Thursday, May 30, 2013

Middle East: Standing their ground: Internet activists in Jordan and Palestine


Electronic Frontier Foundation - INTERIM MEMBER

In the past couple of years, there have been striking developments in Internet regulation across the Middle East and North Africa. But while the governments of some countries—such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan—have proposed draconian regulation threatening a free and open Internet, civil society across the region is becoming more active than ever in fighting back. EFF has been working with these local groups to find out more about the threats and the opportunities for protecting free speech in fragile or contentious environments. As EFF's International Director for Free Expression, I've spent the last week visiting Jordan and Palestine, where Internet activists have been working hard to protect the gains they've made, and push back against any further steps down the road to censorship and surveillance.

In Ramallah, Palestine, I teamed up with Internews to conduct a training on Internet policy and advocacy for a group of independent journalists. There, the concerns raised are manifold: Journalists worry about surveillance by the Israeli government, and fear repercussions for challenging or criticizing the Palestinian Authority. In Gaza, they face additional threats from Hamas: nearly two years ago, when I was last in Ramallah for a social media conference, Hamas shut down the gathering where a group of Gazans were participating remotely.

At the same time, the people I spoke with in Palestine—both inside and outside of the training—are eagerly working to create the Internet they want. I met with individuals from ISOC Palestine who are working on establishing the Palestine Internet Exchange Point (PIX), hosted at Birzeit University. Right now, seven out of Palestine's 11 ISPs have connected as peers, while the Palestinian National Research and Education Network (NREN) will connect universities to the service. In addition, the project recently received equipment from Google to host a copy of their global cache, increasing access speeds to Google services.

I also spoke with individuals who are keen to fight censorship. Last year, the Palestinian Authority was challenged by journalists both local and foreign when they censored a set of news sites, resulting in the resignation of Communications Minister Mashour Abu Daka in protest; everyone that I spoke with is dedicated to ensuring that nothing like that happens again.

In Amman, I spoke on a panel at the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress with Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab and Yuen-Ying Chan, the director of the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre. Led by moderator Jim Clancy (CNN), we discussed Internet regulation—particularly some of the over-restrictive regulations being proposed in the region—as well as digital security, a topic EFF has been thinking about quite a lot lately.

Finally, I conducted another training in Amman for a group comprised primarily of journalists. Their concerns centered on the apparent slippery slope toward censorship in Jordan, as well as on how they can protect themselves and their sources from surveillance.

Jordanians aren't taking censorship lying down. Back in 2012, civil society mobilized a SOPA-style blackout in protest of the draft Press and Publications Law. Organizations like the Jordan Open Source Association are tracking various attempts to censor the Internet in the country. And a group has convened to create the Jordan Charter of Digital Rights, inspired by Brazil's Marco Civil.

As we noted recently, support for free speech in the Arab world is strong, but political pressure to block and control is as strong as ever. It takes constant local vigilance to fight off overt regulation or covert intimidation. Journalists, technologists and online activists are standing their ground in the region, but to hold the line they will need all the support that they can get.

By Jillian C. York