Saturday, March 26, 2011

Corporations and the Arab Net Crackdown

[Originally published at Foreign Policy in Focus]

By Timothy Karr and Clothilde Le Coz

Springtime in the Arab world is looking bleaker now that despots in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen and reactionary elements in Egypt have gained an upper hand against the pro-democracy protesters who have inspired the world. And the Internet, hailed sometimes in excess as a potent tool for these movements, has itself come under increasing fire from these and other autocratic states seeking to crush popular dissent.

In Libya, the Gaddafi regime plunged the nation into digital darkness during the first week of March, where it has remained. In Bahrain, the kingdom reacted swiftly to pro-democracy demonstrations by filtering sites that let locals share cell phone videos, blocking YouTube pages containing videos of street protests, and taking down a large Facebook group that called for more demonstrations. And even in Egypt, despite the departure of Mubarak, the interim military authority has taken a harsh stand against pro-democracy activists, while trying to stop the sharing of looted state security files, which reveal the extent to which the government uses the Web to spy on Egyptians.

These accounts of Internet abuse have not gone unnoticed. Less known, however, is the degree to which U.S. and European companies have enabled the crackdown.

Corporate Enablers

Egypt’s Internet crackdown appears to have been aided by Narus, a Boeing-owned surveillance technology provider that sold Telecom Egypt "real-time traffic intelligence" software that filters online communications and tracks them to their source.

Israeli security experts founded Narus to create and sell mass surveillance systems for governments and large corporate clients. It is known for creating NarusInsight, a supercomputer system that is allegedly being used by the National Security Agency and other entities to provide a “full network view” of suspected Internet communications as they happen.

Narus has also provided surveillance technology to Libya, according to James Bamford, author of 2008’s The Shadow Factory. In 2005, the company struck a multimillion-dollar agreement with Giza Systems of Egypt to license Narus’ Web-sleuthing products throughout the Middle East. Giza Systems services the Libyan network.

British-owned Vodafone shut down its Egypt-based cellphone network following a request from the Mubarak regime and then restored it only to send pro-Mubarak propaganda to text-messaging customers across the country. When digital rights groups like protested Vodafone’s actions, the company stated that it could do nothing to stop those texts, because it was forced to abide by the country's emergency laws.

Bahrain reportedly filtered and blocked websites using “SmartFilter” software supplied by the U.S. company McAfee, which Intel acquired late last year. Despite widespread reports of its use, company executives claim that they have “no control over, or visibility into how an organization implements its own filtering policy."

Cisco Systems a leading manufacturer of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) systems , a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track, and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, is a major partner in Bahrain. In 2009, the San Jose, California-based company joined with the kingdom to open an Internet Data Center in Bahrain’s capital “as an essential component in the drive to improve government services to the populace.”

The extent to which Cisco’s own DPI products are part of this deal remains to be seen. Executives at Cisco would not return our requests for comment on the nature of its involvement in Bahrain.

Nokia and Siemens also support Libya’s cell phone network. A joint venture between these two firms was heavily criticized in 2009 for reportedly assisting the Iranian regime’s crackdown against cyber-dissidents. It’s difficult to know whether they assisted the Libyan government, since Nokia Siemens' PR didn’t return our call, either.

Leading by Action

In mid-February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about a new U.S. Internet freedom policy designed to help democracy movements gain access to open networks and speak out against authoritarian regimes. As part of this initiative, the State Department will provide tens of millions of dollars in new grants to support "technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression."

Secretary Clinton spoke of the Obama administration's belief in our universal "freedom to connect," something the White House sees as a natural extension of our longstanding rights to free speech, assembly, and association.

Yet it's hard to claim the moral high road and lecture other countries on the importance of online freedom when U.S. companies are exporting DPI systems and other technology to regimes intent on spying on their own people and turning the open Internet into a means of repression.

Asking Clinton’s deputy director James Steinberg about this inconsistency during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in February, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)brought up Narus’ dealings with the Mubarak regime. “It is an awful tool of repression,” Smith said, “and Narus, according to these reports, is enabling this invasion of privacy.”

Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA) 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 U.S. companies that sell DPI technology overseas. 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."

Earlier this month, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, penned a Politico op-ed slamming the U.S. technology industry for “failing to address serious human rights challenges.” He wrote, “If U.S. companies are unwilling to take reasonable steps to protect human rights," Durbin wrote, “Congress must step in.”

Pledges to act are encouraging, but far less so than action itself. As of now, we have seen little of substance to defend our freedom to connect against companies and their despotic clients that seek to take it away.

-- Clothilde Le Coz is the Washington director of Reporters Sans Frontieres, which just released the 2011 Enemies of the Internet report. Timothy Karr is the campaign director of Free Press, the nation’s largest media reform group where he oversees all campaigns and online outreach efforts. Both are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

AT&T Takes America Back to the Future

AT&T's plan to take over T-Mobile has set the stage for Washington's high-tech policy battle of 2011.

But that's not all that's at stake. This proposed deal paints a dark scenario for the future of all communications -- a future that looks increasingly like a bygone era of monopoly control.

