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US Loosens Internet Restrictions on Iran and Cuba

Arguing that access to the flow of information on the Internet in Iran and Cuba is in line with US interests, the US Treasury has asked Google and Microsoft to give users in those two countries access to their chat services. This is a smart move, but just the beginning of what should be done to increase the flow on online speech in those countries.

Ethan Zuckerman fist noticed a disturbing trend earlier this year when Internet companies such as Bluehost and others began to use sanctions against countries like Zimbabwe, Iran, Syria and Sudan as an excuse to cut off service entirely to users in those countries, even if the users were human rights groups fighting against the governments that are the real target of the sanctions. Not long after he observed the problem in Zimbabwe, Bluehost shut out users in Iran, including leading bloggers like Kamangir. It seems that most firms, large and small, just shut off access to most of their products that require a software download out of fear of running afoul of US sanctions. In their cost-benefit analysis, it is just easier to shut off access and not look at the impact of those decisions on activists in those countries.

However, it seems that Microsoft has continued to allow citizens in Iran, Cuba and other sanctioned countries to use its Hotmail e-mail and Live Spaces blog service, since they are hosted in the cloud. This is possibly another argument in favor of cloud computing, where services are increasingly migrating lately, although it depends on where those services are hosted.

This is a good first step, but there is still much the US can do to ease restrictions on Internet speech and access to software and services provided by US companies in countries where we have the strictest sanction regimes.

Posted in Iran. 1 Comment »

Russian Ministry Wants ISPs to Filter Internet

Evegeny Morozov over at Foreign Policy recently shared this story from the Russian site, which reports that Russia is considering technical filtering options. ONI research has not found technical filtering in Russia to date, so if this plan goes through it could be one of the
first known instances of technical filtering in Russia. The article quotes the head of the Russian Ministry of Communications at length, who argues that ISPs should filter the internet for ‘negative content’ at public access points in order to protect children, including one proposal to create white and black lists of sites. A source in the Ministry of Internal Affairs “K squad” (basically, their Internet police) seems to agree with the general idea, saying:

The Internet without filters should be closed, at least in schools.

The justification is found in the somewhat Orwellian sounding bill ‘On the Protection of Children from Information which is Harmful to their Health and Development,’ which is still being debated in the Duma. InfoX reports the following reaction on the bill:

‘In the bill it is said that users should prove how old they are, and based on that the Internet is opened. If a user is silent on this count, users are considered to be six years old,’ said Mark Tverdynin, a representative of the Regional Public Center for Internet Technologies, ‘How a user is going to prove how old they are is unclear.’

According to Mark Tverdynina, providers may terminate your access to many sites under threat of punishment after this law is adopted. ‘There is a danger that this could turn everything into an Intranet instead of an Internet,’ said the expert.

Posted in Russia. 1 Comment »

Mobile Phones Easier to Find Than Food for World’s Poor

This news from Foreign Policy’s Joshua Keating is pretty amazing. He writes that:

We’ve reached a very strange point in human history when it is assumed that people who don’t have access to food will have working cell phones.

He points to an announcement by the UN that it will use cell phones to send $22 vouchers to Iraqi refugee families in Syria every two months. They are provided with special SIM cards for the transactions, and the vouchers can then be exchanged for staples such as rice, flour, lentils, chickpeas, and oil at selected stores.

Perhaps expecting that eye brows might be raised at the idea that those needing food aid would have cell phones, the UN’s Emilia Casella reports, “all the 130,000 Iraqi refugees currently receiving food aid from the agency in Syria have mobile phones.”

UN Dispatch’s Matthew Cordell further points out that, according to the ITU, “worldwide at the end of 2008 there were 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions, buoyed by developing countries, where two-thirds of those subscriptions were used.” Even if most of us look at ITU data with a fair amount of skepticism, that is a pretty phenomenally high number of cell phone subscriptions, and stories like this seem to indicate that the digital divide may be shrinking faster than many of us expected.

Despite Circulation Numbers, Neither the Sky Nor the Republic is Falling

It has been all of about 15 minutes since we last heard someone bemoan the ‘death of newspapers’ or decide to hold yet another conference blaming the Internet for their downfall, so thanks to the New York Times (Website) for adding more fuel to the fire with a report that circulation has fallen at the top 25 newspapers, with the exception of the Wall Street Journal. Andrew Sullivan captures the essence of the moment nicely:

The Boston Globe’s circulation is down 18 percent in one year; the San Francisco Chronicle’s is down 26 percent. The WSJ is actually stable. But these slides and the readerships they now represent are hard to ignore. They are not signs of an industry as we have known it in trouble. They are signs of it ending.

