The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged internet
UK, US join "internet's biggest enemies"

The US and the UK have made it onto RSF's "enemies of internet freedom" annual list for the first time:

United States: This is the first time the US has made it onto RSF’s list.  While the US government doesn’t censor online content, and pours money into promoting Internet freedom worldwide, the National Security Agency’s unapologetic dragnet surveillance and the government’s treatment of whistleblowers have earned it a spot on the index.

United Kingdom: The European nation has been dubbed by RSF as the “world champion of surveillance” for its recently-revealed depraved strategies for spying on individuals worldwide.  The UK also joins countries like Ethiopia and Morocco in using terrorism laws to go after journalists.  Not noted by RSF, but also important, is the fact that the UK is also cracking down on legal pornography, forcing Internet users to opt-in with their ISP if they wish to view it and creating a slippery slope toward overblocking.  This is in addition to the government’s use of an opaque, shadowy NGO to identify child sexual abuse images, sometimes resulting instead in censorship of legitimate speech.

I have lost count of the ways what these two countries do with one hand completely undermines what they do with the other – and that applies to a whole range of policies aside from internet freedom.

Saudis like to share

For people whose society is organized into a rather extreme public/private divide, Saudis turn out to love sharing information about themselves online. It turns out they share the most of any country on earth.

From a slideshow by Mary Meeker, a renowned analyst on internet trends whose annual presentation at the D11 Conference is a geek favorite:

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What is to be done: The Website as an Organizer

What is to be done: The Website as an Organizer

Even if like me you're a bourgeois reactionary, you should read Hossam el-Hamalawy's fascinating post on the relaunch of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists website. He digs through the latest data on mobile and internet penetration in Egypt to develop an online strategy for a group whose focus (in terms of reporting) is highlighting the plight of the working poor. Some really smart political media  strategy there.

The Egyptian Twittersphere, 18 Months Into the Revolution

The Egyptian Twittersphere, 18 Months Into the Revolution

Lisa Goldman, for TechPresident, on where Egyptian Twitter is at:

But over the last eight months things have changed. Once prominent voices have become subdued, or gone mute. New personalities have risen to prominence. Once unified in their opposition to the Mubarak regime, the January 25 activists are now divided by public ideological spats. Nearly all the Egyptians who tweeted exclusively in English before and during the initial months of the uprising are now communicating at least part of the time in Arabic — and not the formal written language that is understood by all literate Arabic speakers, but colloquial Egyptian dialect.

In many cases, the early participants in the discourse are burnt out, turning inward and becoming absorbed in their own careers. But there are other significant causative factors at play.

For politically engaged Egyptians online, the Twitter discourse has shifted, several well-known commentators told techPresident. Once it was about reporting and participating in the revolution; now it is about discussing the revolution and debating political issues. Twitter is now hosting a vigorous debate about Egypt's future. After months of fighting the entrenched remains of a decades-old regime, on the streets and in public opinion, revolution fatigue has set in for the January 25 activists. Rather than demonstrating on the streets, they are exchanging ideas online. But the discussion does not include the majority of Egyptians who lack Internet access. This fact has not escaped those who are most intensely engaged in the discourse, even as they wonder whether their digital debates are an echo chamber or a means of effecting change.

Conclusion: the real action is on the street. 

A couple of months ago, I gave a talk at SciencesPo Paris on my experience running this site and my perception of the role of social media in the Arab uprisings. My take then, and now, is that Twitter was far more important in shaping a narrative for the outside world then shaping a narrative for the Arab world (where Facebook was much more important for the connected and al-Jazeera the major influence for most of the others). Twitter is a emotive communication medium, what many Arab tweeps did — as well as relay information — was communicate an emotional state (excitement, fear, courage, etc.) that enabled a global audience to feel like it had a front seat to events and that allowed it to bypass or supplement traditional information sources (television, newspapers, websites). It was a mobilizer of international public opinion with many tweeps acting as propagandists and cheerleaders (this was particularly evident in the more calculated efforts to use Twitter in Libya, Bahrain and now Syria) for their cause. That's why so much of it is in English.

In my talk, since I was in Paris, I echoed Jean Baudrillard's theory that "The Gulf War did not happen" — i.e. the "Arab Spring" did not happen. I mean this in the sense that the global/Western experience of the Arab Spring, often fed by Twitter soundbites that were largely recuperated by traditional media (remember how common quotes of tweets were at the time) because Twitter is, in this sense, the ultimate infotainment, because it provides so much emotional punch. It was a spectacle. Much of what was out there was a mise-en-scene of the events, with the tweep as hero. I think a lot of the "disappointment" one reads in Western commentary about the "Arab Spring" turning into an "Arab Winter" (because of violence, Islamists, etc.) is because they believed in that narrative of January-March 2011. It's their own stupid fault for believing in it, the reality was always a lot more complex — their problem was to allow themselves to be caught in the enthusiasm of those experiencing the events and casting themselves as characters in them.

