Sheltered Silicon Valley has a role to play on the net's front line

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WIRED:Reports on online news gathering and activism in repressive regimes make grim reading, writes DANNY O'BRIEN

I FIRST met Rami Nakhle in Beirut. He sat in a small apartment and smoked and worked on his laptop, collecting and redirecting messages from his home in Syria to the rest of the world.

Syria’s government was trying to hide the intensity of its internal protests and cover up the evidence of brutal crackdowns in all its major cities. Foreign journalists were banned in an attempt to limit worldwide condemnations – this was just a few weeks after Al Jazeera reporter Dorothy Parvaz had been detained at the border for attempting to smuggle her way in. Nakhle was one of the only links between what was being covertly photographed and filmed on camera phones within the country and the outside world.

Nakhle’s role is a relatively new one, both in relaying news and in activism.

He works as a fact-checking conduit. He corroborates the reports as he receives them, attempting to triangulate the truth in the face of panicked exaggerations and deliberate misinformation. But Nakhle doesn’t just act as a relayer; he acts as a magnifier of the message too. His Twitter stream is followed by thousands, and he co-ordinates protesters as part of his work with the Local Co-ordination Committees of Syria. He has continued to work online, even as the Syrian authorities threatened him and his family.

It’s a strange and new skill, to act as a human digital filter in this way.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s administration would like nothing more than to discredit the reports Nakhle was relaying to western media and human-rights groups. And those potential allies of his, along his movement, would abandon him if they thought he was feeding them false information.

The next time I saw Nakhle was here in San Francisco. Just a few weeks previously, he had moved to the US after it became clear that the Syrian authorities were intent on physically attacking him, even from his base in neighbouring Lebanon.

I’d invited him here to speak to technologists about the techniques he had seen, not in physical, real-world attacks, but in attacks on the tools and social networks he used online. The Thiel Foundation, a local non-profit organisation set up by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, funded his visit and those by Chinese blogger Isaac Mao, pan-Arab blogger Esra’a al-Shafei and Alexey Tikhonov, a journalist with banned Kazakh newspaper Respublika. Their reports from the front lines of online news gathering and activism make grim reading for the people here who maintain the tools they use.

Tikhonov talked to engineers about how his site has experienced repeated denial-of-service attacks, the careful defences Respublikahas evolved, and how these attacks have been escalating and spreading to general-purpose online forums, such as the Russian social networking platform LiveJournal.

Esra’a al-Shafei explained how a volunteer-driven internet organisation seeks to defend itself when its voices challenge not just groups in one country, but many.

Nakhle walked security experts through the daily experiences of Syrians, who find themselves in a live experiment with state-supported cyber-attacks and cutting-edge attempts to violate user privacy.

Silicon Valley is occasionally depicted as a sealed bubble, isolated from the world it affects. But if the attention and respect these visitors received is anything to go by, that is far from the case. Then again, when your startup is consumed with competing with other companies, with attempting to reach profitability, or just with creating the best environment for your average user, it is easy to lose track of the consequences of what is happening thousands of miles away.

And, of course, business interests sometimes clash with the greater good in complex ways. One person I talked to with a major internet website made it clear that they saw their positive approach to human rights as a competitive advantage. As a result, they were happy to improve their response to the reports from the front lines of the internet, but it also meant they had an incentive to ensure no one else’s track record improved.

But subtle calculations like this are at least better than companies that are actually determined to disrupt or sabotage free speech online. There are US and European companies like that. Middle East censorship systems frequently use SmartFilter, a blocking tool built by US company Symantec. Another US company, Blue Coat, exports sophisticated internet surveillance equipment around the globe.

The laid-back affluence of Silicon Valley is a far cry from the murderous violence aimed at protesters on Syria’s streets. But Nakhle, at least, sees the developers here having a role to play – and a growing responsibility.

As Nakhle told me and a packed room of technologists last week: “People I know lost their life or were tortured for months as a result of security bugs. I am not saying this to blame you, because they know the risks they are taking and they’re brave enough to take risks. If you really can help them here with just a small investment in their security, you may save many people’s lives. You may not know about them, because you can’t follow everything that is happening online, but it is happening. A tiny bug fix on any platform, it will absolutely save people’s lives. It is one of the noblest things you can do.”

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