Once upon a time, there was a blog.
It was written in Amharic, the dominant language in Ethiopia, by a team of young journalists and thinkers who wanted to have an open, public conversation about the future of their nation.
Pictures of some of the Zone 9 bloggers
It’s not especially easy to talk about these issues in Ethiopia. Africa’s second largest country has been ruled by a neo-marxist government (EPRDF – Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democracy Front) which overthrew a brutal military dictatorship in 1991, instilling one-party autocratic rule in its place.
Part of EPRDF’s strategy of control is the silencing of dissent. When students protested rigged elections in 2005, the government blocked all SMS traffic for two years, claiming that opposition activists were using SMS to plan their campaigns. (They were. The real issue is that Ethiopia saw opposition political activity as a threat to regime stability.) Ethiopia briefly had a thriving and energetic blogosphere, but government censorship and harassment of bloggers quickly silenced many of those voices. The country’s independent press has been crippled by Ethiopia’s strategy of imprisoning the strongest journalistic voices, including PEN prizewinner Eskinder Nega, in the country’s notorious Kaliti Prison.
Tens of thousands are held in Kaliti prison, in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Journalists and other political prisoners are held in Zone 8 of the prison, and they jokingly refer to the rest of the nation, itself in a prison of sorts, as “Zone 9″. Thus the name of the blog: the Zone 9 bloggers are writing from the outer ring of the prison, the nation itself.
Zone 9 member Endalk explains:
In the suburbs of Addis Ababa, there is a large prison called Kality where many political prisoners are currently being held, among them journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. The journalists have told us a lot about the prison and its appalling conditions. Kality is divided into eight different zones, the last of which — Zone Eight — is dedicated to journalists, human right activists and dissidents.
When we came together, we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone Nine.
Ethiopia sees itself in danger of splitting into rival, warring parts. This fear is not unfounded – Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 after a thirty-year war, taking Ethiopia’s seacoast with it. (Sadly, Eritrea is also a one-party state notorious for jailing journalists.) Ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region and ethnic Oromo have been seeking independent states – their armed movements, the ODLF and the OLF are seen as terrorist organizations by the Ethiopian government.
The Ethiopian government does face a real threat from armed militants. But it has a disturbing tendency to label anyone who expresses dissent as a terrorist. Consider Eskinder Nega. Nega’s crime was to report on the Arab Spring protests and to point out that Ethiopia could face similar protests if the government did not reform and open up. He was charged with “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of terrorist acts and is now serving an 18 year prison sentence.
The Zone 9 bloggers were understandably scared by Nega’s arrest and prosecution, and the blog went silent for over a year. This spring, they decided they could not remain silent any longer. On April 25th, the government responded by arresting 6 members of the blogging team, and three journalists the government saw as “affiliated” with the bloggers.
The charges against the bloggers give a sense of what the Ethiopian government is fighting: dissent, not terror. Much of the charge sheet focuses on accusations that bloggers traveled out of the country to receive training in encrypting their communications, specifically through using Security in a Box, a package of Open Source software compiled by Tactical Tech, an organization that helps free speech and journalistic organizations protect themselves from surveillance. The Ethiopian government accuses the Zone 9 bloggers of using these tools in an attempt to “overthrow, modify or suspend the Federal or State Constitution; or by violence, threats, or conspiracy.” In fact, the bloggers were using such tools to coordinate their reporting work, hoping to avoid detection and arrest by a paranoid government.
These charges give a sense for how hard it is to work on free speech issues in repressive countries. Global Voices worked with Zone 9 in 2012 to create the Amharic edition of Global Voices. (That edition hasn’t been updated recently due to the imprisonment of our partners.) Four of the bloggers held in Kaliti are Global Voices volunteers. Other members of the team who work with Global Voices are in exile and would be arrested if they returned home. Knowing how dangerous it is to report from Ethiopia, we helped our volunteers find resources like Security in a Box. Our attempts to help create a safer environment for free speech in Ethiopia are now part of the case against our friends.
