When Saudi Arabia announced plans to flog dissident blogger Raif Badawi earlier this year, Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and his sister, Samar Badawi, took to the internet, joining Movements.org. An online platform set up to crowdsource human rights support from around the world, the site isn’t the brainchild of an activist organization or a nonprofit. Rather, it is the product of a company that has drawn a great deal of criticism for its fraught relationship with free speech: Google.
On Movements.org, Haidar and Badawi found a host of resources. Volunteers translated their call for help into English, and contacts at the The Daily Beast published it. Through the network, Haidar and Badawi met Canadian legislator Irwin Cotler, who agreed to serve as Raif Badawi’s international counsel. With Cotler’s help, and with the increased worldwide attention that the site has helped them generate, they have successfully pressured the Saudi government to suspend further punishment for – at this point – 16 consecutive weeks.
Movements.org is run by Advancing Human Rights, a nonprofit, but was incubated at Google. The technology giant, through its Google Ideas program, funds a handful of projects that – in its words – explore “how technology can enable people to confront threats in the face of conflict, instability and repression”. These include Uproxy, a browser extension that helps users block attempts to spy on their web use, and The Guardian Project which creates apps that secure mobile devices against surveillance.
How and why did a company that has taken fire for its alleged partnerships in government surveillance end up creating tech used by dissident groups concerned with free speech?
Redeeming a bad reputation
Google’s human rights initiatives are encouraging, but they come at a time when, in the eyes of the Global Commission on Internet Governance, the tech sector – and Google in particular – has betrayed its claims that it is a force for good.
Despite lofty rhetoric about the power of the internet to enable open societies and free expression, three of tech’s biggest companies –Google, Yahoo and Microsoft – all found themselves in the hot seat for complying with Chinese authorities in 2006.
All three took steps to censor Chinese search results, and Chinese reporter Shi Tao was arrested and convicted of disclosing state secrets after Yahoo released details of a private email to the government. These actions drew exposure and condemnation from Human Rights Watch,Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders. Following intense public outcry, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft created the Global Network Initiative, a self-regulating industry body that pledged to resist censorship and repression from governments in the future.
Then in 2013, the Edward Snowden leaks further damaged the tech sector’s credibility. A host of documents revealed that the US National Security Agency – via Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft – had intercepted the communications of both US citizens and foreign nationals.
These revelations had a profound and lasting impact on public trust of internet privacy. Business growth in the tech sector has also been affected, especially where US servers were involved. In the months following the NSA leaks, there were documented cases of lost contracts, most notably the Brazilian government’s decision to break with Microsoft over NSA spying concerns.
More sinister still were reports of tech companies that sold software, hardware and know-how to help dictatorships spy on their own populations. French company Amesys, a division of Bull SA, was outed in 2011 as a supplier of surveillance systems to Gadhafi’s Libya, a regime that tightly tracked its opposition before it toppled. In 2013, Canada’s Citizen Lab released a report detailing how Anglo-German company FinFisher implanted domestic spying software in 25 countries, including governments in Ethiopia, Vietnam, Bahrain and Qatar.
A smaller solution
While some tech giants have scrambled to rehabilitate their reputations, a growing number of smaller companies and startups have deliberately reached out to human rights activists to offer support.
For example, SaferVPN, a site that enables subscribers to get around country-specific internet restrictions, began offering its service free of charge to Turkish dissidents when Prime Minister Erdoğan blocked Twitter in the country in 2014. Recently, SaferVPN founders Amit Baraket and Sagi Gidali have ramped up aid efforts through their Unblock the Web campaign, which aims to provide dissidents with at least 1m hours of free, uncensored internet use.
Raising awareness around internet censorship is part of SaferVPN’s corporate mission, but the company has also found that its altruistic efforts can draw new paying customers. Since it began serving citizens in repressive regimes, it has counted tens of thousands of new visitors to its website each day.
The Human Rights Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit, works with a handful of tech companies in its quest to enable freer speech in closed societies. In 2014, it partnered with Silent Circle – a company that offers secure mobile voice and text communications – to help the Tibetan government in exile evade Chinese surveillance. Alex Gladstein, director of institutional affairs at the Human Rights Foundation, also cites similar ongoing partnerships with Wikr, an encrypted chat app, and Lantern, which produces censorship-evading peer-to-peer software.
As dissidents have demonstrated the effectiveness of his company’s products and software in the field, Silent Circle has received a significant number of new client referrals, says Vic Hyder, the company’s chief strategy officer.
Handling the critics
Given the tech sector’s tainted past, human rights experts aren’t convinced that its newest wave of privacy-enabling and censorship-busting tech solutions will be enough to redeem its reputation.
When asked to rate the overall impact of new technologies for dissidents on the ground, Srdja Popovic, director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, and Tanya O’Carroll from Amnesty International’s technology and human rights team both used the term “double-edged sword”. While they acknowledge that technology and online platforms have helped facilitate planning, recruiting and communications in closed societies, they point out that regimes can also use these channels to track activists.
As to whether companies are doing enough to redeem their reputations, reviews are mixed. When it comes to the tech giants, O’Carroll feels that the initiatives, thus far, represent only a fraction of these companies’ potential. “[They] just don’t meet the scale that companies of that size can add their weight to,” she says.
The problem, Popovic explains, is that large tech companies are serving conflicting interests. “The moment they start to produce something for activists, they risk being expelled from repressive countries,” he says.
He predicts that privacy-oriented startups – “small garage companies” – will make the biggest impact. Because of their smaller market position, they may be less beholden to governments and consequently freer to do more for dissidents, he says.
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