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Defending Free Expression Online

Syria


This image provided by Edlib News Network shows an anti-Syrian regime protester holding up a placard reading: 'the victory fingers over the Place (the presidential palace),' during a demonstration at Binnish village, Idlib province, on Friday. (AP/Edlib News Network ENN)

The Syrian Internet, like the country, appears to have been collapsing into a patchwork of unconnected systems for some time. I spent time talking to Syrians tech activists this week in Tunisia before Thursday's shutdown, and their reports from the front painted a picture of two different networks.

The Syrian civil war is also a propaganda war. With the Assad regime and the rebels both attempting to assure their supporters and the world that they are on the brink of victory, how the facts are reported has become central to the struggle. Hackers working in support of Assad loyalists this week decided to take a shortcut, attacking the Reuters news agency's blogging platform and one of its Twitter accounts, and planting false stories about the vanquishing of rebel leaders and wavering support for them from abroad.

Iran has invested in technology with the explicit intent of restricting
Internet access. (Reuters/Caren Firouz)

One big reason for the Internet's success is its role as a universal standard, interoperable across the world. The data packets that leave your computer in Botswana are the same as those which arrive in Barbados. The same is increasingly true of modern mobile networks. Standards are converging: You can use your phone, access an app, or send a text, wherever you are.

After the London launch of CPJ's Attacks on the Press at the Frontline Club this week, I had an opportunity to talk to a number of young journalists setting out to regions where reporters are frequently at risk. As CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon noted, these discussions took on an extra poignancy the next day, with the news of the death of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik.

At the launch of Google+, Google's attempt to create an integrated social network similar to Facebook, I wrote about the potential benefits and risks of the new service to journalists who use social media in dangerous circumstances.

Despite early promises of relatively flexible terms of service at Google+, the early days of implementation were full of arbitrary account suspensions - particularly of pseudonymous users - and the appeals process was unclear. The result was a lot of early bad press for the service from the traditional "first adopter" crowd, a framing it has subsequently struggled to escape.

One of the most exciting aspects of working on Internet technologies is how quickly the tools you build can spread to millions of users worldwide. It's a heady experience, one that has occurred time and again here in Silicon Valley. But there's also responsibility that attaches to that excitement. For every hundred thousand cases in which a tool improves someone's day, there is another case in which it's used in a life-or-death situation. And for online journalists working on high-risk material, or in high-risk places, that life may be their own or that of a source. That's why CPJ, together with Alexey Tikhonov from Kazakhstan's Respublika, Esra'a al-Shafei from the pan-Arab forum MidEast Youth, and activist Rami Nakhle from Syria, spent this week visiting and meeting with technologists, entrepreneurs, and thinkers in Silicon Valley.

President al-Assad appears to have encouraged hacking attacks. (AP)

On Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave his third public address on the vast unrest that has roiled his nation. Reporters described him as nervous. He, the reporters, or perhaps both, may have been thinking about the significance of speech No. 3. Both Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak were overthrown shortly after they delivered their third addresses on tumult in their countries. My interest, however, was on a sentence buried near the end of his address. Here's the official translation:

A Gay Girl in Damascus was a personal blog, said to be written by a young woman named Amina Arraf, that appeared to give an everyday record of being a lesbian in modern-day Syria. Following the events of the Arab Spring, as the political situation in Syria grew less stable, the blog attracted more readers and media coverage. Its compelling descriptions of Syrian life gave many a way to connect emotionally to a distant crisis. On June 6, the author's "cousin" wrote that the blogger had been seized by the security services.

Jennifer Preston in the New York Times reports on some stories that we also have been hearing from Syrian Internet use. She documents incidents of passwords extracted by force, and the deliberate defacing of social networking pages by security forces, apparently in order to sabotage reports of unrest from that country.

A man in his 20s living in Syria said that the police demanded his Facebook password late last month after arresting him where he worked and taking his laptop. "I told him, at first, I didn't have a Facebook account, but he told me, after he punched me in the face, that he knew I had one because they were watching my 'bad comments' on it," he said. "I knew then that they were monitoring me."

The man, who asked that his name not be used because he fears that talking openly could cost him his life, gave up his password and spent two weeks in jail. After he was released, he said that he found pro-regime comments made in his name on his Facebook account. "I immediately created a new account with a fake name and so did most of my friends," he said.

A strong password is not much protection against what computer security types drily call "rubber-hose cryptanalysis" -- the use of violence to extract login details. We know that Syrian security forces also threaten users that they will violently punish anyone who changes their password after they leave.

Instead, Preston reports on new strategies developed by those on the ground. They share their passwords with colleagues, so if a Facebook user is arrested and his account misused, colleagues can log in and remove personal information or delete vandalised content. Distributors of content also create multiple Facebook accounts so that when threatened, they reveal an innocent account, instead of the one they use for dangerous activities.

Can Facebook and other US companies help their users working under these conditions? They could remind readers in that region to set their Account Security settings to force secure browsing, login notifications, and explain how to monitor account activity. And they may want to be more cautious in pro-actively taking down apparently fake accounts, in case these are being used as decoy accounts.

Journalists and online news-gatherers have been struggling to collect and distribute high-quality information about recent events in Syria. Foreign journalists have been turned away at the border; local online reporters have been detained. The quality of Internet and mobile phone connectivity has been extremely variable, with reports of Net and phone connections being cut off in selective areas, such as Deraa and Douma. The Wall Street Journal reported blocks on social-networking sites, and CPJ has received reports of consistent slowdowns of home Internet services such as Skype and Google Mail.

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The CPJ Internet Channel examines the battle for free expression online.

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12 Internet cases in 2014