Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Silicon Valley and US intelligence doing more than heavy petting

Following the recent revelations about global surveillance and Prism by leaker Edward Snowden, the mainstream media is finally seriously investigating the intimate and unhealthy links between tech firms and the US government. This New York Times story reveals some of those connections and why none of us should trust the privacy pledges given by Facebook, Google and their merry mates:

When Max Kelly, the chief security officer for Facebook, left the social media company in 2010, he did not go to Google, Twitter or a similar Silicon Valley concern. Instead the man who was responsible for protecting the personal information of Facebook’s more than one billion users from outside attacks went to work for another giant institution that manages and analyzes large pools of data: the National Security Agency.

Mr. Kelly’s move to the spy agency, which has not previously been reported, underscores the increasingly deep connections between Silicon Valley and the agency and the degree to which they are now in the same business. Both hunt for ways to collect, analyze and exploit large pools of data about millions of Americans.

The only difference is that the N.S.A. does it for intelligence, and Silicon Valley does it to make money.

The disclosure of the spy agency’s program called Prism, which is said to collect the e-mails and other Web activity of foreigners using major Internet companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook, has prompted the companies to deny that the agency has direct access to their computers, even as they acknowledge complying with secret N.S.A. court orders for specific data.

Yet technology experts and former intelligence officials say the convergence between Silicon Valley and the N.S.A. and the rise of data mining — both as an industry and as a crucial intelligence tool — have created a more complex reality.

Silicon Valley has what the spy agency wants: vast amounts of private data and the most sophisticated software available to analyze it. The agency in turn is one of Silicon Valley’s largest customers for what is known as data analytics, one of the valley’s fastest-growing markets. To get their hands on the latest software technology to manipulate and take advantage of large volumes of data, United States intelligence agencies invest in Silicon Valley start-ups, award classified contracts and recruit technology experts like Mr. Kelly.

“We are all in these Big Data business models,” said Ray Wang, a technology analyst and chief executive of Constellation Research, based in San Francisco. “There are a lot of connections now because the data scientists and the folks who are building these systems have a lot of common interests.”

Although Silicon Valley has sold equipment to the N.S.A. and other intelligence agencies for a generation, the interests of the two began to converge in new ways in the last few years as advances in computer storage technology drastically reduced the costs of storing enormous amounts of data — at the same time that the value of the data for use in consumer marketing began to rise. “These worlds overlap,” said Philipp S. Krüger, chief executive of Explorist, an Internet start-up in New York.

The sums the N.S.A. spends in Silicon Valley are classified, as is the agency’s total budget, which independent analysts say is $8 billion to $10 billion a year.

Despite the companies’ assertions that they cooperate with the agency only when legally compelled, current and former industry officials say the companies sometimes secretly put together teams of in-house experts to find ways to cooperate more completely with the N.S.A. and to make their customers’ information more accessible to the agency. The companies do so, the officials say, because they want to control the process themselves. They are also under subtle but powerful pressure from the N.S.A. to make access easier.

Skype, the Internet-based calling service, began its own secret program, Project Chess, to explore the legal and technical issues in making Skype calls readily available to intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials, according to people briefed on the program who asked not to be named to avoid trouble with the intelligence agencies.

Project Chess, which has never been previously disclosed, was small, limited to fewer than a dozen people inside Skype, and was developed as the company had sometimes contentious talks with the government over legal issues, said one of the people briefed on the project. The project began about five years ago, before most of the company was sold by its parent, eBay, to outside investors in 2009. Microsoft acquired Skype in an $8.5 billion deal that was completed in October 2011.

A Skype executive denied last year in a blog post that recent changes in the way Skype operated were made at the behest of Microsoft to make snooping easier for law enforcement. It appears, however, that Skype figured out how to cooperate with the intelligence community before Microsoft took over the company, according to documents leaked by Edward J. Snowden, a former contractor for the N.S.A. One of the documents about the Prism program made public by Mr. Snowden says Skype joined Prism on Feb. 6, 2011.

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ABC Radio’s The World Today on Edward Snowden and Prism

I was interviewed today for ABC Radio’s The World Today program:

ELEANOR HALL: In the Federal Parliament today, The Greens will attempt to get an explanation from the Government about Australia’s involvement in the US PRISM surveillance system.

America’s National Security Agency confirmed last week that it is running a clandestine internet surveillance program which pulls in data from large social networks.

