Tweet, Tweet Justice: Company’s Censorship Policy Probed


twitter logo map 09

twitter logo map 09 (Photo credit: The Next Web)

By Meg Roggensack
Senior Advisor, Business and Human Rights, Human Rights First

In her 2010 landmark speech on internet freedom, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton laid out her vision for one internet where access to information isn’t defined by geographic boundaries or political regimes. Today, that vision is even more remote, as evidenced by Twitter’s recent announcement that it would comply with host governments that wish to censor messages.

Twitter made clear that it will censor only after legal review, be transparent about its decisions unless precluded by local law, and ensure that messages censored in one country are available in others. These are important steps and align with commitments made by the tech companies that belong to the Global Network Initiative (GNI). This also puts Twitter on the same side as other companies trying to address the human rights impacts of their global ICT operations – as opposed to those who are not even in the conversation.

But is Twitter’ s policy adequate? Does it propel Secretary Clinton’s vision forward? We at Human Rights First think Twitter is on the right path, but can do better – by making clear the principles for evaluating the legitimacy of requests, and by mounting tough challenges to requests that conflict with national and international guarantees of free expression.

As Secretary Clinton observed in her speech, “The internet will be what we make of it…we need to [take affirmative steps to] synchronize our technological progress with our values.” This can only happen if Twitter and other companies in the ICT sector work harder to realize this vision of a single, unified internet. We’re concerned that Twitter’s new policy is likely to encourage more censorship, not less.

How will Twitter’s new policy affect the overall integrity of its global service? Will there be any jurisdiction where the entirety of Twitter’s messages will be available to users, as Secretary Clinton envisioned, or will Twitter’s service be a Swiss cheese of big and small holes, reflecting censorship preferences around the globe?

Twitter has proven in the past that there’s a better way to handle these requests. It successfully challenged a U.S. federal court’s gag order associated with Wikileaks and then informed the targets of the subpoena so that they could challenge the order. In conveying its new policy, Twitter should make clear that it will aggressively challenge these restrictions, based on available national and international rights guarantees. Many authoritarian governments have broad constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and/or have signed on to international treaties. Twitter should use these guarantees to elaborate and publish its criteria for screening such requests, and should mount constitutional challenges when pressed. This would leave no doubt about Twitter’s commitment to internet freedom.

Twitter was instrumental to the Arab Spring as one of the few platforms that activists could use to organize and disseminate their views. One year later, Twitter’s role in bringing about political reform is even greater. As Human Rights First heard from a prominent Egyptian pro-democracy leader two weeks ago, Twitter has become the platform for activists. It is easy to use, quick, and searchable.

Without the ability to freely view and post tweets, Twitter’s users, including pro-democracy and human rights activists, can’t communicate, organize, and advocate in real time. Even if the rest of us are able to read tweets that repressive governments censor, tweets that are not accessible to the original posters and their networks are deprived of their utility and transformative power.

Twitter should build on the important safeguards it has announced. And Twitter’s dilemma should spark all ICT companies to think carefully about how the choices they make today will affect the internet we use tomorrow.

Egypt’s Artists Fear Censorship by Islamists


Feb13, 20122- Egypt’s revolution encouraged painters to shake off decades of censorship. But with Islamists gaining power, will provocative art soon be suppressed?

Sublimation is a psychological process in which socially unacceptable impulses are transformed into something less destructive, explains Weaam El-Masry, a fiery Egyptian artist, as she unloads a truckload of her watercolor nudes for sale in a central Cairo art gallery.

“Maybe you have something you want to say—maybe it’s sexual—but society suppresses it,” she says. “When it comes out in your art, that’s sublimation.”

Since the Arab Spring broke out in Egypt a year ago, the country’s art world has started to shake off decades of repression. Sexuality is more out in the open, as are deep-seated social problems such as poverty and corruption—subjects long off limits under former president Hosni Mubarak. Many artists, it seems, no longer feel obligated to cloak their politics in thick layers of allegory.

At Townhouse, a funky art gallery nestled in the heart of central Cairo, iconoclasm is now the rule rather than the exception. In December, the gallery opened D1sc0nN3ct, a dizzying collection of digital-media pieces by a handful of Egyptian artists. Featuring videogames that can’t be won and Web pages with faulty encryptions, the exhibition presents corruption—a debilitating ulcer in a society where you can’t get a driver’s license without paying a bribe—in a daringly critical light.

On the same night but in an adjacent space, the gallery headlined another bold exhibition titled The Politics of Representation. Composed entirely of campaign paraphernalia from the country’s ongoing parliamentary contest—the first since Mubarak’s ouster a year ago—the exhibit takes on the explosion of political activity that has rocked Egypt in recent months and reduces it to a maze of symbols, slogans, and glossy poster stock. According to William Wells, who founded Townhouse in 1998, the exhibition was conceived as an “interactive, real-time visual representation of the electoral process.”

