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Keep track of Berkman-related news and conversations by subscribing to this page using your RSS feed reader. This aggregation of blogs relating to the Berkman Center does not necessarily represent the views of the Berkman Center or Harvard University but is provided as a convenient starting point for those who wish to explore the people and projects in Berkman's orbit. As this is a global exercise, times are in UTC.

The list of blogs being aggregated here can be found at the bottom of this page.

July 29, 2016

July 27, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
Playing Pokémon Go in China Is Not Easy, but Many Are Still Risking It
Screen capture from Youtube.

Screen capture from Youtube.

Pokémon Go has not been officially released in China, but Chinese players are finding creative ways to access the record-breaking augmented reality game, which has captured the imaginations of millions of mobile users around the world.

The game uses Google Maps data to superimpose characters from the Japanese Pokémon video game series into your geographic surroundings. As you walk, your smartphone uses GPS to track your position in the world, and it will know if you get close to one of these characters. You can then capture the character on your phone screen, train it, and then deploy it in the “augmented reality” battlefield that is Pokémon Go.

Launched on Apple's App store in select countries on July 6, 2016, it was developed by US-based Niantic Labs. The game is technically ‘unavailable’ in China's App store, but some people have found ways to download and play it anyway.

Here are six things that make it hard — and risky — to play Pokémon Go in China:

1. App stores are heavily censored in China.

To be displayed on Chinese app stores, all online games — including Pokémon Go — have to be approved by the censor board. Since Pokémon Go has yet to receive such approval, fans have to register their phone with an overseas Apple ID in order to find and download the Pokémon Go app.

2. Pokémon Go users have to climb the Great Firewall.

To register a gamer account, players need a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to climb over the Chinese Internet filter or the so-called Great Firewall and access the game server. The gamer also needs to register a Google account, as Google services are also blocked in China.

3. Most players have to spoof their GPS location.

Since the game's GPS features are locked in most part of the country, players have to spoof their GPS location. In early July, many Chinese players set their location to Australia, leading to numerous server problems.

4. A few players use the game for making patriotic statement.

After the game launched in Japan on July 22, Chinese players spoofed the location again, which resulted in some technical problem. Moreover, a few of them used the game for making political statement. According to TechAsia, Pokémon Go's Japanese servers have reportedly been flooded with Chinese players and one of them appeared in the Yasukuni Shrine, a politically sensitive site to enshrine war dead who served the Emperor of Japan during wars from 1867–1951:

A post that reached the top of Reddit’s massive Pokémon Go subreddit, for example, complained about high-level Chinese players monopolizing Japan’s Pokémon gyms. Some even used the game as a form of nationalist protest. A photo posted with the Reddit thread shows the gym at the Yasukuni Shrine being dominated by a player with a high-level Dragonite nicknamed “Long live China!”

As Yasukuni Shrine is the most well known site among Chinese, it is quite natural for Chinese players to visit the site. Though only a small number of the players would use the game to make political statement, such act is likely to attract huge attention and generate antagonistic relation between peoples in the virtual world and fueling extreme nationalist reactions in the real world.

5. Pokémon characters roam free in Xinjiang and Dongbei

The game is not as much fun if you cannot actually interact with the real world environment. In some parts of China, including Xinjiang and Northeastern region (Dongbei), the game's GPS has not been locked and players can actually capture Pokémon characters in these regions. Of course, if you are not a local resident, you have to travel there to play the game.

A gamer @chekailiuhai shared some tips on playing the augmented game in Dongbei on Weibo:

玩pokemon 虽然东北不是封锁区 开数据或wifi就能玩 但是小精灵特别少 如果开vpn在家溜达两圈就能逮到3只

Playing Pokémon Go. Though Dongbei is not inside the locked region, if you just access the game with local connection or wifi, the number of Pokémon is very limited. If you use VPN, you can capture a few just by walking around at home.

6. Chinese gamers can face significant political risks.

As some has pointed out on popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo, using a VPN in Xinjiang can result in mobile services being cut off completely.

Also, since the game launched on July 6, a conspiracy theory about Pokémon Go has been circulated on social media, claiming the game is an US government-sponsored project aims at collecting sensitive geo data.

For example, the Communist Youth League from Henan province posted an article quoting various sources commenting on the companies behind the game's GPS technology on Weibo on July 25:

但是,游戏的技术基础GPS,追根溯源来说,是来自CIA和美国国家地理空间情报局。这两家机构可不是慈善机构,其中的交易,笔者对此的分析推测应该是游戏以使用该技术获取的地理数据作为交换 […]

However, the GPS technology of the game comes from CIA [IN-Q-Tel] and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. These organizations are not charities and I can induce that the game developer will handover the geo-data [to the US agencies] in exchange for the game's technology.
On July 11, the three provinces in Dongbei and Xinjiang unlocked the game's GPS, some players claimed that some characters are located only a yard from the Shenyang military base. Dongbei is a region where there is a large number of military organizations and Xinjiang is a sensitive region. Why were these areas the first to unlock in China?

According to a local gamer @lizexipablo, Dongbei and Xinjiang was ‘not unlocked’ on July 11. He says he has been accessing the game since its launch. He elaborated that the game developers have drawn a GPS locked zone according to this map:

pokemon map

Even though the conspiracy has little evidence to back it up, as geolocation technology is used in many mobile apps, it still received some echoes online. Charles Liu from Nanfang quoted a netizen comment from Weibo:

Then, when war breaks out, Japan and the US can easily target their guided missiles, and China will have been destroyed by the invasion of a Japanese-American game.

Given the spread of extreme patriotic sentiment targeting foreign brands, Chinese gamers playing Pokémon Go may also risk being labelled traitors and subjected to bullying or attacks online or offline.

All this begs the question: Is there a safe way to play Pokémon Go in China? Under such political circumstances, the safest way to play the game is to spoof the location and hope that others think you are ‘performing patriotism’ on overseas servers. However, given the massive population of Chinese gamers, the minority of nationalist trolls has already caused resentment and anger in other countries. The most reasonable solution is to wait for an official launch of the game inside China. Niantic Labs is also applying for the game’s trademarks in China. But ordinary netizens don't think Chinese authorities will let the game enter the country.  A Chinese Twitter user explained:

I think Pokémon Go should be locked in mainland China. Just imagine one day Nintendo's server had some technical problem and released a Mewtwo [a Pokémon character] at Tiananmen Square. Then a large number of gamers would chase after Mewtwo carrying Xiaome's mobile chargers [which are not very safe and could explode if over-heated]. Do you think the police officers would believe that they were chasing after the characters? They would think that the group of people were about to launch a terrorist attack!

by Oiwan Lam at July 27, 2016 02:50 AM

July 26, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
So Long, Phone Companies. Mexico’s Indigenous Groups Are Getting Their Own Telecoms.

Rhizomatica members demonstrate how to operate a communal cell phone. Image from Rhizomatica Wiki under Creative Commons license.

Members of the Mixe, Mixteco, and Zapoteco people will soon have their own mobile cellular telephone network that will allow at least 356 municipalities in the States of Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz, to access mobile-telephone services and the Internet.

The new services are the result of a July 5 plenary resolution by the Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones, or IFT (Federal Institute of Telecommunications), that granted for the first time in Mexico's history two licenses to operate a telecommunications network for social indigenous use to the nonprofit organization Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias A.C. (TIC A.C.) (the Indigenous Community Telecommunications).

On that topic, the Federal Institute of Telecommunications stated:

Con estas concesiones se habilitará a su titular [TIC A.C.] a prestar servicios de telecomunicaciones para la promoción, desarrollo y preservación de sus lenguas, su cultura, sus conocimientos, promoviendo sus tradiciones, normas internas y bajo principios que respeten la igualdad de género, permitan la integración de mujeres indígenas en la participación de los objetivos para los cuales fue solicitadas las concesiones y demás elementos que constituyen las culturas e identidades indígenas.

These two licenses will enable Indigenous Community Telecommunications to provide telecommunications services for the promotion, development, and preservation of their languages, culture, and knowledge, promoting their traditions and norms based on principles that respect gender equality and allow the integration of indigenous women into the participation of the objectives for which the licenses were requested along with other elements that make up the indigenous cultural identities.

According to Redes por la Diversidad, Equidad y Sustentabilidad, A.C. (Networks for Diversity, Equality, and Sustainability Nonprofit Organization), the network Telefonía Celular Comunitaria, (Communal Cell Phone) (which has been acquired, managed, and operated since 2013 by the Villa Talea de Castro community in the northern mountain range of Oaxaca) is directly responsible for this effort to provide connectivity to indigenous communities at affordable costs.

Talea de Castro

Photo taken in Villa Talea de Castro, courtesy of Daniela Parra and used with permission, REDES AC.

As Global Voices previously explained, prior to 2013, the 2,500 inhabitants of Villa Talea de Castro relied on high-cost landline phone booths. After the large cell phone companies repeatedly refused to provide them with service, the community got together and—with the technical and legal assistance of the NGO Rhizomatica—it managed to install its own local cellular network, providing the community with “unlimited local calls and messages, long distance and international calls at a cost of up to 98 percent less than [that] offered by other telephone service providers.”

Once the cellular network went into operation, the local radio station (“Dizha Kieru,” or “Nuestra Voz” in Zapotec language) together with Rhizomatica started to explore new ways to promote citizen journalism and community communication. This project was supported with a small scholarship from Rising Voices in 2013, in accordance with the announcement of the winners for that year:

La estación de radio, junto con la organización Rhizomatica, formará a los residentes locales para convertirlos en recolectores de noticias comunitarias a través del reportaje en persona o a través de mensajería de texto o llamadas de los ciudadanos. El equipo de Dizha Kieru, que administra tanto la radio como la estación GSM reunirá, sintetizará, editará y enviará los reportes noticiosos a los residentes dos veces al día a través de mensajes de texto masivos […]

The radio station, together with the organization Rhizomatica, will train local residents to become community news gatherers through in-person reporting or through collection via SMS or phone calls from citizens. The Dizha Kieru team, who run both the radio and GSM base-station will collect, synthesize, format, and send out the news reports to residents twice a day via mass SMS […]

This first local cellular network functioned as a pilot project that was then replicated in other communities. The following video recounts the initial stages of this project:

According to the statement issued by Networks for Diversity, Equality, and Sustainability, the 16 rural and indigenous communities that up until that time formed part of the community telephone network, formed a co-op with Rhizomatica and created the Telecomunicaciones Indígenas Comunitarias, A.C. (Indigenous Community Telecommunications nonprofit organization), in order to take the next step toward getting the licenses from the IFT and operating a telecommunications network for social indigenous use, which was recently authorized.

Rhizomatica marked the authorization with a celebratory tweet:

Erick Huerta, a TIC A.C. consultant and member of the IFT Advisory Council, recognized the long battle that the towns and indigenous communities have had to fight in order to acquire, manage, and operate their own network:

Este hecho histórico es sólo un pequeño paso de un sueño que empezó a realizarse hace muchos años y que se construye día a día en las comunidades indígenas de nuestro país quienes, bajo sus propios principios, generan formas de atender sus necesidades con sus recursos, en esquemas de colaboración y apoyo mutuo, invirtiendo la lógica de dependencia por la de autonomía.

This historic act is just one small step towards a dream that started to take place many years ago and that is created one day at a time in the indigenous communities of our country who, from their own principles, generate ways to attend to their needs with their resources, in collaborative frameworks and mutual support, exchanging the logic of dependence with autonomy.

This is how the Indigenous Community Telecommunications network came to be the new telecommunications service provider managed both by and for the indigenous communities. With that it is hoped that instead of seeking economic profit the objective will be to serve the people, encouraging Internet access for the communities, supporting their dynamics, processes, and full exercise of their rights. A network that, without a doubt, goes beyond technology.

For more information, visit the Networks for Diversity, Equality, and Sustainability website to read about community cellular networks and the Rhizomatica Wikipedia page.

by Giovanna Salazar at July 26, 2016 08:40 PM

July 21, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: What do Zimbabwe, Kashmir, and Turkey Have in Common? Internet Censorship.
New York City in a blackout following Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Alex Perkins via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

New York City in a blackout following Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Alex Perkins via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Reports of Web censorship — ranging from blocking specific websites and entire social media platforms as well as overall Internet blackouts — have been so widespread over the last two weeks that we’ve decided to dedicate this Netizen Report to the trend.

Zimbabwe: #ShutdownZim protests spark WhatsApp shutdown

Protests across Zimbabwe over an escalating economic crisis have brought on a new wave of censorship in the country: Zimbabweans have reported not being able to access WhatsApp, which was used to organize and circulate images of the protests, and the telecom regulatory authority issued a public notice warning users they were being closely monitored and could be “easily identified,” according to the Washington Post. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and radio station STAR FM also received a warning from the CEO of the Broadcasting Authority not to “broadcast programs that incite, encourage, or glamorise violence or brutality” and to avoid “broadcasting obscene and undesirable comments from participants, callers and audiences”. The government is rumored to be working on licensing an Internet gateway for the country, a mechanism that would force all traffic to pass through a single portal that would be operated by the government and allow authorities broad access to Internet traffic and user data.

Kashmiris report total suspension of Internet and mobile amid unrest

Amid unrest over the July 8 killing of Kashmiri rebel leader Burhan Wani, Internet and mobile services were shut down for at least six days. Thousands of Indian soldiers. Thousands of Indian soldiers are patrolling the streets, and have used tear gas and pellets on protesters. Several Kashmiris have also reported having their social media accounts suspended in what free expression advocates Baba Umar and Nighat Dad suspect might be a campaign by trolls to flag their accounts.

Turkey’s coup attempt sees a 50% drop in Internet traffic

Meanwhile, during the attempted coup in Turkey, Internet users reported having trouble accessing a range of websites and services including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. CloudFlare reported an approximately 50% drop in Turkey’s total Internet traffic during the unrest. Yet what at first appeared to be at least a partial blackout typical of past periods of unrest in Turkey soon turned on its head, as President Erdogan turned to Twitter — which he described in 2013 as a “menace to society” — and Apple’s FaceTime in order to address the country. Websites continue to be blocked in the aftermath of the attempted coup, with the Turkish site Engelli Web (Disabled Web) reporting that a judge approved the censorship of 20 websites. And following Wikileaks’ release of nearly 300K emails sent to and from officials of the AKP, Erdogan’s party, Wikileaks was blocked too.

Ethiopia: #OromoProtests trigger broad social media censorship

Ethiopian telecommunication company EthioTelecom blocked social media platforms including Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for at least two months in December 2015 and January 2016 in Oromia, where students are protesting government plans to expand the capital city Addis Ababa into neighboring farm lands in the state. The telco also reportedly plans to enforce a new price scheme for VoIP data usage in order to more heavily regulate data plans and what kinds of apps users can operate on their devices. And it intends to track, identify, and ban any mobile devices not purchased from the Ethiopian market, making it easier for the company to track data sent to and from subscribers on the network. The protests in Oromia, which began in November 2015, have become a series of the largest and bloodiest demonstrations against the Ethiopian government in a decade, with at least 400 people killed, more injured and thousands jailed. Facebook and Twitter have been critical for spreading information about the protests.

Brazil: WhatsApp is down, briefly

WhatsApp was also briefly blocked in Brazil for the third time in less than a year following a court order from a judge after failing to surrender user data to police. The Supreme Court accepted an appeal that brought the service back online four hours later, calling the lower court’s decision “not very reasonable and not very proportional.”

Iranian leaders are not so sure about Pokemon, but might stop blocking Twitter

A group of Iranian hardliners have demanded the government stop blocking Twitter, in an unexpected change of tune from a group who typically stand at the forefront of policies curtailing freedom of expression. The group wants to use Twitter to counter Saudi Arabian propaganda, which they argue is part of a “psychological operation” against Iran. Propaganda concerns have increased since the recent attacks in Nice, France.

Iranian officials also have responded to Pokemon Go, pledging to censor the game if the developers do not agree to cooperate with Iran’s National Foundation for Computer Games, which has censored multiple games in the past. They say they will seek to keep the game's data servers inside of Iran, along with cooperation with the government to prohibit the game from targeting locations that could be of national security concerns. The request to keep servers inside the country might be seen as an extension of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace’s demand that all foreign messaging companies, within one year, move the data they hold about Iranians onto servers inside the country or face censorship.

In other news, Iran has put Apple on notice, stating the company has just a “few days” to register or “all iPhones will be collected from the market,” according to a report by Tasnim News. Due to sanctions against Iran, Apple had previously not officially entered the Iranian market. Smugglers, however, have brought iPhones to Iran. A 2015 report suggested there were about 6 million iPhones in circulation in the country at that time. This new ban would not affect existing iPhone owners, but would ban further sales of the phone on the market.

Nicaragua might get rid of its ‘Internet tax’

The Nicaraguan government is considering a repeal of its Internet tax in order to improve national connectivity. Currently the government charges a 20% tax on mobile terminals, resulting in high costs for Internet users. The announcement followed meetings between government officials and  entrepreneurs in the telecommunications sector to explore ways to improve infrastructure.

US and EU shake up international data privacy agreements

The US government is considering a new agreement to allow other countries to directly serve demands for user data and wiretaps on US technology companies, rather than having to participate in the often slow mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT) process, wherein the US judiciary must be involved in issuing approval for data requests.

The European Commission adopted the EU-US Privacy Shield, a new framework intended to replace the now-defunct Safe Harbor agreement under which Europeans’ personal data can be transferred to the US and vice versa. Though technology companies seem generally happy with the deal, which allows them to continue their trans-Atlantic business, privacy groups have expressed reservations, saying the safeguards fail to sufficiently protect users’ data and can be easily undermined.

New Research


Mahsa Alimardani, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, Laura Vidal and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

Subscribe to the Netizen Report by email/h2>

by Netizen Report Team at July 21, 2016 08:36 PM

Turkey Adds Wikileaks to a Long List of Blocked Websites
Cartoon rendering of Erdogan riding an email into a pillar of democracy. Cartoon by Carlos Latuff/Wikileaks.

Cartoon rendering of Erdogan riding an email into a pillar of democracy. Cartoon by Carlos Latuff/Wikileaks.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn't mind sharing pictures from his daughter's wedding or from his various visits and meetings with international leaders.

But he does seem to mind when his emails as well as thousands of other internal emails sent and received within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) make it into public eye.

Shortly after Wikileaks released 294,548 such emails into the public, the site was blocked countrywide.

The announcement of the leak read as follows:

Today, 11pm Anakara Time, WikiLeaks releases part one of the AKP Emails. AKP, or the Justice & Development Party, is the ruling party of Turkey and is the political force behind the country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Part one of the series covers 762 mail boxes beginning with ‘A’ through to ‘I’ containing 294,548 email bodies together with many thousands of attached files. The emails come from “”, the AKP's primary domain. The most recent was sent on July 6, 2016. The oldest dates back to 2010. It should be noted that emails associated with the domain are mostly used for dealing with the world, as opposed to the most sensitive internal matters.

The material was obtained a week before the attempted coup. However, WikiLeaks has moved forward its publication schedule in response to the government's post-coup purges. We have verified the material and the source, who is not connected, in any way, to the elements behind the attempted coup, or to a rival political party or state.

A Turkish official told Al Jazeera that their primary motive in blocking the website was to bar local access to sensitive information, such as the personal contact data of public officials, and of private citizens who had emailed government agencies.

It is not difficult to imagine that Erdogan was also seeking to block public access to his own communications with this move.

The government has developed a reputation as one of the world's most block-happy, making regular requests to Facebook and Twitter to suspend anti-AKP and Erdogan accounts.

In the last three or so years the space for independent media in the country has shrunk markedly, with pro-opposition papers and media delving into the conflict in the Kurdish-speaking east teetering on the brink of extinction.

But the relative value of the leak in Turkey's current context is still being questioned by Turkish netizens.

Lack of interest in the leaks may also be due to the fact that many people are still struggling to make sense of happenings in Turkey after the drama of the failed military coup.

Not to mention the time and patience it takes to parse through 294,548 apparently unremarkable emails.

by Arzu Geybullayeva at July 21, 2016 05:33 PM

As Constitutional Referendum Nears, Thailand Intensifies Censorship
As Thailand authorities ban public reading of vote-no documents, activists post photo from toilet. Photo and caption by ‏@sunaibkk

As Thailand authorities ban public reading of vote-no documents, activists post photo from toilet. Photo and caption by ‏@sunaibkk

Thailand’s military-backed government has authorized the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to shut down TV and radio stations which are found guilty of broadcasting programs that threaten national security. Furthermore, the junta gave NBTC officials immunity from legal accountability.

Human rights groups believe this ruling aims to prevent activists and other political forces from campaigning against the approval of a draft constitution in a national referendum scheduled for August 7.

Several media networks have signed a joint statement expressing concern about the ruling:

The excessive expansion of authority to limit the press freedom and the people's rights to information through the NBTC as a tool might result in the media doing their job in fearful environment and eventually result in the people's failure to receive correct and well-round information.

The statement was signed by the National Press Council of Thailand, Thai Journalists Association, Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, News Broadcasting Council of Thailand, and the Online News Providers Association on July 15.

The army grabbed power in 2014, but its leaders promised to restore civilian rule once electoral and political reforms were implemented. Two years later, the army is still in control of the government. Protests are banned, media is strictly regulated, and dissenting politicians or journalists are given ‘attitude adjustment’ sessions in army camps.

The junta drafted a constitution as part of the normalization process, but critics have pointed out that it contains provisions that will reinforce military control in the bureaucracy.

Activists and academics cannot launch a vigorous information campaign about the constitution because the government has outlawed any discussion that would persuade the people to vote in favor or against it. The junta insists Article 61 of the 2016 Referendum Act only seeks to stop the spread of malicious and wrong information about the constitution, but activists assert that it legitimizes the crackdown on free speech.

In the past several weeks, activists have been arrested for distributing flyers that encourage the public to reject the draft constitution.

A plainclothes police man searches the desk of a journalist at the Prachatai office. Photo from Prachatai

A plainclothes police man searches the desk of a journalist at the Prachatai office. Photo from Prachatai

Last week, journalist Taweesak Kerdpoka and several activists were detained after police found information materials about the constitution in their car.

They have since been released. But police then raided the office of Kerdpoka, who works for independent news website Prachatai, a Global Voices partner. Prachatai reported on its website that the police seemed to be searching for evidence to link the news organization to activist groups campaigning against the constitution.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance emphasized the importance of the media in providing a balanced information about the proposed constitution:

Amid a tightly controlled media and political environment, the media plays a very important role in keeping the public informed about all aspects of the document that will serve as the framework of their country’s governance. Unhampered media reportage of different views and activities is essential for Thai citizens to attain a balanced view about the draft charter’s merits and flaws, in order to vote according to their conscience.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is urging the Thai government to stop intimidating the media sector:

If Thailand's military junta wants its referendum to be seen as credible, it must stop harassing journalists covering the campaign and let information flow freely to the public.

iLaw, a group promoting civil liberties, insists that the Article 61 ban on information that “influences” voters one way or another undermines the credibility of the referendum:

We have observed that public discussions on the Draft Constitution and on the Referendum are unusually muted, even though day of the Referendum is rapidly approaching. People are afraid to speak out, or to take part in debates, or to carry out campaign activities. This atmosphere is not conducive to a free and fair referendum, and therefore the results are unlikely to be fully accepted, either in Thailand or abroad.

by Mong Palatino at July 21, 2016 02:09 PM

Chinese Reformist Magazine Shuts Down to Resist Authorities’ Hostile Takeover
Du daozheng standing in front of a calligraphy written by Chinese president Xi Jinping's father Xi Zhongxun. The calligraphy is a gift which praises Yanhuang Chunqiu's publication work in 2001. Photo from Bowen Press.

Du Daozheng standing in front of a calligraphy written by Chinese President Xi Jinping's father Xi Zhongxun. The calligraphy is a gift which praises Yanhuang Chunqiu's publishing work in 2001. Photo via Bowen Press.

“Better to be a broken jade than an intact tile.” With that Chinese idiom, which means death is preferable to dishonor, the publisher of Yanhuang Chunqiu announced on July 17 that the reformist magazine would cease publication.

Founded in 1991, Yanhuang Chunqiu was partly state-affiliated, but nevertheless initiated discussions in China about political reform, including “intra-party democracy,” congressional reform and relaxing the government's control over the media.

Authorities’ tolerance for the magazine, however, has waned in recent years amid President Xi Jinping's tightening grip on power and aggressive ideological campaign. On June 12, the China Academy of Art, which comes under the Ministry of Culture, removed all of the magazine's directors and assigned six new people to take over its management. The magazine's editorial committee attempted to file legal charges against the Academy for violating previous agreements, but the effort failed.

Things then escalated dramatically in the days that followed. On July 15, authorities broke into the magazine's offices, seized all the property including bank accounts and changed the password for the magazine's website.

Founder and publisher Du Daozheng condemned the takeover of Yanhuang Chunqiu in the statement announcing the end of operations:


[The China Art Academy]'s announcement of the magazine's new leadership has violated citizens’ freedom of the press, which is protected by Article 35 of the Constitution, and has broken the previous contract, which ensured the editorial committee's autonomy in managing, publishing and financing the magazine.

After Yanhuang Chunqiu's editorial team discussed the matter, everyone agreed that from today onward (July 17), the magazine would cease to operate. Any other person publishing under the name of Yanhuang Chunqiu has no relation to this editorial committee.

All three directors removed by the Academy have strong links to the Chinese Communist Party, suggesting that the decision to intervene came from the party's top leadership.

Du, 73, is the former head of the state press ministry. Hu Dehua is the son of former Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang. And Li Cheng is the daughter of Li Zhuan, the former chief editor of People's Daily, which is the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.

Attempt after attempt to intervene

Since 2013, the party has made several attempts to intervene in the magazine's editorial autonomy. In January 2013, the magazine's website was taken offline for more than two weeks. The block came after a high-profile incident of censorship at the Guangzhou newspaper Southern Weekly in which authorities replaced discussion of constitutionalism in favor of praise for the Chinese Communist Party. Observers believed that the move against Yanhuang Chunqiu was meant to prevent the magazine from spreading their proposals for political reform in support of their liberal friends.

In September 2014, the magazine's supervision was re-assigned from the Chinese Yinhuang Culture Research Institution to the China Academy of Art under the Ministry of Culture, a change which the editorial committee resisted. They appealed to the magazine's advisory committee, which is composed of senior party members, for support. Eventually, the magazine was allowed to retain partial editorial autonomy, but had to accept the stationing of content supervision staff appointed by the Academy.

