Is Facebook the third most popular news source in the Middle East? It depends on where you are.

How do Internet users use Facebook to gather news and information? It varies widely depending on the country.

After Northwestern University published an eight-nation study surveying media use in the Middle East, publications grabbed hold of the headline that Facebook is the third most popular site for news in the Middle East. That’s not wrong, but the story is more nuanced than that. News gathering habits vary widely in different countries in the region and around the world.

For instance, although Facebook was mentioned as a top three media outlet by 52% of survey respondents in Tunisia, the social network didn’t see steady levels of popularity across the region. In many of the countries surveyed, Facebook didn’t rank in the top three outlets at all.

While Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Facebook were the most popular outlets on average in the region overall, below is a breakdown of what usage of each outlet looked like broken down by individual country.

Top news outlets by country

Top news outlets by country, according to Northwestern study. Image credit: Media Use in the Middle East

The situation is equally complex for how citizens in the surveyed region use media sources more generally. In each country, television remained the most dominant source for information on news and current events by far—an average of 83% of respondents across the region identified TV as a top news source. When respondents were asked if they used the Internet to gather this type of information, the answers were much more scattered, with a low of 22% of respondents using the Internet for news in Egypt versus a high of 85% in Bahrain. In a different survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in the United States, 78% of respondents said they use the Internet to get news.

Do news consumers seek out international coverage? That varies widely across different nations, too. Survey takers in Egypt were least likely to follow international news, with just 17% of respondents listing international news as a news topic they follow closely or very closely. However, nearby Saudi Arabia took the regional lead in terms of international news consumption, with 63% of respondents following international news closely or very closely.

Despite various communities lamenting the loss of international news media coverage in American news outlets, 56% of US-based news consumers surveyed by Pew still said they closely follow international news most of the time. In both the US and the Middle East, survey takers responded that they follow local and national news more frequently than international news.

#imweekly: August 5, 2013

Saudi Arabia
Raif Badawi, founder of the website Free Saudi Liberals, faces seven years in jail and 600 lashes for “‘setting up a website that undermines general security’ and ridiculing Islamic religious figures.” The website is a public discussion forum that authorities have blocked for years; the judge in this case ordered it shut down. The government arrested Badawi in June 2012 for cybercrime and failing to obey his father, and sentenced him more than one year later, in July 2013. Badawi initially faced charges of apostasy, which would have condemned him to death.

Russian blogger Anton Ilyushchenko discovered that a local nightclub had posted pictures on its website of seemingly intoxicated patrons “engaged in what appeared to be amateur striptease contests and public sex acts.” The Omsk resident posted them on his blog and criticized the nightclub. The post went viral and police began investigating him for distributing pornographic material, charges that carry a punishment of two to six years in prison. Some people said Ilyushchenko posted the pictures to generate traffic for his blog. Most who have spoken online about the case criticize the police for caring more about the image of the city and for failing to go after the nightclub where the photos originated.

Vietnam’s prime minister approved a decree that states blogs and social media sites can only contain personal information. “Personal electronic sites are only allowed to put news owned by that person, and are not allowed to ‘quote’, ‘gather’ or summarize information from press organizations or government websites” said Hoang Vinh Bao, director of the Broadcasting and Electronic Information Department at the Ministry of Information and Communications, to local media. The decree also forbids foreign Internet service providers from sharing “information that is against Vietnam.” Facebook users in Vietnam criticized the law, asking if sharing a link was now a punishable offense and lamenting that the government showed no signs of understanding the value of an open society. Digital rights organizations have criticized the decree’s vague language. The law is set to take effect on September 1, but it is unclear how the government will enforce the rule.

The Wikimedia Foundation is accelerating plans to enable native HTTPS for all its projects after leaked information indicated that the NSA’s XKeyscore program “specifically targeted” the site. The Chinese anti-censorship organization Greatfire took Wikipedia to task in June for dragging its feet on native HTTPS. China completely blocks HTTPS versions of Wikimedia’s projects, and Greatfire alleges that Wikipedia’s move could force the Chinese government to loosen its censorship of the site. In addition to Internet filtering and blocking, China is adding another tactic to its censorship arsenal: fact-checking. The nonprofit Beijing Internet Association is teaming up with the state-run Beijing Internet Information Office to launch a website that corrects falsehoods on the Internet. One visiting scholar at Columbia University said the site’s utility may be limited if people don’t trust the government. Amidst the government’s overarching censorship, one area will remain free. The University of Macau will become the first university on mainland China to obtain access to an uncensored Internet when it moves to its new facility on Guangdong’s Hengqin Island in January.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Flying Past Filters and Firewalls: Pigeons as Circumvention Tools

credit: zeevveez/Flickr

On June 14, 2013, Google announced that it would begin sending experimental balloons, loaded down with Internet hotspot equipment, into the stratosphere to help connect the estimated 4.5 billion people who do not have access to the Internet, many of whom live in rural areas. Google’s project, named “Loon,” quickly grabbed the attention and imagination of people living in countries where Internet censorship is the norm. Abdullah Hamed, CEO and founder of the popular Saudi gaming platform GameTako, reacted to Google’s announcement by posing a provoking question (or taunt) to local Emirati telecom companies and the Saudi government on Twitter.