Egyptian Artist Weaam El-Masry's Antsy Nudes

Read more here

Nurses vs Doctors: How the backbone of Kerala is fighting for their due


G Pramod Kumar Feb 7, 2012

The fast-spreading strike by nurses in Kerala has laid bare the inherent contradiction in India’s burgeoning healthcare sector: it is a highly exploitative industry dominated by money-minded corporates and doctors.

While the doctors and surgeons earn by the hour, sometimes running into millions of rupees a month, the nurses who form the backbone of patient care are thrown the crumbs. At best, on an average, Rs 4000-8000 a month.

While managements are trying every trick in the book to rein in the striking nurses, including court injunctions and new recruitments, the doctors asked for invoking ESSMA, the essential services maintenance act, the bogey that oppressive governments use against labour unrest. The state unit of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) and the Qualified Private Medical Practitioners Association (QPMPA), an association of private medical practitioners and hospital managements were united in this demand.

The QPMA even went a step ahead and asked the political parties and the government not to encourage the strike.

Does it matter that for every doctor, you need many nurses and without them, hospitals will crumble? The contrarian stand of the doctors clearly demonstrates the power and class inequality in the healthcare sector.

The nurses are now clear that even the doctors they serve 24/7, much less the management, will not support them. Their agitation is spreading to every part of the state threatening to cripple its private healthcare sector. It’s a “white-revolution” that is as spontaneous as the Arab Spring.

The demands of the nurses are very simple. They want decent salaries and better working conditions. Nothing more. In 2009, the state government has fixed a minimum salary of Rs 9,000. A majority of the hospitals do not pay this, although the nurses say that even this salary is inadequate and should be revised.

According to United Nurses Association, the newly formed organisation that galvanised the feeble voices of protest into a snowballing movement, only five per cent of the hospitals in the state pay the minimum wages. In a Kochi hospital where the nurses are on strike, a nurse with 16 years of experience is given only Rs 7,000. Most of the nurses are paid Rs. 4,000-6,000.

The worst off are the “trainees” or the straight-out-of-college nurses. They are usually paid Rs 1,000 or so and work under bonded conditions. This is widely prevalent in hospitals outside the state, where the managements even confiscate their certificates. The state of their bonded condition was brought to light, when a nurse committed suicide in Mumbai last year. The trainees suffer in silence in the hope of a few years experience so that they can shift to a bigger hospital or go abroad.

The flicker of protests first appeared at the end of last year with Keralite nurses going on strike in Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta. Early this year, about 800 nurses from a “multi-speciality” hospital in Kochi and another 600 in a private medical college hospital in a southern district went on strike, followed by several other hospitals.

The organisational capacity of the nurses has strengthened considerably since they agitated in Mumbai and Delhi. They were so busy with enslaving work that they didn’t even know how to organise a protest without inviting criticism. The main charge against them has been that they didn’t give sufficient notice to managements and the patients suffered.

The labour minister of Kerala, Shibu Baby John, while supporting nurses advised them to follow fair labour practices, such as sufficient advance notice, so that they are on good legal footing. Now they serve notice and go on strike. The Association says that more hospitals have been served notice, including the one where they had reached an agreement last year. Apparently this hospital reneged on their commitment.

The doctor-management nexus that the strike has brought to light was not unexpected given their mutually beneficial stakes. “IMA seeking ESMA against striking nurses is only a ploy to protect hospitals, some of which are owned by its members.” according to Jasmin Shah, State President of the United Nurses Association. The doctors also came in for severe criticism from civil society because they went on strike several times in the recent past. “If the IMA can call for state-wide strike when doctors face a problem, why can’t we agitate for minimum wages,” is Shah’s counter.

Meanwhile, support is pouring in from all quarters. The CPM, the CPI, the women’s wing of the Congress and INTUC have openly supported the cause of the nurses. The labour minister remained categorical that he wouldn’t allow anybody to pay the nurses below the minimum wages and violate labour rules. The State Women’s Commission member T Devi said that the commission will intervene if the nurses asked for help.

Even the courts are on their side. While responding to a plea on the issue, the Kerala High Court said last week that nurses were being exploited. They were forced to work for low salaries and that is why they were on strike, the court said. Some private hospitals haven’t revised the salaries even in the past ten years.

It’s worthwhile to note that when the nurses from Kerala went on strike in Mumbai and Delhi last year, the politicians in Kerala hardly paid any attention since they were busy with a politically expedient Mullaperiyar.

