As Global Policy Moves To Expand Digital Rights, U.S Faces Crucial Fight Over Equal Access To The Internet


By: Karin Deutsch Karlekar and Christopher Hamlin
In 2013, inventor of the internet Tim Berners Lee reflected, “When you make something universal … it can be used for good things or nasty things … we just have to make sure it's not undercut by any large companies or governments trying to use it and get total control.” In what seemed like a momentary delay of his prediction—and a win for internet freedom advocates—in late April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit denied the telecommunications industry’s request for an appeal of a 2016 decision that upheld the net neutrality regulatory framework. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had reclassified the internet as a utility much like regular phone service (where, for instance, the phone company can’t block a call because they don’t like the caller). This allowed for stronger enforcement of existing net Continue reading "As Global Policy Moves To Expand Digital Rights, U.S Faces Crucial Fight Over Equal Access To The Internet"

7 Mind-Blowing Articles on Digital Freedom

2013 has been a busy year for human rights and digital technologies. We've seen the rise of more sophisticated tools of repression and exciting new developments in digital security and freedom of expression. Every day, it seems, new technological developments and scandals promise to dramatically change the human rights landscape. But sometimes it's good to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. These seven articles on digital freedom and surveillance are some of our favorites from around the web in 2013.

1. The Delete Squad: Google, Twitter, Facebook and the new global battle over the future of free speech
Jeffrey Rosen (The New Republic)

This insightful article is part investigative piece and part primer on Constitutional law, and details how companies such as Facebook -- which have user bases exceeding the populations of most nations -- make decisions about free expression online. The employees have powerful jobs but not necessarily fun ones: They spend their days assessing allegations of racism, hate speech, child pornography and mutilation.


2. Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide'
Daniel J. Solove (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Admittedly, Solove wrote this article in 2011 to summarize a book he published that year, but this legal scholar has been way out in front on these issues for a long time: At 28, he published a missive about how George Orwell's 1984 is the improper text to use when describing the surveillance state and Franz Kafka's The Trial is better because today's surveillance programs are increasingly bureaucratized. Here, Solove outlines several arguments you can use when someone tells she has nothing to hide, and hence nothing to worry about.


3. The Prism: Privacy in an Age of Publicity
Jill Lepore (The New Yorker)

In this article, Lepore examines the curious case that arose from the opening of the mail of Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian expatriate living in London in 1844. She uses the incident to trace the development of contemporary understandings of privacy and transparency. James Burke would be proud.


4. Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere
Kieran Healy (KieranHealy.org)

This tongue-in-cheek blog article by a sociology professor is written in a (somewhat) Colonial voice and uses the snippets of information available to the British Crown to identify key American revolutionaries. It's a nice primer on how a little bit of metadata can go a long way while sharing basic precepts of data analysis. (Thanks to web editor Antonio Aiello for tracking this one down.)


5. Weibo Keyword Un-Blocking Is Not a Victory Against Censorship
Jason Q. Ng (Tea Leaf Nation)

Google Fellow and former editor Jason Q. Ng has been analyzing censorship on Chinese social media for some time. In this post, he delves into the complex censorship regimes utilized by China, and cautions against celebrating the perceived relaxation of blocking. If it ain't blocked, it doesn't mean they're not watching you.


6. Drones over Haiti
Amy Wilentz (AmyWilentz.com)

PEN featured Amy Wilentz in our event Haiti in Two Acts at the PEN World Voices Festival in May, where she offered a deeply critical and thoughtful view of the recovery process from the 2010 earthquake. In this post, Wilentz examines the curious rise of drone technology in Haiti as yet one more example of foreign contractors pushing technologies in the name of development. The mapping of Haiti using drone technology removes locals from their historical source of power: the Haitian revolution was staged in part because of the ability of slaves to hide in uncharted terrain. What happens to democracy when you have nowhere to hide?


7. US writers must take a stand on NSA surveillance
Dave Eggers (The Guardian)

This opinion article, first published in The Guardian, is an excellent roundup of the most serious threats of government surveillance at the close of 2013, and also an impassioned plea for writers and decision-makers to look to history for moral guidance.

