May 112012

The Guardian has created an incredible visualization of the status of gay rights in the United States, breaking it down state-by-state according to schools, housing, employment, marriage and other issues. There’s also a good account by Feilding Cage, the designer, on developing the infographic which was done utilizing Raphael javascript library and – as he put it – a lot of patience for getting it right with Internet Explorer (always an issue). But back to to the real issue here, Cage says:

When the idea of doing a gay marriage interactive was mentioned I had two initial thoughts. First, I didn’t want to use a map given that a quick Google search would find any number of news sites with just that. Second, I didn’t want to focus solely on gay marriage. The political dialogue seems to define the quality of life for gays and lesbians based on their right to marry, but it’s much more complicated than that. 

The polarization of the country is starkly visible in the image but he has taken a simplistic political discussion and placed it in the context of a much broader – and important – range of issues. This is what an infographic should be – not just the visualization of data you may already be familiar with, but an interactive graphic that lets you see the issues from different perspectives, and lets you pull-out, highlight, the data you want to explore.

Since this infographic really is interactive, you need to see it on the Guardian site – the reproduced image below simply does not do it justice. Not only can you view the data by individual State, you can also reorganize the graphic by the size of the population in each State.
Gay Rights Infographic Guardian

Apr 062012
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has installed live webcams to protest Chinese 24 hour a day Surveillance of  his life

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei sleeping under his Webcam

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has installed live webcams in his home in Beijing to protest the state 24-hour surveillance of his life (there are more than 15 cameras outside his home).

Arrested last year at the Beijing airport as part of  China’s crackdown on a call for an Arab Spring inspired Jasmine Revolution, Ai Weiwei was imprisoned and interrogated for 81 days. He was released under probation on June 22, 2011 but has been monitored and followed on a daily basis.

Webcams are powerful tools, even symbolically: On April 4th, China authorities ordered the artist to turn off his webcams. In other words, the State is allowed to use technology to deprive you of your rights; but you are not allowed to use the same technology to protect yourself.

Apr 022012
Alexander Wang 2012

Poor working conditions exist around the world but you may not need to leave New York City to find them. According to Good, the well-known fashion designer Alexander Wang is the target of a $50 million lawsuit:

Fashion darling Alexander Wang was served this month with a $50 million lawsuit from a man who used to sew his clothes. Wenyu Lu describes having worked 25 hours continuously without break or overtime pay in an unventilated, windowless part of Wang’s New York City design firm, and claims he was ultimately fired after voicing his complaints to management and filing for worker’s compensation. He sued, and dozens of his fellow employees signed on. The headlines that have rocked the fashion world put a name to Lu’s allegation: Wang ran a “sweatshop” in the United States of America.

A tee-shirt by Wang can run upwards of $200, and the rest of the 2012 collection doesn’t come cheap. The clothing in the photo on the right is referred to here as “athletic elegance” since it is meant to work both in the gym and in the club – though it’s a little hard to imagine working out and then heading to a club in the same fabrics – especially these.

I often wonder as I walk the streets of Manhattan and look up at some of the buildings in Chinatown and other areas. Steam flows out from pipes like it was the early half of the 20th century and through the slightly cracked windows you hear the sounds of machinery. It’s too many floors up to be heavy metal work and one has the sense (though it’s never seen) that tailoring and fabric worker is taking place. You wonder how different the conditions are from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where a 146 garment workers perished in a tragic fire in 1911. Sometimes you wonder if it can happen again.

Outside of some factories where hidden cameras have been smuggled in, this is a tightly controlled arena where social media has done little to foster the flow of information. Occasionally word leaks out, but one suspects there is much more going on behind the closed doors. Wenyu Lu’s lawsuit may pry them open just a little more.

Mar 122012

Social media can play a vital role in protest and it appears the NYC prosecutors office would like that to end. For the second time, they have subpoenaed Twitter records of a protester involved in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activities. The first went to activist Malcolm Harris back in February of this year (you can read his account on Reuters) and the latest subpoena went to Jeff Rae. Both have been notified by Twitter and will fight the requests.