The Federal Government in Australia has refused to confirm or deny if US spy agencies have shared information with Australian authorities.

As Will Ockenden reports.

WILL OCKENDEN: It’s been a big few weeks for national security, intelligence and big data enthusiasts.

Revelations about the National Security Agency’s PRISM project by former contractor Edward Snowden have caused a controversy and debate in America.

The US government has answered some questions about how widespread the program is, how deep the monitoring goes, and where collected data ends up.

But in Australia the Federal Government has remained more tight-lipped, and Greens’ communications spokesman Scott Ludlam wants answers.

SCOTT LUDLAN: I want from the Government to know whether this warrantless surveillance scandal that’s unfolding in the United States is occurring here.

Are Australian agencies using this technology or are we importing large data dumps from the United States?

WILL OCKENDEN: Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus hasn’t confirmed or denied if intelligence agencies in the US have shared information from PRISM with authorities in Australia.

Senator Scott Ludlam raised the matter in the Senate yesterday.

SCOTT LUDLAM: Minister, are Australian authorities and agencies receiving huge volumes of information from the United States?

WILL OCKENDEN: The Minister representing the Attorney-General in the Senate is Joe Ludwig.

JOE LUDWIG: As a matter of principle – a long standing one at that – the Government doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.

WILL OCKENDEN: He says if there were any Australian involvement in the sharing of intelligence, like the operation of US PRISM system itself, it would be within the bounds of law.

JOE LUDWIG: The relevant Australian agencies are discussing with their US counterparts any possible implication the NSA disclosure may have for the Australian Government. There is – can I be plain about this – no basis to claim the Australian agencies get access to information from the US that would not otherwise be legal in Australia.

WILL OCKENDEN: The Greens say they’ll try to get Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus to explain to Parliament Australia’s involvement in the PRISM system, via a motion today.

Information activist and writer Antony Loewenstein says, even if the motion does pass, any statement is unlikely to provide much information.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Regardless of who’s in power in Canberra there’s a sense somehow that although the US prosecutes intelligence security around the world, Australia wants to be seen under that umbrella and rarely asks questions privately or publicly.

WILL OCKENDEN: He also wonders why the surveillance debate in Australia has been less than the debates overseas.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Some in the media and many of the political elites on both major sides collude to keep the issue as unimportant or simply, business at usual.

WILL OCKENDEN: While it’s not known if US spy agencies are sharing data with Australia, authorities here are increasingly requesting data from the big US technology companies.

Government requests for data about Australian users of Google went up by more than 11 per cent in the last half of 2012 to 584 requests.

It’s somewhat of a trend. Requests for Google user data have gone up every year since 2009.

The World Today asked the Attorney-General’s office how often the Government asks for data from social media and email providers, like Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

In a statement, it said it doesn’t report on how many individual requests are made to specific providers.

ELEANOR HALL: Will Ockenden.

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Julian Assange on the threat posed by US-govt backed web evangelists

What a stunning piece. Julian Assange writes the following review in the New York Times on the kind of mundane yet dangerous “debates” sucked up by many in the mainstream media when it comes to the supposedly liberating nature of the internet. When the corporation becomes far more powerful than the state (and they work together):

“The New Digital Age” is a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of its leading witch doctors, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the 21st century. This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley, as personified by Mr. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and Mr. Cohen, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton who is now director of Google Ideas.

The authors met in occupied Baghdad in 2009, when the book was conceived. Strolling among the ruins, the two became excited that consumer technology was transforming a society flattened by United States military occupation. They decided the tech industry could be a powerful agent of American foreign policy.

The book proselytizes the role of technology in reshaping the world’s people and nations into likenesses of the world’s dominant superpower, whether they want to be reshaped or not. The prose is terse, the argument confident and the wisdom — banal. But this isn’t a book designed to be read. It is a major declaration designed to foster alliances.

“The New Digital Age” is, beyond anything else, an attempt by Google to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary — the one company that can answer the question “Where should America go?” It is not surprising that a respectable cast of the world’s most famous warmongers has been trotted out to give its stamp of approval to this enticement to Western soft power. The acknowledgments give pride of place to Henry Kissinger, who along with Tony Blair and the former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden provided advance praise for the book.

In the book the authors happily take up the white geek’s burden. A liberal sprinkling of convenient, hypothetical dark-skinned worthies appear: Congolese fisherwomen, graphic designers in Botswana, anticorruption activists in San Salvador and illiterate Masai cattle herders in the Serengeti are all obediently summoned to demonstrate the progressive properties of Google phones jacked into the informational supply chain of the Western empire.

