Category Archives: Domestic Propaganda

Russia Plans to Fine Websites for ‘Propaganda’ of Circumvention Tools - Ad Vox 20160317

Russia Plans to Fine Websites for ‘Propaganda’ of Circumvention Tools - Ad Vox 20160317

Tor. VPNs. Website mirroring. The mere mention of these and other online tools for circumventing censorship could soon become “propaganda” under proposed amendments to Russian law.

Russian state media regulator Roscomnadzor plans to introduce fines for “propaganda” of online circumvention tools that allow users to access blocked webpages. The changes also equate “mirror” versions of blocked websites with their originals.

According to news outlet RBC, which claims to possess a copy of the draft document, Roscomnadzor would punish “propaganda” of circumvention tools online with fines of 3,000-5,000 rubles (USD $43-73) for individuals or officials, and fines of 50,000-100,000 rubles (USD $730-1460) for corporate entities. While the proposed fines may not be exorbitant, they set a dangerous precedent for the future.

Beyond restricting tips on accessing blocked websites, the bill also defines “mirror websites” and allows copyright holders to ask the court to block both the original website containing “pirated” content and all of its mirrors—”derivative websites” that have similar names and content, including those translated into other languages.

In February 2016, Russian copyright holders suggested a similar draft bill mandating a fine of 50,000 rubles (USD $730) for ISPs that published information about circumvention. At the time, the bill's creators claimed Roscomnadzor supported the bill, but the state regulator denied it.

Circumvention crackdown is bad for free speech

On the surface, Roscomnadzor's new bill seems to be aimed at protecting copyright holders and limiting access to pirated content online. But the implications of banning circumvention tools would be far greater. Russian officials have debated restrictions on VPNs and anonymizers for quite a while, but have so far stopped shy of branding the tools—or information about them—as illegal.

As with other Internet-related legislation in Russia, experts see the new amendments as deliberately overreaching and broad, making them ripe for abuse and further restrictions on free speech.

…if the legislative changes were applied “literally,” many innocuous pages with mere mentions of circumvention technology could be branded as “propaganda.”
Irina Levova, director for strategic projects at the Institute of Internet Research, told RBC that if the legislative changes were applied “literally,” many innocuous pages with mere mentions of circumvention technology could be branded as “propaganda.”

Levova believes Roscomnadzor and Russian copyright holders are deliberately pressuring ISPs in order to excessively regulate access to information online. According to her, Internet providers in Russia are technically capable of blocking up to 85% of websites on the RuNet, and any additional restrictive capability would involve mass IP-address blocking, which means even more law-abiding websites could suffer.

Kremlin's creeping war on anonymity

To date, the biggest row around circumvention tools on the RuNet erupted after the website of RosKomSvoboda, a Russian Internet freedom and human rights organization, was blocked.

In February 2016, the RosKomSvoboda website was added to the RuNet blacklist registry because of a page on the site that educates users on how to circumvent online censorship and access blocked materials. RosKomSvoboda said the blocking and the court ruling were absurd, since neither information about anonymizing tools, nor the services themselves, were forbidden by Russian law.

Vadim Ampelonsky, Roskomnadzor's spokesman, stressed that the ruling against RosKomSvoboda created a precedent, since the prosecutor in the case who was “in charge of enforcing anti-extremist legislation was able to prove that this information creates conditions for users to access extremist materials.” Ampelonsky said the ruling could inform the future work of prosecutors and courts, when it comes to policing information that helps Russians circumvent censorship.

It is worth nothing that just a month earlier, in January 2016, Ampelonsky told the news agency RBC TV that circumventing online censorship does not violate the law.

RosKovSvoboda's website was eventually unblocked after they changed the contents of their page with circumvention instructions. It now contains their report on the court battle and an official Ministry of Communications letter, which provides explanations for some of the circumvention tools that the page previously linked to and explained. The activists also moved information and links to some other anonymizing and encryption tools to a separate page for their Open RuNet campaign.

