Monthly Archives: July 2011

Global Online Freedom Law, how states and tech companies restrict internet freedom

In May and June [2011] human-rights lawyers in America filed two suits alleging that executives at Cisco Systems, a California-based tech firm, sold China’s government equipment customised to help track dissenters online. Only one of the plaintiffs is an American citizen; more than a dozen are Chinese. Cisco denies all wrongdoing.

Such jurisdictional jiggery-pokery is made possible in part by the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), which lets foreigners bring alleged violations of international law before American courts. Oil companies, mining firms and banks have all been subject to ATCA litigation since the ancient law was unburied in the 1980s. But only in recent years has the act been used to target tech firms whose products, or user data, might have been used to trap activists. In the best-known case, in 2007, Yahoo! reached a settlement with representatives of two Chinese democracy campaigners who said the firm had given authorities information that had led to their arrest. Daniel Ward, a lawyer leading one of the suits against Cisco, thinks that similar cases could be brought against other firms.

The issue is getting hotter as Sino-American internet business expands, in both directions. American tech firms covet China’s huge market. On July 4th Microsoft confirmed that its Bing search engine will soon be powering English-language results for local users of Baidu, China’s censored search giant. Even firms with more modest horizons may find themselves dealing with regimes that closely control the internet. More and more governments are moving to restrict the flow of information online, according to Freedom House, a lobby group.

Meanwhile, the global reach of China’s own internet firms, many of them listed on American stock exchanges, is drawing legal challenges. Campaigners in New York have started a suit against Baidu, saying its censored search results violate their constitutional rights. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Stephen Preziosi, insists the case be heard in an American court—Baidu sells advertising to American firms and aggressively protects its American trademark, he says.

Still, suits against Cisco or other high-tech players face an uncertain legal path. Last year an appeals court hearing another ATCA case said the statute could not be used to prosecute firms, creating a division among judges that only the Supreme Court can settle. Lawyers retort that even if ATCA use against firms is curbed, individual executives could still be targeted.

Some American politicians think clearer legislation would help. One long-mooted bill, the Global Online Freedom Act, would make the government keep a list of internet-restricting states. Under its latest revision, advanced in April by Chris Smith, a Republican congressman, firms would need to seek the approval of American authorities before passing user information to one of these regimes [or should it be to any regime?]; search engines would have to reveal details of any content they are asked to block. Export controls on web-blocking technologies would also be reviewed.

The bill has struggled to gain support since it was floated in 2006. But it could be helpful to American firms, argues Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lobby group, because clear legislation at home would give ammunition to executives negotiating business terms with foreign authorities. “They could all point to the same rules,” she says.

Internet freedom: Tort and technology, Economist, July 23, 2011, at 57

 

The Handover: Haqqani, bunkers, caves, raids, Afghanistan

At least 80 militants were killed in a series of operations involving Afghan and NATO forces during a day-long firefight last week in the country’s restive southeast, Paktika provincial governor Mukhlas Afghan said Sunday. NATO said it could only confirm 50 insurgents were killed in the fight.  The operation, which began Wednesday and spanned the night into Thursday, was fought in a “known Haqqani network” area.  The Haqqani network is an insurgent group loosely affiliated with the Taliban and is believed to be based in Pakistan’s frontier territories.  The raid included Afghan special forces and engaged “multiple groups of insurgents” who were armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and heavy machine guns, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force reported Friday.

Multiple insurgent groups were holed up in areas that included caves and fortified bunker positions, ISAF said.  Elsewhere, coalition raids on Sunday in Helmand province left five militants dead, including three Taliban commanders, according to provincial governor Dawood Ahmadi. Three others were captured, he said.  Sunday’s announcement coincides with formal ceremonies marking the handover of security to Afghan forces in parts of Kabul and Panjshir province.  They are the fifth and sixth areas to be transferred to national forces.

David Ariosto, Gunbattle in Afghanistan leaves 80 militants dead, governor saysBy,CNN, July 24, 2011

Expensive Weapons of the Future

(The F-35 aircraft fighter is expected to be) the “fifth generation” fighter, far more effective in both its primary ground-attack role and air defence than “legacy” aircraft… (The costs of developing the F-35 are huge)but the cost of operating and supporting them are staggering: $1 trillion over the plane’s lifetime…

Even if America and some of its NATO allies cut their orders (of F-35), Lockheed Martin is confident that the numbers will be more than made up by countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. All these nations are rich and nervous of Beijing. Mr Burbage draws comparison with the F-16, of which more than 4,500 will be built over its long life.