The internet and the canal

Voila Capture8

The above chart is from a very cool graph made by the Guardian showing major internet cables across the world. This highlights how Egypt, or to be more specific the Suez Canal, is one of the world's major choke points for data traffic between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. I remember a decade ago talking to Egyptian IT types about the potential for Egypt becoming a major data-caching hub (to make internet access between east and west faster by caching content so that data requests would only have to travel half the distance). Yet to my knowledge there are no major data centers in the canal zone — surely a missed opportunity.

For the next time your local dictator shuts down the internet

The most traffic this blog ever got was on January 28. Shortly after midnight, I posted that the internet had been shut down in Egypt. The news spread on technology sites like Slashdot and Reddit, eventually bringing down the site. I had internet because I was not in Cairo: I was in the middle of a reporting trip in Tunis, but was spending all my time after the curfew still in place then making calls to Cairo. I had landlines for friends, and quickly confirmed that at least three major ISPs had been simply shut off. It confirmed my gut feeling that something big was coming, and as I flew back to Cairo the next day what became an uprising had begun, defeating the police state.

I still feel that shutting down the internet (and mobile phones) was the key, pivotal tactical mistake of the Mubarak regime that pushed so many to join the protests. It took several days for the internet to be re-established, but in those few days a sense of urgency had been created, galvanizing the protestors' spirit and giving the whole Egyptian uprising story a new angle.

All of this was brought back to mind by this Wired story (via Boing Boing) about a State Department-funded project to quickly deploy, basically, the internet in a suitcase:

The idea is that the system will automatically set itself up. Drop a unit near another unit and they’ll start talking to one another and trading data. Add another and all three will talk to one another. Add a thousand and you can cover a whole city. Then if one of those routers is hooked up to an internet connection, everyone on the network can connect. If that connection disappears, users can still try to update an application like Twitter or send e-mail to the larger internet and the outgoing notes will go into a holding pattern until the mesh network finds another connection to the greater net.

In those early days, even a rapidly deployable intranet would have been useful — especially if you were able to use a Twitter-like service that was decentralized, working like P2P, and advertise services on it so they would be found automatically (like a central repository of some sort that would act as the intranet's home page). Even more useful would be a suitcase satellite internet, like a Bgan on steroids, that could immediately deploy wifi over a sizeable area and handle, say, 100 simultaneous users.  

Did this man cut off Egypt's internet?

General Rushdi al-QamariHossam has been a sterling job of late of putting together a who's who of State Security, partly derived from files and a CD of pics he obtained during last month's State Security HQ raid, to track down who was doing what and who's going where post-revolution. You can see it all by going to www.piggipedia.net.

This entry is on the State Security officer who would have been in charge of shutting down Egypt's internet on the eve of January 28. The question, as always, is where is he now? Has he been simply moved to another office? Will there be accountability for State Security or will these generals who ran Egypt's repression on a day-to-day level simply move to new positions in a superficially restructured State Security?

Read Hossam's post for the details.

URGENT: Egypt has shut off the internet

I just received a call from a friend in Cairo (I won't say who it is now because he's a prominent activist) telling me neither his DSL nor his USB internet service is working. I've just checked with two other friends in different parts of Cairo and their internet is not working either.

This just happened 10 minutes ago — and perhaps not uncoincidentally just after AP TV posted a video of a man being shot.

Will update with more info. The ISPs being used by my friends are TEDATA, Vodafone, and Egynet.

Update: It's not everywhere. A foreign journalist at the Semiramis Intercontinental hotel says he has internet access.

Update 2: The Semiramis uses Noor as its ISP. I am trying to confirm whether Noor uses a different technology to connect to the internet, such as satellite, rather than the main fiber optic cables that connect Egypt to the rest of the world. If anyone knows about this, please let me know in the comments.   Never mind, they apparently use a dedicated fiber optic connection and a source said they did not receive any instructions.

Update 3: Via POMED:

The AP confirms that the Egypt government has disrupted Internet service and “deployed an elite special operations counterterrorism force” hours before a new wave anti-government protests are expected to begin. A major service provider for Egypt, Italy-based Seabone, reported early Friday that there was no Internet traffic going into or out of the country after 12:30 a.m. local time.

