The internet and social networks have come to be the core weapon in the arsenal of dissidents when they engage in uprising against oppressive or illiberal regimes. By use of social networks and other social media like Twitter, these activists have been able to coordinate broad action and to communicate their message and the spirit of dissent through populations. This was the case during the Arab Spring, where social media were vital in the overthrow of regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, with activists and protesters using these tools to spread information and organize.
A problem with this form of organizing has proven, however, to be its lack of anonymity. Governments have been able to root out dissidents and punish them for daring to stand up to the authorities. Thus for example in the Egyptian revolution promanent bloggers such as 'sandmonkey' were arrested and beaten up.1 Some services currently exist to provide an aegis of anonymity to activists, such as the software developed by the Tor Project2 which was used to some effect in Egypt. But these projects are insufficient as yet to meet the demand of activists, since activists in states where uprisings occur rarely have money to make the development of these programs profitable or economical.
The question of what Western governments should play in enabling anonymity for activists is hotly debated. The suggestion that they produce, or subsidize the private production of, software to lend anonymity to dissidents involved in uprisings has been put forward in a number of channels. Most notably Secretary of State Clinton said “The United States continues to help people in oppressive internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers, and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online” and committed $25million “to support a burgeoning group of technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against internet repression.”3 The sums involved may be reletively small bit the impact is potentially much larger.
1Moran, R., “Noted Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey apparently arrested (update: Sandmonkey Released)”, American Thinker, 3 February 2011. http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2011/02/noted_egyptian_blogger_sandmon.html
3 Clinton, H., ‘Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Speech on Internet Freedom *updated*’, Secretaryclinton, 15 February 2011, http://secretaryclinton.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/secretary-of-state-hillary-clintons-speech-on-internet-freedom/
The past few years have been marked by an explosion of uprisings around the world, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa, and Arab world generally. These uprisings have all been marked by the extensive and pervasive use of social media and social networking tools, like Twitter, BlackBerry Mobile, and other platforms. The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, for example, wherein people mobilized to overthrow their dictator has even been called the Twitter Revolution after the huge number of people using that platform to lead and chronicle the successful uprising.1 It was the sophistication of physical surveillance technology and the resourcefulness of the security forces that forced dissenters onto the internet, which quickly became, prior to the start of large scale demonstrations, the primary mode of expressing discontent with governments. But the internet is no safe haven, and technology has caught up, allowing governments to crack down on individuals who engage in dissent online. Anyone using the internet to coordinate demonstrations therefore faces the threat of being tracked and arrested as a result. This was the case in Iran after the failed Green Revolution, dissenters were rounded up and punished for challenging the government.2 Without anonymity, participants in uprisings are liable to face reprisals. Only external help from the technologically advanced West can these freedom fighters maintain their safety and still be able to fight for what they believe in.
1 Zuckerman, E. “The First Twitter Revolution?”. Foreign Policy. 14 January 2011. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/14/the_first_twitter_revolution
2Flock, E., “Iran Gets Back E-mail Access, But Other Sites Remain Blacked Out Ahead of Protest”. Washington Post. 13 February 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/iran-gets-back-e-mail-access-but-other-sites-remain-blacked-out-ahead-of-protest/2012/02/13/gIQAgxz5AR_blog.html
First it is wrong to simply assume that this will guarantee protection for people involved in uprisings. Previous attempts at providing software to help dissenters have had security vulnerabilities that could have allowed the regime to expose its users identities. This was the case with Haystack a tool that was meant to keep users anonymous during the failed green revolution in Iran.1
Second providing anonymity and thus snubbing the regimes that survive uprisings means those states will be less willing to envision working with the West toward reforms. When an uprising occurs clearly something needs to change. But when the West is putting such undue pressure on a government, it will not react in a way that would benefit the civil rights of the people. Operating from a position of weakness, it will seek to retrench its strength, through force if necessary. Anonymity means little in this scenario, as governments can simply round up all participants in protests and enact harsh punishments to deter future acts.
1Zetter, K., “Privacy Tool for Iranian Activists Disabled After Security Holes Exposed”, WIRED, 14 September 2010. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/09/haystack/
The West stands as the symbol of liberal democracy to which many political dissidents aspire in emulation. It is also, as a broad group, the primary expounder, propagator, and establisher of concepts and practices pertaining to human rights, both within and without their borders. The generation and dissemination of anonymity software into countries that are in the midst of, or are moving toward, uprising and revolution is critical to allowing those endeavours to succeed. This obligation still attains even when the technology does not yet exist, in the same way that the West often feels obligated to fund research into developing vaccines and other treatments for specifically external use, thus in 2001 the United States spent $133million on AIDS research through the National institutes of Health.1 The West thus has a clear duty to make some provision for getting that software to the people that need it, because it can secure the primary platform needed to build the groundswell to fight for their basic rights by ensuring its security and reliability.2 To not act in this way serves as a tacit condolence of the status quo of misery and brutality that sparks grassroots uprisings. If the West cares about civil liberties and human rights as true values that should be spread worldwide and not just political talking points, then it must adopt this policy.
