Internet's 'Hive Mind' vs. World's Tyrannical Regimes

Two new online ventures are giving oppressive regimes even more reason to fear the Web.

David Bachar

Sherif Gaber, a 22-year-old student from Egypt, dared criticize his teachers at Suez Canal University, Ismailia. He objected to a professor who said, “Homosexuality is a sin. Gays and lesbians shall be crucified in the middle of the street, stoned and burned to death! It’s a disgusting sin to commit, and whoever supports it is against God’s plan!” Another time, he confronted an extremist Islamic teacher who said women were meant to serve men.

Gaber was arrested in October 2013, after one of his Islamic teachers printed out Facebook posts in which Gaber declared himself an atheist. He was charged with “contempt of religion,” found guilty and, two months ago, sentenced to a year in prison.

While he awaits the continuation of his case and a possible appeal, Gaber is busy publicizing his story and trying to seek political asylum. His story has already received plenty of media attention in the West, but that’s just the beginning.

Users of Facebook and Twitter will be familiar with the term “hive mind” – referring to the collective intelligence of groups – and seeing it used as an introduction for a call for help, whether for information, a ride or other types of aid. But in Gaber’s case, and in other countries where the Internet is monitored such as Iran and China, the situation is very different than the open discussions that go on in the West.

Advancing Human Rights is a nonprofit trying to solve such problems by using its Movements.org platform. It uses crowdsourcing to connect activists in countries with repressive regimes and the people who are interested in helping them.

In crowdsourcing, you try to find a solution to a problem by asking for help from an online community, as opposed to traditional frameworks. The users then make use of the online platform to “advertise” their needs – or to offer help. In the case of Gaber, people can provide help by, for example, connecting him with journalists, raising money, helping with translations or even writing songs.

In a previous case, a transgender woman from Saudi Arabia who suffered abuse from her family was connected to an organization that supports LGBT rights. In another instance, human-rights activists in Syria received legal help. Even U.S. Republican senators Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk used the platform to request information on human-rights abuses, with hundreds replying.

The challenge has changed, say Skip Winitsky, director of programs, and David Keyes, executive director of Advancing Human Rights. Once, the main challenge was to get the information out there. But with the flood of information today, the platform gives activists the power to confront the regimes causing the suffering.

More than 30,000 activists from 147 countries have visited the website, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, said Winitsky and Keyes. Users from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Ukraine make up the majority of visitors, for now. But many activists are afraid to provide their details, they added. While many extremists do not lack help from repressive regimes, their platform is intended to provide power for the “good people,” they said.

Another example of social activism on the Internet is provided by SaferVPN, an Israeli company that’s taking part in the “Unblock the Web” campaign. SaferVPN provides “virtual private networks,” which offer a secure connection to the Internet that protects people’s identities, provides anonymity, allows access to blocked and censored content, and avoids government surveillance.

In addition to its business products, the company makes software specifically for private users in countries with severe censorship regimes, said SaferVPN co-CEO Sagi Gidali.

It’s slightly ironic that Israelis are helping Arab human-rights activists in the Middle East, admitted Gidali. “We suddenly started receiving strange emails – for example, one from a person in Iran whose son was killed and he asked for a VPN so he could write about it on Facebook,” recalled Gidali.

Turkey started blocking Facebook and Twitter recently. Since then, Movements.org – which calls itself the online platform that is opening closed societies – has seen hundreds of accounts being opened by Turkish citizens. China recently started blocking VPNs, and the regimes can usually find ways to continue blocking access. As to whether this technology is really the solution, Keyes and Winitsky said they were aware of the problem, and their platform is as secure as possible – they have already blocked attempts to attack their site. However, they try to warn users to be careful and not expose personal information, since no platform is 100% secure.

In response to a question about the modern tendency to see technology as a magic solution to every problem, Keyes said technology is not the solution. It is only another arrow in the quiver, he said, but added that for this generation, it is the first arrow they turn to.