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Archive for the ‘International’ Category


Program Think

I admit that, post-EFF, when I read about some terrible Internet regulatory proposal, or knotty problem of digital ethics, I often have a burst of “well, thank goodness it’s someone else’s job to deal with this now.” (Except for the narrower domain that is still my problem, I guess).

And then again, sometimes, I just feel the same pain as before. I read this article today, on a Chinese cybersecurity worker, jailed for seven years for a crime the authorities wouldn’t disclose, even to his wife. She is pretty sure she has finally worked out what that crime was: her was Program Think, a prolific anonymous blogger whose postings stopped the day before her husband was arrested:

The freewheeling blog offered a mixture of technical cybersecurity advice and scathing political commentary – including tips on how to safely circumvent China’s Great Firewall of internet censorship, develop critical thinking and resist the increasingly totalitarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

The blogger took pride in their ability to cover their digital tracks and avoid getting caught – even as a growing number of government critics were ensnared in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s strident crackdown on dissent.

Working on EFF’s international team and before that at CPJ, Program Think has a familiar feeling: the independent, “arrogant” techy, staying up all night to write because something is not only wrong on the Internet, but wrong in the country, too. We still tend to characterize them as bloggers, but before, during, and after peak blogging, they were also independent journalists, and writers, and cranks, and nobodies, and brilliant alternative voices.

Popular sympathy about this kind of character has faded recently in the West, but they do keep typing. I have a lot of criticism of the U.S., Europe, and much of the rest of the world too, but I’m relieved that I’m somewhere where seven year sentences’ for writing what you think is not culturally accepted, isn’t coded into the law, and is recognized as an aberration by the majority of the establishment, and almost certainly the population too.

“Since June 2009, (Ruan) has used his computer to write more than a hundred seditious articles that spread rumors and slander, attack and smear the country’s current political system, incite subversion of state power, and intent to overthrow the socialist system,” the court verdict said.

It added that the articles, published on overseas platforms, attracted “a large number of internet users to read, comment and share, causing pernicious consequences.”

Program Think’s archive is still available, on blogspot.


On the Thoughts of Chairman Bruce

So I’m reading the latest missive from Chairman Bruce Sterling about Snowden and Assange, and even though I have some history with the guy, I’m clapping along, because he always writes a fine barnstormer.

Then, like Cory, I get pulled up by this bit. He’s reeling off a list of names, from 7iber to Bytes For All. I recognise them. They’re a list of activist groups I work with. The names are from a project I’m working on.

This what he says about those groups, in passing:

Just look at them all, and that’s just the A’s and B’s… Obviously, a planetary host of actively concerned and politically connected people. Among this buzzing horde of eager online activists from a swarm of nations, what did any of them actually do for Snowden? Nothing.

Before Snowden showed up from a red-eye flight from Hawaii, did they have the least idea what was actually going on with the hardware of their beloved Internet? Not a clue. They’ve been living in a pitiful dream world where their imaginary rule of law applies to an electronic frontier — a frontier being, by definition, a place that never had any laws.

Well, let’s go through the Chairman’s list alphabetically, and see if they have any excuse for their lack of aid and woeful ignorance about the electronic frontier.

First on the list, 7iber works in Amman, Jordan. 7iber is so politically-connected that their own government banned them last month from Jordan’s domestic Internet. I’m not sure reaching out to them was ever going to nab Snowden a safe harbor in the Middle-East. Probably the opposite: after all, they were were one of the groups translating Wikileaks into Arabic back in 2010, which didn’t exactly endear them to the local states.

Next up, Access. Access has a base in the United States, where aiding Snowden would get you hauled in for questioning on an espionage charge. I note they’ve been in such “a pitiful dream world” about the rule of law they spent a sizeable chunk of the last few years campaigning (with EFF and CPJ and many others) to get https turned on for a huge chunk of the Internet, thereby protecting it — I’m sure entirely accidentally — from unlawful NSA taps. You know, the ones that EFF has been telling people about since 2006.

Similarly, must be incredibly ignorant about the surveillance state, given that it’s been investigating and whistleblowing on the Russian and American security service for 13 years. Enough to be detained and questioned several times by Russia’s secret police.

But hey, that’s just words on the Internet, right? What we really need is less of that online guff, and more direction action, right? Like our next witness, Aktion Freiheit statt Angst, who have been protesting surveillance in Germany since 2006, when they inspired 15,000 people onto the streets of Berlin.

Maybe you can explain to them how they can better make the security state a bigger issue in Germany this year on September 7th, at Potsdamerplatz. I can’t imagine any of those people will be agitating for better treatment for Bradley Manning or Snowden this year.

