Africa: Activists Use Infomation Technology to Dodge Oppressors, Official Says

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Democracy activists in some repressive countries are protecting themselves from harassment with technology training they received from the U.S. Department of State. The U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor offered a few insights into the programs in a speech October 24.

Speaking at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center in Los Angeles, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner said, "We've funded a wide range of programs and trainings aimed at keeping activists in the most repressive environments safe, including a number of Syrians who tell us they are using what they learned in the current struggle for political freedom."
Posner said Congress has allocated $70 million to support Internet freedom through technology and training for groups overseas. One nongovernmental organization that received a State Department grant developed a mobile phone application that Posner called a "panic button," for use by democracy activists anticipating ugly encounters with government authorities.

"If [activists] are being arrested, they can push a button that sends text messages to people to let [their associates] know they're in trouble," Posner told the California audience. "And it wipes the contacts in their phone, which we've been told has already proven useful."

In a speech earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke strongly about the U.S. intent to provide support for people struggling to assert their right of free expression.

"The United States continues to help people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online," Clinton said in a major address on Internet policy.

Amid recent successes in the cause of human rights in North Africa, Posner said Obama administration officials remain concerned about three likely threats against Internet freedom and human rights.

U.S. officials are watchful of some repressive governments' actions inhibiting citizens engaged in peaceful online activities. Posner said any government action of this type is a violation of international human rights law.

Some governments are adapting the most sophisticated new information technology tools, Posner said, "to spy on their own citizens for the purpose of quashing peaceful political dissent or even information that would allow citizens to know what is happening in their communities." That too is a trend the United States is monitoring.
A third trend, which Posner said has not received the scrutiny it deserves, is the attempt by some nations to convince the international community to adopt an international code of conduct for information security. Despite that innocuous name, Posner said, such a code, now proposed by China and Russia, would surely undermine media and individual freedoms.

"And it would shift cyberspace away from being people-driven to a system dominated by centralized government control," Posner said. "Not a good idea."

In her February speech on the issue, Clinton urged all nations to support an open Internet in the belief that it will lead to stronger and more prosperous countries. She expressed the view "that open societies give rise to the most lasting progress, that the rule of law is the firmest foundation for justice and peace, and that innovation thrives where ideas of all kinds are aired and explored."