I received news earlier tonight that riot-control police were moving out of Central Cairo and that troops from 'Amaliya Khassa (Special Operations) were now in Central Cairo, wearing green fatigues. These are not military troops — they depend on the Ministry of Interior.

Khouri on Clinton's Internet Initiative

Two points  on Rami Khouri's latest column, about US initiatives to encourage internet use and youth etc.

This one I partly disagree with:

But what do young people actually do, or aim to achieve, with the new media? Are the new digital and social media a credible tool for challenging established political orders and bringing about political change in our region?

My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change.

Watching Arab pundits criticize Arab governments, Israel or the United States — common fare on Arab satellite television — is great vicarious satisfaction for ordinary men and women who live in political cultures that deny them serious opportunities for free speech.

Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.

Sure, there might be a lot of passive users of the internet. But when in so many countries the internet is being used to mobilize, spread information and organize, it can hardly be called a passive medium. It draws in an admittedly small number of internet users and turns them into activists and organizers,  And unlike al-Jazeera, no one is paying the bloggers and activists who use the internet to mobilize. It's a substantive improvement over what al-Jazeera does, especially because the internet is not controlled by a government.

The second point is dead on:

One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.

Feeding both the jailer and the prisoner is not a sustainable or sensible policy. I would not be surprised if some wise-guy young Arab soon sends a tweet to Hillary Clinton saying, “you’re either with us, or you’re with the security state.”

This is an awkward and untenable position for any foreign government that wants to promote political activism and pluralism in the Middle East. It damages Western government credibility, leads to no significant changes in our political cultures, and often discredits the local activists who become tarred with the charge of being Western lackeys.

Clinton's Internet Initiative is essentially a substitute — and a poor one at that — for a real policy to deal with authoritarian regimes. As was Obama's Cairo speech and its 16 micro-initiatives. You don't have to invade dictatorships — please! — but you don't have to support them either. Training young people to use the internet is a ridiculous idea — they will do so anyway.  

Better to learn from the largely American success of internet start-ups such as Google: don't be evil. Cut off the funding to dictators, occupiers and regimes that carry out ethnic or religious segregation. Refuse to meet them and give them the recognition they crave. Stop humoring them because of your imperial ambitions in the Middle East — these ambitions are ruinous to America both financially and morally.

Virtual Brotherhood

The National's Matt Bradley has a story on the Muslim Brotherhood's Facebook clone:

IkhwanBook joins a veritable suite of Brotherhood-affiliated (“Ikhwan” is Arabic for “Brotherhood”) websites, such as IkhwanWiki, IkhwanWeb, IkhwanGoogle – a “Cusotmized [sic] search engine specialized in searching muslim botherhood’s [sic] websites” – and IkhwanTube. Many of the sites are published in English and each of their functions is tailored to Brotherhood-related content.

The article then wonders why the Ikhwan bothers: IkhwanBook is after all technologically extremely inferior to the real Facebook, and the other sites are not that sophisticated either. And there are plenty of young Brothers on Facebook — anyone who's ever met them can expect to be friended within 24 hours, after all.

Brian Whitaker, noting the story, writes:

The interesting and slightly puzzling question is what the Brotherhood hopes to achieve by this. It's hard to imagine the Ikhwan sites gaining anything like the popularity of those they replicate, and they look like a move towards exclusivity which is generally uncharacteristic of the Brotherhood.

I think both Matt and Brian miss the point slightly. The first reason for having all these sites — and believe me, there are a LOT of Ikhwan sites out there, practically one for every governorate of Egypt plus many more on specific issues before you reach the Facebook and Wikipedia clones — is that there simply is enthusiasm to build them. Beyond the apparent correlation one notices between tech-savvy and religious inclination (just visit any of the computer malls on Midan Sphinx in Cairo), there are a lot of young talented programmers in Egypt who would love to show their enthusiasm for the gamaa by building websites for it. And there are a lot of young people in the Brotherhood, no matter how elderly the leadership is, for whom these websites may be a way of expressing their views as well as gain practice in the art of political and religious rhetoric.

The second reason is that this resonates with the groupthink and in-group mentality that the Muslim Brotherhood cultivates. These sites won't replace Facebook or Wikipedia, they are a virtual gated community (gated, that is, by strong symbolic references and imagery that are likely to alienate those not already versed in the Ikhwan universe) for like-minded people, where they can create a more orderly version of the sites that they copy and where the membership is self-selecting. The Muslim Brothers tend to socialize together, marry within each others' families, work together (or for each other) and a whole lot more. It's a support group as much as a political organization. It makes sense that, online, they will tend towards a closed ecosystem — alongside the open internet, not instead of it.

It's just the way online forums thrive: through community-building. That's true for computer geeks and religious geeks.

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