Stories Most Feared by Chinese officials Will Still Be Told

By Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director

The Chinese government appears to be putting down its saber in the weeks-long showdown over two dozen American journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg whose visa renewals were delayed over the last month. What appeared to be a standoff between China and the West is part of a long-term, higher-stakes battle between China and its own increasingly informed and mobilized citizenry. Even if they banish foreign reporters from Beijing, the stories Chinese officialdom most fear will still be told and heard.

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China has long retaliated swiftly against those whose ideas and writings it judges subversive. The country's most famous dissidents, including 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Wei Wei, are renowned for their piercing critiques of Chinese repression. In recent years, though, China's clamp-down has focused not just on ideologies it sees as menacing, but also on the flow of factual information that it deems equally dangerous. Increasingly, China's leaders are kept up at night not by regional neighbors or the United States, but by worries over homegrown corruption. Rampant corruption threatens economic productivity, sows rifts among elites and feeds anti-government sentiment. Since his appointment last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made fighting corruption a signature. Last week it was revealed that he launched a corruption inquiry against former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang, the highest-ranking Communist official ever to be targeted by such a probe.

Beijing is now targeting those outlets that have worked to unmask its good government makeover. Both Bloomberg and the New York Times have published high-profile exposés of the staggering wealth amassed by China's leading political families and the illicit interplay of financial and political favors that underpins Party rule. While these front-page bombshells are recent, the facts underlying them are not new. The documents and records cited in the Bloomberg and Times exposés had, in some cases, been available for years. Reporters' newfound ability to connect the dots amid China's labyrinthine and secretive oligarchy attests to the growing availability of inside sources willing to talk.

The sources behind the damning reports may be motivated by political score-settling, a noble drive to reveal truth or some combination of both. Regardless, their courage in talking to foreign journalists is striking. Whereas muckraking Western journalists may face expulsion, Chinese whistleblowers can risk floggings and jail terms.

This summer, Chinese commentators began to notice the rise of so-called "real name whistleblowers" willing to call out corruption despite the risks. There has been a spate of mistresses of top officials who have told all on social media, revealing their paramours' indiscretions and financial excesses. In recent months, a raft of videos of top Chinese officials indulging themselves and embarrassing the party have leaked onto YouTube, including one of a regional official criticizing average citizens while eating a $1,600 lobster dinner. The inquiry into Zhou Yongkang's alleged misdealings was sourced to five anonymous leakers, including a former corruption investigator and three individuals with family ties to China's elites. Leakers' readiness to risk their safety to get stories out shows a level of determination that will persist even if the foreign correspondents they've come to know are no longer.

In 2011, exiled Chinese writer and Tiananmen activist Zhou Qing remarked that in China, "for both the government and the people, the first reaction to truth is fear." For the Chinese government, more insidious than any single exposé is knowing that behind the disclosures are individuals who no longer fear revealing the truth.

When China was focused mostly on stamping out threatening ideologies, tactics like censorship, arrests and jail time worked. The tight-knit, trusted networks necessary to plot a political challenge can be dismantled by targeting leaders and intimidating others from taking their place. But when it comes to keeping a lid on entrenched and endemic corruption, the clampdown is harder. An individual leaking a damning video or corporate filing needn't be a brilliant political strategist, visionary writer or charismatic operative. They don't need to conceive a motivational manifesto. All they need to do is make a printout, download a file, send an email or post a link.

In China's fast-modernizing economy, the controls necessary to suppress damning information are getting harder to maintain. Bad behavior by Chinese officials, including sex and prostitution scandals, is reported almost instantaneously by anonymous witnesses on microblog platforms. The cause of truth would have been set back monumentally if intrepid, objective, and dogged international journalists were forced to report on China from offshore in Hong Kong or elsewhere. But while getting rid of the peskiest foreign journalists might have plugged an important hole in the dyke, the rising tide of an informed and curious Chinese population will eventually breach the levee. As new outlets and methods of evasion evolve, the Chinese government will find itself locked in an unwinnable war against an increasingly educated and wired citizenry that shares the long suppressed yet universal drive for truth.

