November 7, 2011 | By Maira Sutton and Trevor Timm

This Week in Internet Censorship

Egypt imprisons Alaa, other pro-democracy bloggers

EFF recently highlighted the case of Alaa Abd El Fattah, one of Egypt’s most influential pro-democracy bloggers, who is now serving fifteen days in jail for refusing to be interrogated by military prosecutors. His supposed crime? Accusing the military of having a direct role in the killing of 27 people during a Coptic Christian protest in October. As the Guardian reported, Alaa’s claim “appears to be supported by extensive witness reports and video footage.”

On Wednesday, Alaa smuggled a letter out of prison and had it published in papers around the world. The letter, which accused the police of torturing his fellow prisoners, increased international pressure on the Egyptian military which, in response, announced hundreds of civilians convicted in military courts since the revolution in January would be set free. But as the Guardian reported, Alaa’s wife criticized the announcement as just “a drop in the ocean.” Since longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak gave up power, more than 12,000 civilians have been given military trials, including other prominent bloggers such as Maikel Nabil Sanad.

Sanad has been in jail and on a hunger strike for more than seventy days now, protesting his alleged “crime”: daring to write, 'The army and the people were never one hand'—a fact that has become increasingly clear, as the army postponed his trial yet again to November 13.
EFF continues to call on the Egyptian authorities to release Abd El Fattah and Sanad, and every other civilian imprisoned for attempting to exercise their inherent right to freedom of speech.

Human Rights Coalition Speaks Out Against UAE Bloggers’ Conviction

Meanwhile in UAE, the trial of the five bloggers arrested in April for signing a petition for pro-democratic reforms continued as they reasserted their boycott of the proceedings.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the activists, including prominent blogger, Ahmed Mansoor, were charged with “threatening state security, undermining public order and insulting the president, the vice-president and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.” They have continually refused to attend hearings in protest. The bloggers claimed they are only on trial for political reasons and that they’ve been mistreated in detention. Reporters Without Borders also accused UAE of deliberately extending the trial for more than six months with the intent of indefinite detainment.

On Thursday, a coalition of human rights organizations released a statement condemning the perverse due process conditions of the court. A report released by the coalition accused the UAE prosecutors of prejudicial interruptions of the defense, ignoring the defense’s motions, and denying the men confidential meetings with their lawyers.

The EFF stands with the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), Amnesty International, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Front Line Defenders, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Index on Censorship, to condemn these proceedings and demand the immediate and unconditional release of all five activists.

Syrian Bloggers imprisoned, go missing

As the Syrian government continues to crackdown on pro-democracy protests, bloggers are increasingly becoming government targets. Reporters Without Borders released a list of 22 bloggers who are currently imprisoned while indicating “the list is almost certainly incomplete.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists also highlighted two bloggers from Syria who have recently gone missing. Journalist Lina Saleh Ibrahim, a business reporter for Tishreen, and Wael Yousef Abaza, a freelance journalist, have both been missing since October 25th.

EFF joins Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Project Journalists in condemning the detainment of journalists and bloggers reporting on Syria’s pro-democracy protests. We also reiterate CPJ’s statement about the missing journalists, "The government [of Syria] must immediately clarify whether it is holding these journalists, and if so, why."

US State Department Weighs In on Blue Coat and Websense Steps Up

As we reported last week, despite their initial implausible denials, Blue Coat Systems now admits that their censorship and surveillance software has been found in the government-controlled Syrian Telecommunications Establishment. The US State Department spokesperson has now said in a press conference that they are “reviewing the information that [they] have and monitoring the facts,” noting that the U.S. has very strict controls on most exports to Syria. This is good news, but we hope they will also engage their colleagues in the Commerce and Treasury Departments who have more clear authority to enforce the export controls sanctions regimes.

Especially in light of the ongoing surveillance and human rights violations in Syria, Blue Coat’s shifting story, and the log files showing ongoing connections between Blue Coat and the machines in Syria, the public deserves a transparent accounting of how the Blue Coat technology ended up in Syria, what Blue Coat knew about it and when they knew about it. We hope that State Department’s concerns are only the beginning of this process.

Blue Coat, like many other technology companies, currently does not have a corporate policy against selling to governments engaging in censorship or surveillance against democracy activists, and as we noted before, only seems interested in the export sanctions, not whether its technologies are actually being used as part of state oppression.

In contrast, Websense just issued a clear human rights policy and a challenge to other technology companies to match it. Websense says:

Websense does not sell to governments or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are engaged in government-imposed censorship. Government-mandated censorship projects will not be engaged by Websense. If Websense does win business and later discovers that it is being used by the government, or by ISPs based on government rule, to engage in censorship of the Web and Web content, we will remove our technology and capabilities from the project.

The exact parameters may be different for companies more focused on surveillance than censorship, but the thrust here is the right one. In fact, Websense says that it refused to engage in a transaction that looks a lot like what Blue Coat says occurred:

And just last month, we detected—and blocked—two attempts to use our software using cloaked addresses in Europe that were actually fronts for entities in Syria, a country subject to trade sanctions by the United States. This is not rocket science, but it does take some moral fiber, smart people, commitment, and follow-through.

Websense is pointing to the technology sector in the direction of promoting freedom; BlueCoat represents the aiding oppressors. The choice for other tech companies is clear, and kudos to Websense for leading the way.

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