Needed: Freedom Hackers to Fight Authoritarian Regimes

Afghan entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, photo by Susan Lahey

By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

The first time Afghan entrepreneur Roya Mahboob saw the internet, it changed her life. She lived, she said in a “predefined reality.” “We live in a dark place we only see what the family chooses for us. We only hear what people say about the West.” But the internet opened her eyes to the reality that there was a whole world outside the one she lived in. Now Mahboob, founder of the Digital Citizen Fund, and activists from other authoritarian regimes, are looking for tech savvy people who can help them use information to break open their dark worlds and liberate the people who live in them.

Mahboob was part of a SXSW Panel called The Real Information Revolution with Cuban activist Rosa Maria Payá, Syrian activist Abdalaziz Alhamza, Eritrean activist Meron Estefanos, and Human Rights Foundation founder Thor Halvorssen.

All of the activists use technology to spread their messages and all need help from web developers, game developers, cybersecurity experts, programmers and more who are willing to volunteer their skills to teach students, create websites and games and create protected information networks—to hack for freedom.

Mahboob, listed on Time magazine’s 2013 list of 100 Most Influential People founded Afghan Citadel Software Co., an IT consulting firm in 2010. Most of her employees are women who develop software and databases for private and public organizations. Because of death threats from the Taliban, she no longer lives in Afghanistan but still runs an organization teaching girls and women to code.

SXSW Panel: The Real Information Revolution, photo by Susan Lahey

Payá’s father Oswaldo Payá was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight to free Cuba from one party rule before he was killed in 2012. She is fighting for a plebiscite under cubadecide.com to let Cubans vote for a change in the Cuban constitution which keeps the Castro family and party in control.

Alhamza is a journalist and founder of the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently which reports on the attacks of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad and Isis on the civilians of Syria. Many of his friends and colleagues have been killed for their efforts.

Estefanos is from Eritrea, Africa and has helped to save more than 16,000 refugees trying to flee that country—known as the “North Korea of Africa” for its gross violation of human rights. Eritrea, she said, has a “shoot to kill” policy at the border. Those fleeing have a 50 percent chance of making it out alive. Those who escape have a 50 percent chance of being kidnapped and made slaves. Though she now lives in Stockholm, Sweden, her phone is a hotline all summer for refugees, many of whom try to escape via the Mediterranean Sea and who must be rescued when their boats begin to sink.

Using Tech for Freedom

The regimes of these countries perpetrate the idea that any efforts to introduce free elections or cultural or religious choice are acting as imperialists, disrespecting the sovereignty and culture of other nations. The activists say that’s simply a tactic to maintain authoritarian control. People may still choose to live as they do under the authoritarian regimes—but they need to be able to choose. The number of people living without freedom, according to the Human Rights Foundation, is nearly four billion. That dwarfs the numbers suffering from extreme poverty or lack of drinking water, both around 800 million.

In many cases the oppressive governments initially painted themselves as liberators—as did Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the government of Eritrea. Then, said Payá, they turn into oppressors “Because there are not institutions. They are always against real institutions. Independent civil society. Tech is transversal…we need to use technology to spread the word. We need security for our website. Our government has hackers who always try to bring it down. We need help with new and innovative ideas for spreading information where being online is not an option—from cellphone to cellphone. We also need help to get to influencers through social media.”

Halvorssen said many of the activist groups they work with use FireChat, which can be used without internet, Protonmail, and Wickr. But they have other unique needs. Estefanos, who said she can most easily be reached through Twitter @meronina, said she thought it would be helpful for people to have a game to understand how hard it is to seek freedom in a place like Eritrea. Mahboob is looking for developers and others who could teach the thousands of girls and young women who have signed up to learn to code, build websites and pursue other tech skills. Those teachers could either go to Afghanistan or manage the classes remotely. They also need laptops and will happily take second-hand ones.

But for all the activists, an important key is that people understand what it is to lack freedom. Payá responded to the common American narrative that they want to get to Cuba “before it is spoiled.”

“That’s racism,” she said. “They want to see the monkeys in the zoo before they’re globalized.”

In the U.S., the current administration has begun attacks on the media and on the kinds of institutions that preserve the rights of citizens against authoritarian leadership. But, as Halvorssen pointed out, it’s a far cry from what these countries face.

“When someone overextends executive power, a judge stands up and says, ‘Oh no you don’t.’ When we turn on late night TV we see people making fun of those in power with abandon. They’re not being arrested. They’re not being taken away in the middle of the night. I like the idea that people in America are waking up.”

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