Internet freedom isn’t a left or right issue—it should matter to everyone who cares about the health and future of democracy.
Send me your questions for Assistant Secretary of State, Michael Posner, and I'll ask him the best ones here:
"Science and Academic Freedom in the Digital Age"
October 10, 2012
Reception to follow
American Association for the Advancement of Science
1200 New York Avenue, N.W.
(Entrance at 12th and H Streets)
Washington, D.C. 20005
The movement to protect Internet freedom - the exercise of human rights online - has important implications for the work of scientists and engineers. What are the opportunities for collaboration, and how can developments in Internet policy influence broader science and human rights issues? Join us for a discussion with Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the US government's lead human rights official, about the overlapping interests that connect science, technology and human rights.
Welcome: Norman P. Neureiter, Chair, Science and Diplomacy Senior Advisory Board and Acting Director, Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, AAAS
Remarks: Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Moderator: Sascha Meinrath, Director, Open Technology Institute
Please register online by October 3, 2012. There is no fee for participation, but space is limited. Register here: https://www.signup4.net/public/ap.aspx?EID=SCIE21E&OID=50
A new paper from Jason Smith, Preston Rhea and myself, "Promoting Digital Equality: The Internet as a Public Good and Commons," just came out in the Society for the Study of Social Problems "Agenda for Social Justice" compendium.
Here's the synopsis (full .pdf attached below):
- The myriad barriers to access and adoption of affordable, fast broadband Internet are causing digital inequalities across contemporary America. This, in turn, presents a host of growing social problems, especially for rural and low-income urban communities, especially since the means to learn and participate in society are increasingly becoming mediated through online outlets.
I hosted Basque this past weekend -- it ended up quite the epicurean blowout! Here's the synopsis...
Katharine and James have some great pix from "When Life Gives You Lemons" Basque:
In the interim, here's what I've managed to cobble together re: the actual dishes... and I'm certain to have missed some since, yes, Basque was just that epic:
Sascha & Clara: "politically incorrect salt steak" -- slathered, newspapered,
drowned, burned on a bed of coals, then grilled https://secure.flickr.com/photos/drower/7029951353 as well as Sascha's politically righteous pepper steak (which was *perfectly* cooked in ways that still bring a smile to my face); also, a cheese platter with everything from smoked cheddar to blue to goat to Emmentaler; and a charcuterie array of several artisanal cured sausages -- my favorite was definitely the fennel pollen -- olives, various microbrews, etc.
Christine & Todd: Fresh-made eggplant ratatouille (and really, there were a whole host of summer vegetables involved, I'm not sure why eggplant gets top billing, but it was, all agreed, quite delicious) and Paulaner beer to wash it down with.
Stephen: Le Caprice baguettes -- which apparently were so well guarded by a daunting array of pastries as to require an indulgent repast at Le Caprice while the rest of us wondered if Stephen had simply been run over by a streetsweeper on his baguette run.
Seamus: An encrypted spinach (salad) -- for those who'd like to work on this, the Basque Book contains the following: "vhdPyv w. - vslQdfk" -- thus requiring knowledge of Caesar ciphers to simply draft this report back.
Helen & Don & Nick: Gin & tonics (with, Q Tonic, NICE!); and gazpacho -- a perfect cool appetizer for a rather hot day. I'm pretty sure that a bit of the gin may have made it through to the end, the gazpacho, not so much.
Nick: "The Peat Tree Leaf" a delightful summer drink concocted on-site consisting of 4 parts scotch, 1 part fresh lemon juice, 1 part Vermont maple syrup (Patrick, you can thank me for the shout out later), & soda water & ice to taste.
Andrew: Moussaka with a lemon Béchamel sauce and at least two artisan sausages for the grill -- something sage-y and the other strangely white (but quite yummy). Of course, when Andrew showed up with a tub of Moussaka the size of a Winnebago I thought (awesome, leftovers!), but we ate the entire thing!