1Alagiri, P. Et al., “Global Spending on HIV/AIDS Tackling Public and Private Investments in AIDS Prevention, Care, and Research”, July 2001. http://ari.ucsf.edu/science/reports/global_spending.pdf p.5
2Paul, I. and Zlutnick, D. “Networking Rebellion: Digital Policing and Revolt in the Arab Uprisings”. The Abolitionist. 29 August 2012. http://abolitionistpaper.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/networking-rebellion-digital-policing-and-revolt-in-the-arab-uprisings/
Western states, like all states, owe their primary responsibility to their own citizens, not those in a distant land claiming to be striving for common notions of rights. It is difficult for Western states to ascertain the actual motivations of the body of risers in any given scenario, let alone the motivations of specific individuals utilizing the technology. The West is not necessarily aiding seekers after freedom by providing this technology, but may rather be abetting crimes and violence worse than the regime being challenged. The nature of the technology is that it would have to be indiscriminate, making it unsuited to the task of aiding in the liberation of oppressed peoples.
The West has clear reasons to seek to provide the software necessary for anonymity to people involved in uprisings, and it has the means. Western countries are the most advanced technologically and have been the leaders in creating and developing the internet and thus they are best suited to producing and disseminating this technology. Firstly, as they are more advanced in software development, the products they distribute will be much more difficult for the target regimes’ to hack or subvert to their own advantage, or at least significantly more difficult to than were it produced in any other locale.1 Secondly, the efficient production of software requires special industry clusters. These exist almost exclusively in the West. Silicon Valley, for example is the high tech capital of the world, and were companies there incentivized to produce software for the participants of uprisings it would be a simple matter of efficient distribution, which these firms are best in the world at doing. The need for subsidy is also clear. People involved in uprisings tend not to have huge amounts of disposable income, so to date there has been little market for the production of these sorts of software devices. With a subsidy from Western governments the incentive is created and a top quality product that will save lives and make the uprising more likely to succeed is born.
1Paul, I. and Zlutnick, D. “Networking Rebellion: Digital Policing and Revolt in the Arab Uprisings”. The Abolitionist. 29 August 2012. http://abolitionistpaper.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/networking-rebellion-digital-policing-and-revolt-in-the-arab-uprisings/
All software can be hacked, even with cruder hardware and software. The ability of Chinese hackers to undermine businesses’ advanced firewalls in the United States, having demonstrated a potent ability to penetrate several major media companies.1 Products made in the West with government subsidy will just have a bloated price tag thanks to the extra costs of production in the West, and the tendency to overrun costs that tends to occur when government is involved. The incentive may not even be enough to persuade many software companies to work on such a project, as they will wish to maintain their markets in authorotarian states such as China which such an innitiative would annoy. China in particular has a history of blacklisting and retaliating against companies that are involved in activities that it sees as being against its national interests.
1Pakzad, X. “Depth of Cyber Attacks from Chinese Hackers on American News Outlets”. IVN. 9 February 2013. http://ivn.us/2013/02/09/depth-of-cyber-attacks-from-chinese-hackers-on-american-news-outlets/
By enacting this subsidy, the West makes a tacit public statement in favour of those involved in uprisings without coming out and publicly taking a side. This is a shrewd position to take as it blunts many of the fall-backs opposed regimes rely upon, such as blaming Western provocateurs for instigating the uprising. Rather than making a judgment call involving force or sanction, the simple provision of anonymity means the people involved in the uprisings can do it themselves while knowing they have some protections to fall back on that the West alone could provide. This is a purely enabling policy, giving activists on the group access to the freedom of information and expression, which aids not only in their aim to free themselves from tyranny, but also abets the West’s efforts to portray itself publicly as a proponent of justice for all, not just those it happens to favour as a geopolitical ally. In essence, the policy is a public statement of support for the ideas behind uprisings absent the specific taking of sides in a particular conflict. It throws some advantages to those seeking to rise up without undermining their cause through overbearing Western intervention. And that statement is a valuable one for Western states to make, because democracies tend to be more stable, more able to grow economically and socially in the long term, and are more amenable to trade and discourse with the West. By enacting this policy the West can succeed in this geopolitical aim without making the risers seem to be Western pawns.
