EU vows to help online dissidents speak out | Technology | DW | 12.12.2011
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Technology

EU vows to help online dissidents speak out

The European Union has unveiled a strategy called 'No-Disconnect' to help online activists living under oppressive regimes get their message out without fear of state surveillance.

A man with a laptop in China

Online activists in parts of the world face huge hurdles

Called the "No-Disconnect" strategy, the new European Union plan announced Monday aims to enable Internet activists operating under oppressive regimes to communicate safely and anonymously outside the reach of governments. However, European officials are yet to precisely explain how these tools will be created, distributed, or evaluated.

Neelie Kroes, the EU's digital affairs commissioner outlined the four-part "No-Disconnect" plan in a speech on Monday in Brussels.

the European Union's digital affairs commissioner Neelie Kroes

Kroes said online freedom is closely linked to democracy

The new strategy includes developing technology to enhance privacy, teaching activists how to use it, developing on-the-ground intelligence to monitor the level of surveillance and censorship and promoting cooperation between governments, the private sector and activists.

"I want the EU to help develop and distribute those tools, in a framework that ensures the legitimacy of our action," Kroes said.

Kroes said the tools need to be simple and ready to use so they can be deployed quickly by activists with minimal technical knowledge and training.

The tools should also be readily accessible, she said, not just from computers, but from mobile phones, social networks, and micro-blogging services, like Twitter.

Many Internet experts believe social networking websites played a role in fomenting the revolutions of the Arab Spring this year, helping topple authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.

"The Arab Spring was a wake-up call for all of us," Kroes said at the Freedom Online conference held last week, in The Hague, the Netherlands.

"[This is] a reminder that democracy is not just a rich world luxury – but something which people hope and struggle for everywhere," she added. "And a reminder that, across the world, information and communications technology can support freedom of speech and enable the peaceful transition to democracy."

Egytian blogger Wael Ghonim

Egyptian blogger Wael Ghonim played a prominent role in the uprising

Mesh network on the way

The EU's push to support online freedom follows similar initiatives by the United States earlier this year to fund and develop alternate digital communications networks to help dissidents bypass state-controlled censorship.

Separately, the Dutch government has pledged one million euros ($1.3 million) to develop "mesh network" technology that can use devices like cellphones or personal computers to create a backup system to disseminate information in the event governments shut down Internet and mobile phone service.

Iran, Syria and Zimbabwe are reported to be target countries.

Walking a fine line

Though details of the EU digital freedom strategy remain sketchy, Internet rights advocates have welcomed it as a step in the right direction.

"I'm glad the European Union is taking a stance on Internet freedom. It helps highlight just how important the issue is," said Markus Beckedahl, editor of a popular German-language blog that focuses on digital issues, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

But at the same time, he added, the EU is trying to walk a fine line: on the one hand it's helping activists in repressive nations help bypass state-controlled censorship.

On the other EU member nations impose curbs on online speech within its own borders when it comes to downloading music, blocking websites to fight child pornography or gathering information on its citizens to combat terrorism.

Datacables connected to a server

Internet activists say western governments also block web content

"It's very hard to lecture a country like China about censoring Internet content when governments in Europe too are blocking access to certain things," echoed Joe McNamee, head of European Digital Rights, a Brussels-based Internet advocacy organization. "This is the trickiest challenge for the EU – it simply has to be consistent to be credible."

Activists have also criticized the United States for its "Stop Online Piracy Act" proposed by Congress, which would require American telecommunications companies to block access to foreign-based websites that infringe American copyright.

Western tech firms complicit in Internet monitoring

Others point out that any EU efforts to champion Internet freedom are undermined by the fact that western companies export surveillance technology to authoritarian governments. WikiLeaks recently began publishing extensive internal documents from companies around the globe that engage in these types of surveillance.

Stephan Urbach of Telecomix, a decentralized network of Internet freedom activists, said his group had discovered earlier this year that the Syrian government was using web filters developed by US technology company Blue Coat Systems. In another instance, a Munich company reportedly sold Internet monitoring technology to the Egyptian government.

Stephen Urbach

Stephan Urbach and his colleagues at Telecomix have tried to help activists stay online

"This is a real problem," Urbach told Deutsche Welle. "The Western world sells this kind of monitoring hardware all across the Middle East."

Both the European Union and the US have in recent days urged technology companies to be transparent about equipment they sell to government who might use it to repress their citizens.

"I think it is high time for the industry to decide where they stand, and what they are going to do. If not as a moral issue, then as an issue of corporate reputation," Kroes said. "Being known for selling despots the tools of their repression is, to say the least, bad PR."

Helping existing activists

Though the EU hasn't said how much it intends to invest in its "No Disconnect" strategy, experts say any funds must be targeted carefully.

Beckedahl suggested that the 27-nation bloc should help finance groups such as Telecomix, which famously offered slow, but functional, dial-up Internet access to circumvent state blockages of broadband networks during the uprising in Egypt.

"If the EU is serious about supporting Internet freedom it should fund civil rights groups, open source software and groups that already do good work on the ground and are well-connected with activists in other countries so that they can improve their initiatives," he said.

Author: Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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