Jillian York and Eva Galperin are both longtime Advox contributors that work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading US organization defending human rights in the digital age. They conducted a “year in review” exercise this week, looking at the state of digital rights in 2013 and making predictions for the new year. Not surprisingly, they found themselves focusing on the threat of surveillance in a post-Arab Spring world.
Jillian York: After the Arab Spring, I wasn't really sure how subsequent years could get crazier on the Internet freedom front. And then they did.
Eva Galperin: So was this the “worst year for Internet freedom” to date?
JY: For people who thought that the Arab Spring was going to be a positive turning point, I think 2013 was a pretty tough year. We've seen plenty of evidence of how the Arab Spring influenced countries in the MENA region. What do you think its impact was in other parts of the world?
EG: It has definitely had an influence in Russia and other post-Soviet states. For example, in Turkmenistan the government has seen the Arab Spring as a sign that they should ramp up Internet surveillance. And it doesn't help that the equipment is getting cheaper and surveillance is getting easier as more people all over the world lead more of their lives online.
JY: Surveillance is getting cheaper, and yet there are only a few countries that produce the kind of equipment we're talking about, right?
EG: A lot of the equipment is made in the West, but companies in the US and Europe are facing increasing competition from Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE. As activists, we can put pressure on companies like BlueCoat or Cisco or even Teliasonera, but there isn't a lot we can do to influence the policies of Chinese companies.
JY: Right — although I wonder how much the contracts in the West for those companies might influence their choices?
EG: Actually, Huawei officially said this year they were not interested in the US market anymore. I don't want to sound too defeatist, but if the best defense Western companies can come up with for selling surveillance capabilities to authoritarian regimes is “if we don't do it, Chinese companies will,” they've pretty much ceded the moral high ground. Since everyone is talking about state surveillance these days, do you think that we've made any progress in calling out Western companies this year?
JY: Yes and no. I think we've made a lot of progress with online service providers and social media companies – even if we don't think their statements have been strong enough, many of the leading companies came together and took a stand against the NSA's mass spying. But when it comes to surveillance equipment providers, I think there's so much more we can do. In fact, I'm making that a New Year’s resolution: Find a way to target investors.
On the slip side, there was the launch of the 13 Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance – this document, developed by a coalition (of which EFF was a leading member) and signed by over 300 organizations around the world felt like a powerful step towards a more transparent, rights-protective online environment. So there's some good news.
EG: Indeed! And this could have a lasting impact in years to come. Speaking of strong activism efforts – you watch MENA pretty closely. What great activism have you seen come out of the region this year?
JY: There have been some strong actions around the case of Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — he is facing charges under Egypt’s new “anti-protest” law, which prohibits public demonstration without prior authorization from government officials. When he was arrested last month in Egypt, his allies created a “rolling press release” in a Google Doc that they sent to journalists and organizations — this is still being updated all the time. It is pretty genius — a great way to keep people informed of the latest news on his case.
And in Jordan, people have done great work opposing online censorship that has come out of the Press and Publications Law — over 300 sites have been blocked under new amendments to the law that introduce restrictive content and registration rules for websites. Last year, activists responded by driving a coffin around town, calling it a “funeral for the Internet.”
What about in the places that you watch? I know you keep a close eye on Vietnam, what's happening there?
EG: Vietnam is in the midst of a years-long crackdown on bloggers. This year, we saw high-profile bloggers like Le Quoc Quan (also a human rights lawyer) jailed and convicted. There were also cases where bloggers were lumped together and convicted a dozen at a time. And people like Dinh Nhat Uy were jailed for making anti-government Facebook posts.
They're pretty brazen about charging people for unrelated crimes. Charges of tax evasion, which is what got convicted, are pretty common.
This is also a common tactic in China and Russia. Blogger and opposition leader Alexey Navalny was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in jail in Russia this summer.
JY: Speaking of Russia, this summer it seemed Russia was “on top” so to speak — between Snowden and Putin's success vis-a-vis Syria — but Russia really is cracking down on activists, is it not?
EG: Not only is Russia cracking down on the political opposition, but they've come down hard on free speech on the Internet. Last year, the Duma passed an Internet censorship law that was ostensibly aimed at protecting children but has been used to silence the opposition. Protecting minors from “extremism” “homosexual propaganda” and information about the sale of drugs all have been leading excuses in Russia for censoring the Internet. I think the homophobia angle is relatively new and unusually strong there.
What trends do you expect to see continue into 2014?
JY: Heh – well, one unfortunate one that merits a mention is journalists being charged under terrorism statutes. I counted four just this year. On a more positive note, I think the growth of the digital rights “scene” is amazing. We're not alone in this fight — there are so many allies in every corner of the globe…but that also means we have to be strident in standing up for ALL of our rights, and not compromise.
EG: I have been really impressed by the sheer number of new organizations springing up all over the world. I hope this means we'll see a continuing trend towards a more comprehensive, less US-centric Internet freedom movement.
JY: Yes, I hope for the same. Well, Eva – have a happy new year, and I'll see you on the other side.
EG: Back at you! Let’s hope it’s a good one.