Monday, February 28, 2011

Beyonce, Mariah and Usher Must Make Good for Libya

Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Usher pocketed millions in blood money from the Qaddafi family to perform at lavishly corrupt private parties on the Caribbean island of St. Barts.

According to a recent report in the New York Times, Mariah Carey was paid $1 million in 2009 to sing just four songs for Gaddafi's son Seif. One year later Usher and Beyonce received an equally large sum to sing at a New Year's party thrown by the family.

The Qaddafi’s have ransacked the Libyan treasury, making off with billions of dollars in oil money, while imposing a crackdown against any Libyan who speaks out against their corruption and brutality. Former music industry executive Howie Klein put it best: “For very, very wealthy American and British pop stars to take part in this kind of thing makes me want to puke."

If Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Usher have any sense of justice or decency, they should reject the Qaddafi payment and put the dirty money to work in service of a greater good.

There is no question: accepting stolen money from murderous dictators is morally repugnant. Keeping it after the Qaddafi’s engage in the slaughter of democracy protestors is downright unconscionable.

Retweet this Twitter petition to pressure Beyonce, Maria Carey and Usher to put their ill-gotten gains in service of a greater cause: to help relieve the suffering of the people of Libya.

A number of organizations are working to protect democracy movements across the Middle East. They could help save hundreds of lives with the sort of money that’s now sitting in the bank accounts of these three celebrities. (I have listed a few possible recipients below).

To salvage their reputations and make good on a horrible mistake, Beyonce, Maria Carey and Usher should do the same and donate Qaddafi's dirty cash to these well deserving institutions or others.

UPDATE 1: Earlier on Monday, pop singer Nelly Furtado Tweeted that she would be contributing to charity the $1 million she received from the Qaddafi family for a private performance in Italy in 2007. What say you, Beyonce, Mariah and Usher?

UPDATE 2: Later on Monday, Atlantic Wire and Rolling Stone quoted R.E.M. agent Buck Williams urging the singers to give Qaddafi's payment to charity.

Arcade Fire agent David T. Viecelli adds, "Hopefully donate it to a charity that somehow assists some of the people who have suffered at the hands of that regime."

Denis Afra, the agent for Metallica, Billy Joel, and Rod Stewart, gave a bleak view of musicians who get paid for these types of private performances: "I don't think most artists go into [performing at a party like this] with that kind of in-depth focus, [of] how each country is governed and what goes on inside each country," he says. "Not every artist is a humanitarian. In more cases than not, for people, greed rules."

UPDATE 3 -- Beyonce Donates: Beyonce's publcisit told Associated Press on Wednesday that the singer gave her entire Qaddafi earnings to help support relief efforts in Haiti. According to the report Beyoncé was paid as much as $2m to perform her set, footage of which can be seen on YouTube. I have yet to find evidence to confirm this donation. Stay tuned.

UPDATE 4 -- Mariah to Donate: Mariah Carey just admitted she felt "horrible and embarrassed" about being paid $1 million to sing for the Qaddafis, She announced plans to donate the proceeds from a new song "Save the Day" to human rights causes and may even set up her own charitable foundation.

"Ultimately we as artists are to be held accountable," she said in a statement. Going forward, this is a lesson for all artists to learn from. We need to be more aware and take more responsibility regardless of who books our shows."

UPDATE 5 -- Usher to Donate: Usher announced on Friday that he would give away the money he received for his performance for Qaddafi's son in 2009. "I am sincerely troubled to learn about the circumstances surrounding the Nikki Beach St. Barts event that took place on New Year's Eve 2009," he said in a statement. "I will be donating all of my personal proceeds from that event to various human rights organizations."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Does Secretary Clinton Have a Double Standard on Internet Freedom?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday highlighted new U.S. Internet freedom policy that is designed to help democracy movements gain access to open networks and speak out against authoritarian regimes.

According to Clinton, the program will provide $25 million in new grants to support "technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression."

It will help fund efforts like circumvention and encryption services, which enable users to evade Internet blockades, and technology to wipe sensitive data from cell phones when activists are detained by security forces.

Protecting Our Freedom to Connect

In a speech seen as a follow-up to her 2010 address on the issue, Clinton reasserted the administration's belief in our universal "freedom to connect," something the Secretary of State and the White House see as a natural extension of our longstanding rights to free speech, assembly and association.

Her remarks carried a heightened sense of urgency in light of events still unfolding across the Middle East.

Clinton said the Internet was both an "accelerant of political and social change" and a "force for repression." She called for a global commitment to Internet freedom. "The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace," she said.

