Internet Freedom: What’s Good For the West May Not Work For the Rest

Originally published in The Globe Post

Hands on the keyboard of a laptop surfing the internet

Photo: Issouf Sanogo, AFP Share on Facebook  Share on Twitter

Occurrences of internet censorship in authoritarian countries are met with predictable condemnations from the West. Iran, China, and Russia are the perennial offenders, but in the last years, others are following their lead. Several African nations, including Mali, Uganda, and Cameroon have blocked or restricted their citizens’ internet access.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Photo: AFP

Most recently, Nicolas Maduro’s regime in Venezuela has seized control of phone companies, censored online TV stations, conducted surveillance of social media, and blocked access to Tor and other virtual private networks.

The international community – here I am referring to Western governments, media outlets, and other organizations – have played their role by documenting this censorship and placing it within the context of a human rights violation.

Implied in this criticism is that these nations and their governments need to adopt open internet and free speech practices – presumably on a Western model. Moreover, if these nations do not comply with the wishes of the international community, they will suffer repercussions. As an example, the U.S. has levied numerous sanctions against Iran because of their internet censorship practices.

Internet, Free Speech, and Democracy

Urging smaller and poorer nations like Uganda and Venezuela to adopt a Westernized version of internet freedom and then applying pressure on them if they refuse is nothing more than a digitized recapitulation of the power dynamics from an analog world.

To be sure, I am not suggesting that the motivations of individuals in the West are disingenuous. Here I am thinking about the chiefly economic ventures swathed in the veneer of a moral crusade we currently see with America in the Middle East and with the British in many parts of Africa historically. On the contrary, my understanding of things is that the motivations are ideological in bent, linking free speech directly to democracy.

But it would be unwise for international organizations or specific countries to demand other nations to change their internet practices in a top-down approach. The rulers of these countries can easily cast the United States, France, or the United Kingdom in the role of a bully – a character these nations have played well in the past.

There needs to be another approach.

Addressing Censorship

If we are to address censorship, we must develop the capabilities of citizens within each country to build the type of internet freedom they want. This risks the possibility of a state rejecting the full-throated internet freedom Western countries enjoy, for example, fundamentalist countries filtering negative comments about Islam.

But it would be their choice, based upon the social and historical context in which they live. There is a precedent for this. Holocaust denial on social media is subject to prosecution in Germany, but not in the United States. The reasons for the prohibition in Germany are obvious, and only a small minority of people object to the ban.

New York University scholar Clay Shirky made an argument in 2011 that is relevant here. He argued that the international community should focus less on ensuring that citizens can use the internet to communicate with the outside world, and more on developing tools and practices so that individuals could connect within their own borders.

To put it another way, efforts should not be focused on connecting to Twitter and the BBC, but instead with local news reporters and community leaders. Shirky’s argument, from almost a decade ago, is still applicable.

Creating Censorship-Resistant Populations

Each occurrence of censorship from a regime is also an occurrence of their citizens not being armed with the technologies and competencies to resist that censorship locally. Therefore, the international community needs to build networking capabilities at the grassroots level.

So how can this be done?

The United States spent about 5.3 billion dollars in aid to Iraq and 5.1 billion to Afghanistan in 2016, according to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations. In these contexts, the U.S. would do well to redirect some of their funding towards creating a censorship-resistant population.

This includes teaching citizens digital literacy, investing in local social media companies and internet service providers, and investing in portable intranets and portable cell tower technologies.

A men looking at his computer screen saying 'voyeurs are watching you'
Photo: Mark Ralston, AFP

A question may be: wouldn’t authoritarian regimes prohibit these technologies from being imported into their country? Possibly. But economic development and computer technology go hand in hand, and there are times in a nation’s history where they are more agreeable to censorship resistant technologies and practices simply because they are so tightly linked to economic development.

A critical nation of internet-savvy users is more likely to create new online businesses and develop a networked civil society accustomed to discussing political issues in the (digital) public sphere.

Profitable social media companies add wealth to a country and make it more censorship resilient during political instability simply because there are more platforms to surveil and regulate. Several internet service providers within a country will increase internet connectivity, generate growth, and become that much harder to control by a central government.


The recent spate of regimes censoring the internet should be a catalyst for the international community and nonprofits interested in developing a free and open internet.

It may be too late for a country like China, that has an extensive surveillance and censorship infrastructure and is no longer depending on monetary aid. But many nations are still developing their economic and digital identities.