Andrea & Thomas: Margerita cupcakes -- which had this amazing (almost crèm brûlée-esque icing which was just slightly crackly) and were fantastic! The very last bottle on the planet of Rogue Archivist grande cru -- which we enjoyed greatly up on the roofdeck (and was not the beer that I exploded all over my lap mere minutes later).
Mia & John: Manhattans with Ri rye and (if I'm recalling correctly) Peychaud
bitters -- John was also happy to report that the cherries were organic, so clearly, this drink made you healthier to more of it you imbibed (and I can state for a fact that I must be much more vivacious today given the number of these that found there way into my hand); as well as some hummus and pita to wash down the Manhattans with.
Shauna: lemon blackberry pudding cake -- unfortunately, this was one of the
items that I (very sadly) missed (probably due to having drenched myself with a beer while still reveling in the Rogue Archivist grande cru and having to take a 2-minute time-out to change clothes). NoooooooOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooo!!! How was it?
Kevin: chicken & sausage gumbo, which was so good that I found myself stealing chicken off of Kevin's plate when he wasn't looking (true story!).
Josh & Leah: in a conspiracy spanning multiple state lines as well as an unknown third man driving cross-country with a cooler full of contraband -- a deep dish Papa Del's sausage pizza brought directly from Champaign, Illinois.
Brian: a trifecta of grilling awesomeness: chicken curry sausages, spicy-tangy pork sausage, and Widmer Brothers hefeweizen.
Seeta & Seth: now, it takes a certain... je ne sais quoi... to show up, drop off a homemade tamarindo, then zip out for your next agua fresca mission of mercy. Well played!
James & Erica: Plan H plank-grilled Mediterranean sea bass with lemon and herbs (I believe we had two different hardwood planks, so if you didn't experience them both, you only got half the awesome); Caipirinhas (to balance out the Manhattans); and a lemon curd and biscuit dish that continually vied for my attentions.
Tom: Raisin, chocolate chip, lemon, sour cream cake with lemon icing. A desert with so much flavor as to stun many of us who simply couldn't believe it could possibly come from a Brit.
Sarah: Cavatappi with a lemon-artichoke pesto and summer veggies -- yes, it was the taste of spring in pasta form. A little known fact, cavatappi means tap extractor or corkscrew in Italian (thus its shape).
Brian & Jenny: "mysterious sour punch improvisation" (which I can attest to
since I showed up about 2/3rds of the way through and just started dumping
scotch into the mix) -- whatever they did, must have worked, this was the second full punch bowl and it was all gone right-quick; Guinness ice cream lemon-ginger cookie sandwiches (which, through pure serendipity, were put into the fridge to harden and forgotten about by most Basquers -- there they sit to this day -- calling my name at 4am); miso sweet corn -- which clearly needs to become a Basque staple.
Marsha, Matt, Olivia, Jonah, & Sam: lemon wafer cookies + guitar accompaniment -- because yes, a sunset jam session on the roof deck was just what was needed to ring in the evening portion of Basque.
John & Monica: pisco sours & lemon squares -- somehow, a pisco sour materialized in my hand, which made the wait for the lemon squares to cool all the more enjoyable.
Greta & Aaron: smoke herring & dill casserole -- which sounds like an awesome combo, but also was one of the few dishes that sneaked by and was utterly annihilated by the time I'd realized it had arrived. Drat & dagnabbit!
Chhaya: winter apple tart (which went *fast*), corn that didn't quite get
roasted, and homemade limoncello (yes, that's right, home made limoncello). I'd forgotten about this until the sweet siren call of the Guinness ice cream lemon-ginger cookie sandwiches pulled me bodily into the freezer, at which point I saw the mason jar and whispered giddily, "Why hello, my little friend."
Andrew: honeycombs -- but more importantly, is widely suspected of being the third man responsible for transporting the Papa Dels pizza 700 miles for us to feast upon.
In addition, I know there were a ton of comestibles and potables that never made it into the official record: a bevy of good brews that were brought for general consumption; Katharine and Humz crafted a plank-grilled lemon-infused salmon that turned out perfectly (as well as a "summer drink obsession"); Roberto crafted a citrus rice pudding; a lemon curd cake/desert thing-y from the Grants & Griers; a white bean dip (from Patrick?); as well as additional post-8pm reinforcements.