But the longer-term outlook for the F-35 is uncertain. Its costly capabilities are intended to make it effective against the air defences of a sophisticated enemy, such as China. But the growing vulnerability of American aircraft carriers to Chinese missiles will mean operating from well beyond the F-35’s 600-mile (1,000km) range.

Some military strategists already think that the job the F-35 is meant to do can be better handled by cruise missiles and remotely piloted drones. In many roles, unmanned planes are more efficient: they carry neither a bulky pilot nor the kit that keeps him alive, which means they can both turn faster and be stealthier. And if they are shot down, no one dies. Even the F-35’s champions concede that it will probably be the last manned strike fighter aircraft the West will build.

Excerpts from, The defence industry: The last manned fighter, Economist, July 16, 2011, at 67

Covert Action: killing nuclear scientists

Iran says one of its nuclear scientists has been “assassinated” in Tehran.  State media reports say the scientist was killed in front of his house on Saturday by unidentified assailants who were riding motorcycles. The ISNA news agency has identified the scientist as Daryoushi Rezaie. The report says his wife was injured in the attack. Last year, Iranian officials blamed Israel for bomb attacks that killed a prominent nuclear scientist and wounded another. State media reports said one explosion killed nuclear scientist Majid Shahrairi and a separate blast wounded nuclear physicist Fereidoun Abbasi. The reports say in both cases, attackers on motorcycles attached bombs to the scientists’ cars.  The intelligence ministry later said authorities had arrested more than 10 suspects in connection to the attacks. It said the suspects were linked to Israel’s Mossad spy agency. Israel denied involvement in the incidents. Tensions have been high between Iran and many western nations that suspect Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

Iranian Nuclear Scientist ‘Assassinated’, Voice of America, July 23rd, 2011

The Dirty Fight for the Rhino

They used to rely on snares, poison and shotguns to kill rhinos for their horns. Now international crime syndicates are arming poachers with night-vision goggles and AK-47 assault rifles as the price for rhino horn surpasses gold.  When the crackle of gunfire signals the death of yet another rhino, radios squawk to life here in South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park and soldiers ready for pre-dawn patrols.  “They’ve become very aggressive,” Ken Maggs, head of the South African government environmental crime investigation unit, said of the poachers. “They leave notes for us written in the sand, warnings. That indicates it is an escalating issue … They are coming in prepared to fight.”

The government of South Africa, home to 90 percent of the rhinos left on the continent, is fighting back. Since more than 140 troops were deployed in April, the number of rhinos killed in Kruger has dropped from 40 in March and 30 in April to 15 in May and just two in June. Fifteen alleged poachers also have been killed this year, and nine suspects wounded in gunfights.

Still, rhino carcasses with mutilated faces are becoming a common sight in African wildlife parks. The hacked-off horns are destined to be smuggled to China and Vietnam, where traditional medicine practitioners grind them up for sale as alleged cures for everything from fevers to arthritis and cancer.  The horns have become so valuable that thieves this year started stealing rhino exhibits in European museums. The going rate is up to $44,000 a pound (60,000 pounds a kilogram) according to the London Metropolitan Police department.  Even in the United States, police in Denver have arrested members of an Irish syndicate trying to smuggle rhino horn.  “Aside from Central and South America, every region of the world appears to be affected by criminals who are fraudulently acquiring rhinoceros horns,” warned John M. Sellar, enforcement chief of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. “Government officials are being corrupted. Money-laundering is taking place,” he said…..

Conservationists have failed to persuade traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and consumers that rhino horn has no medicinal value. Some link the upsurge in rhino poaching to a 2007  Chinese government decision to promote traditional medicine as alternative medicine grows increasingly popular in the West as well. Until then, South Africa was losing about 10 rhinos a year to poachers.

Trophy hunting in South Africa is compounding the problem. More than 100 white rhinos were killed under permit here last year. The Department of Environment did not respond to questions about permits issued this year.  So tempting are the rewards that veterinarians and game ranchers – the very people supposedly dedicated to conserving wildlife – have been arrested in recent months for alleged involvement in the rhino horn trade….

Making Horn Trade Legal:  “If farmers were making a profit out of rhinos they would have the will to guard them against poachers,” said rancher John Hume, owner of the largest number of privately held rhino in the world. “Instead, they are siding with the poachers because a rhino is worth more dead than alive.”  He said some farmers “just contract with an illegal dealer, shoot the rhino, bury the body, take the horn. It pays him to kill it.”

