Friday, November 1, 2013

Eliécer Ávila and Operation Truth -- who is on the payroll?

Freedom House issues an annual report on freedom on the Internet. This year they rated 60 nations and Iran was the only nation rated as less free than Cuba.

One of the factors they consider in their ranking is the use of pro-government commentators to manipulate online discussions. We have learned of the extent of that activity from Eliécer Ávila.

In 2007 Ávila was a student at the prestigious University of Computer Sciences of Cuba (UCI), where he asked some embarrassing questions of Ricardo Alarcón, then President of the Cuban National Assembly. Ávila asked about travel and hotel restrictions, the economy, government transparency and the Internet.

(You can see video of the exchange between Ávila and Alarcón here. Ávila's remarks on the Internet begin at the 15:25 point).

While that video received considerable attention at the time, it is not as interesting to me as a conversation this year between Ávila and Yoani Sánchez. (An English language transcript is available here).

Ávila describes Operation Truth, which he worked on while a student at UCI. He outlines the scope and organization of the project -- a thousand students are active in social networks, where they write posts favoring the government and work as "trolls," disrupting discussion and attacking those who question the government.

This leads me to be a little paranoid -- wondering who might be on the Operation Truth payroll. One person who comes to mind is Walter Lippmann, who founded and moderates CubaNews, a Yahoo Group.

When I started this blog, I discovered CubaNews and joined the group. I posted a few things, including a link to a report I had written on the state of the Internet in Cuba. Walter commented on my posts -- arguing and changing the subject -- like a troll. Nevertheless, when I posted something on this blog, I also sent a link to the CubaNews group.

Those links also generated rambling disagreement from Walter, and finally, he stopped sharing my submissions. For a while, he posted trollish comments on my posts on this blog, but, after I replied pointing out that I posted his comments, while he censored me, he stopped. I have no way of knowing whether Walter is subsidized by the Cuban Government or anyone else, but his censorship and argument tactics make me wonder.

Do you know of others who might be Operation Truth trolls?

Update 10/10/2013

In an attempt to identify government-connected bloggers, dissident brothers, Luis Enrique and José Daniel Ferrer planted a fake story in a phone conversation that they assumed would be tapped. Read about it here. While it is possible that those who published or knew about the fake news could have heard it from others, it is clear that the brother's phone call was monitored.

Update 9/8/2016

Last week, 14Ymedio reported that text messages containing any of about 30 key words were being filtered out, but confirmed as "sent." Subsequently, Reuters experimented with some of the words and found the allegation to be true. (It turns out that one of those filter terms is Somos+, an organization headed by Eliécer Ávila).

My guess is that if they bother to block those text messages, they are also saving copies of the messages and the identities of the sender and intended receiver.

The 14yMedio story suggests that the keyword filtering is inspired by related Chinese practises, which go far beyond keyword filtering of text messages.

When contacted about this issue, Arnulfo Marrero of ETECSA said "We have nothing to do with this, you should contact the Ministry of Communications." That might shed a little light on a question we asked a while back "who runs the show -- ETECSA or the Ministry."

Cuba is said to be learning from and emulating China.
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