For now, Roscomnadzor's spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky has confirmed to RBC news that the regulator worked with a group of copyright owners in Russia to draft the amendments to Russia's law “On information, information technologies and protection of information” and the Administrative violations code. On March 17 the draft was discussed with Internet industry representatives at a Roscomnadzor roundtable on regulating the RuNet, with companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yandex and MailRu in attendance. The bill will now go to the Communications Ministry on March 21 before it moves to the Russian Duma for voting.

Congressmen Seek To Lift Propaganda Ban - Foreign Policy 20120518

Propaganda that was supposed to target foreigners could now be aimed at Americans, reversing a longstanding policy.

“Disconcerting and dangerous,” says Shank.

An amendment that would legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences is being inserted into the latest defense authorization bill, BuzzFeed has learned.

The amendment would “strike the current ban on domestic dissemination” of propaganda material produced by the State Department and the independent Broadcasting Board of Governors, according to the summary of the law at the House Rules Committee’s official website.

The tweak to the bill would essentially neutralize two previous acts—the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987—that had been passed to protect U.S. audiences from our own government’s misinformation campaigns.

The bi-partisan amendment is sponsored by Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas and Rep. Adam Smith from Washington State.

In a little noticed press release earlier in the week — buried beneath the other high-profile issues in the $642 billion defense bill, including indefinite detention and a prohibition on gay marriage at military installations — Thornberry warned that in the Internet age, the current law “ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible way.”

The bill’s supporters say the informational material used overseas to influence foreign audiences is too good to not use at home, and that new techniques are needed to help fight Al-Qaeda, a borderless enemy whose own propaganda reaches Americans online.

Critics of the bill say there are ways to keep America safe without turning the massive information operations apparatus within the federal government against American citizens.

“Clearly there are ways to modernize for the information age without wiping out the distinction between domestic and foreign audiences,” says Michael Shank, Vice President at the Institute for Economics and Peace in Washington D.C. “That Reps Adam Smith and Mac Thornberry want to roll back protections put in place by previously-serving Senators – who, in their wisdom, ensured limits to taxpayer–funded propaganda promulgated by the US government – is disconcerting and dangerous.”

“I just don’t want to see something this significant – whatever the pros and cons – go through without anyone noticing,”
“ says one source on the Hill, who is disturbed by the law. According to this source, the law would allow “U.S. propaganda intended to influence foreign audiences to be used on the domestic population.”

The new law would give sweeping powers to the government to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”

According to this official, “senior public affairs” officers within the Department of Defense want to “get rid” of Smith-Mundt and other restrictions because it prevents information activities designed to prop up unpopular policies—like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Critics of the bill point out that there was rigorous debate when Smith Mundt passed, and the fact that this is so “under the radar,” as the Pentagon official puts it, is troubling.

The Pentagon spends some $4 billion a year to sway public opinion already, and it was recently revealed by USA Today the DoD spent $202 million on information operations in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.

In an apparent retaliation to the USA Today investigation, the two reporters working on the story appear to have been targeted by Pentagon contractors, who created fake Facebook pages and Twitter accounts in an attempt to discredit them.

(In fact, a second amendment to the authorization bill — in reaction to the USA Today report — seeks cuts to the Pentagon’s propaganda budget overseas, while this amendment will make it easier for the propaganda to spread at home.)

The evaporation of Smith-Mundt and other provisions to safeguard U.S. citizens against government propaganda campaigns is part of a larger trend within the diplomatic and military establishment.

In December, the Pentagon used software to monitor the Twitter debate over Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing; another program being developed by the Pentagon would design software to create “sock puppets” on social media outlets; and, last year, General William Caldwell, deployed an information operations team under his command that had been trained in psychological operations to influence visiting American politicians to Kabul.