Moving on: here’s a pic from those NGO types at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

That’s the back of Nabeel Rajab. He sort of knows a little about the surveillance state, because his electronic communications and phones were monitored after receiving this beating from the Bahraini government.He’s been imprisoned in part for his work on social networks.

Besides the imprisonment of Rajab, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights in general also has some idea about the risks of Internet surveillance, because elevenother  twitter users in that country have been jailed because of anonymous tweets that were tracked by sending them malicious web addresses. Here’s their detailed report. Note that that particular report ends with an explanation of how you can defeat that kind of surveillance. You know, apart from that delusional rule of law.

Wrapping up those As and Bs, Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All are both conducting the most sustained and brilliant work I’ve seen in advocacy, fighting against surveillance and censorship in one of the countries most determinedly targeted by both its own government and the United States for anti-terrorist action: Pakistan.

The idea that these groups, who are fighting to keep the Internet defended in their own country, are supposed to drop their grassroots activism and start, I don’t know, hob-nobbing the people they are actively opposing in their own states to get Snowden a break, or have any illusions about the rule of law on the Internet right now, betrays a profound misunderstand about what digital activists actually do these days.

Online activists these days do policy work, but they do a lot more than that. They have to do a lot more than that, because these days what we do in the “electronic civ lib” world is actually defend real people targetted by this surveillance. It’s been like that since around about 2008, when all of this deeply stopped being theoretical. Because it’s around that time that we all started getting friends and colleagues on government watchlists, or getting thrown in jail as a result of surveillance or Internet activity.

And it’s weird that Bruce doesn’t know that things got this weird five years ago, because ten years ago, he predicted at least part of it. Here’s how another of his barnstormers, this time in 2002, to the O’Reilly Open Source Convention.

In times of adversity, you learn who your friends are. You guys need a lot of friends. You need friends in all walks of life. Pretty soon, you are going to graduate from the status of techie geeks to official dissidents. This is your fate. People are wasting time on dissident relics like Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky is a pretty good dissident: he’s persistent, he means what he says, and he’s certainly very courageous, but this is the 21st century, and Stallman is a bigger deal. Lawrence Lessig is a bigger deal.

Y’know, Lawrence, he likes to talk as if all is lost. He thinks we ought to rise up against Disney like the Serbians attacking Milosevic. He expects the population to take to the streets. Fuck the streets. Take to the routers. Take to the warchalk.

Lawrence needs to talk to real dissidents more. He needs to talk to some East European people. When a crackdown comes, that isn’t the end of the story. That’s the start of a dissident’s story. And this isn’t about fat-cat crooks in our Congress who are on the take from the Mouse. This is about global civil society. It’s Globalution.

Okay, that’s a bit over the top, even for a 2002 O’Reilly audience. But hey, a classic Sterling coinage! It’s “globalution”!

In the end, it wasn’t Lessig who got cracked down on by the US government. Ridiculous idea! No, it was his colleague, Aaron. Here they are at the time. They were both at that conference. Aaron left early, and so I think he missed that speech.  He blogged about it though.

Bruce continues:

I like to think I’m one of your friends. That’s easy enough to say. But one of the true delights of the world of free software is that it’s about deeds, not words. It’s about words that become deeds when they’re in the box.

So, I remember when the Bradley Manning story broke. Here’s Bruce’s words (and deeds) at the time, when the techie geek finally and horribly graduated to official dissident:

Bradley Manning, was a bored, resentful, lower-echelon guy in a dead end, who discovered some awesome capacities in his system that his bosses never knew it had… [People just like Manning] are banal. Bradley Manning is a young, mildly brainy, unworldly American guy who probably would have been pretty much okay if he’d been left alone to skateboard, read comic books and listen to techno music.


In 1998, I was one of a handful of fresh-faced newly-minted cypherpunk activists in the UK, trying ineptly to stop the roller-coaster of the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (and in particular the bit that would outlaw strong encryption in the UK) from being passed.

Doing this kind of tech activism outside the United States was, and frankly still is, a little frustrating. Whenever there was any story about our corner of the political universe — digital wiretaps, online censorship, public key cryptography — it always seemed to be about what was happening in the US, and not the rest of the world. Back then, I felt we needed the US media and policy space to pay attention to our fight: because we felt, very strongly, it was a global fight.

One day, we saw that Bruce Sterling was coming into town for a book reading, and we thought: here’s our chance. Like good Nineties digital activists, we’d all read our Hacker Crackdown, and knew he might be a friend in getting some rip-roaring coverage in the heart of the beast. After horribly hijacking him from what looked a nice literary meal, we took him to heroin-chic dive bar in Soho, told him our problems, and begged him to help.

