#IMweekly: September 3, 2013

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology of Nakhchivan, an Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, has ordered Internet cafes throughout the area to shut down. Human rights activists speculate that the order may be part of an attempt to curb online dissent in advance of Azerbaijan’s October 9 presidential elections. Bloggers and journalists throughout the country who are critical of the government have faced arrests, hacking, and blackmail attempts over the past year as part of a broad crackdown on online freedom of expression.

Recently passed legislation in Gambia amending the Information and Communication Act to include a prohibition against the spread of false news and the jail terms of up to 15 years. Speaking about the new legislation, Gambia’s head of Civil Service and Minister of Presidential Affairs warned, “If you cannot say anything good about the country, then you should keep quiet.”

As the conflict in Syria continues, the country’s Internet connectivity is experiencing a number of changes. Internet access in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, went completely dark on August 29. Renesys explored the country’s international service providers and noted that Aleppo appears to be served almost exclusively by Turk Telecom via a land-based cable link, while the rest of the country is served by a small handful of other providers via three undersea cables.

United States
Last week we reported on Internet.org, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s new venture to bring Internet access to the global masses. As it turns out, the previous owner of the Internet.org domain had no idea to whom he was selling it.

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

Syrian Citizens Launch Memes and Throw Shoes in Viral Internet Campaign

Syria’s tech-savvy and socially engaged citizens are resisting the state in creative ways. Conflict is never black and white, and in today’s ever-more-connected world, attempts to address conflict are often quite colorful. This was evident earlier this month when Chinese bloggers morphed a classic photo of citizen resistance from Tiananmen Square, changing a line of government tanks into a parade of big yellow ducks. The image was powerful and provocative; thus the role of the meme in Chinese social media. 

Syrian citizens’ imaginations are also playing out colorfully on the Internet. Taking a closer look at the nuances of Syria’s resistance movement can help us complicate the oversimplified and often exoticized picture of people and events in the Middle East that is presented in popular media. In a recent article for Jadaliyya, Berkman fellow and researcher Donatella Della Ratta suggests, “As much as images of violence, civil war, and sectarian strife become prominent in the media narrative of the Syrian uprising, little gems of innovative cultural production, artistic resistance, and creative disobedience continue to sprout across the virtual alleys of the Internet.”

So what does a civil society movement on the Internet look like in a time of civil war?  In the case of the “I am with Syria” campaign, it looks much like a volley of artistic images with subtle political messages. The back and forth that started on the streets continues to play out on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

Eye-catching posters began to show up in Syria around the time the uprising began in March 2011. The first round of images was published by the al-Bashar regime and featured the phrase, “I am with the law.” Iterations included, “whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law,” “whether boy or girl, …” and “whether young or old, ….” Citizens were insulted by the campaign’s assumption that the law was the exclusive domain of the state and that anyone opposed to the regime was outside the law. They responded initially by vandalizing the posters, but soon developed a less aggressive form of resistance. They designed their own posters with their own slogans, riffing on both “I am with the law” and on an updated version of the government campaign that used “I am with Syria, my demands are your demands” as the primary text.  These user-generated designs—ranging from “I am with Syria, my demands are freedom,” to increasingly humorous and satirical statements—appealed to Syrians’ sense of humor, beauty, and creativity rather than instigating division and bloodshed.

“I am with the law” government billboard campaign in Damascus Photo credit: Donatella Della Ratta. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license

Citizen-generated versions of the posters showed up on the streets and were widely disseminated online, particularly on Facebook. In May 2011, the “I am with Syria” Facebook page was launched; it continues to post images and host comments. One of the resistance posters states, “I am with Syria, I lost my shoes,” which is a cultural reference suggesting that people have thrown their shoes at al-Bashar as an expression of their disrespect. When a man threw his shoes at George Bush in 2008, it made global headlines. Throwing your shoe at someone is a serious insult in the Arab world. “I lost my shoes” is just one of the culturally rich jokes, parodies, and satirical slogans that went viral as part of the “I am with Syria” Internet campaign..

Collage of remixed versions of the original posters. one reads “My was is your way but the tank is in the way” and another “I am with the law, but where is it?” Image courtesy of Ammar Alani via Donatella Della Ratta.

“I am with Syria” is a playing out across the Internet like a conversation in the language of memes that gets a clear message of political resistance across, without inciting further violence in a country already ravaged by civil war. The central image of the campaign has always been an upward reaching human arm that represents an alif- the first of 28 characters in the Arabic alphabet. Atop the alif is a hamza, (an Arabic marker equivalent to a vowel sound in English). A human hand stands in for the hamza. The hand is open in both government and citizen- inspired posters. That the counter campaign kept the open hand speaks to its central spirit and purpose. The hand could have been a fist- a classic symbol of resistance- fight the power so to speak- but this hand is extended and open, waiting for another hand to grab on and link up.  One of the strategies of war is to divide and fracture communities; in the case of Syria, the Internet is helping people in battle-weary communities stay connected.

“Whether Anti or Pro-Regime, You Are Still My Brother..” Photo credit: http://www.tacticalmediafiles.net/

#imweekly: May 21, 2013

Australian Internet users are wary of the government’s newly exposed ability to block multiple websites without notice, revealed when the Australian Securities and Investment Commission accidentally filtered over 1200 sites in an attempt to shut down a single website for fraud. Among the accidentally blocked sites was that of community-based activist group Melbourne Free University, which documented its experience trying to obtain information about the shutdown in a blog post .

In advance of Iran’s upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for June 14, 2013, Internet users are experiencing slower speeds and trouble using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to access blocked sites. The Wall Street Journal reports that most Internet cafés in the country have had to close due to service disruptions, and that a newly created “special election cyberunit” has been established to monitor social media surrounding the presidential race. SMS service has also been affected. Thus far, Iranian authorities are denying any involvement in the disruptions.

Syria’s Internet has experienced multiple blackouts this month as the country’s internal conflict continues. On May 7, 2013, Renesys reported a complete Internet outage lasting over 19 hours; Google also noted a disruption to all of the company’s products in the country. A second outage, lasting approximately eight hours, took place on May 15. Cloudflare has a video explaining how the shutdowns took place.

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