Closed Societies

NDI Democracy Dinner Highlights

The NDI Tech team watched Secretary Clinton's keynote at last night's Democracy Dinner with great interest and not a little institutional pride. Among other highlights, we're still blushing to hear that "freedom knows no better champion" than NDI and our sibling institutions under the National Endowment for Democracy. I've collected the best of the coverage for our loyal readers: READ MORE »

Adapt and Evolve

Promotional flyer for the citizen reporting campaign - "Viva El Voto"

How do civil society organizations, especially those used to years of relative political space, respond when a government restricts their activities? They get creative, using crowd-sourcing and data visualization to strengthen the impact of their activities.

The politicization of Nicaraguan institutions, controversial interpretations of the constitution, and the lack of impartiality of the election administration, have generated widespread public distrust.

Impartial observation of the electoral process had played an important role in ensuring that past elections were free and fair and building public confidence in the results of the process. Yet, beginning in 2008, independent domestic observers were not allowed to access polling stations, and individual polling station results were not made public. READ MORE »

Do Know Harm

Informed Knowledge of Risks

The NDItech team recently wrapped up a meeting of private sector security professionals advising on some of our work in difficult countries. It was a fascinating experience; while our team has got a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals, these people have to protect some of the world's most at-risk networks or write software that is proof against determined, well-funded adversaries.

Technology for international development is all too often segregated into its own little silo. That's sad when we can't tap into the innovation and expertise of the private sector for our work in general, but it could be tragic when it comes to the challenges of keeping democracy activists safe. Our people are up against well-funded and highly aggressive governments who are among the most dangerous forces in the world for stealing passwords, hacking servers, and dropping viruses on laptops; it is imperative that development organizations bring as much firepower as possible to bear from the other side.

My favorite quote from the event: "Do know harm." READ MORE »

Seeing the Suppression: Mapping Local Internet Control

China Map of Internet Control

The Mapping Local Internet Control project launched last week by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society illustrates the ability of Internet users within a particular country to access the global Internet through their Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or other Autonomous Systems used to route web traffic. One of the key findings of this project is that approximately 96% of all web traffic in China is routed to websites hosted within China. So why is this significant?

This mapping is able to demonstrate one of several means that Chinese authorities use to restrict content online - through centralizing Chinese web traffic to 4 points of control (ways to access the Internet), Chinese authorities can more readily curtail access to any content deemed objectionable.

Visualization of how this control takes place in China is even more striking when compared to other countries guilty of censoring independent content online, such as Iran and Russia. This visualization on the nature of accessibility in China is especially valuable, given the more limited information available on mapping online discourse in Chinese when compared to research on the Arabic, Persian, and Russian blogospheres. READ MORE »

Libya is Back Online! Sort Of?

Benghazi Internet

So first and foremost: this was not a social media revolution. This is just your friendly recap of what’s known of network connectivity in Libya during the past six months. Oh--and hai! I'm back.

A few months ago, a member of the NDI Middle East team walked into our office and asked how difficult it would be to wire downtown Benghazi.

She had just returned from eastern Libya and observed a need. Enterprising engineers had rigged a VSAT connection, turning the square in front of Benghazi’s main courthouse—the original site of the protests that would launch a revolution—into a public hotspot. People would cluster around laptops, waiting patiently on the shared network, scanning for updates from friends and family in the Ghaddafi-controlled west, or comparing official news against frantic rumor.

The answer was that wiring a city wouldn’t actually be that difficult in theory. In practice, it’s not exactly NDItech’s bread and butter (although I certainly offered to be on a plane that evening). Shortly thereafter, the question was mooted—the Libyans had restored Benghazi’s connectivity on their own. READ MORE »

Safety First

From the 2009 Iranian "Green Revolution" to Egyptian President Mubarak's historic fall from power earlier this year, it has become evident that social media is playing a role in the participation and mobilization of citizens. Debates rage on whether tools like Facebook and Twitter triggered or just assisted with these protests, but clearly social media has become a big player.

Just as social media has become a tool for activists to share their voices and organize protests, it has also become a way for repressive governments to ID dissidents. The Syrian government provides a grim example of ways these tools can be used against citizens; journalists report that the government has not only shut down services, but has also hacked accounts and forced individuals to hand over their passwords.