And the point of the government’s fishing expedition for data related to minor crimes such as disorderly conduct? It obviously undermines free-speech protections in the First Amendment, but more directly, aims at the Fourth Amendment which prohibits warrantless searches. In discussing the initial subpoena against Harris, the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes:

Cell Phone TowerBy attempting to subpoena these records, the government can get around the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against warrantless searches by requesting information that includes IP addresses. Twitter keeps track of IP address information regarding every time a person logged into Twitter, as well as the IP address information related to a Twitter user’s direct messages to other users, and the date and time information related to these log ins and direct messages. Armed with IP addresses, the government — without a warrant — can go to an ISP to determine who was assigned that particular IP address. And if that person connected on a mobile device — which is where the majority of Twitter users access their accounts — the ISP will hand over to the government the specific cell tower (and its corresponding geographic location) which that person used to access Twitter. This allows the government to piece together a map of where a person physically is when he opens Twitter on his smartphone, sends a direct message to a friend, or Tweets. And with that information, the government could get a record of Mr. Harris’ movement over the three months it requested from Twitter. It’s no surprise then that the government singled out Mr. Harris for this request: he currently has over 1,500 followers and 7,200 Tweets. 

So you don’t need to go through the trouble of getting a court order to track someone electronically. Now you can just do it after the fact but getting hold of their Twitter feed and the IP address information, essentially gutting the Fourth Amendment against abuse of police power. There’s been some progress on the legal front here – the Supreme Court ruled in January in United States v. Jones  that for law enforcement to install a GPS device on private property, it requires a search warrant. Nonetheless, the Court also noted that the rapid technological developments of our era may require that Congress step in with legislation. And given the dysfunctional environment of Washington these days, that doesn’t seem very promising.

Amazing how quickly things can change. Back in 2009, the State Department was praising Iranian students for using Twitter and pushed the country to not cut-off Internet access. But more recently, a number of subpoenas have been issued by local law enforcement in the States for Twitter data, including the Boston Police who subpoenaed two accounts but two hashtags (not quite sure how they were to defend themselves in court).

Malcolm Harris summed up the danger here:

The biggest danger that comes from this subpoena isn’t that it’ll help convict me — I don’t think a judge will have any trouble understanding what happened on the bridge — but that it will produce a chilling effect and discourage people from using Twitter while protesting” Harris wrote for Reuters. “It’s a win-win for prosecutors: Either they use Twitter archives to build cases against demonstrators, or they scare us away from using the platform

The subpoena for Jeff Rae’s account has been posted on Scrib if you want to see it. Scary stuff and yes, protesters may think twice. Win-wins for law enforcement are never good when it comes to social protest – unless, of course, one would prefer a police state.

Jan 022012

If you’re not aware of the Woman Stat Project, it’s an excellent resource on the status of women in the global community. In their own words:

The Woman Stats Project is the most comprehensive compilation of information on the status of women in the world. The Project facilitates understanding the linkage between the situation of women and the security of nation-states. We comb the extant literature and conduct expert interviews to find qualitative and quantitative information on over 310 indicators of women’s status in 174 countries. Our Database expands daily, and access to it is free of charge. 

I particularly like the world maps that represent the current status of women with regard to physical security, inequity in family law, trafficking, etc. They’re good visual resources though they would benefit from embed codes and/or more interactive features (clicking on countries to bring up additional data). The map on physical security is reproduced below and you can use the following link to access the remainder of the set of maps:

Women's Physical Security Map

Women's Physical Security Map

Dec 312011

After the initial remarks by the head of the Arab League mission, Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi, who described the observers’ visit as “reassuring” and told Reuters that “The situation (in Homs) seemed reassuring so far,” there is finally evidence that the observers are encountering evidence of Syrian brutality. Not much, but at least it is something.

However, as Mousab Azzawi, chief coordinator of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, noted in General Dabi’s own miserable human rights record: “Out of 340 million Arabs, they could not find one decent person to lead the observer mission?”

But here at least is something though it took an estimated 150 deaths to get the observers to this point.

ADDENDUM: New controversy - despite the fact that the observer is clearly heard referring to snipers in the video below, Gen Mustafa al-Dabi has told BBC News that the official making the remark was merely stating a “hypothetical” case. If the General did say this, activists are right in their conclusion that the entire mission is a sham.