In February 2015, the Academy banned the magazine from publishing its spring festival editorial and forbade the editorial committee from organizing its annual spring festival gathering. In June of that year, the extreme leftist wing within the Chinese Communist Party launched an attack on the magazine's “anti-party” mistake in narrating the history of the party, and its chief editor was forced to leave. In May 2016, censorship authorities stopped the printing of the magazine's feature on the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution — the violent purge of people deemed anti-communist during the 1960s and 70s — at the presses.

Moreover, a number of the magazine's editors and advisers have been harassed for their characterization of Chinese history. Hong Zhenkuai, former chief editor of the magazine, was sued in July 2015 for “defaming” the Five Heroes of Langya Mountain — a group of soldiers glorified for refusing to surrender to invading Japanese warriors during the Sino-Japanese War in 1941. They are said to have killed themselves instead by jumping off a cliff. Hong had pointed to historical records that indicated two of the heroes actually died from accidents.

And 93-year-old Chinese Communist Party historian He Fang was put under a party-led disciplinary investigation for criticizing former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in May 2016.

‘Xi's government wants to educate its officials into “fools”‘

Following the announcement of Yanhuang Chunqui's shutdown, one of the magazine's former managing editors quoted current Chinese President Xi Jinping's own words, as spoken to party magazine Quishi, to explain what has happened to China's media sector:


[Xi said] ideology and the public sphere are divided into three color zones: red, black and grey. Red is our territory and we have to defend it; black represents the negative side and we have to use our swords to minimize its influence; as for grey area, we have to take it over and turn it into the red zone.

Yanhuang Chunqui must then fall into the grey area, according to the ideological battle that Xi is waging.

Currently, the term “Yanhuang Chunqiu” is blocked from search on popular Chinese social media site Weibo. On Twitter, @Zodiac4698 commented on the magazine's “outspokenness”:

Yanhuang Chunqiu should not be considered outspoken. It is just an official channel for party leaders and officials to understand the history of the Chinese Communist Party. The crackdown on Yanhuang Chunqiu and today's takeover indicates that Xi's government wants to educate its officials into “fools” like the rest of the society. Party members and officials should remain naive.

Political cartoonist @thomasycwong gave the situation a humorous spin, imagining how Xi Jinping successfully can make a desk bow to him:

Hey, Yanhuang Chunqui, a bunch of bookworms who know nothing [about politics]! I can make a desk bow to me!

by L. Finch at July 21, 2016 07:41 AM

Links for 2016-07-20 []

July 21, 2016 07:00 AM

July 20, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
PokéStops or Stopping Poké? Iran Reacts to the Pokémon Go Phenomenon
The author of this post imagines playing Pokémon Go in Tehran, holding the game up to a picture of Azadi Tower.

Post author Mahsa Alimardani imagines playing Pokemon Go in in front of Azadi square in Tehran, holding the game up to a picture of the monument. Screencapture by Mahsa Alimardani.

Pokémon Go has become a worldwide phenomenon with over 30 million downloads since its release on July 6, 2016 in selected countries.

The game uses Google Maps data to superimpose characters from the Pokémon series into your geographic surroundings. As you walk, your smartphone uses GPS to track your position in the world, and it will know if you get close to one of these characters. You can then capture the character on your phone screen, train it, and then deploy it in the “augmented reality” battlefield that is Pokémon Go.

Despite the fact that the game is only available in certain places, the craze has drawn in many players from other countries, including Iran, who have used VPNs to download the game.

How has Iran — the country with one of the most restricted Internet environments in the world — reacted to Pokémon Go?

Finding Pokémon in Tehran is not easy

Many Iranian users have commented on the difficulty of finding Pokémon around cities such as Tehran. A Reddit user in Iran asked the Pokémon Go Reddit feed on 10 July if others have been locating creatures in Tehran.

Hi, I have a quick question. I'm in Iran right now and I was wondering if pokemon go will work? I'm in the middle of Tehran so it's a big city but I can't find any information if the app even works here. I have 4g mobile data but I haven't seen anything special on the map. Thanks

Respondents to the post theorized that the application is blocked, but others noted that they had occasionally come upon some characters, and even indicated Poke stops in Tehran parks or gardens in the city of Shiraz. One Twitter user reported finding Pokemon by the historic Blue Mosque in the city of Tabriz.

A neighbourhood with Pokemon in #Tabriz…Kabood Mosque.

Another Twitter user in the city of Karaj described feeling happy that Pokémon had given him an excuse to go outside and move.

Tonight I went to hunt Pokemon, it's a very amusing game :)) at least I now have excuse to move since I barely do

A female Twitter user in Tehran jokingly complained that life has become difficult now that she has to hunt for Pokémon while being on the lookout for the country's morality police, who arrest and fine women for improper hejab.

It's quite difficult to be in the streets and be focused on both hunting Pokémon and on the lookout that gasht ershad don't hunt me. Life has become hard :))

Notable Iranian game developer Mohammad Mehdi Behfarrad offered some deeper analysis on the appeal of the game, theorizing that it might not have broad appeal in Iran for a number of reasons, including the nation's unfamiliarity with the Pokémon series that has been around since 1995.

نکته اصلی درباره بازی پوکمون داستان اصلی پوکون است که از فضا و ویژگی‌های داستانی آن به بهترین شکل در طراحی بازی استفاده شده است. به تعبیر دیگر داستان واقعی شکل‌گیری پوکمون در قالب تکنولوژی AR تبدیل به یک بازی سرگرم‌کننده شده است که طبیعتا برای مخاطبان هم جذاب است. آدم‌ها اساسا به دنبال تجربه‌های تازه هستند و طبیعتا در کنار هم قرار گرفتن این ظرفیت‌ها توسط کمپانی معتبری همچون نینتندو تبدیل به یک اتفاق می‌شود…از آنجا که داستان اصلی پوکمون خیلی در ایران شناخته شده نیست،‌ شاید سرعت برقراری ارتباط مخاطب ایرانی با این بازی مانند نمونه‌های دیگری مانند.

The main point about the Pokemon is the story and the best usage of the features of the story in the AR [augmented reality]  structure of the game. On the other hand the conversion of the story into this new entertaining technology is what attracts the masses. People are looking to new experiences and naturally when this comes together with a reputable company like Nintendo in this capacity it turns into an event…From knowing that the main Pokemon story is not very known in Iran, it may not have the same speed in connecting with the Iranian players.

Will Pokémon meet authorities’ demands?

Authorities have also commented on the game. Hasan Karimi Ghodosi, the director of the National Foundation for Computer Games (NFCG), said that he has been in talks with the game's developers. In the past, the NFCG has issued bans on games such as “1979 Revolution” a game depicting struggles of resistors of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as well as “Battlefield 3” a game that involved a US military invasion of Tehran.

Ghodosi explained to Mehr News Agency (an organisation owned by the Islamic Dissemination Organisation) on July 17 that the status of the game in Iran would depend on the game developer's cooperation with authorities.

درباره بازی پوکمون ما یک مکاتبه ایمیلی با سازندگان این بازی داشته‌ایم  با این مضمون که اگر قرار است این بازی در ایران توزیع و عرضه شود حتماً باید از فیلتر بنیاد ملی بازی‌های رایانه‌ای بگذرد و هماهنگی‌های لازم در این زمینه صورت گرفته باشد و در غیر این صورت ناگزیر از فیلتر و جلوگیری از عرضه بازی هستیم.

We had a communication through email with the developers of Pokemon Go and with the issue that if the game wants to come to the Iranian market it has to pass through the filtering of the National Foundation of Computer Games along with their cooperation, otherwise we have to filter and block this game in our market.

He further explained that the NFCG already had two conditions for the developer's of the game, which they had not communicated to them yet. These include keeping the game's data servers inside of Iran, as well as cooperating with the government to prohibit the game from targeting locations that could be of national security concerns.

The request to host servers inside the country might be seen as an extension of the demand from this past May by the Supreme Council of Cyberspace to all foreign messaging companies that they have a year to move the data they hold on Iranians onto servers inside the country or face censorship.

برای عرضه این بازی دو شرط را مدنظر داریم که البته هنوز به صورت رسمی به سازندگان بازی اعلام نشده؛ یکی اینکه باتوجه به حجم اطلاعات ثبت شده کاربران در فضای این بازی، سرور اصلی آن حتماً باید در ایران باشد و دوم اینکه نقاط تفریحی و مقاصد هدف‌گذاری شده در سراسر کشور برای تگ شدن در این بازی هم باید با هماهنگی و همکاری بنیاد مشخص شود. نباید نقاطی برای کاربر معین شود که از لحاظ موازین و قوانین کشور منعی برای حضور کاربر در آنجا وجود داشته باشد. مانند مراکز نظامی و امنیتی.
اگر سازندگان این بازی به دنبال ورود رسمی به ایران هستند باید این موارد را مدنظر داشته باشند اما با توجه به نامه‌نگاری‌ای که داشتیم آنچه از واکنش آن‌ها برمی‌آمد به صورتی بود که احساس نمی‌کنیم در شرایط فعلی برنامه‌ای برای ورود به ایران داشته باشند. بازار بازی‌های رایانه‌ای ایران همچنان برای بازِی‌سازان و شرکت‌های جهانی یک بازار پیچیده و ناشناخته است و به همین دلیل کمتر به دنبال ورود به آن هستند، به خصوص که درباره این بازی در همین محدوده فعلی بازار عرضه هم سازندگانش سود سرشاری را عاید خود کرده‌اند.

To supply this game in the country, we have two conditions that are not formally announced to the original game makers. Firstly, with attention to the information users register within the game, the original server has to be located in Iran and second all the targetted locations in the game for tagging around the country has to be coordinated and cooperated with the National Foundation of Computer Games. There should not be locations that users are prohibited to be in, like the military or national security locations.

If the game makers want to officially enter the Iranian market they have to comply with our rules but from their correspondence we see that they don’t have any plans to enter the Iranian market. Iran’s gaming market is a complicated market for developers and global companies and for this reason they are not looking into entering our market.

The director of the NFCG himself recognized that Pokémon Go's developer's were unlikely to cooperate with their demands, and would continue to operate as they have been inside of Iran for the past few weeks, with downloads through VPNs, which are ubiquitous in Iran.

by Mahsa Alimardani at July 20, 2016 11:03 PM

July 19, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
Iranian Hardliners Want to Stop Blocking Twitter — to Defeat Saudi Propaganda
A picture of Twitter being written into the ancient Persian Cyrus Cylinder in a animation film for Farsi Twitter, highlighting the platforms effects in Iran.

A screenshot of Twitter being written into the ancient Persian Cyrus Cylinder in an animation film for Farsi Twitter, highlighting the platforms importance for communications in Iran. Watch the video here.

A group of Iranian government hardliners, who typically stand at the forefront of policies curtailing freedom of expression, are demanding that Iran stop blocking Twitter.

This sudden change of tune has very little to do with the rights of Iranian users. Rather, they are making this move in an effort to ensure Iranian dominance in a so-called Twitter war with Saudi Arabia.

The group first took this new position in an article on Tabnak News, a conservative news website founded by former Revolutionary Guards’ commander (and current member) Mohsen Rezaee, in a piece entitled: “Has the time come to remove the filter on Twitter in order to enter into a  “online battle”? The unnamed author reasoned that Twitter's international appeal justified the move:

وییتر یک رسانه کارآمد و یک بلندگوی به شدت قوی در سطح بین‌الملل است که پیش از مسلط شدن سعودی‌ها بر آن، باید توسط ایرانی‌ها کنترل شده باشد. انتظار می‌رود برای حضور وسیع کاربران ایرانی در این «نبردآنلاین» که بخواهیم یا نخواهیم رسماً آغاز شده، بستر لازم در این دوره زمانی فراهم شود و قدرت عمل در اختیار تعداد بالای کاربران ایرانی قرار گیرد.

Twitter is an efficient media and a extremely strong microphone on the international level and before Saudi takes it over it must become controlled by Iranians. The necessary conditions should be provided for Iranian users during this period since the online war is official started whether we like or not.

The Tabnak article argues for the removal of censorship to obstruct a so-called “psychological operation” perpetrated against Iran by Saudi Arabia.

عربستان سعودی، یک عملیات روانی را در توییتر علیه ایران به راه انداخت و با هشتگ #ایران_تدعم_الارهاب_بفرنسا، کوشید تا به استدلا‌ل‌های مضحک حملات نیس را به گردن ایران بیندازد.

Saudi Arabia, has commenced a psychological operation against Iran on Twitter with the hashtag #Iran_Supports_Terrorism_France, trying to blame the Nice attacks on Iran with ridiculous arguments.

These concerns are nothing new, as Saudi Arabia and Iran have a long history of tensions in the region. While Saudi Arabia is often the leader in the Sunni sectarian side of regional tensions, the majority-Shiite Iran leads the other side. This past January, Saudi cut diplomatic ties with Iran when its missions in the country were ransacked following the execution of Sheik Nimr, a Shiite leader who advocated for Shiite rights in Saudi Arabia. Conflicts between the two nations also have escalated with the proxy combatants that both countries maintain in the Yemeni civil war. And last year, Global Voices documented the ongoing social media campaigns of Saudi-led Twitter accounts that fueled Kurdish tensions in Mahabad.

The Tabnak article does mark a departure from the ongoing contrast between the relatively moderate administration of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and more conservative factions of the Iranian government. However, it should be noted that Tabnak and Rezaee form into a hardline faction that are often critical of other hardliners, such as those close to the former conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Before Rouhani came into office, the government's position on Internet content was often articulated by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In one speech, he said:

Today, there is Internet, satellite, and many other communication platforms for easy communications. Various thoughts compete to dominate the minds of Muslims. Today however, we are at a battlefield and face a real campaign to influence our minds. This war and campaign is not a disadvantage. In fact, it is to our advantage. I am certain that we will win the war if we enter the battlefield and do what we have to do, taking out and using our ammunitions, which are our Islamic thoughts stored in our barracks of divine studies. We have to do this.

Rouhani came into power in 2013 with promises of increasing freedoms online. While a conservative majority in other parts of the Iranian government has made this promise difficult to keep, they have had some victories.

In January of 2015 they prevented the filtering of popular messaging applications such as Whats App and Viber by blocking the decisions of the hardline judiciary in implementing their filtering rulings. In January of 2016 they also brought the CCDOC (Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content) towards a decision not to filter Telegram. This was no small feat, given that the CCDOC is managed by the judiciary (not to be confused with Iran’s Ministry of Justice), which is typically a conservative body.

Iranian Internet users have often wondered why these decisions have not been extended to unblock Twitter and Facebook, platforms that were censored following the 2009 Green Movement.

The Tabnak article continues, specifically highlighting Twitter “Trends” as a reason for Saudi Arabia's success in dominating Iran on Twitter:

به نظر می‌رسد با توجه به شرایط کنونی و فعال شدن عربستان سعودی در توییتر برای ایجاد جنگ روانی علیه ایران از طریق «ترند» کردن موضوعات ضدایرانی، باید در این مقطع درباره رفع مسدودیت توییتر در کشورمان بررسی‌هایی توسط نهادهای تصمیم‌گیرنده صورت پذیرد.

It seems that considering the current situation and the active presence of Saudi Arabia on Twitter for the psychological warfare against Iran through “trending” anti-Iran issues, we must at this time gather the deciding organizations to considering the unblocking of Twitter.

The feature of Twitter “Trends” that amplifies certain social media campaigns does not in work in Iran, since the Iranian government blocks the platform, which prevents Twitter from tracking the geolocation of trends inside the country.

It is unclear how far Tabnak's call to re-open Twitter will go. Tabnak founder Mohsen Rezaee himself has been a member of Facebook since his 2013 bid to run for President and on Twitter since 2015.

In a Facebook post from earlier this year, Rezaee stoked Saudi-Iran tensions with this statement to his followers:

روزی كه #اسرائیل، دوست امروز #آل‌سعود از ایران شكست بخورد، همه مردم منطقه فریاد زنده‌باد #ایران سر خواهند داد».

The day that #Israel, today's friend of the Al Saud's are defeated by Iran, the people of our region will celebrate with cries of “long live Iran”

A follower responded to Rezaee's post, mocking the fact that he had circumvented Iranian laws and censorship for religious reaons:

ضمنا شما برای استفاده از فیلترشکن حجت شرعی دارید دیگه؟

The day you use a circumvention tool for religious justifications?

The irony of Iranian officials belonging to social networks that are blocked in the country has long been acknowledged by Iranians.

In its conclusion, the Tabnak piece argues that the only dangers Twitter poses to Iran are through Saudi-led efforts:

حقیقت آن است که توییتر دارای ابعاد اخلاقی منفی نیز نیست و تنها ابعاد امنیتی برای آن متصور بود که با توجه به تحرکات اعراب ضدایراتی، این ابعاد پررنگ‌تر می‌شود.

The truth is Twitter does not have a negative moral dimension just a security dimension that was magnified through a anti-Iranian movement led by Arabs.

Previous official reasons given in 2009 linked Twitter to foreign efforts to promote “sedition” with the Green Movement protests.

This is part of a new tide of political figures previously inclined to condemn and censor media such as Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan who took to social media to counter the recent coup.

by Mahsa Alimardani at July 19, 2016 03:32 PM

July 15, 2016

Network-Centric Advocacy
Disruptive Networks of People Root Change in the Power of Humanity not Violence.

Absolutely brilliant, grounded and sharp insights from David Haskell at DreamsinDeed published over at SSIR. His insights on working with people in hard places is among the best I have ever come across.  I love his view of leaders he calls "dreamers in hard places".

 "Dreamers in hard places" are under valued, under appreciated, under the radar, and under represented in the leadership of our world and our work.  In fact, the way we structure movements demonstrates that we fear "dreamers from hard places" participation at the levels of governance and power.  Most of the best leadership in traditional organizations can't even interact effectively with people that are genuinely squaring off abuse and trauma spread by government and industry.   

David's body of work is inspiring and the approach is network-centric to the core.  His team builds networks to support dreamers in hard places. 

 What sets a dream apart from a good idea? We apply four tests:

  • A dream is celebrated by the poor, and unsettles the powerful.
  • A dream invites everyone to the table, including those we don’t like.
  • A dream requires that everyone change, starting with the dreamer.
  • A dream is worth bleeding for, not just working on.


Some of the questions his work leads to includes  "Do our models include people not like us?", "Do the poor celebrate your arrival?", "Does the answer also make sense to people that are only educated at the school of hardknocks?", "Have we created a microphone so the smallest voice is heard?", "How does this strategy draw in opposition to be a part of the solution?", "How does this put the last first?"

How many of the strategies and campaigns that you ever worked on pass these questions?  Are you working on dreams? Are you pushing power to the edge?  Does your work make sense to the people most impacted by the problem?  Are they working with you on the solution?  Are you seeking diversity of people to support your work or are you working to diversify who you work with so you can serve broader agendas?

by Marty at July 15, 2016 12:52 AM

Will AI turn on polluters? AI for Advocacy. The days of hiding behind complexity are numbered.

 There are issues with AI that all of us need to think about.    Surprisingly, I am not seeing the business community publicly concerned as it ought to be that AI is a serious threat to abusive and polluting multi-national corporations.  AI that has the best of ethics still might be a ruthless opponent for polluters.  AI will not play games for long.

The tools and services are getting to the point that open data will soon be reconnected in new ways.  For example, air pollution ontology grows to include the EPA the entire toxic release inventory, relative risks, science about global and human threats, then the sources, points of exposure, the companies behind the pollution, etc.       The happy news is that pollution data will no longer be isolated from all the other public data.  

As we unleash efforts to have machines to process environmental (human rights, gun violence, etc) insights new language algorithms breakdown news, court data, public notifications, water and air monitors, government data on pollution, spills, risks, financial records, SEC reports, executive pay, lobbying activity, FOI reports, Wikileaks, and open social graph references.  Associations of events, data and actors will be discovered and exposed.  We can expect new complete pictures of facts, exact sources, and new insights to take shape.  

The days of hiding behind complexity are numbered.  The bigger the company, the more public data there is on that company. All their permits for water and air discharges, new building activities, employment complaints,  news, inspector reports on an agency website, etc.  The size and complexity of supply chains, politics, and subsidiaries used to take thousands of hours of research to uncover. No more! 

I have spent many years talking with people that have dedicated thousands of hours understanding data, doing research to understand how systems create environmental, justice, political and public health consequences. From my first projects with the Georgia River Network, to the use of, to,, some heroes of mine  have even spent entire careers threading together unstructured and structured data sets to find the ways that expose how companies are tied to wells, superfund sites, politics or cancer clusters.   

Machine learning is advancing quickly.  Programmers and even increasingly less technical users, will be guiding machines to review data and understand patterns.  Tools are getting very quick at identifying events, objects, locations, interactions and dependencies.  They are soon going to be learning and uncovering patterns that demonstrate liability.

AI will likely be among the best new allies for the advocacy community.  AI will be a new source of public outreach providing trusted answers that cut through spin, public relations efforts, brand loyalties, manipulation and political lines.   

Are we that far away from the day when  Viv, Siri and Cortana all go beyond  "it is a yellow air day " and instead responding  "Don't go outside today because the Duke Energy coal plant has made your air dangerous."?  

t is not a new Terminator movie but Duke Energy vs. Siri promises to be an interesting fight.  I know which corner I am in.


by Marty at July 15, 2016 12:50 AM

July 14, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
Ethiopia Locks Down Digital Communications in Wake of #OromoProtests
Photo published on EthioTube page titled "Pictures from Oromo Protest - Winter 2015". No attribution or further context appears on the site.

Photo published on EthioTube page titled “Pictures from Oromo Protest – Winter 2015″. No attribution or further context appears on the site.

When students in Ginchi, a small town 75 km west of Addis Ababa, organized a demonstration in November 2015, US-based opposition media activist Jawar Mohammed, began posting minute-to-minute ‘live’ updates of the protest on his massively popular Facebook page, which has over 500k followers.

What started as a small-scale student protest over Ethiopian government's plan to expand Addis Ababa into adjacent farm lands of Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest constitutionally autonomous state, evolved into a series of largest and bloodiest demonstrations against Ethiopian government in a decade leaving at least 400 people killed, many more injured, and thousands jailed.

Along with Jawar’s live updates about the protests on Facebook, netizens saw a flood of digital photos, videos, blog posts, and tweets on other social media platforms coming from inside Ethiopia, mostly under the hashtag #OromoProtests.

For over a decade, the Ethiopian government has been violently cracking down on protesting students in Oromia, but these incidents have never garnered the online attention they did this time around. With scant coverage by foreign media from the front lines, and silence and misinformation coming from Ethiopia’s largely pro-government media outlets, the Internet emerged as the main channel used to disseminate information about protests. Jawar’s Facebook page and Twitter feed became the official-yet-unofficial story of the protest, leading diaspora writers to identify Jawar as a key shaper of public opinion on the events.

Though these networked communication dynamics are commonplace in many parts of the world, they are novel in Ethiopia, where Internet penetration hovered just below 5% in 2013, which is the last time that Internet access data was collected there by the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency.

The steady stream of #OromoProtests content triggered various attempts by the government to limit digital traffic and block telecom services in Oromia.

In a bid to quell the growing role of social media in magnifying the stories of protests and to regain the upper hand, Ethiopia’s state-owned telecommunication monopoly EthioTelcom blocked social media platforms including Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger in Oromia for at least two months. Around the same time, EthioTelecom also announced plans to begin charging customers for using popular voice over internet protocol (VoIP) applications such as Viber, Facebook messenger, Skype, and Google hangouts.

According to local media reports, EthioTelecom plans to enforce a new price scheme for VoIP data usage by deploying technologies that will more heavily regulate data plans and what kinds of apps operate on devices of each subscriber active on EthioTelecom network. In an unprecedented move, EthioTelecom also announced a plan to track, identify and ban mobile devices that are not purchased from the Ethiopian market. This move will allow EthioTelecom to keep a track of exactly what data is being sent to and from each subscriber active on the network. It remains unclear exactly how this technology will work, but it unquestionably demonstrates EthioTelecom's intention to take full political advantage of its monopoly.

Despite being one of the poorest countries in terms of Internet penetration in Africa, #OromoProtests garnered wall-to-wall coverage by the US based Ethiopian diaspora satellite television stations, particularly OMN and ESAT. Both stations picked various stories of #OromoProtests from social media and rebroadcast them to millions of Ethiopians living off the grid of mobile phone infrastructure.

To top all this off, on the heels of the protests, the parliament passed a stringent computer crimes law that looks very much like an effort to criminalize protest-related online speech and to more effectively utilize digital communication as a tool of public surveillance.

In a critical piece about the new law, the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote,

Ethiopia's prosecutors have long demonized legitimate uses of technology, claiming in court that the use of encryption, and knowledge of privacy-protecting tools is a sign of support for terrorists….By criminalizing everyday actions it ensures that anyone who speaks online, or supports online free expression, might one day be targeted by the law…. [This regulation] will intimidate ordinary Ethiopian citizens into staying offline, and further alienate Ethiopia's technological progress from its African neighbors and the rest of the world.

According to reports, the new legislation further limits already-diminished digital rights such as freedom of expression and privacy, criminalizing and levying severe punishments for defamatory speech online. The legislation also obliges service providers to store records of all communications along with their metadata for at least a year.


Read Global Voices’ special coverage of Ethiopia's #OromoProtests.

by Endalk at July 14, 2016 03:15 PM

Development Seed
Maintain a common user experience across websites with Design Systems

We use Design Systems to help us more efficiently organize and reuse design assets and code across sites that share elements.

We often create and tie together multiple websites, building what feels like a single site to its end user. Doing this makes our projects easier to maintain, allows us to develop in an extremely agile manner, and gives us the freedom to use the technology that best suits each task.

For instance, we built a number separate sites for OpenAerialMap, a tool that provides humanitarians with satellite and drone imagery. We built a separate site for the imagery browser, the data uploader form, and the documentation, just to name a few. Building a site for each of these facets allowed us not only to select the tech stack that best fit the needs of the project, but also prevented us from building a monolith app whose maintenance would be complicated. However, maintaining a consistent design language and interactions across all of them became a real challenge.

We found ourselves copying and pasting code between sites, creating a codebase that was hard to maintain. To cope with this we built Design System, a centralized module to contain all shared elements across sites.

OAM Uploader Form
OAM Docs
OAM Browser
These are all separate websites, but we manage the design and user interactions in one place.