A U.S. Army whistleblower, Lieutenant Col. Daniel Davis, noted recently in his scathing 84-page unclassified report on Afghanistan that there remains a strong desire within the defense establishment “to enable Public Affairs officers to influence American public opinion when they deem it necessary to “protect a key friendly center of gravity, to wit US national will,” he wrote, quoting a well-regarded general.

The defense bill passed the House Friday afternoon.

CORRECTION: The amendment under consideration would not apply to the Department of Defense, though the it is attached to a defense authorization bill.

Much ado about State Department ‘propaganda’: Much ado about State Department ‘propaganda’ - Foreign Policy 20120523

Much ado about State Department ‘propaganda’: Much ado about State Department ‘propaganda’ - Foreign Policy 20120523

The congressional drive to update a 1948 law on how the U.S. government manages its public diplomacy has kicked off a heated debate over whether Congress is about to allow the State Department to propagandize Americans. But the actual impact of the change is less sinister than it might seem.

On May 18, Buzzfeed published a story by reporter Michael Hastings about the bipartisan congressional effort to change the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 (as amended by the Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987). The story was entitled, "Congressmen seek to lift propaganda ban," and focuses on the successful effort by Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Adam Smith (D-WA) to add their Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 as an amendment to the House version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.

The new legislation would "authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences." The Buzzfeed article outlines concerns inside the defense community that the Pentagon might now be allowed to use information operations and propaganda operations against U.S. citizens. A correction added to the story notes that Smith-Mundt doesn’t apply to the Pentagon in the first place.

In fact, the Smith-Mundt act (as amended in 1987) only covers the select parts of the State Department that are engaged in public diplomacy efforts abroad, such as the public diplomacy section of the "R" bureau, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other U.S. government-funded media organizations.

Implementation of the law over the years has been selective, haphazard, and at times confusing, because even State Department bureaus often aren’t sure if they have to abide by it. The Thornberry-Smith language is meant to fix that by applying Smith-Mundt to the entire State Department and USAID.

The Defense Department, meanwhile, has its own "no propaganda" rider, enshrined in the part of U.S. code that covers the Pentagon, and that is not affected in any way by either Smith-Mundt as it stands or by the proposed update now found in the defense bill. The only reason the Smith-Mundt modernization bill was attached to the defense bill was because that bill is one that’s sure to move and Congress hasn’t actually passed a foreign affairs authorization bill in years.

"To me, it’s a fascinating case study in how one blogger was pretty sloppy, not understanding the issue and then it got picked up by Politico‘s Playbook, and you had one level of sloppiness on top of another. And once something sensational gets out there, it just spreads like wildfire," Thornberry told The Cable in an interview today.

He said the update for Smith-Mundt was intended to recognize that U.S. public diplomacy needs to compete on the Internet and through satellite channels and therefore the law preventing this information from being available to U.S. citizens was simply obsolete.

"It should be completely obvious that a law first passed in 1948 might need to be updated to reflect a world of the Internet and satellite [TV]," he said. "If you want the State Department to engage on the war of ideas, it has to do it over the Internet and satellite channels, which don’t have geographical borders."

Salon writer Glenn Greenwald interviewed Smith Tuesday and wrote a storyquestioning whether the law would allow the State Department to try to influence American public opinion though "propaganda." He noted a press release on the Thornberry-Smith legislation which complained that Smith-Mundt had prevented a Minneapolis radio station from replaying VOA broadcasts to Somali-Americans to rebut terrorist propaganda.

Thornberry’s response was to say that the 21st century media environment is already so diverse and open that opening Americans’ access to one more source of information, State Department-produced news and information, was not likely to propagandize American citizens.

"It makes me chuckle. This is not 1948 when everybody was tuned to a few radio stations and the fear was that the information we were sending to Eastern Bloc countries was going to affect American politics," he said. "The idea that the State Department could be so effective as to impact domestic politics is just silly. This gives Americans the chance to see what the State Department is saying to people all over the world."

