As the post-attacks’ situation in France merges into the rise of the extreme right Front National party, I wonder if we residents of France, who care about freedom of speech should now reach out and ask for help?
It would have sounded loony just two years ago. In the heyday of blogging, when social media were the first choice, often the only media for social activism, the Bobs Awards jury and staff tried to advocate for and protect bloggers far away, who risked much more than a fine for pirating a movie. Remember? A lost paradise of ‘first world’ safe countries, lending a hand to the rest of the world. The tables have been turned. Now, ‘first world’ countries are also in need of help.
In France, the Paris attacks unleashed a state of emergency and a series of drastic surveillance laws, on top of the ‘intelligence services act’ that was passed in the aftermath of January’s ‘Charlie Hebdo’ attacks that allows the government to snoop and pry on everything that happens online without a legal warrant. There are rumors that more such projects are in the making, that for example the anonymizing software TOR could be banned, as well as open Wi-Fi hotspots. Just like in Iran, a long time ago. We certainly have little reason to envy our former ‘protégés’.
The downward slide in online freedom has been fast and brutal everywhere and there are new forms of internet terrorism in numerous countries. There are terrorists who, apart from committing horrors in Paris, Bamako, Tunisia and elsewhere, have murdered several bloggers in Bangladesh, only because they advocated for freedom of creed and tolerance, in a country whose constitution guarantees that particular right. Moreover, there seems to be no escape: one of the slain Bangladeshi victims lived abroad. Yet, his murderers waited for him to visit his country to murder him.
Social media remain a power – it is louder, nastier and becoming more limited – but it still is a power for ensuring that lone voices are heard. But at such an exorbitant and abominable price, what should we do? This is an earnest question because I am worried, specially about young advocates out there.
Specialists have chanted the merits of end-to-end encryption, of private VPN. The walls of that safe haven may be crumbling. A year ago, I met a group of young students in France who were from 20 different nations and from all the continents. When asked about how ‘safe’ social media were in their respective countries, they unrolled a catalogue of woes in their testimonies. ‘I live in Eastern Europe. I use social media, but I can get in trouble any minute’, said a young women involved in fighting governmental abuse. Another woman, who was from Nicaragua, also spoke up: ‘If I protest online, it’s very dangerous. It’s a small country. Everyone knows someone who knows you. But if I protest on the streets, I am repressed, arrested, or worse. What can I do?’
A young man from Mexico explained: ‘We use social media very differently in Mexico. It’s the fastest way to become a target of violence. If we have to, we communicate in code and riddles. We trust pens and papers only. People in Mexico are murdered every day’.
In those three cases, wall-to-wall privacy and encryption seemed the route to go, urgently. But… That very same week, in Ethiopia, nine bloggers and journalists, who were from the Zone9 collective, were sentenced to jail for publishing mild requests for social change (they were recently released after more than a year and a half in prison). One of the charges that put them behind bars was “trained by a foreign power”. A foreign NGO had indeed trained them. To do what? To protect themselves online! Protecting yourself, ironically, makes you a suspect in tightly-monitored countries or those like Ethiopia where Internet penetration is very low and any “abnormal” behavior is immediately traceable.
Another signal: Telegram, an encrypted messaging app created by a Russian mogul to guarantee privacy and safety against the Kremlin’s snooping and crackdown on dissent, recently announced that it had closed down the ISIS accounts which used it. Yes, terrorists like encryption too.
If you don’t encrypt, you’re at risk. If you do encrypt, you are at risk. Is there still such a thing as a safe haven? This is a huge wide-open question. I know that the recent events in France are playing a part in the perhaps emotional, not sufficiently informed and clumsy way I am asking. But that is my question. If the answer is ‘quit social media entirely’, I doubt this can be done without committing social and professional suicide. But in the very slim space in between, what can we do to establish and maintain links between like-minded people? Technically, psychologically, academically, whatever. Because at this stage of the Internet and terrorism, I am clueless.
A media professional for 20 years, Claire has advocated for bloggers and citizen journalism since 2004. Claire is a linguist and currently at the French business weekly “Le Nouvel Economiste”. She is involved with various organizations, e.g. Global Voices, promoting digital literacy, social activism, freedom of expression, and the transformative power of citizen journalism, blogs and social media, with a focus on francophone Africa.