Archive for January, 2012

In Belarus, the freedom of the internet is at stake

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression

Europe’s last dictatorship is clamping down on online activism, with a new law effectively requiring everyone to be a state spy

As of this morning, the internet in Belarus got smaller. A draconian new law is in force that allows the authorities to prosecute internet cafes if their users visit any foreign sites without being “monitored” by the owner. All commercial activity online by businesses registered in Belarus is now illegal unless conducted via a .by (Belarusian) domain name. There are concerns that this gives Belarusian authorities the power to take the next step and criminalise Amazon and eBay’s operations unless they collaborate with the regime’s censorship and register there. The law effectively implements the privatisation of state censorship: everyone is required to be a state spy. Belarusians who allow friends to use their internet connection at home will be responsible for the sites they visit. Some have tried to defend the law, stating all countries regulate the internet in some form – but the Belarusian banned list of websites contains all the leading opposition websites. The fine for visiting these sites is half a month’s wages for a single view.

The Arab spring has been a wake-up call to the world’s remaining despots. The internet allowed images of open dissent to disseminate instantly. As Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak found out, once you reach a critical mass of public protest you haven’t got long to board your private jet. It’s a lesson learned by Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus and Europe’s last dictator, and also by the Belarusian opposition.

Lukashenko attempted to destroy the political opposition after the rigged 2010 presidential elections. Seven of the nine presidential candidates were arrested alongside thousands of political activists. The will of those detained was tested: there are allegations that presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich have been tortured while in prison. The opposition is yet to recover; many of its leading figures have fled to Lithuania and Poland.

Within this vacuum of leadership, the internet helped spur a civil society backlash. After the sentencing of the presidential candidates, a movement inspired by the Arab spring “The Revolution Via Social Networks” mushroomed into a wave of protests that brought dissent to towns across Belarus usually loyal to Lukashenko. As the penal code had already criminalised spontaneous political protest with its requirements for pre-notification, the demonstrations were silent, with no slogans, no banners, no flags, no shouting, no swearing – just clapping.

“The Revolution Via Social Networks” (RSN) helped co-ordinate these protests online via VKontakte (the biggest rival to Facebook in Russia and Belarus with more than 135 million registered users). RSN now has more than 32,000 supporters.

RSN splits its four administrators between Minsk and Krakow to keep the page active even when the state blocks access to the page, or the country’s secret police (hauntingly still called the KGB) intimidate them.

The protests were so effective at associating clapping with dissent that the traditional 3 July independence day military parade was held without applause with only the brass bands of the military puncturing the silence. As lines of soldiers, trucks, tanks and special forces paraded past Lukashenko and his six-year-old son dressed in military uniform, those gathered waved flags in a crowd packed with plain-clothed agents ready to arrest anyone who dared clap or boo.

The internet has kept the pressure on the regime in other ways. Protesters photograph the KGB and post their pictures online in readiness for future trials against those who commit human rights violations. A Facebook group “Wanted criminals in civilian clothes”, blogs and all help to expose those complicit in the regime’s crimes. The web has also helped spread the stories of individuals who have faced brutality by the regime.

It’s this effectiveness that has made the internet a target for Lukashenko. The law enacted in July 2010 allowed the government to force Belarusian ISPs to block sites within 24 hours.

The new measures coming into force today merely build upon these restrictions. The official position of the Belarusian government from the operations and analysis centre of the presidential administration is: “The access of citizens to internet resources, including foreign ones, is not restricted in Belarus.” Yet, in reality the government blocks websites at will, especially during protests. Just after Christmas, the leading opposition website Charter 97 (which works closely with Index on Censorship) was hacked, its archive part-deleted and a defamatory post about jailed presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov published on the site. The site’s editor, Natalia Radzina, who has faced years of vile death and rape threats and escaped from Belarus after being placed in internal exile last year, says she has “no doubt” that the government was behind the hack. This is one of a series of attacks on Charter 97, which include co-ordinated DDOS (denial of service) attacks orchestrated by the KGB through an illegal botnet of up to 35,000 infected computers worldwide.