Design System

Building on the approach we took for Collecticons, and drawing further inspiration from Foundation, Bootstrap, and this great article by Salesforce, we used methods for distributing code through a package manager, e.g. node package manager (NPM) or Ruby Gems. This allowed us to take all of our shared elements across sites, and turn them into an installable node module that can be included in each website that makes up a project. The three main elements that make up the Design System are:

  • scripts that can be included like any node module;
  • styles that can be loaded as a whole or as individual components and;
  • images which are common throughout the ecosystem and include logos and other branding elements.

Instead of copying and pasting code across websites, using node packages let us store all shared elements in one place and make those elements easily accessible and readily available to each and every site. For example, if we wanted to update the logo, we’d only have to change it in one place for it to be automatically updated on all other sites the next time they build.

Finally, having one repository for all shared elements, allows codebases to be more easily maintained and standardized, helping developers get started on new products, which is especially important for open source projects.

Although we’re still testing out this approach, using OAM, we think having a centralized design system, like the one we’ve shown here, is a great solution for complex and/or open source projects. Want to help? Give the Design System a try and send any suggestions or recommendations our way. We’re always looking to improve our workflow. A quick look at the docs is all that’s needed to start building. For more tech-savvy users, an example of its usage can be found in the OAM Docs gulpfile.

by Development Seed at July 14, 2016 12:00 AM

July 12, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
Imprisoned in Iran for Posting Jokes on Facebook, A Computer Engineer Awaits His Appeal Verdict

Image of “Symbolic Prison Cell” in Iran from Babak Farroki. Image taken from Flickr under CC By 2.0.

A version of this article was originally published on the site of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

Soheil Babadi has waited nearly a year for a ruling on his appeal against his prison sentence. Babadi was imprisoned in Iran in 2014 for posting jokes on a satirical Facebook page.

Authorities have meanwhile refused to release him on bail or allow him to receive medical treatment outside of Rajaee Shahr Prison in Karaj (west of Tehran) where he has been held in Ward 12—where political prisoners are kept—since October 1, 2014.

An informed source told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that Babadi’s appeal was filed more than 10 months ago, and that the Appeals Court last looked into his case in April 2016, but “the case judge has neither issued a verdict nor agreed to release Babadi on bail.”

“Those in charge of this case have deliberately prolonged Babadi’s prosecution,” added the source. “Now he needs to go on medical furlough [temporary leave] to get treatment for his kidney problem, but the officials refuse to allow him until he gets a final verdict.”

Political prisoners in Iran are routinely singled out for harsh treatment, which often includes denial of medical care.

Emam Naghi Facebook page

Banner image from Emam Naghi Facebook page.

The 39-year-old computer engineer was arrested on May 22, 2012 after allegedly posting jokes on the “Campaign to Remind Shiites about Imam Naghi” Facebook page (seen above), which satirizes political and religious issues while focusing on Ali al-Naghi—the tenth Imam according to Shia Islam. The page, which has nearly 33,000 fans, gained popularity after the song “Naghi” by musical artist Shahin Najafi went viral in early May 2012 and at least two senior theologians issued fatwas calling for Najafi’s death for insulting Naghi.

After his arrest, Babadi was held for more than 200 days in Ward 2-A of Tehran’s Evin Prison, which is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). During that time he was tortured and denied basic rights, according to an open letter he wrote from prison on September 7, 2013.

“In May 2011 I posted ten short pieces of satire on a Facebook page called the ‘Campaign to Remind Shiites about Imam Naghi’ without using any insulting words,” said the letter. “A year later I was arrested by the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization without a warrant and held in Ward 2-A, the IRGC’s exclusive detention center, and beaten and interrogated for 24 hours.”

Babadi continued: “Then someone named Ghena’atkar (from Branch 3 of the Security Court) formally read the charges against me, including ‘insulting the Prophet Mohammad,’ ‘insulting the sacred,’ ‘assembly and collusion,’ ‘insulting the supreme leader,’ ‘propaganda against the state,’ ‘membership in a group planning to overthrow the state’ ‘and acting against national security’—all for writing ten jokes on Facebook.”

“I was interrogated while blindfolded in the corner of a room,” he added. “The agent wanted me to confess to the charges against me, and when I refused he severely beat me. I was constantly under psychological pressure as the agents probed into my personal life and tried to accuse me of sexual relations with friends and relatives, even with my sister-in-law, and even of homosexual relations with one of my friends, Mostafa. But they didn’t succeed and kept me in solitary confinement for 225 days.”

The practice of forced “confessions” in Iran, including those elicited under torture or the threat of torture, has been well documented by international human rights organizations.

Soheil Babadi, the imprisoned Facebook users convicted for posting jokes. Photo taken from ICHRI and used with permission.

Soheil Babadi, the imprisoned Facebook users convicted for posting jokes. Photo taken from ICHRI and used with permission.

Babadi indicated in his letter that his basic rights were denied primarily because his jokes were turned into a security case. During his interrogation his back was injured after severe beatings, he was held incommunicado for months in solitary confinement, and he was detained for a year before his first trial.

Babadi was first charged with “insulting the sacred” and “insulting President [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad],” and sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison, 74 lashes and two years in exile in the city of Beshagard near the southern port of Bandar Abbas.

In a second trial in September 2015 Judge Mohammad Moghisseh of Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced Babadi to an additional seven years in prison for “assembly and collusion against national security” and “insulting the supreme leader.” Branch 26 of the Appeals Court has yet to issue a verdict on the appeal against Babadi’s sentence.

All of the charges against Babadi relate to his Facebook posts. If Article 134 of Iran’s New Islamic Penal Code is applied to his case, his combined sentence could be reduced to seven-and-a-half years in prison and he could be released on probation after four years.

by International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran at July 12, 2016 01:52 PM

July 11, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
A New Species of Beetle Named After President Xi Is Blacklisted on Chinese Social Media
Image from Hong Kong non-profit independent media The Stand News. (Non-commercial use)

Image from Hong Kong non-profit independent media The Stand News. (Non-commercial use)

A Chinese scientist recently published an article on Zootaxa, a peer-reviewed scientific journal for animal taxonomists, about the discovery of a new beetle species from Hainan Island called Rhyzodiastes (Temoana) xii. While the “xii” part of the name might just look like Roman numerals, it's actually a reference to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The scientist, Wang Cheng Bin, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the department of ecology at the Czech University of Life Sciences, wrote in his article (via China Digital Times):

The specific epithet is dedicated to Dr. Xi Jin-Ping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, for his leadership making our motherland stronger and stronger

It is not uncommon for scientists to pay homage to state leaders in their naming of new species, such as Aptostichus barackobamai, a species of trapdoor spider named after the 44th president of the United States, and Mandelia mirocornata, a Mandelia mirocornata named after Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa.

But the naming of this new bug after Xi has been deemed a “sensitive” issue in China, and the Chinese translation of the name (習氏狼條脊甲) has been banned from search on social media site Weibo. The search notice from Weibo states:

Screen capture of Weibo search result.

Screen capture of the Weibo search result for “Rhyzodiastes (Temoana) xii.”


According to related law and policy, the search result of “Rhyzodiastes (Temoana) xii” cannot be shown.

The word “bug” has a negative connotation in Chinese culture. Furthermore, the scientific description of Rhyzodiastes (Temoana) xii says it resides underneath rotten trees and eats rotten things, imagery associated with corruption in Chinese literature.

The ban on the term quickly became a running joke online. A Weibo user sarcastically praised the effectiveness of web censors:


The check on sensitive terms is so advanced. The post about the new bug named after XXX on [major social media platforms] Weibo, Duban and Ren Ren was deleted instantly. Should we say that XXX is not happy about the bug being named after him? An act of ass kissing now turns into ass kicking…

The sensitive nature of the name is perhaps best captured in a poem titled after Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis and circulated on social media. It was written by Zhang LIfan, a well-known writer and historian:


The Metamorphosis
Confusion between ass kissing and advanced hacking [of meaning],
Name draws boundless imagination.
Natural-born dragon species,
Driving the dream in the air now turns into bug.

by Oiwan Lam at July 11, 2016 08:43 PM

Chinese Censors Are Making Sure Social Media Only Shows Positive Flooding News
Disaster relief soldiers carrying sand bags and eating buns. Screen capture from CCTV.

Disaster relief soldiers carrying sand bags and eating buns. Screen capture from CCTV.

Social media has played a key role in the aftermath of disasters that have struck China. Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, China's Twitter-like Weibo was used for coordinating disaster relief work. And after last year's Tianjian explosion, as local media pushed superficial coverage or ignored the event altogether, Web users published and spread first-hand photos and updates.

Social media is a place for victims of a tragedy to express their sorrow and seek each other out for support. It's also a place for citizens to publish their own observations and reporting — even if China's strict censors end up deleting them.

That's what's happening at the moment with news related to widespread flooding, affecting 26 provinces. So far, around 1.5 million people are displaced and 180 have been killed. The Chinese Communist Party believes that disaster news should be positive and in alignment with their ideology, thus the lack of critical or hard-hitting information.

Many netizens have complained about the deletion of flooding news on Weibo. A Weibo user from Anhui province wrote:


Anhui saves the country [the province, which is located midstream of the Yangtze River, is a flood discharge location], but no one is there to save Anhui. I called my family, even though the rain has stopped for three days, the water level remains high and local armed police officers are still performing rescue operations. Sometimes, when I make a comment about the terrain in Anhui, the comments got deleted. This is ridiculous, for many  years Anhui has sacrificed for downstream cities and the province does not have equal development opportunities. Now that we are flooded, we can't even comment about it?

His complaint received many echoes in the comment section:

- 都要积极向上乐观装傻,瞎讲什么大实话!小心人家让你话都没地方讲
– 我们这边也是 虽然晴天 但是水位不退 有时候还涨 不下雨 但是大家都开心不起来了 发消极的微博还被删评论冻我账号 真无语了

- We are required to be positive, optimistic and naive. Shut our eyes and talk about the Big Truth! Be careful, they might ban you from speaking.
– We are the same here. The rain has stopped but water level remains the same. Sometimes it even gets higher. People are unhappy. Whenever I say anything negative, my comments are deleted and my account suspended. I am speechless.

Banned news outlets outside China reported that the floods in Anhui have killed a few dozen people. Hundreds of flood victims demonstrated on July 8 against state-owned Chinese Central Television's (CCTV) interview with local disaster relief officials who claimed that the floods only affected two major streets.

Of course, news about the protest could not be found on Weibo. What did circulate widely was news about the People's Liberation Army's heroic and self-sacrificing contribution in disaster relief work. A CCTV reporter summarized the channel's video report on the subject in a Weibo post and added screenshot photos. It was then republished by major news outlets and “civilization volunteers” — Communist Youth League of China members who promote the party's message online:


Salute to the most adorable people! In heavy terrain, they moved the sand bags without rain clothes and their bodies were covered with mud. Each sad bag weighs 60 catty [about 36 kilos] and they each carried 300 of them and had to move to and fro 600 times; the water and buns were mixed with rain and this is their daily diet… wherever there is danger, the disaster relief fighters show up. Salute!

Many netizens were not touched by the propaganda. Below is a sample of the skepticism found in the comment threads:

每次看见这样的事迹,我是真心怀疑,官方宣传用这种模式的所谓“感动”来置换事前的防灾准备不足,以及救灾组织工作不力,是真正在吃那些一线官兵的人血馒头。回回百年不遇,年年感动中国! 宣传部门的人,最厉害的地方,就是能把一场灾难变成一件感人至深的好事,责任问题可以隐藏的悄无声息!

- Whenever I read these kinds of accounts, I feel doubt. The official propaganda turns the fact about lack of disaster relief equipment and coordination work into a “touching” story. Such an act is using the frontline soldiers’ sweat and blood [for political purposes]. Every time they frame the disaster as the most serious one in 100 years, every time they use the disaster to pull at China's heartstrings. The propaganda is good at turning a disaster into a positive story and making human errors invisible.
– The most adorable people are respectful. But how come in this strong country there is no back-up team giving them warm water and meals?
– You can't even give them a sausage? And you make this into news? You can't take care of the people who protect the country, this is self-shaming.

On Twitter, opinion leaders were more vocal in criticizing the censorship and propaganda on the floods. Wu Zuolai, a current affairs blogger, argued that the official spin on the news could make people stop donating to disaster relief work:

Sina's news portal has been turned into CCTV. However big the disaster, the first headline is about President Xi, followed by the premier. The floods in the south, which have caused countless deaths and injuries, becomes secondary news. But people also change, no matter how “sensational” the reports are, no one donates. Because it is not the people's matter [but the party's matter]. The Chinese Communist Party has 80 million members, if each of them donates 100, it would manage to collect 8 billion for a birthday party. People don't have to take part in it.

And Gao Yu, a prominent Chinese journalist who is under house arrest for leaking a party document, discussed the issue of government accountability:

Now Wuhan [in Hubei province] is all flooded and the number of people affected has reached 30 million. Yet [former Chinese Premier] Li Peng and his family can still enjoy their summer. The reason is that disaster relief work has followed the same pattern for 67 years [since the establishment off the People's Republic of China in 1949]: the people's army are fighting floods with buns as their meals; the leaders make a show appearance on the front lines; the truth about lives and property lost is covered up; sin and responsibility are transformed into glory in the media.

Former Chinese Premier Li Peng is a key person behind the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. The project was designed to be able to cope with once-in-a-millennium floods. However, in reality, the project changed the climate along the Yangtze, causing serious droughts in the summer of 2006 and the spring of 2010. And when water discharges from upstream dams, downstream provinces suffer from widespread flooding.

Moreover, the reclamation of inland lakes and wetlands for luxurious property development projects has further obstructed water discharge during floods. But under the current censorship system, criticism that associates development projects with the floods are labelled as spreading rumors, and the only “big truth” about the floods is the heroic People's Army under the leadership of the party.

by Oiwan Lam at July 11, 2016 08:38 PM

#ShutDownZim: Will Social Media Protests Drive Zimbabwe to Build a ‘Great Firewall'?
Photos of downtown Harare, empty on July 6. Shared on Twitter by @Lean3JvV.

Photos of downtown Harare, empty on July 6. Shared on Twitter by @Lean3JvV.

Zimbabwe's nationwide “shutdown” last week — a boycott of work, shopping and public institutions — was one of the biggest and most successful in recent years. It left streets, shops, banks and malls deserted in the capital city of Harare.

Protesters are demanding government accountability in the face of unpaid wages, corruption and lack of jobs as Zimbabwe's economy sits on the brink of collapse. The country has been in a currency crisis since 2009 and unemployment is estimated at 80 or 90 percent. Recent cash shortages have forced citizens to queue for days to withdraw money from the banks. Civil servants in Zimbabwe have not been paid since June this year, but members of the security forces are always paid on time with the government living in fear of violent political overthrow.

Many are also calling for the resignation of 92-year-old Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, when the country gained full independence from the UK.

This isn't the first time Zimbabwe has staged a “shutdown” over government dysfunction, but it is the first time that political parties and civic organisations have mobilized protesters using social media.

On Twitter, Facebook and the social messaging platform WhatsApp, activists used various hashtags such as #ShutDownZim#ZimbabweShutdown, #ThisFlag, #‎ShutDownZimbabwe2016‬ and #ZimShutDown to organise the shutdown.

A screenshot of a YouTube video of Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire launching his onlin movement #ThisFlag.

Screenshot from a YouTube video of Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, who started one of the key organising hashtags for protests against president Robert Mugabe, #ThisFlag.

The hashtag #ThisFlag became a particularly powerful tool in the fight against the Mugabe regime and his ruling ZANU-PF party after it was launched on April 19, a day after Zimbabwe's Independence Day, by patriotic anti-corruption pastor Evan Mawarire, pictured above.

Since April 2016, social media platforms increasingly have become the most potent tools for Internet-based, non-partisan political activism in the country. This in turn has triggered fears that the government will move to ban social media platforms in the near future. Last Wednesday's shutdown suggests that citizens are right to be concerned.

On the morning of the July 6 shutdown, WhatsApp was not accessible. This is not trivial — local sources report that WhatsApp accounts for 34% of Internet data in Zimbabwe. The government denies blocking it, but scores of users think otherwise.

The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) last week also issued a warning that underlined punishments for “subversive or offensive telecommunication messages”:

We are therefore warning members of the public that from the date of this notice, any person caught in possession of, generating, sharing or passing on abusive, threatening, subversive or offensive telecommunication messages, including WhatsApp or any other social media messages that may be deemed to cause despondency, incite violence, threaten citizens and cause unrest, will be arrested and dealt with accordingly in the national interest.

The warning came after Mugabe's announcement in April, wherein media quoted him saying Zimbabwe could learn from China as it seeks to stop the “abuse” of the Internet.

Despite the unavailability of WhatsApp over public networks, some netizens were still able to share information using virtual private networks (VPNs).

At the level of Internet infrastructure, it is rumored that the government is working on licensing an Internet gateway for the country, which would be operated by the government and would absorb the multiple Internet gateways operating in the country at the moment. A draft copy of the new National ICT Policy articulates a government goal of establishing a single infrastructure that all Internet service providers use and a national fibre backbone that would allow government authorities broad access to network traffic, and presumably to user communications data.

If the burgeoning protest movement is to continue, more citizens will need to become tech-savvy as the government looks to tighten legislation and technical mechanisms regulating online activity.

by Ndesanjo Macha at July 11, 2016 08:34 PM

July 08, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
China Bans News Sourcing From Social Media
The Great Firewall of China. Image from Digital Trends.

The Great Firewall of China. Image from Digital Trends.

China's Cyberspace Administration, the top level Internet regulator, has banned news outlets from citing social media messages as sources. The new policy is part of an ongoing crackdown on “fake” news and rumors.

All media outlets received an official notice of the ban in early July, according to press release posted on the Administration's website late on the evening of July 3. The press release, which quoted several cases of “fabricated news” circulated online, said authorities had penalized one dozen online news outlets including Sina, Caijing, Tencent, and NetEase and forced them to delete a number of columnists’ accounts due to their use of social media sources.

The notice stressed:

要求各网站始终坚持正确舆论导向,采取有力措施,确保新闻报道真实、全面、客观、公正,严禁盲目追求时效,未经核实将社交工具等网络平台上的内容直接作为新闻报道刊发。[..] 各网站要落实主体责任,进一步规范包括移动新闻客户端、微博、微信在内的各类网络平台采编发稿流程,建立健全内部管理监督机制。严禁网站不标注或虚假标注新闻来源,严禁道听途说编造新闻或凭猜测想象歪曲事实。

All websites must adhere to the correct guidelines on channeling public opinion and adopt measures that ensure the news reports are true, comprehensive, objective and fair. The race to break news stories by using unverified facts distributed via social media platforms is forbidden. […] All websites should take responsibility for managing mobile news services as well as Weibo, WeChat and others to make sure that editorial flows are being monitored. Websites are strictly prohibited from quoting from unnamed or fake news sources and fabricating news based on hearsay, guesswork or imagination.

Two days later, commentary published by state news agency Xinhua advocated even more severe punishment for media outlets that failed to implement the new policy. The post has been widely distributed on social media, with many messages echoing the negative impact of fabricated news on the society.

The Cyberspace Administration mentioned various stories that included “false” news, with headlines such as:

  • Two killed and ten injured in bus arson in Changsha
  • After Wei Zexi incident, Letters and Complaints Bureau sets up a green channel for about 100 patients suffering from the same illness
  • Shanghai girl runs away from Jiangxi village during Lunar New Year
  • Daughter-in-law from city flips the dinner table in hometown village during Lunar New Year

The first two news items were fabricated from pre-existing news stories. For example, the bus arson was rewritten from a news report back in 2010.

The latter two cases were short stories published online to stimulate discussion about gender relations in China, but were then mischaracterized by media outlets as real incidents.

There are certainly cases in which journalists have failed to verify facts taken from social media, but what the Cyberspace Administration intentionally ignores is the positive impact of sourcing news from social media.

Take the Wei Zexi incident, which was sourced from social media. Wei was a 21-year-old college student who died in April of synovial sarcoma, but not before his family spent thousands on a phony treatment that exacerbated his condition. They had based the decision on what they thought was a search result on Baidu, the dominant Internet search engine in China, but was actually an advertisement. This particular story, which included video testimony from Wei taken shortly before he died, led to widespread discussion about the problem of search engine advertisement practices and the disorder of the Chinese health system. Eventually, the Cyberspace Administration stepped in to tighten the regulations on advertising on search engines.

Chang Ping, a prominent Chinese journalist who now resides in Germany, pointed out that though some “fabricated” stories are indeed spread by online media outlets, most of them are just sensational local news that have little to no consequences when compared to government-fabricated news that affect the country's development:


From a historical perspective, media outlets that are close to government have a higher tendency to fabricate news. The track record of state-controlled media outlets is even worse. For example, the China Daily, Xinhua News and Chinese Central Television have been producing lies that claim that 10,000 catty of wheat were grown on one mu [0.667 hectare] [during Mao Zedong's socioeconomic program called the Great Leap Forward], the June 4 massacre never happened in Tiananmen [in 1989], that promote the glory of the People's Collective Communes, the glory of the China Dream, the dictatorship of the proletariat [Maoist political theory during the Cultural Revolution] and rule by law [under current Chinese President Xi Jinping].

Since April 2015, the Cyberspace Administration has been introducing a series of policies to tighten control of online portals and news sites. Blogger Lanjinger compiled a timeline:

• 4月28日国家网信办发布“约谈十条”,网站存在未及时处置违法信息情节严重等9种情形的,企业相关负责人将被约谈,约谈整改不力的网站将被吊销许可证。9种情形将被约谈,并约谈了百度、腾讯。
• 去年10月24日,国家网信办召开各界人士座谈会,讨论“全面推进网络空间法治化。
• 今年5月6日,国家互联网信息办公室依法批准了人民网、新华网等6家中央重点新闻网站157个地方频道的开设申请。
• 6月21日,国家网信办召开全国跟帖评论专项整治视频会议,部署集中治理跟帖评论存在的突出问题,指出,跟帖评论乱象扰乱信息传播秩序、破坏网络舆论生态,人民群众深恶痛绝,必须下大力气整治。
• 6月28日国家互联网信息办公室发布”APP管理规定”,加强对移动互联网应用程序(App)信息服务的规范管理,促进行业健康有序发展,保护公民、法人和其他组织的合法权益。

• April 28, 2015: The Cyberspace Administration announced “10 rules for interviews.” The rules demanded that website administration attend “an interview” with authorities after the sites fail to manage illegal information. There are nine scenarios listed in the rules and for those sites which fail to improve their management after the interview, their business license can be cancelled.
• October 24, 2015: The Cyberspace Administration held a roundtable with representatives of the industry to discuss “the implementation of rule of law on cyberspace.”
• May 6, 2016: The Cyberspace Administration granted six state-controlled websites including Renminwang and Xinhua Net permission to operate provincial news channels. [The local news licensing system has made illegal other provincial news channels operated by all other portal websites. The six licensed sites are Renminwang, Xinhua, China Radio International, China Daily, Guangmingwang and China National Radio.]
• June 21, 2016: The Cyberspace Administration held a national video conference on the clean-up of news comment threads to draw up a plan in dealing with news comments on social media. The authorities said the news comments on social media have disrupted the order of online information distribution, the online opinion ecology. People hate such phenomena and more management effort is needed.
• June 28, 2016: The Cyberspace Administration announced the app management regulation to tighten management of Internet applications, to enhance the healthy development of the sector and to protect the rights of citizens, legal entities and other organizations. [The regulation demanded real-name registration of app users. There are more than 4 million applications on app stores in China.]

The current crackdown on online news and social media news comments is consistent with the broader ideological struggle under President Xi Jinping, who wants to restore the Chinese Communist Party's leadership in both new and conventional media.

by L. Finch at July 08, 2016 03:03 PM

July 07, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
Why Did Facebook Remove a Post Criticizing Singapore Police?
Teo Soh Lung and Roy Ngerng, another activist who has been investigated for political activities. Photos from International Service for Human Rights and The Heart Truths (Roy's blog).

Teo Soh Lung (left) and Roy Ngerng, another activist who has been investigated for political activities. Photos from International Service for Human Rights and The Heart Truths (Roy's blog).

When Singaporean police interrogated political activist and civil rights lawyer Teo Soh Lung, and searched her apartment and electronic devices without a warrant, Soh Lung spoke up. She wrote about the May 2016 incident on Facebook, and her lawyer posted video of the search on YouTube. The posts went viral.

But Soh Lung's most recent Facebook post about the incident met a different fate: censorship. Soh Lung reported that her post (see below) denouncing abuses of power by police in Singapore was removed by Facebook for ‘violating community standards.’

Teo Soh Lung received a notification that her post criticizing the Singapore police was removed on Facebook for violating community standards. Photo from the Facebook page of writer Kirsten Han

Teo Soh Lung received a notification that her post criticizing the Singapore police was removed on Facebook for violating community standards. Photo from the Facebook page of Singapore-based blogger Kirsten Han.

Police had investigated Soh Lung along with fellow activist Roy Ngerng “for publishing several online articles and postings that may be tantamount to election advertising” on the day prior to election day to “reflect rationally on various issues raised at an election before heading to the polls.” Campaign advertising is also banned on election day. These restrictions apply mainly to online news outlets, not individuals. Soh Lung and Ngerng suspected that they were targeted by authorities because of their previous political activism.

Teo Soh Lung published her most recent post on the Facebook page of Function 8, a socio-political website, describing her encounter with police in late May. Her post (some of which is pictured above) continued:

The police have robbed me of my properties and gravely inconvenienced me. They have mined my data. They have seen and read all my private documents and know who are my friends. They have invaded my privacy. They have committed a crime. I am angry. But where is my recourse? We do not have a national human rights institution which our so called less developed neighbors have – Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar.

This is my Singapore. This is your Singapore. We are a police state. For the slightest irritation, Singaporeans run to the police. But when the police commit a wrong, where do we run to?

According to Function 8, the post was mysteriously removed from Facebook:

Latest post by Soh Lung in this page was automatically unpublished by facebook!! Those people who shared that post also have theirs removed automatically from their walls.

Soh Lung was also banned from posting on Facebook for one day. After signing back on Facebook, she confirmed that her post was blocked:

I have joined rank with Andrew Loh. My latest post on F8 facebook and which I shared here has been removed by facebook. It is titled “Police Terror”.