The authors offer an expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world: the gadgetry of decades hence is predicted to be much like what we have right now — only cooler. “Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth. Already, every day, another million or so Google-run mobile devices are activated. Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.

The authors are sour about the Egyptian triumph of 2011. They dismiss the Egyptian youth witheringly, claiming that “the mix of activism and arrogance in young people is universal.” Digitally inspired mobs mean revolutions will be “easier to start” but “harder to finish.” Because of the absence of strong leaders, the result, or so Mr. Kissinger tells the authors, will be coalition governments that descend into autocracies. They say there will be “no more springs” (but China is on the ropes).

The authors fantasize about the future of “well resourced” revolutionary groups. A new “crop of consultants” will “use data to build and fine-tune a political figure.”

“His” speeches (the future isn’t all that different) and writing will be fed “through complex feature-extraction and trend-analysis software suites” while “mapping his brain function,” and other “sophisticated diagnostics” will be used to “assess the weak parts of his political repertoire.”

The book mirrors State Department institutional taboos and obsessions. It avoids meaningful criticism of Israel and Saudi Arabia. It pretends, quite extraordinarily, that the Latin American sovereignty movement, which has liberated so many from United States-backed plutocracies and dictatorships over the last 30 years, never happened. Referring instead to the region’s “aging leaders,” the book can’t see Latin America for Cuba. And, of course, the book frets theatrically over Washington’s favorite boogeymen: North Korea and Iran.

I have a very different perspective. The advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism. This is the principal thesis in my book, “Cypherpunks.” But while Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Cohen tell us that the death of privacy will aid governments in “repressive autocracies” in “targeting their citizens,” they also say governments in “open” democracies will see it as “a gift” enabling them to “better respond to citizen and customer concerns.” In reality, the erosion of individual privacy in the West and the attendant centralization of power make abuses inevitable, moving the “good” societies closer to the “bad” ones.

The section on “repressive autocracies” describes, disapprovingly, various repressive surveillance measures: legislation to insert back doors into software to enable spying on citizens, monitoring of social networks and the collection of intelligence on entire populations. All of these are already in widespread use in the United States. In fact, some of those measures — like the push to require every social-network profile to be linked to a real name — were spearheaded by Google itself.

THE writing is on the wall, but the authors cannot see it. They borrow from William Dobson the idea that the media, in an autocracy, “allows for an opposition press as long as regime opponents understand where the unspoken limits are.” But these trends are beginning to emerge in the United States. No one doubts the chilling effects of the investigations into The Associated Press and Fox’s James Rosen. But there has been little analysis of Google’s role in complying with the Rosen subpoena. I have personal experience of these trends.

The Department of Justice admitted in March that it was in its third year of a continuing criminal investigation of WikiLeaks. Court testimony states that its targets include “the founders, owners, or managers of WikiLeaks.” One alleged source, Bradley Manning, faces a 12-week trial beginning tomorrow, with 24 prosecution witnesses expected to testify in secret.

This book is a balefully seminal work in which neither author has the language to see, much less to express, the titanic centralizing evil they are constructing. “What Lockheed Martin was to the 20th century,” they tell us, “technology and cybersecurity companies will be to the 21st.” Without even understanding how, they have updated and seamlessly implemented George Orwell’s prophecy. If you want a vision of the future, imagine Washington-backed Google Glasses strapped onto vacant human faces — forever. Zealots of the cult of consumer technology will find little to inspire them here, not that they ever seem to need it. But this is essential reading for anyone caught up in the struggle for the future, in view of one simple imperative: Know your enemy.

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Perhaps Israel should sue Google for anti-Semitism

Israel’s response to this mundane and necessary decision by Google tells us much about the attitude of the Zionist state to any company or anybody who accepts Palestinians as human beings:

Internet search giant, Google, has recognised the Palestinians’ upgraded UN status, placing the name “Palestine” on its search engine instead of “Palestinian Territories”.

The domain name www.google.ps, Google’s search engine for the territories, now brings up a homepage with “Palestine” written underneath the Google logo.

The move on Wednesday follows the UN nation decision last year to recognise Palestine as a “non-observer state”.

“We’re changing the name ‘Palestinian Territories’ to ‘Palestine’ across our products. We consult a number of sources and authorities when naming countries. In this case, we are following the lead of the UN … and other international organisations,” Google spokesman Nathan Tyler said.