Forget defending crypto, he said. It’s doomed. You’re screwed.

No, the really interesting stuff, he said, is in postmodern literary theory.

Honest to God and ask my friends, it broke my poor dork heart. I listened to him talk for a few hours about what was research for “Zeitgeist”, and then we went home and fought off the outlawing of crypto without him, but with a tiny bunch of committed Brits, some of whom are still working on that fight today.

Fifteen years on, the world sucks, but some parts are a bit better. As Bruce points out with his As and Bs, I live as part of a far greater and interlinked world of what he called “global civic society”, who, behind the scenes or in front of the microphones, actually do work together to defend people like Snowden, build tools for decentralisation and privacy, and frantically try and work out how to make them work for everyone.

Some of us work on policy, some of us work in a myriad other ways to change the world, including whistleblowing. We try to minimize the number who get beaten up or killed. I don’t think any of us live in much of a dream world any more. Pretty much all of us are more cynical than you’d believe after seeing what’s gone down. And I know, given the odds, some of it looks pathetic sometimes, but believe me, we can the hardest critics on each other about that. They’d laugh me out of town if I ever said “globulution”, for instance.

And, as the good Chairman says, you do learn who your friends are.


what i did next

For a moment, climbing out of the too-fresh sunshine and with the taste of a farewell Guinness still on my tongue, slumping into the creaky old couch in the slightly grimy, Noisebridge to write something from scratch, San Francisco felt like Edinburgh in August, a day before the Festival.

Edinburgh for me was always the randomizer, the place I hitched to every year, camped out in, and came out in some other country, six weeks later, with hungover and overdrawn, with a new skill or passion or someone sadder or more famous or just more fuddled and dumber than ever.

Today was my last day at EFF. Just before our (their? Our.) 20th birthday party in February, where I had the profoundly fannish pleasure to write and barely rehearse a 30 minute sketch starring Adam Savage, Steve Jackson, John Gilmore, me in my underpants, and Barney the Dinosaur, I callously told them I was leaving them all for another non-profit. We commiserated on Thursday, in our dorky way, by playing Settlers of Catan and Set and Hungry Hippos together. They bought me money to buy a new hat. I logged off the intranet, had a drink, and wandered off into a vacation.

In April, after a couple of weeks of … well, catching up on my TV-watching, realistically … I’ll be kickstarting a new position at the Committee to Protect Journalists as Internet Advocacy Coordinator.

I’ve known the CPJ people for a few years now, talking airily to them about the networked world as they grimly recorded the rising numbers of arrested, imprisoned, tortured, threatened and murdered Internet journalists in the world. Bloggers, online editors, uploading videographers. Jail, dead, chased into exile. As newsgathering has gone digital, it’s led to a boom in unmediated expression. But those changes have also disintermediated away the few institutional protections free speech’s front line ever had.

CPJ has incredible resources for dealing with attacks on the free press on every continent: their team assists individuals, lobbies governments at the highest levels, documents and publicizes, names and shames. They were quick to recognize and reconfigure for a digital environment (you have to admire an NGO that knew enough to snag a three letter domain in ’95). Creating a position for tackling the tech, policy and immediate needs of online journalism was the next obvious step.

The question I had for them in my interview was the same that almost everybody I’ve spoken to about this job has asked me so far. On the Internet, how do you (they? We.) define who a journalist is?

The answer made immediate sense. While “journalism” or “newsgathering” or “reportage” as an abstract idea might seem problematic when cut from its familiar institutions, and pasted into the Internet… nonetheless, you know it when you see it. When someone is arrested or threatened or tortured for what they’ve written, if you can pull up what they said in a mailreader or a browser, it really doesn’t take long to identify whether it’s journalism or not.

What’s harder is untangling the slippery facts of the case — whether the journalist was targeted because of their work, or other reasons; whether it was the government or a criminal enterprise that did the deed; where the leverage points are to seek justice or freedom.

In those fuzzier areas, in the same way as EFF uses its legal staff to map the unclear world of the frontier into clear legal lines, CPJ uses its staff’s investigative journalist expertise to uncover what really happened, and then uses the clout of that reinforced and unassailable truth to lobby and expose.

Honestly, I’m still only beginning to map out how I might help in all this. I spent a week last month in New York where CPJ is based, listening to their regional experts talk about every continent, all the dictators, torturers, censors and thugs, all the bloggers and web publishers and whistleblowers.

I know I am starting on that ignorance rollercoaster you get when striking out into new territory. I can tell these people about proxies, AES encryption and SMS security, but I still can’t pronounce Novaya Gazeta, or remember what countries border Kenya. You surprise yourself with how much old knowledge becomes freshly useful, at the same time as you feel stupid for every dumbly obvious fact you fail to grasp.

