Tag Archives: censorship

Shanghai and Small Mercies

The Bund, Shanghai

Just arrived in Shanghai this afternoon and checked in to a lovely hotel on the The Bund and overlooking the Huangpu river. You see the view from my room above. Quite nice.

First impressions of Shanghai is nothing short of “wow” mixed in with “oh shit!” and an occasional “daaaaamn!”. Let me explain:

From the air, the city looks very modern as evidenced by the factories, parcels of land, channels, and other man made structures. Tidy, clean, modern and spiffy. This is further strengthened when you land in their airport – which must be one of the quietest in the world, and certainly one of the best organised. We were off the airplane, through a very orderly immigration line and onward to collect the bags without a hitch whatsoever. I was worried that my luggage will be lost as my connection in Doha was a mere 40 minutes, but Qatar Airways came through again, and the flight was quite pleasant. Bags of space, but the food, unfortunately, was terrible. Can’t complain too much though, I’ve had a solid 7 – 8 hours of sleep!

Back to China. I’m here as part of a delegation from the EO Bahrain chapter for a Global Leadership Conference. I’ve arrived a day early but fortunately an EO colleague and friend, Faisal Alireza, was on the plane with me. He had the foresight to book a car to take him to the hotel and offered me a ride, which was very kind, but my much anticipated MagLev experience will have to wait for a few days. Off we went in a latest model Merc limo, which was the cause of the “oh shit!” experience.

The roads from the airport are modern, wide, well routed with nary a bloody roundabout or traffic light in sight. You would think that one would generally put the foot down and compete with the 8-minute-431kph-ride of the MagLev to town. But, human nature comes between that ideal and reality. The driver was amicable enough, but boy he must’ve been completely understanding of Schumi “nudging” Villeneuve in that Australian F1 race to get his racing line! And he’s not alone! Drivers here across the board – yes, I’m generalising – are bonking mad! Their over-riding mantra seems to be I’m in a hurry and to hell with everyone else. They’re driving ultra-expensive cars haphazardly and if they don’t see gaps to squeeze their cars into, go ahead and create the blasted things! They do signal though, and as everyone knows, if one does signal, then one DOES have the right of way! Does that remind you of Bahrain? Of course it does, but to be completely fair, I suggest that we’re a few notches better than the drivers here. Drivers in Shanghai take a gap as a challenge: if you don’t take it then you’re a pussy.

We arrived at the hotel. Absolute luxury that would put the Ritz in Bahrain and other luxury hotels in the Gulf to shame. Half the staff seem to be waiting outside to welcome guests – with smiles! – unbelievable! Get into the lobby to be once again received with smiles and clear professionalism. The check-in process took under five minutes and up to the room I went to be greeted with the view you see above. Not bad.

I was looking forward to check in with the office, pay attention to the email, and the usual haunts before I hit the shower, so out comes the laptop and connected to the wireless Internet without a hitch. The price per day is reasonable enough and the happy thing about it is that it is FAST! Unfortunately, I discovered soon enough that that speed is a trade-off. My usual haunts of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube amongst probably other social media networks is blocked! Damn and double damn.

Might as well get the chisel and tablet out for the duration then, speed or no speed… the Internet here is severely crippled. Thank “godness” that we haven’t reached that stage back home yet.

Small mercies I guess…

The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens?

Thanks Robert!

“It’s a snafu, honest!”

BAHRAINI authorities yesterday claimed to have blocked a number of websites and blogs by mistake.

The Information Affairs Authority (IAA) claimed a technical error resulted in blocking of several sites, but said in a statement it was fixing the problem.

[...]

She said her site www.sillybahrainigirl.blogspot.com was blocked on Tuesday after being incorrectly categorised as pornographic, but she was told during a meeting at the IAA yesterday that it would soon be accessible.

GDN

Oh yes, we believe that. What’s worse I wonder, their ignorance of how the Internet filters work after spending tens if not hundreds of thousands of Dinars on them, leaving these systems to be configured and run remotely by a foreign power, or this blatant convoluted lie they’ve thrown into the press this morning quoted within the same article above that:

“The increasing number of blogs and websites indicates freedom of expression in the country,” it said.