The regime has even darker methods of silencing its critics. In September 2010, I flew to Minsk to meet Belarusian civil society activists including the founder of the Charter 97 website, Oleg Bebenin. The day I landed he was found hung in his dacha, his leg broken, with his beloved son’s hammock wrapped around his neck. I spoke to his closest friends at his funeral including Andrei Sannikov and Natalia Radzina. No one believed he had committed suicide, all thought he had been killed by the state. Bebenin isn’t the only opposition figure to have died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances under Lukashenko’s rule, a chill on freedom of expression far more powerful than any changes in the law.

Today marks yet another low in Belarus’s miserable slide back to its Soviet past. Clapping in the street is now illegal. NGOs have been forced underground and their work criminalised.

Former presidential candidates languish in jail. The internet is the last free public space.

Lukashenko will do all he can to close down this freedom. In Europe, the battle has opened between the netizens of Belarus and its government. Who wins will be a matter of interest for us all.

This article was originally published in the Guardian on 6 January.

Twitter, social media and Lewisham

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog, Lewisham Council

Social media is allowing local government to respond to citizens in a more responsive and accurate manner.
It’s hard to underestimate how much technology can revolutionise the way that public services can be delivered.

One local resident in Lewisham spotted a zebra crossing on Hither Green Lane had one of its light’s covered. Instead of calling me, or writing to me, they tweeted a photo from their mobile of the covered light and asked me to investigate.

Twitter exchange on Hither Green Lane

Because I had a photo, Council Officers could show this evidence to our highways contractor, Conway. Who in turn, with the address, knew exactly what they needed to fix the problem. Within 3 days the light was fixed.

We can respond even quicker to litter and graffiti thanks to the Love Lewisham application. In 2002, it took two and a half days to clean up reported graffiti, now it takes on average half a day. And graffiti is down by 73 per cent. How? By trusting the public. People don’t want to live in an area blighted by litter, and they’re prepared to tell us when we’re not doing enough. So by giving every citizen with a smartphone the ability to report litter or graffiti to us, we’re able to plot where our teams need to go in a more joined-up way – saving time and energy. And as the smartphone app can also upload a photo of the offending detritus we can deal with the worst stuff first. And people really do seem to like taking responsibility for their home.

But we can also deliver services differently.

Hilary Renwick, our Head of Cultural Services, has told me:

We are acquiring two ‘digital shelves’ from Bloomsbury’s e books collection which include the Arden Shakespeare, specifically the ten plays that are on the GCSE National Curriculum and a collection entitled ‘Our Environment’ comprising ten books including The Hot Topic by Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King. The project is sponsored by Google and run by Public Library Online.”

The Service will be launching a new App for I Phone and Android phones that will enable library card holders to search the library catalogue, reserve a book and interact with their borrower record.

Soon, we will be able to offer more and more of our collection on portable devices. We know that 60% of the workforce of Lewisham has to commute to work in the morning. If we can offer our library services on Kindles, or iPhones, we can ensure our libraries service is more used by more people.

Finally, we need to break open our datasets. We hoard too much information – data that could be used by local residents to challenge the way we run public services. By opening up data we will find ourselves open to serious scrutiny by voters. But – people want to help – and there’s huge added value in getting people to challenge our assertions. We used to spend a significant amount of money on consultants to guide our policy process. We’ve halved this in a year, and we’re going further (as I’ve been pushing in my role as Chair of the Audit Panel). Now, we need to embolden the ‘citizen consultant’ using our data to aid their analysis. In the same way the Freedom of Information Act has opened up local government in a spectacular way – access to data can be challenge us in a far more productive way.

Further reading / resources:

London’s datastore
Nigel Tyrell (Lewisham’s Head of Environment) has a great blog on Love Lewisham
Public data’s Desert Island challenge: which dataset would you pick?