Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Jan. 13 2017 12:26 PM

Netizen Report: Dire Straits for Political Prisoners in Iran

GVA logo

The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Mahsa Alimardani, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Mohamed ElGohary, Leila Nachawati, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

Millions of Iranians turned out in Tehran on Jan. 10 for the funeral of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the founders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The funeral for the moderate former president, who supported the now jailed leaders of the Green Movement, became an opportunity to voice dissent regarding the jailing of political prisoners, Iran’s relationship with Russia, and frustration at the notoriously biased state broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.

IRIB, which holds a monopoly over television broadcasts, appeared to be avoiding coverage of the funeral, perhaps in an effort to avoid documenting public dissent. Some Iranians said they experienced jamming and slowing of the internet within the crowds and throughout Tehran. It is unclear whether this was tied to government efforts to quench dissent, or due to increased internet traffic.

Two current high-profile cases of political prisoners include those of Atena Daemi and Arash Sadeghi. Sadeghi went on hunger strike in November to protest the arrest of his wife, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee. Iraee was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for “insulting the sacred” and “propaganda against the state” for her writing, including several Facebook posts and a story she wrote in a notebook that was confiscated when authorities raided her home.

Iraee was granted a furlough from prison after Sadeghi began his hunger strike, and the judiciary later revisited the case and agreed that her sentence was wrongfully issued. Earlier this week, however, the prosecutor gave notice that her furlough was overturned, and she was ordered to return to jail. She has so far refused. Shortly thereafter, Sadeghi was taken from Evin prison to the hospital, where he was treated for intestinal bleeding and organ failure after going for 71 days without food. He has since been returned to prison.

Jailed civil rights defender Atena Daemi is facing new charges, including resisting arrest and assaulting an arresting agent, after filing a complaint against the Revolutionary Guards for using excessive force. She was first arrested in 2014 for allegedly meeting the families of political prisoners and criticizing the Islamic Republic on Facebook. She and her father both filed claims against authorities for breaking and entering their home without showing a summons. Her mother says there is video evidence from the day of her arrest proving that the charges are unwarranted.

Apple boots New York Times from Chinese app store
Apple agreed to remove both the English and Chinese versions of the New York Times app from its App Store in China after receiving a request from government officials. Apple faces sharp criticism for its compliance with the demand, and particularly for doing so without offering any public explanation or showing any evidence of a court order. The New York Times website has been blocked in China since 2012, after it published an expose about the wealth of politicians’ families.

Lebanese switch to airplane mode to protest soaring mobile costs
On Jan. 8, users of Lebanon’s only two mobile operators, Alfa and touch, which are both state-owned, switched their mobile phones to flight mode to protest high costs of international and domestic calls. Mobile subscribers in Lebanon pay the highest fees for prepaid services among 16 Arab countries surveyed, including wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to research by the Jordan-based Arab Advisors Group.

Iran installs state bots on popular Telegram channels
Iran has intensified enforcement of its policy requiring permits for Telegram messaging app administrators operating channels with more than 5,000 followers. Officials say they can target popular channels using algorithms to identify and prosecute those administrators. Seven hundred channels have registered so far. Channel owners must register and add a bot called “iransamandehibot” as a temporary co-administrator on their account until the ministry verifies them. These bots can enable surveillance abilities by searching the channels for specific users and monitoring their online activity.

Russia’s New Year’s resolutions include “Google tax”
Several new laws came into effect in Russia on Jan. 1 that will impact netizens’ rights in the country. Among them is a “Google tax” issued on some foreign internet retail companies, plus rules that will require news aggregators whose daily traffic exceeds one million views to be regulated as media outlets. See Global Voices’ roundup of these and other laws for more.

Bangladesh blocks some porn
Bangladeshi authorities blocked 560 pornography websites, most of which are locally hosted. It was part of the first foray against objectionable content, which falls under a 2012 anti-pornography law that provides prison sentences and hefty fines for “carrying, exchanging, using, selling, marketing, distributing, preserving, [and] filming” pornography in the country.