There is still an opportunity in these countries to cultivate a (digitally) prepared citizenry that can express their will, even when strongmen like Maduro attempt to censor communications.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.

It Was Wrong of an Illinois Republican to Do What He Did – But Here’s Why We Still Shouldn’t Outlaw Catfishing

[Originally published in The Independent]

To catch a catfish, you will have to cast a wide net in the digital ocean. Too wide.

Matt Hancock said new laws will make Britain the "safest place in the world" to be online

Nick Sauer, a Republican state representative from Illinois, has resigned after his ex-girlfriend alleged he created a fake Instagram account using her likeness. The account, she claims, used nude pictures of her to bait men into online sexual conversations. What Sauer has alleged to have done is commonly called “catfishing” –using a false online identity to lure people into relationships. Sauer is the catfish, and the fake Instagram account with the nude pictures was the bait.

Creating a fake identity online is not illegal in the United States. This high-profile case, however, may initiate calls for its criminalisation. I believe this would be a mistake.

The justification for a catfishing law is clear and understandable. By creating a fake identity and communicating through that identity, a person can victimise someone in any number of ways. I can think of several. Fake identities can be used to develop an intimate or romantic relationship with a person. Once the catfish has established a level of trust, the victim may divulge emotionally or personally compromising information. If the allegations brought against Sauer are true, then he has deceived men into communicating about sexual matters that they would likely want to keep private.

Sometimes the motives are ultimately financial. A victim is asked to provide money to bail someone out of a difficult situation. Thus, creating a fake identity is the first step in the infamous romance scams that cost people millions of dollars around the world each year. Fake identities can also be used by adults to lure minors into sexual relationships. This is an odious crime and fortunately is comparatively less common than the others I mention here.

It seems justifiable, then, that creating a fake identity is a first step towards the eventual victimising of someone, and therefore it should be criminalised.

But the ability to create a false identity is fundamental to a liberal, democratic society in the 21st century.

Here are a few scenarios:

A young person may be considering a change of identity – gender, religious, political.  They may wish to explore this identity away from their current social networks. They may want to connect with and interact in online forums that explore aspects of the new identity. They will need the freedom to create a new persona and interact with others without obligating themselves. A law prohibiting the use of false online identities would restrict freedom of expression.

Or, consider a journalist or whistleblower who wants to share sensitive information about government or corporate misconduct without revealing their identity. Speaking truth to power may require creating a fake Facebook or Twitter account. If creating a false identity is criminalised, then they will be constrained in how they can communicate this sensitive information. A law prohibiting the use of false online identities would restrict freedom of speech.

To catch a catfish, you will have to cast a wide net in the digital ocean. Too wide.

Many of the actions facilitated through the creation of a false identity are already criminalised. Fraud – stealing money through deception and defamation – using the real name or likeness of a person as in the allegations made against Sauer, are both illegal.

A better solution, then, is to preserve the right to create a false identity online and instead invest in educating the public and training local law enforcement to investigate cybercrimes. The American narrative surrounding online crime has focused disproportionally on how to protect government and corporate networks. Billions of taxpayer dollars are invested in upgrading computer networks, providing research grants to cybersecurity researchers developing technologies to be used by government and corporations, and funding scholarships for students who will inevitably work in these venues. By and large, these are wise investments.

However, what gets lost in the shuffle are the cybercrimes visited upon everyday individuals. Only a tiny fraction of taxpayer dollars are devoted to digital literacy programs and the training of local law enforcement. If we educate our citizens so that they can better detect catfishing attempts and other types of online deception, we can preserve our civil liberties.


The difference between cybersecurity and cybercrime, and why it matters

A Texas woman in her 50s, let’s call her “Amy,” met a man online calling himself “Charlie.” Amy, who lived in Texas, was in a bad marriage. Charlie said he was a businessman and a Christian, and wooed her. “He was saying all the right things,” Amy later told the FBI. “He was interested in me. He was interested in getting to know me better. He was very positive, and I felt like there was a real connection there.” Early on, Charlie told her he was having some problems with his business and needed money. She wanted to help.

From 2014 to 2016, she sent him US$2 million – often in installments of a few thousand dollars at a time, always hoping and expecting to get paid back. After she alerted the FBI, two Nigerian citizens were arrested near Houston – both pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges in connection with Amy’s relationship with Charlie. The person who played the character of Charlie has not been identified.

