The MB in Egypt is blogging, Where Speech Isn’t Free

The MB in Egypt is blogging, Where Speech Isn’t Free

Blogging Where Speech Isn’t Free

Jon Lebkowsky, moderator
Shava Nerad, TOR
Ethan Zuckerman, Global Voices
Rob Faris, Harvard Berkman Center
Shahed Amanullah, HalalFire Media
Yasmina Tesanovic, Serbian filmmaker


The OpenNet Initiative. There was a time when we hoped the net would be a frontier place not subject to natl sovereignty. That idea is pretty much dead. And many countries use that sovereignty to censor or filter the Net. We’ve looked at 40 countries so far, and more than two dozen of them are using filtering. Half are filtering social issues or political content, primarily blogs. Filtering is a messy, incomplete process. It targets certain content, but it’s basically impossible to actually block everything you want to without knocking out stuff that’s not on your hit list. So when Pakistan tried to block certain yahoo hosts, they knocked out 52,000 other websites.

In North Korea, suppression of opposing viewpoints basically shuts down the Net, while China wants to maintain a vibrant internet but still try to block things they find unacceptable. The rules of censorship have changed and continue to evolve. It’s very fluid and ill-defined. That creates both opportunities and dangers.


I tend to work on citizen media – blogging, podcasting and the like – particularly in the developing world. We often talk about it in the context of press freedoms. There’s high repression in places like North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan. In medium oppression stakes like China, Iran and Zimbabwe, citizen media tools are embraced more actively. In places with freer press, like South Africa, they use these tools less because they have other platforms for sharing their ideas. Iran is an amazing case study. In 2004, suddenly you had 60,000 blogs start. The independent press had shut down and many of them moved into the blogosphere. So even the vice president started a blog to have better communication with his constituents.

My org,, looks at citizens media in the world. Some of it focuses on just cultural activities, but a lot focuses on freedom and politics. In Bahrain, there’s a pdf from google maps showing how much land is controlled by the monarchy, and the size of their palaces compared to where everyone else lives. They blocked Google Maps because of. The Tunisian Prison Map used google maps to show where the secret prisons are, and which dissidents were there. Alaa abd el Fatah blogged on paper while they were in prison, and his wife posted it at www. We even see video being smuggled out, like Zimbabwe protestors being broken up violently in Harare.

This is all user-generated media, and it’s making states very, very upset. They react in four ways. They block the sites, the tools; register bloggers, even threaten their safety. In Ethiopia, you can’t see a site like, the leading opposition site. In Pakistan, is blocked, just so they can censor six sites. This lead to to get around this. (A guy from Blogger in the audience says the block ended last week.) – Egyptian blogger sentenced to four years in prison, and now there’s an active campaign to have him released.

How do we fight back? We can mirror sites, like and Isaac redirects people to the second site when he’s blocked. There are also anonymous blogs, like, which was run by a relief worker in Darfur. I maintain a guide on anonymous blogging, and Reporters Without Borders has one as well.

What’s most important is bringing attention to the fact that governments are blocking sites and denying access. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is blogging, and that’ll probably lead to a crackdown. And we need to fight for the rights of these voices and others, even if we disagree with their politics.

Shava Nerad: TOR allows people to circumvent firewalls and go online anonymously. We have around 1,000 proxy servers around the world. When you connect, you get randomly routed through a trail of these servers, making it impossible for authorities to see where you came from. So you can blog without authorities knowing which cybercafe your at, for example. When you blog, you normally leave a trail that shows your physical location. If you’re saying risky things, that makes you vulnerable. So you need to wipe the footprints off of that trail to keep you safe.

We talk a lot about free speech as if it were an absolute good we need immediately. It’s a good idea, but a lot of my family comes from parts of the world where free speech isn’t a reality. There are ways to protect yourself – they’re safety valves. Medium suppression countries realize that free speech is inevitable in a Darwinian sort of way, but they want to control the pace of change. China doesn’t shut down all free speech but they try to throttle it so they control the message. So it’s not as monolithic as it seems. It’s process. When I see people in the US blogging about it, they don’t always see it as a live action roleplaying game involving internet diplomacy. It’s an ongoing story of cultural tensions. People need the tools to do this, but here in the US, we need to understand that there’s a process going on, and in our activism, we should recognize that rather than just vilifying the other side.


I run and HalalFire Media, trying to cultivate the Islamic blogosphere. A lot of online repression happens in Muslim countries. Why is that the case? You have political instability, undemocratic regimes and the rise of extremism, because Islam is in flux. Why should we care about that? The Muslim world deserves political and press freedoms just like everybody else; they shouldn’t be written off as backwards and hopeless. There’s a need for free expression to create an Islam that’s in sync with modernity. We all have a stake in that battle. Sept 11 reminds us that we just can’t "contain" them. We need to support Islamic bloggers who are trying to help countries go through this change.

Even when governments aren’t legitimate, they wrap themselves in a clock of religious responsibility. There are also extremists trying to drive a political or moral agenda. It’s tough to run a bookstore that’s open without getting flak for it, literally or figuratively. Despite getting it from both ends, Muslim bloggers are coming out, wanting to join the modern world and get out of the crossfire of regimes vs. extremists.

It starts with simple questions. When a Saudi girl asks why she can’t driver herself. It has big ramifications in places where people aren’t used to asking simple questions. The bloggers are the vanguard of that, asking questions that are never asked. It also breaks the govt monopoly on information, including govt-controlled press. The bottom line is that the freer the discourse is on Islam, the more modern and moderate the practices are. Muslims in America are a prime example of that. You’re free to say what you want and develop in harmony with your non-Muslim neighbords. It’s almost a linear correlation. That’s why I side of the free speech side of things, even while Muslim countries are grappling with the issue.

How can we help? We can use technology to pry the doors open from the outside. I’m hoping for the day when govts give up on filtering and battle ideas with other ideas rather than jackbooted thugs. We need to read and publicize the work of bloggers, advocating good ones and shaming bad ones. We need to reduce anarchy in the Muslim world. There’s been a rise of extremism, and it plays a role in what’s going on right now. That’s something the Muslim world needs to deal with internally. We need to advocate for persecuted bloggers and freedom in general. Not necessarily specific bloggers, since we don’t want them to seem like US puppets. But we should push for general press freedoms while leaving specific advocacy to us – the blogosphere.


I come from Serbia. In the early 90s, I was a feminist and activist for Women in Black. When the war was going on, people would ask me what was going on, so I decided to write a letter for everyone. It wasn’t journalism but more than a diary. It was a blog before they were called that, sent over mailing lists. When Serbia was bombed in ’99, I was sitting in my flat watching the international news channels, and I was seeing myself bombed on TV. But it was still information – Milosovic was lying and you couldn’t trust local news. When a southern town was bombed, I called my relatives and they saw people killed by cluster bombs. Milosovic denied it but NATO called it collateral damage and acted like it didn’t exist. So we were invisible victims. So I started writing about it online anonymously.

This went on for a couple of months, then a friend asked me if I was the one doing it. Eventually the media started asking me if it’s me. They wanted to talk with me but not identify me, since they didn’t want me to get killed by Milosovic or looters or NATO or anyone else. But I outed myself in a letter and said the public is my only protection, then told the governments, this is where I live – come and get me. I didn’t want to hide.




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