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Kremlin Reaches For Internet Control

The Washington Post reported last weekend on efforts by the Russian government to take greater control over the Internet in that country. The article cites as example the purchase of the Russian segment of LiveJournal, a popular Russian blog hosting service. Expatriate Russian bloggers used LiveJournal heavily until they became outraged that the popular blog service had been sold by the US-based company to a Russian tycoon with close ties to the Kremlin. Wired and many other sources have covered the issue. The Post article also cites the use of the Internet during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution as a turning point in the Russian government’s decision to begin to restrict access (and take lessons in how to do so from the Chinese), create a cadre of loyal bloggers and buy up popular online news sites. The I&D project’s own case study of the use of technology during the Orange revolution, to be published in December, found that news sites created a critical alternative media source for Ukrainians and that cell phones and SMS technology aided civil society groups as they organized protests against election fraud. However, it was not a primary cause of the revolution and technology could not replace real civil society leadership, although many “cyber utopians” would have us believe the opposite.

Given the growing use of the Internet by Russians (25% according to the Post), it seems the regime is set on squashing dissenting voices on the Internet. The Kremlin also seems willing to take over the alternative media sources available online as their popularity grows and begins to rival the mainstream media, especially television, which has long had government influence. Whether these steps and plans to create its own Cyrillic-based Internet with other CIS states are an over reaction, given that 75% of the country is not online, remains to be seen. However, it is clear that the Kremlin sees online journalism, civic activity and unregulated debate as enough of a threat to justify their gradual take over.

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Bloggers Take Center Stage in Bangladesh

What started out as a few Bangladeshi bloggers questioning some discrepancies regarding the Bangladeshi Army Chief’s bank loans spread like wild fire in the Bangladeshi blogosphere. Several of the most widely read Bangladeshi bloggers caught on to the story and expanded on the initial postings with further verification and analysis. What unfolded was an account of potential misuse of power that centered around three issues: 1. the Army Chief’s taking out a disproportionate amount of loans from a bank that he chaired; 2. repayment of a significant portion of the loan from unidentifiable sources; and, 3. violating the central bank rule by having family members serve as Chairman and Managing Director of this bank. – and what’s more, all of these claims were backed up by links to balance sheets and related central bank regulations.

This hit the blogs at a time when General Moeen U Ahmed, the Army Chief, was visiting the UK and the US. Some expatriate Bangladeshi TV channels and BBC Radio felt that the blog postings did not deserve to be ignored and followed up with live questions to General Moeen himself regarding the allegations. This has perhaps been one of the first Bangladeshi instances when the bloggers led the mainstream media into taking on an issue. However, this issue has been limitedly addressed by a small number of Bangladeshi-based newspapers. Perhaps this can be explained by the fear of reprisal from the military-backed government, which has curbed freedom of press significantly in recent months.

These blog-based allegations against the Army Chief are especially ironic since this caretaker government backed by the military came to power early January amidst political chaos with a stated aim of cleaning up the government from corruption. The government has already arrested and sentenced hundreds of top political leaders on charges of corruption in a process that has remained controversial. While General Moeen has denied the bank loan allegations, the questions raised by the bloggers remain largely unanswered. Are the bank balance sheets giving wrong figures or is General Moeen misrepresenting facts? In order to maintain moral legitimacy of his authority under the circumstances, the Army Chief has been put in a position where he will be required to come out with a clearer explanation than just a simple denial – thanks to the continuing pressure from the bloggers.

We have yet to know how the rest of this saga will unfold. But what is undeniably true is that through the uncovering of this ‘Bankgate Scandal’— Bangladeshi bloggers have already taken up a respectable position in investigative journalism. Bloggers are now becoming an increasingly important player that can both challenge a sluggish, government monitored mainstream media or become a direct source of news for Bangladeshis. This will surely encourage bloggers from other countries, especially those where free expression is stifled, to find a renewed sense of their purpose and responsibility.

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Open Net Initiative Issues Technical Review of the Internet Shutdown in Burma

Adding to their long history of the study of Internet filtering, the OpenNet Initiative has compiled, and released today, a bulletin on the recent demonstrations in Burma and the Burmese government’s shutdown of the Internet there. The executive summary of “Pulling the Plug: A Technical Review of the Internet Shutdown in Burma” begins:

“This bulletin examines the role of information technology, citizen journalists, and bloggers in Burma and presents a technical analysis of the abrupt shutdown of Internet connectivity by the Burmese government on September 29, 2007, following its violent crackdown on protesters there.

