We're all Americans now (and not in a good way)

Happy SOPA blackout day!

It is with no small feeling of helplessness that we observe, from the rest of world, the U.S. government's crude dabbling with legislation that threatens to cripple the internet. Unlike our American counterparts, we foreign Internet users have no representatives to petition, and despite our best efforts and the global shows of support from bloggers and online activists, we await the outcome of an American debate that will -- like the blackout of Wikipedia or Reddit -- affect users worldwide.

From a global perspective, SOPA isn't the only case in which the authorities in the U.S. have threatened to curtail the freedom of the internet in recent days.

Last week a U.S. court ordered Twitter to give it all details concerning three users in connection with a continuing investigation of the WikiLeaks affair. Those details include "all mailing addresses and billing information known for the user, all connection records and session times, all IP addresses used to access Twitter, all known email accounts, as well as the ‘means and source of payment,' including banking records and credit cards."

The three users are Jacob Appelbaum of @ioerror fame, Dutchman Rop Gonggrijp, and Icelandic Member of Parliament Birgitta Jónsdóttir.

Yep. Two of them are non-U.S. nationals. One is an elected official. And yet a court in a different country has the power to get its hands on their email details and banking records.

Plus (just to quote the Salon piece by Glenn Greenwald again):

[D]id other Internet and social network companies (Google, Facebook, etc.) receive similar Orders and then quietly comply? It's difficult to imagine why the DOJ would want information only from Twitter; if anything, given the limited information it has about users, Twitter would seem one of the least fruitful avenues to pursue. But if other companies did receive and quietly comply with these orders, it will be a long time before we know, if we ever do, given the prohibition in these orders on disclosing even its existence to anyone.

(My emphasis added.)

Notice that bit about the "prohibition on disclosing these orders." It means that the U.S. judge can steal private info, but also forbids the company from telling the concerned individuals. In the case at hand, Twitter requested that the order be unsealed so it could inform concerned users. The court agreed.

The reality is that U.S.-based companies (including Google and Twitter), as well as all the info stored on their servers, come under the jurisdiction of the U.S. legal system.

And said U.S. system not only disregards users' rights to privacy and joyfully robs us of our private information, but also reserves the option (just like criminal data thieves) to keep you in the dark if they steal your data.

Which means that, theoretically, they could have subpoenaed your and my data, and we wouldn't even be allowed to know. Picture that. (Yeah, I know. In this hypothetical case, we're interesting enough.)

They know this. Do they care? No.

For foreigners in particular, this is a cause of great concern. U.S. courts obviously have much less regard for the privacy of foreign nationals. (Seriously, an elected member of another country's parliament? They'd probably never dare do that to a member of the U.S. Congress.) So where does it end?

What about Palestinian or Bahraini activists, Iraqi opposition members, or officials from China or Iran? Why not, if they're hosted on U.S. websites?

(Imagine if Mubarak and Ben Ali could have requested details related to the online activists who helped make the 2011 revolutions. Then again, could it be that that's what actually happened? It's hard to believe that the brutes from Egyptian State Security could have figured out who was behind the "We are all Khaled Said" campaign all on their own. Judging by this ruling, we wouldn't necessarily know if a U.S. company had been forced to hand over the info.)

And that leads to other questions. The Twitter case could trigger a migration of users worried about their privacy to non-U.S.-based websites. (Someone help me set up a Weibo account!) Joke aside, why not an Iceland-based version of Twitter? I'd sign up for that, at this point.

And I wouldn't be surprised to see intensified concerns about anonymity. Facebook (and others) keep hammering away at the notion that more disclosure is good. That may be true in some cases, perhaps, but not in all. As Greenwald points out, there are no Twitter accounts in the names of Bradley Manning or Julian Assange, so it's not entirely clear what the court is basing these subpeonas on. Surely this will have a chilling effect.

It wasn't that long ago that we Egyptians were taking to the streets to demand an end to barbed wire and firewalls.  So it's rather ironic that we should be facing this threat to freedom of expression from the Americans, of all people.

Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Democracy Lab

Revolution year one in Tunis

On Jan. 14, I joined thousands of people who gathered in Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis to celebrate the first anniversary of the ouster of dictator Zein El Abedin Ben Ali. The cradle of the Arab revolutions, Tunisia seems to have managed its post-uprising transition better than any other country in the region. The Tunisians already have an elected government and constituent assembly that they've tasked with drafting a new constitution. Needless to say, that puts them way ahead of Egypt or Libya. I was overjoyed to have a chance to participate in the celebration.

Expecting a street party, I brought my own tricolor Egyptian flag, which I raised alongside the others. In the sea of red-and-white Tunisian flags it was possible to spot a few others here and there. I saw a few from the various political parties (mostly the white banner of Ennahda, the Islamist group that won the most votes in the general election three months ago), black-and-white ones raised by ultra-conservative Salafis, a few Libya and Palestinian flags, and one with the national colors of the Berbers, the large non-Arab minority group of North Africa.