NDI is currently working on a proposal that includes building online networks focused on political rights via social media. While we want these activists to use these tools to their advantage, we also focus on how, like in Syria, other governments can turn social media against them. READ MORE »

Fire on the Firewall: A Debate Breaks Out

Yesterday I wrote a post summarizing an event I went to at Freedom House for the release of their latest report on the use of censorship circumvention tools. Last night, Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum wrote a post questioning the methodology of the Freedom House report. This morning, a discussion broke out on Twitter among people with varying stakes in the outcome. You can look up Robert Guerra (@netfreedom), Rafik Dammak (@rafik), Katrin Verclas (@katrinskaya) and Tactical Tech (@onorobot) to follow along (Appelbaum is @ioerror). READ MORE »

Leaping Over the Firewall: Circumvention Studies

Leaping Over the Firewall cover

Yesterday I attended the release of a new Freedom House report on circumvention, "Leaping over the Firewall". I still haven't had the chance to read the whole report, but the abstract is as follows: 

Internet censorship poses a large and growing challenge to online freedom of expression around the world. Numerous countries filter online content to hinder the ability of their citizens to access and share information. In the face of this challenge, censorship circumvention tools are critical in bypassing restrictions on the internet, thereby protecting free expression online.

We've seen these challenges in NDI's own Internet Freedom work, as well as in the recent events in the Middle East. Tunisia in particular was a notorious censor of information online--by some measurements, behind only Iran and China. Outside the Middle East, NDI partners have had websites attacked and blocked, and we've seen individual users compromised through the use of sophisticated surveillance and brute-force hacking. As governments grow increasingly apprehensive in the aftermath of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, these threats will only multiply. READ MORE »

Tech Evangelizing Among Small "d" Democrats

European Parliament sign

I was fortunate to have been looped into NDI's Transatlantic Dialogue program last weekend at the European Parliament in Brussels for the second round of high level talks that seek to strengthen democracy support cooperation between the United States and Europe. The theme for the meetings was reinvigorating democratic development – and the role of tech was recognized as an important contributor.

My mission: raise awareness among the democracy leaders about the changing and increasingly important role technology can play, and help encourage and inform forward-looking policies that better leverage the power of technologies toward democratic development. READ MORE »

A Data Revolution

Egyptians record the revolution for posterity with digital cameras and cameraphones.

This blog is cross-posted from the ONE blog, where I was a guest blogger on Monday.

What's happening in Egypt is unprecedented -– and not only politically. Despite extraordinary efforts on the part of the Egyptian regime to silence pro-democracy protesters, this may be the most communicated, documented and media-ready political upheaval in history. On January 25th, Egypt caught the world's attention when thousands poured into Tahrir Square, Cairo's biggest public plaza. Protests were organized on the social networking site Facebook, on pages of groups like "We Are All Khalid Saeed"; by anonymous administrators embodying generational frustrations. READ MORE »

What Happens when Eighty Million Egyptians Disappear?

Where did Egypt Go?

UPDATE: It's hard not to speculate on the political implications as events unfold. Protestors are defying curfew, police are using violent and aggressive tactics in the street, soldiers are being greeted with flowers. It's difficult to understate the significance of what is happening in Egypt right now. Likely no one - not the protestors, the government, nor the observers on the outside - knows where this is headed. Landlines, of course, are still up. People are using them to continue to access the outside world, through voice and dialup. Protesters are spreading the news through Twitter, phone calls, word of mouth. Al-Jazeera is broadcasting live - its earlier reticence long forgotten. There's almost too much to keep up with. The technology at this point is a documentary tool for history - the momentum is offline. READ MORE »

The Dictator's Dilemma


North Africa is in chaos. Following on the heels of Tunisia's revolution, Egyptian citizens have taken to the streets in a massive show of anger and frustration with President Mubarak's 29 year rule. Don't miss the vivid pictures from the Boston Globe's The Big Picture.

People have been arguing about whether social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are relevant in real-world activism and organizing against authoritarians. Well, some new folks with very relevant opinions have weighed in on the topic: the autocrats themselves.

In Tunisia and Egypt as protests have swelled the regimes have moved to cut off or control access to Facebook and Twitter. By doing so, they're making things harder for themselves as well - it's the "Dictator's Dilemma." If people love a certain service and you take it away, you may be limiting their organizing potential, but you're also pissing them off, and getting people involved who might otherwise have been untouched.

Egypt started with blocks on Twitter and then Facebook, but then people turn to other tools. SMS was shut off next. READ MORE »

Tech vs. the Many Tools of Control

A protester in Minsk

Belarus' people went to the polls December 19. It didn't go well, as Alexander Lukashenko's implausible 80% victory added to a string of really grim elections of late. The OSCE statement noted "observers assessing almost half of vote counts monitored as bad or very bad". NDI's partner organizations were on the ground, watching it - but their tech-enabled reporting system had been crippled.