All in all, a very epic Basque, indeed!
From: Slate.com -- the announcement/op-ed Craig Aaron and I drafted:
At this very moment, opposing political, commercial, and ideological forces are fighting to determine how open or closed the Internet will become. Fundamentally, we are faced with the very real possibility that the most important communications platform in society today could devolve into a fragmented, censored archipelago.
But there are signs that we can avoid that fate. On Jan. 18, more than 100,000 websites and more than 7 million users spoke out against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, two bills in Congress that would have undermined participatory democracy and human rights by censoring the Internet. As much as this battle demonstrated the power of online organizing, it also demonstrated the need for a proactive vision for the future of the Internet.
Today, we—representatives of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and Free Press—join more than 85 organizations, ranging from Amnesty International and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to Mozilla and Cheezburger Inc., in announcing a Declaration of Internet Freedom. Centered on core principles of free expression, access, openness, innovation, and privacy, our goal is to spark a global discussion among Internet users and communities about the Internet and our role in it.
In December 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned: “Fragmenting the global Internet by erecting barriers around national Internets would change the landscape of cyberspace.” And the call for Internet freedom has united political strange bedfellows like Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. International leaders are engaged in the discussion as well, such as Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who has declared that “cyber walls are as certain to fall as the walls of concrete once did.”
Internet freedom as a foreign policy complements but does not replace the imperative of extending democratic process and human rights provisions to the Internet. Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah has urged those in the West to “fight the troubling trends emerging in your own backyards,” citing battles such as network neutrality and “draconian copyright.”
The Internet, as a global interconnected platform, has tremendous potential for cross cultural conversations and debate, but only insofar as the medium remains free from government and commercial censorship and abuse.
The Declaration of Internet Freedom is offered as a starting point to reinforce this conversation and to demonstrate that the remarkable coalition that came together around the SOPA fight was not ephemeral.
As representatives of groups based in the United States, we have an eye on domestic policy—and a belief that Internet freedom starts at home—but we believe these principles have global appeal and importance.
And we hope you will debate them, translate them, make them your own, and broaden the discussion with your community, as only the Internet makes possible.
Click through to read the Declaration of Internet Freedom.
The Internet’s Intolerable Acts: You should be very afraid of a pair of bills that threaten Internet freedom.
Originally from: Slate.com
The Internet’s Intolerable Acts
You should be very afraid of a pair of bills that threaten Internet freedom.
The United States of America was forged in resistance to collective reprisals—the punishment of many for the acts of few. In 1774, following the Boston Tea Party, the British Parliament passed a series of laws—including the mandated closure of the port of Boston—meant to penalize the people of Massachusetts. These abuses of power, labeled the “Intolerable Acts,” catalyzed the American Revolution by making plain the oppression of the British crown.
More than 300 years later, the U.S. Congress is considering bills that would lead to collective reprisals against online communities. The Senate’s PROTECT IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House are supposed to address copyright infringement and counterfeiting. In reality, they are so technically impractical that they do little to address these problems. They would, however, undermine participatory democracy and human rights, which is why these bills have garnered near-universal condemnation from both human rights groups and technologists.
The interconnected nature of the Internet fostered the growth of online communities such as Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. These sites host our humdrum daily interactions and serve as a public soapbox for our political voice. Both the PROTECT IP Act and SOPA would create a national firewall by censoring the domain names of websites accused of hosting infringing copyrighted materials. This legislation would enable law enforcement to take down the entire tumblr.com domain due to something posted on a single blog. Yes, an entire, largely innocent online community could be punished for the actions of a tiny minority.
If you think this scenario is unlikely, consider what happened to Mooo.com earlier this year. Back in February, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security seized 10 domains during a child-porn crackdown called “Operation Protect Our Children.” Along with this group of offenders, 84,000 more entirely innocent sites were tagged with the following accusatory splash page: “Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution." Their only crime was guilt by association: They were all using the Mooo.com domain.