The UN General Assembly in November upgraded Palestine to the status of non-member observer state by a vote of 138 votes in favour, nine against and 41 abstentions.

Palestinian authorities have since begun to use the “State of Palestine” in diplomatic correspondence and issued official stamps for the purpose. 

Israel however questioned the move, saying that it raised questions about the multinational company’s involvement in international politics.

“This change raises questions about the reasons behind this surprising involvement of what is basically a private internet company in international politics, and on the controversial side,” Yigal Palmor, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, told AFP news agency.

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Iran’s “sphere of fear” around internet censorship

Al-Jazeera’s The Listening Post on one of the world’s most ambitious attempts to restrict the flow of information online:

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The news is now YouTubed

Fascinating new results on how we now consume news and what this may mean for the future of journalism (via Journalism.org):

Worldwide YouTube is becoming a major platform for viewing news. In 2011 and early 2012, the most searched term of the month on YouTube was a news related event five out of 15 months, according to the company’s internal data. 

What is the nature of news on YouTube? What types of events “go viral” and attract the most viewers? How does this agenda differ from that of the traditional news media? Do the most popular videos on YouTube tend to be videos produced by professional news organizations, by citizens or by political interest groups or governments? How long does people’s attention seem to last?

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism examined 15 months’ worth of the most popular news videos on the site (January 2011 to March 2012)[2]-some 260 different videos in all-by identifying and tracking the five most-viewed videos each week located in the “news & politics” channel of YouTube, analyzing the nature of the video, the topics that were viewed most often, who produced them and who posted them.[3]   

The data reveal that a complex, symbiotic relationship has developed between citizens and news organizations on YouTube, a relationship that comes close to the continuous journalistic “dialogue” many observers predicted would become the new journalism online. Citizens are creating their own videos about news and posting them. They are also actively sharing news videos produced by journalism professionals. And news organizations are taking advantage of citizen content and incorporating it into their journalism. Consumers, in turn, seem to be embracing the interplay in what they watch and share, creating a new kind of television news.

At the same time, clear ethical standards have not developed on how to attribute the video content moving through the synergistic sharing loop. Even though YouTube offers guidelines on how to attribute content, it’s clear that not everyone follows them, and certain scenarios fall outside those covered by the guidelines. News organizations sometimes post content that was apparently captured by citizen eyewitnesses without any clear attribution as to the original producer. Citizens are posting copyrighted material without permission. And the creator of some material cannot be identified. All this creates the potential for news to be manufactured, or even falsified, without giving audiences much ability to know who produced it or how to verify it.

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My 2012 PEN Free Voices lecture on free speech and why it matters

The following is published today as the lead piece by ABC’s The Drum:

The two-hour drive from Islamabad to Peshawar is along a surprisingly smooth road. Mud-brick homes sit amongst lush, green fields. Police checkpoints are set up routinely to stop unwanted visitors.

I am asked why I want to see the troubled Pakistani town near the border with Afghanistan. I say I’m a reporter, flash my International Federation of Journalists press card, which I’m sure the officer can’t read, and am quickly waved through.

Islamabad is a relatively liberal city in one of the most volatile nations on earth. Peshawar is geographically close but a world away. Women, if they’re seen at all in public, walk in shapeless burkas and men have thick beards and wear the traditional salwar kameez. Suicide bombers regularly attack government buildings, police and army in a continuing war against the Pakistani state and its Western backers. I arrive feeling uneasy.

A once stable town has been torn apart in the last decade as militants seek to overthrow both a corrupt central government and expel a Washington-led campaign against the resistance that is seen as illegitimate and lacking public support.

When I visit in March this year, I am surprised by the vibrancy of the Pakistani media. Multiple outlets joust for dominance, routinely publishing scandalous information about politicians and celebrities. But as I have seen first-hand in Iran, Palestine, Syria, Cuba and Egypt and a range of other countries, magical “red lines” exist that must not be crossed. If they are, journalists can pay an extremely high price.

I meet independent journalist Hayat in Peshawar. He’s 35 with a wife and two young children. He wears a pink-striped shirt and grey suit. Pockmarked face. His office is on the third floor of a non-descript building. His knowledge about the FATA (Federal Administered Tribal Areas) is immense, having spent time in the various regions. He talks about the different Taliban groups, how they relate to each other and the government.