Stories Most Feared by Chinese officials Will Still Be Told

By Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director

The Chinese government appears to be putting down its saber in the weeks-long showdown over two dozen American journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg whose visa renewals were delayed over the last month. What appeared to be a standoff between China and the West is part of a long-term, higher-stakes battle between China and its own increasingly informed and mobilized citizenry. Even if they banish foreign reporters from Beijing, the stories Chinese officialdom most fear will still be told and heard.

2013-12-19-20131219_HuffPo_China.jpg
China has long retaliated swiftly against those whose ideas and writings it judges subversive. The country's most famous dissidents, including 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Wei Wei, are renowned for their piercing critiques of Chinese repression. In recent years, though, China's clamp-down has focused not just on ideologies it sees as menacing, but also on the flow of factual information that it deems equally dangerous. Increasingly, China's leaders are kept up at night not by regional neighbors or the United States, but by worries over homegrown corruption. Rampant corruption threatens economic productivity, sows rifts among elites and feeds anti-government sentiment. Since his appointment last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made fighting corruption a signature. Last week it was revealed that he launched a corruption inquiry against former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang, the highest-ranking Communist official ever to be targeted by such a probe.

Beijing is now targeting those outlets that have worked to unmask its good government makeover. Both Bloomberg and the New York Times have published high-profile exposés of the staggering wealth amassed by China's leading political families and the illicit interplay of financial and political favors that underpins Party rule. While these front-page bombshells are recent, the facts underlying them are not new. The documents and records cited in the Bloomberg and Times exposés had, in some cases, been available for years. Reporters' newfound ability to connect the dots amid China's labyrinthine and secretive oligarchy attests to the growing availability of inside sources willing to talk.

The sources behind the damning reports may be motivated by political score-settling, a noble drive to reveal truth or some combination of both. Regardless, their courage in talking to foreign journalists is striking. Whereas muckraking Western journalists may face expulsion, Chinese whistleblowers can risk floggings and jail terms.

This summer, Chinese commentators began to notice the rise of so-called "real name whistleblowers" willing to call out corruption despite the risks. There has been a spate of mistresses of top officials who have told all on social media, revealing their paramours' indiscretions and financial excesses. In recent months, a raft of videos of top Chinese officials indulging themselves and embarrassing the party have leaked onto YouTube, including one of a regional official criticizing average citizens while eating a $1,600 lobster dinner. The inquiry into Zhou Yongkang's alleged misdealings was sourced to five anonymous leakers, including a former corruption investigator and three individuals with family ties to China's elites. Leakers' readiness to risk their safety to get stories out shows a level of determination that will persist even if the foreign correspondents they've come to know are no longer.

In 2011, exiled Chinese writer and Tiananmen activist Zhou Qing remarked that in China, "for both the government and the people, the first reaction to truth is fear." For the Chinese government, more insidious than any single exposé is knowing that behind the disclosures are individuals who no longer fear revealing the truth.

When China was focused mostly on stamping out threatening ideologies, tactics like censorship, arrests and jail time worked. The tight-knit, trusted networks necessary to plot a political challenge can be dismantled by targeting leaders and intimidating others from taking their place. But when it comes to keeping a lid on entrenched and endemic corruption, the clampdown is harder. An individual leaking a damning video or corporate filing needn't be a brilliant political strategist, visionary writer or charismatic operative. They don't need to conceive a motivational manifesto. All they need to do is make a printout, download a file, send an email or post a link.

In China's fast-modernizing economy, the controls necessary to suppress damning information are getting harder to maintain. Bad behavior by Chinese officials, including sex and prostitution scandals, is reported almost instantaneously by anonymous witnesses on microblog platforms. The cause of truth would have been set back monumentally if intrepid, objective, and dogged international journalists were forced to report on China from offshore in Hong Kong or elsewhere. But while getting rid of the peskiest foreign journalists might have plugged an important hole in the dyke, the rising tide of an informed and curious Chinese population will eventually breach the levee. As new outlets and methods of evasion evolve, the Chinese government will find itself locked in an unwinnable war against an increasingly educated and wired citizenry that shares the long suppressed yet universal drive for truth.

