#DearObama: Freedom of Expression and the State of the Union – An Opportunity for the President

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

This blog is part of a series on human rights in the State of the Union address. The United States has an obligation to pursue policies that ensure respect for human rights at home and around the world. Follow along and join the conversation using #SOTUrights.

By Adotei Akwei and Cindy Tsz-nga Ko

On Tuesday January 20, President Obama will have an opportunity to address the nation and underscore the priorities for his administration in 2015. Much of the speech is expected to focus on domestic economic issues but the White House has also indicated that issues such as policing in the United States, immigration reform, closing Guantanamo and violent extremism will also be addressed. Given that a key the underlying theme connecting these issues is human rights, the central question is whether the Obama administration will shape foreign policy that will help build a safer world where rights are respected, protected and fulfilled.

The President’s framing of key human rights concerns in this evening’s State of the Union address may be an indication of whether or not the Obama administration will use 2015 to champion human rights, as so many hoped, or whether he will pursue misguided policies that sideline human rights in the name of security. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Don't Fear the Tweets, Fear the Tweeters

twitter activist protesterLast week, UN Secretary General Ban delivered the keynote address at the Global Colloquium of University Presidents, in which he made the pointed remark:

“Some dictators in our world are more afraid of tweets than they are of opposing armies.”

Being a mere 86 characters, that quote made its way through the Twitterverse in fairly short order, with some glib derision in response.

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Repressive Regimes Rejoice, Twitter to Censor Content

twitter bird censoredTwitter dropped quite the shocker last week when it declared its new policy to remove Tweets in certain countries to abide by specific national laws. While a tweet will remain visible to the rest of the world, specific messages will disappear in the target country (e.g., following requests by governments).

The ensuing backlash saw a lot of people screaming “censorship” (ironically, on Twitter). While the first wave of criticism has quickly calmed down, for a human rights watchdog, the announcement is quite alarming:

As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. …. Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries’ limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.

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Justice for Hrant Dink: More Work to be Done

Hrant Dink was shot dead outside his Istanbul office in 2007. © Private

The murder of Hrant Dink on a cold Istanbul street in January, 2007 sent shock waves across Turkey and around the world.

Dink, an ebullient public intellectual and journalist, was a key figure in Turkey’s dwindling Armenian community and an important activist in Turkey’s long struggle for a more liberal, tolerant society.  For this, he was rewarded with state harassment, a public vilification campaign, and, finally, an assassin’s bullet.

The triggerman, Ogün Samast, was quickly arrested and, earlier this week, was sentenced to more than twenty years in prison.  This is an important step.  But given the remarkable discrepancies in the case, it is clear that more needs to be done.

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Internet Freedom in Turkey: System Error

Computer users are pictured in an internet cafe in Istanbul. (UGUR CAN/AFP/Getty Images)

For some reason, Turkey, which boasts one of the most educated and technologically savvy populations in the region, has had a particularly hard time addressing internet freedom. In a country that boasts of its capacity to serve as a model of democracy in the Middle East, freedom of expression on the internet has been a long-standing problem; the Turkish government’s instinct has consistently been to apply broad, clumsy bans on any content that might possibly be objectionable.

It is part of a more general problem of creeping censorship. The Turkish press, as discussed in previous posts, has come under increased pressure. In recent years, Turkey has been particularly aggressive in attempting to police radio and television for “undermining the morality of minors.” Sex and the City II, for example, was banned from cable television because its representation of gay marriage was deemed dangerous to the Turkish family. Tobacco smoking villains in the famous cartoon TinTin similarly resulted in fines from the ever watchful – and humorless – eyes of Turkish bureaucrats. The result has been a media culture that has increasingly engaged in self-censorship to avoid fines and possible closure.

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Egypt Continues Media Crackdown

Protests in Egypt continued into a seventh day today as thousands of Egyptians demonstrated against widespread corruption, police brutality and poverty in their country.  The Egyptian government has tried hard to censor its citizens — cutting off internet and phone access — and now journalists find themselves a target in the crackdown on freedom of expression.

Demonstrators have used phone cameras to expose police abuses © Demotix / Nour El Refai

Al Jazeera English said that six journalists were detained today at an army checkpoint outside Cairo’s Hilton hotel. The journalists were held only briefly but their cameras and other equipment was confiscated.

Yesterday, the Cairo bureau of the Al Jazeera network was officially shut down by order of Egypt’s Information Ministry, the network said.

Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said:

“This government action against Al Jazeera is just its latest attempt to close down reporting of the protests on the streets and the free flow of information.

“The authorities are clearly trying to intimidate the media and to prevent the truth coming out about abuses by its security forces, as they struggle to maintain their grip on power in the face of unprecedented protests and demands for fundamental change.”

Local and international journalists were assaulted, arrested and their equipment confiscated by security forces throughout recent mass protests against poverty, police abuse and corruption.

