Jessica Dheere ’93
Daniel Jones
‘A free, open, and secure internet has never been more important’

Jessica Dheere ’93 began a master’s degree in media studies at the New School in New York in 2005, just as social media as we know it began to take root. In the summer after her first year, she visited Cyprus. What turned out to be a one-month war between Hezbollah and Israel had broken out in nearby Lebanon that July, and she got assignments from Architectural Record magazine to cover the reconstruction. She moved to Beirut and finished her degree online.

Dheere leveraged her knowledge of online reporting and emerging social media to teach and advocate for internet speech freedom in Lebanon. This led her to co-found the Social Media Exchange (SMEX), a Beirut–based digital-rights research and advocacy group focused on documenting government infringements on online free speech in the Arab region. After a decade spent developing SMEX in Beirut, she served as a fellow in 2018 and 2019 at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Last fall, she became deputy director at Ranking Digital Rights (RDR), a research program at New America that scores tech platforms and telecom companies on their respect for human rights. Still on the board at SMEX, she is now based in Washington, D.C. PAW interviewed Dheere in March and April.

How has the coronavirus affected internet freedoms?

A free, open, and secure internet has never been more important. The internet was originally built to provide communications resilience during conflict and, by extension, other crises, which is why countries that shut down the internet during times of conflict or elections or now pandemics are actually only exacerbating the situation. 

As one example, China’s repression of online speech, including by one of the first doctors to highlight the problem, contributed greatly to the deadly delay of the rest of the world’s recognition and understanding of the severity of this crisis. This in and of itself should highlight the importance of a free internet and free speech, not to mention the fact that so much of life has migrated online and right now, and without the internet, the world would be at even more of a standstill than it already is.

Some of the measures being taken, such as the rapid passage of disinformation laws, can have chilling effects on speech and also severely compromise privacy. And they have little demonstrated effect at limiting the spread of so-called fake news. The right to free expression and the right to privacy are two of the human rights most at risk when government and company policies seek to curb speech or gather user data, especially location data, for surveillance or other purposes, which is what we’re seeing right now.

At RDR, we believe that these companies have an even greater obligation during COVID-19 to be transparent to their users about what data they’re using and sharing and for what purposes. Otherwise we risk instituting measures that may be very difficult to roll back when the urgency of this crisis passes.  

How does this relate to your work with SMEX?

A large part of my work in internet freedom has been about resisting the potential for perfect control that can occur when states and companies cooperate too closely in “normal” times of the digital era, and the advent of the pandemic has only made this fight more urgent.

Over 10 years, SMEX became a leading digital-rights organization in the Middle East. Initially, we trained people in how to start a blog, how to produce audio, how to develop good digital content, and how to set up a Facebook page. Starting with the Arab Spring in 2010, we focused more on privacy and free expression — basically becoming a human-rights organization. 

We started developing a database of digital-rights laws in the region. We located the laws, analyzed them, and tried to figure out how the law was being applied to the online space. This effort is called cyrilla.org and it’s expanded to Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere.

We also have another project, muhal.org. It’s a database of instances in which people have been called in for speech crimes.

Which countries in the region are relatively free and relatively unfree online?

Generally speaking, the Gulf states — Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain — are the most restrictive. Jordan’s red line is criticism of the military or intelligence or the monarch. Egypt restricts what you can say in contradiction to the government. Tunisia, since the revolution, is much more free, though other North African countries, such as Algeria, are much less so, and Morocco is still pretty restrictive.

In most places except for the Gulf states, it’s really nuanced. You may have the illusion of freedom of expression, but if you insult a public figure or the monarchy or the military, that will get you into trouble.

What are the methods of repression used against online speech?

Government surveillance in the Gulf states is really robust. You’ll see filtering and censorship in the Gulf states, and they are well documented as targeting activists with malware. They may also have electronic armies that steer online discussions in a certain direction.

In 2018 in Lebanon the government hired contractors to create phishing links that users would download and enable government surveillance. That’s happened elsewhere too. 

In some countries, there’s a cybercrime bureau used to censor speech. Bloggers might criticize a powerful person who will use political influence to make sure that prosecutors investigate. The blogger is invited for a “conversation,” and if they choose not to go, that could make things worse. If they do go, they’re told they shouldn’t have said that, they need to take it down, and must sign a pledge never to write about that person again.

If it gets as far as a trial, they’ll sometimes detain people for an inordinate amount of time as an intimidation tactic. In some countries, blasphemy is a big thing. There are certain figures who are untouchable.

Have you ever experienced any of these yourself?

No, SMEX has to date never really been the subject of any kind of government interference.

Can digital technologies still be a democratizing force?

I definitely think they still have a role. But you can’t simply say that social media is a democratizing force. I probably felt that in the beginning, but I quickly became skeptical. Technology doesn’t only help the individual. It also helps governments. 

My work at RDR now focuses on social-media companies and whether their policies and practices protect and respect users’ rights under human rights law. 

One of the problems with social-media companies is that governments put pressure on them to get rid of disinformation, extremism, and harassment, but legitimate speech gets caught up in that. Increasingly, we are questioning the targeted advertising business models of these companies, which generate revenue by amplifying the most extreme and sensationalistic speech. 

But I am optimistic. We’re still at the beginning, and we don’t understand all of the threats. The European Union is leading in regulating tech companies. Philanthropic funders are getting a handle on technologies affecting global societies and political participation and channeling much-needed support to a vibrant and global civil society ready take the challenge on.

Interview conducted and condensed by Louis Jacobson ’92