Indeed, this is not the first time a post criticizing Singapore authorities has been censored on Facebook. Soh Lung cited the case of blogger Andrew Loh whose post criticizing the policies of the Singapore government was also removed on Facebook. He was also blocked from accessing Facebook for three days. Subsequently, Facebook apologized for the ‘accidental’ removal of the post and the three-day blocking of Andrew Loh from the social networking site.

Soh Lung has been given no further information about why her post was removed. Facebook's automated message states that it violated the company's “Community Standards,” but did not specify which of the standards was violated.

Soh Lung re-posted the message on her personal page:

I am testing if there is a computer glitch on FB side since I don't know where to write to in order to complain about the removal of my earlier post.

Singapore-based blogger and Global Voices author Kirsten Han suspected that other users might have complained or reported the post using Facebook's “Report Abuse” mechanism. She is worried that it could be a “new tactic to silence” criticism in Singapore:

It's bizarre that Facebook would remove a post about police powers and due process in Singapore because it violates community standards – what standards have been violated here? Then again, it's not the first time – I had a post removed ages ago, and it happened to Andrew Loh recently.

It is possible that the post was removed because it was reported by a large number of people….If this is the case, then it's troubling how this could be a new tactic to silence.

Facebook policy documentation asserts that the company does not remove posts based on the volume of abuse reports that they receive. Any post that has been reported for abuse is said to be reviewed by a real person, who determines whether or not it violates the Community Standards.

It is possible that Soh Lung's post was removed in keeping with Facebook's standards regarding “Attacks on Public Figures.” Their policy on this issue reads:

We permit open and critical discussion of people who are featured in the news or have a large public audience based on their profession or chosen activities. We remove credible threats to public figures, as well as hate speech directed at them – just as we do for private individuals.

Did the company read Soh Lung's post as a “credible threat”? Her reference to a friend pledging to “set her dogs on the police” might have justified this move. On a different note, given that the company is on increasingly high alert regarding terror-related activities on the platform, it is possible that Soh Lung's use of the word “terror” may have triggered the response. Either way, Soh Lung hopes that her future speech on the issue remains online, for all to see.

by Mong Palatino at July 07, 2016 12:55 PM

Global Voices Advocacy
Tax Evasion or Political Journalism? Private Newspaper’s Battle With Zambian Government Continues
A screenshot of The Post newspaper headline announcing the shutter.

A screenshot of The Post newspaper headline announcing the shutter.

In a new twist following the seizure of assets belonging to the country's main independent newspaper on June 21 2016, Zambian police arrested and released on bond The Post's owner Freddy M'membe, winner of the 1995 CPJ International Press Freedom Award; his wife Mutinta Mazoka M'membe and its managing editor Joseph Mwenda, for allegedly attempting to make forced entry into the newspaper's premises. The officers allegedly beat them up before taking them to the police station.

The three went to The Post's offices to take possession of the instruments necessary to the running of their business, after the Tax Appeals Tribunal ordered the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) to allow the newspaper to resume operations — a ruling which the ZRA ignored. ZRA claims that The Post owes outstanding taxes estimated at K68 million (US$6.1 million), dating back to 2009. The newspaper disputes this amount and has been asking the authorities to reconcile their figures.

The Post is known for its investigative reporting and criticism against successive governments. Some netizens, local and international media organisations and donors have expressed their suspicion about the timing of the arrests and seizing of assets. The United States government released a statement saying that the closure of the newspaper only weeks before these important elections in Zambia is of deep concern. Come August 2016, Zambians will be going to the polls to vote in its general elections; the newspaper has been the main platform for the opposition candidates, as the public media is owned and controlled by the government.

Speaking on behalf of the police, Acting Spokesperson Ray Hamoonga denied reports that the M'membes and Mwenda were beaten up by the police, challenging critics to obtain medical reports from the hospital and, if incriminating, report the incident to any police station in the country. He added one caveat however, saying that the police are allowed to use minimum brutality on individuals who resist arrest.

But his statement has not inspired confidence. Many Zambians routinely question the professionalism and neutrality of the country's police, and often remind them that they are not a force but a service. Zambia's police used to be known as the Police Force, but to change the attitude of the public and foster better working relations, the name was changed to Police Service — therefore, the police fall under a public service entity.

Moses Munsaka wondered what minimum force entailed:

The men and women in Uniform should be challenged on the issue of using minimum force. How much is minimum? Can that be measured? No need for self defence (sic). If the people were emotionally and psychologically abused, what more do the men and women in uniforms require from the trio. Please act professionally and not politically. You are a service and not a force. Maintain professionalism. Just concerned.

Sylvester Chisanga observed:

Very funny but sad at the same time. Its not possible for the Zebras to report to the Lions about the brutal behaviour of Lions on the Zebras and expect to be positively assisted! The lions will simply be happy to use the Zebra's meat as ‘Colgate’ for cleaning their teeth with.

Charles Nalishebo complained:

which police are they going to report to coz zambia police is being controled (sic) by pf [the ruling Patriotic Front]. we no longer trust police coz they are de (the) most corupt people

Wrote Bwalya Katongo:

We are back to one party brutal state! And it will be too late for carders (sic) to realize this!

However, not everyone is on the side of The Post newspaper. Some netizens feel that M'membe is putting on a show to win public sympathy. Mike Mubanga said:

Only a fool would say that Mmembe was beaten by the police. Is that how a person who has been by the police looks like. He is just mocking that cadre who was beaten at woodlands police.

In Zambia, anyone who supports a particular political party is called a ‘cadre’ — especially those who are visibly active. Mubanga's Facebook comment highlights one example of the level of violence that the country has been experiencing in the lead-up to its August elections — and infers that the editor's claim that the police beat him undermined the stories of those who were actually beaten by the police for their political engagement.

Mubanga later responded to this comment, saying:

He has been advised to get a medical report and the report the assault to the police. If he was really beaten he was going to do that because he claims to be lawyer and he knows how to deal with an assault case.

Brian L. Kasoka attributed the entire saga to a miscalculation on the part of the newspaper's owners:

Mmember's Bitterness Has Gone Too Far Hence Taking Him To Police Custrd (custody) How I Wish He Was Listening To Othr People's Advise, The Post By Now Could Have Been Opened.

Among many, the feeling on the ground is that The Post should pay the money it owes. The ongoing struggle lies in making people aware of the importance of having sustainable independent media that can communicate an unbiased perspective — in this election year and beyond.

by Isabella Mukanda-Shamambo at July 07, 2016 01:36 AM

Swastikas and Porn or: How Russian Cops Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Internet Crackdown
“The War Room” scene from the 1964 classic “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

“The War Room” scene from the 1964 classic “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Image edited by Kevin Rothrock.

When the news website MediaZona reported in January 2016 that Russian police pad their solved-crime statistics by targeting young men who share pornography on social networks, it seemed like the quintessence of how Russia’s onerous new Internet regulations misallocate the country’s law-enforcement resources. But now this problem has a new perfect example, and it has to do with the Web’s other favorite obsession: Nazis.

Last month, a court in the Rostov region convicted a police officer of abusing his authority and forging evidence. According to his trial, Detective D. Eliseev reached out to a local man named A. Minaev on January 16, 2015, asking him to find someone in town who would agree to publish a swastika on their Vkontakte page, on the promise that the punishment would be the absolute minimum fine. (It’s unclear what monetary reward Eliseev offered in exchange.) Minaev had some experience in this sort of thing, having been fined twice the year before for sharing “extremist content” online, including images of swastikas.

Three days later, Eliseev asked Minaev to come to his office, where the detective told him that police were preparing to charge him with publishing a video online that allegedly violated Russia’s laws against extremism. Eliseev warned him that he would be jailed for at least 15 days, unless he accepted a strange deal: post another swastika online and accept a fine of 1,000 rubles ($15), which Eliseev promised to pay himself. When Minaev agreed, the detective took the man’s laptop, loaded his Vkontakte page, published a picture of a swastika, and then handed back the computer. Afterwards, Eliseev wrote up a police report and took a statement from Minaev, drafting the documents with the next day’s date.

Unbeknownst to the detective, however, Minaev recorded the whole exchange with a hidden microphone. A few days later, Minaev went to the district attorney’s office, which he learned wasn’t building any case against him. Prosecutors then convinced him to file charges against Detective Eliseev, and a new criminal investigation was underway.

Eliseev wasn’t out of tricks, though, and he soon persuaded Minaev to drop the charges, with the help of a little financial incentive. He even gave Minaev another microphone, asking him to record his next conversation with the prosecutors. Finishing this comedy of errors, Minaev then told the prosecutors about the microphone from Eliseev, and the district attorney outfitted him with yet another recording device (now the third one in Minaev’s arsenal), which he used to tape one last conversation with the detective.

According to the judge, Eliseev wanted to advance his career and win bonus pay by faking “time-consuming inspection work.” Nevertheless, he remains a free man. On June 17, 2016, a Rostov regional court sentenced Eliseev to two years and three months of probation, then granting him amnesty on the spot.

The human rights agency Sova, which tracks different kinds of hate crimes, says Detective Eliseev’s approach to policing extremism is typical in Russia. “Law enforcement officials on the ground are interested primarily in improving their quantitative measures,” the group writes.

by Kevin Rothrock at July 07, 2016 01:34 AM

Development Seed
Development Seed Summer BBQ!

Summer is here, so it must be time for a Development Seed summer BBQ. The whole team is in town and we are going to celebrate with our good friends, half smokes, and the finest blue ribbon beverages. Come by our new(ish) home in Blagden Alley on Wednesday, July 20.

We’ll kick things off around 5:30. Bring friends and loved ones. Furry friends are always welcome!

We’ll keep the food and beverages flowing. Help us out by letting us know if you plan to join the fun!

by Development Seed at July 07, 2016 12:00 AM

July 06, 2016

July 05, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: The UN Condemned Internet Shutdowns. But Does it Matter?
Microsoft Bing data center. Photo by Robert Scoble via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Microsoft Bing data center. Photo by Robert Scoble via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Notorious “Internet enemies” like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia approved a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that condemns Internet shutdowns and “human rights violations committed against persons for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms on the Internet.” The resolution is non-binding, meaning it cannot be enforced as law.

The resolution was hotly debated by the 47-member council, with the aforementioned states – along with South Africa, India, Indonesia and others – pushing back against language surrounding Internet shutdowns. Ultimately, with key support from certain member states and civil society groups, it is now approved. The resolution will provide a concrete benchmark and accountability mechanism that advocates can use in efforts to promote online rights in the policy arena.

But what does it mean for Internet users and digital activists in countries where shutdowns and threats for online speech are the norm? For those working in the area of online access and rights, the list of current UN HRC members inspires concern.

The council includes several countries that are known for mandating platform and Internet service shutdowns in the face of political strain – aside from Russia and China, there's Bangladesh, where Facebook and WhatsApp were blocked for three weeks in 2015 in an effort to quell public instability. There's Ethiopia, where state persecution of journalists and online human rights advocates are commonplace and where multiple social media platforms in the Oromo region have been blocked this year in response to student protests. There's Venezuela, which has experienced a smattering of platform shutdowns and wholesale Internet blackouts since opposition protests peaked in 2014. Beyond these member states like Cuba, Ecuador, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Vietnam have abysmal records when it comes to human rights violations against online activists and media workers.

While the resolution provides a strong policy standard for what constitutes “good behavior” by national governments around the world, the distance between policy and practice may remain great.

Satirical “Street Children” stuck behind bars in Egypt

Four members of a satirical web video group in Alexandria, Egypt have been behind bars since May 10, 2016, on accusations of undermining national stability. The Ministry of Interior described them as “instigators against the ruling regime” after the group, called “Street Children” posted a video that mocked President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and called for him to resign. Their lawyer, who works with Cairo’s Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, said they had also been accused of spreading “false news,” despite the fact that the videos are clearly in jest. The video received more than one million views on Facebook before their page was deactivated.

Founder of protest reporting outlet detained in China

Lu Yuyu, founder of citizen media outlet Not in the News (非新聞)went missing on June 15, along with his girlfriend. Chinese human rights advocates reported on June 26 that Lu and his girlfriend Li Tingyu are being detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

The citizen news outlet reports and distributes news of mass demonstrations in China via Blogspot, YouTube and the Twitter account @wickedonnaa since 2013. Not in the News also keeps track of the scale and number of incidents, the number of arrested demonstrators and the reasons behind the demonstrations through its monthly statistics report. It recorded 28,950 incidents in mainland China in 2015 and 9,869 incidents in the first quarter of 2016.

China bulks up on Internet governance

A draft security law presented before the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress increases unspecified social responsibilities for network operators by requiring them to “comply with social and business ethics” and “maintain supervision by both government and public.” It is unclear when it may be passed.

Meanwhile, Lu Wei, the official in charge of overseeing cybersecurity and online censorship, unexpectedly stepped down from his post as director of the Cyberspace Administration of China. His deputy, Xu Lin – known as a loyal supporter of President Xi Jinping, will take over.

‘Welcome to the US. Please show us your Facebook ID.’

The office of US Customs and Border Protection issued a proposal to start asking visitors to include their social media identities on their entry forms upon arrival in the US. The policy would affect those who are permitted to visit the US for up to 90 days without a visa (the visa waiver program covers most EU countries, Australia, Chile, Japan and South Korea, among others.) US Customs and Border Protection’s proposal, published in the Federal Register, says “Collecting social media data will enhance the existing investigative process and provide [the Department of Homeland Security] greater clarity and visibility to possible nefarious activity and connections…” The agency will be accepting public comments on the proposal until August 22.

Peru slaps Google for denying citizen ‘Right to Be Forgotten’

The Peruvian Data Protection Authority sanctioned Google for ignoring a Peruvian citizen’s right to be forgotten, setting a new precedent in the country. In the case, a Peruvian citizen petitioned the Data Protection Authority to request the removal of links relating to accusations against him for child pornography, after his case was dismissed due to lack of evidence. The Data Protection Authority deemed Google responsible for treating the personal data of Peruvians and issued a USD 75,000 fine. The company can still appeal the decision in court.

Facebook will keep tracking non-users, at least for now

People who do not have Facebook accounts are nevertheless tracked when they visit the site, unless they use an anonymous browser such as Tor. The Belgian Privacy Commission recently sought to change this by taking the US-based company to court, but it has now officially lost its case against the company . The Brussels Appeals Court dismissed the case, claiming the regulator does not have jurisdiction over the company, which has its European headquarters in Ireland. The Privacy Commission plans to launch a final appeal with the Court of Cassation which can throw out previous judgments but not deliver new ones — the Commission notes that in the past the Court has overruled the Court of Appeal on cases involving jurisdiction over foreign companies.

Researchers sue US over cybercrime law

Four academic researchers are suing the US government, claiming they could be prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for researching algorithmic discrimination. According to the researchers, the CFAA criminalizes gathering or “scraping” publicly available data from websites or creating pseudonymous user accounts on them if the sites’ terms of service prohibit this activity. The CFAA has been criticized for its vague provisions, which have been used to indict a MySpace user for adding false information to her profile, convict an IT administrator for deleting files he was authorized to access, and threaten (now deceased) Internet activist Aaron Swartz with 50 years in jail for downloading large quantities of academic articles at MIT.

New Research

Subscribe to the Netizen Report by email


Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, Hae-in Lim, Laura Vidal and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

by Netizen Report Team at July 05, 2016 09:15 PM

July 04, 2016

July 03, 2016

Joi Ito
The Fintech Bubble

Leafy bubble
Photo by Martin Thomas via Flickr - CC-BY

In 2015, I wrote a blog post about how I thought that Bitcoin was similar in many ways to the Internet. The metaphor that I used was that Bitcoin was like email - the first killer app - and that the Bitcoin Blockchain was like The Internet - the infrastructure that was deployed to support it but that could be used for so many other things. I suggested that The Blockchain was to finance and law what the Internet was to media and advertising.

I still believe it is true, but the industry is out over its skis. Over a billion dollars have been invested in Bitcoin and Fintech startups, tracking and exceeding investment in Internet investments in 1996. Looking at many of the businesses, they look like startups during that period, but instead of, we have blockchain for X. I don't think today's blockchain is the Internet in 1996 - it's probably more like the Internet in 1990 or the late 80's - we haven't agreed on the IP protocol and there is no Cisco or PSINet. Many of the application layer companies are building on an infrastructure that isn't ready from a stability or a scalability perspective and they are either bad idea or good idea too early. Also, very few people actually understand the necessary combination of cryptography, security, finance and computer science to design these systems. Those that do are part of a very small community and there are not enough to go around to support the $1bn castle we are building on this immature infrastructure. Lastly, unlike content on the Internet, the assets that the blockchain will be moving around and the irreversibility of many of the elements do not lend the blockchain to the same level agile software development - throw stuff out and see what sticks - that we can do for web apps and services.

There are startups and academics working on these basic layers, but I wish there were more. I have a feeling that we might be in a bit of a bubble and that bubble might pop or have a correction, but in the long run, hopefully we'll figure out the infrastructure and will be able to build something decentralized and open. Maybe a bubble pop will get rid of some of the noise from the system and let us focus like the first dot-com bust did for the Internet. On the other hand, we could end up with a crappy architecture and a bunch of fintech apps that don't really do much more than make existing things more efficient. We are at an important moment where decisions will be made about whether everyone will trust a truly decentralized system and where irresponsible deployments could scare people away. I think that as a community we need to increase our collaboration and diligently eliminate bugs and bad designs without slowing down innovation and research.

Instead of building apps, we need to be building the infrastructure. It's unclear whether we will end up with some version of Bitcoin becoming "The Internet" or whether some other project like Ethereum becomes the single standard. It's also possible that we end up with a variety of different systems that somehow interoperate. The worst case would be that we focus so much on the applications that we ignore the infrastructure, miss out on the opportunity to build a truly decentralized system, and end up with a system that resembles mobile Internet instead of wired Internet - one controlled by monopolies that charge you by the megabyte and have impossibly expensive roaming fees versus the flat fee and reasonable cost of wired Internet in most places.

There are many pieces to the infrastructure that need to be designed and tested. There are many ideas for different consensus protocols - the way in which a particular blockchain makes their public ledger tamper proof and secure. Then there are arguments about how much scriptability should be built into the blockchain itself versus on a layer above it - there are good arguments on either side of the argument. There is also the issue of privacy and anonymity versus identity and regulatory controls.

It looks like the Bitcoin Core developer team is making headway on Segregated Witness which should address many concerns including some of the scaling issues that people have had. On the other hand, it looks like Ethereum which has less history but a powerful and easier to use scripting / programing system is getting a lot of traction and interest from people trying to design new uses for the blockchain. Other projects like Hyperledger are designing their own blockchain systems as well as code that is blockchain agnostic.

The Internet works because we have clear layers of open standards. TCP/IP, for instance, won over ATM - a competing standard in some ways - because it turned out that the end-to-end principle where the core of the network was super-simple and "dumb" allowed the edges of the network to be very innovative. It took awhile for the battle between the standards to play out to the point where TCP/IP was the clear winner. A lot of investment in ATM driven technology ended up being wasted. The problem with the blockchain is that we don't even know where the layers should be and how we will manage the process of agreeing on the standards.

The (Ethereum) Decentralized Autonomous Organization project or "The DAO" is one of the more concerning projects I see right now.* The idea is to create "entities" that are written in code on Ethereum. These entities can sell units similar to shares in a company and invest and spend the money and operate much like a fund or a corporation. Investors would look at the code and determine whether they thought the entity made sense and they would buy tokens hoping for a return. This sounds like something from a science fiction novel and we all dreamed about these sorts of things when, as cypherpunks in the early 90's, we dared to dream on mailing lists and hacker meetups. The problem is, The DAO has attracted over $150M in investors and is "real," but is built on top of Ethereum which hasn't been tested as much as Bitcoin and is still working out its consensus protocol even considering a completely new consensus protocol for their next version.

It appears that The DAO hasn't been fully described legally and may expose its investors to liabilities as partners in a partnership. Unlike contracts written by lawyers in English, if you screw up the code of a DAO, it's unclear how you could change it easily. Courts can deal with mistakes in contract language by trying to determine the intent, but in code enforced by distributed consensus rules, there is no such mechanism. Also, code can be attacked by malicious code and there is a risk that a bug could create vulnerabilities. Recently, Dino Mark, Vlad Zamfir, and Emin Gün Sirer - key developers and researchers - published "A Call for a Temporary Moratorium on The DAO" describing vulnerabilities in The DAO. I fear that The DAO also raises the red flags for a variety of regulators that we probably don't want at the table right now. The DAO could be the Mt. Gox for Ethereum - a project whose failure may cause many people to lose their money and cause the public and regulators to try to slam the brakes on blockchain development.

Regardless of whether I rain on the parade, I'm sure that startups and investors in this space will continue to barrel forward, but I believe that as many of us as possible should focus on the infrastructure and the opportunities at the lowest layers of this stack we are trying to build. I think that getting the consensus protocol right, trying to figure out how to keep things decentralized, how to deal with the privacy issues without causing over-regulation, how we might completely reinvent the nature of money and accounting - these are the things that are exciting and important to me.

I believe there are some exciting areas for businesses to begin working and exploring practical applications - securitization of things that currently have a market failure such as solar panels in developing countries, or applications where there are standardized systems because of the lack of trust creates a very inefficient market such as trade finance.

Central banks and governments have begun to exploring innovations as well. The Singapore government is considering issuing government bonds on a blockchain. Some papers have imagined central banks taking deposits and issuing digital cash directly to individuals. Some regulators have begun to plan sandboxes to allow people to innovate and test ideas in regulatory safety zones. It is ironically possible that some of the more interesting innovations may come from experiments by governments despite the initial design of Bitcoin having been to avoid governments. Having said that, it's quite likely that governments will be more likely to hinder rather than help the development of a robust decentralized architecture.

* Just a few days after this post, The DAO was "attacked" as I feared. Here's an interesting post by the alleged "attacker". Reddit quickly determined that the signature in that post wasn't valid. And another post by the alleged attacker that they're bribing the miners not to fork. Whether these are actually the attacker or epic trolls, very interesting arguments.

by Joi at July 03, 2016 12:33 AM

July 02, 2016

July 01, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
Telegram Bug Leaks Russian TV News Station's Internal Chats to Random User
Telegram confronts a curious bug problem. Image by Kevin Rothrock.

Telegram confronts a curious bug problem. Image by Kevin Rothrock.

A Russian Telegram user has reported receiving strange notifications from Telegram chats she was never a member of. The unsolicited messenger notifications have, among other things, allowed the user to follow the internal chat of the social media team of the Russian independent channel TV Rain. How and why did this happen? And what does it say about Telegram's supposedly secure systems for communication?

TJournal reports that Telegram user Anna Gorbacheva bought a used iPhone from an acquaintance in November 2015. While they did not do a factory reset, the previous owner logged out of all her social media accounts and the iCloud. At first, the new phone worked perfectly.

But a month later, the strange notifications began to appear on her screen:

A screencap from Anna's iPhone showing the notifications from the TV Rain SMM chat and her unsuccessful attempts to send a message back. Image from

Left: A screencap from Anna's iPhone showing the notifications from the TV Rain SMM chat on her lock screen. Right: A screencap of her unsuccessful attempt to send a message back. Image via

Concerned that she was unintentionally eavesdropping on other peoples’ private conversations, she wrote to Telegram. She told TJournal:

В январе на заблокированном экране всплыло сообщение из какой-то беседы, в которой я не состою. Я удивилась и открыла Telegram. Чат не отображался, хотя уведомления продолжали поступать. Написала в поддержку, приложив скриншоты.

In January, I saw a message on my lockscreen from a conversation I was never a part of. I was surprised and opened my Telegram. The chat wouldn't show up, even though the notifications of new messages kept coming. So I wrote to support, and sent some screenshots.

Telegram's support did not reply, so Anna simply deleted Telegram altogether. But recently, she needed the messenger for her work at an advertising agency, so she set it up again. And the notifications returned.

As previously, Anna could see the notifications for messages, but could not access the chats themselves. Her attempts to send her own messages to the chats failed. And there were no signs that other chat participants had any idea an outsider was watching their conversations. At TJournal's request, Anna even recorded a video with proof of the unsolicited notifications.

The most recent notifications came from a Telegram chat called “SMM” (short for “social media management”), and having spotted a few names (such as Ilya Klishyn, Aleksey Abanin, and Daniil Zubov), Anna soon realized she was now privy to the internal social media discussion of the TV Rain editorial team. She also noticed that the links to stories discussed in the chat would quickly appear on the TV Rain's Twitter, Facebook, and VKontakte pages.

When contacted by TJournal, Telegram's founder Pavel Durov acknowledged the issue was a software bug, but speculated that Anna must have gotten her phone from a friend who previously worked for TV Rain and had access to the chat. Anna denies her friend has ever had any connection to TV Rain.

She told TJournal that since buying the phone, she never gave anyone else access to it and that her Telegram account was the only one that ever logged in on the device.

Can users trust Telegram?

Telegram boasts secure communications, however security experts have questioned the robustness of its cryptography. Apart from “rolling its own crypto” instead of relying on existing encryption solutions, there is the matter of device dependence. By default, Telegram uses text-based authorization, which allows users to connect new devices to Telegram accounts simply by entering a verification code received via text message on a smartphone. Two-step verification can be enabled, but is not required.

But these known elements of Telegram's systems do not fully explain why Gorbacheva, whose device had seemingly never belonged to anyone associated with TV Rain, suddenly began receiving notifications of their private messages. Gorbacheva's experience suggests that Telegram's security flaws may be worse than critics previously thought.

Anna is at a loss as to how or why she is able to see the messages from a chat to which she does not actually have access. Repeated entreaties for help finally got Anna a response from the Telegram support service. They told her to exit out of all active sessions of the messenger. But that did not help, and Anna continues to receive strange notifications in her Telegram app.

When TJournal investigated the matter further, it turned out that changing accounts and logging in after another user had logged out was a common Telegram bug: Several different users reported gaining access to contacts and messages from those whose accounts were previously active on their devices, after those users had logged out. Short of deleting their newly set up accounts from the devices and from Telegram wholesale and losing all user data, there was no ways to resolve the privacy issue.

Founder Pavel Durov says Telegram is now deleting the cache of old user data when faced with this issue, but users who met with the problem before the bug became official, are on their own. Anna is still receiving notifications about the social media routine of TV Rain, despite having logged out of all active sessions of Telegram. Telegram said her best option would have been to do ao factory reset on the phone after the previous owner had logged out of her account.

So what do you do if your Telegram suddenly starts spewing unsolicited notifications or showing strange contacts? Durov says the only sure-fire solution is to deactivate your Telegram account by opening this link directly in the messenger, which will make all your chat logs and files disappear.