Peshawar is on the edge of this abyss, the entry point to a tribal land that remains impossible for Westerners and most Pakistanis to visit. Since 9/11, it has been occupied by the Pakistani army and militants and often remains lawless.

It is where US president Obama, far more than his predecessor George W Bush, has unleashed an unprecedented number of drone strikes, killing hundreds of civilians since 2009, according to a recent study by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. These men, women and children are rarely given names by the Western media. Instead our media class are happy to simply repeat official Pakistani and American government claims of killing “terrorists”.

We degrade our profession by mindlessly rehashing White House press releases with no evidence to support the thesis. Sadly it has become a regular occurrence in both the tabloid and so-called quality press, including the ABC, Fairfax and News Limited. “10 militants killed”; “7 Al-Qaeda terrorists killed”. No evidence. Rarely any photographs or video. This isn’t journalism; it’s stenography.

Hayat’s voice is invisible in the West, despite speaking fluent English. Here’s a man with unique access to one of the most challenging areas on the planet and yet most Western news outlets seemingly prefer to rely on familiar faces and voices. When was the last time you read an article about Iraq or Afghanistan by an Afghan or Iraqi actually based in their respective countries?

During research for my book, The Blogging Revolution, on the internet in repressive regimes, a work that took me to Cuba, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, it became clear that many in the Western media are reluctant to hear voices that don’t conform to their idea of what a foreigner should sound like or think. It is the only explanation for the near-complete exclusion of indigenous voices from conflict zones in our mainstream press.

Their freedom of speech is ignored because of the inherent, Western-centric nature of our leading journalists and media practitioners. Let me be blunt; our white-skin dominated media often doesn’t trust brown, yellow or black skin. The result is a wilful myopia that ignores both the nuance of a nation and the reasons post 9/11 that so little is understood about the reality of the rapacious “war on terror” and its reach in dozens of countries worldwide.

Why do “they” hate us? Because we occupy and kill “them”.

A recent story by independent journalist Matthieu Aikins in the Columbia Journalism Review should be a wake-up call to anybody who believes that advocating free speech in a globalised world hasn’t changed in the last decade. It has, hugely. Aikins details a recent story by a filmmaker from Britain’s Channel 4 who worked with Syrian dissidents in the capital Damascus. The Syrian was providing secure communications expertise to the resistance and the Western filmmaker interviewed him about his work. But the dissident worried that the documentarian wasn’t taking appropriate security precautions to protect his identity and work. For example, he was using a mobile phone and SMS without protections.

Last October the filmmaker was arrested in Syria, held for days in prison and had has laptop, mobile phone, camera and footage taken by the regime. As soon as he discovered this, the dissident fled Damascus, stayed with relatives in another town and then escaped to Lebanon. The dissident and his colleagues were scared that Syrian intelligence now had access to names, faces and information about opponents of president Assad.

Aikins rightly says that it’s easy to condemn the filmmaker for not taking adequate digital precautions of his material but it’s really systematic of a wider problem.

We are all failing to encrypt our work when reporting from conflict zones and nations where intelligence services are ubiquitous. I have been guilty of this myself. When off-the-shelf surveillance equipment is now so easily available – WikiLeaks’ Spy Files revealed the vast number of Western security firms selling technology to repressive and democratic states, making the monitoring of email, Skype and mobile phone calls – it is the responsibility of journalists, human rights activists and NGOs to learn how to protect information that could mean the difference between life and death for the people we claim to represent and protect.

But we are foolish to believe these threats only exist in the non-Western world. The Obama administration has accelerated the development of a surveillance state apparatus that now listens and records every phone call and email every day in the US. Some estimate up to 20 trillion calls and emails have been stored in the last years. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has written extensively about Obama’s unprecedented war on whistle-blowers.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan recently, working on a book and film about disaster capitalism, I heard countless reporters talking about self-censorship, a daily need to assess what to write and what to avoid.

During a recent episode of Julian Assange’s The World Tomorrow – an outstanding weekly TV program that interviews some of the key thinkers and players in our world, individuals largely ignored by the corporate media – he spoke to Alaa Abd El-Fattah from Egypt and Nabeel Rajab from Bahrain. Both men have been imprisoned, tortured, held without charge. Both men remain outspoken. Both men refuse to be silenced and curtail their own free speech. Both men should be heard in our media on a regular basis but they are not. I believe it is because they are ferociously opposed to US-backed repression. They are unapologetic. Passionate. Necessarily unbalanced in their views towards Washington’s love of reliable autocrats. And yet their biggest recent audience is on the WikiLeaks founder’s current affairs show.