Whether the West thinks it is being clever by hiding behind the intermediary of private companies and acting as if the software they are creating is not for use in destabilizing undemocratic, or perhaps just unfriendly, regimes, that story will not fly on the ground. If the west wants to support uprisings then it is better for it to do so in the open. Without open western support authoritarian regimes will feel they are enabled to crack down on uprisings when they occur. When such crackdowns occur democratic states can either stay silent and so tacitly endorse the regime or condemn it so supporting the uprising.
The technology of anonymity can have the effect of providing needed security to dissidents seeking to make their country a better place, but it is just as likely to provide cover for the violent opportunists that arise in the midst of the chaos. When the state is unable to locate the culprits, and even to sort between those who are dissidents from those who are mere criminals, everyone involved gets blamed for the worst excesses of the chaos, discrediting the people with legitimate claims. Anonymity is a dangerous tool to give anyone, but particularly so in the context of violent uprising where it can be taken up by anyone. All governments, even authoritarian ones, have a right to defend their citizens from violent criminals capitalizing on mayhem. Western governments only make the cause of justice, often a tenuous one in these countries, all the more likely to go undefended, as governments are forced to clamp down on everyone, and find excuse in the looters to discredit the entirety of uprising with the same brush of destruction. Worse still is the possibility that the technology could fall into the hands of dangerous groups such as terrorists and militants who might use the greater safety of anonymity to increase their reach and scope of violence so turning the software against its creators.
Regimes will paint everyone as looters and disturbers of order irrespective of anonymity. This software changes that status quo by offering the political dissidents, the real people regimes will be trying to root out during and in the aftermath of uprisings, a means of not falling immediately foul of the state security forces. They are the people that need protection in this scenario because it is on them that the success of the uprising and its ideals rest.
Reform in oppressive regimes, or ones that have less than stellar democratic and human rights records that might precipitate an uprising, is often slow in coming, and external pressures are generally looked upon with suspicion. The most effective way for Western countries to effect change is to engage with repressive regimes and to encourage them to reform their systems. By not directly antagonizing, but instead trading, talking, and generally building ties with countries, Western states can put to full use their massive economic power and political capital to good use in coaxing governments toward reform.1 Peaceful evolution toward democracy results in far less bloodshed and instability, and should thus be the priority for Western governments seeking to change the behaviour of states. Militant action invariably begets militant response. And providing a mechanism for armed and violent resistance to better evade the detection of the state could well be considered a militant action.
The only outcome that would arise from this policy is a regime that is far less well disposed to the ideas of the West. This is because those ideas now carry the weight of foreign governments seeking actively to destabilize and abet the overthrow of their regimes, which, unsurprisingly, they consider to be wholly legitimate. A policy of flouting national laws will demand a negative response from the regimes, leading them to take harsh measures, such as curtailing access to the internet at all in times of uprising, which would be a major blow to domestic dissidents who, even with heavy censorship, still rely on the internet to organize and share information. This action would serve simply to further impoverish the people of useful tools for organization and uprising, such as occurred in Russia when the government ejected American NGOs they perceived as trying to undermine the regime.2
1Larison, D. 2012. “Engagement is Not Appeasement”. The American Conservative. Available: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/engagement-is-not-appeasement/
2Brunwasser, M. “Russia Boots USAID in a Big Blow to Obama’s ‘Reset’ Policy”. September 2012. http://www.theworld.org/2012/09/russia-boots-usaid-in-a-big-blow-to-obamas-reset-policy/
It is often not enough simply to encourage gradual change, many states when given such encouragement simply take what the west offers and ignores what the west asks. This indeed was the case with Mubarak's Egypt for three decades, it took billions in aid from the United States yet did not reform, the U.S. even strengthened the regime by respecting restrictions on which NGOs could get funding.1 If people are able to act and organize with more limited government reprisal, their chance of success is significantly increased. The incentive of the West should be to bet on the dissidents when they rise up and to take the gamble so that they can welcome a new, freer regime into the congress of nations.
1Bery, S., “Roots of Discontent: Egypt's Call for Freedom”, Harvard Kennedy School Review, 2011. http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k74756&tabgroupid=icb.tabgroup124714
The fact that dissidents can be conflated with other rioters gives real power to the government to discredit the uprising. Firstly, they can report the rioting and looting in tandem with the uprising, as they hide behind anonymity, making it difficult to ascertain specific agents and their directives. Secondly, the regime can identify the West as the instigator of the unrest. This is what Iran’s leaders did during the Green Revolution, when it blamed the foreign tools of dissent like Twitter and other social media for aiding in the rebel protests.1 This two-pronged attack can be used to drive a wedge between the general public and the leaders and primary agents of dissent seeking to build a broad base of support, a necessary prerequisite for an uprising to succeed. While anonymity gives some ability for individual leaders to hide themselves in the crowd, they lose their moral authority and impact when they can be easily construed as cowardly Western-backed agénts provocateur.
