#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.

#imweekly: August 12, 2013

After multiple employees of Hong Kong-based company Phoenix Satellite Television accused the company’s former Washington, DC bureau chief of sexual harassment last week, nearly all mention of the scandal was scrubbed from the Chinese Internet. Foreign Policy reports that videos about the story have been blocked, while articles on the case have been taken down from China’s state-run news agency. FP notes that the current CEO of Phoenix’s US subsidiary is the son of China’s former Vice Premier.

Pakistan’s Minister of State for Information Technology said last week that the country is working to develop software that will block “objectionable content” worldwide. Once all such content is blocked, the minister stated, the country could theoretically lift its ban on YouTube. The video-sharing site has been blocked in Pakistan since September 2012.

Zimbabwe held presidential elections on July 31; the resulting re-election of President Robert Mugabe is hotly contested. During and after the elections, DDoS attacks took down several human rights and media websites. In addition, Kubatana.net, which publishes human rights and civic information online and via email and SMS, was blocked from sending bulk text messages by an alleged government order.

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

How Facebook Can Prompt Real-Life Action

This is a guest post.

Given its role in the Arab Spring, many people have emphasized Facebook as an effective tool for online activism. There’s much debate on the ability of Facebook to effect social change, but a handful of campaigns by the social networking site over the past several years have demonstrated just how powerful social media might be in prompting real-life actions.

On May 1, 2012, Facebook rolled out a new feature allowing users to share their status as an organ donor on their timeline. A study published last month in the American Journal of Transplantation shows that the experiment coincided with an incredible spike in organ donor sign-ups in the United States—13,012 on the first day of the campaign, or 21 times the daily average number of registrations. The organ donor registration rate remained higher than average for nearly two weeks.

Although the registration rate tailed off 12 days later, it was still two times higher than the average baseline rate by the end of the study period. By the end of two weeks, the number of new registrations reached nearly 40,000. In an article in Slate, study author and Johns Hopkins associate professor Andrew Cameron said that “Having [organ donor registration] be on Facebook makes it easier for people.” The next step will be to find ways to sustain the gains in donor sign-ups. As noted by Cameron, “we need to find a way to keep the conversation going”.

A second study, published last fall in Nature, showed similar results with respect to voter turnout.  The study authors worked with Facebook to randomly display to Facebook users either: 1) a message encouraging them to vote along with a link to polling places, an “I voted” button to click, up to six profile pictures of friends who had clicked the same button, and a total count of all friends who had reported voting; 2) the same message, without the photos or friend counter; or 3) no message.  By examining voting records, the authors were able to determine that users who received the first message were 0.39 percent more likely to vote than users who received no message—an effect the authors say led directly to an increase in voter turnout by 60,000.

Early last year, Peter Leone, a professor of medicine with University of North Carolina, began experimenting with Facebook as a tool for predicting and preventing STD transmission.  While working with patients with HIV and syphilis, Leone concluded that the friend networks people have could reveal patterns about the spread of STDs. He reasoned that a person’s circle of Facebook friends often have similar risk-taking patterns, and are best way to spread information about the risk of infection—and that potentially, using Facebook to prompt people to be tested and encourage them to share information about testing could help destigmatize the process.

While debates continue about the affect of social media on events in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and elsewhere, these early studies show that in some cases, what users see online can influence their real-world behavior.

US lifts sanctions on technology exports to Iran

The US Department of the Treasury announced last week that it is lifting sanctions against Iran that have prevented the export and provision of software, hardware, and communications services to the country. The Treasury has issued a General License (PDF) that permits US companies and citizens to provide:

  • “fee-based services* incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, such as instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging”;
  • “consumer-grade Intemet connectivity services and the provision, sale, or leasing of capacity on telecommunications transmission facilities (such as satellite or terrestrial network connectivity) incident to personal communications”;
  • related software and hardware; and
  • Internet connectivity services and related satellite/network capacity.

The move, which came just two weeks before Iran’s presidential election, has been described as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to “thwart censorship” in Iran, this time by helping provide access to technology that may help Iranians evade online information controls and avoid hacking. In the lead-up to the election, both activists and Internet users have experienced government interference. According to the Treasury press release, the new General License “aims to empower the Iranian people as their government intensifies its efforts to stifle their access to information.”

Iranian activist groups have been receptive, saying that the sanctions were ultimately more damaging to individual Internet users than to the Iranian government. Writing for Slate, Danielle Kehl and Tim Maurer point out that under the previous ban, many technologies companies opted not to operate at all in Iran, fearing that they might unintentionally run afoul of the law. Samsung, Nokia, and Apple have all refused to provide access to some or all of their products in Iran or even, in Apple’s case, to an Iranian citizen living in the United States. Iranian human rights activist Ali Akbar Musavi Khoeni called for “clear guidelines and guarantees” for companies operating under the new regulations in order to ensure that the lifting of the sanctions has the best possible effect for Iranian citizens.

*Note: free, publicly available services and software are regulated under 31 C.F.R. § 560.540, which authorizes the provision of online personal communications services (instant messaging, blogging, social networking, etc.) to people in Iran.