Dec 312011
North Korean Posters

North Korean Posters

Scary, other-worldly images coming out of North Korea. But perhaps the most interesting are the posters that seem – not surprisingly – like Stalinist era works out of the U.S.S.R.


But perhaps the saddest of images is the satellite photo of nighttime illumination (or lack of) in the north in contrast to the south. It is, in so many ways, an emptiness in the human community.

Satellite Photo of Nighttime Illumination in North and South Korea

Satellite Photo of Nighttime Illumination in North and South Korea


Dec 092011


Russian Demonstration

Russian Demonstration

Revolutions and protest movements are fought on many fronts, from battles in the streets (Syria, Egypt, etc.), acts of disobedience (women driving in Saudi Arabia), to passive actions (student protesters pepper-sprayed in California) – and usually on multiple fronts at once.

But the news out of Russia suggests that social media is also becoming an arena of struggle as the government or pro-government supporters try to disrupt conversations on Twitter.

If the protests grow, it will be a new stage in the evolution of social media in the political realm. In most of the Middle East, Twitter and Facebook were used largely by opposition groups to organize and share information. The main response of those in power was to pull the plug on Internet service altogether when unrest threatened to topple the government. But that’s not going to happen in Russia; instead, we’re seeing what appears to be a coordinated effort to redirect the flow of information on Twitter through automatic postings.

According to Maxim Goncharov at the security firm Trend Micro, pro-government posts appear to be program generated, coordinated by a botnet to undermine the use of Twitter. From BBC News:

Whether the attack was supported officially or not is not relevant,” he wrote, “but we can now see how social media has become the battlefield of a new war for freedom of speech.

With some ten messages (almost identical) posted per second, it would appear that these are program generated and not the tweets of individuals. We will see much more of this in the future. Yes, social media is empowering but it’s only a matter of time before entrenched powers use it to undermine free expression.

Many have argued (and rightly so, I think) that privacy will be a critical issue born of the technology revolution. It already is – but it would be shortsighted to not see that in a revolution in communications, the battle for free speech will be fundamental. I’m not sure when, or that any of us could ever predict how, but somewhere in the next decade, there will be another Gettysburg, a virtual battlefield (this should be in the plural) upon which the future of free speech is decided. Though like Gettysburg in the history of the United States, even the victories here will not put the issue to rest. It will be an ongoing struggle of which Russia is only the latest chapter.

Nov 222011
Lewis Hine, Mill Girl

Lewis Hine, Mill Girl

So now it’s child labor laws that are to blame for the poor being poor. And if we’re to let the little ones work in the schools, why not just take it all the way and put them back to work in the factories and mines?

That these ideas can even be seriously entertained boggles the mind. We have failed you, Lewis Hine. I can only assume you must be rolling in your grave.

In Newt’s own words:

It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, in child laws, which are truly stupid.

Oct 282011
Commonwealth of Nations

Commonwealth of Nations

A major revision of UK succession laws will give women equal rights to the British throne. At the Commonwealth of Nations summit in Australia, leaders of the 16 countries agreed to changes that would allow a first-born daughter to have rights to the throne before a younger brother and, in addition, end the ban on marrying a Catholic. 54 countries are part of the Commonwealth but only 16 recognize the Queen as head of state. A few highlights from the BBC account:

As with all things royal, implementing this will not be as simple as changing a law:

One problem is that male primogeniture – which gives younger brothers the right to become monarchs ahead of their elder sisters – is based on many centuries of common law rules of property, not any one piece of legislation.

And had this been in place already, there would have been a very different monarchy:

 In modern times, Queen Victoria’s first-born child was a girl – Princess Victoria – in 1840. She married the German Emperor Friedrich III. Had she become Queen, the crown would have passed to her son – the then German Kaiser Wilhelm II. With Germany and Britain ruled by the same man, World Wars I and II might never have happened.

I’m not so sure one can draw that definitive of a conclusion, but surely, the events of the last century would have played out differently. But at the very least, it marks a fundamental change in a centuries old institution that is trying to adapt to a changing world. As PM David Cameron stated:

The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic — this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become.

About time, I might add. And don’t underestimate the role of the communications revolution we are in the midst of in helping bring this about.