Kazakhstan jails Facebooker for insulting Putin
Kazakh Facebook user and businessman Sanat Dosov was sentenced to jail for insulting Russian President Vladimir Putin on Facebook. The sentence could be an attempt to bring online political discourse in line with the government’s thinking. The government has also recently arrested social media users for posting about ethnic Kazakh concerns.

Kuwaiti man sentenced to 42 years in prison over tweets
A former Kuwaiti lawmaker is facing more than 42 years in prison for tweets deemed insulting to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Abdulhameed Dashti—a critic of Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen and military intervention in Bahrain—has been convicted in absentia of insulting Saudi Arabia. He is currently in the U.K. for medical reasons.

Digital activists go missing in Pakistan
Reports are emerging from families and civil rights organizations that as many as nine Pakistani activists and bloggers went missing within the first week of 2017. Four of them are known for their secular and left-leaning views. The most publicly vocal of the group is social media activist and poet Salman Haider, a lecturer at Fatima Jinnah University and editor of independent magazine Tanqeed who is known for his critiques of the military and writings about enforced disappearances in Balochistan province, which has suffered from decades of armed conflict between Baloch nationalist militants and the Pakistani military. Haider's profile rose in 2014, when his poem “Main bhi Kafir” (“I Am an Infidel”) went viral. The poem reflected on the multiple attacks on Shia-Hazaras of Balochistan.

UAE man has spent more than a year in pre-trial detention over Facebook posts
More than a year after he was arrested in the UAE, Jordanian journalist Tayseer Najjar remains in detention without trial or access to a lawyer. According to rights groups, Najjar was detained in relation to Facebook posts he published before moving to the UAE in April 2015 to work as a culture reporter for a local newspaper. Published in 2014 and 2012, the posts were reportedly critical of Gulf countries, Egyptian President Abdelfattah Sisi, and Israel’s war on Gaza.

New Research

Shrinking Spaces: Online Freedom of Assembly and of Association in Pakistan”—Association for Progressive Communications

Online Privacy Through a Gendered Lens in Bangladesh”—Farhana Akter for GenderIT

Jan. 11 2017 4:15 PM

Did a Federal Surveillance Court Really “Reject” an FBI Application to Spy On Trump Associates?

In the flood of sensational news about an unverified intelligence dossier implicating President-elect Donald Trump with ties to Russia, it was easy to focus on the more scintillating (or perhaps nauseating) details.

But one piece of information from the Guardian deserved a closer look: The FBI allegedly tried to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court order to surveil four of Trump’s associates during the summer. “The FISA court turned down the application asking FBI counter-intelligence investigators to narrow its focus,” the Guardian reported.

The paper also noted that Louise Mensch—a right-wing British politician who, leaked emails show, offered to help Clinton’s campaign as early as February—claimed that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had granted a more narrowly targeted FISC order in October.

Jan. 11 2017 1:13 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: Why BuzzFeed Published Those Explosive, Unverified Trump Memos

Greetings, Future Tensers—

Though we’re more than a week into 2017, the 2016 election circus continues to cast a long shadow. This week, Slate’s Will Oremus has been diving into its continuing fallout—particularly for what it can tell us about the future of the media that covered it.

First, Will tackles the question of why BuzzFeed published those explosive, unverified, memos that allege (alongside more salacious things) that President-elect Donald Trump and his advisers secretly colluded with Russian agents. Other news outlets that saw the dossier first had declined to disclose its uncorroborated details. But, Oremus writes, the social news site’s decision followed a tradition of internet platforms that have treated “the notion of media as privileged gatekeeper of information ... with disdain.” Instead, it asked readers to make up their own minds about accusations.

