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The Internet Kill Switch

It might be appropriate to consider Facebook and Twitter as the world’s latest tools for bringing about social and political change as they enable young change leaders to coordinate collective action, seek and connect with others who share the same belief, spread information to all these willing to take action, and share their experience with the rest of the world in real time.

It did not take the Egyptian government long to realize that Facebook and Twitter are fundamental resources for the opposition and decided that in order to suppress the opposition their mobilization tool had to be crippled – so the government decided to block internet access to Facebook, Twitter, and other viral websites, which unsurprisingly proved to be inadequate because proxies can easily be used to bypass such restriction, so Egypt decided to take a seriously extreme measure to ensure that the opposition does not take advantage of the resources of the internet: pull the internet plug for the entire country so that individuals, businesses, government offices, hospital, banks, and everyone else relying on public internet service to providers to connect to the internet does not have any access to it at all.

As crazy as it sounds, but that was the only way for Egypt to have absolute control over how its people use the internet. Due to the way the internet is structured, you cannot attempt to automatically or manually censor the internet. If you block access to a certain service the users will always find a way to bypass this restriction by using one proxy technology or another. The only efficient way to truly censor the internet would require the authority to disconnect the country from the whole world wide web exactly like Egypt did and consequently damage its communication infrastructure and bring about chaos to society.

To the current regime in Egypt disconnecting the whole country is in their opinion probably justified as they would do anything now to (b) stop protesters from being able to communicate with each other and (b) stop the rest of the world from learning about what the government does to its people.

We are witnessing what is probably the most modern form of being held captive – living in an information black hole – a country with no mobile phones, SMS messages, or internet access. Thinking about this from the comfort of our homes in such a peaceful country, we might declare that we also cannot survive without our internet connections (which we primarily use for entertainment purposes) but to the people of Egypt the internet is, in fact, vital at this point to their very survival. It might not be too far-fetched to claim that having the right for internet access may qualify as a human right to these people when you realize that many of the universally acknowledged human rights, such as the freedom of expression, the freedom to peacefully assemble, and the right to have access to knowledge and information, can barely have any significant meaning outside the internet at this day and age.

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Wikileaks and Transparency

It is true that governments should run on the basis of openness and transparency, but confidentiality is still a fundamental tool that every government needs to use in order to operate. We all need some sort of secrecy in our lives, individuals need to have a private life that they would not like the world to know, companies need to use trade secrets and nondisclosure agreements in order to compete, and governments also need to use secrecy to deal diplomatically with the rest of the world, they need secrecy to protect minors and to make sure that our security systems are not compromised by terrorists.

That is not to say that secrecy should be the default for all government transactions, the government should be open and transparent and it should use confidentiality as an exception to achieve a certain specific goal. When the government starts to use secrecy excessively and without justification then there is a clear problem that needs to be addressed.

I do not consider the Wikileaks US embassy cables leak to be a whistleblowing case. Whistleblowing is the action by which a person decides to breach his duty of confidence in order to report a serious specific wrongdoing. The US embassy cables were not leaked to report a specific wrongdoing but were leaked in hope of creating chaos and jeopardizing the system by which confidentiality is used.

Wikileaks claims to be a fighter for making the government more transparent by providing the public with a system for allowing them to anonymously upload confidential documents to their web servers so that they are shared with the rest of the world, but now with the US cables leak incident, is Wikileaks helping make the system more transparent? There are tens of thousands more documents which are not out yet, so we cannot predict what we will learn about the dealings of the US government, but the majority of these documents are of low confidentiality levels and none of them is a document classified as “Top Secret”, so really we should not expect most of these documents to have any groundbreaking revelations.

The natural consequence of this leak would be that foreign governments will be way more careful when they communicate with the US government, the US government will also surely increase its security measures to avoid having another leak by introducing new technical measures for tracking unusual data access and by reducing the pool of people who have access to this information. The amount of information recorded by writing would also be reduced to avoid the risk of it ever leaking. So how can any of that lead to having a more transparent system?

The only way in which the US cables leak is contributing in making the system more transparent is by keeping the discussion of the whole topic of government transparency alive at the moment – we need to talk about the problem in order for us to figure out a solution for this problem.

I do not necessarily agree with people who consider Assange to be a terrorist or who think that he should be prosecuted, but I do not necessarily think that he is a hero. Confidentiality has a role to play in government and society and it will be impossible for countries to be able to have honest negotiations if confidentiality cannot be guaranteed.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

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Saudi Law for Web Media

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia finally passed its new electronic publishing regulations that introduce new controls on all forms of Web media. So from now on, all websites, blogs, discussion forms, advertising services, newsgroups and other Web services are regulated by the same principles that govern traditional publications such as newspapers and magazines.

In addition to this, no one in the country can possess a domain name for a news, advertising, video or audio content website or any broadcasting service on the Internet without acquiring a license from the authorities in Saudi Arabia. The license may be given only to Saudi nationals who are 20 years of age or older.