Compounding the sadness and frustration we at Global Voices are feeling is the fact that Ethiopia is a massive recipient of foreign aid, hosts the headquarters of the African Union and is a key military ally to the US, seen as a stable, Christian bulwark against Somalia. Meles Zenawi enjoyed a warm relationship with the Obama administration (the President’s statement on Zenawi’s death included a cursory mention of human rights after praising Zenawi’s focus on food security), and there’s been little evidence that the State Department has any plans of getting tough with Ethiopia on issues of free speech or human rights.
At Global Voices, we are trying to call attention to the plight of the Zone 9 bloggers, hoping for action from the US State Department to seek their immediate release, and an easing of Ethiopia’s war on independent media. We are asking friends to join in using the #FreeZone9Bloggers hashtag, and to direct tweets to @StateDept.
This is a hard time to call attention to this situation, we know. Ellery Biddle, writing for Global Voices, notes that her Twitter client autofills the hashtag #Free____ with half a dozen choices, many of them our community members. It’s an appropriate time to tweet the State Department to demand Israel protect the safety of civilians in Gaza, or to demand that news media cover the ongoing catastrophe in Syria. In asking for help, I don’t want to lessen anyone’s outrage about other injustice, but to ask for help bringing visibility to the plight of our friends who are otherwise likely to be forgotten in international diplomatic circles.
The NSA documents Edward Snowden leaked have sparked a debate within the US about surveillance. While Americans understood that the US government was likely intercepting telephone and social media data from terrorism suspects, it’s been an uncomfortable discovery that the US collected massive sets of email and telephone data from Americans and non-Americans who aren’t suspected of any crimes. These revelations add context to other discoveries of surveillance in post 9-11 America, including the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, which scans the outside of all paper mail sent in the US and stores it for later analysis. (The Smoking Gun reported on the program early last month – I hadn’t heard of it until the Times report today.)
The Obama administration and supporters have responded to criticism of these programs by assuring Americans that the information collected is “metadata”, information on who is talking to whom, not the substance of conversations. As Senator Dianne Feinstein put it, “This is just metadata. There is no content involved.” By analyzing the metadata, officials claim, they can identify potential suspects then seek judicial permission to access the content directly. Nothing to worry about. You’re not being spied on by your government – they’re just monitoring the metadata.
Of course, that’s a naïve and oversimplified view of metadata, which turns out to be a surprisingly rich source of information on who people are, who they know and what they do. Congress has historically recognized that metadata is important and deserves protection – while the Supreme Court ruled in Smith vs. Maryland that phone numbers dialed should not be expected to be private information, as they are exposed to the phone company, Congress put restrictions on the use of “pen registers”, devices that can track what calls are made and received by a phone, requiring law enforcement to go to court to institute such tracking. The same logic in Smith vs. Maryland applies to the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program – since information on envelopes is visible to the public, or at least to mail carriers, it’s monitorable and storable, even without “mail covers“, US Postal Service administrative orders used to trace mail coming to criminal suspects. And, perhaps, the policymakers who approved NSA’s surveillance projects would argue that the logic applies to email headers as well.
Put aside for the moment the question of whether monitoring metadata is reading public information or is more analogous to a pen register. There’s a scale issue that comes into play here. One major constraint on pen registers and mail covers historically has been the sheer amount of data they generate. Potential overreach by law enforcement is held in check by two factors – the need to get court or administrative approval to trace metadata, and the ability to process said metadata. As a result, USPS insiders report that it processes about 15,000 – 20,000 mail covers a year related to crime, and as security researcher Chris Soghoian discovered, internet and telecommunications companies charge law enforcement agencies for pen registers, putting some practical limits on their use.
But the NSA surveillance of email and phone networks, and the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program have no such limits. While it’s likely quite expensive to scan all US mail, once you’ve committed to doing so, it’s comparatively cheap to store that information and analyze it at later dates, as investigators evidently did to arrest Shannon Richardson for sending ricin to President Obama and New York City mayor Bloomberg. And, since the costs of NSA surveillance are evidently borne primarily by internet and telephony companies, it’s downright cheap to keep metadata on email and phone calls. All the postal mail, email and phone calls.
It’s also much, much cheaper to analyze this data than in years past. The current frenzy for “big data” and “data science” has called attention to techniques that allow analysts to pull subtle patterns out of data – a New York Times story that suggests that retailer Target was able to identify pregnant customers based on their purchasing behavior (unscented lotion!) and target ad flyers to them gives a sense for the commercial applications of these techniques.