But these articles ignore that last year, according to Nielson, unique visitors to the top 10 newspaper Web site increased 16%, growing 34.6 million unique visitors in December 2007 to 40.1 million in December 2008. I know, I know, advertisers don’t pay nearly as much for online ads as they do for print ads, but that says more about advertisers than it does about the demand for newspaper content.

And there is another misleading finding about the rankings, which for the first time in a decade put the Wall Street Journal at the top. The Wall Street Journal took that spot, as I understand it, because it is one of the few to charge for online content, and is allowed to include its online subscribers in the circulation totals. When you combine the online NY Times audience (the leader, with 18.2 million unique visitors in December 2008) with its current print circulation of 927,851 on weekdays and 1.4 million on Sundays, they blow away the Journal in total readers (as does USA Today). (Nothing against the Journal, a fine publication, they deserve a pat on the back for getting (rich) people to pay for online content). Further, according to the Newspaper Association of America, peak weekly and Sunday subscriptions for all newspapers appeared to have peaked at around 60-62 million in the 1980s. Yet Nielson found that in August of 2009 there was a unique audience of over 75 million for newspaper Websites, more readers than hard copy newspapers have ever attracted. So why isn’t that the headline? Clearly, there is still great, and apparently growing, demand for quality journalism, if not necessarily newsprint. The advertisers will catch up with the younger demographic reading papers online and the newspaper industry will find new models, but probably not as fast as the old ones will be destroyed.

Posted in Ideas. 3 Comments »

Internet Filtration in Sub-Saharan Africa

Internet penetration in Africa remains undeniably low.  According to the 2008 International Telecommunications Union, only five Sub-Saharan African countries had Internet penetration above 10 percent, and four of those were island nations.  While Internet at five-star hotels in the Seychelles might be widely available, at the other end of the spectrum, Sierra Leone can hardly boast over its 0.2 percent.  In fact, Zimbabwe is the only continental nation with greater than 10 percent penetration.  Perhaps not surprising on a continent where only 17 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans have access to electricity, there is evidence of forthcoming change.

On October 1, the OpenNet Initiative released a report on Internet Filtering in Sub-Saharan Africa, highlighting the potential for broadband in Africa, and still-inchoate governmental policy on monitoring new media. This recent release builds on and expands an ONI report focused on trends over 2006-2007.

While West and Southern Africa have been connected to international cable networks via the South Africa Telcom-3 (SAT-3) sub-marine fiber optic cable to India, much of Eastern Africa was disconnected until July 2009.  Until the arrival of the Seacon cable, East African Internet penetration had been limited by the repeated delays of the East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy).  EASSy will be complete in July 2010, and coupled with the United Nations’ 2007 announcement to leverage WiMAX (wireless Internet available up to 300 feet), the potential for broadband penetration reaches beyond East Africa, and deeper into the rural core of the continent.

Because the Internet is not yet ubiquitous in Africa, cyber-law, censorship, and policy response remains largely undetermined.  Though Zambia instituted cyber-crime law after a hacker turned the President’s photo –on the official website– into a cartoon, in many countries Internet law remains an extension of media precedent.

All of this, outlined comprehensively in the ONI report by Rebekah Heacock, provides the context from which they observed Internet surveillance and filtration in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Past observation in Africa indicated that IP, rather than URL blocking, is most common, and sporadic government raids on Internet cafes in Eritrea and Zimbabwe intimated Big Brother prowess. But while Zimbabwe maintains a strict surveillance regime, and a highly regimented national press, monitoring e-mail and allegedly even firing eight journalists who failed to adequately support Mugabe, ONI research confirmed that Zimbabwe is not filtering domestic Internet.  Across four countries observed, namely Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, only Ethiopia was guilty of Internet filtration. Ethiopia successfully blocked blogs as well as political reform and human rights sites, and arbitrarily allowed far more acrimonious sites.

While broadband is slowly encircling the continent, how Africa will respond to the URL is still largely TBD.

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