An inquisitive media would be intrigued with a book such as Poetry of the Taliban, a just-released tome that outlines without romanticising the love, adventure and fears of a group both pre and post September 11 that has beaten the world’s greatest super-power.

Supporting freedom of speech in its entirety, not merely claiming to appreciate all views but actually meaning it, as far too many liberals only endorse points of view with which they agree, means hearing the positions of groups or individuals with whom you may vehemently oppose. Truly free speech should make us uncomfortable, confronted and offended.

The internet has brought knowledge and information to more people than at any time in history. There are close to one billion Facebook accounts. Countless people use YouTube and Google every day.

But none of these tools provide human rights protections or ensure free speech. They merely give officials more opportunities to monitor and document a user’s online footprint. Although they allow activists much easier access to friends and colleagues around the world – and using online proxies to communicate and surf freely are essential in both repressive and democratic states – the reach of Western security companies is far greater than most people realise. It is no longer paranoid to presume that we are being watched and monitored by the state.

Wired magazine recently revealed that the National Security Agency in the US is building a $2 billion centre that aims to:

“intercept, decipher, analyse, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks… Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.'”

The threat to freedom of speech globally isn’t just in the obvious places – Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico or China – but in our own backyard, instituted by our democratically elected leaders.

We have been warned.

This is an extract from the 2012 PEN Free Voices lecture, first delivered at the Sydney Writers Festival in May.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author, co-editor with Jeff Sparrow, of the just released Left Turn, the upcoming After Zionism and a 2013 book and film about disaster capitalism. Follow him on Twitter. View his full profile here.

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Our web future is censored unless we fight our own government’s secret demands

The sooner we adjust our thinking to understand that growing number of so-called democracies rather like the idea of censoring the internet, the better (via the Guardian):

There has been an alarming rise in the number of times governments attempted to censor the internet in last six months, according to a report from Google.

Since the search engine last published its bi-annual transparency report, it said it had seen a troubling increase in requests to remove political content. Many of these requests came from western democracies not typically associated with censorship.

It said Spanish regulators asked Google to remove 270 links to blogs and newspaper articles critical of public figures. It did not comply. In Poland, it was asked to remove an article critical of the Polish agency for enterprise development and eight other results that linked to the article. Again, the company did not comply.

Google was asked by Canadian officials to remove a YouTube video of a citizen urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet. It refused.

Thai authorities asked Google to remove 149 YouTube videos for allegedly insulting the monarchy, a violation of Thailand’s lèse-majesté law. The company complied with 70% of the requests.

Pakistan asked Google to remove six YouTube videos that satirised its army and senior politicians. Google refused.

UK police asked the company to remove five YouTube accounts for allegedly promoting terrorism. Google agreed. In the US most requests related to alleged harassment of people on YouTube. The authorities asked for 187 pieces to be removed. Google complied with 42% of them.

In a blog post, Dorothy Chou, Google’s senior policy analyst, wrote: “Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different. When we started releasing this data, in 2010, we noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services. We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it’s not.

“This is the fifth data set that we’ve released. Just like every other time, we’ve been asked to take down political speech. It’s alarming not only because free expression is at risk, but because some of these requests come from countries you might not suspect – western democracies not typically associated with censorship.”

Over the six months covered by the latest report, Google complied with an average of 65% of court orders, as opposed to 47% of more informal requests.

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The Blogging Revolution gets endorsement in Calcutta

The Indian edition of my book The Blogging Revolution was recently released. Here’s a just published review in The Telegraph from Calcutta:

The Blogging Revolution: How the newest media is changing politics, business and culture in India, China, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Cuba and Saudi Arabia By Antony Loewenstein, Jaico, Rs 350

Antony Loewenstein’s book is an intelligent examination of the dichotomous character of the internet, a force that can be both “liberating and restrictive”. Political analysts have often excitedly pointed at the arms of the new media — Facebook, Twitter, blogs — as catalysts for the Arab Spring that toppled several autocratic regimes in the Muslim world. As proof, they refer to the spark that was lit in Tunisia. When a street vendor immolated himself to protest against harassment by authorities, irate local people posted the video of his death on Facebook. Al-Jazeera distributed the video on its network, starting a fire that singed despotic regimes in the region. Loewenstein’s journeys across Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China and his interactions with online dissenters have given him the leverage to posit a caveat in this respect. The internet, he argues, has crystallized into a critical platform for disseminating information among dissidents. But it remains only one of the many arrows in the quiver in the battle for democracy.