Oct 282011

Nujood Ali and Shada Nasser

This video is remarkable and says so much about the undercurrents of change swirling through the Middle East. This is not the most compelling clip you’ll see – no exuberant rebels dragging a bleeding Gaddafi from a concrete culvert – no, here are women lined to up to symbolically and literally assert their presence and stand up against their second-class status.

Yemeni women first came into the news when Nujood Ali, a ten year old girl who was repeatedly raped and abused by a husband three times her age, was granted the right to a divorce with the assistance of her lawyer,  Shada Nasser. If you haven’t read Nujood Ali’s compelling story, take a few minutes and read Carla Power’s article in Glamour.

In February 2011, Yemen was back in the news with the struggle to remove the autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from office and end his authoritarian rule over the country. The capital city, Sanaa, has been an endlessly tense scenes of quiet standoffs alternating with brutal crackdowns.

And Yemeni women were in the spotlight with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni activist.  But the men in the streets, though fighting for a revolution, have yet to come to terms with all the implications it entails. The result? Thousands of women have broke their silence and gathered in the capital. They brought their full-body veils, laid them out in the street, and set them on fire. It is a highly symbolic act, fraught with meaning in a very conservative Islamic society. Again, Yemeni women are saying they will be equal partners in a revolution to shape the future.

And their own destiny.

Oct 272011
A poster of Khaled Said with words “police at service of the people” written on the background

A poster of Khaled Said with words “police at service of the people” written on the background

If there was one symbol of the Arab Spring in Egypt, it would be the young Internet activist and blogger who was beaten at a table in an Internet cafe in Alexandria by plain-clothes police and then dragged off into an adjoining building where he was murdered. Khaled Said’s “crime” on the 6th of June, 2010 had been nothing more than uploading videos of police corruption and images of his battered body quickly circulated on the Web. Within days, a Facebook page created by Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim titled “We are all Khaled Said” became the most popular site in Egypt, with thousands of people replacing their own FB profile photos with the victim’s image.

The video that lead to his death does not even seem all that shocking (you can watch it here) – your basic run-of-the-mill police corruption around drugs, but it was more than enough to run him afoul of Egyptian authorities. Watching it, you quickly sense that it wasn’t the video; it was what he was doing with the video – putting it online – that made him a target.

Two police officers involved were put on trial in July of 2010 but it was postponed until February of this year. After three forensic investigations and endless arguments over procedural issues, a verdict was finally reached this week. And the result?

Seven years on a manslaughter charge.

The result has outraged Egyptian activists even though it was the maximum possible sentence. There will be an effort by the family to overturn both the verdict and the sentence and retry them for charges that could carry the death penalty. Activists were also outraged at the scene in the court, where the officers’ families attacked Khaled’s uncle and lawyers, and smashed benches in the courtroom which was closed to the public. As his uncle put it:

This case was like taking the pulse of the revolution, but the verdict tells us that the revolution has been aborted . . . . This is a signal on which direction the revolution is heading.

So I leave this with the image below, the classic Cold War symbol of oppression and freedom, all the more poignant with Khaled Said’s portrait . . . paradoxically the separated concrete slabs and the face staring ahead almost give it a distant echo of the hauntingly beautiful Fayum Mummy portraits from the Coptic period in Egyptian art.  One desperately hopes Khaled’s uncle is wrong. One hopes the walls are still coming down.


Graffiti artist Andreas von Chrzanowski, Khalid Saeed

The portrait of late Khaled Mohamed Said (1982-2010), internet activist from Egypt, was painted during the ceremony of the FES Human Rights Award by the graffiti artist Andreas von Chrzanowski aka Case on elements of the former Berlin Wall © Joel Sames

Sep 152011
Sign on bridge in Mexico warning against use of the Internet

Sign on Bridge in Nuevo Laredo

This sign appeared in Nuevo Laredo on a bridge from which two dead bodies had been hung, torture victims of the Mexican drug wars. The CNN story makes clear how those in power fear social media and the unimaginable risks that so many users take in posting online. One of the signs read:

This is going to happen to all of those posting funny things on the Internet . . . You better (expletive) pay attention. I’m about to get you.

