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December 18, 2009

Social Network or Sanction? Let’s Tweet About It

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Washington DC – “Despite all the hype no one is organizing any revolutions over Twitter,” said Ethan Zuckerman, of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. As part of a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last Friday, Ethan spoke alongside Human Rights Watch’s Washington Advocacy Director Tom Malinowski and the Vice President of the Lexington Institute, Philip Peters. The panel looked at the political impact of social networking websites on authoritarian governments, and whether sites like Facebook should be provided to so-called “pariah states.”

Last Friday, Ethan spoke alongside Human Rights Watch’s Washington Advocacy Director Tom Malinowski and the Vice President of the Lexington Institute, Philip Peters.  The panel looked at the political impact of social networking websites on authoritarian governments, and whether sites like Facebook should be provided to so-called “pariah states.”

The recent role of social media in Iran’s presidential election has brought greater attention to how US sanctions might unintentionally harm repressed populations.  “It’s a constant question being asked on our side-how do you treat countries that you strongly disagree with?” said William Reinsch, moderator of the panel and President of the National Foreign Trade Council. “Do you isolate them to make a moral statement, pressure them…or engage with them, create dialogue and send good influences?”

“Social media sites like Twitter are lousy tools for organizing a movement, since all the information is public,” according to Zuckerman.  “But they are a powerful tool for gaining exposure–they can empower either citizen activists or, conversely, authoritarian governments by spreading a message.”

Iran continues to have one of the most active blogging communities in the world, with over 600,000 bloggers reaching audiences inside Iran and around the world. The panelists explained that Iran’s vibrant blogosphere is grew out of a large network of reformist newspapers that were eventually shut down by the government. Hence, many Iranians have turned to “printing” their views on the web.

From a Western business perspective, the panelists explained, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what sorts of activities are authorized in sanctioned countries.   With the perceived risk of violating arcane sanctions laws, according to Zuckerman, companies find that “it is much cheaper to just cut off the service entirely in these locations than deal with risky foreign governments.”

For example, Zuckerman recounted the stories of numerous cases where service was denied to perfectly innocuous causes, simply because companies determined it is not worth the risk of operating in sanctioned countries.  Kubatana.net-the PR outlet for many human rights and democracy activists in Zimbabwe-was one such company.  Zimbabwean human rights activists faced the threat of persecution at the hands of the Mugabe government everyday; yet they did not expect their Utah-based web hosting company to shut down their operations, citing US sanctions.

Similarly, Microsoft cut off its MSN Messenger service in Iran and a handful of other countries late last year, and the popular social networking site LinkedIn abruptly dropped all of its users in Syria for a time, only to return the service after a massive global outcry. To many experts in the field, this type of activity makes sense from a business perspective, but underscores the deep flaws in US sanctions policies.  “How do you harm a repressive government by shutting down MSN Messenger?” Peters asked.  Despite well-intentioned regulations seeking to distinguish between the actual targets of sanctions and other types of activities that are in fact authorized, the current US sanctions regime imposes a strong disincentive for providing even benign services to sanctioned countries, according to the experts. 

Policymakers also face the opposite problem, when multinational companies provide sensitive technology that enables governments to repress their people.  For example, Nokia/Siemens Networks came under international scrutiny this summer after it was revealed that the joint venture sold technology to the Iranian government allowing officials to listen in on citizens’ conversations regarding post-election rallies. The challenge for policymakers has been to deny the most powerful tools of repression from governments, while also providing private citizens with the freedom to access unbiased information.  Oftentimes, this involves lawmakers working to promote the development of anti-censorship technology such as proxy servers, which played a key role in post-election Iran.

For human rights organizations, promoting this type of activity is nothing new.  “Human Rights Watch, beginning in the 1970s, worked to smuggle communications technology behind the iron curtain and into the hands of dissidents,” said Malinowski. “We are talking about a time when photocopy machines changed everything.” Whether it be a copier then, or the use of Twitter now, when people have access to a vast array of different sources of information, the panel said, it becomes harder to run a purely totalitarian state.

The concern about how social media should be used in pariah states is only a small part of a larger debate on how to make the internet freer and safer for all. On the question of anti-censorship technology, Zuckerman pointed out that there will always be an inherent tension between promoting freedom and endangering security: “How can we build a sword that will attack our enemies, but not cut ourselves?” he asked. “How can we stop cybercrime, but get around censorship?”

With social media sites providing services in pariah states and facing increasing pressure by both the US and foreign governments, the battle over governmental restrictions on internet content rages day by day.  Recent events have proven that social media can act as a case study for a larger question, but the panelists agreed that at the moment, US sanctions policies are far behind the learning curve and will require a significant overhaul to meet the challenges of the constantly changing internet world.

 

 

 

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