Clinton urged countries everywhere to bet that "an open Internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries... that open societies give rise to lasting progress."

But her call for unfettered and uncensored access to the Internet around the globe needs to resonate here at home as well.

No Double Standard at Home

The Obama administration's recent failure to stand up for a strong Net Neutrality rules, its slow-footed response to the export of invasive snooping technologies, and apparent reluctance to abandon the idea of an Internet "kill switch" all suggest a double standard in what the administration seeks for foreign governments and what it will accept in the United States.

(Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Berkman Center critiques other aspects of Clinton's speech)

At the end of 2010, Obama's FCC distanced itself from the president's prior commitment "to take a back seat to no one" in his support for Net Neutrality. Instead of ensuring openness on wireless Internet devices like the iPhone and Droid, the FCC exempted the mobile Internet from vital openness protections.

This move enshrines Verizon and AT&T as gatekeepers to the expanding world of the mobile Web. And both have a checkered past when it comes to protecting our right to connect.

In 2007, Verizon blocked text messages sent by Naral Pro-Choice America to its members. The move put Verizon in the same league as its cohorts at AT&T, which in August that same year censored the live Webcast of a Pearl Jam performance that included criticism of then President George W. Bush.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable Internet provider was caught blocking users' ability to connect to one another and trade files using popular BitTorrent software.

And the issues go beyond the administration's unwillingness to face down corporations that block our connections. Just hours before Secretary Clinton's speech, Justice Department lawyers urged a federal magistrate in Alexandria, Virginia, to uphold a court order requiring Twitter to turn over confidential information about the use of its services by three WikiLeaks supporters.

It's hard to claim the moral high road and presume to lecture other countries on the importance of online freedom when your own promise to defend it at home takes a backseat to corporate meddling and government interference.

And it's even harder to stomach such rhetoric when U.S. companies are exporting deep-packet inspection technology that's used to spy on democracy activists, or the administration seems intent on reserving the power to shut down our communications networks.

While Clinton's call for uninterrupted access to the Internet -- and its now famous offspring Facebook, Twitter and Youtube -- is laudable, we need to be consistent and do better in our policies both at home and abroad.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Congressmen Grill the State Department on Narus

Since I broke the story on Jan. 28 that the U.S. company Narus has been selling Internet spying software to Egypt, members of Congress and other government officials have become increasingly alarmed -- and some are even calling for investigations.

On Thursday, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Bill Keating (D-MA) grilled Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg on the sale of this Internet spying technology to an Egyptian Internet provider controlled by the Mubarak regime.

To recap, Narus is a Sunnyvale, California, Internet surveillance and filtering company begun by Israeli security experts, and subsequently bought by Boeing. The company has nefarious links to the NSA, and to AT&T efforts to monitor phone communications domestically.

Among Narus' many cyber-sleuthing products is one called "Hone," which can filter through billions of packets of online data to target individuals on social networks and then link that information to their "VOIP conversations, biometrically identify someone's voice or photograph and then associate it with different phone numbers." Those using cell phones or Wi-Fi connections can then be located geographically.

Narus has sold similar spying technology, not only to Egypt, but also to telecom authorities in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, countries known for their brutal repression of political dissidents.

Over the last two weeks, other journalists -- including those at the San Francisco Chronicle and Seattle Times –- have asked Narus to respond to our report, but the company has refused to comment. Al Jazeera sent a correspondent and camera crew to their offices to be turned away at the door. Here’s the video of that encounter.

In yesterday's hearing, Rep. Smith had the following exchange with Deputy Secretary Steinberg:
Rep. Smith: I’d like to ask you about a very disturbing report that an American company, Narus, has sold the Egyptian Government what is called Deep Packet Inspection technology, highly advanced technology that allows the purchasers to search the content of emails as they pass through the Internet routers.

The report is from an NGO called Free Press and it is based on information that Narus itself has revealed about its business.

Now there’s no way of knowing whether this information that the Egyptian Government gleaned from its Narus technology enabled it to identify, track down and harass or detain so many journalists or anybody else in Egypt. I would like to know what we know about this company – and it is part of Boeing, recently bought. What can you tell us about Narus and this invasion of privacy in the Internet?

Deputy Secretary Steinberg: … I’m unfamiliar with the company that you have identified but I’d be happy to see what we know about this.

Smith: Could you dig into that and get back to the committee? It’s very important. It goes to the whole issue of increasingly that U.S. Corporations are enabling dictatorships… It is an awful tool of repression and Narus, according to these reports, is enabling this invasion of privacy...
Rep. Keating continued the questioning, going so far as to say that "people are losing their lives based on this technology."