In fact, advocates of the bill tout the issue of transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy as one of the main benefits of the new bill. Previously, oversight of State Department public diplomacy efforts abroad was done by an advisory commission inside the State Department that was shut down last year, while Congress and the media has little to no direct access to the material.

Thornberry said that domestic dissemination of the material will actually increase the transparency and oversight of U.S. public diplomacy by laying it bare for Americans to chew over.

"If all these bloggers see the State Department trying to influence something domestically, they will be the first to raise the alarm," he said. "It is always going to be true that you have to look at the effectiveness and truthfulness of the content of the information. But it would no longer be against the law that the American people can see it."

Matt Armstrong, who was the executive director of the State Department’s advisory commission on public diplomacy before it got shut down because Congress declined to reauthorize it, explained on his Mountainrunner blogthat Smith-Mundt was designed by a Cold War U.S. government that simply didn’t trust the State Department to talk directly to the American people.

"The Smith-Mundt Act is misunderstood and often mistaken for ‘anti-propaganda’ legislation intended to censor the Government. The reality is the original prohibition on the State Department disseminating inside the U.S. its own information products designed for audiences abroad was, first, to protect the Government from the State Department and, second, to protect commercial media," he wrote.

In an interview today, Armstrong pointed out that the Thornberry-Smith bill explicitly notes that two existing provisions of Smith-Mundt, both of which would remain intact, address concerns that the State Department might overreach in trying to influence Americans. Section 1437 of the existing legislation requires the State Department to defer to private media whenever possible and Section 1462 requires State to withdraw from a government information activity whenever a private media source is found as an adequate replacement.

He said the law as it stands is just not working and doesn’t make a lot of sense. "When Cal Ripkin or Michele Kwan go to China, Americans aren’t supposed to know that they went or what they did there. In addition, virtually anything that’s on a U.S. embassy website is off limits," he said.

The discussion over Smith-Mundt is further distorted by a lack of understanding about what public diplomacy is and when it crosses over into "propaganda."

"Let’s face it, it is impossible to communicate and not influence.. The idea here is that U.S. public diplomacy is not based on lies," said Armstrong. "There’s this misconception that public diplomacy is propaganda. Propaganda is a lie, a deception, or intentional ambiguity, none of which can be lead to effective public diplomacy by any country, let alone the U.S."

Of course, the State Department’s Public Affairs bureaucracy, which speaks to Americans every day in various forms, is capable of "propaganda," but is not covered by Smith-Mundt. The Cable asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at today’s press briefing if State supported the Thornberry-Smith legislation.

"We have long thought that aspects of Smith-Mundt need to be modernized, that in a 24-7 Internet age it’s hard to draw hard lines like the original Smith-Mundt [Act] did in the ‘40s," she said.

We then asked Nuland whether the State Department has any intent to propagandize American citizens.

"We do not and never have," she said with a smile.

U.S. Repeals Propaganda Ban, Spreads Government-Made News to Americans - Foreign Policy 20130714

U.S. Repeals Propaganda Ban, Spreads Government-Made News to Americans - Foreign Policy 20130714

For decades, a so-called anti-propaganda law prevented the U.S. government’s mammoth broadcasting arm from delivering programming to American audiences. But on July 2, that came silently to an end with the implementation of a new reform passed in January. The result: an unleashing of thousands of hours per week of government-funded radio and TV programs for domestic U.S. consumption in a reform initially criticized as a green light for U.S. domestic propaganda efforts. So what just happened?

Until this month, a vast ocean of U.S. programming produced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks could only be viewed or listened to at broadcast quality in foreign countries. The programming varies in tone and quality, but its breadth is vast: It’s viewed in more than 100 countries in 61 languages. The topics covered include human rights abuses in Iran, self-immolation in Tibet, human trafficking across Asia, and on-the-ground reporting in Egypt and Iraq.