SOPA would go even further, creating a system of private regulation to shut down websites that are accused of not doing enough to prevent infringement. Keep in mind that these shutdowns would happen before a site owner could defend himself in court—SOPA could punish sites without even establishing whether they are guilty of the charges brought against them.
In January 2010, Hillary Clinton launched the State Department’s Internet Freedom initiative, stumping for open access to information worldwide. Though Secretary Clinton has said that “there is no contradiction between intellectual property rights protection and enforcement of expression on the Internet,” PROTECT IP and SOPA create mutually exclusive trajectories for these two priorities. These bills are driven by technologically naive thinking that it’s possible to censor information without affecting freedom of speech. SOPA even goes so far as to make the key circumvention tools used by human rights advocates and democracy organizers throughout the Middle East illegal. While we’re certain that SOPA’s authors did not mean to craft a bill tailor-made to support the future Qaddafis and Mubaraks of the world, that is precisely what they’ve done.
Rather than blocking online copyright infringement, legislation like SOPA and Protect IP would instigate a data obfuscation arms race, making legitimate law enforcement efforts all the more difficult. If the United States decides that copyright infringement must be stopped at any cost, the required censorship regime will depend on ever more invasive practices, such as monitoring users’ personal Web traffic. This counterproductive cat-and-mouse game of censorship and circumvention would drive savvy scofflaws to darknets while increasing surveillance of less technically proficient Internet users.
Given that the Intolerable Acts sparked a revolution, it should be no surprise that this proposed legislation has generated a massive outcry in the United States. However, this attempt to unilaterally censor the Internet has spurred worldwide opposition, with several dozen international organizations signing a letter stating that “[t]hrough SOPA, the United States is attempting to dominate a shared global resource.” Last month, the European Parliament adopted a resolution underscoring “the need to protect the integrity of the global internet and freedom of communication by refraining from unilateral measures to revoke IP addresses or domain names.”
As participants in the Internet community, we must defend against collective reprisals that undermine our rights to access, privacy, and freedom of expression online. SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act are fundamentally incompatible with a free society and with the founding principles of the United States. This truth should be self-evident: Human rights should never be subjugated to copyright.
Executive Assistant: Open Technology Initiative
The New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative (OTI) formulates policy and regulatory reforms to support open architectures and open source innovations and facilitates the development and implementation of open technologies and communications networks. OTI promotes affordable, universal, and ubiquitous communications networks through partnerships with communities, researchers, industry, and public interest groups and is committed to maximizing the potentials of innovative open technologies by studying their social and economic impacts—particularly for poor, rural, and other underserved constituencies. OTI provides in-depth, objective research, analysis, and findings for decision-makers and the general public. For additional information on the program, please visit http://oti.newamerica.net.
OTI Priorities and Goals:
- Gather top technologists and tech-savvy policy analysts to inform current policy debates.
- Build collaborations among community developers, entrepreneurs, academia, and industry.
- Study the social and economic impacts of open technologies and architectures.
- Implement real-world open technology pilot projects and proofs-of-concept prototypes.
- Expand the use of open source software, open APIs, and increased access of Free and Free Open Source Software (FOSS) technologies.
The Executive Assistant provides critical support to OTI’s Director in all of his day to day activities, including: correspondence and general administration, proposal writing, editing and proofreading, preparing speeches and presentations, drafting memos, scheduling and travel arrangements, media relations, advisory committee relations, and fundraising. This fast-paced job also involves a considerable amount of inter-office coordination as well as occasional research projects.
- Handle a diverse array of administrative support duties including managing the Director’s calendar and schedule, arrange meetings, and travel
- Assist in various facets of the Open Technology Initiative’s day-to-day operations.
- Liaise with the Vice President of Finance and Operations and the Grants Manger to coordinate grant submission, reporting, tracking processes for the Open Technology Initiative, and notify the Director and relevant staff of all deadlines and requirements.
- Supervise the preparation of materials for meetings, as appropriate.
- Coordinate steering committee and advisory council meetings and assist in maintaining strong relations with key funders and advisors.