Telegram said the messenger “is not meant to be used on other people's devices,” hence the contact list merging reported by some users. One user was advised by the messenger's support service to “only use your own account on your own devices,” basically acknowledging the messenger's dependence on hardware. But the messages from strange chatrooms that Anna has reported remain a mystery. And Telegram's reputation as a secure messaging app hangs in the balance.

by Tetyana Lokot at July 01, 2016 06:29 PM

Massive Nude Photo Leak Raises Issue of Online Protection Laws in Trinidad & Tobago
Online data privacy protection and government surveillance have become key issues following the leak of hundreds of nude photos of Trinidadian women and girls. Image by Perspecsys Photos, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Online data privacy protection and government surveillance have become key issues following the leak of hundreds of nude photos of Trinidadian women and girls. Image by Perspecsys Photos, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Trinidad and Tobago has found itself in embroiled in a scandal involving hundreds of nude photos of young Trinidadian women and girls being circulated online and through mobile apps. Police suspect it is part of an online pornography ring, and that some of the photographs are being sold.

The leak allegedly affected women and girls who shared their photos with people they trusted. The photos were subsequently shared with an online database. One victim said that her face was photoshopped onto another woman's body. Those affected have come together and formed a revenge porn support group and some have told their stories to the media.

The country's Children's Act advocates imprisonment for those convicted of making, distributing and even accessing child pornography online. For adults affected, the consequences are less clear. At least according to one lawyer, remedy for adults may be limited to civil lawsuits.

Colouring online discussions about the scandal has been the commentary of controversial temporary independent senator Dr. Kriyaan Singh. (Singh was acting for senator David Small, who was abroad, but has since returned to his post.) In an initial Facebook post about the issue, Singh wrote that he “fully support[s] nudity”:

Be proud of your sexiness and to ass with the low life scums who share nudes of others to these sites. Just remember being naked online privately is not illegal and it is never a grounds for dismissal

In another Facebook post, which was public, he offered to help the women and girls:

To all the ladies on the list.
Please form yourself into a group. Record
When you took the pics
How you took it
Who took it
What method you sent it on
WHO YOU SENT IT TO including relationship
If you all form a group I am willing to assist in whatever way I can through my support from attorneys to deal with the scums bags who did this and whoever is the idiot who started the website
You all seriously have my full support.

He later provided this update:

So my simple investigation in speaking with several of the girls on the list, some who are still under age revealed that they each only sent pics to one person.
That narrows it down to who started sharing their private photos without their consent on triniporn
Ladies if you are friends with them and have been asked for pics please state so now and take action

Singh also offered an avenue for them to tell their story anonymously:

If any of the girls on the porn list would like to anonymously speak to the media please message me. One reporter is interested in their side of the story

While he has his supporters, Singh has been criticised by political and civil society groups, including Fixin’ T&T, which argued that the former senator's social media posts — both on this issue and on others — do not carry the spirit of impartiality that independents are supposed to embody.

And they aren't the only ones. Writer and political blogger/commentator Rhoda Bharath wrote to the country's president asking him to revoke Singh's appointment, explaining:

I, along with other right thinking citizens, have observed a disturbing trend in the comments and posts made by Dr Singh on social media. I have attached for your perusal several screen shots of posts or comments that appear to be either politically charged, ethnically prejudiced or sexist in nature, if not openly derogatory.

There was also an online petition circulating in an effort to have Singh removed on the grounds that he is not impartial and “continues to display an attitude of disrespect on social media that is unbecoming”. Yet, attorney Justin Phelps, in a public Facebook post, cautioned:

That's a dangerous road because it means that anything not packaged according to our colonial threshold for decent is also incompetent.

Scandal fans flames of online privacy debate

The leak once again raises questions about online privacy and sexuality — an issue Trinidad and Tobago has grappled with in the context of the Strategic Services Agency (SSA) Amendment Bill, which would give the authorities more crime detection power by expanding the scope of the country's Strategic Service Agency to include serious offences such as homicide, terrorism, human trafficking, corruption and cybercrime. Currently, the Act focuses primarily on drug-related crimes.

The bill passed in the Senate in early May and was finally approved by the president; it now awaits proclamation in order to take effect.

​The country's opposition — and some independent senators — voted against the bill, arguing that it would infringe privacy. The country's Chamber of Commerce also had concerns about checks and balances for the process. The amendment will make it much easier for the SSA to engage in information-gathering through certain types of telecommunications surveillance.

Many people send nude or sexually explicit images of themselves which they intend to be private — as was the case here — so the SSA Act is timely. Netizens are interested in how it will deal with technology and treat these kind of privacy infringements. Even when the SSA Act is finally proclaimed, the law will not be made retroactive.

Readers who are worried about the privacy of their online communications should know that any photo posted online — be it on social networks or mailing lists — can be found, downloaded, redistributed and tampered with using software like Photoshop. Once it is posted or sent, netizens need to understand that they no longer have control over where it might go. The best ways to share anything private, including naked pictures, is to use end-to-end encrypted messengers such as Signal, or encrypted email solutions like Tutanota or Proton Mail.

Learn about these and other privacy solutions with the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Surveillance Self-Defense guide, which is now available in eleven languages.

by Advox at July 01, 2016 06:16 PM

June 29, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy Rising from the Wreckage of Kyrgyzstan's Largest Russian-Language Newspaper
Kyrgyzstan's revolution in April 2010 cost up to a hundred lives and was followed by ethnic violence killing over 400 people in the country's south. Wikipedia image.

Kyrgyzstan's revolution in April 2010 cost up to a hundred lives and was followed by ethnic violence killing over 400 people in the country's south. Wikipedia image.

The story of the rise and fall of the news portal is one of the most dramatic and contested in the history of independent media in ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.

The name Vecherniy Bishkek is most often associated with the large-circulation Russian language newspaper that a series of governments in the Central Asian republic of six million people have sought to control.

After toeing the line of the authoritarian government prior to 2010 Kyrgyz revolution — a spontaneous uprising against a background of rising living costs and massive corruption — the paper developed a reputation for its critical line towards the new government, and won praise from international observers for its objective reporting on ethnic violence in the country in 2010.

In the years following that violence, in which roughly 500 people died, the newspaper's online arm,, also came to the fore as one of the country's most widely-read and trusted websites.

The government struggling to establish its authority over the country liked neither, with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev even sensationally accusing the outlet's reporters of causing the death of his mother and brother from stress-related illnesses in 1996 and 2015 respectively.

By 2015 the outlet was fending off defamation lawsuits from two close advisors of Atambayev at the same time as its parent company was the subject of a bitter legal battle with a former co-owner, who claimed to to have been cheated out of his stake when the company was restructured a decade earlier.

Vecherniy Bishkek depicted Aleksandr Ryabushkin's bid to take back his part of the company as a government ploy to destroy a critical voice in the media, while the government denied that it had any role in an “ownership dispute” between Ryabushkin and his one-time business partner Alexander Kim.

But the extent to which the government went to trash Vecherniy Bishkek aroused suspicions that this was not the case.

In May, for instance, the state-owned OTRK channel aired several times a controversial 25-minute smear segment calling Vecherniy Bishkek, “a business of lies” and accusing the group of being a front for the political interests of the hated Bakiyev family ousted from the country in the 2010 violence.

By the end of last August, court rulings had disowned the reclusive Kim of his interests in Vecherniy Bishkek.

Among the assets transferred to Aleksandr Ryabushkin was the company's printing press — a strategically valuable asset in a small country where newspapers often depend on contributions from businesses and politicians to meet publishing costs.

Many of the staff that worked for meanwhile moved over to a new startup, which rapidly became one of the country's top news websites according to the online rankings of, as's online presence dipped under new leadership.'s Editor-in-Chief Dina Maslova, who previously ran, spoke to Global Voices about the challenges facing independent media in the country of six million people.

Global Voices: According to the Freedom House media watchdog, Kyrgyzstan has Central Asia's freest media, but is not actually free. Do you agree with that analysis? What features sum up the state of Kyrgyzstan's media space today?

Фридом Хаус подчеркивает, что Кыргызстан – самая свободная страна в регионе. Посмотрите, какие авторитарные страны нас окружают, среди них, да, Кыргызстан – свободная страна. Но, во-первых, Фридом Хаус отмечает, что ситуация в Кыргызстане ухудшается. Во-вторых, я против того, чтобы останавливаться на достигнутом, сравнивая себя с худшими. В любой ситуации, не только в оценке свободы СМИ, нужно сравнивать себя с лучшими и стремиться развиваться. Если сравниваешь себя с худшими, то отпадает стремление двигаться дальше, так начинается деградация. С таким же успехом можно говорить, что в Кыргызстане в отличие от самых бедных африканских стран есть дороги, канализация и электричество. Это не стимулирует развиваться. А вот когда посмотришь, как живут развитые страны, то хочется тянуться.

Что касается характеристик СМИ Кыргызстана, то я бы выделила следующие:

Сужается пространство для свободы слова. Когда речь идет о свободе СМИ, то тут вопрос не в свободе написания статей о спорте или шоу-бизнесе, а о выражении мнения о политике и действиях руководства страны. В интернет-пространстве популярные ресурсы с альтернативными властям точками зрения – “Азаттык” и Остальные находятся под влиянием аппарата президента. Двух-трех ресурсов мало для нашего информационного поля. Редакционную политику на ТВ также диктует аппарат президента. Те телеканалы, на которые он не влияет, или ничего не говорят о политике и “Белом доме”, или настолько непопулярны, что на них не обращают внимания. Тиражных газет с независимым мнением в Кыргызстане тоже не осталось, развлекательные газеты я не учитываю.

Уровень кыргызскоязычных СМИ остается низким, потому что они по-прежнему принадлежат политикам или находятся также под контролем пресс-службы президента. Это одна из причин того, почему продолжают существовать так называемые ушаки. Власти выгодно иметь такую площадку для компромата. И по некоторым темам заметно, что слив делается именно из “Белого дома”.

Серьезно беспокоит ситуация в судебных инстанция. Суды находятся под полным контролем властей, поэтому при их желании СМИ могут через суды отобрать или обанкротить. Политически мотивированные процессы рассматривают одни и те же судьи, которые в нарушение многих процессуальных и иных норм навешивают на СМИ многомиллионные иски – якобы ущербы, где цифры взяты с потолка.
Низкий уровень финансирования за счет рекламных средств тормозит развитие СМИ.

Остается проблема с кадрами. Но это проблема системная в нашей стране. Такого не может быть, чтобы в одной сфере все было хорошо, а в остальных все плохо.

Dina Maslova: Freedom House says that Kyrgyzstan is the freest country in the region. But look at the authoritarian countries surrounding us! For sure, in comparison to them, Kyrgyzstan is free. But Freedom House also notes the situation in Kyrgyzstan is getting worse.

Secondly, I am against the idea of resting on your laurels and comparing yourself with the worst there is. In any situation, not only in media freedom, you need to compare yourself to the best and aspire to be better. If you compare yourself with the worst, then the impulse to move forward is lost. That is where stagnation sets in.

You can say with the same assuredness that in comparison with the poorest countries in Africa, Kyrgyzstan has roads, sewage and electricity. But that won't stimulate further development. On the other hand, when you look at how the most developed countries live, you want to move in that direction.

In terms of the features of the media space in Kyrgyzstan I would say the following things:

  • Space for freedom of speech is growing more restricted. When people talk about freedom of press they are not talking about the ability to write articles about sport or show business, but the ability to express opinions about politics and the actions of the national leadership. Of the most popular online media only two have editorial platforms differing from that of the government: [U.S. Congress-funded] Azzatyk and The rest are under the influence of the presidential apparatus. Two or three [independent] outlets is not enough. Television content is also dictated by the presidential apparatus. Those television channels that [the president] does not influence either say nothing about the executive branch or are so unwatched that nobody pays attention to them. There are no newspapers left that have both an independent editorial position and a significant distribution.
  • Court rulings against media outlets are a source of serious concern. The courts are under the complete control of the government, and for this reason media outlets can be appropriated or bankrupted at a whim. The very same judges consider these politically motivated cases every time. Huge damages, with figures taken out of the sky, are pinned on journalists against a background of multiple procedural and other violations [on the part of justices].
  • Kyrgyz-language press remains poor in terms of quality because outlets belong to politicians or remain under the control of the presidential press service. That is why these newspapers are dominated by political mudslinging. For the authorities it is useful to have these platforms, and judging by some of the content in these newspapers, it is very apparent that it is the executive branch that is slinging the mud.
  • Media suffers from a low level of finance due to an absence of advertising income, which in turn stymies the development of the local press.
  • There are problems related to human resources, which are systemic in our country. If one field suffers from this problem, so will others.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev (left) has been Kyrgyzstan's president since 2011 and is constitutionally bound to leave office in 2017. The country has become less authoritarian under his government, but shows regular signs of backsliding.

Almazbek Atambayev (left) has been Kyrgyzstan's president since 2011 and is constitutionally bound to leave office in 2017. The country has become less authoritarian under his government, but shows regular signs of backsliding. His foreign policy has been strongly pro-Russian.

GV: If we assume that Vecherniy Bishkek was in fact seized under government orders, why was the company so important to the government? After all, newspapers’ circulations are shrinking across the planet, and the online team was always going to find another home…

Медиа-холдинг “Вечерний Бишкек” мог сохранять независимость, благодаря финансовой устойчивости. Это одна из немногих медиа-кампаний, которая не нуждалась в финансовых вливаниях донорских организаций, политических партий и пр. Независимость означает непредсказуемость для власти. А непредсказуемости власть всегда боится. Прошло достаточно времени, чтобы проанализировать ситуацию. Захват нужен был тем людям из окружения, которые расценивали “ВБ” как финансовый ресурс. То есть, например, Атамбаеву “ВБ” как источник дохода не нужен, но “помощникам помощников”/ “советникам советников” и ниже по иерархии это вполне доходный бизнес. Как информационный ресурс “ВБ” все еще интересен. В холдинг входили три газеты: несмотря на то, что тиражи печатных СМИ в Кыргызстане и мире снижаются, “ВБ” оставался влиятельным ресурсом, а у интернет-сайта к тому времени тоже была большая аудитория (более 400 тыс. пользователей в месяц). Сейчас многие говорят, что какие-то российские группы через наших чиновников решили захватить “Вечерний Бишкек”, чтобы редакционная политика была более предсказуемой. Не могу это утверждать, но редакционная политика на самом деле стала пророссийской, причем безальтернативно пророссийской.

DM: The media holding Vecherniy Bishkek was one of the few in Kyrgyzstan that was able to maintain independence thanks to its financial sustainability. It did not depend on contributions from donor organisations, political parties and so on.

For the government, independence equates to unpredictability, and government will always fear unpredictability. Now enough time has passed to analyse the situation.

I think the seizure of VB was driven by allies [of President Atambayev] that viewed the holding as a financial resource. That is to say that at the level of Atambayev himself, VB is not needed as a source of income, but at the level of “helpers of the helpers”, or “advisors to the advisors” and further down the hierarchy, it is a very good business to reap profit from.

Moreover, VB is of interest [to authorities] as an information resource. There were three newspapers in the holding in total. Not withstanding the fact that newspaper circulations in Kyrgyzstan, as the world over, are down, VB remains a very influential resource, while the internet website had a big audience — 400,000 users a month — at the time it was seized.

Currently, many people say that some kind of Russian groups decided via our state officials to seize Vecherniy Bishkek so that the editorial policy would become more predictable. I cannot confirm this, but the editorial policy has become pro-Russian, and from what I can see, consistently pro-Russian.

GV: Do you miss

Нет, не скучаю. Если я закрываю за собой дверь, то ни о чем и ни о ком не вспоминаю. Новый проект – – помог начать многое с чистого листа для меня как журналиста и как для медиа-менеджера. Я уже не совершают некоторые управленческие ошибки, которые имели место быть в “ВБ”. И самое важное, сейчас я не исполнитель, а учредитель издания. Мне требуются другие компетенции, чтобы его развивать. Считаю, что собственное развитие – это важный плюс.

DM: No, I don't. When I close the door, I close the door. helped me turn over a new leaf in many senses as a journalist and media manager.

I no longer make the type of executive mistakes I sometimes made at VB. And most importantly, I am now a founder, rather than just a manager. That means a different set of demands in terms of developing the outlet. Personal development is always a big plus.

GV: has become one of the country's leading media outlets in a very short space of time. How do you explain this?

- У меня остались мои страницы в социальных сетях, которые обеспечили нам стартовую площадку. Они на момент создания давали нам 5 000 посетителей в день. Сейчас наша аудитория в сутки 20-22 тысячи.
- Это команда. У нас небольшая, но профессиональная команда, которая тоже училась на своих ошибках и развивалась в период работы в “ВБ”. Сам факт того, чтобы мы теперь сами себе хозяева и сами на себя работаем, заставляет нас работать активнее.
- Уход команды был громким событиям в медиа-сфере Кыргызстана. Эта новость сразу привлекла внимание многих. За нами пошли наши партнеры и наши источники, с которыми мы много лет работали.
- То, что мы являемся медиа-ресурсом с альтернативной точкой зрения, привлекает аудиторию. Образованным людям неинтересно читать только пропагандистские или, по крайней мере, люди сравнивают информацию в нескольких источникам и делают вывод сами. На самом деле аудиторию не обманешь приукрашенными заявлениями политиков – люди живут в реальном мире и видят то, что вокруг них происходит. В каких-то моментах они находятся схожие взгляды в наших материалах.

- У нас стало больше развлекательных материалов – это тренд в Интернете, который мы используем.

DM: became popular in a short space of time for many reasons:

  • I still retained my social media accounts, that guaranteed us a platform. [Currently Vecherniy Bishkek's parent company is suing Maslova as it claims the accounts belong to it. Maslova says the accounts were registered in her name and against her bank account]. They gave a viewership of 5,000 visitors per day. Now our audience is around 20-22,000 per day.
  • The fact that we are a media resource with an alternative viewpoint attracts readers. Educated people do not want to read propaganda, or, at least, want to read news from several different angles and draw their own conclusions. Our readership is not fooled by the embellishments of our politicians, people live in the real world and see what is happening around them. In this sense, people find that our content reflects their own views.
  • Our team is small but professional, most of whom worked at, learned from their mistakes at and developed themselves at VB. The fact that we are our own owners and work on ourselves every day forces us to be more active.
  • The exit of the team that made [from the holding] was a very notable event in Kyrgyz media circles. When we left, our partners and sources that we had built up over the years came with us.
  • We began using multimedia formats very actively, which is something we began at
  • We began to publish more articles on entertainment — it is a global online trend that we too have tapped into.
In Bishkek, a city of one million people, most people consume media in Russian. Beyond the confines of the capital, the Turkic Kyrgyz language dominates. Flickr image.

In Bishkek, a city of one million people, most people consume media in Russian. Beyond the confines of the capital, the Turkic Kyrgyz language dominates. Flickr image.

GV: Last October, when a group of prisoners broke out of a jail in Kyrgyzstan, was the only website to provide drone footage of the police operation to catch them. Given that several countries in the region, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, have tightened restrictions on drone use, what future do you think drones have in the Kyrgyz media space?

Беспилотник мы попросили у партнеров в продакшн-студии. На самом деле нас об этом попросили сами милиционеры. Они не могли найти террориста, который спрятался в огромной новостройке, где очень похожие дома и улицы. Думали, что с помощью дрона смогут его найти, но не получилось. Беспилотники – сейчас новомодная штучка, которые используют СМИ. Они будут использовать ее и дальше, но аудитория будет расценивать это как что-то привычное.

DM: The drone was a request we made to our partners at a local production-studio []. And the police was actually keen for us to do that.

They could not find the terrorists [Editorial note: there was much debate in Kyrgyzstan as to whether the men that broke from the jail were Islamic militants, or just common criminals] who were hiding in a huge new housing settlement full of houses and streets that looked the same. They thought the use of a drone might help, but it did not.

Drones are now very much in fashion. Media will continue to use them and the media's audience will come to expect it.

GV: There is a lot of talk of an “information war” being played out in Kyrgyzstan's media between Washington and Moscow. Do you think that is a fair analysis?

Информационная война в КР – часть глобальной информационная войны. Она была, есть и будет. Но пока Москва и Вашингтон воюют в информационном поле, Пекин отвоевывает экономические проекты в Кыргызстане, при этом растет влияние арабского мира в нашей стране. Меня больше беспокоит это.

DM: The information war in Kyrgyzstan is a part of the broader global information war. It has always been and always will be.

But while Moscow and Washington wage a war in the information space, China is bedding down its economic interests in Kyrgyzstan and the influence of [Middle Eastern countries] over our country is ever-increasing.

These trends bother me a lot more.

by Akhal-Tech Collective at June 29, 2016 06:35 PM

Joi Ito
Society in the Loop Artificial Intelligence

Black and White Gavel in Courtroom - Law Books
Photo by wp paarz via Flickr - CC BY-SA

Iyad Rahwan was the first person I heard use the term society-in-the-loop machine learning. He was describing his work which was just published in Science, on polling the public through an online test to find out how they felt about various decisions people would want a self-driving car to make - a modern version of what philosophers call "The Trolley Problem." The idea was that by understanding the priorities and values of the public, we could train machines to behave in ways that the society would consider ethical. We might also make a system to allow people to interact with the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and test the ethics by asking questions or watching it behave.

Society-in-the-loop is a scaled up version of human-in-the-loop machine learning - something that Karthik Dinakar at the Media Lab has been working on and is emerging as an important part of AI research.

Typically, machines are "trained" by AI engineers using huge amounts of data. The engineers tweak what data is used, how it's weighted, the type of learning algorithm used and a variety of parameters to try to create a model that is accurate and efficient and making the right decisions and providing accurate insights. One of the problems is that because AI, or more specifically, machine learning is still very difficult to do, the people who are training the machines are usually not domain experts. The training is done by machine learning experts and the completed model after the machine is trained is often tested by experts. A significant problem is that any biases or errors in the data will create models that reflect those biases and errors. An example of this would be data from regions that allow stop and frisk - obviously targeted communities will appear to have more crime.

Human-in-the-loop machine learning is work that is trying to create systems to either allow domain experts to do the training or at least be involved in the training by creating machines that learn through interactions with experts. At the heart of human-in-the-loop computation is the idea of building models not just from data, but also from the human perspective of the data. Karthik calls this process 'lensing', of extracting the human perspective or lens of a domain expert and fit it to algorithms that learn from both the data and the extracted lens, all during training time. We believe this has implications for making tools for probabilistic programming and for the democratization of machine learning.

At a recent meeting with philosophers, clergy and AI and technology experts, we discussed the possibility of machines taking over the job of judges. We have evidence that machines can make very accurate assessments of things that involve data and it's quite reasonable to assume that decisions that judges make such as bail amounts or parole could be done much more accurately by machines than by humans. In addition, there is research that shows expert humans are not very good set setting bail or granting parole appropriately. Whether you get a hearing by the parole board before or after their lunch has a significant effect on the outcome, for instance. (There has been some critiques of the study cited in this article, and the authors of the paper of responded to them.)

In the discussion, some of us proposed the idea of replacing judges for certain kinds of decisions, bail and parole as examples, with machines. The philosopher and several clergy explained that while it might feel right from a utilitarian perspective, that for society, it was important that the judges were human - it was even more important than getting the "correct" answer. Putting aside the argument about whether we should be solving for utility or not, having the buy-in of the public would be important for the acceptance of any machine learning system and it would be essential to address this perspective.

There are two ways that we could address this concern. One way would be to put a "human in the loop" and use machines to assist or extend the capacity of the human judges. It is possible that this would work. On the other hand, experiences in several other fields such as medicine or flying airplanes have shown evidence that humans may overrule machines with the wrong decision enough that it would make sense to prevent humans from overruling machines in some cases. It's also possible that a human would become complacent or conditioned to trust the results and just let the machine run the system.

The second way would be for the machine to be trained by the public - society in the loop - in a way that the people felt that that the machine reliability represented fairly their, mostly likely, diverse set of values. This isn't unprecedented - in many ways, the ideal government would be one where the people felt sufficiently informed and engaged that they would allow the government to exercise power and believe that it represented them and that they were also ultimately responsible for the actions of the government. Maybe there is way to design a machine that could garner the support and the proxy of the public by being able to be trained by the public and being transparent enough that the public could trust it. Governments deal with competing and conflicting interests as will machines. There are obvious complex obstacles including the fact that unlike traditional software, where the code is like a series of rules, a machine learning model is more like a brain - it's impossible to look at the bits and understand exactly what it does or would do. There would need to be a way for the public to test and audit the values and behavior of the machines.

If we were able to figure out how to take the input from and then gain the buy-in of the public as the ultimate creator and controller of this machine, it might solve the other side of this judicial problem - the case of a machine made by humans that commits a crime. If, for instance, the public felt that they had sufficient input into and control over the behavior of a self-driving car, could the public also feel that the public, or the government representing the public, was responsible for the behavior and the potential damage caused by a self-driving car, and help us get around the product liability problem that any company developing self-driving cars will face?

How machines will take input from and be audited and controlled by the public, may be one of the most important areas that need to be developed in order to deploy artificial intelligence in decision making that might save lives and advance justice. This will most likely require making the tools of machine learning available to everyone, have a very open and inclusive dialog and redistribute the power that will come from advances in artificial intelligence, not just figure out ways to train it to appear ethical.

by Joi at June 29, 2016 01:04 PM

June 28, 2016

June 27, 2016

Joi Ito
The Future of Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Minerva Priory library
The library at the Minerva Priory, Rome, Italy.

I recently participated in a meeting of technologists, economists and European philosophers and theologians. Other attendees included Andrew McAfee, Erik Brynjolfsson, Reid Hoffman, Sam Altman, Father Eric Salobir. One of the interesting things about this particular meeting for me was to have a theological (in this case Christian) perspective to our conversation. Among other things, we discussed artificial intelligence and the future of work.

The question about how machines will replace human beings and place many people out of work is well worn but persistently significant. Sam Altman and others have argued that the total increase in productivity will create an economic abundance that will enable us to pay out a universal "basic income" to those who are unemployed. Brynjolfsson and McAfee have suggested a "negative income tax"-a supplement instead of a tax for low-income workers that would help the financial redistribution without disrupting the other important outcomes generated by the practice of work.

Those supporting the negative income tax recognize that the importance of work is not just the income derived from it, but also the anchor that it affords us both socially and psychologically. Work provides a sense of purpose as well as a way to earn social status. The places we work give us both the opportunity for socializing as well as the structure that many of us need to feel productive and happy.

