Friday, March 04, 2011

Will Facebook and Twitter be blocked in Guyana, too?

(Originally published in Guyana’s Kaieteur News on 04 March 2011)

Online communication tools played a huge role in recent government changes in Tunisia and Egypt. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter played large roles in both countries. These revolutions also showed how easily governments can interrupt Internet traffic and cell phone transmissions.

In a March 1, Voice of America (VOA) article, Jillian York, with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, says the Tunisian government used old-school “Phishing” attacks to get Facebook users’ passwords and hijack their accounts.

York said, “A user would try to log in to and would be redirected to a page that looked just like the login page. When they logged in, their password was captured and their account was thus taken away from them.”

I found this article interesting because of another article I read on February 28 in the Guyana Chronicle entitled, “Teenage girls face off over Facebook.” As I read the Chronicle article, which detailed an argument on Mash Day between two teenage girls about material posted on their Facebook pages, I could not help but think the article was a waste of print page.

Who really cares about two teenage girls getting into a spat? This happens dozens of times a day and it is certainly not newsworthy. However, when I reached the last two paragraphs of the article (I read it that far to see if the article had a redeeming reason for being printed), I discovered the only reason the state media could have for wasting their time on this non-story.

Here is what those paragraphs said, “In recent times, Facebook has been known to contribute to countless breakdowns in marriages, identity theft, stalking, rape, and even murders because of the volume of information it dispenses openly about the user, unless they stringently employ the security settings offered by the site.”

The next paragraph said, “The site, and its Twitter friend have been blamed for aiding communication during the current uprising in the Arab world. Other countries are now examining methods aimed at curtailing Facebook’s influence on its younger population.”

I read the Chronicle because it often foreshadows the government’s next move. It is almost as if a decision is made to move in a particular direction by those in power, and then articles are written for the Chronicle in such a way that it supports the decision that has been made before it is announced publicly. In other words – it is government propaganda.

The wording of these paragraphs is especially worthy of note because it paints Facebook and Twitter in a very suspicious light by attributing them to “breakdowns of marriages, identity theft, stalking, rape and even murder.” Then it “blamed” the sites for aiding communication during the recent revolutions in the Middle East.

Blamed? While the rest of the free world cheers the role these Websites played in those revolutions, Guyana’s state media uses the word blame – as if Facebook and Twitter did something wrong by helping the people of Egypt and Tunisia fight for freedom.

There is something very wrong here. Could this article be another foreshadowing of government’s intention? Although at present it seems unlikely the government would feel it necessary to block Facebook and Twitter in Guyana, the fact that this is an election year forces us to look at the possibility.

In light of the way this article was phrased, it would seem the government would be protecting the young people of the nation by “curtailing Facebook’s influence on its younger population.” In other words, Facebook would be restricted for your own good.

Aside from Egypt and Tunisia, government-sponsored service interruptions of the Internet and cell phone service have occurred in Iran, Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. According to the aforementioned article in VOA, governments can still maintain a so-called “kill switch” particularly if the government owns or licenses the communications networks or fibre optic cables.

The article said that in some cases, governments control the infrastructure to which social media are connected – as it did in Egypt and still does in countries like China, Iran and Syria – and Internet access can be hindered.

However, York said, “Even with Facebook or Twitter being blocked, there are numerous ways to get around that. There are circumvention tools, when https is enabled it is very difficult and unlikely that a government is going to block all https communications.”

Guyana is a free country and I am hoping this article in the Chronicle was simply written by someone who sorely dislikes modern social media – and not at the behest of those in power with an agenda to undermine the freedom of the citizens.

However, it would be irresponsible of this commentator to discount this unusual propaganda as a reporter’s rant given the political climate of the world today, the fact that the article in question held no other significant information and the fact that this is an election year.

Could it be that a Guyanese leader (or leaders) felt these dictators of the Middle East made a genius move in attempting to cut their people off from the rest of the world? Could it be this move is now being considered for the people of Guyana to curtail outside “influence”?

If this is even a remote possibility, now is the time for those who are tech savvy to begin preparations to circumvent any such plan. After all, it is better to be safe than sorry.

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