- Assist the Director in maintaining an effective working relationship with the staff and allied organizations.
- Assist the Director in the timely management of all communications.
- Handle the Director’s correspondences, including drafting, proofing, and prioritizing written material.
- Provide research support for the Director’s long and short term projects.
Ideal candidates will have the following qualifications:
- A bachelor’s degree with 1–2 years of administrative work experience.
- Outstanding writing, editing, and verbal communication skills.
- Excellent planning, organizational, and time management skills, as well as attention to detail.
- Proficiency in Open Office suite of applications and web-based research tools.
- Ability to thrive in a fast-paced, team-oriented work environment.
- Knowledge of, and/or interest in, technology and public policy issues is preferred.
- Talent for taking initiative and working independently when needed.
Mail or e-mail resume and cover letter to: Human Resources, New America Foundation, 1899 L Street, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20036. Fax: 202-986-3696. E-mail: email@example.com. Please state “Executive Assistant, Open Technology Initiative” in the e-mail subject line. No phone calls, please.
Generous salary package commensurate with experience; excellent benefits. The New America Foundation is an equal opportunity employer.
The New America Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States. With an emphasis on big ideas, impartial analysis and pragmatic solutions, New America invests in outstanding individuals whose ability to communicate to wide and influential audiences can change the country’s policy discourse in critical areas, bringing promising new ideas and debates to the fore. Through its fellowships and issue-specific programs, New America sponsors a wide range of research, writing, conferences, and public outreach on the most important global and domestic issues of our time. Based in our nation’s capital, the New America Foundation currently has over 120 staff members and fellows. For more information, please visit www.newamerica.net.
Awesome 2-minute video synopsis of the M-Lab global broadband measurement platform:
How to Ignite, or Quash, a Revolution in 140 Characters or Less
The Promise and Limitations of New Technologies in Spreading Democracy
Do the Internet and social media empower Big Brother or individuals in autocratic regimes, or do they offer a rare level playing field?
This year’s Arab Spring resurrected exuberant claims for the role of new technologies in spreading democracy. At the same time self-proclaimed “cyber-realists” were quick to point out that President Mubarak’s problems seemed to grow after he unplugged the Internet. Now, summer’s deadly stalemate in Syria has given pause to anyone peddling absolute theories about the interplay between new information technologies and revolution.
If not a panacea, how can social media and the Internet be deployed to maximize civic engagement in autocratic societies? Does the U.S. policy of supporting Internet freedom amount to a policy of regime change in some countries? When Big Brother does unplug the Internet, what can, or should, the rest of us do about it?
Please join us at a Future Tense event on July 13 to grapple with these issues.
A reception will immediately follow the event.
2:00 pm - Reflecting on the Tunisian Hair Trigger
Sami Ben Gharbia (from Tunisia)
Advocacy Director, Global Voices
New America Foundation
2:20 pm - Internet Freedom and Human Rights: The Obama Administration's Perspective
Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary of State for Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
U.S. Department of State
Chairman and Editor-in-Chief
2:50 pm - Friending Revolutions: Social Media and Political Change in Egypt and Beyond
Professor, Consortium of Science, Policy and Outcomes and the School of Social Transformation - Justice and Social Inquiry Program
Arizona State University
3:10 pm - How the Arab Spring Begat a Deadly Summer
Ahmed Al Omran
Executive Director, Tharwa Foundation
Blogger and Human Rights Activist
Syrian Youth Activist
Schwartz Fellow, New America Foundation
Contributor, New York Times
4:00 pm - Myths, Realities, and Inconvenient Truths of the Internet
Senior Schwartz Fellow, New America Foundation
Co-founder, Global Voices Online
4:30 pm - The View from Havana
Yoani Sanchez (via video)
Human Rights Activist
4:45 pm - Internet Freedom's Next Frontiers?