Keating called on Steinberg to investigate American companies that sell this sort of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology overseas. He expressed particular concern about a "company in California [that] sold the Egyptian state-run Internet provider the technology to monitor the Internet allowing the Egyptian government to crack down on dissent."

Deputy Secretary Steinberg, again, promised to follow up.

In a subsequent press statement, Keating pledged to introduce legislation "that would provide a national strategy to prevent the use of American technology from being used by human rights abusers."

In particular, Keating wants to create a requirement that DPI companies strike "end-user monitoring agreements" with their overseas buyers that would help ensure that the technology does not fall into the hands of repressive regimes intent stifling free speech and repressing Internet protesters.

"We should have the same safeguards -- such as end user monitoring agreements -- that we do when we sell weapons abroad,” according to Keating. Stay tuned for his legislation that could do just that.

Is the 'Freedom to Connect' a Right?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, January 21, 2010:
"...we must find ways to make human rights a reality. Today, we find an urgent need to protect these freedoms on the digital frontiers of the 21st century... The final freedom, one that was probably inherent in what both President and Mrs. Roosevelt thought about and wrote about [the "Four Freedoms"]: the freedom to connect -- the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate."
PJ Crowley, State Department Spokesperson, January 26, 2011:
"We want to make sure that Egypt is not interfering with the use of social media. That's a fundamental right as clear as walking into a town square."
President Barack Obama, January 27, 2011:
" are certain core values that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns. And that I think is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, January 28, 2011:
“It is [the White House’s] strong belief that inside of the framework of basic individual rights, are the rights of those to have access to the internet and to sites for open communication and social network.”
The power of unfettered Internet access and social network is playing out in the blossoming of freedom movements worldwide -- especially during the 2009 protests in Iran, and in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year.

But the power of the Internet cuts both ways. The technology that fuels democracy movements worldwide can also be turned against them as a tool of repression:

  1. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turned off the Internet as soon as it became clear that millions were using the network to organize and speak out against his regime. Earlier, authorities in Nepal and Burma had attempted the same.

  2. China recently and successfully deployed technology to stifle expressions of support for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo among bloggers and users of social media in their country.

  3. Iran had blocked Twitter and Facebook sites and restricted cellphone access just before its June 2009 presidential election. It then used Deep Packet Inspection technology to spy on cyber-dissidents and even track them down.

  4. North American and European countries are freely selling technology to repressive regimes that allows them to spy on their citizens, cut off their communications and even locate them for arrest; and the list goes on.
Whether Internet access should be a basic human right has been debated among open Internet wonks and advocates for some time now. But we're only now seeing this rhetoric being repeated at the highest levels of U.S. government.

One thing is now beyond debate. The open exchange of information via Internet networks is having a positive impact for freedom movements worldwide. "This is both a practical and ethical belief," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote in the wake of the Egyptian protests.

Let's focus on the practical side. If American leaders agree that Internet access should be a basic human right, what now must we do make that a meaningful reality?

Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom . . . to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." But do non-binding declarations go far enough?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

One U.S. Corporation's Role in Egypt's Brutal Crackdown

The open Internet's role in popular uprising is now undisputed. Look no further than Egypt, where the Mubarak regime shut down Internet and cell phone communications -- a troubling predictor of the fierce crackdown that followed.

What's even more troubling is news that one American company is aiding Egypt's harsh response through sales of technology that makes this repression possible.

The Internet's favorite offspring -- Twitter, Facebook and YouTube -- are now heralded on CNN, BBC and Fox News as flag-bearers for a new era of citizen journalism and activism. (More and more these same news organizations have abandoned their own, more traditional means of newsgathering to troll social media for breaking information.)

But the open Internet's power cuts both ways: The tools that connect, organize and empower protesters can also be used to hunt them down.

Telecom Egypt, the nation's dominant phone and Internet service provider, is a state-run enterprise, which made it easy on Friday morning for authorities to pull the plug and plunge much of the nation into digital darkness.

Moreover, Egypt also has the ability to spy on Internet and cell phone users, by opening their communication packets and reading their contents. Iran used similar methods during the 2009 unrest to track, imprison and in some cases, "disappear" truckloads of cyber-dissidents.

The companies that profit from sales of this technology need to be held to a higher standard. One in particular is an American firm, Narus of Sunnyvale, Calif., which has sold Telecom Egypt "real-time traffic intelligence" equipment.