Perhaps this more effective than a governmental decree from an unyielding tyrannt and his secret police. Here, you don’t even know who is out to get you. I know, in the end it cannot be any easier in places like Syria where people are dragged off in the middle of the night after a dreaded knock on the door, only to have families find lifeless bodies dumped by the side of the road a week later. But this scene on the bridge is just incredibly unnerving. We forget how much courage it can take to put your fingers to a keyboard or a touchscreen. They blogged and they died – there are no “funny things” in this part of the Internet.

Aug 232011
Libya's New Flag

Libya's New Flag

In the midst of Qaddafi’s last days, Libya is coming back online as rebels and activists struggle to restore network connectivity to a war-torn country. There’s a good description on the blog at Renesys (which monitors Internet traffic and connections):

And early Sunday morning, the Twitterstream suddenly began reporting something that seemed, on the face of it, totally improbable: the Internet had been turned back on. 

Why would the government turn the Internet back on in the middle of an armed uprising? To get people to stay at home and catch up on five months of email? It seemed preposterous. But clearly, as more and more people realized, it had happened. Bandwidth was scarce, but DSL service was back. People started Skypeing with friends and relatives, some reporting hearing live gunfire in the background as their VoIP calls began to connect.

And then, as suddenly as it had come, Tripoli’s Internet access stopped working again. For a total of perhaps an hour and a half of uptime, spread out in bursts between the hours of 2:00am and 4:30am, local time, the Internet had been functional again. Who was responsible? Would it come back?

BBCNews: Aug 22 Traffic Spike

BBCNews: Aug 22 Traffic Spike

As it goes in the streets, with conflicting reports and the chaotic ebb and flow of urban warfare, so it goes with the Internet that has been on again, off again. According to the analysis at Renesys, the country’s Internet access is routed via 16 blocks of IP addresses through Libyan Telecom and Technology (LTT). Over the the past six months of conflict, access was cut off not at the border but at the last mile – DSL or other connections to LTT were shut down. As rebels poured into Tripoli, there was an effort to restore connections only to have LTT or someone shut everything down at the border. Possibly there is a struggle within the telecom, possibly intentional sabotage, or perhaps the fighting on the streets is blocking access.

There’s not enough information at the moment but one suspects connectivity will be restored shortly depending on how events play out in the capital.  Network access that we all so take for granted can be – and surely is on some of the streets in Tripoli – a matter of life or death.


Note to Readers: My own Internet access has been a little sketchy for the past few days (though nothing like the above). Back on track now, but this coming weekend and Labor Day will probably be slow in terms of posts, depending on the news flow and my travels.

Aug 102011


A female in a crowd of looters

A female in a crowd of looters

A rapidly evolving situation with the London Riots and social networks: The Met (Metropolitan) Police are using a Flickr stream to post still photographs from the CCTV cameras and asking the public for assistance in identifying participants in the riots. In itself, that sounds like a digital version of asking witnesses to identify suspects, a longstanding police practice. But now let’s take this a couple of steps further . . .

A Google Group (private as they got a little too much media attention) to explore ways to apply facial recognition technology to the photos. And others are working on ways to link the images to Facebook by creating a tool that draws upon the Face.API or Facebook Graph API (a few more details at Tech Crunch). According to an article in Forbes:

Web vigilantes are doing their best to make sure facial recognition technology gets a fair shake in the London riots . . . Just last week, researchers established that off-the-shelf facial recognition technology mixed with Facebook’s vast database of photos linked to people’s real identities can lead to fairly reliable identification of complete strangers.

A recent flyer from the streets suggests that the rioters are already well-aware of this (as one would suspect from the hoodies and face-coverings they use). But there are a number of issues here, not least of which is the accuracy of the images without a broader context, or technology that only leads to “fairly reliable identification” (that should make anyone pause for a moment).

Take the clear shot of the woman in the Met photo above (recently removed from their Flickr Stream): she may be a looter but it’s not entirely clear from the photo. Other images might be less ambiguous (ex., someone clutching a handful of jewelry outside a looted shop) but there is still the matter of identifying the right person.

Things will take an interesting turn in protest movements or any actions on the street if we start crowd-sourcing our justice. As Sara Perez notes at Tech Crunch:

The idea that a group of people would team up online to use (misuse?) facial recognition technologies in this way, notably outside professional law enforcement channels, seems like a modern take on vigilante style justice, where the torches of the angry villagers have turned into APIs and algorithms.

So, a thought experiment about the future for the moment. . .