The government must not be allowed to put the whole country under an information blackout, and that message needs to be sent to them very clearly by their friends and allies abroad.  You can help send that message by emailing US authorities now and urging them to use their influence to stop these abuses.

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Net Neutrality: Save the Internet from Corporate Censorship!

By Sarah Aird, member of Amnesty International USA’s Board of Directors

Amnesty International activists know how important the Internet is for sharing news, information, and strategy about human rights abuses around the world.  From satellite images of Darfur to Amnesty reports documenting Shell Oil’s involvement in human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, from correspondence among Amnesty’s country specialists to online urgent actions in support of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the Internet is critical to our work.  But today, the Internet as we know it is at risk.

In the last 15 years the Internet has become the most democratic communications tool ever created.  In the United States, the Internet is an open network, meaning no company or government body has centralized control over the free flow of information.  Yet today we’re facing what has the potential to become one of the greatest threats to the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International and to free speech and democracy in this country – corporate control of the Web.

From its creation, the Internet in the United States operated under the principle of Net Neutrality, which guarantees that all sources of data are treated equally, whether the content comes from FOX News or Amnesty International.  Foreign and domestic sites, big corporate home pages and low-traffic blogs are all equally accessible to the Internet user.  This has ensured that activists and NGOs of all shapes and sizes are able to bring important stories to light and help shape the political agenda.

For years, large Internet and telecommunications companies have sought to dominate the Internet, and since 2002 they’ve had growing success in reversing Internet nondiscrimination principles.  They would like to see a tiered Internet in which some content providers pay a toll to speed delivery of their data, at the expense of others’ (“paid prioritization”).

Since not all content providers will be able to pay such a toll, the result will be a super access highway for websites of large corporations and the wealthy and a winding dirt road for others.  Major news outlets will, for example, be able to pay the toll; visitors to their site will not experience delays or access difficulties.  Will we be able to say the same about Amnesty Group 133’s site?

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Yahoo – Poster Boy for Internet Censorship

By Tony Cruz, Business and Human Rights Coordination Group

Shi Tao

Yahoo – the company responsible for the 10 year prison sentence of Chinese journalist, Shi Tao – “should be held up as the poster boy of good behavior.”

And thus was the overall tone of the Yahoo Shareholder Meeting I attended on June 24, 2010.

For four years in a row now, I have attended these Yahoo Shareholder Meetings on behalf of Amnesty International. Accompanied this year by Amnesty International Field Organizer, Will Butkus, we set out with our remaining goal to keep the pressure on Yahoo to push for the release of Shi Tao.

Five years ago, Shi Tao sent an email to a pro-democracy U.S. website about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre; an email which would put Yahoo on the human rights violations map when it gave Shi Tao’s personal user information to the Chinese government.

During this year’s shareholder meeting, Yahoo CEO, Carol Bartz, remained adamant about Yahoo’s desire to move past this issue. In her mind, so it seems that Yahoo has done enough. Well, it’s not enough. The bottom line is that Yahoo turned over Shi Tao’s information to the Chinese government. They violated international human rights, and as Bartz said last year “they made a mistake”

Amnesty's William Butkis and Tony Cruz at the Yahoo! shareholders meeting

So Yahoo can try to spin this in their favor all they’d like, but the facts remain the same. As long as Shi Tao still sits in prison, then Yahoo hasn’t done enough to get him out.

Yahoo has powerful influence in China that it can leverage to ensure Shi Tao’s release. For starters, Yahoo can pressure Chinese Internet company, Alibaba – which controls Yahoo! China in exchange for Yahoo’s 40% ownership share of Alibaba. As one of the largest and most powerful Internet companies in the world, Yahoo even has influence with the Chinese government. And it is up to Yahoo to use that influence until the day Shi Tao is released.

Below is the conversation between Amnesty International and Yahoo CEO, Carol Bartz, at the meeting (listen to full webcast here):

Cruz: Hi, Ms. Bartz. Tony Cruz here with Amnesty International. I was here last year and brought up the issue of internet censorship and Shi Tao, and when asked a question about this issue, you were quoted saying “That Yahoo is not incorporated to fix China. I’m sorry. It was incorporated to give people a free flow of information and ten years ago the company made a mistake, but you can’t hold us up as the bad boy forever.”

I understand that whenever we come to these meetings it’s an inconvenience. By the time I came up to bat last year, there were two colleagues who spoke on this issue about Shi Tao. It’s an inconvenience and all I can say is you take that feeling of how you felt inconvenienced and that discomfort you felt and you multiply it by a million and it pales in comparison to what this individual must feel like being in prison now for 5 years of10 year sentence.

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Google, Actions speak louder than words

Google made an unprecedented announcement this week by claiming it is no longer willing to continue censoring search results on Google.cn, its Chinese search engine. Meetings are underway with Chinese authorities to discuss removing filtering software from Google.cn and, the company further claims, if an acceptable agreement is not reached, Google may shut the search engine down.