Sociologist Kieran Healy shows another set of applications of these techniques, using a much smaller, historical data set. He looks at a small number of 18th century colonists and the societies in Boston they were members of to identify Paul Revere as a key bridge tie between different organizations. In Healy’s brilliant piece, he writes in the voice of a junior analyst reporting his findings to superiors in the British government, and suggests that his superiors consider investigating Revere as a traitor. He closes with this winning line: “…if a mere scribe such as I — one who knows nearly nothing — can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor like Paul Revere from those of two hundred and fifty four other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what weapons we might wield in the defense of liberty one or two centuries from now.”
If you are a member of a secret organization planning overthrow of the government, you’ve probably already thought hard about what your metadata might reveal. But if you’re an average citizen with “nothing to hide”, it may be less obvious why your metadata may not be something you are comfortable sharing. After all, Frank Rich recently proclaimed that “privacy jumped the shark in America long ago” and that we are all members of “the America that prefers to be out there, prizing networking, exhibitionism, and fame more than privacy, introspection, and solitude.” Lured by reality television and social networks, we all want to be watched and have therefore have given up our distaste for surveillance.
I think it’s possible to be both a heavy user of social media, and concerned about the security of your metadata. It simply requires understanding that, for many of us, social media is a performance. When I share links on Twitter, I’m aware that I’m constructing an image to my followers as someone who’s interested in certain topics and disinterested in others. I don’t share every article that I read, both because I suspect not all are interesting to my followers and also because I don’t really want my professional community to know just how much mental energy I spend worrying about who the Green Bay Packers will field at running back in the coming season.
This may not be how you use social media, but it probably should be. As danah boyd and others have pointed out, youth have had to figure out how to navigate a world in which their interpersonal and social interactions are archived, searchable and persist long enough to present a problem in adulthood – as a result, they’re continually engaged in “identity performance”, as well as in developing codes and other ways to speak on social networks to defy monitoring.
By contrast, most of us aren’t maintaining a persistent, public performance when we’re using telephones or email. (For an example of what this might feel like, consider this story from This American Life, where lawyers who work with Guantanamo detainees talk about how having the US government monitor their personal phone calls changes their behavior.) Our metadata can reveal things we may not want to share with others, or may not know ourselves.
As it happens, I have a pretty good sense for what my email metadata might tell an investigator. This fall, I co-taught a class with Cesar Hidalgo, Catherine Havasi and Sep Kamvar at the Media Lab titled “Big Data”. Two of the students who took the class, Daniel Smilkov and Deepak Jagdish, worked on a project called Immersion which uses Gmail metadata to map someone’s social network. I’m one of about 500 alpha testers of the software, developed by Cesar, Daniel and Deepak, and have been one of the poster boys for the project as it’s been on display at the Media Lab, as I’ve got the largest network of Gmail contacts of anyone who’s used the system. (This isn’t because I’m especially popular, I suspect. Most of my MIT colleagues use mit.edu addresses. As someone new to MIT, who maintains a number of different affiliations, I have been a heavy Gmail user.)
The largest node in the graph, the person I exchange the most email with, is my wife, Rachel. I find this reassuring, but Daniel and Deepak have told me that people’s romantic partners are rarely their largest node. Because I travel a lot, Rachel and I have a heavily email-dependent relationship, but many people’s romantic relationships are conducted mostly face to face and don’t show up clearly in metadata. But the prominence of Rachel in the graph is, for me, a reminder that one of the reasons we might be concerned about metadata is that it shows strong relationships, whether those relationships are widely known or are secret.
The other large nodes on the graph are associated with specific clusters. Rebecca is my co-founder at Global Voices and Ivan and Georgia run the organization day-to-day – they dominate the green cluster, which includes key people in that organization. Hal is my chief collaborator at the Berkman Center, and Colin is my boss – they dominate the orange cluster, which includes fellow Berkman folks as well as a number of prominent internet law and policy folks who work closely with the Center. Lorrie is assistant director at Center for Civic Media and is the person I work with most closely at MIT – the red cluster represents the people I work with at the Media Lab.