With so many institutions profoundly impacted by the evolution of technology – the music industry, news media, etc. – what if a parallel development were to engulf law enforcement agencies? What would happen if people began regularly tracking down perpetrators and identifying suspected criminals through digital tools? The public has already been involved in participatory investigative work – for 23 years to be exact – in the long running (and recently cancelled) America’s Most Wanted television series. But that was old-school stuff with people building on prior police work. What if people started using algorithms to do the investigative work themselves before the police had a chance? If blogs and easy publication tools have upended the traditional news media what might the future hold if police investigations were superseded by individuals drawing upon the vast repository of facial images stored on Facebook and other networks?

Of course all this would be best implemented in a society such as the UK where you have a fairly ubiquitous CCTV system deployed on the streets, though that seems to be the direction most large metropolitan areas are moving toward (especially if they’ve suffered a terrorist attack like New York in the past). But there are myriad problems in crowd-sourcing law enforcement here that we haven’t begun to address, even when (and one assumes it will) the technology achieves greater accuracy.

I’m trying to imagine the world a decade from now if this happens. Former Wikipedia editors tossing away their editorial skills for more exciting activity targeting criminal suspects. And what it might be like to go to a demonstration or protest – a simple hood and perhaps a scarf for tear gas might seem incredibly primitive and antiquated compared to what would be needed to retain one’s anonymity. And, indeed, concerns about human rights and free speech might just become the stuff of nightmares.


ADDENDUM (August 11, 2011): The New York City Police Department just announced the creation of a Social Media Unit to scan Facebook and other sites looking for gang information and posts about criminal activity. No algorithms in use yet, but you can see where this may be headed.

Aug 052011

The Atlantic magazine has published a series of remarkable photographs of life in North Korea. They were taken by David Guttenfelder, the chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press who visited  the usual sites accompanied by government officials but was allowed to venture into the countryside with just North Korean journalists by his side. The images are haunting, particularly the roads and plazas that seem eerily devoid of people. Highways lack cars, farmers work with outdated technology and there are no crowds outside of staged activities. One image of students using computers at Kim Il Sung University suggests the mere beginnings of a digital revolution, but with tightly controlled access and monitoring policies that according to the Open Net Initiative makes the country a “virtual blackhole of cyberspace,” don’t count on it happening anytime soon.

Students on library computers at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea - The Atlantic

Students on computers at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea - The Atlantic

Aug 032011


From the most powerful leader in the Arab world to a luxurious palace in Sharm el-Sheikh, to a hospital bed and finally, an iron cage in a military courtroom on the outskirts of Cairo. An indelible image of our era as this is the first time an Arab leader has been forced into a legal proceeding by his own people. Yes, there was Saddam Hussein’s capture and trial, but that was largely due to a U.S. military operation. And it happened in Tunisia, except that the former President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has been tried in absentia since he now resides (in a no doubt luxurious home) in Saudi Arabia.  Charged as an accomplice in the killing of protesters and corruption for accepting financial gifts, Mubarak and his nine co-defendants (including his two sons, Gamal and Alaa) could face the death penalty.  For complete details, Robert Fisk once again provides a good account in his article “Mubarak Trial Begins” in the Independent as does Aljazeera.

As the day wore on, the proceedings were largely taken up with legal motions and the trial will get underway in earnest on August 15th. The apparent defense strategy by Mubarak’s lawyer, Farid el-Deebis, is to drag the military into the proceedings as he wants Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi to testify, arguing that he was the person in charge of security for most of the 18 days of the protest movement. Shrewd move as Tantawi is now Head of the military council that runs Egypt and it is hard to imagine that the military wants any involvement besides responsibility for holding Mubarak for trial. He also wants to call 1,600 (not a typo) additional witnesses which would drag the trial on for an eternity if granted.

Outside the courtroom, fights broke out as about fifty Mubarak supporters clashed with supporters of the Egyptian uprising. And much further afield, it seems that Syria is using the media focus on the trial as an opportunity to crush the opposition in the city of Hama.

Here are the opening minutes of the trial .

A second video of the not guilty pleas by Mubarak and the co-defendants can be seen on Aljazeera.