1Flock, E., “Iran Gets Back E-mail Access, But Other Sites Remain Blacked Out Ahead of Protest”. Washington Post. 13 February 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/iran-gets-back-e-mail-access-but-other-sites-remain-blacked-out-ahead-of-protest/2012/02/13/gIQAgxz5AR_blog.html
In an uprising the government is going to try to level lots of accusations. Some will stick, some will not. In this case the government has a touch more ammunition on the anti-Western front, but this is entirely overwhelmed by the boon of protecting the leaders and organizers, who are at greatest risk using the social media needed to coordinate the uprising, and are the most essential to a successful outcome. The benefits of providing anonymity clearly outweigh the tangential costs of giving a bit more mud to the government to sling.
The Western firms being incentivized to produce and distribute this software will require at least some market penetration to be able to reach these dissidents. This means they have business interests in these countries that may well be important to their own bottom line and to jobs back home. Putting these relationships and long-standing business arrangements at risk through a risky gamble like software specifically to help rebels is foolhardy. When regimes that are the target of these efforts get wind of these efforts, they will no doubt sever ties, damaging long term business interests, which is particularly damaging considering it is in authoritarian regimes like China and Vietnam that technology companies see the greatest room for growth.1 The illusory benefits of catalysing regime change are far outweighed by the huge potential business costs. Furthermore, the ability of businesses to help effect change in these countries is hampered by this policy. It is the business interests linked directly into these economies that generate the most sharing of ideas and principles. It is through these channels that eventual reforms shall flow. It is best not to cut the tap for an all-or-nothing play.
1The Star Online. “Intel Upbeat on South-East Asia, Sees Double-Digit Growth for Processor Manufacture Next Year”. 12 November 2012. http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2012/12/11/business/12441053&sec=business
Engagement will still occur. The software exists to aid in uprisings, which is the endpoint of the regime, or at least a signal of its imminent change. It is a play that Western governments should back on a human as well as political level. The subsidies and incentives, furthermore, can be sufficient to compensate companies if things do indeed go sour. This would be expected, in fact, since the companies, acting rationally will have to be coaxed into producing and supplying this technology.
Bery, S., “Roots of Discontent: Egypt's Call for Freedom”, Harvard Kennedy School Review, 2011. http://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k74756&tabgroupid=icb.tabgroup124714
Brunwasser, M. “Russia Boots USAID in a Big Blow to Obama’s ‘Reset’ Policy”. September 2012. http://www.theworld.org/2012/09/russia-boots-usaid-in-a-big-blow-to-obamas-reset-policy/
Clinton, H. “Conference on Internet Freedom”. 2011. http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/12/178511.htm
Clinton, H., ‘Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Speech on Internet Freedom *updated*’, Secretaryclinton, 15 February 2011, http://secretaryclinton.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/secretary-of-state-hillary-clintons-speech-on-internet-freedom/
Flock, E., “Iran Gets Back E-mail Access, But Other Sites Remain Blacked Out Ahead of Protest”. Washington Post. 13 February 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/iran-gets-back-e-mail-access-but-other-sites-remain-blacked-out-ahead-of-protest/2012/02/13/gIQAgxz5AR_blog.html
Larison, D. 2012. “Engagement is Not Appeasement”. The American Conservative. Available: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/larison/engagement-is-not-appeasement/
Moran, R., “Noted Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey apparently arrested (update: Sandmonkey Released)”, American Thinker, 3 February 2011. http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2011/02/noted_egyptian_blogger_sandmon.html
Pakzad, X. “Depth of Cyber Attacks from Chinese Hackers on American News Outlets”. IVN. 9 February 2013. http://ivn.us/2013/02/09/depth-of-cyber-attacks-from-chinese-hackers-on-american-news-outlets/
Paul, I. and Zlutnick, D. “Networking Rebellion: Digital Policing and Revolt in the Arab Uprisings”. The Abolitionist. 29 August 2012. http://abolitionistpaper.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/networking-rebellion-digital-policing-and-revolt-in-the-arab-uprisings/
The Star Online. “Intel Upbeat on South-East Asia, Sees Double-Digit Growth for Processor Manufacture Next Year”. 12 November 2012. http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2012/12/11/business/12441053&sec=business
“Tor: Overview”, Tor. https://www.torproject.org/about/overview.html.en
Zetter, K., “Privacy Tool for Iranian Activists Disabled After Security Holes Exposed”, WIRED, 14 September 2010. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/09/haystack/
Zuckerman, E. “The First Twitter Revolution?”. Foreign Policy. 14 January 2011. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/14/the_first_twitter_revolution