So while AI and other technologies may some day create a productivity abundance that allows us to eliminate the financial need to work, we will still need to find ways to obtain the social status-as well as a meaningful purpose-we get from work. There are many people who work in our society who aren't paid. One of the largest groups are stay-at-home men and women whose work it is to care for their homes and children. Their labor is not currently counted toward the GDP, and they often do not earn the social status and value they deserve. Could we somehow change the culture and create mechanisms and institutions that provided dignity and social status to people who don't earn money? In some ways academia, religious institutions and non-profit service organizations have some of this structure: social status and dignity that isn't driven primarily by money. Couldn't there be a way to extend this value structure more broadly?

And how about creative communities? Why couldn't we develop some organizing principle that would allow amateur writers, dancers or singers to define success by measures other than financial returns? Could this open up creative roles in society beyond the small sliver of professionals who can be supported by the distribution and consumption by the mass media? Could we make "starving artist" a quaint metaphor of the past? Can we disassociate the notion of work from productivity as it has been commonly understood and accepted? Can "inner work" be considered more fruitful when seen in light of thriving and eudaemonia?

Periclean Athens seems to be a good example of a moral society where people didn't need to work to be engaged and productive.* Could we image a new age where our self-esteem and shared societal value is not associated with financial success or work as we know it? Father Eric asks, "What does it mean to thrive?" What is our modern day eudaemonia? We don't know. But we do know that whatever it is, It will require a fundamental cultural change: change that is difficult, but not impossible. A good first step would be to begin work on our culture alongside our advances in technology and financial innovations so that the future looks more like Periclean Athens than a world of disengaged kids with nothing to do. If it was the moral values and virtues that allowed Periclean Athens to function, how might we develop them in time for a world without work as we currently know it?

* There were many slaves in Periclean Athens. For the future machine age, will be need to be concerned about the rights of machines? Will we be creating a new class of robot slaves?

by Joi at June 27, 2016 07:59 PM

Global Voices Advocacy
Tanzanian Prosecuted For “Insulting” the President on WhatsApp
Statement of offence shared on Twitter by @samirasawlani.

Statement of offence shared on Twitter by @samirasawlani.

Tanzanian citizen Leonard Mulokozi was charged on June 22 under Tanzania's Electronic and Postal Communications Act over a WhatsApp message that authorities say is “abusive” to Tanzanias president, John Magufuli. Mulokozi denied the charge at the Kisutu Resident Magistrate's Court and was released on bail. The case will come up for mention on July 18.

It is alleged that on June 2 Mulokozi posted the following message, in Swahili, on WhatsApp:

Hivi huyu Pombe nd'o kwamba hana washauri? Hashauriki? Au ni zuzu? Bwege sana huyu jamaa; he doesn't consider the law in the place before opening his mouth au na yeye anaumwa ugonjwa wa Mnyika?

Does it mean this Pombe Magufuli [Tanzanias president] doesn't have advisers? Is he unadvisable? Or is he just a fool? He's real foolish, this fellow: he doesn't consider the applicable laws before opening his mouth; or does he also suffer from an illness like that of [opposition politician] Mnyika?

Mulokozi is the latest victim of Tanzania's relatively new Cybercrime Law, which the Parliament passed in April 2015 to address issues such as child pornography, cyberbullying, online impersonation, illegal interception of communications, and the publication of false information.

Despite widespread opposition from politicians, social media experts, and human rights activists, the bill was pushed through parliament with relatively little discussion or debate. Former president Jakaya Kikwete signed it into law in May 2015.

Opponents of the Cybercrime Act argue that the law gives too much power — without meaningful oversight — to police, bestowing upon them the ability to search the homes of suspected violators of the law, seize their electronic hardware, and demand their data from online service providers. They have also cautioned that police or the state could use their power to harass online activists or social media users.

Tanzanian citizen Isaac Abakuki Emily was convicted this month of insulting Tanzanian President John Magufuli on his Facebook page by the Arusha Resident Magistrate’s Court.

Emily may serve three years in prison, or alternatively pay a fine of five million shillings (US $2300), a steep sum in Tanzania, where the GDP per capita amounts to just under US $1000 per year. This was reduced from seven million upon appeal by his lawyer, according to local news site The Citizen. He must pay the fine by August 8, or serve the prison term.

In October 2015, two Tanzanians became the first victims of the new law. Benedict Angelo Ngonyani, a 24-year-old student at Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology, was charged for publishing materials which are “false or not verified by relevant authorities.” It is alleged that he posted a Facebook post claiming that Tanzania's Chief of Defence Forces, General Davis Mwamunyange, had been hospitalized after eating poisoned food.

In November 2015, four Tanzanians — Leila Sinare, Godfrey Soka, Deo Soka and Monica Gaspary Soka — were charged under Section 16 of Cybercrime Act 2015 for publishing false, election-related information on the social messaging platform WhatsApp. The four appeared before a Magistrate's court in Dar Es Salaam on November 6, 2015. Public prosecutors alleged that the accused published audio information on a WhatsApp group called the “Soka Group”, that was intended to mislead the public during the October 2015 Tanzanian general elections, which were plagued by accusations of vote-rigging.

by Ndesanjo Macha at June 27, 2016 04:43 PM

June 26, 2016

June 25, 2016

Joi Ito
Reinventing Bookkeeping and Accounting (In Search of Certainty)

Accounting underlies finance, business, and enables the levying of taxes for raising armies, building cities, and managing resources at scale. In fact, it is the way that the world keeps track of almost everything of value.

Accounting predates money, and was originally used by ancient communities to track and manage their limited resources. There are accounting records from Mesopotamia dating back more than 7,000 years, listing the exchange of goods. Over time, accounting became the language and information infrastructure for trade. Accounting and auditing enabled the creation of vast empires, such as those built by the Egyptians and the Romans.

As accounting scaled, it made sense to go from counting sheep, bushels of grain, and cords of wood, to calculating and managing resources using their exchange value in terms of an abstract unit: money. In addition to exchange, money allowed for recording and managing obligations. So where earlier bookkeeping just kept records of promises and exchanges between individuals (Alice lent Bob a goat on this date), money opened up a new realm of accounting by dramatically simplifying the management of accounts and allowing markets, companies, and governments to scale. However, through the centuries, this once powerful simplification has a resulted in a surprising downside-a downside made worse in today's digitally connected world.

Defining Value

While companies today use enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to keep track of widgets, contractual obligations, and employees, the accounting system-and the laws that support it-require us to convert just about everything into monetary value, and enter it into a ledger system based on the 700-year-old double-entry bookkeeping method. This is the very same system used by the Florentine merchants of the 13th century and described by Luca Pacioli, the "father of accounting," in his book Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalità, published 1494.

When you take, for instance, a contract that pays out $1 million if it rains tomorrow, and put it into your accounts, you will be required to guess the chance of rain-maybe 50 percent-and value that asset at something like $500,000. The contract will actually never pay out $500,000; in the end, it will either be worth zero (no rain) or $1 million (rain). But if you were forced to trade it today, you'd probably sell it for something close to $500,000; so for tax and management purposes, you "value" the contract at $500,000. On the other hand, if you are unable to sell it because there are no buyers, it might actually be valued at zero today by regulators interested in liquidity, but then suddenly valued at $1 million tomorrow if it rains.

Basically, a company's accounts are an aggregate of cells in various ledgers with numbers that represent a numerical value denominated in some currency-yen, dollars, euros, etc.-and those numbers are added up and organized into both a balance sheet and an income statement that show the health of the company to management and investors. They are also used to calculate profits and the amount of tax owed to governments. This balance sheet is a list of assets and liabilities. If you looked in the assets column, you'd have a number of items that you would be reporting as having value, including things like printing presses, lines of code, intellectual property, obligations from people who may or may not pay you in the future, cash in various countries' currencies, and best guesses on things like the future prices of a commodity or the value of another company.

As an auditor, investor, or trading partner, you might want to drill down and try to test the assumptions that the company is making and see what would happen if those were incorrect at the time they were recorded, or turned out to be wrong sometime in the future. You might also want to understand how buying another company would change your own company based on the way your obligations and bets interacted with theirs. You could rack up millions of dollars in auditor fees to "get to the bottom" of any number of assumptions. The process would involve manually reviewing the legal contracts, and also the assumptions made in every cell of every spreadsheet. That's because standard accounting is a very "lossy" process that reduces complex and context-dependant functions and transforms them into static numbers at every step. The underlying information is somewhere, but only exposed with a lot of manual digging.

The modern complex financial system is full of companies that have figured out ways to guess when investors and the companies themselves have made mistakes in their assumptions. These companies bet against a company with inaccurate pricing or take advantage of the gap in information to convert this into financial returns for themselves. When these mistakes are duplicated across the system, it can cause fluctuation amplification that also allows companies to make more money both as markets rise, as well as fall, if they can successfully predict those fluctuations. In fact, as long as the whole system doesn't collapse, smart traders make more money on fluctuation than on stability.

Just like rodent exterminators aren't excited about the idea of rodents being completely eliminated because they would no longer have jobs, those financial institutions that make money by "making the system more efficient and eliminating waste" don't really want a stable system that isn't wasteful.

Right now, the technology of the financial system is built on top of a way of thinking about money and value that was designed back when all we had were pen and paper, and when reducing the complexity of the web of dependencies and obligations was the only way to make the system functionally efficient. The way we reduce complexity is to use a common method of pricing, put elements into categories, and add them up. This just builds on 700­-year­-old building blocks, trying to make the system "better" by doing very sophisticated analysis of the patterns and information without addressing the underlying problem of a lossy and oversimplified view of the world: a view where everything of "value" should be as quickly as possible recorded as a number.

The standard idea of the "value" of things is a reductionist view of the world that is useful to scale the trading of commodities that are roughly of equal worth to a large set of people. But, in fact, most things have very different values to different people at different times, and I would argue that much-if not most-things of value can't and probably shouldn't be reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet. Financial "value" has a very specific meaning. A home clearly has "value" because someone can live in it and it's useful. However, if no one wants to buy it and no one is buying similar homes on the market, you can't set a price for it; it is illiquid and it is impossible to determine its "fair market value." Some contracts and financial instruments are nonnegotiable, may not have a "fair market value," and may even have no value to you if you needed money (or an apple) RIGHT NOW. Part of the confusion comes from the difficulty of describing legal and mathematical ideas in plain English, and the role of context and timing.

One example is exchange rates. My wife moved to Boston from Japan several years ago, but still converts prices into yen. She sometimes comments on how expensive something has gotten because the value of the yen has diminished. Because most of our earnings and spending are in dollars, I always have to remind her, the "value" in yen is irrelevant to her now, although not irrelevant to her mother, who is in Japan.

We have become accustomed to the notion that things have a "price," and that "price" is equivalent to its "value." But an email from you to me about a feeling that you had about our last conversation is probably valuable to me at a particular time and probably not valuable to most people. A single apple is worth a lot more to a hungry person than the owner of an apple orchard. Context is everything.

"Can't Buy Me Love" - The Beatles

The economics notion of consumers making financial decisions to maximize "utility" as a kind of proxy for happiness is another example of how the notion of a universal system of "value" oversimplifies its complexity-so much so that the models that assume that humans are "economically rational" actors in a marketplace simply don't work. The simplest version of this model would mean that the more money you had, the happier you would be, which Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton argue is true up to about $75,000 a year in annual income.[1]

Today, we have the technology and the computational power to create a system of accounts that could retain and deal with a lot of the complexity that the current system was designed to avoid. There is, for example, no reason that every entry in our books needs to be a number. Each cell could be an algorithmic representation of the obligations and dependencies that it represents. In fact, using machine learning, accounts could become sophisticated probabilistic models for what might happen depending on how things around them change. This would mean that the "value" of any system would change depending on who was asking, their location, and the time parameters.

Today, when a bank regulator conducts a stress test, it gives a bank a scenario-changes in the credit markets or the prices of certain things. The bank is then required to return a report on whether it would crash or remain solvent. This requires a lot of human labor to go through the accounts and run simulations. But what if the accounts were all algorithmic, and instead you could instantly run a program to provide the answer to the question? What if you had a learning model that could answer a more important question: "What sets of changes to the market WOULD make it crash, and why?" That's really what we want to know. We want to know this not just for one bank, but the whole system of banks, investors, and everything that interacts.

When I'm buying something from a company-let's say a credit default swap from your company, AIG-what I would want to know is whether, when the day comes to pay the obligation, in the unlikely chance that the AA mortgage-backed bonds that I was betting against defaulted, would your company be able to pay? Right now, there is no easy way to do this. However, what if all of the obligations and contracts, instead of being written on paper and recorded as numbers, were actually computable and "visible"? You'd immediately be able to see that, in fact, in the scenario in which you'd have to pay me, you'd actually have no money since you'd written similar contracts to so many people that you'd be broke. Right now, even the banks themselves can't see this unless an internal investigator thinks to look for this ahead of time.

Rethinking the Fundamentals of Accounting

With cutting edge cryptography like zero-knowledge proofs and secure multiparty computation, there are ways we might be able to keep these accounts open to each other without compromising business and personal privacy. While computing every contract as a cell in a huge set of accounts, every time anyone asked a question it would exceed even today's computing capacity. But with machine learning and the creation of models, we might be able to dampen, if not stabilize, the massive amplifications of fluctuations. These bubbles and collapses occur today, in part, because we are building our whole system on an oversimplified house of cards, with the handlers having an incentive to make them fragile and opaque in order to introduce inefficiencies they can exploit later to make money for themselves.

I think the current excitement about Bitcoin and distributed ledgers has created a great opportunity to take advantage of its flexible and reprogrammable nature, allowing us to rethink the fundamental system of accounts. I'm much more interested in this than in apps for banks, or even new ideas in finance, which will address some of the symptoms without taking a shot at eliminating one of the root causes of the impossibly complex and outdated system that we've built on a 700 year old double-entry bookkeeping method-the very same system used by the Florentine merchants of the 13th century. It feels like we are using integers when we should be using imaginary numbers. Reinventing accounting should be more like discovering a new number theory than tweaking the algorithms, which is what I feel like we've been doing for the last several hundred years.


Originally posted on Please read and post comments there.


[1]Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton. "High Income Improves Evaluation of Life But Not Emotional Well-Being". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (2010).

by Joi at June 25, 2016 11:20 AM

Credit for Help on Blog Posts

Copyright xkcd CC BY-NC

Back when I first started blogging, the standard post took about 5 min and was usually written in a hurry after I thought of something to say in the shower. If it had mistakes, I'd add/edit/reblog any fixes.

As my post have gotten longer and the institutions affected by my posts have gotten bigger, fussier and more necessary to protect - I've started becoming a bit more careful about what I say and how I say it.

Instead of blog first, think later - agile blogging - I now have a process that feel a bit more like blogging by committee. (Actually, it's not as bad as it sounds. You, the reader are benefiting from better thought through blog posts because of this process.)

When I have an idea, I usually hammer out a quick draft, stick it in a Google Doc and then invite in anyone that might be able to help including experts, my team working on the particular topic and editors and communications people. It's a different bunch of people depending on the post, but almost everything I've posted recently is a result of a group effort.

Jeremy Rubin, a recent MIT grad who co-founded the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT mentioned that maybe I should be giving people credit for helping - not that he wouldn't help if he didn't get credit, but he thought that as a general rule, it would be a good idea. I agreed, but I wasn't sure exactly how to do it elegantly. (See what I did here?)

I'm going to start adding contributors at the bottom of blog posts as sort of a "credits" section, but if anyone has any good examples or thoughts on how to give people credit for helping edit and contributing ideas to a post or an informal paper like my posts on my blog and pubpub, I'd really like to see them.

by Joi at June 25, 2016 11:12 AM

June 23, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
As Election Day Approaches, Zambia's Largest Independent Newspaper Shut Down by Tax Authority
The Post newspaper headline today. Image shared on its public Facebook page.

The Post newspaper headline announcing the shutter. Image shared on its public Facebook page.

In a move that is being seen by some as politically motivated and by others as a long overdue necessity, The Post newspaper, Zambia's largest independent daily newspaper, has had their offices locked up and their printing equipment seized by the Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) because of outstanding taxes alleged to be at K68 million (US$6.1 million).

The newspaper announced on their Facebook page on June 21, 2016, that ZRA and police officers acting on the instructions of the president's office stormed their offices around 17 hours, demanding that The Post settles the outstanding amount immediately.

The newspaper's general manager explained to the officers that the money in question had been settled almost completely, according to The Post's account of what happened. The officers, however, stated they had warrant of distress (which allows for the seizure of property and goods) that could not be revoked, even after The Post's lawyers produced a court order restraining the officers from issuing a warrant of distress. According to The Post, the officers then went ahead with dismissing all workers, confiscating equipment and locking up the premises.

The newspaper is known for biting criticism against the government. Its editors and journalists have been locked up and taken to court many times by successive governments since it was established in 1991. Last year, bullets were fired at the newspaper's newsroom. No one has been arrested for the incident. There are at least two cases against The Post in the courts at the moment.

Some people are suspicious of the timing. Zambians will be going to the polls to vote in general elections in August 2016, and the newspaper has been the main platform for the opposition candidates as the public media is owned and controlled by the government and the ruling party.

However, some Zambians believe President Edgar Lungu and his government are doing what they must by taking action against The Post.

For example, George Mu'chi Mubanga commented on The Post Facebook page saying:

That's job well done, I was almost voting EL out for not fulfilling his promise he made last year that he will get the money from the post back. Hard luck guys don't tak it personal!

Mike Mubanga concurred:

If really instructions are from state House, then state House is working, we need that money to buy medicines in hospitals.

Collins Musonda cheered the move:

No one is above the law.Dont think you own zambia!!!if a poor marketeer can pay tax what of Me'mbe [The Post owner] ?this is justice congrates ZRA [Zambia Revenue Authority].

Malone Zaza countered the arguments of those supporting the government:

The government itself owes contractors, food suppliers, stationery suppliers, pensioners, utility companies, and civil servants and nobody, NOBODY, has shut them down…. [President Edgar] Lungu is a danger to this Country's democracy…

Responding the The Post announcement which says ZRA was instructed by the State House, Chichi Love Musonda Jnr said:

I had no idea the Supreme Court was situated at state house!!!! Once again, your theatrics and usual manner of playing victim at full play!!! If you're as good a citizen as you demand for just about anyone to be ” Just Pay”.

On the same issue of State House instructions, Gabriel Mbewe asked:

“Under instructions from state house, was it state house that caused you not to be paying taxes?”

Opposing the decision to shut down The Post, Petronella Chanda wondered why foreign companies are treated differently when it comes to taxation:

Take time to understand taxation in Zambia you will realise how our tax laws crucify locals compared to foreigners.
It is no secret that foreign companies come to this country and receive tax holidays worth billions of kwacha after that holiday is over they leave and return in another name […]
We should be ashamed, objective and non biased. This has nothing to do with taxation or we would have dealt with all those multinationals that cheat our country through transfer pricing everyday.
This is sad that we can go savage on our own people.

Vycal Mulenga pointed out that there are many companies owing ZRA which have never been shut down. He then warned of anarchy:

Zambian politics, cadres and lack of information. ZRA should never lie that only the post owes it money. u will understand that closure of the post newspaper is purely politically motivated wen u cross check the list of companies owing ZRA millions and are operational. Tampering with the media has been the beginning of arnachy [sic] in many lands and not the tax liability to the governments. just an objective observation.

It has been reported that government-owned newspapers Times of Zambia, Zambia Daily Mail and the national broadcaster National Broadcasting Corporation owe ZRA over US$100,000. ZRA has never shut them down.

Closing the company is vindictive and retrogressive, argued John Mutofwe:

This news is soul troubling. Even if the Post owes ZRA ,there ought to be better ways to requidate the debt.closing the company is not only vindictive but's also retrogresive.Think of the employees across the country as well as those of us who love reading the post.

Fred Mumba is neither supporting The Post nor the action taken by ZRA:

Closing down the Post Newspapers & the printing plant is surely not the way to do things in a quest to recover Governments statutory obligations.
However,Fred Mmembe & The Post,you have yourselves to blame cause while on one hand you having insulting the Govt,on the other hand you have abrogated the law.So just pay your obligations.We want that money…Its our money as Citizens

Finally, Chrispine Chupa warned against tampering with press freedom in an election year:

I personally don't believe closing the Post Newspapers was the best thing to have done. So many people have just lost a job. Besides government loses a lot of pay-as-you-earn [a form of income tax], and other taxes. Regardless of the political preferences we all got, it is a very bad decision by the government to temper [sic] with press freedom especially in an election year like this one. I am extremely disappointed.

by Advox at June 23, 2016 10:14 PM

Founder of Protest Reporting Outlet Goes Missing in China
A photograph of demonstrations in Shandong province, posted on Twitter by Lu Yuyu. Photo via Weibo.

A photograph of demonstrations in Shandong province, posted on Twitter by Lu Yuyu. Photo via Weibo.

Lu Yuyu, founder of citizen media outlet Not in the News (非新聞)has been missing since June 15, along with his girlfriend.

The citizen news outlet has been reporting and distributing news of mass demonstrations in China via the Twitter account @wickedonnaa, Blogspot and YouTube since 2013.

The news team also keeps track of the scale and number of incidents, the number of arrested demonstrators and the reason behind the demonstrations through its monthly statistics report. It recorded 28,950 incidents in mainland China in 2015. The site recorded 9,869 incidents in the first quarter of 2016.

The site collects videos and photos of grassroots demonstrations from online sources and redistributes the news via various social media platforms. Twitter account @wickedonna is a major distribution spot and usually the account, managed by Lu Yuyu (Darkmamu), has several daily updates.

Since June 14, the @wickedonna account has posted no new updates. Lu's friend @youyuping alerted followers on June 20:

Urgently seeking missing person, @wickedonnaa, a highly sensitive news outlet [founder] has gone missing.

On Weibo, Lu's friend @ZGHQW99 is also looking for him:

卢 昱宇自11年来专业收集国内各种民间群体性事件,分别发布在他的新浪微博和推特上面,几年间从未间断过,让中外网友看到一个真实而苦难的中国。中国红旗网 《工农之声》版块也长期采用稿件。也一直上个星期,小卢突然失踪,至今无法联系到本人,连其家属的手机也突然处于无人接听状态,请各位多多关注!

Lu Yuyu has been researching mass incidents across the country since 2011 and distributing the news on Sina Weibo and Twitter. He has been doing this non-stop for years so that netizens from China and overseas can see people's suffering in China. Even [Party-affiliated] Hongqi's “Worker and Peasant” column has republished his writings. Last week, Lu went missing and out of contact. Even his relative's mobile phone is unanswered. Please pay attention to this.

In an interview with @beidaijin published on in 2014, Lu explained the mission of his work:


To magnify the voices of the protesters and catch social attention. To spread people's experience of struggle so that others can learn from their successes or failures.

Lu began researching mass demonstrations and incidents in 2011 and began actively distributing the news through social media in 2013, developing what became a counterweight to China's online censorship regime. As witness accounts of protests are dispersed on social media and quickly deleted by web censors, Lu sought through his work to give people greater access to information of public interest and document a more complete picture of the incidents.

Lu Yuyu, the person behind @wickdonnaa which reports on Chinese mass incidents has been missing since June 15. Photo from Twitter user @youyuping

Lu Yuyu, the person behind @wickdonnaa. Photo from Twitter user @youyuping.

He usually spends eight hours a day tracking protest news on social media, cross-checking the information via different search engines, and verifying that videos and images are really coming from the protest spots. @hpgd0 praised Lu's work on Twitter after he learned about his disappearance:

“Not in the News” bares witness to so many sufferings for us. Putting such serious effort into this work is an act of respect. I sometimes intentionally ignore the news, as it takes courage to look at others’ suffering. But I notice that he keeps track of every incident, every day. These stories can make headline news in Japan, they are all loaded with social injustice. Society is not perfect, but filtering out negative news  will not make society better.

It is very likely that Lu and his girlfriend's disappearance is related to his citizen journalistic work. Many speculated that they have been detained because of recent protests in the town of Wukan, Shandong province, where protests have erupted over an ongoing land dispute. Xing Jian, an exiled dissident told Radio Free Asia:


As Wukan incident continued to gain public attention, the Chinese authorities are worried about media reports on the protest. That's why they made him vanish. This is a further suppression of freedom of press. We urge international society and human rights organizations to pay attention on this.

by Oiwan Lam at June 23, 2016 09:58 PM

Netizen Report: Russian Authorities Step Up Information Controls in the Name of National Security
Surveillance camera stencil art. Photo by Paul Lowry via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Surveillance camera stencil art. Photo by Paul Lowry via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

A new set of “anti-terrorist” amendments in Russia would affect more than ten different laws and would broadly expand the state's powers to control citizens’ civil rights.

As Russia-focused independent media site Meduza put it, the amendments would enable authorities to “…strip Russians of their citizenship, revoke the foreign travel rights of people convicted of reposting certain ‘wrong’ content online, and access every single telephone conversation and email that crosses Russia's telecommunications lines.”

The amendments also increase penalties for Internet users who “incite terrorist activity and justify terrorism,” raising the maximum prison term for such offences from five to seven years behind bars. Another will obligate telecommunications companies and organizers of “online information distribution” — including blogging platforms and social network websites — to store records of customers’ phone calls or voice data, text messages, images, videos, and other types of content for six months on Russian soil.

The amendments have already passed first reading in the Duma and it is widely expected that they will pass. They would take effect in July of 2018.

In another critical development, Russian state media regulator Roscomnadzor was recently granted new powers that allow it to revoke the domain names of websites that host child pornography. The power to revoke domain names in the .RU or .РФ domains adds to a growing list of extrajudicial privileges for Roscomnadzor and a handful of other Russian state agencies including the Interior Ministry, which have the status of “competent agencies”, meaning they are able to designate content as dangerous.

Global Voices author attacked at mayor’s house in Makassar, Indonesia

Two digital journalists in Makassar, Indonesia, were attacked on June 5, 2016, while attending an event at the Makassar mayor's house. The journalists, Global Voices Indonesian author Arpan Rachman and his wife, Icha Lamboge, were stopped by two men in black uniforms – not the standard uniform of city security guards – and asked for their journalist ID cards. One of the men then snatched Lamboge's mobile phone. When Rachman intervened and tried to get her phone back, the man grabbed punched him in the chest while the other man strangled him. Rachman has recovered well but both are fearful for their safety.