If AT&T succeeds, it will form a communications colossus to rival Ma Bell. Two companies, AT&T and Verizon, would control close to 80 percent of the mobile marketplace in America -- a figure that could exceed 90 percent, if, as many anticipate, Verizon buys Sprint.

For the hundreds of millions of American people who rely on handheld phones and wireless Internet devices, this equation spells disaster.

Ma Bell Muscle

As more and more people are turning to handheld devices to go online they face fewer options in a marketplace dominated by massive, vertically and horizontally integrated companies. The net result for consumers is higher prices for fewer choices. Competitors trying to innovate in this space with open networks and devices will face formidable obstacles to entry put in place by a duopoly that sees openness as anathema to profits.

AT&T is poised to exert its full political might to get this merger done, and the communications giant is accustomed to getting its way in Washington.

Its lobbyists have their own hall pass at the FCC, where they've visited the agency more than any other corporation. It has spent more on congressional campaigns than any other corporation in documented history. And AT&T even has the ear of the president -- in the person of telecom-lobbyist-cum-White-House-Chief-of-Staff William Daley.

Merger Myths

AT&T's PR machine is spinning like crazy to convince Americans that they've got our best interests at heart ... and that their friends at the Department of Justice and FCC should rubber-stamp this merger.

AT&T executives and flacks now say the "synergies" of the deal will lower prices and improve "quality of service for customers," and that it will "expand America's workforce" providing thousands of new jobs for our economy.

But when was the last time a merger actually created jobs for Americans and not more pink slips? This merger is no different. It puts the jobs of nearly 40,000 U.S. T-Mobile employees at risk. Many of the jobs at retail stores and call centers will be eliminated, and there will be more jobs lost as the cost-cutting effects of this merger ripple through the broader economy.

They say the T-Mobile takeover "strengthens and expands U.S. mobile broadband infrastructure," and that it helps us "achieve policymaker goals of deploying broadband to 95 percent of the country, including smaller, rural communities."

But according to recent Commerce Department data, wireless services are already available to 95 percent of Americans. If this merger goes through, industry analysts speculate that AT&T will decommission as many as 40,000 wireless towers, reducing the quality of coverage for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

They say the merger "enables the next era of American innovation and continued growth of U.S. high tech industry."

But the merger would allow AT&T to exert even greater gatekeeper control over what happens on the wireless Web. In the past, the company has been caught blocking competing services -- like Skype, Google Voice and Slingbox. AT&T's expanded control over the handset market would stifle innovation in devices. Look no further than AT&T's own record of "crippling" handheld phones - like the Motorola Backflip -- that can do more than what the company wants.

They say the overall average price-per-minute for wireless services has declined 50 percent since 1999, "during a period which saw five major wireless mergers."

But that figure is highly misleading. While the cost to consumers for voice services has dropped, the sum total of charges on mobile phone bills has steadily increased, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Added costs include spiraling rates for texting and data services as well as hidden handset subsidies. With less competition among carriers, we can expect AT&T to charge you even more.

(Those who will feel this worst are the 34 million T-Mobile customers who pay on average 20 percent less for mobile service than AT&T customers. Should AT&T agree to honor existing T-Mobile contracts for their remaining length, these customers will surely see higher prices when those contracts expire.)

There is nothing about having less competition that will benefit the new generation of smart phone users. Before rushing to sign off on yet another mega-merger, the FCC and the Justice Department should confront the very real problems of runaway consolidation in the wireless market.

The Obama administration, which is keenly aware of this deal, has yet to say no to a massive corporate merger ... despite a June 2008 pledge by then-candidate Obama to act "against the excessive concentration of [media] power in the hands of any one corporation, interest or small group."

But the negatives of AT&T's takeover of T-Mobile are too large for even this president to ignore.

As more people learn about -- and speak up against -- this raw deal, politics as usual may take a back seat to the public interest. At last.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

House GOP Nutty about Neutrality

Late Wednesday, Republican members of a key House Commerce subcommittee decided to give phone and cable companies absolute, unrestricted power over the Internet.

By a party-line vote of 15 to 8 they passed a "resolution of disapproval" that would strip the FCC of its ability to protect Internet users -- freeing up companies like Verizon and Comcast to block our right to speak freely and share information on the Internet.

This reckless action opens the door even wider to corporate abuse of Net Neutrality, the principle that protects our ability to connect with everyone else online.

Already, cable giants like Comcast are maneuvering to restrict access to competitive video services like Netflix; wireless carrier MetroPCS has unveiled a plan to block users' access to most video and audio sites.

The majority rammed this vote through without weighing widespread concerns -- coming from public interest and consumer advocates, and across the tech industry -- that this resolution is an extreme overreach that gives away our basic Internet freedoms.

The Lies Republicans Tell about the Internet

The House is already set to pass this resolution; it moves next to full committee and the floor. Hopefully, the Senate can muster enough common sense to kill the resolution when it crosses Capitol Hill.

House Republicans, on the other hand, seem determined to give phone and cable companies a degree of power over our Internet that is unprecedented in the history of U.S. telecommunications policy.