Hamed’s question was a good one to put to the Saudi government and telecom companies who regularly block websites and ban unsanctioned communications services such as the VoIP product Viber. Hamed’s question soon got an answer, but not from the Saudi government or any other state that censors its Internet; Hamed was answered by Google. The company announced that it would be obtaining all the proper air travel permissions and radio frequency licenses, and will connect with local telecom networks as its balloons float by.

credit: purolipan/Flickr

In the late 1970s, small numbers of Iranians were permitted into Iraq to worship at the shrine of Imam Ali. After most of the pilgrims left the shrine, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would give impassioned anti-Shah lectures to the remaining visitors. Khomeini’s speeches were recorded onto cassette tapes, copied, and widely distributed on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities. The Shah’s government was aware of the tapes, and often destroyed copies it could find, but it did not manage to sufficiently disrupt the distribution network, and Khomeini’s influence in Iran grew. The CIA and the Shah’s information intelligence communities, looking in the wrong places, failed to see that the ground beneath them had shifted and were caught by surprise when the Iranian Revolution ousted the Shah’s government. In today’s increasingly connected world, we would call Khomeini’s followers members of a “sneakernet.” A sneakernet refers to the transfer of electronic information like computer files using removable media like magnetic tape, floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, and external hard drives by someone wearing sneakers.  While sneakernets do still exist, many hung up their sneakers once broadband made sharing files faster and easier.

credit: Tony Marr/Flickr

Hamed’s excited tweet expressed his hope that floating balloons would connect people to the Internet and thwart government censorship policies. Instead of investing his hopes in Google Loon, Hamed might take seriously a proposal from the early days of the Internet that seems loonier than Google Loon, but might be more practical for circumventing network censorship or avoiding government scrutiny by programs like PRISM or the recently discovered snooping via the US Postal Service: IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC). On April Fool’s Day, 1990, David Waitzman submitted a Request for Comments (RFC) to the Internet Engineering Task Force, the ad hoc body charged with developing and promoting Internet standards, on the idea of using carrier pigeons or other birds for the transmission of electronic data. Nine years later, again on April 1st, Waitzman issued another RFC suggesting improvements to his original protocol. On April 1, 2011, Brian Carpenter and Robert Hinden made their own RFC detailing how to use IPoAC with the latest revisions to the Internet Protocol IPv6.  While Waitzman, Carpenter, and Hinden clearly designed IPoAC as a joke, using birds to transfer digital media has been successfully tested. In 2004, inspired by the IPoAC idea, the Bergen Linux group sent nine pigeons, each carrying a single ping, three miles. (They only received four “responses,” meaning only four of the birds made it.)

credit: Alan Mays/Flickr

Not all the tests have ended in failure. In 2009, a South African marketing company targeted South Africa’s largest Internet Service provider, Telkom, for its slow ADSL speeds by racing a pigeon carrying a 4 GB memory stick against the upload of the same amount of data using Telkom’s service. After six minutes and 57 seconds, the pigeon arrived, easily beating Telkcom, which had only transferred 4 percent of the data in the same amount of time. In 2010, another person hoping to shame their ISP in Yorkshire, England raced a five-minute video on a memory card to a BBC correspondent 75 miles away using a carrier pigeon while simultaneously attempting to upload the same clip to YouTube. The pigeon made it in 90 minutes, well ahead of the YouTube video—which failed once during the race. In Fort Collins, Colorado, rafting photographers routinely use pigeons to carry memory sticks from their cameras to tour operators over 30 miles away, and prisoners in Brazil have been caught using pigeons to smuggle cellphones into their prison cells.

credit: Windell H. Oskay/Flickr

Suggesting that pigeons might be faster than Internet connections might seem ridiculous, but as the information density of storage media has increased, and continues to increase, many times faster than the Internet bandwidth available to move it, IPoAC might not be so far-fetched. Over the last 20 years, the available storage space of hard disks of the same physical size has increased roughly 100 percent per year, while the capacity of Internet connections has only increase by 30-40 percent each year. Sneakernets might have gone out of fashion as bandwidth speeds increased, but as storage capacity increases—along with our need to fill those capacities—pigeon-powered networks may become a practical alternative to existing networks. While no one brought up the idea of using pigeons at Google’s “How green is the Internet?” summit last month, pigeons may also be a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way to transfer data in the future.