This story is a cautionary example of a crime that happens online. But most advice for avoiding online dangers – like having long passwords, using two-factor authentication and encrypting data – wouldn’t have helped Amy.

The crime that befell her has nothing to do with cybersecurity. It’s cybercrime, a human-centered crime committed in a digital environment. There are more of these each year: In the U.S. in 2016, 298,728 complainants reported losing more than $1.3 billion in various types of cybercrimes, including romance scams but also involving fraudulent online sales, extortion, violent harassment and impersonation scams, among others. As a social scientist who studies online behavior and as the program coordinator for one of the few cybercrime undergraduate programs in the United States, I find it unfortunate that problems like Amy’s get relatively little national attention, especially compared to cybersecurity.

Understanding the differences

Cybersecurity is not merely a set of guidelines and actions intended to prevent cybercrime. The two types of problems differ substantially in terms of what happens and who the victims are, as well as the academic areas that study them.

Cybersecurity is ultimately about protecting government and corporate networks, seeking to make it difficult for hackers to find and exploit vulnerabilities. Cybercrime, on the other hand, tends to focus more on protecting individuals and families as they navigate online life.

The U.S. has created several initiatives to improve its cybersecurity, including investments in cybersecurity education and expanding efforts of government agencies.

Unfortunately, upgrading official networks and training future generations of cybersecurity professionals will not necessarily benefit people like Amy. Technical solutions won’t solve her problems. Social science research into human behavior online is how to help millions like her learn to protect themselves.

Little research

One of the few studies on romance scams like the one that ensnared Amy suggests that there are three stages to these types of cons. It starts with the criminal engaging in intense online communications with the victim. In Amy’s case, Charlie undoubtedly contacted her repeatedly as their relationship began. That built her trust and lowered her defenses – and commanded much of the time and energy she had for social interaction.

Once the victim is isolated from other interpersonal social experiences, the illusion of connection and interdependence can deepen. Charlie no doubt kept this illusion alive any way he could, taking as much of Amy’s money as he could. In the third and final stage, the target finally sees through the veil and learns that it’s all been a scam. That’s when Amy, urged by her financial advisor, suspected fraud and called the FBI.

More research on cybercrime could help deepen scholars’ and investigators’ understandings of how these social science problems play out online. To my knowledge there are just four cybercrime programs at residential four-year colleges. With more effort and investment, academics and law enforcement could learn more and work better together to identify and protect the real people who are at risk from these online criminals.

Race, Cyberbullying and Intimate Partner Violence

(Originally published in The Conversation)

Over the past two decades, cyberbullying has become a major focus for parents, educators and researchers. lists several effects of cyberbullying, including depression, anxiety and decreased academic achievement.

Judging from popular culture, the narratives surrounding cyberbullying tend to have at least one of two themes. One, cyberbullying is a mob-like phenomenon: Television shows such as “American Crime” depict a group of teens preying on a vulnerable individual by using social media and text messaging. Second, the face associated with cyberbullying is often a white one. Both in the aforementioned “American Crime,” for example, and in the television movie “Cyberbu//y,” the victim is white.

Continue reading “Race, Cyberbullying and Intimate Partner Violence”

Far Beyond Crime-ridden Depravity, Darknets are Key Strongholds of Freedom of Expression Online

(originally published in The Conversation)

The internet is much more than just the publicly available, Google-able web services most online users frequent – and that’s good for free expression. Companies frequently create private networks to enable employees to use secure corporate servers, for example. And free software allows individuals to create what are called “peer-to-peer” networks, connecting directly from one machine to another.

Unable to be indexed by current search engines, and therefore less visible to the general public, subnetworks like these are often called “darknets,” or collective as the singular “darknet.” These networks typically use software, such as Tor, that anonymizes the machines connecting to them, and encrypts the data traveling through their connections.

Some of what’s on the darknet is alarming. A 2015 story from Fox News reads:

“Perusing the darknet offers a jarring jaunt through jaw-dropping depravity: Galleries of child pornography, videos of humans having sex with animals, offers for sale of illegal drugs, weapons, stolen credit card numbers and fake identifications for sale. Even human organs reportedly from Chinese execution victims are up for sale on the darknet.”

But that’s not the whole story – nor the whole content and context of the darknet.

Continue reading “Far Beyond Crime-ridden Depravity, Darknets are Key Strongholds of Freedom of Expression Online”