The couple worked together on stories they suspect may have provoked the incident, including coverage of controversial mass evictions taking place in central Makassar. There have been 12 cases of journalist abuse documented in Makassar thus far in 2016, according to the Alliance for Independent Journalists in Makassar.

More Tanzanians face charges under Cybercrime Act

A Tanzanian man is facing three years in prison following his conviction for insulting President John Magufuli on Facebook in March 2016. Isaac Habakuk Emily allegedly posted a comment in reference to the President’s surprise live call to current affairs show 360, critiquing him for “theatrics in politics”. On June 22, another Tanzanian man was charged under the same law, again for insulting the president, though his message was posted on WhatsApp.

Opponents of the Cybercrime Act argue that the law gives too much power — without meaningful oversight — to police, bestowing upon them the ability to search the homes of suspected violators of the law, seize their electronic hardware, and demand their data from online service providers.

‘My case against Lenovo in Mexico’

Mexican blogger and technology researcher Jacobo Najera filed a challenge against computer manufacturer Lenovo concerning a pre-installed security software on the Yoga 2 laptop model that prevented users from installing a Linux free software operating system. Najera challenged Lenovo before Mexico’s Federal Consumer Protection Attorney, who decided in his favor, ruling that the company had not duly informed consumers of the machine’s technical limitations. Najera describes his experience in a first-person piece for Advox.

Singapore pulls plug on Internet access for public employees

Singapore’s government announced plans to restrict Internet access in government offices in what some people are calling an “Internet ban” for civil servants. The policy would require government workers to use special Internet terminals rather than their own computers in their offices if they need to access the web. Officials say the policy is an attempt to improve Singapore’s cybersecurity, but others have criticized it as drastic and unnecessary.

Kenya’s National Bank takes blogger to court

Kenya’s National Bank is suing blogger Cyprian Nyakundi for defamation over a series of posts on alleged corruption at the bank. In an initial hearing, a court issued an interim injunction restraining Nyakundi from publishing any statements defamatory of the Bank.

Telecom industry loses to net neutrality in US court challenge

A US appeals court fully upheld net neutrality rules that expanded federal oversight of Internet service providers, rejecting a lawsuit from telecom, cable and wireless industry associations that sought to challenge the so-called Open Internet Rules. Despite the rejection of their case, observers expect the telecom industry will seek an appeal before the Supreme Court.

New Research

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Ellery Roberts Biddle, Weiping Li, Tetyana Lockot, Ndesanjo Macha and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

by Netizen Report Team at June 23, 2016 09:39 PM

Russian Activists and Industry Speak Out Against New Draconian ‘Anti-Terrorist’ Laws
"I am against surveillance!" — fragment of online banner from the RosKomSvoboda campaign against the new "anti-terrorist" legislation that ramps up surveillance over online communications and threatens encryption.

“I am against surveillance!” Fragment of online banner from the RosKomSvoboda campaign against the new “anti-terrorist” legislation that ramps up surveillance over online communications and threatens encryption.

Russian civic activists and Internet companies have been raising the alarm about a new set of “anti-terrorist” legislation amendments that has already passed first reading in the Russian Duma. Those opposing the comprehensive amendments say the new laws are a severe threat to free speech and expression online and offline, as they empower the government and law enforcement to crack down on encrypted communications and beef up existing surveillance measures.

The new “anti-terrorist” laws were drafted by lawmaker Irina Yarovaya and Senator Viktor Ozerov, and were supposed to pass second and third reading on June 22, but the vote was postponed until Friday, June 24. Russia-watching media website Meduza reports that the amendments would affect over ten different laws and would broadly expand the state's powers to control its citizens and limit their civil rights.

If the legislation is approved (which is almost certain), Russia's authorities will gain the power to strip Russians of their citizenship, revoke the foreign travel rights of people convicted of reposting certain “wrong” content online, and access every single telephone conversation and email that crosses Russia's telecommunications lines.

Further limits on Internet freedom

Among the many measures aimed at curbing terrorism and extremism in Russia, the suggested amendments increase penalties for Internet users who “incite terrorist activity and justify terrorism,” raising the maximum prison term for such offences from five to seven years behind bars.

Another worrying measure that has caused much alarm among Russian Internet freedom circles is a norm that obligates telecommunications companies to store user communications and metadata for six months on Russian soil. Communications providers and organizers of “online information distribution,” such as blogging platforms and social network websites, will be obligated to store records of customers’ phone calls or voice data, text messages, images, videos, and other types of content.

Telecommunications companies and Internet service providers will also be required to store the metadata from all messages sent and received between users (such as the information about the time of the exchange, the sender and recipient information, location data, etc.) for three years. All this data must be made available to Russian law enforcement if its agencies require this data for investigative work. If voted into law, these regulations would take effect in July of 2018.

After the first reading of the draft amendments, lawmakers added another norm to the legislation: they propose to curb data encryption online by requiring that all Internet and telecom companies that use encryption for user communications (such as end-to-end encryption in messaging services or the HTTPS protocol on websites) to make their encryption keys available to Russia's Federal Security Service so they can decrypt the communications. Companies that refuse to provide decryption information could face fines of up to one million rubles (over $15,000).

Society and industry react

Russian free expression advocates have campaigned against the increased surveillance measures in the proposed legislation, and have said the new encryption resrictions have made the bill “even more dangerous.” RosKomSvoboda, an Internet freedom organization affiliated with the Pirate Party in Russia, set up an online campaign “No to Surveillance,” launching a website called at the time of the first reading of the new legislation, and following up with a social media campaign in which users addressed government officials asking them to nix the amendments. RosKomSvoboda also collected over 3,000 signatures for a petition against the law that they submitted to the Russian Duma and the Communications Ministry on June 21, before the initially scheduled second reading of the draft bill.

Over 3 thousand citizens from 79 regions of Russia signed [the petition] against the Yarovaya-Ozerov draft bill.

Industry representatives in Russia have also voiced their concerns about the new laws. A spokesperson for Internet giant Yandex told RBC news website that the proposed requirements for storing user data and the encryption-curbing measures would “lead to increased expenses for Internet companies, and would excessively limit the rights of businesses and users.”

by Tetyana Lokot at June 23, 2016 03:52 PM

June 22, 2016

Ethan Zuckerman
The worst thing I read this year, and what it taught me… or Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck?

Note: Shane Snow wrote a long and thoughtful email to me about this post. While we agree to disagree on some substantive issues, primarily our thoughts about the future of VR, we also found quite a bit of common ground. He noted that my essay, while mostly about the ideas, strays into the realm of ad hominem attacks, which wasn’t my intention. I’ve removed one comment which he accurately identified as unfair.

I am deeply grateful to Shane for taking the time to engage with my piece and to make changes to his original essay.

I found Shane Snow’s essay on prison reform – “How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix the Prison System” – through hatelinking. Friends of mine hated the piece so much that normally articulate people were at a loss for words.

With a recommendation like that, how could I pass it up? And after reading it, I tweeted my astonishment to Susie, who told me, “I write comics, but I don’t know how to react to this in a way that’s funny.” I realized that I couldn’t offer an appropriate reaction in 140 characters either. The more I think about Snow’s essay, the more it looks like the outline for a class on the pitfalls of solving social problems with technology, a class I’m now planning on teaching this coming fall.

Using Snow’s essay as a jumping off point, I want to consider a problem that’s been on my mind a great deal since joining the MIT Media Lab five years ago: how do we help smart, well-meaning people address social problems in ways that make the world better, not worse? In other words, is it possible to get beyond both a naïve belief that the latest technology will solve social problems and a reaction that rubbishes any attempt to offer novel technical solutions as inappropriate, insensitive and misguided? Can we find a synthesis in which technologists look at their work critically and work closely with the people they’re trying to help in order to build sociotechnical systems that address hard problems?

Obviously, I think this is possible – if really, really hard – or I wouldn’t be teaching at an engineering school. But before considering how we overcome a naïve faith in technology, let’s examine Snow’s suggestion a textbook example of a solution that’s technically sophisticated, simple to understand and dangerously wrong.

When smart people get important things really wrong

Though he may be best know as co-founder of content marketing platform “Contently”, Shane Snow describes himself as “journalist, geek and best-selling author”. That last bit comes from his book “Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success”, which offers insights on how “innovators and icons” can “rethink convention” and break “rules that are not rules”. That background may help readers understand where Snow is coming from. His blog is filled with plainspoken and often entertaining explanations of complex systems followed by apparently straightforward conclusions – evidently, burning coal and natural gas to generate electricity is a poor idea, so oil companies should be investing in solar energy. Fair enough.

Some of these explorations are more successful than others. In Snow’s essay about prison reform, he identifies violence, and particularly prison rape, as the key problem to be solved, and offers a remedy that he believes will lead to cost savings for taxpayers as well: all prisoners should be incarcerated in solitary confinement, fed only Soylent meal replacement drink through slots in the wall, and all interpersonal interaction and rehabilitative services will be provided in Second Life using the Oculus Rift VR system. Snow’s system eliminates many features of prison life – “cell blocks, prison yards, prison gyms, physical interactions with other prisoners, and so on.” That’s by design, he explains. “Those are all current conventions in prisons, but history is clear: innovation happens when we rethink conventions and apply alternative learning or technology to old problems.”

An early clue that Snow’s rethinking is problematic is that his proposed solution looks a lot like “administrative segregation“, a technique used in prisons to separate prisoners who might be violent or disruptive from the general population by keeping them in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. The main problem with administrative segregation or with the SHU (the “secure housing unit” used in supermax prisons) is that inmates tend to experience serious mental health problems connected to sustained isolation. “Deprived of normal human interaction, many segregated prisoners reportedly suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression,” explains social psychologist Dr. Craig Haney. Shaka Senghor, a writer and activist who was formerly incarcerated for murder, explains that many inmates in solitary confinement have underlying mental health issues, and the isolation damages even the sound of mind. Solitary confinement, he says, is “one of the most barbaric and inumane aspects of our society.”

Due to the psychological effects of being held in isolation, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has condemned the use of sustained solitary confinement and called for a ban on solitary confinement for people under 18 years old. Rafael Sperry of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility has called for architects to stop designing prisons that support solitary confinement as they enable violations of human rights. Snow’s solution may be innovative, but it’s also a large-scale human rights violation.

Snow and supporters might argue that he’s not trying to deprive prisoners of human contact, but give them a new, safer form of contact. But there’s virtually no research on the health effects of sustained exposure to head-mounted virtual reality. Would prisoners be forced to choose between simulator sickness or isolation? What are the long-term effects on vision of immersive VR displays? Will prisoners experience visual exhaustion through vergence-accommodation, a yet-to-be-solved problem of eye and brain strain due to problems focusing on objects that are very nearby but appear to be distant? Furthermore, will contact with humans through virtual worlds mitigate the mental problems prisoners face in isolation or exacerbate them? How do we answer any of these questions ethically, given the restrictions we’ve put on experimenting on prisoners in the wake of Nazi abuse of concentration camp prisoners.

How does an apparently intelligent person end up suggesting a solution that might, at best, constitute unethical medical experiments on prisoners? How does a well-meaning person suggest a remedy that likely constitutes torture?

Make sure you’re solving the right problem.
The day I read Snow’s essay, I happened to be leading a workshop on social change during the Yale Civic Leadership conference. Some of the students I worked with were part of the movement to rename Yale’s Calhoun College, and all were smart, thoughtful, creative and openminded.

The workshop I led encourages thinkers to consider different ways they might make social change, not just through electing good leaders and passing just laws. Our lab examines the idea that changemakers can use different levers of change, including social norms, market forces, and new technologies to influence society, and the workshop I led asks students to propose novel solutions to long-standing problems featuring one of these levers of change. With Snow’s essay in mind, I asked the students to take on the challenge of prison reform.

Oddly, none of their solutions involved virtual reality isolation cells. In fact, most of the solutions they proposed had nothing to do with prisons themselves. Instead, their solutions focused on over-policing of black neighborhoods, America’s aggressive prosecutorial culture that encourages those arrested to plead guilty, legalization of some or all drugs, reform of sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, reforming parole and probation to reduce reincarceration for technical offenses, and building robust re-entry programs to help ex-cons find support, housing and gainful employment.

In other words, when Snow focuses on making prison safer and cheaper, he’s working on the wrong problem. Yes, prisons in the US could be safer and cheaper. But the larger problem is that the US incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth – with 5% of the world’s population, we are responsible for 25% of the world’s prisoners. Snow may see his ideas as radical and transformative, but they’re fundamentally conservative – he tinkers with the conditions of confinement without questioning whether incarceration is how our society should solve problems of crime and addiction. As a result, his solutions can only address a facet of the problem, not the deep structural issues that lead to the problem in the first place.

Many hard problems require you to step back and consider whether you’re solving the right problem. If your solution only mitigates the symptoms of a deeper problem, you may be calcifying that problem and making it harder to change. Cheaper, safer prisons make it easier to incarcerate more Americans and avoid addressing fundamental problems of addiction, joblessness, mental illness and structural racism.

Understand that technology is a tool, and not the only tool.

Some of my hate-linking friends began their eye-rolling about Snow’s article with the title, which references two of Silicon Valley’s most hyped technologies. With the current focus on the US as an “innovation economy”, it’s common to read essays predicting the end of a major social problem due to a technical innovation. Bitcoin will end poverty in the developing world by enabling inexpensive money transfers. Wikipedia and One Laptop Per Child will educate the world’s poor without need for teachers or schools. Self driving cars will obviate public transport and reshape American cities.

Evgeny Morozov has offered a sharp and helpful critique to this mode of thinking, which he calls “solutionism”. Solutionism demands that we focus on problems that have “nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” In his book, “To Save Everything, Click Here”, Morozov savages ideas like Snow’s, whether they are meant as thought experiments or serious policy proposals. (Indeed, one worry I have in writing this essay is taking Snow’s ideas too seriously, as Morozov does with many of the ideas he lambastes in his book.)

The problem with the solutionist critique is that it tends to remove technological innovation from the problem-solver’s toolkit. In fact, technological development is often a key component in solving complex social and political problems, and new technologies can sometimes open a previously intractable problem. The rise of inexpensive solar panels may be an opportunity to move nations away from a dependency on fossil fuels and begin lowering atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, much as developments in natural gas extraction and transport technologies have lessened the use of dirtier fuels like coal.

But it’s rare that technology provides a robust solution to a social problem by itself. Successful technological approaches to solving social problems usually require changes in laws and norms, as well as market incentives to make change at scale. I installed solar panels on the roof of my house last fall. Rapid advances in panel technology made this a routine investment instead of a luxury, and the existence of competitive solar installers in our area meant that market pressures kept costs low. But the panels were ultimately affordable because federal and state legislation offered tax rebates for their purchase, and because Massachusetts state law rewards me with solar credits for each megawatt I produce, which I can sell to utilities through an online marketplace, because they are legally mandated to produce a percentage of their total power output via solar generation. And while there are powerful technological, market and legal forces pushing us towards solar energy, the most powerful may be the social, normative pressure of seeing our neighbors install solar panels, leaving us feeling ike we weren’t doing our part.

My Yale students who tried to use technology as their primary lever for reforming US prisons had a difficult time. One team offered the idea of an online social network that would help recently released prisoners connect with other ex-offenders to find support, advice and job opportunities in the outside world. Another looked at the success of Bard College’s remarkable program to help inmates earn BA degrees and wondered whether online learning technologies could allow similar efforts to reach thousands more prisoners. But many of the other promising ideas that arose in our workshops had a technological component – given the ubiquity of mobile phones, why can’t ex-offenders have their primary contact with their parole officers via mobile phones? Given the rise of big data techniques used for “smart policing”, can we review patterns of policing, identifying and eliminating cases where officers are overfocusing on some communities?

The temptation of technology is that it promises fast and neat solutions to social problems, but usually fails to deliver. The problem with Morozov’s critique is that technological solutions, combined with other paths to change, can sometimes turn intractable problems into solvable ones. The key is to understand technology’s role as a lever of change in conjunction with complementary levers.

Don’t assume your preferences are universal
Shane Snow introduces his essay on prison reform not with statistics about the ineffectiveness of incarceration in reducing crime, but with his fear of being sent to prison. Specifically, he fears prison rape, a serious problem which he radically overestimates: “My fear of prison also stems from the fact that some 21 percent of U.S. prison inmates get raped or coerced into giving sexual favors to terrifying dudes named Igor.” Snow is religious about footnoting his essays, but not as good at reading the sources he cites – the report he uses to justify his fear of “Igor” (parenthetical comment removed – EZ, 6/29/16) indicates that 2.91 of 1000 incarcerated persons experienced sexual violence, or 0.291%, not 21%. Shane has amended his post, and references another study that indicates a higher level of coerced sexual contact in prison.

Perhaps isolation for years at a time, living vicariously through a VR headset while sipping an oat flour smoothie would be preferable to time in the prison yard, mess hall, workshop or classroom for Snow. But there’s no indication that Snow has talked to any current or ex-offenders about their time in prison, and about the ways in which encounters with other prisoners led them to faith, to mentorship or to personal transformation. The people Shane imagines are so scary, so other, that he can’t imagine interacting with them, learning from them, or anything but being violently assaulted by them. No wonder he doesn’t bother to ask what aspects of prison life are most and least livable, which would benefit most from transformation.

Much of my work focuses on how technologies spread across national, religious and cultural borders, and how they are transformed by that spread. Cellphone networks believed that pre-paid scratch cards were an efficient way to sell phone minutes at low cost – until Ugandans started using the scratch off codes to send money via text message in a system called Sente, inventing practical mobile money in the process. Facebook believes its service is best used by real individuals using their real names, and goes to great lengths to remove accounts it believes to be fictional. But when Facebook comes to a country like Myanmar, where it is seen as a news service, not a social networking service, phone shops specializing in setting up accounts using fake names and phone numbers render Facebook’s preferences null and void.

Smart technologists and designers have learned that their preferences are seldom their users’ preferences, and companies like Intel now employ brilliant ethnographers to discover how tools are used by actual users in their homes and offices. Understanding the wants and needs of users is important when you’re designing technologies for people much like yourself, but it’s utterly critical when designing for people with different backgrounds, experiences, wants and needs. Given that Snow’s understanding of prison life seems to come solely from binge-watching Oz, it’s virtually guaranteed that his proposed solution will fail in unanticipated ways when used by real people.

Am I the right person to solve this problem?
Of the many wise things my Yale students said during our workshop was a student who wondered if he should be participating at all. “I don’t know anything about prisons, I don’t have family in prison. I don’t know if I understand these problems well enough to solve them, and I don’t know if these problems are mine to solve.”

Talking about the workshop with my friend and colleague Chelsea Barabas, she asked the wonderfully deep question, “Is it ever okay to solve another person’s problem?”

On its surface, the question looks easy to answer. We can’t ask infants to solve problems of infant mortality, and by extension, it seems unwise to let kindergarden students design educational policy or demand that the severely disabled design their own assistive technologies.

But the argument is more complicated when you consider it more closely. It’s difficult if not impossible to design a great assistive technology without working closely, iteratively and cooperatively with the person who will wear or use it. My colleague Hugh Herr designs cutting-edge prostheses for US veterans who’ve lost legs, and the centerpiece of his lab is a treadmill where amputees test his limbs, giving him and his students feedback about what works, what doesn’t and what needs to change. Without the active collaboration of the people he’s trying to help, he’s unable to make technological advances.

Disability rights activists have demanded “nothing about us without us”, a slogan that demands that policies should not be developed without the participation of those intended to benefit from those policies. Design philosophies like participatory design and codesign bring this concept to the world of technology, demanding that technologies designed for a group of people be designed and built, in part, by those people. Codesign challenges many of the assumptions of engineering, requiring people who are used to working in isolation to build broad teams and to understand that those most qualified to offer a technical solution may be least qualified to identify a need or articulate a design problem. Codesign is hard and frustrating, but it’s also one of the best ways to ensure that you’re solving the right problem, rather than imposing your preferred solution on a situation.

On the other pole from codesign is an approach to engineering we might understand as “Make things better by making better things”. This school of thought argues that while mobile phones were designed for rich westerners, not for users in developing nations, they’ve become one of the transformative technologies for the developing world. Frustratingly, this argument is valid, too. Many of the technologies we benefit from weren’t designed for their ultimate beneficiaries, but were simply designed well and adopted widely. Shane Snow’s proposal is built in part on this perspective – Soylent was designed for geeks who wanted to skip meals, not for prisoners in solitary confinement, but perhaps it might be preferable to Nutraloaf or other horrors of the prison kitchen.

I’m not sure how we resolve the dichotomy of “with us” versus “better things”. I’d note that every engineer I’ve ever met believes what she’s building is a better thing. As a result, strategies that depend on finding the optimum solutions often rely on choice-rich markets where users can gravitate towards the best solution. In other words, they don’t work very well in an environment like prison, where prisoners are unlikely to be given a choice between Snow’s isolation cells and the prison as it currently stands, and are even less likely to participate in designing a better prison.

Am I advocating codesign of prisons with the currently incarcerated? Hell yeah, I am. And with ex-offenders, corrections officers, families of prisoners as well as the experts who design these facilities today. They’re likely to do a better job than smart Yale students, or technology commentators.

The possible utility of beating a dead horse

It is unlikely that anyone is going to invite Shane Snow to redesign a major prison any time soon, so spending more than three thousand words urging you to reject his solution may be a waste of your time and mine. But the mistakes Shane makes are those that engineers make all the time when they turn their energy and creativity to solving pressing and persistent social problems. Looking closely at how Snow’s solutions fall short offers some hope for building better, fairer and saner solutions.

The challenge, unfortunately, is not in offering a critique of how solutions go wrong. Excellent versions of that critique exist, from Morozov’s war on solutionism, to Courtney Martin’s brilliant “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”. If it’s easy to design inappropriate solutions about problems you don’t fully understand, it’s not much harder to criticize the inadequacy of those solutions.

What’s hard is synthesis – learning to use technology as part of well-designed sociotechnical solutions. These solutions sometimes require profound advances in technology. But they virtually always require people to build complex, multifunctional teams that work with and learn from the people the technology is supposed to benefit.

Three students at the MIT Media Lab taught a course last semester called “Unpacking Impact: Reflecting as We Make”. They point out that the Media Lab prides itself on teaching students how to make anything, and how to turn what you make into a business, but rarely teaches reflection about what we make and what it might mean for society as a whole. My experience with teaching this reflective process to engineers is that it’s both important and potentially paralyzing, that once we understand the incompleteness of technology as a path for solving problems and the ways technological solutions relate to social, market and legal forces, it can be hard to build anything at all.

I’m going to teach a new course this fall, tentatively titled “Technology and Social Change”. It’s going to include an examination of the four levers of social change Larry Lessig suggests in Code and which I’ve been exploring as possible paths to civic engagement. It will include deep methodological dives into codesign, and into using anthropology as tool for understanding user needs. It will look at unintended consequences, cases where technology’s best intentions fail, and cases where careful exploration and preparation led to technosocial systems that make users and communities more powerful than they were before.

I’m “calling my shot” here for two reasons. One, by announcing it publicly, I’m less likely to back out of it, and given how hard these problems are, backing out is a real possibility. And two, if you’ve read this far in this post, you’ve likely thought about this issue and have suggestions for what we should read and what exercises we should try in the course of the class – I hope you might be kind enough to share those with me.

In the end, I’m grateful for Shane Snow’s surreal, Black Mirror vision of the future prison both because it’s a helpful jumping off point for understanding how hard it is to make change well using technology, and because the US prison system is a broken and dysfunctional system in need of change. But we need to find ways to disrupt better, to challenge knowledgeably, to bring the people they hope to benefit into the process. If you can, please help me figure out how we teach these ideas to the smart, creative people I work with who want to change the world and are afraid of breaking it in the process.

by Ethan at June 22, 2016 02:33 PM

Joi Ito
Becoming a Professor

Great_Dome,_MIT_-_IMG_8390.JPGPhoto by Daderot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was first appointed as the director of the MIT Media Lab, The New York Times said it was an "unusual choice" - which it was since my highest academic degree was my high school diploma, and, in fact, had dropped out of undergraduate programs at both Tufts and the University of Chicago, as well as a doctoral program at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

When first approached about the position, I was given advice that I shouldn't apply considering my lack of a degree. Months later, I was contacted again by Nicholas Negroponte, who was on the search committee, and who invited me to visit MIT for interviews. Turns out they hadn't come up with a final candidate from the first list.

The interview with the faculty, student and staff went well - two of the most exciting days of my life - although quite painful as well, as a major earthquake in Japan occurred the night between the two days. In so many ways, those two days are etched into my mind.

The committee got back to me quickly. I was their first choice, and needed to come back and have meetings with the School of Architecture + Planning Dean Adele Santos, and possibly the provost (now MIT president) Rafael Reif, since I was such an unorthodox candidate. When I sat down to meet with Rafael in his fancy office, he gave me a bit of a "what are you doing here?" look and asked, "How can I help you?" I explained the unusual circumstance of my candidacy. He smiled and said, "Welcome to MIT!" in the warm and welcoming way he treats everyone.

As the director of the Media Lab, my job is to oversee the operations and research of the Lab. At MIT, the norm is for research labs and academic programs to be separated-like church and state-but the Media Lab is unique in that it has "its own" academic Program in Media Arts and Sciences within the School of Architecture + Planning, which is tightly linked to the research.

Since its inception, the Lab has always emphasized hands-on research: learning by doing, demoing and deploying our works rather than just publishing. The academic program is led by a faculty member, currently Pattie Maes, with whom I work very closely.

My predecessor, as well as Nicholas, the lab's founding director, both had faculty appointments. However, in my case, due to the combination of my not knowing any better and the Institute not being sure about whether I had the chops to advise students and be sufficiently academic, I was not given the faculty position when I joined.

In most cases, it didn't matter. I participated in all of the faculty meetings, and except for rare occasions, was made to feel completely empowered and supported. The only awkward moments were when I was mistakenly addressed as "Professor Ito," or after explaining my position to academics from other universities had to endure responses like, "Oh! I thought you were faculty but you're on the ADMINISTRATIVE side of the house!"

So I didn't feel like I NEEDED to be a professor. When I was offered the opportunity to submit a proposal to become a professor, I wasn't sure exactly how it would help. I asked a few of my mentors and they said that it would allow me to have a life at MIT after I was no longer Lab director. Frankly, I can't imagine ever leaving my role as director of the Lab, but that was a nice option. Also, becoming a professor makes me more formally part of the Institute itself. It is a vote of confidence since it requires approval by the academic council.

