#imweekly: July 1, 2013

North & South Korea
Hackers brought down several government and news websites in North and South Korea on June 25, the anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Online security company Symantec traced parts of this attack, as well as four years of cyberattacks on South Korea, to the DarkSeoul Gang. Symantec could not determine where the group is based, but a South Korean government investigation points to North Korea. It is unclear who is responsible for the attacks that hit North Korea on Tuesday, but the hacker group Anonymous had said via Twitter it would attack sites in that country, according to the New York Times.

A Bahraini court sentenced 17-year-old high school student Ali Faisal Alshofa to one year in prison after accusing him of posting a tweet that insulted the country’s king on the account @alkawarahnews. Alshofa denied affiliation with the Twitter account, which appeared to keep operating while he was detained and on trial. Over the past year, courts have sentenced twelve people in Bahrain to a total of 106 months in prison for information posted to social network sites.

Taiwanese netizens are protesting several amendments that could make it easier for the government to censor online content. A Copyright Act amendment would allow Taiwan’s IP office to review content reported as infringing copyright and order ISPs to block it. A National Security Law amendment would encourage people to report content they think harms national security. An amendment to the Telecommunications Act would also require ISPs to remove content that “disturbs public order and decent morals.” Bloggers compared these measures to the U.S. SOPA bill that Congress proposed in 2012 as well as the U.S. Department of Justice’s  investigation into Aaron Swartz, surveillance of the Associated Press, and prosecution of Bradley Manning.

Several provisions in a communication law that Ecuador’s National Assembly passed in June worry journalists and others concerned with freedom of expression. One article appears to lump together every type of media organization (e.g., public, private, and community organizations that provide any type of mass communication that can be replicated online) under the same regulations. Broad interpretation could hold a tweet to the same standards as a radio broadcast. While the law prohibits censorship, it also tasks a Superintendent’s Office for Information and Communications with overseeing the media. Finally, the law holds third parties accountable for comments posted on their site unless site owners monitor comments or require users to identify themselves.

#IMweekly is a weekly round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Syrian Citizens Launch Memes and Throw Shoes in Viral Internet Campaign

Syria’s tech-savvy and socially engaged citizens are resisting the state in creative ways. Conflict is never black and white, and in today’s ever-more-connected world, attempts to address conflict are often quite colorful. This was evident earlier this month when Chinese bloggers morphed a classic photo of citizen resistance from Tiananmen Square, changing a line of government tanks into a parade of big yellow ducks. The image was powerful and provocative; thus the role of the meme in Chinese social media. 

Syrian citizens’ imaginations are also playing out colorfully on the Internet. Taking a closer look at the nuances of Syria’s resistance movement can help us complicate the oversimplified and often exoticized picture of people and events in the Middle East that is presented in popular media. In a recent article for Jadaliyya, Berkman fellow and researcher Donatella Della Ratta suggests, “As much as images of violence, civil war, and sectarian strife become prominent in the media narrative of the Syrian uprising, little gems of innovative cultural production, artistic resistance, and creative disobedience continue to sprout across the virtual alleys of the Internet.”

So what does a civil society movement on the Internet look like in a time of civil war?  In the case of the “I am with Syria” campaign, it looks much like a volley of artistic images with subtle political messages. The back and forth that started on the streets continues to play out on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

Eye-catching posters began to show up in Syria around the time the uprising began in March 2011. The first round of images was published by the al-Bashar regime and featured the phrase, “I am with the law.” Iterations included, “whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law,” “whether boy or girl, …” and “whether young or old, ….” Citizens were insulted by the campaign’s assumption that the law was the exclusive domain of the state and that anyone opposed to the regime was outside the law. They responded initially by vandalizing the posters, but soon developed a less aggressive form of resistance. They designed their own posters with their own slogans, riffing on both “I am with the law” and on an updated version of the government campaign that used “I am with Syria, my demands are your demands” as the primary text.  These user-generated designs—ranging from “I am with Syria, my demands are freedom,” to increasingly humorous and satirical statements—appealed to Syrians’ sense of humor, beauty, and creativity rather than instigating division and bloodshed.

“I am with the law” government billboard campaign in Damascus Photo credit: Donatella Della Ratta. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license

Citizen-generated versions of the posters showed up on the streets and were widely disseminated online, particularly on Facebook. In May 2011, the “I am with Syria” Facebook page was launched; it continues to post images and host comments. One of the resistance posters states, “I am with Syria, I lost my shoes,” which is a cultural reference suggesting that people have thrown their shoes at al-Bashar as an expression of their disrespect. When a man threw his shoes at George Bush in 2008, it made global headlines. Throwing your shoe at someone is a serious insult in the Arab world. “I lost my shoes” is just one of the culturally rich jokes, parodies, and satirical slogans that went viral as part of the “I am with Syria” Internet campaign..

Collage of remixed versions of the original posters. one reads “My was is your way but the tank is in the way” and another “I am with the law, but where is it?” Image courtesy of Ammar Alani via Donatella Della Ratta.

“I am with Syria” is a playing out across the Internet like a conversation in the language of memes that gets a clear message of political resistance across, without inciting further violence in a country already ravaged by civil war. The central image of the campaign has always been an upward reaching human arm that represents an alif- the first of 28 characters in the Arabic alphabet. Atop the alif is a hamza, (an Arabic marker equivalent to a vowel sound in English). A human hand stands in for the hamza. The hand is open in both government and citizen- inspired posters. That the counter campaign kept the open hand speaks to its central spirit and purpose. The hand could have been a fist- a classic symbol of resistance- fight the power so to speak- but this hand is extended and open, waiting for another hand to grab on and link up.  One of the strategies of war is to divide and fracture communities; in the case of Syria, the Internet is helping people in battle-weary communities stay connected.

“Whether Anti or Pro-Regime, You Are Still My Brother..” Photo credit: http://www.tacticalmediafiles.net/

#imweekly: June 10, 2013

Amendments to media and publication laws lead to a swift shuttering of more than 200 websites in Jordan last week. The Press and Publications Department of Jordan claimed responsibility for generating the list of “unlicensed” sites, including Al Jazeera, the site of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, and Time Out magazine. Criticized as opaque and vague, recent amendments require sites viewable (if not necessarily based) in Jordan to register with the Jordanian government, obtain a license, and actively monitor all content produced on the site in order to actively cooperate with Jordanian law.

In what lawmakers defended as an attempt to curb cyberbullying, Internet users in the Mexican state of Nuevo León may now face up to three years incarceration for posting messages or images to social networks that cause “harm, dishonor, discredit to a person, or exposes him or her to contempt.” Defamation is a felon in Nuevo León and the amendment marks an expansion to the stringent laws to apply online. Website operators are also required by law to reveal to authorities the identity of anyone committing an act of defamation. Critics call the legislation opaque and vague, offering undue power to authorities who may wish to quell criticism against public officials.

As protests swell in Turkey, Internet users are using virtual private networks (VPNs) in large numbers to skirt suspected government censorship. Last weekend, more than 120,000 mobile users in Turkey downloaded the free VPM Hotspot Shield, according to the manufacturer. The figure marked a ten thousandfold increase in typical daily downloads for the software on Saturday. Sources inside Turkey reported access to social networking sites in the country were throttled over the last weekend while Turkcell, the largest mobile carrier in the country, denied claims it was blocking the sites. Protests continue in Turkey at time of writing, defying an appeal from the prime minister end the unrest.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.