Mary Jo Porter
English Translator for Yoani Sanchez and other Cuban bloggers
Co-founder, hemosoido.com and translatingcuba.com
Deputy Director, Peterson Institute for International Economics
Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea
Co-Director, Future Tense Initiative
Director, Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program, New America Foundation
5:20 pm - Bypassing the Master Switch
Director, Open Technology Initiative
New America Foundation
Senior Program Manager, Internet Freedoms Program
U.S. Department of State
Future Tense Fellow, New America Foundation
Author, Nonzero, The Moral Animal, and The Evolution of God
A really great front page New York Times article on the work we've been doing at the Open Technology Initiative. The full article is available here:
U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around Censors
The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.
The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase.”
Financed with a $2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.
The American effort, revealed in dozens of interviews, planning documents and classified diplomatic cables obtained by The New York Times, ranges in scale, cost and sophistication.
Some projects involve technology that the United States is developing; others pull together tools that have already been created by hackers in a so-called liberation-technology movement sweeping the globe.
The State Department, for example, is financing the creation of stealth wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya, according to participants in the projects.
In one of the most ambitious efforts, United States officials say, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least $50 million to create an independent cellphone network in Afghanistan using towers on protected military bases inside the country. It is intended to offset the Taliban’s ability to shut down the official Afghan services, seemingly at will.
The effort has picked up momentum since the government of President Hosni Mubarak shut down the Egyptian Internet in the last days of his rule. In recent days, the Syrian government also temporarily disabled much of that country’s Internet, which had helped protesters mobilize.
The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught.
But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for communication. It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more audacious and clever and, yes, cooler.
Sometimes the State Department is simply taking advantage of enterprising dissidents who have found ways to get around government censorship. American diplomats are meeting with operatives who have been burying Chinese cellphones in the hills near the border with North Korea, where they can be dug up and used to make furtive calls, according to interviews and the diplomatic cables.
The new initiatives have found a champion in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose department is spearheading the American effort. “We see more and more people around the globe using the Internet, mobile phones and other technologies to make their voices heard as they protest against injustice and seek to realize their aspirations,” Mrs. Clinton said in an e-mail response to a query on the topic. “There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports,” she said. “So we’re focused on helping them do that, on helping them talk to each other, to their communities, to their governments and to the world.”
Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border. But others believe that the risks are outweighed by the potential impact. “We’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil,” said Sascha Meinrath, who is leading the “Internet in a suitcase” project as director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.
“The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to communicate,” Mr. Meinrath added.
The Invisible Web
In an anonymous office building on L Street in Washington, four unlikely State Department contractors sat around a table. Josh King, sporting multiple ear piercings and a studded leather wristband, taught himself programming while working as a barista. Thomas Gideon was an accomplished hacker. Dan Meredith, a bicycle polo enthusiast, helped companies protect their digital secrets.
Then there was Mr. Meinrath, wearing a tie as the dean of the group at age 37. He has a master’s degree in psychology and helped set up wireless networks in underserved communities in Detroit and Philadelphia.
The group’s suitcase project will rely on a version of “mesh network” technology, which can transform devices like cellphones or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a centralized hub. In other words, a voice, picture or e-mail message could hop directly between the modified wireless devices — each one acting as a mini cell “tower” and phone — and bypass the official network.
Mr. Meinrath said that the suitcase would include small wireless antennas, which could increase the area of coverage; a laptop to administer the system; thumb drives and CDs to spread the software to more devices and encrypt the communications; and other components like Ethernet cables.
The project will also rely on the innovations of independent Internet and telecommunications developers.
“The cool thing in this political context is that you cannot easily control it,” said Aaron Kaplan, an Austrian cybersecurity expert whose work will be used in the suitcase project. Mr. Kaplan has set up a functioning mesh network in Vienna and says related systems have operated in Venezuela, Indonesia and elsewhere.
Mr. Meinrath said his team was focused on fitting the system into the bland-looking suitcase and making it simple to implement — by, say, using “pictograms” in the how-to manual.
In addition to the Obama administration’s initiatives, there are almost a dozen independent ventures that also aim to make it possible for unskilled users to employ existing devices like laptops or smartphones to build a wireless network. One mesh network was created around Jalalabad, Afghanistan, as early as five years ago, using technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Creating simple lines of communication outside official ones is crucial, said Collin Anderson, a 26-year-old liberation-technology researcher from North Dakota who specializes in Iran, where the government all but shut down the Internet during protests in 2009. The slowdown made most “circumvention” technologies — the software legerdemain that helps dissidents sneak data along the state-controlled networks — nearly useless, he said.
