This is a profile of Reem Al-Masri, a Mozilla Fellow in the Tech and Society Fellowship program.
IN RESTRICTIVE political environments, digital media platforms are often at risk of being blocked or attacked by governments and other entities that benefit from censorship. Ten years ago, journalist Reem Al-Masri found herself in this predicament. It was 2013, soon after the end of the Arab Spring and she was working at a magazine in Jordan. One day they were online and reaching their audience as usual — and the next, they were blocked. This forced Al-Masri and her team to learn how internet infrastructure worked and affected them.
“In order to be able to get around it we had to learn from scratch how the internet works, and the kind of entities that govern the internet as well. Who [has] the authority or the technical and legal jurisdiction to do the blocking,” Al-Masri says.
What they found, after spending a lot of time investigating, was that the Jordanian government had issued an amendment to the Press Law that required digital platforms to obtain a particular license to operate or they would be blocked. Trying to fight this battle and get their website up and running again required lots of learning.
“We had to learn about the hosting infrastructure of the website, how our website could be blocked at the country level, what the role of different entities like the telecom companies was, and what the chain of command was when it came to issuing these orders,” Al-Masri adds.
In defiance of this administrative law, the team tried to find other ways to reach their audience, including teaching their users to use torrents and how to bypass the Domain Name System (DNS). They went as far as taking the issue to court but they lost the case. Much to their dismay, after a year and a half of trying to operate without the license, the team was faced with a critical decision – continue to fight the law but lose readership, or obtain the license and increase the critical coverage of issues and stories about freedoms in Jordan. They chose the latter.
This is just one example of events that influenced Al-Masri to cover the intersection of tech and politics in general and the direct targeting of journalists.
“When you produce critical media in restrictive environments, you're very likely to be subjected to certain restrictions, limitations, or attacks on the infrastructure. It's really important for journalists to know how internet governance works not only on a local level but also on a global level,” Al-Masri states.
When you produce critical media in restrictive environments, you're very likely to be subjected to certain restrictions, limitations, or attacks on the infrastructure.
Reem Al-Masri, Mozilla Tech and Society Fellow
A 2022 Tech and Society Fellow, Al-Masri was embedded with Febrayer, a network of independent Arab media organizations, and developed a curriculum for the Counter Academy of Arab Journalism. This curriculum is now a month-long module in their one-year program.
What Al-Masri noticed was that even though there was coverage of tech in the Arab region, most of it focused on the release of new gadgets or platforms that readers should be aware of. She sought to change that.
“One of the objectives of this course was to get journalists to start looking at tech from a critical perspective, and making connections between open source, for example, and how it affected the mobilization of communities when the internet first arrived in the Arab region in the ‘90s and early 2000s,’ Al-Masri shares.
Al-Masri was interested in discussing with journalists how certain factors influence how communities interact online and how these have changed over time. The factors that affect how the internet works now include political influence and also the centralization of the internet infrastructure by big players like Meta.
“The political economy and the ecosystem of ownership of infrastructure is affecting information and affecting knowledge dissemination in general. For example, there used to be a separation between the companies that own there used to be a separation between companies that own the infrastructure that allows the internet to run, and those who mediate the content found on it,” says Al-Masri.
Today we see companies like Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Meta (Facebook), and Amazon getting into the business of owning undersea cables. This means they have a lot more control over what gets to be seen.
“These companies are unaccountable to the public. The centralization of ownership of infrastructure is global and affects everyone, not only just independent media in the Arab region,” Al-Masri asserts.
She used the example of the Facebook outage that lasted for close to six hours in 2021 and how that affected the way people could communicate worldwide. This, she says, is a real-life example of how the centralization of app ownership could affect information and dissemination. Unfortunately, as Al-Masri points out, media organizations often have to make tough decisions regarding the use of these platforms.
“There is always a trade-off between using these companies to host and owning our own hosting services, which is a lot more expensive. These and other questions are what the course tries to put out there and to have journalists think about in general,” Al-Masri says.
Even though journalists can’t afford to leave platforms like Twitter or Facebook, the curriculum invites journalists to think about ways they can diversify their methods of reaching audiences. This course will continue to be updated as Al-Masri herself continues to learn.
“We're still learning because the internet and the circumvention or the blocking mechanisms evolve over time. It is like a cat-and-mouse situation,” she says
We're still learning because the internet and the circumvention or the blocking mechanisms evolve over time. It is like a cat-and-mouse situation.
Reem Al-Masri, Mozilla Tech and Society Fellow
The curriculum was one of two projects Al-Masri worked on during her fellowship. The other was a digital strategy she developed for Febrayer.
After a needs analysis of the challenges that the Febrayer media organizations face, she was led to the conclusion that most of them needed to increase the digital resilience of their tech infrastructure.
“The objective of it was to propose a structure where the infrastructure – which is their websites – is technically supported, tended to, and resilient against attacks. Most media organizations, especially independent small media organizations, cannot afford to hire a dedicated IT team,” Al-Masri explains.
The digital strategy proposes a plan for network organizations to share technical resources for secure hosting and web development. It also aims to create sustainable support and to serve as a consistent point of reference for technical advice in experimenting with emerging anti-censorship tools. One of the ways media organizations can be targeted is through Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks.
“Imagine a website as an office with a couple of doors and there are a million people knocking trying to get in. Eventually, that office will cave in. This is what happens with DDOS. You get a million requests from different areas around the world to overload the server until it is paralyzed and cannot respond to all those requests,” Al-Masri explains.
This - among other things - is what the strategy seeks to address and mitigate against. Febrayer has started to form a tech team for members to share the infrastructure. They continue to fundraise towards growing this resource and other needs.