A couple months back I traveled to the region to work with some of our Belarusian partners as they prepared to peacefully monitor the elections. One major component of the effort was using SMS to try to get numbers back as fast as possible for analysis. READ MORE »

Protecting Citizens in Political Movements

Iran Protests

I've blogged quite a bit lately on security matters related to working with groups in closed societies because it's an important subject and from my standpoint there are a few more topics that need to be covered. This post is about protecting citizens, as opposed to trained activists, in countries where popular movements lead to marches, protests or other forms of public engagement.

Risks for activists who are working in tough environments and using communication, circumvention and other technologies can at best be minimized - and requires a complex set of technologies and procedures that must be artfully designed for the specific political environment then diligently adhered to. Many activists are fully aware of and willing to take the risks required.

However, there are significant risks for average, untrained citizens involved in political movements as well. Many often use technology tools much less sophisticated than those used by activists, such as mobile phones, digital cameras, social network platforms and even Internet cafes. READ MORE »

NDItech is Hiring: Election Monitoring in Closed Political Space

We're looking for an online messaging guru to travel to the Middle East for a 3-week field assignment to work with NDI partners (local NGOs) who are monitoring and highlighting government conduct during an electoral period. This position is similar to the previous Thailand gig mentioned by Katherine.

We're looking for someone to work with our local partners to tell their stories about the election, and to use data collection and compelling visualization to further citizen understanding of the process. See full skills description here.

Talking "Liberation Technology" With Friends at Stanford

High- and low-tech security approaches

Last Friday I had an opportunity to talk to the Liberation Technology Seminar at Stanford University - led by democracy scholar Larry Diamond.

The talk, titled "Seize the Day, Seize the Data: Tech-Enabled Moments of Opportunity in Closed Societies," provided a great opportunity for our team here to shore up our thinking about working in what we call challenging environments or closed societies. You may think of them as authoritarian regimes.

Working in closed societies is a small percentage of NDI's work; the majority of our programs take place in established democracies of varying levels - from the most fragile to well established democratic countries. However, in response to the State Department's Internet Freedom initiative and other factors, we have seen additional interest in this topic (as I have mentioned) and it's a good opportunity to share how NDI approaches ICT work in these countries.

The text of our talk is attached below, and the video will be available soon.

Here is a summary of the four main points and the QA. READ MORE »

"Seize the Day, Seize the Data" - NDItech's Chris Spence on Liberation Technology

Chris Spence, our Dear Leader and NDI's Chief Technology Officer, is giving a presentation today at the Stanford Program on Liberation Technologies.

The talk, entitled Seize the Day, Seize the Data, dives into NDItech's practical work on the ground implementing tech-enabled programs.

International democracy promotion, like all development work, can be a frustrating, difficult slog, full of setbacks or years without visible change. And yet, at the right moment, it seems like a regime can prove as brittle as glass.

In the long periods of toiling in the shadows, tech development professionals can work with partners on the ground to build the relationships, the tools, and the organizations to be ready when the moment strikes. When the eyes of the world are watching, well-prepared organizations can make change happen - and tech can assist.

Silicon valley peeps, drop by Stanford and say hi!

NDItech is Hiring: Data, Democracy, Burma

Burma Map

We are hiring. Will you work with us for three months in Thailand?

In November, Burma is preparing to hold its first elections in 20 years. By all measures, this should be a remarkable event, and yet observers don't expect these historic elections to meet basic international standards. The Burmese pro-democracy movements report that the government has fallen short of the minimum requirements needed for free and fair elections, and analyst consensus suggests that the outcome is designed to enshrine and legitimize military rule.

In preparation for these events, NDItech team members recently visited Thailand to consult with Burmese rights groups and learn more about their election-related plans. From our partners we heard caution and concern; many described plans to collect and share information about rights violations both before and during the election. Many organizations also expressed a desire for assistance on issues such as data collection and transmission, aggregation and analysis, secure communications, and information publishing and advocacy.  READ MORE »

Moments of Opportunity: Tech in Closed Societies

Networks behind bars

In recent years, partly in response to the US State Department’s focus on internet freedom, we have seen increased interest in applying technology to closed societies to create more political space and opportunities for democratic progress. In these challenging environments democracy and human rights activists and civic groups have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt new technologies and when combined with established organizing principles can create moments of opportunity for democratic gains and enhanced channels for political engagement in authoritarian countries.

The key is not only to employ effective technologies, but to pair the technologies with strategies and approaches that are developed for the political environment where the technologies are being used. This approach can help activists get out ahead of authoritarian regimes and make relative and even potentially “game-changing” democratic gains when periods are identified where such innovations can rapidly be put to use. While regimes may quickly catch up, or clamp down, by employing technologies and other techniques to bolster their regimes, gains made during the gap created between early adoption and governmental response can have long term positive consequences for democratic activists.

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