"Unfortunately, the debate around [Net Neutrality] has become immune to the calming powers of historical fact," said Free Press research director (and colleague) Derek Turner in testimony before the subcommittee.

The line of questioning from members of the subcommittee bore this out. At one point Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-AT&T) claimed that "there was no federal governance of the Internet" before the FCC moved an open Internet order last December.

I'd like to see Rep. Blackburn prove that right-wing whopper. Unfortunately, her time for questions ran out. Had subcommittee witnesses more time to respond, one of them might have told Blackburn that the Nixon administration put in place strong nondiscriminatory rules to ensure that abuses of market power would not stifle the growth of an infant network computing industry.

This successful framework was later improved upon by both the Carter and Reagan administrations. And with the Telecom Act of 1996, a bipartisan Congress recognized that in order to foster new industries, we needed the FCC to act to ensure everyone had open access to the information superhighway.

These facts are merely unfortunate road bumps for a House majority determined to ignore history.

Will the Senate Step Up?

It's now left to the Senate to stop this resolution. If they fail, the FCC could be barred from preventing these companies from blocking any website, banning any speech, and charging you anything they can get away with.

American Internet users need to choose between the open Internet that lets us view any content, anywhere, and the walled garden that the big phone and cable companies want to build around us.

If you choose openness, you had better do what you can to get your senators to reject this resolution.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Cato Institute: The Internet's Double-Edged Sword

Here's the debate last month over whether Internet access and social media are tools for fomenting revolution or facilitating crackdowns. There wasn't much of a debate really as we all agreed that it's very complicated. The debate was moderated by Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at Cato and featured Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato Institute, Alex Howard, of Gov2.0 and O'Reilly Media, and me.

Alex Howard describes these "debates" and others in more detail at Gov2.0.

Beginning at 13:00, I compare the imposing of democracy in Iraq c. 2003 to the bubbling up of democracy in Egypt c. 2011 -- an issue I think deserves more discussion. Watch it and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Speaker Boehner's Space Odyssey

On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner (R - AT&T) chose the occasion of his first address outside Washington to take aim at Net Neutrality.

While the speaker may have traveled 650 miles to Nashville to deliver this attack, his speech came from the far reaches of the solar system, detached from the space-time continuum that keeps us earthlings rooted to reality.

"The FCC is creeping further into the free market by trying to regulate the Internet," the speaker said referring to the agency's Open Internet rules issued last December.

"'Network neutrality,' they call it. It's a series of regulations that empower the federal bureaucracy to regulate Internet content and viewpoint discrimination," he imagined, pledging to use the full powers at his disposal "to fight [this] government takeover of the Internet."

The speaker's bold stand for free speech would be inspirational if it were connected to reality in any way. Instead, he is parroting talking points from industry lobbyists, and tea Party front groups to intentionally misleading the public.

Open Internet protections actually prevent Speaker Boehner's dark scenario from happening: They forbid companies from unfairly blocking or degrading Internet websites and applications while keeping control over Internet content in the hands of end users -- people like you and me.

The speaker knows full well that real Net Neutrality has nothing to do with a government takeover of the Internet. He's playing dog-whistle politics and stoking irrational fears of government repression, while raking in campaign contributions from the phone and cable companies.

In the Nashville audience was Marsha Blackburn (R - Verizon), the member of Congress who has introduced legislation to strip the FCC of any Net Neutrality protection powers.

Speaker Boehner is also working alongside Rep. Greg Walden (R - NCTA) who has introduced a congressional resolution of disapproval that would reverse the FCC's past Net Neutrality rules and prohibit the agency from acting in any way as a watchdog of the open Internet.

Their plan to ban Net Neutrality would hand over our freedom to connect and speak freely via the web to Comcast, Verizon and AT&T - with no recourse for the public when they block any content they don't like for any reason.

Speaker Boehner knows this to be true, but telling the truth won't help his patrons on "K" Street.


According to reports on Monday, cable operator and Internet service provider Mediacom has been caught hijacking its users' browsers and injecting unsolicited ads.

Disturbingly the ads themselves seem targeted to the individual user interests of the companies more than 750,000 broadband subscribers. According to Karl Bode of DSLReports, Mediacom "has apparently implemented deep packet inspection and DNS redirection advertising technology our users say is difficult to opt out of."

For those not familiar with deep packet inspection, or DPI, it's a technology that allows network managers to spy on, track and target user Internet content as our communications pass through routers along the Information Superhighway.

Using DPI is akin to having toll booth collectors inspect the contents of your car trunk to determine where you're going and what billboards you will see alongside the highway.

Screen shots taken by Mediacom users show a large banner ad for Mediacom's own discount phone service placed above the top of third-party Web page content, including and

Mediacom's actions are yet another example of a cable company interfering with its subscribers' use of the Internet.

Like Comcast and Charter before it, Mediacom's actions reveal the gatekeeper tendencies of network operators.

If Boehner and his cronies succeed in eliminating online consumer protections, these corporation won't hesitate to monitor user traffic and meddle with our digital freedoms.