Loewenstein bolsters his argument by citing the failure of the ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran. All the factors needed for yet another revolution inspired by the ‘web’ was in place: a repressive regime, tech-savvy youth, YouTube videos of State violence, and so on. Yet Ahmadinejad could not be dislodged from his throne. If anything, the tables have been turned on anonymous dissidents by regimes in China, Russia and Iran that are covertly colluding with technology companies to root out online dissent. Loewenstein’s research reveals that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are competing to design effective deterrents to curb freedom in cyberspace. Significantly, the institutional backlash against online dissidence has borrowed heavily from the rule-book of dissenters. Iran, for instance, has assisted in the formation of individual religious blogs to counter ‘revolutionary propaganda’.

The Blogging Revolution dismantles several other half-truths. In mainstream media, dissidence is often glorified, but journalists seldom pay attention to the forlornness of the enterprise. Here, we come across an Egyptian dissident who confides that his battle against the State has left him terribly lonely. He seems to echo the pain of the Cuban woman activist who confesses her estrangement from her son on account of her opposition to Castro.

Loewenstein also punctures the claim that cyber dissent has helped forge a pan-Arab nationalism. He unearths the ethnic tensions that continue to brew in Syria over the question of Iraqi refugees, thereby exposing new faultliness that are eroding old ties based on identity.

Online campaigns are not only about democracy. For the women respondents, the war is also against regressive norms and their proponents. An Iranian artist complains that she cannot exhibit her work in Iran; an Egyptian blogger reveals that she finds the views of the Muslim Brotherhood extreme. It is heartening to see Loewenstein address the question of women’s empowerment to suggest that the battle against tyranny is complex and layered, and that political change is meaningless without social transition.

Loewenstein should also be thanked for his attempt to democratize information. He is aware that the debased culture of contemporary reportage often prioritizes Western hegemony and interests. His unembedded travels help liberate voices that are seldom accommodated in the mainstream Western media. A Saudi blogger insists that change can never be imposed from the outside on the Muslim world. He could have been speaking for nearly every other dissident. Their views offer compelling evidence for the West to temper its campaign to project the new media as a tool to engineer revolution in the Muslim world.

Loewenstein’s book would also be of use to Indian readers and journalists. The latter, who often succumb to the lure of sensationalism, will find in it a template for objective reporting. Loewenstein’s sympathies may lie with the oppressed but he does not allow his sentiments to cloud his broader objectives. His prose thus remains dispassionate, economical, and nearly always enquiring. As for Indian readers, this book will perhaps make them value their freedom of expression and remind them not to take that right for granted. It will also make them wary of seemingly innocuous developments such as the minister for human resources directing social networking sites to remove ‘objectionable’ content or the judiciary mulling over guidelines for the media in India.

But what of the future, both in the real and cyber world? Even after revolutions — whether or not aided by the social media— things may remain unchanged. In Egypt, recently freed from the shadow of Mubarak, a blogger was imprisoned for criticizing the military. Loewenstein reminds us that it is imperative for dissident bloggers to remain engaged with the injustices that are perpetrated not just in repressive states but also in the free world.

An Iranian blogger had once written that every light that remains switched on in Teheran at night showed that “somebody is sitting behind [sic] a computer, driving through [sic] information road; and that is in fact a storehouse of gun powder that, if ignited, will start a great firework in the capital of the revolutionary Islam”. That light, Loewenstein urges, should never be turned off.

UDDALAK MUKHERJEE

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Iran aims to create an internet cut off from the world

Is this the future for autocratic regimes that fear web-savvy youth calling for freedom and democracy? Sounds like a perfect weapon to silence dissent. Resistance will be essential:

Millions of Internet users in Iran will be permanently denied access to the World Wide Web and cut off from popular social networking sites and email services, as the government has announced its plans to establish a national Intranet within five months.

In a statement released Thursday, Reza Taghipour, the Iranian minister for Information and Communications Technology, announced the setting up of a national Intranet and the effective blockage of services like Google, Gmail, Google Plus, Yahoo and Hotmail, in line with Iran’s plan for a “clean Internet.”

The government is set to roll out the first phase of the project in May, following which Google, Hotmail and Yahoo services will be blocked and replaced with government Intranet services like Iran Mail and Iran Search Engine. At this stage, however, the World Wide Web, apart from the aforementioned sites, will still be accessible.