Huh? There are almost no bloggers left! They’ve either migrated to Facebook or Twitter or evaluated the situation far too tenuous, fickle and dangerous to continue to expose their personal thoughts especially after the apprehension and alleged torture of our dear friend Ali Abdulemam?

If they did really respect freedom of expression, Ali Abdulemam would have never been apprehended, and the thousands of sites blocked at their whimsical behest would have been unblocked. So spare us the violins, we’ve heard this broken record over and over again.

But then wait… while the Information Authority (neé Ministry of Disinformation) is “doing us a favour” and unblocking Amira’s blog, their next door neighbour (by coincidence of course!) the information intelligence agency, which is imaginatively named the Central Informatics Organisation / CIO – has come out in a press conference reported in the very same paper today assuring us that it spending BD800,000 in creating a “single login architecture” for every citizen wishing to access the various government websites and services, will be presumably secure enough too, and hopefully not require too much remote tweaking by the Singaporean vendors.

BD800,000 – that’s 2.1 million greenbacks to the uninitiated – will solve a problem which has never existed! Talk about fixing something that ain’t broke.

I guess as the new new National Authentication Framework – aka, NAF (seriously? did they even look up this unfortunate acronym up?)’s going to:

“The whole purpose of this project is to unify e-services by providing a single authentication profile for users,” Cabinet Affairs Minister Shaikh Ahmed bin Ateyatala Al Khalifa told a Press conference at the Mšvenpick Hotel yesterday.

I thought we had the much vaulted CPR number for that, didn’t we? Or is that old hat now and requires some re-engineering, maybe put in yet another uber-spy-chip to make us feel even more secure? What’s wrong with us using our CPR numbers to access those so called services? Didn’t they spend a humengous amount with yet another foreign firm to bring out these new chipped CPR cards which were supposedly going to be the be-all and end-all for personal transactional processing, even – listen to this – using the card to log in to services using the very same chip introduced?

Whatever.

We’ll probably see these schemes mentioned in next year’s Audit Report… along with yet another brand new unneeded scheme dreamt up by the CIO (or a good salesman maybe) to the tune of hundreds of thousands of Dinars.

amira-alhussaini-550

Another site blocked in Bahrain

With the strange blocking of Silly Bahraini Girl, I can no longer speculate as to what the government’s policy, standards or strategy employed other than a heavy handed approach in stifling speech and them hoping – or actually believing – that such methods actually work in this day and age.

Amira Al-Hussaini’s blog’s content is varied but none of it threatens national security. Unless of course the escapades of Persian kittens are constituted as such!

Amira is one resounding voice in and of the Arab world. Being the Regional Editor for the Middle East and North Africa for Global Voices, a published Huffington Post contributor, she has a resolute finger on the pulse of the Arab world. Apart from her being previously a journalist for some 17 years with the Gulf Daily News, the English language national daily in Bahrain, one would be hard pressed to find a better person to represent Bahrain as well as the larger Arab world. As to her character, all one needs to do is read some of the comments her readers enter on her articles, or read what her peers think of her. Apart from her writing, she is frequently involved in international symposiums and workshops as a leading feminist, journalist and writer.

So one is put to task to think of a logical reason for such a move by the government. Is it a genuine mistake by a functionary who wrongly entered this particular blog into the burgeoning blocked sites list? Or is it another concerted effort at censorship? Or is this a message being sent to Amira: be careful! The problem is, when they block a site, they never tell the webmaster, blogger or author why the block has happened. And why should they? Legally, they do not have to explain their reasoning to anyone. All it takes is a ministerial order. There is no reason to use the legal framework that this country continues to do a big song and dance about. They don’t need to get authorisation from a public prosecutor nor do they need to submit reasons to a judge. The fallacy of a “state of laws and institutions” continues, and because of this oft-repeated statement, the lie is transformed into an abject truth. Freedom of expression be damned, and so are human rights.

