By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
All of a sudden, we have some new opportunistic Friends of Belarus -- Cory Doctorow and Rebecca MacKinnon. They had virtually nothing to say all this time since December 2010 -- 18 months -- while hundreds of people have been tortured and put in jail, including the main independent journalists and those operating independent web sites like charter97.org That's because Belarus just doesn't "fit" in their worldview, dominated by the US and its allies and the US and its sins. Russia's sins and the sins of all its allies are outside the ambit of their "progressive" worldview; they virtually never talk about it (both of them piped up about Russia only when they could bang on Microsoft, when corrupt Russians using Microsoft's name harassed human rights activists and environmentalists).
Now that Swedish investigative journalists and NGOs have produced a film exposing the awful role played by Teliasonera in helping the regimes of Belarus, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and other post-Soviet states, finally Cory Doctorow can pay attention: evil telecom! Must stop! Boo, hiss!
Here's my post at BoingBoing.net:
We missed you and EFF back back in December 2010 when the Belarusian regime cracked down on thousands of peaceful demonstrators who were protesting election fraud, arresting some 700 people, and sentencing hundreds of them to lengthy sentences of years. Andrei Sannikov, Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu and the other opposition presidential candidates and their staffs. We missed you throughout 2011 and 2012 as all these people were mistreated and tortured, new arrests took place, and few but the US and EU governments and a few NGOs said anything about it. Throughout this period the regime closed down websites or hijacked them to show viewers only state sites; the main news site charter97.org has constantly been under DDOS attacks. This was never of interest to you Internet freedom fighters.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and various Swedish non-governmental organizations protested repeatedly to try to get them released, and finally the combination of US and EU sanctions on this regime led to the release of some leaders, although some still remain. EFF and all the cool kids could have cared less about Internet freedom issues in Belarus and these other countries as they didn't fit your paradigm of "Blame America First".
You only tuned in when you could see the words "telecom" and begin to salivate in glee -- because you don't care about human rights in countries like Belarus or Uzbekistan for their own sakes until you can find some angle that fits your own "progressive" ideology of hating on telecoms as evil obstacles to your Google-centric world.
Teliasonera has enabled bad regimes, to be sure. But telecoms or Western businesses aren't the central issue, and if you take away their support, these autocrats just turn to China and their telecom companies. In fact evil telcos, whether Western, Russian, Chinese, or whatever, are making millions of people able to have their own cell phones and use the Internet, which some of them use to gather information independently and protest the regimes.
And then, confronted with this complex story in which a Swedish telecom has not done the right thing, but the real problem is the nature of these authoritarian regimes, all you can do is turn an infantile gaze at your pet issue of surveillance in the United States, where you have more freedom of expression than any country in the world
As for Rebecca MacKinnon, I welcome her to the Newly-Acquired Conscience Society for Belarus on Twitter, and she bristled. "Do your homework before accusing me," in an angry tweet. I had commented that she had not seemed to notice what Teliasonera or other companies did, although she's always banging on telecoms. She retorted that in fact she had tweeted about it a few days ago. Oh, but that doesn't count, as the time to care about telecoms and Belarus was 18 months ago, not a few days ago, if you really cared -- and in fact, it was never really the primary issue. She also said she had mentioned the issue in her speech at Oslo Freedom Forum (I don't exactly see it there, but whatever*).
Yet that speech epitomizes what is so awful about MacKinnon, Doctorow, Jillian York and the rest of the EFF and Berkman Center gang -- the insidious moral equivalency of democratic countries under the rule of law with authoritarian countries without the rule of law. "Even in democratic nations," MacKinnon piously intones, "governments are using excuses to increase this control, such as the need for the protection of children." Excuses? Why can't governments block child pornography, which in fact involves often the exploitation of Russian children?!
"We’re finding a growing global movement against companies who we feel are infringing our rights," she gushes. Of course, you don't have rights regarding companies -- something I've been protesting about for seven years long before EFF cared about the typical Silicon Valley corporate TOS.
Companies are non-state actors and are not obliged to enable your piracy, child pornography, or terrorism, let alone even absolutist free speech. They are private entities with their own rights of freedom of association and freedom of expression. Sure, we would like them to be bound at least by their own TOS (they seldom are) or principles of justice and rights, but negotiating such "rights" through the ITU or UN would bring about the very horrible controls from authoritarian regimes that MacKinnon also references in her protest that "we don't have a seat at the table" at ITU. (And that's why I say the answer is not to impose new "guidelines" or negotiate international rights in hostile international territory, but simply to enable a free market of ISPs and social media platforms with a range of approximation to these rights and values. MacKinnon doesn't like Apple's "censorship" of the intifada app? Then let her go over to CREDO or some other "progressive" telecom that can provider her with such violent entertainment.)