I am not interested in starting my own research group, but rather have always viewed the entire Media Lab itself my "research group," as well as my passion. However, as I help start new initiatives and support faculty, from time to time, I have become more involved in thinking and doing things that require a more academic frame of mind. Lastly, I have begun to have more opinions about the academic program at the Media Lab and more broadly at MIT. Becoming a faculty member would give me a much better position from which to express these opinions.

With these thoughts in mind-and with advice from my wise mentors-I requested, and today received, appointment as a member of the MIT faculty, as a Professor of the Practice in Media Arts and Sciences.

I still remember when I used to argue with my sister, a double PhD, researcher, and faculty member, calling her "academic" as a derogatory term. I remember many people warning me when I took the role as the director of the Media Lab that I wouldn't fit in or that I'd get sick of it. I've now been at MIT approximately five years - longer than I've been at any other job - (and my sister, Mimi, is now an entrepreneur.) I feel like I've finally found my true calling and am happier than I've ever been with my work, my community and the potential for growth and impact for myself and the community in which I serve.

So thank you MIT and all of my mentors, peers, students, staff, and friends who have supported me so far. I look forward to continuing this journey to see where it goes.

I've posted the research statement that I submitted to MIT for the promotion case.

The appointment is effective July 1, 2016.

by Joi at June 22, 2016 03:45 AM

June 21, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
National Bank of Kenya Takes Blogger to Court for “Defamatory” Blog Posts
Kenyan blogger Cyprian Nyakundi. Photo from his public Facebook page.

Kenyan blogger Cyprian Nyakundi. Photo from his public Facebook page.

A Kenyan blogger Cyprian Nyakundi is being sued by Kenya's National Bank for writing a series of posts about alleged corruption at the bank, which the country's main financial institution deemed defamatory. His court case began this month.

In March this year, the National Bank of Kenya (NBK) asked the Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya and the Cabinet Secretary for ICT to intervene in cases of online defamation of banks.

The bank expressed concern over social media users spreading malicious and false information about banks and other commercial organisations in Kenya as the economy faces challenging times.

The bank also wrote to the Media Council to find out if the council has jurisdiction over blogging and called on the industry lobby and affected companies to seek a lasting legislative solution to issues arising from “unregulated blogging” and social media use.

The bank took controversial blogger Cyprian Nyakundi to court this month following a series of posts about the bank. Nyakundi describes himself as a “Kenyan-based blogger who has an interest in politics, governance, corporate-fraud and human-interest stories.”

Initially the bank filled an ex parte motion asking the court to bar him from writing about the bank on his blog, Twitter account or any other social media platforms.

On June 6, the court granted an interim injunction and allowed NBK to furnish the blogger with a court summons through newspaper advertisements, email and the blogger’s WhatsApp account.

In Kenya, an interim injunction is granted by a court for a certain period of time to restrain a party from performing a certain act. It is a common practice in defamation cases.

The order reads:

Pending the hearing and determination of the application inter partes, an interim injunction is hereby granted restraining the defendant (Cyprian Nyakundi) whether by himself, his agents or his employees from publishing or causing to be published any statements defamatory of the National Bank of Kenya, its shareholders, directors and or employees in any manner whatsoever on his blog page, Twitter handle or any other of his social media platform accounts whatsoever.

The first hearing was on June 16.

One of the articles in question alleges looting at the bank by senior executives. NBK suspended six top executives including its CEO earlier this year to allow for an audit following an increase in bad debt.

Nyakundi is facing two other separate cases of defamation.

In June 2015, Safaricom, the largest mobile phone company in Kenya, sued him for defamation. The company also managed to get a restraining order on him from further publishing other defamatory articles about it and a mandatory injunction to pull down from his blog all the articles defaming Safaricom.

In September 2015, Nyakundi was sued for defamation by Kenyan businessman Vimal Shah.

Observers of Nyakundi's case are unsure whether he is a blogger-for-hire being deployed in inter-corporate wars in Kenya or an innocent economic analyst being targeted by big companies to serve as an example to other bloggers and social media users writing stories on economic topics.

Whatever the truth, the bank's suggestion to shore up corporate reputations through new legislation bodes ominously for freedom of speech in the east African country of over 45 million people.

by Ndesanjo Macha at June 21, 2016 08:32 PM

Journalist Couple Attacked in Makassar, Indonesia
Arpan Rachman and Icha Lamboge covering security during elections in Makassar.

Arpan Rachman and Icha Lamboge covering security during elections in Makassar. Photo courtesy of Arpan Rachman.

Two digital journalists based in Makassar, in the region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia were attacked on June 5, 2016, while attending an event held by Makassar branch of Islamic Students Alumni (KAHMI Makassar) at Makassar mayor's house.

Global Voices author Arpan Rachman and his wife Icha Lamboge, who is also a journalist, told Global Voices that two men in black uniforms – not the standard uniform of city security guards – stopped them and asked for their journalist ID cards. The men then took them into a small room behind the house where Arpan asked them to identify themselves, which they refused to do. One of the men then snatched Lamboge's mobile phone, which is her main reporting tool. When Rachman intervened and tried to get her phone back, the man grabbed punched him in the chest while the other man strangled him.

The couple reported the incident to police, and Rachman was examined by a doctor. He is recovering from the incident, however both he and his wife are fearing for their safety.

The Alliance for Independent Journalists in Makassar has documented 12 cases of journalist abuse thus far in 2016, including harassment while reporting, destruction of reporting tools, intimidation, and physical assault. Neither KAHMI, AJI, nor Makassar officials have issued any statement regarding the attack on Rachman and Lamboge.

Arpan Rachman and Icha Lamboge covering the aftermath of elections, when the Palopo Mayor's office was burned. Photo courtesy of Arpan Rachman.

Arpan Rachman and Icha Lamboge covering the aftermath of elections, when the Palopo Mayor's office was burned. Photo courtesy of Arpan Rachman.

Shortly after the incident, Lamboge expressed concern that the incident would be “dismissed and forgotten or the evidence record doctored.” They have since obtained legal representation from Legal Aid Foundation Makassar, but much remains uncertain about their case. They continue to fear for their physical safety.

Both work actively as journalists, with Lamboge working chiefly with SINDO Trijaya FM, a radio station based in Jakarta, and Rachman working as investigative journalist with multiple local news outlets including BaKTINews, inspiratifnews, Membunuh Indonesia and Media Lingkungan.

The couple has worked together on stories that they suspect could have provoked the incident. For a recent print edition of the human rights magazine Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, they wrote about controversial mass evictions taking place in the Bulogading zone at the center of Makassar. More than one online story about the evictions has been taken down as tensions have risen.

In Indonesia, violence against journalist happens regularly. Attacks like these often go unreported in the media, and perpetrators often go without punishment.

The case involving Arpan and Icha was covered by one local news website, but the story was subsequently removed for unknown reasons.

Global Voices community condemns all forms of violence against journalists in Indonesia and elsewhere in the world. As a community, we stand by our colleague Arpan and his family's appeal for truth and justice.

by Advox at June 21, 2016 01:23 AM

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by Development Seed at June 21, 2016 12:00 AM

June 20, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
Tanzanian Musician and Activist Maembe Vitali Arrested and Released
Tanzanian activist and musician Maembe Vitali. Photo from his public Facebook page.

Tanzanian activist and musician Maembe Vitali. Photo from his public Facebook page.

Maembe Vitali, Tanzania’s most passionate musician and activist, was arrested in Bagamoyo, Tanzania on June 7 and released the following evening according to Vitali's personal Facebook page as well as East African TV.

Vitali was charged with trespassing at the Bagamoyo College of the Arts (TaSUBa: Taisisi ya Sanaa na Utamaduni Bagamoyo) and disobeying police orders.

His case has been taken to court as the only ‘remedy’ to this perceived ‘security breach’ on campus.

Vitali suffered injuries due to excessive force by police and went to a private hospital for treatment on Thursday following his release on Wednesday evening.

Vitali explained that the police denied him the right to a “PF3,” a legal form confirming his injuries.

His arrest triggered an avalanche of online support by fans, colleagues, and fellow activists who posted photos and song clips, commiserated with the circumstances of his arrest and demanded his release through the hashtag #FreeMaembe

The YouTube video below is a song, Vuma, by the musician. The song talks about corruption and the need for greater transparency:

Vitali's arrest occurred when students at the arts college staged a protest against school exams.

Student activists refused to sit for an exam administered privately by the college, instead demanding that the exam aligns with and is recognized by VETA (Vocational Education and Training Authority of Tanzania).

Students intended to hold a peaceful rally, singing and holding signs yet Vitali reports that Acting Head of TaSUBa Mr. Michael Kadinde called the police to intervene.

The police sprayed tear gas on the student protestors, sparking violence. Police immediately arrested Vitali when he arrived on campus, accusing him of instigating the student protest.

Vitali's outspoken disdain for fraudulent administrative practices at the College of the Arts has caused a breach between him and the college, where he once studied music.

Police said that Vitali ‘demanded to be let inside and when he was asked to leave, he refused.’

This is strongly contested by Vitali himself as well as Rose Peter Maigunga, a witness to Vitali's violent arrest.

Vitali is expected to appear at the Bagamoyo District Court on June 22 to defend his case.

Now in Dar es Salaam recovering from his injuries, his supporters are calling for help on his behalf.

Diana Kamara, a student at the University of Dar es Salaam, reported that Vitali is looking for legal assistance in Dar es Salaam or in Bagamoyo.

She wrote:

Sanaa sio jipu la taifa ni mzigo na uteja wa watu kama Vitali Maembe. Hivyo hii ni nafasi yetu kujua hasa kiini cha jibu hili tulije kufuta usaha na kuacha kiini. Tuongee na na kujadili uovu, udhaifu. Na isiishie Bagamoyo, nani anajua hali ya Chuo cha Butimba? Hali ia Idara ya sanaa UDOM ama UDSM?
Historia inaweza isigeuzwe na hili tukio lakini ni nafasi yetu kutafiti bila ushabiki, bila kujipendelea na kujibagua kwamba sisi sio sehemu ya tatizo: Nini nafasi ya sanaa na utamaduni kwa ujumla katika taifa letu: kiserikali na kijamii.

Art is not the boil [that will burst] the nation, rather, it’s a burden…This is our chance to get to the essence of our questions. Let’s have a dialogue about evil and powerlessness. And let’s not stop at the College of Arts in Bagamoyo — let’s also look at the state of Butimba College or the Department of the Arts at the UDSM [University of Dar es Salaam] or UDOM [University of Dodoma]. History can't overturn what happened, but this is our chance to explore — without fanaticism, egotism or exclusiveness  — how artists are not part of the problem. We ask, what is the position of art and culture in our country, both in terms of the government and society at large?

Kamara urged fans to listen, analyze and contextualize the messages inside Vitali's songs.

“It’s our collective responsibility,” Kamara explains, “to share Maembe's vision and message as widely as possible, as this is his ultimate motivation for creating his music in the first place.”

Kamara concludes, “Wherever Vitali is in the world, I am not worried, because [his activism] has opened our eyes. Yes, let’s show him compassion, but so that his arrest is not a waste, let’s all take it upon ourselves to get to work.”

Mohamed Ismail Rwabukoba asked:

Leo VITALIS MAEMBE anapigwa na kushambuliwa kama jambazi. Kosa lake ni kusema ukweli?

Today Vitalis Maembe is beaten and attacked as if he is a robber. Is speaking the truth his crime?

Another Facebook user Rachael Mwikali wrote:

My dear Maembe Vitali you are truely a Fighter.
AFRICA is proud to have you as a Son.
Sending you positive energy,quick recovery and lots of love.
Aluta Continua

Tina Mfanga observed:

You are not a soldier, you are not a rebel, they should understand that you are just a fighter… Yes, a fighter of a noble cause.

Maembe Vitali has made a name for himself as an activist, musician, teacher, life coach and counselor, promoting the arts as a powerful tool for political expression.

Known widely for producing and singing original songs about corruption and inequality, fans refer to Vitali as “Baba ya Ukweli” (“Father of the Truth”) and “Sauti Yetu” (“Our Voice”).

From 2012-2013, Vitali took his politics to the streets on a national tour called “Chanjo ya Rushwa,” (“Vaccination Against Corruption”), which covered all regions of Tanzania offering free community shows with his band, The Spirits, followed by open, public debates to “give people a voice on the problems of corruption, laziness and selfishness.”

The vision: “people will be able to discuss vivid situations and identify causes and solutions.”

The controversial tour ended in 2013 amidst security concerns, though Vitali continues to rail against corruption at all levels of government and has called out the Bagamoyo College of the Arts on various accusations of fraud, corruption, and theft.

Supporters insist this arrest was the unjust outcome of living in a climate of heightened censorship, with Tanzania’s new Cyber Crimes Act actively repressing opposition and dissent, especially online.

Vitali founded and directs Jua Arts Center in Bagamoyo, often collaborating with his students as a teacher and mentor.

Students attend weekly rehearsals and gather to learn about community building and social change.

He teaches music, theory and community organizing as a way to encourage young people to speak ‘truth to power’ and to use music as a tool to critically examine Tanzania’s most pressing social issues.

The CDEA (Culture & Development East Africa) has referred to Vitali as a ‘patriotic musician,” collaborating with him to raise funds for CDEA arts programming through pledges to support his 2014 Kilimanjaro climb. 

Through his music, Vitali channels freedom fighters and visionaries like Julius Nyerere, Frantz Fanon, and Biko with playful guitar riffs and signature acoustic sounds that invite listeners to consider new possibilities.

“I’m a musician, but my music is more for the streets, it’s not really for radio, or television or the disco,” Vitali explained in an interview during the Green Peace Music Festival.

In response to Tanzania’s 2015 presidential elections, Vitali composed the 2014 song “Vuma,” (“Blow”), which begins with an address to mothers everywhere: “You, mama, inside your home everyday, come outside, you’ll hear the news blowing [in every direction].”  

He goes on to sing about the troubled union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, the controversial Mtwara gas pipeline, arrogant politicians in parliament, and the pent up frustrations of everyday Tanzanian citizens who want economic justice, transparency and stability.

Maembe Vitali portrait on the steps of Jua Arts, a community arts center founded by Vitali in Bagamoyo.

Maembe Vitali sits on a porch in Dr es Salaam. Photo used with permission.

Vitali's forceful arrest in Bagamoyo occurred in the same week opposition leader Zitto Kabwe, of the Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT), was summoned by police commander Wambura in Dar es Salaam for delivering a speech on “Protecting Democracy” on June 5 in Dar es Salaam, in which Kabwe called on supporters to continue to question the government in an effort to protect and stimulate a multi-party political system that values citizen engagement.

In his speech, he warned against totalitarianism and corruption and urged Tanzanians to question, criticize and correct decisions made under the leadership of President Magufuli of CCM (Chama cha Mapinduzi / The Revolutionary Party), who recently won the election of 2015 despite voter rigging accusations and a debacle on the islands of Zanzibar, where the opposition party CUF (Civic United Front) claimed a premature victory and still insists a botched election.

Kabwe was released and no charges were filed, yet the government banned rallies from all political parties just two days later. 

While no direct correlation exists between the two arrests, the message is loud and clear: opposition voices will be silenced.

Last week's arrests raise difficult questions about the constitutional right to gather, form opinions, exchange ideas, and protest. It also underscores the power of the police to disrupt, intimidate and intervene at the slightest hint of dissent.

by Advox at June 20, 2016 09:23 PM

Russian State Censor Can Now Un-Delegate Website Domain Names Extrajudicially
Russia's national domain coordinaton center controls the delegation of .ru and .рф domains. Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY.

Russia's national domain coordinaton center controls the delegation of .ru and .рф domains. Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY.

The Russian government media and Internet watchdog, Roscomnadzor, is now able to un-delegate domain names for websites that are found to host child pornography without a court order. This power has been granted to Roscomnadzor by the Coordinating Center of the Russian national Internet domain.

The media regulator and the domain coordinating body signed an agreement about the delegation of powers to Roscomnadzor at the Saint Petersburg international economic forum on Thursday, June 16.

The ability to un-delegate domain names in the .RU or .РФ domains adds to a growing list of extrajudicial privileges for a handful of Russian state agencies, such as the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor General's Office, and other organizations who have a special agreement with the domain coordinator.

As a rule, a Russian court must recognize online content to be illegal in order for it to be blocked. But the organizations listed above enjoy exceptions to this rule, as they are granted the status of “competent agencies” able to designate content as dangerous and demand that a domain name be blocked and un-delegated. Beyond the government bodies listed above, there are currently four corporate and non-profit organizations in Russia that enjoy the “competent” status: the Kaspersky Lab, Group-IB, Center of Internet Technologies, and the Safe Internet League.

Now, Roscomnadzor joints the list of the chosen. According to a report by RIA Novosti news agency, the state Internet regulator will seek out websites that “violate the law by disseminating child pornography” and file a request with one of the many accredited domain registrars to un-delegate their domain names. Roscomnadzor will also follow up to make sure the website domain name has indeed been un-delegated, and, if the registrar does not comply, will file a complaint with the National domain coordinator.

The new increase in Roscomnadzor's power contributes to the existing system of online content blocking in Russia. Under current rules, websites can be banned by a court order (for instance, for copyright violation). Sites can also be blocked if they are found to violate the law on protection of children “from harmful information.” These are then added to Russia's Internet blacklist.

Several state agencies can contribute to the banned websites list as well: as mentioned above, Roscomnadzor is in charge of finding illegal pornographic content online; the Federal Drug Control Service (recently disbanded and absorbed by the Interior Ministry) could report content about illegal drug distribution and propaganda; the Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights and Human Welfare can ban information contaning propaganda of suicide or otherwise harmful to children, and the Federal Tax Service is responsible for blocking gambling-related content. Finally, the General Prosecutor's Office can ban what it deems to be “extremist materials” online.

All the state agencies then send the URLs and IPs of the content deemed illegal to Roscomnadzor, which is in charge of the banned websites registry. Before a website is added to the blacklist, censors send a notice asking its owners to remove the offending content. If the website owners don't comply, the website is added to the blacklist and blocked by Russian ISPs.

by Tetyana Lokot at June 20, 2016 08:29 PM

Russia Mulls A ‘National Big Data Operator’ to Control Internet User Data
State officials believe a national "big data" controller could help protect Russians' personal information online. Image from Pixabay.

State officials believe a national “big data” controller could help protect Russians’ personal information online. Image from Pixabay.

Russian state officials are concerned about big data. More specifically, the personal data of Russian Internet users. And they believe more legislation regulating how this data is collected, stored, and protected will help make Russians using the Internet safer.

Head of Russian state Internet regulator Roscomnadzor Aleksandr Zharov suggested Russia could create a “national big data operator” that would control how the RuNet users’ data was being used. Speaking at the Saint Petersburg international economic forum this week, Zharov stressed that big data use had to be regulated, as a lot of the information, even though it wasn't personal, could still be used to identify users.

Государство, бизнес и общество должны определить правила обращения больших данных. Большие данные – большие возможности, но и большие риски на всех уровнях. Поэтому закон о больших данных должен быть.

The state, the business [sector], and the society must determine the rules of big data use. Big data means big opportunities, but also big risks at all levels. So there should be a law about big data.

The RBC news agency reports that while there isn't an immediate plan for a big data law, it could see light in the near future.

President Putin'd aide, Igor Shchegolyev, who was also at the forum in Saint Petersburg, stressed that at the moment, even the simplest app developers could gain unrestricted access to user data, and said that under the new law any collection and transmission of user data would only happen with the users’ permission. At the same time, the specific nature control mechanisms imposed by the state under such a law remains unclear.

Existing user data legislation

Russia already has an existing law that regulates how Russians’ personal data is stored and processed. The data localization law came into power on September 1, 2015 and mandates that Russian and international companies must store the data of Russian users on Russian territory. The law also obligates Internet services to store user data for at least six months. Some institutions, like foreign embassies and consulates, as well as airline ticket sales services and mass media, are exempt from the requirement to store user data on Russian soil.

Roscomnadzor has already inspected 600 companies for compliance with the data localization requirements, and found four that violated the law. The agency promises to inspect 900 more companies before the end of 2016, including Russia's largest social network, VKontakte.

Roscomnadzor head Zharov said the regulator has the power to inspect any companies working with Russian Internet user data, regardless of their jurisdiction or whether they have an office in Russia, referring to ongoing negotiations with websites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Если мы найдем нарушение закона, то мы будем в каждой ситуации разбираться индивидуально и предметно. И будем давать достаточный срок для того, чтобы компания начала движение в сторону локализации персональных данных, а не сразу ее «закрывать».

If we find a violation of the [data localization] law, we will deal with each situation individually and specifically. And we will provide a long enough term for the company to begin moving towards localizing personal data, and not “shut it down” immediately.

Zharov stressed that the state regulator would only take matters to court if a company “outright refused” to comply with the data localization law. While some companies, like PayPal and, have announced they plan to comply with data localization demands, others, including Facebook and Twitter, have been more tightlipped about how they plan to deal with new legal restrictions in Russia. Human rights and free speech advocates have said the data retention legislation presents more opportunities for state surveillance on Russian users and have called on international companies to refuse to store user data on Russian territory.

by Tetyana Lokot at June 20, 2016 08:21 PM

June 18, 2016

June 17, 2016

Global Voices Advocacy
Hong Kong Bookseller Says He Was Forced to Confess on TV During Eight-Month Detention in China
Lam Wing-kee. Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

Lam Wing-kee. Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

The following was originally published as a series of articles written by Tom Grundy and Kris Cheng on Hong Kong Free Press on June 16, 2016. They have been edited together into article and is published on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Five booksellers who went missing from Thailand, China and Hong Kong in 2015 have suddenly turned up both in person and on TV over the last several months in Hong Kong. In what may be a response to international pressure, these appearances have allowed them to “clarify” for the public that they voluntarily assisted mainland Chinese authorities in a criminal investigation.

Given that all five sold books critical of the Chinese government, very few people are buying story.

And now one of them is speaking out. Lam Wing-kee, the founder of Causeway Bay Bookstore in Hong Kong, went missing on October 24. He held an impromptu press conference at Hong Kong's legislature on June 16, where he told reporters that he was held by a kind of “special unit” in China and that he was forced to make a confession on TV in February.

Lam returned to Hong Kong on June 14, accompanied by two men. He said mainland Chinese authorities offered to release him if he handed over a hard drive containing a list of customers from the Causeway Bay Bookstore by June 16. He was due to return to the mainland with the hard drive, but he turned back after reading news about Hong Kong people protesting his arrest.

The hard drive demanded by the Chinese authorities contained sales records of some 600 people's names and 4,000 book titles from the bookstore. Lam said the special unit had already obtained a copy of the hard drive from another missing bookseller, Lee Bo, during his brief return from mainland China to Hong Kong in March.

Describing the details of his eight-month detention, Lam said that he was intercepted at the mainland border crossing on October 24, 2015. He was handcuffed, his eyes were covered, and he was taken from Shenzhen to Ningbo on China's eastern coast by train the next day.

He said he was held in a 200 to 300 square foot room in a large compound for five months until March 2016. Lam was not allowed to see a lawyer or communicate with his family, and says that six groups of people took turns monitoring him closely. He wasn't allowed to leave, he said. However, after many requests, he was allowed books to read.

During his detention, Lam said he underwent some 20 to 30 interrogations, in which he was accused of “illegal operations” by sending “banned” books to the mainland. Each interrogation lasted from 30 to 45 minutes:

I did not believe it would happen to me – it was an absurd place […] It was not realistic… I hoped I was in another place, or that it was a dream, that it was not reality. I am a Hong Konger, I am a free man, I did not break any law in Hong Kong, but I was arrested without any reason.

He was forced into making a public confession on Hong Kong broadcaster Phoenix TV in February. Of the experience, he explained there was a director and a script for him to practice; he said he did not have the courage to refuse to go though with it, although he did not think he committed any crime. After the confession, he was sent to Shaoguan in southeast China to work at a library, with less restrictions in March.

Accompanied by lawmaker Albert Ho Chun-yan at the press conference, Lam told reporters that he could not understand what law he may have violated, as it was legal in Hong Kong to send books to the mainland.

“If I broke Chinese laws they can sue me, why did the Chinese government grab me silently when I crossed the border?” he said. “This is not just my personal matter or Causeway Bay Books, this is about the human rights of Hong Kong people,” he said, saying that it was blatant violation of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle.

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China and is supposed to have a high degree of autonomy from the mainland. Thanks to this so-called “One Country, Two Systems” principle, Hong Kong enjoys more freedoms than China, but there are fears that despite this set-up, the mainland is attempting to tighten its control over the region.

Lam said on the day he was accosted on the mainland last October, he was originally planning to visit his girlfriend. She was also detained on the mainland as she had helped him with sending “banned” books into China. She was released on bail.

I am sorry for my girlfriend… But I don’t consider this a personal matter anymore, rather a matter for the whole of society… Hong Kong people were forced without any way out […]

He said it was unacceptable that his colleague Lee Bo was “kidnapped” from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has rule of law – I am not afraid for my personal safety, and I do not plan to go to the mainland again. […] This is the red line for Hong Kong people – Hong Kong people will not give in to the powerful regime.

Regarding the booksellers who returned to Hong Kong and went to the mainland again, he said he wishes the Chinese government would “treat them well.”

Lam also said he hoped that Hong Kong people would continue to raise their voices against the “authoritarian” regime of China:

I hope Hong Kong people can say no to the authoritarian regime […] If I can, why can’t you? I was born and raised in Hong Kong – I don’t have to leave.

Human right organization Amnesty International stated that Lam's testimony has “blown apart” Beijing's “lies” on the missing publishers. Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said:

He has exposed what many have suspected all along: that this was a concerted operation by the Chinese authorities to go after the booksellers. It seems clear he, and most likely the others, were arbitrarily detained, ill-treated and forced to confess. The plight of the other booksellers still in mainland China is extremely worrying. They must be granted access to lawyers and where appropriate consular assistance.

Lam's colleague Lee Bo issued a public post on Facebook denying Lam’s claims, saying he voluntarily went to the mainland using his own methods to assist in an investigation. Booksellers Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping, who also went missing in Shenzhen and Dongguan respectively, had returned to Hong Kong but went back to the mainland soon after.

Gui Minhai, another bookseller at Causeway Bay Books who went missing while in Thailand, has yet to be released from detention on the mainland.

by Hong Kong Free Press at June 17, 2016 02:45 PM

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