Surveillance and monitoring: Facts and emotions

Du bist Terrorist from lexela on Vimeo.

This is very impressive work. As Robin Meyer-Lucht says, why don’t we see more such use of videos by professional news organizations?

But I also think the narrator comes close to demagoguery here. For example, the EU data retention directive, which is targeted in the first part, is restricted to traffic data. That can be bad enough in itself, but does not mean that data on which web pages you visited will be potentially available to the police. That’s a difference, and a very important one. The video also moves seamlessly from that directive to the German BKA law about online surveillance, which is not exactly the same. Activists should get their facts right as well. There’s a discussion about this over at Spreeblick.

To be fair, the Du bist Terrorist website does have links to media stories where the facts are presented correctly.

Journalists against surveillance

Monday next week, editors and journalists meet in Hamburg to agree on (they use “ratify” in the press release, ok) a new European charter for press freedom:

The charter formulates principles for the freedom of the press/media from government interference – in particular for their right to safety from surveillance, electronic eavesdropping and searches of editorial departments and computers, and unimpeded access for journalists and citizens to all domestic and foreign sources of information.

After having researched various national and European plans for online surveillance and data retention lately, I have to support this — though I think the media should fight for all citizens’ rights at the same time.

Journalists have to start taking encryption techniques and anonymity online seriously, to protect themselves and above all their sources. I wonder how many media people and news organizations have even thought about this yet.

You couldn’t make this up

The Korean blogger “Minerva” (aka Park Dae Sung) has been arrested for allegedly destabilising currency markets! And hurting the nation’s credibility! This one really is hard to make up. “Minerva” has achieved guru status in South Korea during the last year, as he has churned out predictions (right and wrong) on how the economy would develop. Apparently he now has gone too far:

The commentary that got him in trouble was his claim on Dec. 29 that the government issued an “emergency order” to financial firms and major corporations to stop buying U.S. dollars in a dire effort to arrest the fall of the Korean won. The government was forced to issue a denial to calm the market, though officials had previously appealed to large companies to stop hoarding dollars.

“Minerva”, when he finally was found, turned out to be a “soft-spoken 31-year-old Internet buff in between jobs who holed up at home reading mail-order books on finance and scouring the Web.”

UPDATE: Global Voices has reactions from the Korean blogosphere.

A counter extremism think tank

Yesterday saw the launch of the Quilliam Foundation, a British “counter extremism think tank” started by ex-islamists Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz. Here is what Nawaz wrote in The Sun this week:

A new standard needs to emerge. Protecting “our own” means all the people of our country, not merely one religious faction. Freedom of speech is a non-negotiable right. Just as some Muslims invoke this right when they attack freedom and democracy, others may invoke this right when drawing cartoons criticising our faith. If Muslim sensitivities are a reason not to draw the cartoons, then others’ sensitivities are also a reason not to attack freedom and democracy.

Sunny Hundal comments on the launch event and the Quilliam people’s challenges.

Now why write about this in a Norwegian blog? As the cartoon controversies and many other conflicts have shown in the past few years, stories and developments involving extremism — in the name of islam, but not only that — are domestic now. In this sense, the old concept of foreign news is dead. The launch of a think tank in London is a British event, but also a Norwegian/Scandinavian and Middle Eastern. Tellingly, I first read about the Quilliam initiative in an article in the Swedish magazine Axess, written by a Swedish muslim writer.

More legal trouble for German bloggers

The German legal system has some real, eh, compatibility problems with how free speech is practiced on the web. “Mahnungen” is one problem. Judges unhappy with how discussion on the web de facto works, is another. The blogger and journalist Stefan Niggemeier has been taken to court by the company Callactive (which produces a kind of call-in TV programme for MTV). In a court in Hamburg he has now lost and been given a fine of 6.000 euro. The reason: he didn’t pre-moderate comments on his blog. Specifically, a commenter made an illegal statement (in the middle of the night) about Callactive. Niggemeier removed it a few hours later. But that wasn’t good enough for the court. In effect, this means that the court means that all bloggers must pre-moderate the comments. Niggemeier concludes (my translation):

My view is unchanged: Were the Hamburger Landgericht’s understanding of the law (…) to win through, it would mean the end of open discussion on forums, blogs and online media. Because then the risks connected with running a forum or a blog that deals with controversial issues or dubious business practices would be much too large. I will appeal this ruling.