Will also covered Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s Senate testimony that Russia used fake news to influence U.S. elections, Facebook’s recent decision to hire Campbell Brown as head of news partnerships (and what it says about the site’s response to the fake news that filled its feeds in 2016), and why Mark Zuckerberg is suddenly acting like a politician.

Speaking of monsters that cast long shadows, our latest installment in our January Futurography on Frankenstein has Katy Waldman chronicling how the Franken- prefix lurched into our lexicons and took on a life of its own. From frankenfoods to Frankenweenie, frankenstorm to frankenberry, it seems we still want Mary Shelley’s 199-year-old creation to help explain our frankenworld.


  • TOMORROW: Join Federal Trade Commissioner Terrell McSweeny on Thursday, Jan. 12, for the latest installment of our “My Favorite Movie” series. She’ll be hosting a screening of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension at Washington, D.C.’s Landmark E Street Cinema. You can still RSVP here.
  • Will the internet always be American? On Tuesday, Jan. 24, Future Tense will host a live event in Washington, D.C., exploring the internet’s nationality, the extent to which it’s an expression of U.S. culture and values, and whether America’s worldwide (web) dominance may be receding. You can RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.

Saying goodbye to Diamond Joe,
Kirsten Berg
for Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

Jan. 6 2017 5:15 PM

What Facebook’s Decision to Hire Campbell Brown Says About Its Future

Facebook has hired former TV anchor turned education-reform advocate Campbell Brown as its head of news partnerships. The social network announced the move Friday via a New York Times article, and Brown shared the news on her Facebook page.

Brown is an interesting choice, for a couple of reasons. But it’s worth clarifying first what exactly the position seems to entail, and what it doesn’t.

Facebook created the position and began advertising for it in December, at the height of a controversy over its role in spreading fake news and partisan propaganda during the U.S. election. The timing led many commentators to view the position as a response to that uproar.  “Facebook advertises for a head of news after US election concerns,” was the Guardian’s headline. And the Times’ Rutenberg on Friday placed the news in the context of the flak Facebook has taken over fake news, “censorship” of provocative news images, and allegations of bias in its selection of “trending” news stories.

Jan. 5 2017 2:27 PM

Russia Used Fake News to Influence the Election, Says U.S. Intelligence Chief

Fake news was part of the Russian government’s attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a Senate hearing Thursday morning.

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, asked Clapper about allegations that Russian government–backed groups had created or propagated false news stories as part of a broader campaign that included hacking and stealing emails. Clapper replied:

This was a multifaceted campaign. So the hacking was only one part of it, and it also entailed classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news.

Asked whether those disinformation efforts have continued in the election’s wake, Clapper said “yes.” He declined to elaborate on the nature of Russia’s propaganda campaign in Thursday’s hearing, or to speculate on what impact it might have had on the election’s outcome, if any. He said there will be more detail in an unclassified report that is scheduled to be released early next week.

Jan. 4 2017 6:29 PM

Why Mark Zuckerberg Is Suddenly Acting Like a Politician

inline component - slate_image

Mark Zuckerberg woke up on Christmas morning and posted his status on Facebook. The Facebook CEO was “celebrating Christmas,” he reported, adding a message so anodyne it would make a Hallmark card look edgy in comparison. Yet there was a revelation coming.

“But aren’t you atheist?” a Facebook user asked in a comment on Zuckerberg’s post.

Jan. 4 2017 2:09 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: Why We’re Still Talking About Frankenstein

Happy New Year, Future Tensers!

What better way to kick off 2017 than beginning the latest installment of Futurography—our online course offering monthly breakdowns of the science and tech topics that define our time. This month we’re taking a look at how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published 199 years ago, continues to affect the way we think about scientific and technological innovation. We’ll start you off with a conversational introduction and cheat sheet to guide you through the key players, lingo, and major debates around the topic. The rest of the month we’ll post pieces reflecting on the legacy of Shelley’s novel, and we’ll close the course with a live event in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 2.