Aug 012011

Al Jazeera is reporting that yesterday was one of the bloodiest days in the uprising in Syria, with a 142 reported dead mostly in the city of Hama. In the East, Deir ez-Zor, one of the main oil and gas centers has also become a scene of violence. Since the demonstrations in Syria began on March 15th, there have been 1,583 reported deaths according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. But the death toll is probably much higher as over 3,000 people are missing. It’s likely that there will be a move by other nations to impose new sanctions and the situation is clearly descending into what is essentially a civil war. It’s hard to know how much President Bashar al-Assad is driven by the internal dynamics in the country (how strong is support among the middle class in Damascus which has turned out in the streets for demonstrations backing al-Assad?) and if the reaction in the West even factors into his military calculations. The latter is probably not first on his mind given the statement today by the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague on the possibility of military intervention in Syria:

It’s not a remote possibility. Even if we were in favour [of UN backed military action], which were are not because there’s no call from the Arab League for intervention as in the case of Libya, there is no prospect of a legal, morally sanctioned military intervention.

Nearly 30 years ago, Hama was the site of a major revolt against al-Assad’s father, resulting in more than 20,000 deaths and the destruction of the city. So far, al-Assad has opted for daily strikes to provoke fear and intimidation, but with the demonstrations continuing, one wonders if it’s just a matter of time before he takes the same route. Perhaps the widespread demonstrations in cities across Syria in support of Hama are the only obstacle standing in the way. There is much bravery here but unfortunately little communication with the outside world. A  few videos continue to filter out, including the one below posted on Al Jazeera:


Jul 232011

Another protest by the FEMEN movement in the Ukraine (some details here) and a Georgian Consulate security guard gets angry with the photo and video activity going on. Ironically, the protesters are holding fake prop cameras and camcorders with the actual footage being shot by supporters standing outside the center of activity. FEMEN was founded in 2008 as a feminist political activism organization in the Ukraine, and protests have targeted a wide range of issues from sex tourism to the Italian PM.

The protest in this case concerned three Georgian photographers who have been arrested and accused of spying for Russia. According to the Guardian, the three include an AP Stringer, a photographer for the European Pressphoto Agency and Irakli Gedenidze, and the personal photographer of the President of Georgia. All three all ostensibly confessed though their lawyers fear that the confessions have been coerced since they suddenly went from proclaiming their innocence to admitting guilt.  Speculation is that the President was angered by their photographs of the brutal approach by security forces to put down an opposition demonstration in Tbilisi on May 26th (Independence Day). After those scenes, he no longer looked like the smiling friend of democracy.

In an interesting coordinated protest move by the media, a number of Georgian newspapers websites removed all photos from their front pages.

Short video of the FEMEN altercation in front of the Georgian Consulate in the Ukraine:

Работники посольства Грузии в Украине избили журналистов и FEMEN from FEMEN Video on Vimeo.

Jul 152011

Door to the Great Wall

News from China is that 1.3 million Websites were shut down in 2010, 41% of the total. According to a BBC report, which is sourcing its information from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, this is largely from a crackdown on pornography sites, though as we know, that’s only a small part of Chinese censors keep their eyes on. Indeed, in 2010 Google shut down its search service on the mainland and moved to Hong Kong after four years of controversial self-censorship, becoming the target of cyber-attacks, and finally opening its doors to the free flow of information for a few brief months.

On the other hand, the rapid growth in Internet use in China continues as the number of users expanded from 384 million in 2009 to 457 million in 2010. With a 34% penetration rate in the world’s most populous country, Chinese is now the second most common language on the Web with some 440 million users. So Websites are shut down – at the rate of 3,500 a day – while the number of users increases at a rate of 200,000 a day (yes, per day). You can only keep a lid on this for so long. That’s not to say everything works out fine in the end; the Chinese government limits freedom on many fronts (witness the Cisco project to blanket the city of Chongqing with high-end surveillance cameras, one of the largest projects of its kind in the world) but there is a underlying dynamic here working against control.

