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Digital Freedom

Bassel Khartabil, Champion of open internet detained in Syria

Software engineer Bassel Khartabil has been held in detention since his arrest in Damascus on 15 March 2012. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights believes his arrest is related to his work as a computer engineer, specialising in the development of open source software.

Khartabil, a Palestinian-born Syrian, spent his career advancing open source and related technologies to ensure a freer internet. Internationally, he is known for his voluntary work with open source projects such as Creative Commons and Mozilla Firefox. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine named him in its list of the top 100 global thinkers.

As yet, authorities have failed to provide an official statement about his arrest, the charges he is facing or his whereabouts. Just weeks before he was jailed, Khartabil tweeted: “The people who are in real danger never leave their countries. They are in danger for a reason and for that they don’t leave.” Khartabil’s arrest was part of the Syrian government’s crackdown against the popular uprising, which has resulted in at least 60,000 deaths since March 2011.

Since his arrest, Khartabil has been shuttled back and forth between a civilian and military prison. The GCHR reported that in October 2012, he was moved to a military facility thereby stripping him of his right to a lawyer and the right of appeal.

Furthermore, military trials can take place in secret and those found guilty can face the death penalty. FreeBassel.org, a website set up by a coalition of friends and supporters, has since reported that Bassel has returned to a civilian prison and been granted visitation rights.

Claims have emerged from a local source that Bassel has been tortured. In December 2012, netizens went on chain-fast as part of a campaign for Khartabil’s release, in which each pledged to fast for one day until he was freed.

Photo: Flickr / Joi Ito

Moez Chakchouk, Tunisian internet agency chief

Since taking over as the head of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) in February 2011, Moez Chakchouk has campaigned for greater internet freedom, winning the admiration of bloggers and digital activists along the way.

Under his leadership, the ATI has moved from its previous incarnation as a censorship and surveillance machine to an agency that champions free speech, net neutrality and online privacy.

On taking office shortly after the January 14th revolution in Tunisia, Chakchouk immediately cancelled commitments to filtering and monitoring, turning off one of the Arab World’s most efficient online surveillance and blocking systems. He has since had to resist a bid to force the ATI to reinstate web blocking, starting with online pornography.

In an article for Index on Censorship, he explained his thinking: “In post-revolutionary Tunisia, we are determined to break with the former regime’s censorship practices.”

He believes that Tunisia can, and should, serve as an example for the rest of the region where attempts at promoting internet freedom are foundering. Though Chakchouk feels constrained by the law – in May 2012 he says he was forced to block four Facebook pages run by critics of the military on a legal order from the country’s main military court – he has won plaudits for his line on freedom of expression and information.

October he told the 3rd Annual Arab Bloggers Conference in Tunis that Western IT companies had tested surveillance software in Tunisia, connecting them with the detention and mistreatment of hundreds of citizens under the old regime. “His intervention was historic,” said Riadh Guerfali, a professor and lawyer who co-founded the collective blog Nawaat.org, a partner of Index in Tunisia.

“For me, the revolution started in the street, and finished when we can hear such a speech from the CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency,” Guerfali told Tunisia Live.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Indian parliamentarian

Indian MP and businessman Rajeev Chandrasekhar has battled tirelessly against growing internet censorship in India, using his position in the upper house of parliament to challenge legislation that chokes digital freedom. Through numerous articles and speeches he has urged the government to revise the 2011 Information Technology Rules and repeal part of the 2008 act on which it is based. He has described both as a “serious risk” to democracy.

Under the rules, internet companies, including providers, websites and search engines, are required to remove within 36 hours, any content deemed “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous”, “ethnically objectionable”, or “disparaging”, by any Internet user who submits a formal objection letter to that intermediary.

Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal has even suggested that companies pre-screen content for removal before it is flagged – an impossible task given the volume of content posted online in any single day. The legislation has been used to force companies, especially social-networking websites, to censor content. Also this year Google, Facebook and others have been summoned to court to answer a case brought by the editor of an Urdu weekly, who claims the websites encouraged defamation, obscenity, and promotion of enmity among different religious and race groups.

India has an important role to play in the future of internet governance. Currently, it has deferred a decision on whether to back calls from Russia and China to increasingly bring aspects of internet regulation under the ambit of UN body, the International Telecommunications Union, a call Index believes could lead to content regulation and censorship. While it is encouraging that India hasn’t backed these calls to date, it is yet to make clear it supports an open multi-stakeholder approach to the internet rather than top-down state-led regulation.

Writing in the Times of India in 2011, Chandrasekhar, who previously worked on the Intel’s design team for the Pentium processor, said he was mystified by the government’s approach to the internet: “It defies logic and does not adhere to the values of our republic and democracy.” Chandrasekhar has called on the government to launch a multi-stakeholder consultation on internet regulation, to allow voices from civil society, academia and the general public to be heard.