The Shrinking Space for Online Civic Engagement

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Ivan Sigal has served as Global Voices’ (GV) executive director since the middle of 2008. Prior to working with GV, he worked in media development in the former Soviet Union and Asia, supporting and training journalists and working on media co-productions. He is a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Previously, Ivan was a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. Ivan tweets at @ivonotes. 5

In 2013, a group of Ethiopian bloggers and journalists created a blog to express their interest in a more open, inclusive, and democratic country. They called the blog Zone9, an ironic reference to the eight zones of Ethiopia’s Kaliti prison; their collective writing intended to demonstrate the possibility of a more open civic life. They chose to publish their writing on the Internet both out of necessity—it was the only public venue easily available to them—and aspiration, as it connected them to a global community of writers, thinkers, and translators with similar ideas.

Given Ethiopia’s history of imprisoning journalists and intellectuals, they knew their work was risky. When eight of the bloggers and journalists were arrested in April 2014 and charged with a range of offenses under Ethiopia’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, they were not completely surprised. It was, however, a troubling turn that the evidence against them—and the reason they were legally charged with criminal intent—was that they had received training in the use of digital security and encryption tools from the Tactical Technology Collective.  The journalists remain imprisoned, awaiting trial, as of March 2015.

Also concerning is that the Zone 9ers’ experience is duplicated around the world. Writers, bloggers, and activists seeking to exercise their fundamental rights to expression online are arrested and charged not only for the content of their speech, but for the use of digital technology and social media platforms. Too frequently, governments invoke anti-terror laws as justification.

In Bahrain recently, the government revoked the citizenship of 72 individuals they labeled terrorists; this included writers and digital activists peacefully expressing their aspirations such as Ali Abdulemam, founder of the online forum Bahrain Online along with insurgents seeking to achieve their aims through violence. In the last year in Bahrain, the satirical blogger Hussain Madhi, the former opposition MP Jameel Kadhem, the human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, and activist Nader Abdulemam were all either imprisoned or detained for their public speech on Twitter. Nine other individuals were arrested for “misusing social media,” a charge that carries up to a two-year sentence in Bahrain.

For technologies to be useful in preventing conflict, it is important that the values of a tolerant and open society also be supported by those in control of the networks.

Similar scenarios are playing out in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Belarus, Turkey, and elsewhere. Egypt has arrested Facebook users for “inciting violence” online, while Saudi Arabia now considers retweets subject to the same penalties as original speech on Twitter. Russia is blocking and removing websites, requiring media registration for popular bloggers, and giving law enforcement officials increased access to the user data of social media companies. Belarus has banned anonymization tools such as Tor that help users conceal their identity online and are key to enabling free expression in countries that practice surveillance of speech.

In most of these cases, individuals or groups seeking to use peaceful methods to express their civic interests online are restricted, harassed, or arrested. In extreme situations, governments, organizations affiliated with them, and others ensure that these activists become the targets of violence. The organization I work for, Global Voices, an international community of writers, translators, and digital activists, is presently tracking 103 cases of individuals around the world imprisoned because of their online speech—a small proportion of the total number of people facing these threats worldwide.

Anyone using information technologies that help people connect with one another accepts the risk that those technologies may not provide safe forums for expression due to the reach of governments with sophisticated surveillance capacities. However, those who express their goals, participate in online dialogue, or make their opinions known without self-censorship may be taking greater risks than they know.

The root of the issue is that while technology has the potential to be a connector, the existence of open information technologies is a necessary but insufficient condition for engagement, bridging, and preventing conflict. For technologies to be useful in preventing conflict, it is important that the values of a tolerant and open society also be supported by those in control of the networks.

The values we have in the physical world are instantiated in the structure of digital networks; regulations and restrictions can exist both in code and in the laws used to regulate human behavior on networks. The successful use of information technologies for peacebuilding, or more simply for peaceful expressing of civic goals in contested, violent, or authoritarian contexts, requires careful consideration and risk analysis of adversarial capacities to surveil, react, or target online speakers.

A growing number of countries today espouse peaceful, stable, but authoritarian rule as a means to deter non-state violence. They quash the rights of democratic activists, using anti-terror laws to restrict rights and preserve non-democratic rule, and punishing those seeking to use digital communication tools for the expression of their universal rights. Over time, those same restrictions and punishments contribute to the grievances of their citizens, resulting in a renewed cycle of protest, upheaval, and crackdown.

Developing and embracing digital networks as open platforms for engagement and communications in society requires political will to allow that expression. The ultimate goal is not peace for the sake of peace, but more equitable societies that allow diverse representation—be it of religion, sexual orientation, expression, or political and economic association.

(Feature Photo Credit: Courtesy of Endalk Chala)
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