As you know, there are many battlegrounds around the globe over the Web and the degree to which it is open/closed. Some are more dramatic (Middle Eastern countries trying a temporary kill switch to undermine protest movements), others so thoroughly under the boot of tyranny (North Korea) that they can only be seen as future battlegrounds, but China stands out as the preeminent battleground of this decade. Yes, the censorship is tight, but users still work around it utilizing proxies, VPN and – what was my favorite – the Haystack software project (undertaken initially to assist the Iranian opposition party after the 2009 “elections” ) that buried prohibited text within streams of non-offensive data. Unfortunately the latter was shut down after not living up to its promises. If you know of other solutions in use, let me know.


Jul 112011

BBC Newsnnight’s Shaimaa Khalil has compelling testimony from Syrian refugees who have crossed from the border town of Talkalakh into the Wadi Khaled area of northern Lebanon. The fear of remaining in Syria is palpable in the accounts (unverified, of course) but also striking is the commitment to continue the resistance regardless of the cost. In a sense, we know this already; otherwise the opposition would not have the energy to continue in face of the overwhelming force exercised by the Syrian army which has resulted in over 1,100 deaths (and that number is probably a low estimate). Remarkably, people are inspired by those who have suffered more than they have and willing to sacrifice their own children if that is the cost of victory. As one mother put it:

“They are my children. I love them, but we have to sacrifice if we want victory. This is much stronger than a mother’s love,” she cries.

If views like this are widely held, the regime will fall, despite its lock down on communications (soldiers hardly speak to their families and when they do, their families are fearful of telling them what is happening on the streets). To quote the young textile shop owner turned activist:

“I met so many people with a much stronger will than mine. I met people from all walks of life – doctors, farmers, lawyers – many people who are willing to go out and take to the streets and keep asking for our rights even if it meant going to prison again.”

Doctors, farmers, lawyers, shop owners – and mothers – this is what makes a revolution.

Jul 092011
Syrian Sniper Shooting at Cameraman

While it’s clear that social media can include very powerful organizing tools that bring people together in opposition to an oppressive regime (witness the Arab Spring), they can also undermine that very effort when a government is equally effective in using the tools to anticipate meetings, demonstrations, or simple visits to an area/country. Sometimes these counter-efforts by those in power are crude and brutally direct – the charge on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page that snipers have been ordered to shoot protesters holding cell phones to prevent video from getting outside the government imposed media blockade.  One might assume that direct approaches usually reflect a government that doesn’t fully understand social networks and goes after the hardware (and those carrying it) instead of the networks themselves.

So Israel just demonstrated the more subtle, yet very effective way of undermining activists using social networks – infiltration, information gathering and acting to cut off the opposition. The Welcome to Palestine campaign got a rude awakening when their efforts to bring pro-Palestinian activists into the Israel was met with boarding denials at foreign airports or detention on arrival for those who managed to get on a Tel-Aviv bound plane.  The “Flytilla” was meant to mark the seventh anniversary of the International Criminal Court’s advisory opinion on the illegality of the fence in the security zone and involved 100′s of activists. But while they were planning so was Israel and they’re gathering of a list of 300 plus names allowed them to target the protesters both within and outside its borders.

Not that the Welcome to Palestine campaign was trying particularly hard to hide their planned action. But even if they were, social networks are by their very nature open and trusting, and identities on the Web are easily fabricated. So while they bring people together, for a savvy government, they can provide easy access to the opposition’s plans.

Jun 272011

The video shows young children caked in filth begging in markets.

This is not the first video smuggled out of North Korea but it is one of the saddest and if you have not seen it yet, you should. Devastating video of children in search of food, their parents either dead or in the gulag. Perhaps even more telling about the current state of the economy there, a soldier talks about how many in his own unit do not have enough to eat (generally, the army has been taken care of in the past). The video and article is on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation site (yes, for those of you in America, also known as ABC).

If this is not enough, there is an article on BBC from last week with news that the government is purchasing “large amounts of anti-riot equipment” from China. Not only do they let the population starve, they will make sure they never step out of line. One hopes that someday there will be a “North Korean Spring” but it surely will not parallel the events in the Middle East. There is almost no access to technology here and the videos that are done are for our consumption (important as that is). A revolution here – when it happens (and that may be some time in the future) – will be done the old fashioned way, and one assumes with some help from outside. There is no internal role (that I can see) for Facebook, Twitter or other platforms here. In fact, the situation is so desperate, there seems to be little possibility of a basic uprising – it is almost as if this whole tragedy will have to collapse of its own weight.