Let me point out that none of us have a seat at the table at ITU even if MacKinnon's organizations get seats -- and that's not the way to get Internet freedom. Companies get to decide their course. The last place we should look for promotion of real freedom of expression and the fundamental liberty of Internet connection is the Global Network Initiative of Internet-related companies and NGOs over which MacKinnon presides -- they could care less about Egypt or Syria or Belarus or Azerbaijan in the GNI context, whatever they do on their own, but devote most of their ire against US congress people drafting bills against piracy or promoting cybersecurity -- Google's business imperatives matter far more to them than basic human rights for all.
MacKinnon uses her highly-visible pulpit at the Oslo Freedom Forum to talk about a piece of legislation that she doesn't like that hinders violation of intellectual property rights. "EU politicians are increasingly saying that policies like ACTA are dead," she gloats. What about the journalists who are dead in places like Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Uzbeksitan, Rebecca? That's not the fault of telecoms or evil Western governments who want to prosecute pirates: it's the fault of those very authoritarian regimes.
MacKinnon is thrilled that Wikipedia thugglishly went dark to whine about anti-piracy legislation that offended their "copyleftist" goals; that charter97.org was dark for many days due to the KGB never bothered her. For MacKinnon, protesting against firewalls put into place by the authoritarian and brutal state of Pakistan, where journalists are murdered with impunity, is all on a smooth and glib moral plane with the US, maybe passing some laws that in fact were narrowly defined against specific kinds of commercial piracy -- bills that were defeated by a flash mob organized by Google, and Mitch Kapor's anti-copyright organizations EFF, PCF and Fight for the Fututre.
It's really freaky -- the only way that MacKinnon and these other self-absorbed and self-referential North Americans can see their way clear to taking up issues of human rights abroad is if they can find an evil Western corporation in the mix, or a Western government opposing piracy. The roots of piracy in authoritarian countries like Russia that metasticize their corruption to the rest of the world are uninteresting to them.
I remember back in December 2010 and January 2011 there were various protest groups on Facebook where some of us repeatedly raised the issues of the European telecoms. There is an Austrian company doing business in Belarus that was involved as well as the Swedish company. An influential "progressive" Austrian activist actually didn't want to take up boycotts of companies or an EU boycott of Belarus, because "this would harm people". Nobody did.
At that time, the Skype conversations of all the opposition leaders were being published in the state newspaper, sometimes in tendentious and false excerpts. It seems some mobile phone conversations were also used, and the location data -- people were placed in the square at the time of the demonstration using this information, and that was enough to jail them.
Of course, Lukashenka has been in business since 1996, long before the Internet and mobile phones were so present even in his own repressive country, and would find ways to jail people even without any evil foreign telecoms, as he always had, using the prodigious capacity of the still-named KGB, which follows people everywhere the old fashioned way. I recall once going to meet an opposition candidate along with some Belarusian journalists, and there were so many cars following us there was a traffic jam.
There were different theories about how the Skype calls got in the state press -- the KGB didn't necessarily hack into Skype; they may have simply hacked into computers and read logs, or they may have simply opened up computers with Firefox, which handily open up all applications for you with their embedded pass words -- awfully convenient for the secret police unless you thought to use various devices to erase or download your hard drive quickly on to a flash drive.
But people didn't think they were going to be arrested. They had been allowed to campaign independently during the election and have meetings with independent candidates. They thought a peaceful election-night rally on a square wouldn't lead to such a severe crackdown.
Regardless of how the secret police got the conversations, location data, etc., by their own sleuthing or with the mechanical affordances of the telecoms they had access to, or which colluded them, the centrality of evil is in their corner, not foreign companies. I've said this about China and Cisco as well.
I was just reading about Sergey Brin's anguish in staying in China after the Chinese government censored; he justified remaining under his usual theory that more knowledge was better than less, and that the Chinese people would get more from even a censored Google than if it were completely removed. It took the Chinese government's direct assault on Google's own servers for him to see it more personally -- and then he could see his way clear to exiting Google -- when a company has skin in the game, it's not until their own skin burns that the game becomes less fun for them, as they keep rationalizing it as still fun for other people.
*When I debated MacKinnon about this and she mentioned the Oslo Freedom Forum, a pretentious little social media flak from OFF began following me. I asked him if he stalked people when they disagreed with OFF speakers. "Don't flatter yourself," he told me rudely -- as I often noticed, "strategic communications" is a profession where above all, you are entitled to be an arrogant ass and amplify it across all platforms. I then asked if he had an automatic script that followed anyone who mentioned OFF.