“No matter how much circumvention the protesters use, if the government slows the network down to a crawl, you can’t upload YouTube videos or Facebook postings,” Mr. Anderson said. “They need alternative ways of sharing information or alternative ways of getting it out of the country.”
That need is so urgent, citizens are finding their own ways to set up rudimentary networks. Mehdi Yahyanejad, an Iranian expatriate and technology developer who co-founded a popular Persian-language Web site, estimates that nearly half the people who visit the site from inside Iran share files using Bluetooth — which is best known in the West for running wireless headsets and the like. In more closed societies, however, Bluetooth is used to discreetly beam information — a video, an electronic business card — directly from one cellphone to another.
Mr. Yahyanejad said he and his research colleagues were also slated to receive State Department financing for a project that would modify Bluetooth so that a file containing, say, a video of a protester being beaten, could automatically jump from phone to phone within a “trusted network” of citizens. The system would be more limited than the suitcase but would only require the software modification on ordinary phones.
By the end of 2011, the State Department will have spent some $70 million on circumvention efforts and related technologies, according to department figures.
Mrs. Clinton has made Internet freedom into a signature cause. But the State Department has carefully framed its support as promoting free speech and human rights for their own sake, not as a policy aimed at destabilizing autocratic governments.
That distinction is difficult to maintain, said Clay Shirky, an assistant professor at New York University who studies the Internet and social media. “You can’t say, ‘All we want is for people to speak their minds, not bring down autocratic regimes’ — they’re the same thing,” Mr. Shirky said.
He added that the United States could expose itself to charges of hypocrisy if the State Department maintained its support, tacit or otherwise, for autocratic governments running countries like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain while deploying technology that was likely to undermine them.
Shadow Cellphone System
In February 2009, Richard C. Holbrooke and Lt. Gen. John R. Allen were taking a helicopter tour over southern Afghanistan and getting a panoramic view of the cellphone towers dotting the remote countryside, according to two officials on the flight. By then, millions of Afghans were using cellphones, compared with a few thousand after the 2001 invasion. Towers built by private companies had sprung up across the country. The United States had promoted the network as a way to cultivate good will and encourage local businesses in a country that in other ways looked as if it had not changed much in centuries.
There was just one problem, General Allen told Mr. Holbrooke, who only weeks before had been appointed special envoy to the region. With a combination of threats to phone company officials and attacks on the towers, the Taliban was able to shut down the main network in the countryside virtually at will. Local residents report that the networks are often out from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., presumably to enable the Taliban to carry out operations without being reported to security forces.
The Pentagon and State Department were soon collaborating on the project to build a “shadow” cellphone system in a country where repressive forces exert control over the official network.
Details of the network, which the military named the Palisades project, are scarce, but current and former military and civilian officials said it relied in part on cell towers placed on protected American bases. A large tower on the Kandahar air base serves as a base station or data collection point for the network, officials said.
A senior United States official said the towers were close to being up and running in the south and described the effort as a kind of 911 system that would be available to anyone with a cellphone.
By shutting down cellphone service, the Taliban had found a potent strategic tool in its asymmetric battle with American and Afghan security forces.
The United States is widely understood to use cellphone networks in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries for intelligence gathering. And the ability to silence the network was also a powerful reminder to the local populace that the Taliban retained control over some of the most vital organs of the nation.
When asked about the system, Lt. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the American-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, would only confirm the existence of a project to create what he called an “expeditionary cellular communication service” in Afghanistan. He said the project was being carried out in collaboration with the Afghan government in order to “restore 24/7 cellular access.”
“As of yet the program is not fully operational, so it would be premature to go into details,” Colonel Dorrian said.