The restriction of these broadcasts was due to the Smith-Mundt Act, a long-standing piece of legislation that has been amended numerous times over the years, perhaps most consequentially by Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright. In the 1970s, Fulbright was no friend of VOA and Radio Free Europe, and moved to restrict them from domestic distribution, saying they "should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics." Fulbright’s amendment to Smith-Mundt was bolstered in 1985 by Nebraska Senator Edward Zorinsky, who argued that such "propaganda" should be kept out of America as to distinguish the U.S. "from the Soviet Union where domestic propaganda is a principal government activity."

Zorinsky and Fulbright sold their amendments on sensible rhetoric: American taxpayers shouldn’t be funding propaganda for American audiences. So did Congress just tear down the American public’s last defense against domestic propaganda?

BBG spokeswoman Lynne Weil insists BBG is not a propaganda outlet, and its flagship services such as VOA "present fair and accurate news."

"They don’t shy away from stories that don’t shed the best light on the United States," she told The Cable. She pointed to the charters of VOA and RFE: "Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate."

A former U.S. government source with knowledge of the BBG says the organization is no Pravda, but it does advance U.S. interests in more subtle ways. In Somalia, for instance, VOA serves as counterprogramming to outlets peddling anti-American or jihadist sentiment. "Somalis have three options for news," the source said, "word of mouth, al-Shabab, or VOA Somalia."

This partially explains the push to allow BBG broadcasts on local radio stations in the United States. The agency wants to reach diaspora communities, such as St. Paul, Minnesota’s significant Somali expat community. "Those people can get al-Shabab, they can get Russia Today, but they couldn’t get access to their taxpayer-funded news sources like VOA Somalia," the source said. "It was silly."

Lynne added that the reform has a transparency benefit as well. "Now Americans will be able to know more about what they are paying for with their tax dollars — greater transparency is a win-win for all involved," she said. And so with that we have the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, which passed as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, and went into effect this month.

But if anyone needed a reminder of the dangers of domestic propaganda efforts, the past 12 months provided ample reasons. Last year, two USA Today journalists were ensnared in a propaganda campaign after reporting about millions of dollars in back taxes owed by the Pentagon’s top propaganda contractor in Afghanistan. Eventually, one of the co-owners of the firmconfessed to creating phony websites and Twitter accounts to smear the journalists anonymously. Additionally, just this month, the Washington Postexposed a counter-propaganda program by the Pentagon that recommended posting comments on a U.S. website run by a Somali expat with readers opposing al-Shabab. "Today, the military is more focused on manipulating news and commentary on the Internet, especially social media, by posting material and images without necessarily claiming ownership," reported thePost.

But for BBG officials, the references to Pentagon propaganda efforts are nauseating, particularly because the Smith-Mundt Act never had anything to do with regulating the Pentagon, a fact that was misunderstood in media reports in the run-up to the passage of new Smith-Mundt reforms in January.

One example included a report by the late BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings, who suggested that the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act would open the door to Pentagon propaganda of U.S. audiences. In fact, as amended in 1987, the act only covers portions of the State Department engaged in public diplomacy abroad (i.e. the public diplomacy section of the "R" bureau, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.)

But the news circulated regardless, much to the displeasure of Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), a sponsor of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012. "To me, it’s a fascinating case study in how one blogger was pretty sloppy, not understanding the issue and then it got picked up by Politico‘s Playbook, and you had one level of sloppiness on top of another," Thornberry told The Cablelast May. "And once something sensational gets out there, it just spreads like wildfire."

That of course doesn’t leave the BBG off the hook if its content smacks of agitprop. But now that its materials are allowed to be broadcast by local radio stations and TV networks, they won’t be a complete mystery to Americans. "Previously, the legislation had the effect of clouding and hiding this stuff," the former U.S. official told The Cable. "Now we’ll have a better sense: Gee some of this stuff is really good. Or gee some of this stuff is really bad. At least we’ll know now."