Anyone who knows me reasonably well could have guessed at the existence of these ties. But there’s other information in the graph that’s more complicated and potentially more sensitive. My primary Media Lab collaborators are my students and staff – Cesar is the only Media Lab node who’s not affiliated with Civic who shows up on my network, which suggests that I’m collaborating less with my Media Lab colleagues than I might hope to be. One might read into my relationships with the students I advise based on the email volume I exchange with them – I’d suggest that the patterns have something to do with our preferred channels of communication, but it certainly shows who’s demanding and receiving attention via email. In other words, absence from a social network map is at least as revealing as presence on it.
Another sensitive piece of information comes from how Immersion draws and codes clusters. Immersion’s algorithm is sensitive to who you include on the same email. Global Voices emails include Ivan, Georgia, Rebecca and others – people who I email when I email those three get placed in the same cluster. People who exist as bridges between clusters are particularly interesting, as they are people who appear in multiple roles in your social network. Joi Ito appears on my graph twice (as “Joi” and “Joichi”) because he uses multiple email addresses, but in either role, he’s a bridge between my MIT existence, my Global Voices existence and my Berkman life, which reflects my long and multi-faceted relationship with him. But he’s colored red, as a Media Lab person, whereas other bridge figures like danah boyd show up as blue, as they have close relationships with Rachel as well. In other words, I have important, long-standing, multifaceted relationships with both danah and Joi, but danah is part of my family life as well, while Joi is not.
My point here isn’t to elucidate all the peculiarities of my social network (indeed, analyzing these diagrams is a bit like analyzing your dreams – fascinating to you, but off-putting to everyone else). It’s to make the case that this metadata paints a very revealing portrait of oneself. And while there’s currently a waiting list to use Immersion, this is data that’s accessible to NSA analysts and to the marketing teams at Google. That makes me uncomfortable, and it makes me want to have a public conversation about what’s okay and what’s not okay to track.
While popular outcry over revelations about the NSA has been somewhat muted so far, it’s possible that widespread protests planned for July 4th will spark more dialog about what represents unconstitutional surveillance. Here’s hoping that conversation will take a close look at metadata and ask hard questions about whether or not this is information we are willing to share with governments and corporations, or whether we need to regulate and limit this power to monitor as we’ve historically done in the United States. Restore the Fourth.
For another example of what metadata may reveal, see Malte Spitz’s phone records. As I discuss in “Rewire”, Spitz sued his mobile phone provider to obtain his records, then worked with Zeit Online to build a visualization of his movements based purely on that set of data.
Some years back, I gave a talk at O’Reilly’s ETech conference that urged the audience to spend less time thinking up clever ways dissidents could blog secretly from inside repressive regimes and more time thinking about the importance of ordinary participatory media tools, like blogs, Facebook and YouTube, for activism. I argued that the tools we use for sharing cute pictures of cats are often more effective for activism than those custom-designed to be used by activists.
Others have been kind enough to share the talk, referring to “the Cute Cat theory”. An Xiao Mina, in particular, has extended the idea to explain the importance of viral, humorous political content on the Chinese internet.
I’ve meant to write up a proper academic article on the ideas I expressed at ETech for years now, and finally got the chance as part of a project organized by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light at the Institute for Advanced Studies. They invited a terrific crew of scholars to collaborate on a book titled “Youth, New Media and Political Participation”, now in review for publication by MIT Press. The volume is excellent – several of my students at MIT have used Tommie Shelby’s “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop & the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth“, which will appear in the volume, as a key source in their work on online dissent and protest.
I’m posting a pre-press version of my chapter both so there’s an open access version available online and because a few friends have asked me to expand on comments I made on social media and the “Arab Spring” at the University of British Columbia and in Foreign Policy. (I also thought it would be a nice tie-in to the Gawkerization of Foreign Policy, with their posting today of 14 Hairless Cats that look like Vladimir Putin.)
Abstract: Participatory media technologies like weblogs and Facebook provide a new space for political discourse, which leads some governments to seek controls over online speech. Activists who use the Internet for dissenting speech may reach larger audiences by publishing on widely-used consumer platforms than on their own standalone webservers, because they may provoke government countermeasures that call attention to their cause. While commercial participatory media platforms are often resilient in the face of government censorship, the constraints of participatory media are shaping online political discourse, suggesting that limits to activist speech may come from corporate terms of service as much as from government censorship.