However, assuming the best and giving the government the benefit of the doubt, again, I clicked on that link to submit a request for unblocking the site, and entered my reasons for doing so:

Hoping for the best, a clicked the “Unblock” button. But in a demonstration of misplaced trust and undeserved benefit of the doubt, I got this:

Due to the fact that I have been faced with the exact same result when requesting the unblocking of every site I visited which presented me with that asinine blocked screen since its inception a few years ago, I am left with no alternative but to think that the unblock link is just decoration and the requests will never be taken seriously. They are there for cheap eye-candy and to fool the simple.

But even the simple if faced with a hurdle thrown in the path of their destination will find a way to circumvent it, and it’s oh so easy to do now that the vast majority of Internet users in Bahrain already have various tools to circumvent these idiotic blocks.

So who benefits? Who benefits from the government spending millions of much needed currency on filtering technologies? Who benefits from the installation of filtered caches which attempt to create a block but the only thing they succeed in is the delayed access to stale information? Who benefits from the anger these blocks generate, and who benefits from the utter frustration that drives much needed investment – both local and foreign – away due to archaic application of blanket punishments? And who benefits from the uncertainty of censorship haphazardly and unnecessarily applied?

I’m certain it’s neither the government, nor the people of this great country.

It’s possibly a few misguided ancient megalomaniacs for whom the basic of redundant communication that is the Internet is all about.

Bahrain redefines the WWW

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. A new information Tzar at the helm of the “Information Authority” (or if you prefer, the Misery of Information redux); hence, the very first thing which happens is…. yes, you guessed it: ban some web sites, blogs and even political society websites. All that just ahead of the national elections too. Brilliant. The excuse for closing them is not different from all the previous occasions; however, the new new thing is…

أكد عضو الأمانة العامة في جمعية الوفاق الوطني الإسلامية محمد المزعل، أن رئيس هيئة شئون الإعلام الشيخ فواز بن محمد آل خليفة أبلغه بأن إزالة الحظر عن موقع الوفاق الإلكتروني مرهون بوقف بث المواد الفيلمية والصوتية
على الموقع، والتي تأتي في إطار البث المباشر لفعاليات الوفاق، الذي أعلنت عنه قبل أيام وأطلقت عليه اسم «الوفاق TV».

 

قال المزعل: «الشيخ فواز اعتبر أن إعلان الوفاق عن إطلاق بث تلفزيوني على موقعها الإلكتروني مخالفاً للقانون، ووعد بأنه في حال إلغاء هذا النوع من البث سيتم إلغاء الحظر عن الموقع الإلكتروني في اليوم نفسه»، وأضاف «من جهتي أبلغت الأمانة العامة للجمعية بما أكده الشيخ فواز وهي بدورها ستقوم بدراسة الموضوع للرد على الهيئة»

Al-Wasat – 5 Sept 2010

 

The Information Authority stipulates the removal of the live broadcasting functionality from alwefaq.tv in order to reestablish access to Al-Wefaq’s website

According to Mohammed Al-Mizaal, an Al-Wefaq secretariat member, the head of the Information Authority Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa told him tha the removal o the ban on the Al-Wefaq’s website is subject to them stopping the live broadcasting of video and audio on their site, as has been recently announced which the society dubbed “Al-Wefaq TV”

Al-Mizaal said that he was told by Shaikh Fawaz that Al-Wefaq’s announcing this functionality is unlawful and that once Al-Wefaq rescinds that decision, the website will be unblocked on the same day. Al-Mizaal informed the secretariat which will in turn study the situation before tendering their response to the Authority.

Shaikh Fawaz didn’t come with anything new as he re-iterated what Dr. Abdulla Yateem, the Undersecretary of Press & Publications has previously said about a recent similar recent incident when he warned another website not to use the term “broadcast” or “TV” in advertising its functionally.

