 20 percent, but as the government is arresting people and demanding their passwords, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether what you’re hearing are words of the dissident, or planted words from the government.
Panelist Nasser Weddady, from the American Islamic Congress, strongly blamed both the complicity of Western governments and the mass media for allowing such abuses to continue. His work is to help bridge these online movements into real-world results by connecting grassroots democratic movements with known methods of working with international media and civil society groups. There is a presumption among the local activists that the mass media will not be a source of help; instead, traditional media are likely to ignore activists until they reach a large number on their own. The bigger story is that, as of this year, the world’s media is beginning to see social networks as a valuable source of information. But even when this does not occur, individuals with large Twitter or Facebook networks can sometimes leverage their networks as a protection against arrest or being otherwise silenced by the government.
Organizing efforts at the grassroots level used to be directed at other citizens in the nation; now the new targets can include producers in the worldwide traditional media, and their audiences, in order to bring international pressure to bear on repressive governments. Weddady called this “weaponizing hashtags.” York followed up by saying that American companies, including Websense, Cisco, and Narus, are building the technologies that governments use to repress their populations, so perhaps we should ask why companies openly subverting American ideals are getting a pass in the public debate.
Weddady specifically mentioned that at one point, he joked with his colleagues that if one more reporter called him to ask about the “Twitter revolution,” he would commit suicide, as this proved how much the mass media was missing the real story of the Arab Spring and inserting their own narrative. The details of the revolution differ widely from nation to nation, and both the traditional media reports and social networking information coming from these regions needs to be understood in their national and regional contexts.