Washington — The Egyptian government’s communications shutdown operation began early on January 25 with the blocking of Twitter and mobile phone lines attached to those who had been identified as anti-regime protesters. As the five-day operation continued, nearly all Egyptians lost access to Facebook, BlackBerry and SMS services, and the temporary shutdown cost the country an estimated $90 million in lost economic activities.
That was one regime’s response to the ability of political opponents to organize, communicate and share information through social media and mobile technology.
Facing its own protesters, the Syrian government has reacted quite differently — by mostly ending its long-standing ban on Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools. But in doing so, it is better able to track what its people are saying and doing and can then “go after them offline for their online activities,” said a State Department official who asked not to be identified.
The unnamed official has studied various ways that governments either deny communications to their people or try to use it against them. His job is to find ways to connect Internet and mobile phone users around the world with tools and information they can use to get around blockages, as well as to inform them of the risks they face while online and the ways they can communicate more safely if they are living under governments that would prefer them to be silent.
This is not about trying to change regimes, he said. This is about standing up for everyone’s universal right to free speech, assembly and association. And it’s not just anti-regime bloggers and cyberdissidents who may need help. Depending upon where they live, many mobile phone and computer users are already at risk but may not know it.
The recent protests across the Middle East and North Africa have seen “people who didn’t necessarily see themselves as activists beforehand being really involved in these sorts of movements,” the official said, and they are at risk when they try to get outside information as well as post their experiences, photos and videos online.
Many of these risks are unnecessary because they simply don’t have the information they can use to protect themselves, the official said. “Those are the people that really need help. It’s everybody. It’s all society in a lot of places — people who are just trying to tell their story and to hear other people’s stories.”
“If someone’s getting up in the morning and they just want to access a blog, that might not be a high-risk activity. But if they want to plan a protest or certain sorts of things that they want to engage in, some of the tools that they’re using right now might not be appropriate for that,” he said. The Internet Freedom Program office in the State Department is tasked to work with many local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to provide such people with information to make smarter decisions.
WHERE TO FIND HELP
Much of that information is already online. There are websites, YouTube videos, guides and other materials offering tips, best practices and instruction on the use of anonymizers, proxy servers, circumventors and other tools that make it harder for governments to trace a user’s online activities.
For example, check out the site www.howtobypassinternetcensorship.org or download the Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents (PDF, 3.46MB), compiled by Reporters Without Borders. The NGO Tactical Technology Collective offers videos, toolkits and other downloads for installation to help protect data and a user’s identity.
The State Department is also providing funding to NGOs to help them offer training programs within a country or to develop new tools. Ongoing civil society and governance programs such as journalism training are seeing new additions to the curricula. Not only are aspiring journalists and activists learning how to use the Web more effectively, but they are also learning how to do it more safely.
“We’re trying to mainstream that as much as possible in all the programming that both State and [the U.S. Agency for International Development] are funding,” the official said.
There is no foolproof training or technology, since many governments are continually working to overcome the latest tools that their citizens can get their hands on. The official also said efforts by some governments to impose a global Internet code of conduct is another discouraging indication that some are seeking more control of what people can do online “in a way that runs against people’s ability to exercise their rights.”
He urged people to speak up for their right to “connect to the people and the information they want to connect to,” just as they speak up for their rights to free speech and assembly offline.
Make it clear that such restrictions are unacceptable, he said. “That will ultimately have a bigger impact than the technology ever can.”