A Geek Role in the Arab Spring European Group Helps Tackle Regime Censorship


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Part 2: Giving a Voice to Syrians

Telecomix activists were able to secure roughly 54 gigabytes of data during their hacker attack on the Syrian government's censors. They hope it will help them discover exactly how Syria's government-operated ISP has employed American technology to spy on its people and prevent them from accessing communication services, such as Skype.

Since the summer, activists have been trying to point out secure alternatives to Syrians with Internet access. First, in mid-August, they sent a brief letter to 6,000 selected e-mail addresses. The circular was addressed to "Dear people of Syria, fighters for democracy." The subject line read: "For pro-democracy people of Syria: life-saving communication guidelines." Although the e-mail was just a few lines long, in English and Arabic, it also contained an attachment providing detailed instructions on how to safely avoid censorship as well as a link to the organization's secure computer chat forum. In early September, the collective also set up a website offering anonymizing software and other security tips.

Since then, Arab voices and pseudonyms have proliferated on the chat channels. Some visitors are merely curious, but more and more use the channel to exchange information and ideas between themselves and with Telecomix activists. They report on brutality, the movements of the Syrian army, and the deeds of the Mukhabarat, Syria's dreaded intelligence service.

One visitor wrote that a man with links to the organization had specifically warned him against being too open on Facebook and other social media. Others report on new protests, such as a recent incident in which activists in Damascus allegedly put red dye in a fountain.

Bloggers Unite

It's not clear how many Syrians take advantage of Telecomix's services. Okhin says the French Internet dial-up service alone has been used up to 9,000 times and that the number of Arab-speaking supporters helping the group's translation efforts has risen significantly.

Last week, the beneficiaries of Telecomix's efforts were available in person to answer questions about how they viewed the West's "technical hotline" at the Third Arab Bloggers' Meeting held in Tunis, Tunisia.

Participants included well-known people like Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas, whose videos of police brutality and torture have triggered international outrage in recent years and led to trials and convictions. Abbas, whose work has won numerous prizes, describes the work of Telecomix and the net activists at Tor as "valuable," especially in countries like Iran and Syria.

But he also notes that the revolution in his own country is far from over, citing the fate of 26-year-old blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad as an example. After having been arrested by the military council currently ruling the country, Sanad has been on hunger strike for more than six weeks.

A Rare Face-to-Face Meeting

Meetings like the one in Tunis also serve a social function for the bloggers, most of whom work in isolation. After all, assisting a revolution changes people, even if they live half a world away from the action.

A few weeks ago, the Telecomix activists awarded themselves a well-earned break. Urbach couldn't stand looking at the photos and videos anymore, and he was overwhelmed by the stories about imprisoned and tortured Syrians that he was hearing from their Germany-based relatives.

His salvation came in the form of the Chaos Communication Camp, held in mid-August in the town of Finowfurt, northeast of Berlin. It was his first opportunity to actually meet with other Telecomix activists like Okhin.

Publishing the Syrian wiretapping logs and discovering that the Syrian government was apparently using an American surveillance system has also given them a fresh boost. "The use of Western surveillance technology should not lead to torture, arrests or worse," Urbach says. "Such technology should be just as difficult to export as weapons."

Occasional Fun

Reinvigorated, Urbach is now back in the room in his shared Berlin apartment. He continues to spend about €400 ($550) a month of his unemployment checks on his Telecomix activities, and he waits with much anticipation for news from people with names like Muhammad or Ahmad.

Every now and then, he also has to smile. The other day, for example, while conducting maintenance work on his servers, he discovered exactly what they were being used for: Someone in Egypt was downloading an episode of the American sitcom "How I Met Your Mother."

"Oh, well," Urbach says. "Revolution should also be fun every now and again."

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt


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