I think part of my usefulness will come from writing more, and engaging more with the communities here I know well to explain and explore the opportunities and threats their incredible creations are creating today. At the same tie, I’m already resigned to taking a hit in my reputational IQ as I publicly demonstrate my ignorance (my friends in Africa and Russia are already facepalming, I can tell). Hope you’ll forgive me.

In the mean time, I’ll be setting up my monthly donation to EFF. I’ve said it before and I’ll bore you again, EFF are an incredible organization, made up of some of the smartest and most dedicated people I’ve ever met. I smugly joined in 2005 thinking I understood tech policy, and spent the next few years amazed at what it was like to live as the only person who didn’t have an EFF to help me understand what I was looking at and what to do about it. I guess I finally got the hang of juggling five hundred daily emails, a dozen issues refracted through dozens of cultures across the world. And I guess that’s aways the cue to switch tracks and reset to being dumb and ready to learn again.

Incidentally, EFF is looking for an IP attorney right now. I don’t know how many lawyers read this blog, but if you know a smart IP legal person who wants to randomize their life for the opportunity to become even smarter for a good cause, get them to apply. They won’t regret it, not for a minute.


tethering the android

So it was being stuck without wifi in the Library of Congress the other week that finally made me decide to overwrite the T-Mobile firmware on my Android G1 with something with root access. I was talking with the US Copyright and Patent offices about how to improve access to copyrighted material for the reading disabled (in the hopes, partially, to encourage them to support the Treaty for the Visually Impaired at WIPO the following week).

I know some people frown on net access at such affairs, but as Cory once noted, if you think people are distracted when they have net at meetings, you should see how distracted they get when they don’t have net.  A bunch of us were scrabbling to get information in and out of the public meeting in advance of the transcript becoming available. So, for instance, I recorded my comments onto my phone, and then mailed them out to the rest of the EFF international staff to hear as they were already preparing to fly to Geneva.

The same thing happened, only more fervently at WIPO, with Jamie Love and other attendees  frantically twittering out to the wider world about the imminent attempts to kill the treaty, and thus getting the visible external support they needed to put pressure on countries to keep the Treaty alive (thanks to everyone who contacted their governments, by the way).

All of this networked analysis and activism gets much harder when you don’t have laptop connectivity. Because my G1 phone wasn’t rooted (and T-Mobile forbids tethering apps in Google’s Android app Market), I couldn’t link my computer to my phone’s 3G network. And I wasn’t quite ready to multi-task listening to my fellow panellists and attempting to re-flash firmware at the same time.

I’m glad I waited. It turns out that these days, it’s relatively easy to drop in a version of Android that gives you power over your own device. These instructions on how to root your G1 take you through the tortuous (but by now pretty foolproof) procedure.

In the end, I chose to install JesusFreke’s distribution of the Android OS, which now has a great little utility to manage who gets root on your phone (each application’s request is intercepted, and you, as user, get to allow or deny it). This tethering application is incredibly easy-to-use, and lets you share your 3G connection via wifi or bluetooth (I haven’t tried the bluetooth). You can WEP encrypt the wifi connection, or allow access to only selected users.

Of course, next time I go to the LoC, I’ll be sure to keep the wifi node open. I wouldn’t want the MPAA guys doing without!


hacker spaces and recessions

It’s awful to say that there are parts of recessions that I rather like. Maybe it’s just familiarity: I came of age in the early eighties, and left college in the 1990-1994 recession. My sense of what’s important gets confused in upturns: everyone is talking all at once about matters that I just can’t get excited about, but I feel somewhat silly for even thinking they might be wrong. Then the recession comes, and all my clever cynicism is (selectively) rewarded. In a recession, the signal to noise ratio seems greater. It’s easier to pick out promising ideas, and it feels better for the soul if you can express optimism when everyone else needs some extra.

I bumped in Jake Applebaum today, and we talked a little about NoiseBridge, the San Francisco Hacker Space that he is helping to launch. It’s a little surprising that SF hasn’t had one before, but I think that’s partly because there are lots of informal, ad hoc spaces, and also because during boom times, there’s little need. Every start-up has a tiny piece of what you need to make a hacker space, and won’t give it up.

The timing to me seems perfect, though. It’s a good time to pool both resources and ideas: gather together everyone to work and talk together about their projects, and co-operate on relieving some of the burdens of getting ideas off the ground. I’ve already thought about how, given that I’m probably going to be moving into an even smaller space myself, how I could deposit some of my most valuable textbooks at NoiseBridge: saving me space, and increasing their use. A lot of people will be wanting to broaden their skills, or spryly cross over to wherever there is a demand for hackerish minds (I remember well the great Perl hacker bioinformatics migration of 2001), so crossover technology like a chemistry lab and dark room is useful.