Worrying, isn’t it? On several levels. One that it doesn’t seem to matter who the minister or head is, the policy never changes, we’ve gone through more than 5 ministers in that ministry, and all have toed a very similar line. The second, which is more dangerous and unwieldy is that what was supposed to be a World Wide Web, something which was supposed to shrink the world into a small informationally-connected village, is, as far as Bahrain is currently concerned, is more like a “WALLED Wide Web” with only the sanctioned and sanctified information allowed to be seen, heard and interacted with. And thus, another window of opportunity for innovation is resolutely shut.

Quite unfortunate really. The whole Internet now is about rich content. About interactive video, gaming, animation, and live programing one could access from a simple smart phone through to affordable personal computers, allowing people to connect with each other, building bridges and crossing cultures increasing world understanding which is the bedrock of peace. Yet, in our country what we find are high walls being continuously built to deter people from even approaching the possibility of cross-cultural understanding.

Is it then a surprise that we continue to be a physical and virtual island in the midst of a highly connected world? What does an action like this tell the world about us? A retarded and afraid society unwilling to open up to the world? Or does it really only reflect badly on the government as the will, tools and knowledge are widely and readily available to all and sundry in Bahrain with which the circumvention of those unreasonable walls is easily achieved?

I once again urge the government to rethink its Internet strategies and take the courageous steps to ensure easy and unfettered access, because it has been proven once and again that none of the adopted measures so far actually worked, and they never will.


Blogged at above 40,000 feet, in an American Airlines 767 with integrated and uncensored WiFi Internet connectivity flying from San Francisco to New York on Sept 5th, 2010.

It started with Blackberry, but now Skype and Google are in the sights

Hate to say that I told you so, but indications are now heating up to target any secure platform with demands of open access by the so called security services:

As Research In Motion faces an increasingly public dispute with several countries over the ability to monitor communication on its BlackBerry devices, virtually all other major technology communications companies have remained silent on the issue. That may soon change: RIM is likely just the first test case.

The government of India indicated yesterday that RIM isn’t the only company from which it will demand greater monitoring access. State authorities listed Internet phone company Skype SA and Google Inc., provider of the wildly popular Gmail service, as targets.

The move signals that the issue of monitoring data traffic goes far beyond RIM’s encrypted BlackBerrys – and probably has more to do with a looming collision between the advance of digital communication and the security demands of the state than with the Ontario company’s technology.

The Globe & Mail

What’s amazing about this situation is that it will come to pass. It will be condoned and even readily accepted in a few days time. People have become immune to state interference in every facet of their lives, easily sold into the haze of “security” – what it actually is a perverted use of the security ogre to gain access to peoples’ lives.

I don’t mind if this access was required and mandated by legitimate security concerns. I wouldn’t even mind if there was a trusted legal structure in the countries requiring access which protects the gained information and protects against its improper and illegal use. Sadly, none of our countries – the Arab and Muslim world – has anything close to this requirement.

So the wheels are resolutely turning. Against normal people and for various security services. Services who are ungoverned and mostly above the law. Services which are archaic, improperly staffed and completely outdated. Services whose only contribution to the country of their residence is the attempted depletion of the columns of the unemployable. In ours, even that privilege is diverted elsewhere, in true “Athari” style.

The essence is, my friends, is that the so called “security agencies” we are “blessed” with, are ill-suited to challenges of this day and age. And with their refusal to change or even attempt to understand the modern psyche and connectiveness, and with the unabashed aid and support given to them by the ambiguous, partial and directed judicial systems, all of which are resoundingly playing into the bosoms of corrupt political systems, how can we but expect a calamity in the offing?

Look, it’s too much to hope for business (RIM, Apple, Google, Skype, etc) to side with “us”, even though we are their ultimate benefactors. It is governments and political institutions which stand between their products and our pockets. They’re not going to “stand their ground” and state that they’re not going to give away the keys to unlock our privacy. Mark my words, they will. RIM seems to have done so already in the big K. of S. A. and it will in all the other situations too quite readily – okay, they’ll moan and groan and act like a teenage virgin welcoming being ravished, but coyly mind you, at least to seem respectable and not too easy, RIM – as will Skype et al – will ultimately bend over and lube up.

What’s the solution?

