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Technologies Aiding Democracy Uprisings

The contagion of democracy uprisings throughout the middle east and the world as a result of the Egyptian uprising of earlier this month has given new emphasis on the role technology plays in popular movements. I wrote on this issue in August of 2009 when I commented on the role of Twitter in the Iranian uprising.

In addition to Facebook and Twitter, there are a number of technologies that are being brought to bear by a technologically savvy population that is fed up with authoritarian and corrupt governance.

One such technology, Livestream, is a platform that streams live video through user-generated channels. In the absence of the foreign press in Libya, this channel is one of the limited sources of live images of what is going out to the world in real time.

Livestream image from Libya

Screenshot of Livestream Libya17Feb channel

As readers can see from the screenshot, the images are time-stamped and the watermark of the channel is displayed in the top-right of the image. There is also a live feed of text-based dialogue that runs parallel to the video feed. Although this material is raw, unedited footage, it is of value to the news media as one of a number of sources that can be used to gauge activities on the ground.

Several audio-based tools have also emerged from the Internet community to aid creative protesters on the ground whose governments are trying to limit Internet communications. One group, Speak2Tweet has published telephone numbers for protesters to call into to give verbal reports on events on the ground.

For the more technologically savvy of the desktop supporters of the protestors the Tor network provides detailed instructions on how to donate bandwidth by running a relay for porting traffic outside of normal ISP channels. Tor is basically a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet.

Tor

Tor Logo

In non-technical terms, this is a technique for maintaining Internet connectivity in a distributed manner between those people on the ground in a hot-spot and the Internet and media around the world. Basically, what happens is that people dedicate their own computers to becoming intermediate relays of information between a user on the ground and a point of broadcast. This serves a two-fold purpose: 1) it allows for people to circumvent efforts by authoritarian regimes to shut down communications so that they can act with impunity towards their populations; and 2) it hides the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of those that are seeking to get the information out. For a technical description, or to become a volunteer, click here. Given the targeting of individuals and activists, this technique is highly useful for ensuring the truth is broadcast to the world. During the early days of the Egyptian uprising the Tor volunteers helped to bridge the communications gap and keep the lines of communication open to the global media.

Google traffic

Screenshot of real-time traffic of users running Google searches

Google has a real-time Transparency Report that shows the volume of Internet traffic for several of its online services, however, it appears as though they have not updated Google Search and gmail traffic since Friday, February 18th. As readers can see from the screenshot, traffic came to an abrupt halt when the Gaddafi regime shut down ISPs serving the Libyan market. At time of publication of this article, it appears as though data are not yet included for Saturday and Sunday, February 19th and 20th.

Another interesting online technology that has come to the forefront as a result of the global response to the human rights violations by the Libyan government during that uprising is the use of online petitions to send a message to the United Nations. This technology is a simple one called PetitionOnline. Here is a link to the Libyan online petition. As of Wednesday, February 23rd, there are almost 63,000 signatures, including mine.

With ongoing reports of authoritarian governments that are shutting down ISPs and blocking websites promoting democracy movements over this week-end in Libya, Algeria, Iran, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria and elsewhere…..this is disappointing. What is happening this week-end around the world is likely to be of great historical significance, not only for freedom and democracy movements, but also for civil rights and liberties and net freedom issues throughout the developed world.