Even if the increasing gap between storage and mobility doesn’t become a problem, Internet censorship or privacy issues might spur the development of a Pigeonet. Earlier this month Anthony Judge, who worked from the 1960s until 2007 for the UN’s Union of International Associations and is known for developing the most extensive databases on global civil society, published a detailed proposal titled “Circumventing Invasive Internet Surveillance with Carrier Pigeons.” In the proposal, Judge discusses the proven competence of carrier pigeons for delivering messages, their non-military and military messaging capacity, and the history of using pigeons to transfer digital data. Judge acknowledges that pigeon networks have their own susceptibilities (such as disease or being lured off course by an attractive decoy), but argues we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea. As governments, and compliant corporations, increasingly block or filter access to the Internet, data capacities and data production increase beyond bandwidth limitations, and we begin to realize the environmental costs of running the Internet, sneakernets and pigeonets may become increasingly attractive options for transmitting data.

#imweekly: July 8, 2013

As of July 3, President Mohamed Morsi is out of office, but much of the Western world is still not sure about what happened in Egypt and why. Was it a coup d’état or not? Wikipedia is calling it the “2013 Egyptian coup d’état,” but whether the term fits is being contested. Foreign Policy blogger Marya Hannun breaks down the Wikipedia edit war surrounding Morsi’s ousting. So-called wiki-wars over acceptable phraseology and editing have been waged before.  Relatedly: viewing events in Egypt from a social media perspective offers valuable insight into how social media and networking sites, namely YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, factor into current political discourse and social change. For example, the opposition group, Tamarod, enlisted a range of media platforms to shape its campaign and gather more than 20 million signatures leading up to demonstration calling for Morsi’s removal.

Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is being criticized for harsh sentences recently handed down for seven cyber activists arrested in 2011 for Facebook posts. The men were accused of joining and using Facebook with the intention of starting protests. Political gatherings and public protests are prohibited in Saudi Arabia. The men were charged with crimes including illegal information gathering and “breaking allegiance with the king.” Abd al-Hamid al-Amer received 10 years in jail, the longest sentence. Other defendants—Ali Ali al-Hadlaq, Hussein Mohammed al-Bathir, Mostafa Hussein al-Mujahad, Mohammed Abd a-Hadi al-Khalifa, Hussein Yasin al-Sulayman, and Saleh Ali al-Shaya—received lesser sentences. The men also lost the right to travel freely within and outside the kingdom (rights that men are usually given freely in Saudi Arabia), and restrictions were placed on their future freedom of expression, including bans on public speaking and writing.

On July 1, the Chinese government instituted an online petitioning system intended to update its centuries-old petitioning custom. The website is intended to enable citizens to post petitions and air grievances concerning issues such as forced evictions, pollution, or corruption. However, as soon as the site was launched, it crashed. The response was great enough—beyond government expectations and the website’s capacity—to result in a shutdown that sparked excited debate about the cause. Some Weibo users suggested the crash was an act of censorship. WeiboSuite, a platform created by students at Hong Kong University interested in Internet censorship, reports the government has been monitoring and removing citizens’ posts from the petition site. The official government response is that it underestimated response rates and the website was simply overwhelmed.

A Lahore High Court has rejected an interim order to restore YouTube services across the country. Bytes for All, an NGO dedicated to ICTs for development, democracy, and social justice, filed the petition several months ago. In September 2012, the Pakistan People’s Party government banned the video-sharing site in response to widespread public outrage about the dissemination of a film deemed blasphemous for taking offensive positions against the Prophet. YouTube was banned after its parent company, Google, denied official requests to take down the film. Pakistan’s religious communities and members of the information technology sector remain deep in debate as to how the county will regulate the Internet so as to uphold Islamic values as well as citizen’s rights. Saad Rassol, a lawyer from Lahore, explains in a post for Pakistan Today, “It is not simply a question of whether YouTube should be unblocked because it serves an academic or social purpose. It is a question of whether we preserve individual freedoms, and discourse, even at the cost of being offended by the words of the speaker, from time to time. Or will we descend into becoming a society where subjective morality and religious sensitivities become a sword to silence tongues and stamp out all debate.”

#IMweekly is a weekly round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#imweekly: June 17, 2013

United States
The National Security Agency has confirmed that it has been operating a global electronic surveillance program, collecting information from Google, Facebook, and other tech companies under a program called PRISM, after Booz Allen employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked inside documents. The news has triggered a widespread outcry from human rights advocates and organizations.

Saudi Arabia
In March, Saudi Arabian officials declared that the country would block access to three popular voice and messaging services—Viber, Skype, and WhatsApp—if the companies did not give the government access to local monitoring services. The government has followed through on its threat, blocking Viber on June 6. On June 11, the block was rescinded, though whether Viber has complied with government demands for monitoring access is unclear.

Iranian Gmail users were reporting evidence of phishing attacks, just days before last week’s presidential elections. The attacks, which appear to be originating from within the country, have been occurring for three weeks; in a blog post, Google Vice President of Security Engineering Eric Grosse said the attacks were likely politically motivated. Google security staff said the phishing attacks appeared to be conducted by the same group that conducted attacks in Iran in 2011 using a fraudulent Google certificate.