I offer you none. Other than to direct you to Open Source. At least with no exclusive economic motive behind those products, and with the varied and disparate developers, maybe, just maybe we can delay the advent of our total violation.

Privacy, my friends, is gone.

The Blackberry Ban

Bahrain started it. UAE happily followed, and of course Saudi rushes headlong into the gap and slaps an apparent full ban on the Blackberry services. Now, one country after another is announcing or at least mulling how they too can find an excuse to apply their band on a service that has revolutionised how people communicate on the go.

The scariest device so far invented to authoritarian regimes?

The ever [wannabe] creative Lebanon now ups the anti a bit further, and says that it’s mulling banning the Blackberry services because:

the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority chairman said Beirut will assess security concerns about the smartphones following the arrest of several telecoms employees suspected of spying for Israel. AFP/MSN

There you go, now the remaining 18 Arab countries will all be “contemplating” and many Muslim countries in our illustrious Umma will take this lead (which now officially contains the required passwords: spying and Israel) and will run with it. But they won’t stop at banning Blackberry services, oh no, as their intention is to cut us off from knowledge, choice and the rest of the world, they will expedite their encroachment on curtailing the Internet under this and many other guises.

If we pause a little and try to think about this latest situation rationally, I think one thing which is not said will ultimately be understood: our countries are built on notions of Big Brother. From the way that the religion is applied through to the current crop of political systems, they are all built on the state’s requirement to know every single insignificant thing we do and even think! Their security apparatus is built to serve that requirement, watching every single subject (we really don’t have any “citizens” in our countries, just subjects) is watched. They know every single thing we do, good and bad, and am sure that should they wish, they can blackmail us with information in their files, something that they’re not too shy about doing, and of course, regard for the country’s image in international spheres is immaterial.

With the advent of encryption such as those used by Blackberry and other devices, they suddenly realised that they no longer have immediate access to that information pipe. No matter how much money they throw at decryption and monitoring devices, it’ll take those devices a long time to decode messages, and if and when they do, that piece of information’s useful life would have already expired.

I’m sort of glad that the people who are put in charge of the security apparatus in our countries, are almost always political appointees. Almost no consideration is ever really given to appointee’s technical knowledge, management expertise or even common sense. Loyalty and the ability of the guiltless application of brute and overwhelming force on the other hand, are the top considerations. Therefore, it’s natural that high technology was not molested beyond the usual ham-fisted bans on the usual ogre: block dissenting sites and obfuscate the ban with imbecilic explanations as “corrupting the youth” or “pornographic” or “anti-Muslim” or “anti-Culture”. Of course, these blocks are easily circumvented, thus showing the frivolity of the tools employed to effect the ban, and much more importantly, demonstrates their complete misunderstanding of how the Internet actually works.

It’s too much to hope that with this latest brouhaha around the Blackberry services that they’re starting to actually understand how things work. Not by a long shot. They once again applied 18th century brute-force and blackmail methods to try to “solve” a 21st century technology. These countries’ resort to threats against the Blackberry, apart from making us all as Arab and Muslim human beings the deserved laughing stock of the world, have increased the animosity and disdain the world holds us in.

What is it that the RIM chief said?

“This is about the Internet,” Mr. Lazaridis said. “Everything on the Internet is encrypted. This is not a BlackBerry-only issue. If they can’t deal with the Internet, they should shut it off.” WSJ.com – 5 Aug 2010

Indeed.

If they can’t deal with the Internet, they should shut it off.

And they shall. Given half a chance. And you know what, the sheep that we have been conditioned to be over centuries will just take it in our stride, won’t complain, and will actually start suggesting “alternatives” and that we don’t need the “Western model of the Internet. We’re going to do our own Islamically sanctified version which – by the grace of Allah – will be much better and more secure than the Western decadent version.”

And our incumbent telecoms company seems to be doing just that, or at least preparing for that eventuality:

Batelco responds to Blackberry Customers Concerns about possible Suspension of Service

In response to continued speculation, Batelco has announced that it is working to ensure that any inconvenience will be minimized for its Blackberry customers if Batelco is directed to suspend some Blackberry services such as the popular messenger or email.