Look for the Allen and Light book on MIT Press next Spring – it’s an awesome volume and one I’m proud to be part of.
This is a hard day to write about issues other than sudden, unexpected disasters – the bombing in Boston, the earthquake in Iran – and horrific ongoing disasters of continuing violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. But I’ve been trying to get my head around a complicated situation in Bangladesh that’s become very dangerous for bloggers and activists in that country: the aftermath of the Shahbagh protests and the arrest of Bangladeshi bloggers for alleged atheism.
Some background: When Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971, the Pakistani Army violently attempted to prevent “East Pakistan”‘s breakaway, killing anywhere between 300,000 and 3 million Bangladeshis, raping hundreds of thousands of women and targeting intellectual and potential political leaders. In 2009, under a secular government in Bangladesh, the country began an international crimes tribunal, prosecuting local collaborators with the Pakistani Army, who include leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in the nation.
The court convicted Abdul Quader Molla, assistant secretary general of Jamaat, of war crimes in February 2013 and sentenced him to life in prison. Many Bangladeshis were dissatisfied with this sentence and demanded capital punishment. On February 6, demonstrators began occupying Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka to demand Molla’s execution.
Bloggers and online activists were prominent in urging people to take to the streets, where the protests expanded beyond demands for punishment and into a call to oppose political Islam. Supporters of Molla’s party reacted with counter-demonstrations. CLashes between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators killed at least four and injured over a thousand.
A Bangladeshi blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, who wrote under the pen name “Thaba Baba (Captain Claw)” had written about war crimes for years and was active in calling for the Shahbagh protests. The 26 year-old was brutally murdered near his home on February 15th. Bloggers speculate that he was killed by Islamists, as his laptop was left at the scene of the crime, implying he wasn’t a mugging victim.
As protests continued, Islamists groups argued that the bloggers helping instigate the protests were anti-Islamic, anti-social and atheistic and demanded their arrest and prosecution. The Bangladeshi government responded by founding a committee to track anti-Islamic activity on Facebook and other online media. On April 1st, the police arrested three bloggers for their alleged “derogatory content”.
Global Voices, Reporters Without Borders and others have condemned these arrests, but arrests continue, most recently targeting Asif Mohiuddin, whose blog has been banned, and who was stabbed by Islamists in January, before protests began – his arraignment was scheduled for yesterday. We understand that Bangladeshi bloggers are terrified of arrest or assault, and some have gone into hiding.
The invisibility of this story in international media is making the prosecution of bloggers and activists possible – with international attention, it is possible the Bangladeshi government would be less likely to cooperate with demands to prosecute activists for alleged atheism, which isn’t a crime under Bangladesh’s constitution. If you can help by calling attention to the story, particularly by pitching it to reporters who cover international news, Global Voices would appreciate your help.
I tweeted earlier today about my horror regarding the shootings in Newtown, CT, and my connections to the community. I grew up nearby and have friends who attended the school where the shooting took place.
An editor at CNN’s opinion section read earlier commentary I’d posted here about the difficulty in opening a debate about gun control in the US. He asked for my reactions to today’s shootings, and I responded with a brief commentary. It is currently running on CNN’s site, and it begins:
I logged onto Facebook this afternoon, terrified of what I would read.
I grew up near Newtown, Connecticut, and went to high school in Danbury, Connecticut. A close friend spent her childhood at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the school where a shooter killed at least 26 people today, police said, most of them children.
Police reports are still coming in, and we are only beginning to grasp the scale of this tragedy. Friends are describing their panic as they try to reach their children in schools that are on lockdown. One of my high school classmates is trying to support her best friend, whose daughter was one of the children killed.
My Facebook timeline is filled with expressions of relief for those who escaped the violence, sorrow for those lost, and prayers for recovery. It’s also filled with friends demanding that America take action on gun control. Their calls are answered by others who protest that this is a time to mourn, not a time for politics.
A tragedy like today’s shooting demands we both mourn and take action.
Predictably, for a post about the difficulty of having open dialog about gun control in the US, it’s generating thoughtful and reasoned debate. Here’s one of the carefully reasoned tweets engaging with my argument:
Looking forward to more and less helpful responses.