Excerpts from, Michelle Faul , Troops fight rhino poachers, http://www.iol.co.za, July 23, 2011

Raw Drones

The United States and Britain are the biggest users of drones in Afghanistan with a fleet of unmanned reconnaissance vehicles and hunter-killers.  Both air forces have made thousands of sorties. The U.S. has used MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones to attack insurgent homes and training grounds in North Waziristan, Pakistan, where there are reports of a high number of civilian casualties.  Recently, the Royal Air Force announced that it was forming a dedicated UAV squadron to pilot a fleet of 10 U.S.-designed Reaper attack drones. The Reaper is capable of carrying up to 14 Hellfire missiles and smart bombs. It can stay airborne for up to 28 hours and climb to more than 7,500 metres.

Both the American and British UAV squads control their Afghanistan missions from a bunker in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The U.K. Reapers have flown 23,400 hours and fired 176 missiles and laser-guided bombs. The United States has reportedly launched more than 250 attacks since 2004 in Pakistan alone.

A rising concern is civilian deaths.  On March 24, a U.K. Reaper killed four Afghan civilians and injured two others when it attacked two pickup trucks in Helmand province. The trucks contained explosives but an investigation into the attack revealed they were also carrying civilians.  So-called friendly fire, which is always a problem in war, may be increased with drones. In April, a U.S. Predator drone killed a U.S. Marine and a Navy medic in Helmand province with a missile when they were mistaken for insurgents. Several years ago, a fully armed U.S. drone went haywire and started flying toward Tajikistan. The U.S. air force scrambled a manned fighter and shot it down just before it reached the border.

Attack drones have proved effective in following armed insurgents to their hiding places and then killing them with missiles.  In one case, a U.S. drone tracked insurgents to a hole in a mud wall from where they fired on coalition forces. The drone destroyed the wall with a missile, killing the insurgents.

Civilian casualties a concern with drones, Vancouver Sun, July 23, 2011

Enough is Enough: Europe should find a place to safely dispose of its nuclear waste

The European Union has given member states four years to come up with plans to permanently store their nuclear waste, a problem that continues to vex all nuclear energy-producing nations.  One hundred and forty-three reactors in the EU produce 7,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste every year. No country in the union, in fact no country anywhere in the world, has facilities to store this waste permanently and safely – more than 50 years after the first nuclear power plants were switched on.  “Governments have been passing the problem on for decades now – to the next administration, the next generation,” said Mr. Oettinger. Critics don’t fail to notice the irony: Before going to Brussels, Oettinger was prime minister in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, home to four nuclear power plants. He did not stand out for attempts to find a solution to the waste problem.

The directive obliges member states to present timelines for the construction of disposal facilities, and to identify sites where legally binding safety standards can be implemented. Currently, it takes 40 years to develop and build a so-called deep geological repository. EU countries can team up to create common facilities; the export of waste to non-EU states is allowed only if the destination country operates a suitable repository. Exports to African, Pacific, and Caribbean countries and to Antarctica are ruled out.

Environmental campaigners criticize the directive for not being clear enough. “Lots of recommendations, but in the end, member states can decide themselves on the implementation,” says Rebecca Harms, leader of the Green party in the European Parliament. “The commission doesn’t even give a clear definition what constitutes nuclear waste. What we’ll see in the end is going to be not the safest but the cheapest solution.”  One requirement in the directive could prove to be the most problematic one: the general public should be given the opportunity to participate effectively in the decisionmaking process.

“It’s been the same story all over Europe,” says Gerhard Schmidt of the Institute for Applied Ecology in Darmstadt, which advises the German government on nuclear safety issues. “Nuclear industry and government are secretly looking for disposal sites, but as soon as the public gets wind of the plans, they are withdrawn. It’s political poison.”

Problems similar to those in Europe have hampered the search for nuclear-waste repositories elsewhere. In the US, lawmakers continue to struggle over the Yucca Mountain repository, a project the Obama administration has decided to shut down after decades of political wrangling and scientific doubts over its suitability.

A transparent procedure could help in finding adequate sites, says Mr. Schmidt, adding that the research into safe nuclear-waste management has made huge progress. “Scientifically, we are almost there. But we haven’t been able to create public acceptance, with the exception of Sweden and Finland, maybe.”

Michael Steininger, Can Europe find a safe place for nuclear waste?, Christian Science Monitor, July 20, 2011