“We want to assure all our Blackberry customers that Batelco is working on alternative offers to minimize any inconvenience should some services be suspended,” said Batelco Group General Manager Media Relations Ahmed Al Janahi.

“We will fully comply with any directive to suspend some Blackberry services, should such be issued, as this is a legal obligation on Batelco,” continued Mr. Al Janahi.

“It’s not proper to speculate what the specific alternative offers will be at this stage. Our Marketing and Sales teams are finalizing such offers. We believe that no Batelco customer should be financially penalized if limitations are placed on some Blackberry services – we will address all customers’ concerns as quickly as practicable,” he stated.

Batelco confirmed that no formal directive has been received to date.

“At this stage it is prudent to plan for such a scenario and proactively inform our customers to minimize any concerns they may have. Our commitment to our customers is that we will minimize their inconvenience,” concluded Mr. Al Janahi.

All updates on this matter will be posted on our website http://www.batelco.com/blackberryupdate

What did you expect? They release a statement contesting the ban on the basis of unconstitutionality and the direct negative consequence to their shareholders’ profitability? Do you really expect that any other operator in our country would do such a thing? No of course not. They’ll continue to submissively acquiesce to governmental dictates, regardless of how farcical they are. The situation is very much the same – or actually worse – in every other Arab country. Without exception.

So what are we to do?

  • I would suggest that we secure ALL of our electronic communications: you want to surf? put an “s” in the URL and surf securely. Almost all sites will have this already enabled and you would be able to access a site if you use “http://” or “https://” – try it, it’s the easiest thing to do.
  • If that doesn’t work, use a Virtual Private Network tunnel to access the Internet and send/receive your email – VPN uses encryption which is hard to break
  • Surf the Net using a program like Hotspot Shield, if you find this link blocked, you now know why! By the way, as this application uses VPN to “hide” your source and destinations, it’s an effective application to circumvent website blocks. Surf to your heart’s content!
  • Encrypt your email

What else is there that you can do as a human being who respects himself? Easy, send a short email or fax to the TRA or whatever government organisation overseeing telecommunications in your country. Simple tell them that as a “citizen” you oppose any governmental interference to access to information, including the blocking of services or websites. If enough people do this, they might – just might – put public opposition in their psyche and they might – just might – think a little longer before blocking a site or service. Even if they don’t, at least YOU have done YOUR duty.

In Bahrain, please send an email to the TRA at the following address:

Telephone: 80088888
Fax: 17532523
e-mail: consumer@tra.org.bh

A sample letter might contain the following:

Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Al-Amer
Chairman
Telecommunications Regulatory Authority
Kingdom of Bahrain

6 August 2010

Dear sir,

I believe that the only way that our country can prosper in a highly competitive global environment is by its clear and unequivocal adoption of modern and secure communication technologies, unencumbered with governmental control.

Therefore, I strongly urge you to remove any ban applied to websites, data communication ports or communication devices’ services and refuse the application of such restrictions should they not be demonstrably and justifiably obtained through the respected judicial apparatus, always keeping in mind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its attendant rights to access to information. Doing so, the TRA will indeed go a long way into establishing a communications environment that enriches the social and commercial fabric of the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Yours sincerely,

Your Name
Address

UPDATE: Bahraini Crown Prince Shaikh Salman Al-Khalifa weighs in on the debate and terms those who block BBM services as “Ignorant, short sighted and unenforceable.” via FM @khalidalkhalifa Twitter account:

Crown prince Salman personally insuring that BBM service will not stop.”Decision to stop it is ignorant,short sighted and unenforceable”

Good! Excellent! Now let’s take this to the next step and codify it so that no one else dares suggest it in the future. And while on the subject, it’s high time to approve the new Press & Publications law which enshrines freedom of the press, unblock the thousands of sites which are administratively banned and ensure that any further website blocks are only done via the judiciary (and not administratively) and unblock the “Breaking News” service on BlackBerries which has been blocked earlier.