A parallel NGO event organised by RADDHO and its partner organisations like Al-Hakim Foundation in Room XXIII, Palais de Nations on 25 September, 2012 during the 21st regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Geneva.
Subject: Briefing on Article 19 freedom of expression and cyber-security, one of the challenges for human rights issues
By Sultan Shahin, Editor, New Age Islam
25 September 2012
Mr Chair, Fellow-Panellists and Friends,
I run a website called New Age Islam. It is available on www.newageislam.com. This website seeks to fight fundamentalism in cyberspace, the very same cyberspace that has been adopted almost right since its inception by fundamentalists and obscurantists of various hues. Islamist fundamentalists have vast financial, mostly petrodollar resources and thus manage to acquire great visibility in cyberspace. But the freedom of expression available on internet has made it possible for a small website like New Age Islam with severe constraints of resources to nevertheless take the message of the website virtually inside the homes of these fundamentalists. We try to reach Muslims, youth in particular, before they fall prey to Wahhabi, Salafi exclusivists who want Muslims to alienate themselves from others. In order to promote this exclusiveness they want to keep us embroiled in one conflict after another.
A recent example will illustrate this. Some Rohingya Muslims were killed in Burma (Myanmar). The circumstances were not very clear and facts scarce to come by. But the issue was exploited in cyberspace by Jihadi websites to create world-wide conflict between Muslims and Buddhists. Cyber space was used to spread hatred and promote conflict against Buddhists by spreading morphed images and inflammatory videos. After promoting conflicts against Jews, Christians and Hindus, these Jihadis now want Muslims to confront Buddhists as well.
The same technique of morphed images and inflammatory videos was used to spread rumours through cyberspace after the Assam violence last month. Rumours were spread in Bangalore and other South Indian cities of impending attacks on north-eastern Indians living in the South. This was done in such a systematic and organised manner using all technical resources of the web, social networking sites and free sms messages, etcetera, whose origins were concealed in various ways, that nearly 30,000 north-eastern Indians left the South in a hurry within a couple of days fearing for their lives. Jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba sponsored by Pakistan were later found to be involved.
The government of India did take action and banned some websites and blogs for a fortnight, but by then it was already too late. Many Indian intellectuals and activists considered this a violation of freedom of expression. I found myself in a minority of one in a panel discussion on a government-run TV Channel Doordarshan arguing that governments should have the power as well as the capability to intervene in emergency situations. For, the issue is not just that of terrorists seeking to provoke sectarian, ethnic or communal violence through the misuse of cyberspace, or creating panic as they did in Bangalore; they may very well attack our vital infrastructural or defence resources. Some months ago, Iran’s nuclear installations were attacked by some computer viruses coming through cyberspace whose origins have still not been determined. As far as we know, these installations were not making weapons. But if these could be attacked in this way, nuclear weapons-making installations too can be attacked in future. One can’t even imagine what destruction such attacks would wreak.
Clearly the world faces a grave security challenge from cyberspace. Advantageous as internet has been in bringing the world together as a global village, at least for the millions of netizens, it has also the potential to be used as a threat to world peace.
In the wake of the havoc wreaked by rumours spread through cyberspace in Bangalore, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “I have been asking my National Security Advisor to zero in the gaps to find a viable policy to tackle the menace of cyber terrorism threat.”
But many experts doubt if such a viable policy could be found until issues of global internet governance are tackled. At present 10 of the 13 root servers are based in the United States, two in Europe and one in Japan. It was natural for this to happen as the internet was developed in the US and grew first in developed countries. But the developing countries, with tens of millions of users, and facing grave security threats from the cyberspace, find themselves at a loss how to tackle the situation in the absence of any real role in internet governance.
The issue of global internet governance, however, is not only of concern to governments. Even individual users and website owners have to face a multitude of problems and threats to their existence. If I can speak from my experience as someone who has been managing a website for over four years, I can say that we live a very fragile existence. Like me, many bloggers and website managers take stands on some issues and may thus create opponents and even enemies who may want to bring their websites down. But why should it be so easy for them to do that? Threats come from many sides. New Age Islam has been hacked and brought down several times. Our enemies, presumably Jihadis, are particularly after our newsletter which goes to nearly three hundred fifty thousand subscribers every day. The email Ids of our newsletter subscribers can be deleted, sometimes, as happened with New Age Islam, thrice in a day. But these are security issues that individual website owners have to learn and find resources to tackle.
However, there are also issues we have to face that directly concern internet governance. For instance, again as happened with New Age Islam, our domain names can be suspended without any notice or enquiry just because someone sends a patently false complaint to the domain registrar. Similarly the website host can suspend our operations, again as happened to New Age Islam several times, on similar patently false accusations. The argument the domain registrar or website hosts offer is this. They are business organisations and don’t want to get involved in unnecessary disputes. They also say that they do not have people who will evaluate complaints. So, they find it easier to take action and suspend websites when a complaint of whatever nature comes.
When I asked my domain registrar to at least read the complaint that had come to him and which he had forwarded to me unread, he said simply: “I have no time to argue with you or read unnecessary mails. However, I am un-suspending your domain name for a few days, but please transfer your domain to another domain registrar in the meantime.” I did this but my website remained disturbed for several weeks.
However, when I thought about it coolly, I couldn’t blame the registrar. If you see the economics involved, you will see, the registrar has a point. He leases the domain name to me for 12 to 15 dollars annually. He probably earns a profit of 5 to 7 dollars from me in a year. How can he afford to spend more time arguing with me or resources to investigate complaints against my website or endanger his business in any way? He has nothing to gain. Businesses are run on simple profit-loss calculations.
So, I hope, when United Nations committees discuss larger issues of internet governance, they would also look at issues that face millions of individual users and website owners. After all it is us netizens that make internet the information highway that it is. We too need to be protected.
But am I suggesting that these functions be handed over to governments?
When I was starting a weekly print magazine in 1987, I had to spend weeks running after clerks in the office of the registrar of newspapers of India to permit me to use a name. Names were allotted on various considerations. Any name I would suggest the officials would say it was already taken. In the absence of computerised information, they simply could not check the tens of thousands of files in their archives.
But when I wanted to start a website in 2008, the only consideration was availability of the name that could be checked by a computer in less than a second. No human being, prone to errors, not to speak of a government official, was involved. When I got my domain name registered and found a host for my website and was told I could now start posting articles or blogs and write whatever I wanted for a global audience, I simply couldn’t believe it. For several days I didn’t post a thing. Could something as momentous be done without the involvement of a single government official? This was a veritable miracle for me.
With this background of my experiences, I cannot suggest that domain registration and hosting be given to governments, even if that were technically feasible, which probably it isn’t.
However, the present arrangement too is not ideal, at least for those millions who have scanty resources. I can only express the hope that my submission will be taken into account and technical experts will be able to devise a better architecture of internet governance. The present system of governance was described by the Economist magazine as “shambolic” for ‘something so central to the modern world.’ Let us hope a less “hotch-potch” system of internet governance emerges from future deliberations.
Thank You, Mr. Chair.