While blogging per se does not require a license as it has been explicitly mentioned as belonging to another category, bloggers and owners of forums can voluntarily register with the authorities in Saudi Arabia if they want to – even though the law does not really provide any incentive for them to do so.

The implications of having all forms of electronic publications governed by the same law that regulates traditional publications are huge, as this means that all these websites are required to have the promotion of ‘Islam and good morals’ as one of their aims. The new regulations also make it clear that news websites are required to have an editor-in-chief who has to be approved by Saudi authorities, and who will be liable for all the content on the website.

It is unfortunate to see that Saudi Arabia seems to consider the Internet as a major threat and not as a platform for learning and promoting innovation. Any law that attempts to regulate the Web should not aim to restrict its use to the greatest extent possible, but instead, provide individuals and companies with clear rules that specify the limit of their liability in the most concise manner so that they know exactly what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

It is quite ridiculous to make a webmaster personally and fully liable for every single thing published on a website – especially when the content is written by others using the website – without providing him defences that can protect him. There can be a case in which he may not know about the violating material, or he may not get a fair chance to remove the material in a timely manner. Unfortunately, the Omani law isn’t much better than Saudi’s in this aspect, as our Telecom Law makes webmasters fully liable for the content of their websites without giving them any proper defences.

Another fundamental problem with Saudi Arabian law is that it makes some classification of Web content which doesn’t exist on the real Internet, because of the massive convergence of all forms of media on the Internet. A blog may be focused on delivering news, and may use audio and video content as the primary method for delivering that content. Would this make it part of the first category of websites that require a license, or would it still remain a blog that doesn’t require a license?

The law also does not seem to acknowledge the existence of social networks and micro-blogging platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, both of which are increasingly becoming more significant than older forms of Web publications, yet do not clearly fall under any of the items listed in the new regulations.

Oman’s own publication law is badly in need of an update, but thankfully the general consensus is that it doesn’t apply to blogging and other new forms of Web publishing in their current state. It is very unlikely that we will take the path Saudi Arabia is taking, but our legislators have to be careful when drafting any new law to regulate the Web.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

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Copyright Reform

Copyright law is one of the most outdated laws worldwide and it is badly in need of reform. The main rationale behind the existence of this legislation – the desire to provide authors with an incentive to create new works while providing society with the ability to make fair use of these works – is still an important issue that needs to be addressed, but copyright law today does not seem to fulfil this need.

A fundamental issue with copyright law is that it tries to achieve its goals by regulating the act of ‘copying’ – while this is the core of the ‘copy’right, this concept does not properly fit in the digital world where every single use of the work requires creating a copy, whether it was in the process of copying a song from a CD to an iPod or copying an application from the hard drive of a computer to its RAM to run that application. All these acts are regulated by copyright and will by definition require the approval of the copyright owner for the end user to carry them out – obviously this extensive scope of copyright is not a proper development of the copyright law, but an unintended result of the extension of the law to new technologies.

Another peculiar feature of copyright is that it is automatic in the sense that the author does not need to take any action upon the creation of the work to be granted protection, while this may seem like an advantage, it also grants copyright protection to many works whose authors do not necessarily care about copyright protection and makes it hard to access copyright works whose authors are dead or unknown.

A more philosophical problem with copyright law is that it does not acknowledge the major shift in the creative culture brought by technology as the tools for creating high-quality video and audio became democratized and accessible to any person with a computer. Few people in this generation express themselves by writing a poem or a short story and instead rely on rich media such as videos and graphics to communicate and express their thoughts. It may not be necessary to create such rich content by building on works of others, but the majority of people express their creativity by taking small bits of different works, editing them, and remixing them into a new work that has in this remixed form its own unique value. This is what you see when going on YouTube and look at all the parodies, tributes, and short films made up of remixed scenes and soundtracks taken from famous movies.

The majority of these remixed works by young people are not made with the intention of making money and do not have the result of lowering the commercial value of the original works they are building upon, yet copyright law does not make special provisions for such uses and requires the user to seek the approval for every single piece of copyright work he has used in his work. The reality, of course, is that the users do not acknowledge copyright because it is impossible for the system to work in their favour and businesses cannot practically enforce their copyright against every single violator on the internet making the law nothing more than written words that cannot be practically enforced. The sad result of this is the lack of respect for the law by young people as they do not understand how their innocent participation in the remix culture violates the law and their definite knowledge that the law is incapable of being enforced.

There have been independent attempts to work around the drawbacks of the law through initiatives such as the creative commons, but that will not solve the fundamental problems of the copyright law. Unfortunately, copyright law is regulated by a number of international treaties that make it very difficult to change the basic principles that govern the system. Our only hope is that governments realize that copyright law is a fundamental aspect of today’s global economy and international efforts have to be made to help make the system fairer.