And thanks for that. It seems clear that someone needs to take these cases to the highest level — the German constitutional court or the European Court of Human Rights. Mercedes Bunz offers her help, for what it’s worth, this blog does the same. But where are the press organizations? When I interviewed the leaders of the Norwegian editors’ and journalists’ associations for a report about blogging and journalism last year, I asked specifically if they would support a (hypothetical) blogger who was being pressed to reveal his sources, and they confirmed that they would. Niggemeier’s case is different, but the principle the same: The German press should take Niggemeier’s case and a representative “Mahnung”-case and make them their own.

(via Netzeitung Blogblick.)

How to support dissidents

Organisations and initiatives like Reporters Without Borders and Global Voices Advocacy are doing excellent work promoting freedom of expression and helping the cause of journalists and citizens who are persecuted (as are the bigger and more well-known Amnesty, Human Rights Watch etc).

Supporting dissidents may be more important than ever – because it is more dangerous than ever to speak out against repressive regimes. German editor Joachim Widmann makes this point in an essay published this week (in Norwegian), one year after Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in Moscow (disclosure: I commissioned the article as editor of the Norwegian magazine Vox Publica. Die Zeit Online has published the original German text.) Widmann compares the situation for dissidents during the Cold War and today. People like Vaclav Havel, Andrei Sakharov and Robert Havemann could count on the media and citizens in the West for support and continous attention. The media knew how to portray the dissidents as brave heroes for freedom. The public supported them by buying their books. The news from the West crept back behind the iron curtain and made it difficult for the Communist authorities to silence the critics.

But today, the fronts aren’t so well defined. There is no clash of consistent ideologies. Stories about dissidents drown in the noise of
the millions of voices on the Internet. It simply isn’t possible for the media to create the same kind of attention for and interest around the dissidents anymore, Widmann argues.

I hope he is wrong in this conclusion, but I’m not sure. It is probably too early to interpret the events in Burma over the past weeks in this context. On the one hand, there was a massive surge in interest and sympathy for the Burmese people in countries around the world. Here, the traditional media and “citizen media” seemed for a few days to cooperate perfectly in creating a heroic narrative. But can the mass public’s interest be sustained for more than a few intense days? And what about the dark side of the Internet – the possibility for authorities to track what citizens do and then hunt them down afterwards?

“We neglected to tell Politkovskaya’s story loudly and clearly and to bring it into the consciousness of the global public. In the end she was alone,” Widmann writes. We owe it to her to do more for those brave dissidents still alive. To identify methods that work in the post-Cold War, post-Old Media age is our common responsibility.

(Originally published on the Why democracy website.)

Can bloggers free Burma?

Free Burma!

No, but they have a role to play. There is a real danger now that the outside pressure on the generals will drop. A lack of new developments and the regime’s attempts to impose a news blackout will make it harder for the media to keep up the intensity of the coverage. That’s why I support the International Bloggers’ Day for Burma on Thursday October 4. By altering the visual impression of the web through as many participating blogs as possible, this campaign can help refocus the public’s attention. A selection of excellent graphics have been made available, or you can pick from the Flickr group or produce your own.

Meanwhile, the people at Why Democracy have posted a selection of ways to do something about Burma.

Poor German bloggers (and citizens, media etc)

This Spiegel Online story is so crazy that it belongs on April 1, but no, it’s really serious. The German agency responsible for making citizens pay the compulsory public broadcasting license fee has sent a warning or Abmahnung (the legal term) to the website The agency with the snappy name Gebühreneinzugszentrale der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten or GEZ among friends, demands that immediately stops using a host of very common descriptions of the GEZ’s work and activities of its employees. For example, to make life easier Germans like to call the licence fee “GEZ-Gebühr”, but the GEZ now explicitly tries to force to use the official “gesetzliche Rundfunkgebühren”. Spiegel has the whole list of expressions that the GEZ wants to censor.

Still not convinced that this isn’t a joke? As it happens, these Abmahnungen are a big and growing problem for German bloggers and those hosting and running websites. Apparently it’s quite common to send Abmahnungen even to individuals with tiny blogs, demanding that they stop using some expression or other, and — crucially — the poor blogger must pay the other party’s lawyer! The costs may start at a few hundred euros, but can be far higher depending on the assumed “value” of the conflict. No wonder bloggers start being careful about what they write. And of course the internet and search engines has made it so much easier for lawyers and companies to find their prey.

You would expect free speech advocates and press organizations to be all over this issue, but I’m not sure they are. I’ll try and check it out and return to this topic later.

Meanwhile, has deleted all pages with the “controversial” GEZ expressions. I think the word censorship should be reserved for serious cases, but here it really is justified to use it.