Even though 2016 is over, you may still be looking for answers to why it was such a bad year. Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner suggest looking to Poe’s law—a decade-old internet adage—to offer an explanation. But 2016 wasn’t all that terrible; we did see some great memes come out of our shared misfortune. Plus there is a lot to look forward to in the New Year, specifically the reemergence of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic use. Groovy.

Here are some other articles you may have missed over the holidays:

  • The 2011 hack that changed the internet: Josephine Wolff tells the story of a little-known breach that led to critical changes to the internet’s infrastructure.
  • Media literacy: A pilot program is being launched in schools to teach high-school students how to spot fake news online. It’s probably safe to say we could all use a lesson.
  • Citizen science: Darlene Cavalier and Jason Lloyd argue that now more than ever, scientists should be engaging the public with their work.
  • Organ shortages: Driverless cars are sure to change the way we live and the way we die. An unexpected consequence of the reduction of road deaths could lead to a dire shortage in organ donation unless we prepare now, argue Ian Adams and Anne Hobson.


  • Join Terrell McSweeny, a commissioner with the Federal Trade Commission, for the latest installment of our “My Favorite Movie” series. She’ll be hosting a screening of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension at Washington, D.C.’s Landmark E Street Cinema on Jan. 12. Learn how to RSVP here.
  • Will the internet always be American? On Tuesday, Jan. 24, Future Tense will host a live event in Washington, D.C., to explore the internet’s nationality, the extent to which it’s an expression of American culture, and how that may be changing. You can RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.

Pushing my cat out of the way,
Emily Fritcke
for Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

Jan. 3 2017 1:44 PM

The Good Reason Why CNN Used Images From a Video Game to Illustrate a Story on Hacking

A sharp-eyed Reddit user was reading a CNN article about the White House response to Russian cyberattacks when he or she spotted something strange in the video playing at the top: As B-roll, the network was using a screenshot of a minigame from the post-apocalyptic role-playing game Fallout 4. (To be more specific, it was a hacking minigame included in Fallout 4.)

After the post on Reddit, the gaming press quickly piled on. A new video now leads the CNN story, but the clip that appears to show Fallout 4 graphics can still be found elsewhere on the site. (CNN didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about why and/or how shots from the game ended up in the video.)

It’s pretty easy to dismiss the whole thing as a clueless media blunder, just another sign that journalists don’t understand cybersecurity much more than Trump does—or can’t tell fiction from reality.

But everyone should cut CNN a little slack.

I’m a tech writer, and I cover privacy and security. And I’ve learned something over the years: Finding a good image for hacking stories can make you want to pull your hair out. If you’re covering a data breach at a specific company or government agency, you can usually get away with an image of a sign out front of their headquarters. But for more general cybersecurity pieces, you’re usually picking from a limited selection of stock images.

And the choices can be pretty bleak. Think generic keyboard shots, The Matrix–style streaming binary text, and Hollywood stereotypes of someone wearing a hoodie or ski mask typing at a laptop—typically illuminated by light shining from the screen.

In the rush to get stories online, it’s easy to default to the same picture time and time again once you find one that works. That’s why you’ve probably seen the same image of a glowing, binary-spewing keyboard in dozens of stories—including some of my own—if you follow digital security news.

Cybering hacker hacking the internet.
Just your typical cybering hacker hacking the internet.


Technical topics like encryption or specific strains of malware are hard to translate into imagery. And when you can illustrate the technology, well, it isn’t very eye-catching.

“To be honest, a photo of some real hacking would be just too boring,” one illustrator who makes stock hacking illustration told Motherboard last year. “That’s why you usually create an attractive, exaggerated image—like in cinema,” said the artist, who goes by the handle “Welcomia” on image marketplace Shutterstock. The pseudonymous illustrator also acknowledged knowing “nothing about hacking.”

