12 mars 2012 : RSF Suisse à New York
March 20th, 2012

ThinkSwiss NY 2012: Breaking Through Internet Censorship

New York:
The Frederick P. Rose Auditorium at Cooper Union, a twisted lecture hall of aluminum and mesh wire, seemed a most-fitting setting for Monday night's event entitled, "Breaking Through Internet Censorship."

Scheduled on the, "World Day Against Cyber Censorship" (Reporters Without Borders), this chilling event explored the citizenry of surfing the world wide web...and being watched, censored, and hunted in the process. 


Rebecca MacKinnon (moderator), author of Consent of the Networked, posed to the panel comprised of Stephane Koch, Ebithal Mubarak, Therese Obrecht Hodler, Anas Qtiesh, and Karen Reilly perhaps one of the most pertinent lead-off questions today given the global surge in social media and the fervent censorship and arrests of many by their authoritarian governments: what can we do to maintain internet freedom? Noting the nefarious collusion between companies which sell third-party software to authoritarian regimes bent on monitoring their citizens, MacKinnon began her line of questioning by asking Qtiesh how censorship and surveillance by governments affects life on the ground. Qtiesh, a Syrian citizen living in San Francisco, was not afraid to point out that the lack of internet freedom in his country has not only led to unlawful detentions but in many cases, death. In response to Mackinnon noting the West's obsession with censorship and less on surveillance, Qtiesh detailed the many ways in which electronics can become the silent adder in the corner, televisions, cell phones, computers, and apps all possible entry points for government agencies wishing to gain unlawful information from its citizens.

Ebithal Mubarak, a citizen of Saudia Arabia based in Brooklyn at the moment, stated that particularly in societies where women are not allowed to participate in outside life, the internet often acts as a lifeline. Many women, noted Mubarak, build the majority of their relationships through social media, not realizing that the person they are corresponding with may in fact be their next door neighbor or classmate. The importance of distributing widely information that is likely to be censored is a key technique to battle government strangulation of people's voices, particularly women, but the irony, she said, is that much of the technology used to censor comes from Canadian and American companies. The US Senate took up this issue last year, attempting to block such sales but, not surprisingly given the gridlock on Capitol Hill, nothing has happened as of yet. 

Therese Obrecht, President of the Swiss branch of Reporters Without Borders, would remain largelyquiet throughout the night but aptly noted that 2011 was one of the worst years in internet censorship and that one in three users do not have access to non-censored internet use (at least 60 countries censor regularly). It was a fierce rebuttal to the common misconception that the internet is a free domain of information and a much needed wake up call to the Matrix-like world we now live in. Mackinnon then questioned as to whether or not the internet has resulted in less independent journalism, a question which drew the attention of many of the panelists. Warned that journalists must truly understand what the internet is, Stephane Koch noted that in places such as Syria, real people are behind the mask of the WWW and are desperately trying to relay a message to the outside world.

Journalists, said Koch, must understand that if they are to venture into the world of the internet they will likely be faced with ex-military and intelligent officers working with private companies to the detriment of free information. The skills of journalists, to Koch, must then be raised and we as citizens are ultimately responsible for the companies that sell the software to track dissidents. New collaborations with underground movements such as the TOR Project are one possible response.

Karen Reilly, Marketing, Fundraising, and Grant Development Director for the TOR Project, then detailed the inner workings of the TOR Project, a platform that rolls between the ISP and the rest of the world (there are around 4,000 individuals worldwide that have volunteered their bandwidth for TOR users). Because of how TOR operates, the group does not have any information on their users and therefore, cannot be pressured by outside groups and governments to share information about their users. Constantly being blocked by countries such as North Korea, the cat and mouse game between TOR and government agencies is never ending. "Don't trust us?" said Reilly, "Then trust the code." Journalists today must be a paramedic, militant, and hacker, said Reilly.

MacKinnon notices a trend, she said, in authoritarian governments where the relationships between bloggers and journalists is far more symbiotic than in Democratic countries and asks of the panel where such a collaboration needs to go. Qtiesh emphasized that networks such as TOR and the State Department's giving of money to Democratic initiatives in the Middle East help greatly but any monies given through NGOs must be divorced from their foreign country of origin as the recent case in the jailing of aid workers in Egypt attests to. Asking what we can do and what panelists would say to governments like the US and Switzerland, an array of answers ensued, many asking for an organized push against companies that sell such compromising software to government agencies overseas, enhanced support and protection of bloggers, social media activists and journalists abroad from major companies such as Facebook and Twitter, an open platform to inform the public of surveillance-related private companies' relationships and dealings at home and abroad, and an increased awareness on the part of citizens worldwide as to what the internet actually is and where its (and its users) vulnerabilities are.

The consensus was clear: "We should be citizens of the internet," our responsibilities as users and consumers of the world wide web should be taken seriously, and we should pay close attention to the rapidly deteriorating freedoms of the tools that many across the world use to communicate every single day. As Koch said, "We are ruled by forces we cannot control." But let us fight.