Here at the Internet & Democracy project, we are working on a complimentary study that addresses the recent crackdown from a wider lens. This case study will address the strengthening of civil society movements since the late 1990’s, global public opinion on the Burmese fight for democracy and Burmese government reaction to these developments.

Internet & Democracy Case Study Series

Anecdotally, we hear constantly that the Internet changes the nature of civic engagement. However, few studies have examined in detail how the Internet changes the dynamics of how we engage in our communities and our world. A key output of Berkman’s Internet & Democracy project is a series of narrative case studies that take a deep look at much noted political and social change around the world and try to understand the true impact of the Internet on these events.

The first set of I&D case studies will be released in December 2007. Among these will be an investigation into how the citizen journalism site OhmyNews has affected Korean politics. The case looks at how the site acts in the role of the press within a democracy: informing citizens of the actions of their government, representing citizen views, and providing a forum citizen-to-citizen deliberation of public issues. The study also discusses the possibility that citizen journalism sites can become centers for political mobilization, with the 2002 presidential election as a case in point.

Another study examines the role of digital/networked technologies in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. This case study seeks to understand the influence of Internet-based citizen journalists in an otherwise ‘self-censored’ Ukrainian mainstream media environment. Further, this case investigates how grassroots pro-democracy activists used the the Internet and mobile phones to collect evidence of election fraud, mobilize pro-democracy trainings around the country and bring thousands of people out to protest fraudulent election results.

Stay tuned for more new about I&D’s upcoming projects.

Cookie Crumbles Contest Entries Due Oct. 21st!

StopBadware and the Berkman Center are hosting an online video contest to help explain web cookies to average internet users.

Help answer these common cookies questions:

* What is a cookie?
* How do cookies work?
* How can cookies be used?
* How is the data from cookies used?
* How can cookies be misused?
* What options does a user have to manage cookies?

The top few submissions, as determined by a combination of YouTube viewers and Berkman staff, will earn their creators a trip to Washington, D.C., where their videos will be aired and discussed at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s November 1-2 Town Hall workshop entitled “Ehavioral Advertising: Tracking, Targeting, and Technology.” Several prizes will be awarded, including one grand prize of $5,000. The contest entry deadline has been extended to the end of the day on October 21, 2007.

How do you enter? Just create a short video explaining cookies, upload it to YouTube and submit it to our YouTube group, and then officially enter the contest through our submissions form. Of course, be sure to read all the official rules and guidelines first!

More info about the contest is here.

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Myanmar’s ‘Dictator’s Dilemma’?

In 1993, Christopher Kedzie wrote that an increase in the relevance of digital/networked technologies will force repressive regimes to face a ‘Dictator’s Dilemma’, where they will have to choose between open communications (encouraging economic development) and closed communications (controlling ‘dangerous’ ideas). Based on last week’s events in Myanmar, where the Junta simply shut off the Internet in response to the worldwide transmission of words, pictures, and film of their repressive actions, it is easy to say that one of the worlds most repressive regimes has no qualms about shirking economic development in favor of complete control.

However, the events of the past few weeks have shown that a little online openness can go a long way. Activists used mobile phones and proxy servers to ensure that the world continued to get information about the country until the regime shut the entire network down (see Open Net Initiative’s detailed account of the tools used by online citizen journalists). Also, the news that leaked out of the country for the first few weeks sparked an international movement in support of the monks, rapidly organized via social networking tools like Facebook. As of the end of last week, over 100,000 people joined the Facebook group and have organized marches all over the world.

While it is difficult to be optimistic, important questions have been raised about the regime’s, and the nation’s, reliance on the Internet for economic development. This round of protests was sparked by the elimination of oil subsidies, leading to huge consumer price increases. It is clear that the Junta cannot simply ignore the economy. Further, it is well known that the country’s tourism is largely based on the Internet, and that fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have pushed measures to bring Myanmar into the regional economy. Finally, Myanmar may look to China as a model of using the Internet as a tool for economic growth while maintaining political control.

The prospects for open communications in Myanmar look bleak. Yet the Internet will surely be turned back on. When it does, how will the brutally repressed democratic opposition respond? And how can the outside world help?