Something I noticed about the old recessions – the eighties, the nineties, the noughts, was that technology became a route out of poverty and dead-ends: there’s a huge proportion of system administrators and programmers who never made it through college, or high school, and found themselves in Silicon Valley, being airlifted to a sustainable life by one another’s efforts. I imagine this will happen again in this recession too. If we hunker down to build what comes next, it’ll be good to do it in a place where teenagers can help lead the charge.

Now I’m thinking of backspace on the banks of the Thames: an engine that seeded excitement behind a bunch of art and business projects (especially those that could not decide which they were). Is there a new hacker space imminent in London, Edinburgh, Manchester or elsewhere? I think it’s about time. Plenty of city business spaces going spare and empty, soon! Lots of advice available!


bandwidth and storage and europe and america

After doing my reading into fiber in San Francisco, I’d learnt a couple of things: firstly, there’s a lot of fiber around, actually, and secondly, a lot of the fiber under me was owned by Astound, who bought it from RCN, San Francisco’s previously weak-as-tea competition to Comcast.

As it happened, he next day I got some flyers through the letter box from Astound offering 10Mbps for $60 a month. As I’ve been tottering along with 4Mbps/1Mbps for $55 with Comcast, I thought I should look into that.

Competition is a marvellous thing. Wherever in the US Comcast has been facing it, I discovered, they have been magically upping their rates to 16Mbps. Simply calling Comcast support and hinting I was going to shift caused them to mention this fact, and five minutes later, I’m running at around 20Mbps/3Mbps for $65 a month. Add to that the $170 terabyte turned up today, and I feel like I’ve just leapt up about twenty countries in some OECD chart. I guess what I should do now is call Astound and see if they will offer to move PAIX into my bedroom cupboard for $65.99.

Up until now, I’ve always assumed that the UK’s consumer bandwidth situation has been rather better than most of the US — a tidbit gleaned from smug Brit slashdotters, and envy-enducing reports from my friends about their DSL deal-shopping. The received opinion is that the US dropped the ball almost immediately after rolling out broadband, and was promptly outgunned by most of the rest of Europe, something that begging outside telcos for ISDN-level speeds in most of Silicon Valley confirmed for me.

Now, after spending a few minutes on Speedtest’s worldwide self-selected statistics, I’m not so sure. I was originally assuming there was some American-bias to the stats, but digging deeper that doesn’t seem to be the case. The US actually does pretty well compared to Europe (except for those bastards in Sweden, etc) these days.

One thing I’ve learnt is that nation-spanning preconceptions like this are often temporarily true, but not for half as long as they hang around. Pleasantly schadenfreuderish viewpoints have a lot of lag to them. Take mobile phone adoption in the US. When I first arrived here, the difference between US cellphone culture and the UK was stark, and I, like many foreign-media journalists, would frequently dine out on the gap. In 2000, you couldn’t actually consistently text people on other networks; nor would it be reasonable to expect a stranger to have a mobile phone at all.

Then, in I think about 2003, I was crunching some stats about the crappy cellphone penetration in the US for my European friends to gawp at. Instead of doing an us-and-them comparison, I did a time-based one. How far behind was the US chronologically from the UK? It turned out that the US had just crossed 50% of households owning a cellphone. Laughably small compared to 2003 Britain, where it was close to 80% (I am surely misremembering these stats, but bear with me). But nonetheless, pretty much exactly the same as 2000 Britain, my original basis for smugly lording it over the Yanks. America’s primitive phone culture was, it turned out, only as primitive as the futuristic super-advanced one I’d left three years ago.

Sure enough, when my family came to stay that year, my usual prattle about how Americans don’t have mobile phones like we do was swiftly undermined. “What are you talking about, Uncle?” said my annoyingly smart niece, “Look around you. They’ve all got mobiles.”. And they had, and my anecdotes were like drinking from yesterday’s half-empty, cigarette-filled party beers.

I think the same thing is happening with broadband. From 2000-2008 there was a much bigger consumer rollout in Europe than in the US, partly because of government-compelled competition in European telecom (and aren’t I a bad libertarian for even suggesting that), and some really terrible decisions both by business and regulators in the United States. But those differences are slowly closing out as both continents start reaching the limits of DSL and the current infrastructure.

I imagine folks will disagree, which is fine. I’m not entirely sure of the position myself. The real question is: how could we test this? Are the Speedtest stats enough on their own?


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.