Half of All Writers-at-Risk Persecuted for Use of Digital Media

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PEN established the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer on November 15, 1981 to advocate for the often faceless underground editors, translators, political essayists, and dissidents whose work on the page might never make it out of their communities, let alone their countries, without PEN's help.

Thirty-two years later, our work has changed. Mohammed Ibn Al-Dheeb Al-Ajami of Qatar is one of the new faces of the imprisoned writer. Father of four, Cairo University student, and poet, al-Ajami was struck by the events of the Arab Spring - which has yet to hit hard in U.S.-backed Qatar--and expressed his emotions lyrically in a poem: "We are all Tunisians in the face of the repressive elite." Without his knowledge, the poem made its way through social media to a global audience, including the ruling regime of Qatar.

After months in solitary confinement and a secretive trial, al-Ajami received a 15-year sentence for "inciting the overthrow of the government of Qatar" and insulting the Emir. His appeal was denied in October 2013, despite a PEN visit to press for his release, and he remains isolated in Doha Central Prison.

Al-Ajami is one of nearly 200 writers in prison or detention around the world for crimes ranging from insult and libel to subversion and conspiracy. According to PEN American Center's newest interactive report The Rise of Digital Repression, almost half of all imprisoned writers today are detained because of something they said in the digital sphere--on social media, blogs, text messages and even mobile phone conversations--a twenty-fold increase over the past 13 years.

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As digital technology expands, new tools have emerged that empower writers but also better enable repressive governments to target them. As of June 2013, 92 writers were in prison for their use of digital media, and another 51 on trial. The worst state culprits are found in the Middle East and East Asia, where in Vietnam alone 28 writers are imprisoned for their use of digital media, but the trend cuts across regions and cultures.

Behind every data point is a real human being. In addition to al-Ajami, PEN's report also spotlights the cases of Vietnamese blogger Ta Phong Tan, Turkish composer and pianist Fazil Say, Liberian journalist Rodney Sieh, and Tibetan blogger Kunchok Tsephel Gopey Tsang. Each case invites viewers to take action against digital repression by submitting a letter of protest to the respective government on the writer's behalf.

"These writers show us the terrifying effect of coupling technology with state power in repressive regimes," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center. "Digital media enables American writers to reach global audiences, so it's vital that we address the cost to our colleagues around the world who dare to do the same."

In the digital age, we are all writers. If you share emails with family and friends, you are a writer. If you post to Facebook and Twitter, you are a writer. If you even open a webpage on your local browser, you are a publisher, according to an article in Forbes last month. This is your community now, too. Do your part to protect it.

The Slippery Slope of Self-Censorship in China

This post was written by PEN America's Freedom to Write Fellow Deji Olukotun.

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Andrew Jacobs's October 20 article in The New York Times provides a disturbing look at the long arm of China's censorship regime, and demonstrates how international writers are now being forced to make the kinds of difficult decisions that writers must make every day in China.



But we should also recognize the much more serious cost of those decisions for China's writers. As detailed in PEN's May 2013 report Creativity and Constraint in Today's China, many Chinese authors refuse to self-censor at great personal risk to themselves and their families. In the case of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, for example, his wife Liu Xia, a noted photographer, has lived under suffocating house arrest for the past two years for merely being married to him. The writer Liao Yiwu fled China, eventually seeking asylum in Germany, because he faced the impossible choice of having to self-censor his work or risk arrest for publishing a memoir of his four years in prison.



In the first half of 2013, there were 33 Chinese writers languishing in prison; of these, 17 were imprisoned for what they wrote or blogged using digital media. Liu Xiaobo, former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for writing seven sentences deemed subversive by Chinese authorities.



Despite these dire consequences, Chinese writers can circumvent censorship regimes by publishing multiple versions of the text on different platforms and in different markets.