However, the nurses didn’t wait for any patronage. Their working conditions were so exploitative, that they abandoned their fear of job-(in)security and anxieties about hefty loan-paybacks. The sincerity of purpose paid off. Now that their movement is gaining momentum, all political parties want a share of the success.

The doctor-management voice against them continue to demonstrate the class struggle in the healthcare sector.

Sri Lanka Lagging Behind In Social Media


It is estimated that over 425 million people use social media networks, including Facebook and Twitter. The use of social media has been described by many activists as the ‘final medium for free speech’. Catherine Jackson, Reporters without Borders, called on media groups to embrace social media networks as they search for new mediums of communications.
With media freedom reducing all over the world, the question that exists is how far do media institutes use this new form of communication?
Catherine Jackson, speaking to The Sunday Leader, explained that with the growing censorship over media the world over, a new uncontrolled medium must be found. She stated that governments do not have control over social media networks, which allows the opportunity for uncensored news to continue to filter its way to the people. ‘With over 400 million people using social network sites, the reach for media institutes will be unmatched,’ she added.
However, last week Twitter announced that they would be selectively blocking content on a country by country basis. According to their official blog, a country’s government may make a request that tweets (messages by Twitter users) referring to a certain topic be banned in their respective countries. For example, in Germany Twitter may block tweets with any pro-Nazi sentiment. This is because it is illegal to promote the Nazi party or its ideology in Germany. Despite the tweet being blocked in Germany it will still be visible to users elsewhere in the world.
This announcement was met with a mixed reaction by global media advocates, with many claiming that the organisation is simply encroaching on people’s media freedom. Others have argued that this move serves simply to strengthen the message which is being blocked. Twitter defended the decision claiming that it was carried out in the interest of protecting freedom of speech, but also to adhere to the laws of countries.
Regardless of the reasons behind the new action taken by Twitter, it is clear that governments’ influence on social media is creeping in.
In Sri Lanka the media freedom was dealt a blow last December with the announcement that all media websites must be registered with the Ministry of Mass Media. This saw several news websites blocked including http://www.srilankaguardian.com, and http://www.srilankamirror.com. Despite these websites being unblocked two weeks later, there are still conditions existing around their operation.
With media control increasing in Sri Lanka, people are now looking to alternate forms of communication. The use of the internet offers this alternative in the form of social media. However, Sri Lanka has not grabbed on to the power of these online media networks.
Major newspapers use these networks as an extension of their websites, the information received on networks such as Twitter and Facebook is nothing new. Twitter accounts for these newspapers are used to highlight articles that are made available on the website.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, member of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, explained that Sri Lanka is still ‘largely unaware of the potential of social media online to galvanise support’. He added that activism in the country is still limited to physical aspects such as staging protests, however online activism is still to gather momentum. He called on groups to learn how to effectively use such platforms which are resilient to network blocks. ‘Media organisations can more effectively reach a growing number of users within Sri Lanka on these platforms, can virally spread their advocacy, and reach those outside the country,’ Hattotuwa added. Drawing attention to the Arab Spring, Hattotuwa expressed his belief that social media is fundamental to free speech today.
In Egypt, the uprisings and subsequent occupation of Tahrir Square by over a 100,000 people was made possible due to the use of social media.
The organisation by opposition groups, dissemination of their messages and the continuous news streaming from different areas in the country was done through social networks such as Twitter.
In Syria, the crackdown on protestors has been coupled with a ban on foreign journalists entering the country. The only news organisations that continue to broadcast are those that are run by the oppressive regime. However, the world has been made aware of what is going on within the borders of the country due to use of the internet and social media.
Protestors have taken to tweeting regular updates of the situation, while YouTube is continuously being updated with amateur videos of Syrian troops attacking protestors.
Of course this has led to many of the purists claiming that such media reports are unverified and cannot be considered accurate. John Nicholas, lecturer on media and journalism at the University of Newcastle in Australia, wrote in an open letter to the world media that social networks are ‘an unverified entity which will only serve to spread false rumours. As journalists we are trained to find the facts and report them truthfully, social media is a tool that holds potential but can go no further than serving as a link between the media and the people’.
Ironically, it is the governments of the world which have seen the potential of social networks faster than media institutes. In Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government has employed members of their police force to actively monitor social media networks. The job goes further than just reporting on what is being said, but they are also expected to help promote pro-government propaganda.
Similarly in China, Twitter has been blocked by the authorities and replaced with a state operated social network known as ‘RenRen’. This platform was introduced by the Chinese government in an attempt to quell free media while still allowing their citizens an opportunity to enjoy the ‘social aspect of social media’.
In the world of growing internet, it will seem that for free media to continue its growth the embrace of social media seems to be necessary.
By Dinouk Colombage

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