The government has already started the registration procedure to apply for procuring Iran Mail ID, which mandates authentic information pertaining to a person’s identity, including national ID, address and full name. Registration will be approved only after verifying it against the government data on the particular applicant.

The second and final stage of the national Intranet will be launched in August, which will permanently deny Iranians access to the Internet.

“All Internet Service Providers (ISP) should only present National Internet by August,” Taghipour said in the statement.

For a country like Iran that exercises high levels of government control across sectors, establishing an insulated Internet shouldn’t be too much of a technical hassle. The new system would be more or less similar to the corporate intranet, where one can only access pages approved by the system administrators.

Iranian ISPs already face heavy penalties if they fail to comply with the government filter list. By establishing the Intranet, the government control is set to become stricter.

Foreign sites can still be accessed over the Intranet provided they are mentioned in a “white list” set up by the government. The government is also believed to be planning for better control on proxy servers which allow users to access banned sites.  

Taghipour was added to the European Union sanctions list on Mar. 23, due to his involvement in the human rights violations during the 2009-2010 Iranian election protests. According to the EU, the Iranian Communications minister was one of the top officials in charge of censorship of the Internet and Internet-based activism.

By creating a complete blockade on free Internet, Tehran could be setting a dangerous precedent for authoritative nations that may harbor similar plans in the future. In fact, the Iranian government has already announced its plans to “export” the winning formula for an isolated Intranet to the rest of the world.

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Nothing is private in the 21st century

Our digital world is increasingly monitored by a range of state and non-state actors. Be afraid and be aware.

A recent cover story in Wired showed how the US government, with no transparency, is building a massive listening station where everybody is targeted:

Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.

But “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”

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Just how close is Google to the US government?

Newly released documents from Wikileaks suggest that the internet giant has an agenda rather different to just a very fast search engine (via Al Akhbar):

Top Google execs, including the company’s CEO and one of Barack Obama’s major presidential campaign donors Eric Schmidt, informed the intelligence agency Stratfor about Google’s activities and internal communication regarding “regime change” in the Middle East, according to Stratfor emails released by WikiLeaks and obtained by Al-Akhbar. The other source cited was Google’s director for security and safety Marty Lev.

The briefings mainly focused on the movements of Jared Cohen, currently the director of Google Ideas, a “think/do-tank” billed as a vehicle for spreading American-style liberal democracy. Cohen was also a former member of US Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and former advisor to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

Email exchanges, starting February 2011, suggest that Google execs were suspicious that Cohen was coordinating his moves with the White House and cut Cohen’s mission short at times for fear he was taking too many risks. Stratfor’s vice-president of counter-terrorism Fred Burton, who seemed opposed to Google’s alleged covert role in “foaming” uprisings, describes Cohen as a “loose Cannon” whose killing or kidnapping “might be the best thing to happen” to expose Google.

The Cohen Conspiracy

Stratfor’s spotlight on Cohen began on 9 February 2012 after Burton forwarded to the secure email list a Foreign Policy article discussing Cohen’s move from the State Department to Google Ideas. With this article, Burton noted that Cohen had dinner in Cairo with Wael Ghonim on January 27, 2011 just hours before the Egyptian Google Executive was famously picked up by Egypt’s State Security. (doc-id 1122191)

On the same day, Stratfor’s staff make reference to a Huffington Post article which highlighted Cohen’s role in “delaying the scheduled maintenance on Twitter so the Iranian revolution could keep going” and a Foreign Policy article that noted that Cohen “was a Rhodes scholar, spent time in Iran, [and] hung out in Iraq during the war…”. These casual discovers further perked Stratfor’s curiosity about Cohen. (doc-id 1629270)

The following day, Burton forwarded a message to the secure email list from “a very good Google source” who claimed that Cohen “[was] off to Gaza next week”. Burton added, “Cohen, a Jew, is bound to get himself whacked….Google is not clear if Cohen is operating [with a] State Dept [or] WH [White House] license, or [is] a hippie activist.”

Korena Zucha, another senior analyst on the list, queried, “Why hasn’t Google cut ties to Cohen yet? Or is Cohen’s activity being endorsed by those higher up in the [company] than your contact?”

In turn, Burton replied, “Cohen’s rabbi is Eric Schmidt and Obama lackey. My source is trying to find out if the billionaire owners are backing Cohen’s efforts for regime change.” (doc-id 1111729)

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