"Chinese writers are able to get their books published in full outside the country even if the book is censored in China," explained Tienchi Martin-Liao, President of Independent Chinese PEN Center. A writer can publish an uncensored version of the book in Hong Kong or Taiwan, and they can upload chapters onto the Internet or through microblogs. Readership of the uncensored text in China, however, tends to be much smaller than if the book had been published by a Chinese publisher.



"But there are some times when a censored version is unacceptable," Tienchi added. "In 2005, I translated a book by [Jiri Grusa] from the German into Chinese on his experience of censorship in Czechoslovakia. Liu Xiaobo wrote an introduction, but Chinese publishers would only publish the text if we removed Liu Xiaobo's essay." Tienchi refused to allow the book to be published because fighting censorship was the whole reason for the book.



This is an important moment for the future of free expression in China, which comes under scrutiny today at the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review -- the process during which each member country's human rights record is examined every four years. Along with members of Independent Chinese PEN Center, PEN American Center submitted recommendations, among others, that China end both on- and off-line censorship; unconditionally release all writers in prison; and respect the rights of linguistic minorities.



Decisions about self-censorship today are increasingly an international problem that affects writers around the world. As writers search for new audiences and new markets, we may be forced to wrestle with difficult questions about balancing self-censorship with the free flow of ideas. These questions become all the more urgent each day that Chinese writers suffer in prison for exercising the human right to free expression.

Growing Online Censorship Sparks Writers to Action

This post, which originally appeared on pen.org, was written by PEN America's Freedom to Write Fellow Deji Olukotun.

ARPANETOn my desk, I have a 1977 map of ARPANET, the experimental predecessor to today's Internet. On the lower right hand corner, you find a node at the Pentagon; slightly above that, you find Rutgers University, and way on the other side, you find Stanford and a node at the RAND corporation in Santa Monica, California. The Internet emerged, in other words, from a collaborative approach between government, academia and corporations.

Over 35 years later, digital technologies continue to be shaped by a variety of stakeholders, but civil society groups play an increasingly important role as well. That is why today PEN announced that it has joined Facebook, Google, Human Rights Watch and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University as the newest member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI). GNI is a group of companies, investors, academics and civil society organizations that support a collaborative approach to monitoring and protecting freedom of expression and privacy in the Information and Communications Technology sector.

Explaining PEN's decision, executive director Suzanne Nossel said:

Nearly half of the writers on PEN's current caselist have been persecuted for what they write on digital media, giving urgency to our work in the digital age... PEN is honored to join the Global Network Initiative, which offers a constructive environment for civil society and corporations to meet face to face during this critical moment for free expression. We deeply value the conversations that this multi-stakeholder body can foster as we work to protect creative freedom around the world.


PEN American Center has been aggressively expanding its work on digital freedom issues as technologies have both empowered writers and bloggers with the tools to practice their crafts and enabled governments to target them. In 2012, PEN helped create the Declaration on Digital Freedom, a set of principles addressing four critical issues in the digital age: the targeting of individuals by governments; censorship of digital media; government surveillance; and business and human rights.

Writers serve on the front lines of free expression in countries around the world, and new technologies have empowered them to respond creatively to events more quickly than ever before. This may come in the form of a fictional blog post lampooning a corrupt politician in Brazil or an impassioned missive for democracy in Vietnam, but the government reaction is often the same: to censor and persecute creativity. Joining GNI allows PEN to work proactively with companies to ensure they are respecting and protecting the world's most innovative voices. This fall, PEN will celebrate its digital freedom work through major public events with the award-winning writers such as EL Doctorow and David Simon, creator of the acclaimed television series The Wire.

GNI works to advance respect for the human rights of freedom of expression and privacy by providing clear benchmarks for digital communication and information sharing while requiring companies to submit to third-party assessment of their policies and practices. Civil society organizations including India-based Centre for Internet & Society, Index on Censorship, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch have also joined the Initiative, providing a broad backing for future policy engagement.

Executive director Susan Morgan enthusiastically welcomed PEN:

We're excited to have PEN join the Global Network Initiative. It's a distinguished membership organization of writers, poets, and editors, whose members offer the initiative vital insight into how digital technologies affect creative freedom in the U.S. and around the globe.