Some in the media and some human rights advocates are heralding this announcement as a turning point in corporate America’s relations with China, given that Google attributes their sudden opposition to censorship is the result of a security breach of two Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese human rights activists.

But as Tom Foremski rightly points out over at ZDNET, a leading IT publication:

The question remains is why now? Google could have taken a stand on human rights in China on many occasions in the past.

Many Internet companies operating in China, including Google, have previously complied with the Chinese government’s censorship requirements. And this isn’t the first time that Chinese human rights defenders have been the targeted through their email accounts. Yahoo! handed over Shi Tao’s personal email records to Chinese authorities in 2004 which led to a 10 year prison sentence. He was targeted because of his effort to expose government-endorsed media censorship over the 15th anniversary of Tiananmen. More recently, the Chinese government blocked Twitter, Flickr, and Hotmail prior to the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen in June and attempted to mandate that all PC makers such as Hewlett Packard and Dell install software that filters Internet content.

Foremski also cites a Twitter feed from Guardian reporter Bobbie Johnson – who hits the nail on the head:

Goog [sic] acted after its rights were infringed, not the rights of its users.

That’s why AIUSA pulled out of the Global Network Initiative – a multi-stakeholder initiative – we joined in 2007, with the goal of establishing voluntary principles to promote and respect human rights on the Internet. We saw no tangible results.

We certainly welcome Google’s statements, but actions speak louder than words. And this is the internet company’s opportunity to be a leader. Google should stand with human rights defenders and support the Global Online Freedom Act (H.R. 2271) which could help IT companies resist information requests by the Chinese government.

By Tony Cruz and Anna Phelan, Amnesty International USA’s Business & Economic Relations Group

Yahoo! needs to click its refresh button on Internet Censorship in China

By Tony Cruz, AIUSA’s Business and Economic Relations Group

Yahoo! held its annual shareholder meeting on June 25th — the first meeting with the company’s new CEO, Carol Bartz. In the meeting, Ms. Bartz attempted to show a new face of Yahoo; a bolder and progressive “no-nonsense” Yahoo. It was my third Yahoo! shareholder meeting and a chance to see if Yahoo!’s new face meant new business practices that would respect human rights. I presented two questions:

  1. Since 2006, what concrete steps has Yahoo taken to address the problem of Internet censorship in China?
  2. Will you publicly support the Global Online Freedom Act; legislation that would give you the power to fight the Chinese government?

Ms. Bartz responded:

Okay, I’m going to go real simple here. Yahoo is not incorporated to fix China. I’m sorry. It wasn’t incorporated to fix China. It was incorporated to give people a free flow of information. Ten years ago the company made a mistake but you can’t hold us up as the bad boy forever. We have worked better, harder, faster than most companies to respect human rights and to try and make a difference. But it is not our job to fix the Chinese government. It’s that simple. We will respect human rights, we will do what’s right, but we’re not going to take on every government in the world as our mandate. That’s not the mandate that the shareholders gave us.

Not only did Ms. Bartz avoid answering my questions, she also seemed to have misconstrued their meaning. Amnesty International members are not asking Yahoo! to “fix” China. And we haven’t singled out Yahoo! in our campaign against Internet censorship. We’ve targeted Microsoft and Google, too. Because Yahoo!’s actions have led to the highly publicized imprisonment of two Chinese dissidents, we’ve asked the company to call for the release of Shi Tao and to adopt business practices that actively support human rights. You can take action right now to remind them.

After a civil suit was settled with Shi Tao’s family, Yahoo! attempted to “fix” itself. Yahoo! hired a new CEO and implemented a new marketing strategy to distance itself from its tarnished image. The company even created a Business and Human Rights Program. But Shi Tao remains in prison and Yahoo! continues to censor its search engine in China. (I wonder how that technology has helped the Chinese government to block browser searches using the key-word Uighur this week.) So, I still don’t understand how Yahoo! “will respect human rights” and “will do what’s right” when the company hasn’t addressed the problem of Internet censorship in China – a problem that limits innovation and restricts freedom of expression.

The Internet is vital in bringing change to China, and increasingly so around the world. It appears the Obama administration agree, since they objected to China’s mandated web filtering software. Former Amnesty USA Chair Chip Pitts has been blogging about tech companies and democratic rights and the reaction in the US Senate, following the news that Nokia provided technology to the Iranian government that was used to monitor and repress protesters and dissidents. Hmm… doesn’t that sound familiar?

Pitts makes a good point: whether the Internet’s “liberalizing effect” on the flow of information will continue greatly depends on how Internet technology companies, NGOs and governments interact. Take action and remind Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft that they, too, bear the burden of promoting the freedom of information no matter where they operate. It’s time to get behind the Global Online Freedom Act.