I confess that I had also brought along my preconceived idea of how the day might look. I imagined that it would be like one of those festive Friday afternoons in Tahrir Square back home (on one of those increasingly rare days when the army isn't brutalizing protesters, that is). I thought we'd see the same families and strollers and flags and the four sets of giant speakers alternately blaring slogans, songs, or incomprehensible jibberish, as well as the iconic vendors of popcorn and sweet potatoes who go about their business regardless of the weather or the tear gas, the fumes of whatever they're roasting actually helping to make the air less breathable.

Well, Tunis did indeed have the popcorn guy, and the guy selling suspicious-looking chemical pink-colored peanuts. But the ambience was distinctly different from what I had expected.

Apparently it was different from what many had expected.

To be sure, it was a joyful day. Yet there were many participants who seemed lukewarm. Those who were hoping for a protest that would underline that the revolution continues were dismayed by the apparent party vibe. Those who wanted to party were disappointed that the displays of joy weren't clearer or better organized.

As we drove toward the crowded avenue, two of my Tunisian friends, the activists and entrepreneurs Hanane Hassainya and Slim Amamou, lamented that the celebration wasn't taking place on the day of the escape of Ben Ali. "We should be celebrating on December 17th, on the beginning of the revolution," said Amamou. "That's a date we know. But we cannot mark the ‘end' of the revolution - for we don't know when it's going to end." We decided to walk along the avenue and get an idea of what people were thinking. We made our way past the Ministry of Interior, which had increased the size of the restricted area around the building, putting up new barbed wire barriers that pushed people farther away. With no irony whatsoever, someone had put p a big banner on the building that declared "together we build the security of tomorrow's Tunisia." But soon we found ourselves immersed in marches, bystanders, political party banners, and posters depicting the events that took place at this very spot just one year ago.

Political groups were highly visible and accounted for most of the noise. The Ennahda party had the liveliest gathering. Having set up a stage on the steps of the Popular Theater, they tirelessly clapped and chanted. Unlike the banners hanging behind them, few of their slogans had religious undertones. They demanded retribution for the Tunisians who lost their lives during the uprising a year ago and called for a better future. Just a few meters away were the Salafis in their traditional beards or niqabs; a man screaming through a megaphone led the slogans. The youth organization of Ettakatol (the secular social democratic party) had set up a tent that served as a political discussion hub: people were invited to write or draw on giant canvasses to express their thoughts on the country and the revolution. "I no longer hate the police," wrote one anonymous contributor, in small handwriting on an already busy canvas. Soon enough, however, the colors and markers were put to a different use, and kids (and adults) were lining up to have a Tunisian flag (or anything else they wanted) drawn on their hands or faces.

Ali, a university student from Tunis, was there with his friends. He lamented that politics had taken over the celebration. "It's not people, it's parties," he told us. "Look at them, Ennahda on that side, further down is the Ettakatol, and all the others. They took over the celebration."

My Egyptian flag was a bit of an attraction and an excellent ice-breaker. A few people actually hugged me. Dozens of people borrowed it for a photo, and I took a photo with a young man wrapped in a Tunisian flag and carrying a cardboard handwritten sign that said "The only hero is the people." A man came over to show me his Gamal Abdel Nasser poster. Several people wanted to know the situation in Egypt. When I answered by explaining that we're currently battling a military dictatorship, it usually prompted a reply from the Tunisians along the lines of, "Well, things aren't so great here, either." Some of the decisions made by the new elected government in Tunisia are reminiscent of Ben Ali's day. When the government recently tried to appoint the chief editors of several leading newspapers, the move prompted public outrage that forced it to back down. But the whole episode has cast a thick fog of doubt around the new government's commitment to freedom of expression.

On the other hand, one older Tunisian, a pensioner by the name of Adnan, was unequivocally positive. "It's a wonderful day," he told us. "I would have hoped to see people happier, and I would have hoped that one year after the revolution the Tunisian people would be more united. Still, it's a glorious day." At the same time, he did express some reservations about the state of the economy after the revolution. "Politically we're advancing rapidly, but economically it's the same, if not worse, for a lot of people. At the same time, though, people want things fixed immediately, and it's just not possible."

As if to agree with Adnan's comments, we noticed a nearby banner from the "Union of Unemployed Graduates," which has been conducting a campaign for fair and transparent guidelines on appointments to government jobs. A little later, activists from Amnesty International passed by in a silent march, their mouths covered in tape.

Later in the day, I joined a lively discussion organized by a group of political activists at the office of Nawaat, the famous activist collective that galvanized Tunisian public opinion before and during the revolution. They may have different methods, but one year into their revolution Tunisian activists and youth remain equally committed to the welfare of their country.

As I see it, that commitment is what is most worth celebrating.