Narus, now owned by Boeing, was founded in 1997 by Israeli security experts to create and sell mass surveillance systems for governments and large corporate clients.

The company is best known for creating NarusInsight, a supercomputer system which is allegedly used by the National Security Agency and other entities to perform mass surveillance and monitoring of public and corporate Internet communications in real time.

Narus provides Egypt Telecom with Deep Packet Inspection equipment (DPI), a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, as it passes through routers on the information superhighway.

Other Narus global customers include the national telecommunications authorities in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- two countries that regularly register alongside Egypt near the bottom of Human Rights Watch's world report.

Anything that comes through (an Internet protocol network), we can record," Steve Bannerman, Narus' marketing vice president, once boasted to Wired about the service. "We can reconstruct all of their e-mails along with attachments, see what web pages they clicked on; we can reconstruct their (Voice Over Internet Protocol) calls."

Other North American and European companies are selling DPI to enable their business customers "to see, manage and monetize individual flows to individual subscribers." But this "Internet-enhancing" technology has been sought out by regimes in Iran, China and Burma for more brutal purposes.

In addition to Narus, there are a number of companies, including many others in the United States, that produce and traffic in similar spying and control technology. This list of DPI providers includes Cisco (USA), Procera Networks (USA), Allot (Israel), Ixia (USA), AdvancedIO (Canada) and Sandvine (Canada), among others.

These companies typically partner with Internet Service Providers to insert DPI along the main arteries of the Web. All Net traffic in and out of Iran, for example, travels through one portal -- the Telecommunications Company of Iran -- which facilitates the use of DPI.

When commercial network operators use DPI, the privacy of Internet users is compromised. But in government hands, the use of DPI can crush dissent and lead to human rights violations.

Setting the Bar High for DPI Sales

Even Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on this problem.

"Internet censorship is a real challenge, and not one any particular industry -- much less any single company -- can tackle on its own, " Rep. Mary Bono Mack wrote in a 2009 letter to Rep. Henry Waxman, then chair of the House Commerce Committee. "Efforts to promote freedom of expression and to limit the impact of censorship require both private and public sector engagement."

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Egypt's government "not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media."

Bono Mack's letter and Clinton's statement echo Free Press' call for a congressional inquiry into the issue. But this is just a start.

Before DPI becomes more widely deployed around the world and at home, the Congress ought to establish clear criteria for authorizing the use of such surveillance and control technologies.

The power to control the Internet and the resulting harm to democracy are so disturbing that the threshold for using DPI must be very high.

Today we're seeing the grave dangers of this technology unfold in real time on the streets of Cairo.

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UPDATE ONE: I appeared on Al Jazeera English. They sent a reporter to the Narus offices only to be turned away at the door. Apparently Narus believes that this issue will go away by simply ignoring the many media inquiries. (Reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Seattle Times have told me that Narus has refused to respond to their inquiries as well.)

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UPDATE TWO: This article in February 6 Daily Mail indicates that activist Twitter and Facebook accounts are being tracked by the state security police.

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UPDATE THREE: Gordon Crovitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "Western telecommunications companies were instrumental in closing off the Internet in the country almost entirely," forced to abide by Egyptian telecom law which "gives the country access to networks during a state of emergency."

Then there was this:
In 2009, [Vodafone] gave Egyptian authorities data to identify participants in the previous year's antigovernment riots. More than 20 people were arrested. "Regulation can be a Trojan horse," Annie Mullins, Vodafone's head of global content standards, explained at the time. "For parts of the world that aren't subject to democracy, regulation can be used as a masquerade for state intrusion."
And what of corporate compliance with such crackdowns? Mullins does not answer.

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UPDATE FOUR: AOL contributor Marty Phillips-Sandy profiles one outspoken online activist who was detained by security forces, allegedly, for using Facebook to organize protests.

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UPDATE FIVE: Marko Papic and Sean Noonan (of SRATFOR) mention President Obama's YouTube interview where he mentions our basic right to connect. I dug this up and transcribed the Q&A (You can watch it here. The segment begins at 16:50):
YouTube Question: Dear President Obama, Regarding the current situation in the Middle East & Egypt over the past two days, what do you think about the Egyptian Government blocking social networks to prevent people from expressing their opinions?

Obama: Well, let me say first of all that Egypt has been an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues. They made peace with Israel. President Mubarak has always been helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East. But I have always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform, on political reform, economic reform is absolutely critical to the long term well-being of Egypt…

I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances. As I said in my State of the Union speech, there are certain core values that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns. And that I think is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States.