Colonel Dorrian declined to release cost figures. Estimates by United States military and civilian officials ranged widely, from $50 million to $250 million. A senior official said that Afghan officials, who anticipate taking over American bases when troops pull out, have insisted on an elaborate system. “The Afghans wanted the Cadillac plan, which is pretty expensive,” the official said.
Broad Subversive Effort
In May 2009, a North Korean defector named Kim met with officials at the American Consulate in Shenyang, a Chinese city about 120 miles from North Korea, according to a diplomatic cable. Officials wanted to know how Mr. Kim, who was active in smuggling others out of the country, communicated across the border. “Kim would not go into much detail,” the cable says, but did mention the burying of Chinese cellphones “on hillsides for people to dig up at night.” Mr. Kim said Dandong, China, and the surrounding Jilin Province “were natural gathering points for cross-border cellphone communication and for meeting sources.” The cellphones are able to pick up signals from towers in China, said Libby Liu, head of Radio Free Asia, the United States-financed broadcaster, who confirmed their existence and said her organization uses the calls to collect information for broadcasts as well.
The effort, in what is perhaps the world’s most closed nation, suggests just how many independent actors are involved in the subversive efforts. From the activist geeks on L Street in Washington to the military engineers in Afghanistan, the global appeal of the technology hints at the craving for open communication.
In a chat with a Times reporter via Facebook, Malik Ibrahim Sahad, the son of Libyan dissidents who largely grew up in suburban Virginia, said he was tapping into the Internet using a commercial satellite connection in Benghazi. “Internet is in dire need here. The people are cut off in that respect,” wrote Mr. Sahad, who had never been to Libya before the uprising and is now working in support of rebel authorities. Even so, he said, “I don’t think this revolution could have taken place without the existence of the World Wide Web.”
Reporting was contributed by Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Andrew W. Lehren from New York, and Alissa J. Rubin and Sangar Rahimi from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Call for Paper Proposals: New ICTs + New Media = New Democracy? Communications policy and public life in the age of broadband.
Call for Paper Proposals
New ICTs + New Media = New Democracy? Communications policy and public life in the age of broadband
A by-invitation experts’ workshop
New America Foundation, September 20-22, 2011
Are “new media” fundamentally changing the practice of democracy? Recent years have seen a significant transition in the role computer mediated communications play in the political sphere. A technological revolution driven by economic and market forces is undermining settled practices, established institutions, and traditional communications norms. As a result, public policies governing the telecommunications and media infrastructure need to be re-examined, and their theoretical foundations and paradigmatic assumptions reformulated.
Technological developments and broadband communications have forced the rules of political discourse to change: contemporary new media are circumventing and displacing old media; political candidates and public officials are finding new ways of communicating with the public; fundraising and advertising in political campaigns are being reshaped; and voiceless organizations and communities around the world are making themselves heard -- both within their national boundaries and around the world.
The Institute for Information Policy at Penn State University and the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative are pleased to announce this call for paper proposals, which focuses on the role broadband policies play in the promotion and preservation of democracy and human rights. Authors of the selected papers will be invited to present and discuss them during a three day by-invitation-only experts workshop designed to bring together American and international experts and to be held at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC, between September 20-22, 2011. This workshop is part of a series of events focused on “Making Policy Research Accessible,” organized by the IIP, with the support of the Ford Foundation. Presenters at the workshop will be invited to submit their completed papers for review by the Journal of Information Policy (www.jip-online.org).
Paper topics may include, but are not limited to:
- Freedom, democracy and justice: Changing concepts of democracy in the 21st century
- Campaign financing policies in the age of broadband communications
- Viability of existing telecommunications/media policies in light of technological change
- Preservation of freedom of expression and the public sphere in the new media environment
- Human rights and policy implications of recent popular uprisings around the world
- Allocation of resources allowing broadband communication to fulfill their role in democracy
- Private and public ownership of communication networks and their implications for democracy
Abstracts of up to 500 words and a short bio of the author(s) should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org by June 30, 2011. Please write IIPOTIWS: YOUR NAME in the subject line. Abstracts not sent according to the above instructions will not be reviewed. Accepted presenters
will be notified by July 15, 2011.