The kind of images Welcomia makes drives some cybersecurity experts crazy. They think that the graphics perpetuate stereotypes of the creepy loner at a computer—and the images definitely include more men than women. A few years ago, a San Francisco tech collective called the Hacker Dojo even took its own over-the-top “hacker” pictures and posted them on public Flickr accounts as a prank, to see whether news sites would use them in stories. (They did.)

But broadcast outlets like CNN have it even harder than print media because they have to find engaging visuals for an entire video segment instead of just an image to top a story.

Of course, a lack of good images isn’t necessarily a good excuse for using video game graphics to get cybersecurity issues across in a serious news story. But it perhaps makes it easier to forgive.

Dec. 29 2016 11:40 AM

The Best Meme of 2016

From David Bowie’s death in January to Donald Trump’s election in November, this year offered a steadily intensifying stream of indignities and offenses. While any responsible historian will tell you that every year is terrible, social media made avoiding our latest round of horrors all the harder. As Jia Tolentino writes in the New Yorker, “There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it.”

Indeed, in 2016 there was nothing less refreshing than refreshing your Twitter feed, and nothing that made you want to log out altogether more than logging into Facebook. It was a self-reinforcing loop: Social media brought home the miseries of 2016, even as 2016 made social media that much more miserable.

Small wonder, then, that the year’s best—or at least most necessary—meme sought out ways to frame our experience of the year’s awfulness, and not just all that awful news itself. In its basic form, it shows us two images—one typically cheery and hopeful, the other most often grim and despondent—then ties them together with a caption: “Me at the beginning of 2016 vs me at the end of 2016.” More often than not, it’s the same character or performer in both, full of hope in the one, spirit broken in the next. These are stories of catastrophic decline, played for laughs:

Dec. 28 2016 2:40 PM

Oh Great, Ransomware Is Infecting Smart TVs Now

On Christmas day, a family member of software developer Darren Cauthon received an unwelcome gift. According to Cauthon, that person “downloaded an app to watch a movie” on his or her LG smart TV, and the device froze soon after. When it rebooted, it was stuck on a screen purporting to show a letter from the desk of FBI Director James Comey, one claiming in subgrammatical English that the device had been locked up for “your attendance of the forbidden pornographic sites.” To make good, the letter warned, the device’s owner would have to pay a $500 fine.

As Catalin Cimpanu writes on BleepingComputer, the TV in question “appears to be infected with a version of the Cyber.Police ransomware, also known as FLocker, Frantic Locker, or Dogspectus.” While Frantic Locker has primarily affected Android smartphones, the TV was, Cauthon has explained on Twitter, an early model Google TV, one that runs a version of the Android operating system.

Ransomware works by taking over a system until a user pays a fee, often in the form of cryptocurrency or digital gift cards. One recent high-profile ransomware attack shut down much of San Francisco’s public transit system while another targeted a Hollywood hospital. More mundane ransomware has been reported on Android devices since at least 2014, and Frantic Locker first began to show up on phones in 2015. Although such programs can be dangerous, especially for the unprepared, they can often be relatively easy to clear off of a system, even if you don’t want to pay the fee.

TV-based ransomware is somewhat more worrisome, in part because it can be difficult to remove, as security researchers from Trend Micro warned in a report earlier this year. Seeing that risk realized in the wild seems to substantiate those fears, not least of all because traditional Android workarounds failed to fix the problem, according to Cauthon.

In its report, Trend Micro suggested that users with infected devices “contact the device vendor for solution first.” Cauthon, for his own part, apparently tried just that. But as Cimpanu reports, LG representatives “told him to visit one of their service centers, where one of its employees could reset his TV.” That service came with a hefty price tag attached—$340, enough that Cauthon’s family member might have been better off buying a new television outright.

As it happens, though, not every story has a grim ending in 2016. On Wednesday morning, Cauthon tweeted that LG had provided him with instructions for a factory reset.

Whether or not that procedure works, his story is further evidence that so-called smart devices are often anything but.