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Saudi Arabian Blogger Freed After 4 Month Detention

After being detained for four months, Saudia Arabian blogger Fouad al-Farhan has been released. Al-Farhan was detained in December without official explanation, but he was arrested “after authorities warned him about his online support of an activist group.” According to the Washington Post, Farhan said that he had been warned by an official from the Interior Ministry “that he would be detained for his online support of a group of [political critics]…arrested in February 2007.”

Despite the Saudi Government’s attempt to insulate its internal activities from foreign coverage (foreign journalists are rarely granted visas), Farhan’s arrest garnered a substantial amount of publicity at foreign media outlets, in addition to attention brought by the criticism of a plethora of bloggers (including 200 in Saudi Arabia).

While some argue that restraints on speech have diminished King Abdullah came to power in 2005, the 2007 report from Reporters Without Borders argues that “the Saudi regime maintains very tight control of all news.” Its ability to exert control is due both to its direct ownership of media outlets, but also by its willingness to shut down other media outlets that do not practice self-censorship sufficiently. This includes internally blocking both Fahran’s blog and the Free Fouad website set up by supporters.

And although coverage of Farhan’s arrest implies that he is one of the first online critics to be targeted through detention, his arrest could easily be seen as the (albeit slow) continuation of an established policy. In 2005 the Saudi Arabian Government made a wholesale attack on blogs by attempting to block access to, but has shifted to targeting particular blogs since then.

Despite the chilling effect Farhan’s arrest will likely have, it may also be an acknowledgment of the potential of blogs to move political discourse. As Saudi Jeans blogger and Global Voices contributor Ahmed al-Omran points out,

“The arrest was scary and intimidating to bloggers but also empowering. It made bloggers know that their blogs are influential, and now they feel more of a responsibility and take their blogs more seriously.”

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David Weinberger on Fame Culture We Create


Last Friday I went to ROFLCon, the “rolling on the floor laughing” convention. It was a two-day event organized by an enterprising group of Harvard undergrads (and sponsored by the Berkman Center) to celebrate and explore internet memes and culture.

Why is this an appropriate topic for the Internet & Democracy blog, you might ask. Although the conference was ostensibly about funny Internet memes it was really about how Internet is fueling the growth of user-generated culture – cultural democracy, if you will. Internet fame, which Berkman fellow David Weinberger discussed in his keynote address, is a perfect example of this new cultural democracy, in which ordinary people, not resource-rich broadcasters, are now able to identify a new class of famous people, redefine the parameters of fame, and otherwise re-tool the way fame operates in our culture. What will the political implications of this new citizen power be?

David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous and Berkman fellow, gave the opening keynote address at ROFLCon on Internet fame. Fame began with the broadcast system, which operated one to many. Media companies broadcast information, which we received gladly and were glad to know.

Who could broadcast – and thus who could be famous – was all cast in turns of scarcity. Very few people could afford to be in either group. Because it was an economy of scarcity, it also fed very well into a culture greed. Greed and fame go together well because fame is grounded in scarcity.

Famous people form their own special class. They have own rules. You can shoot someone in the face and nothing will happen to you. Famous people are different from us. It is all about alienation. The nervousness of seeing a famous person is a reaction to your awareness they this person is somehow above you, an elite.

But if fame is a network effect (rather than a broadcast effect), then this dynamic changes. Blogging is all about removing the make up. It is the work of a fallible human being, and the forgiveness we give a blogger for making the occasional spelling error is a form of intimacy.

A lot of online productions look like they were made by human hands. Perfection is the enemy of credibility. We once used to believe what was perfect and now we believe the reverse. Nothing can actually be perfect, so if it seems perfect that just means that the flaws are hidden. Perfection alienates us from credibility.

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The End of Public Financing for the Presidential Election?

Speculations about what kind of sea change the Internet has enabled for campaigning and how that sea change will translate on election day for the US president have been ubiquitous (really, it’s difficult to avoid a media outlet that isn’t opining about how the Internet is helping the Obama campaign with grassroots organization and fundraising). But news sources are starting to take note that another consequence of the unprecedented success of online fundraising will be the complete irrelevance of public campaign financing.

Although both McCain and Obama both pledged to opt into the public financing system for the general election if the other party’s candidate did the same, The Wall Street Journal reports that “Obama is poised to run the first privately financed general-election presidential campaign since Watergate”. Obama had previously said that he would “aggressively pursue” a publicly funded campaign, but according to the article, Obama “has laid the groundwork, through seeking a Federal Election Commission ruling, to reject traditional taxpayer funding.”

Because Clinton’s private fundraising would also likely exceed the amount that the public financing scheme would provide her, there is good reason to believe that she will opt out as well.

Because of the restrictions that accepting public financing imposes on candidates, candidates that opt out of the system would be far more independent of state parties and their respective party’s National Committees and would not need to coordinate with them for “get-out-the-vote efforts”. Or, as one of the lawyers from Kerry’s presidential campaign explains, “It’s just easier. You don’t have to talk to anybody. You can just write the check.”

And taking the relationship between Obama and the Democratic National Committee as an example, the unprecedented fundraising of individual campaigns that the Internet seems to have enabled may mean an outright shift in dependence. With only $5 million on hand, the DNC has entered a joint fundraising agreement with the Obama campaign and is negotiating for an agreement with the Clinton Campaign.

Of course, Presidential candidates have been relying less on public financing since the 2000 election, when now President Bush opted out of the system for the Republican primary. For the 2008 election, Obama, Clinton, and McCain have all opted out of the system for the primaries.

Still, it will be interesting to see how the ability to be structurally independent from public financing will alter the dynamics between candidates and national parties, local parties, and state politicians.

Gazan Youth Use Internet to Phone-bank for Obama

According to a report by Al Jazeera English (see video here) Palestinian youth are using the Internet to run an informal phone bank to call voters in the US before every primary in order to convince them to vote for Barack Obama.

The organizer of the international phone-banking initiative, Ibrahim Abu Jayab, age 23, brings a group of 17 friends to a cybercafé in Gaza before every US primary to use Internet telephony to randomly call numbers in the state where the primary is being held and ask citizens to vote for Obama. Mr. Abu Jayab’s motivation for taking part in this action is that he believes that as president Senator Obama would have a positive impact on the Middle East peace process.

Given the prevalence of pro-Israel sentiment in American public opinion and the generally negative media portrayal of Palestine, it is not clear whether receiving a phone call from a Palestinian youth would encourage or discourage and American voter to support Obama, but the perspective of international phone advocacy, facilitated by low-cost internet telephony tools like Skype, presents an intriguing (and little-explored) are of digital activism.


BBC asks “Could the web win it in London”?

The BBC highlights how London’s mayoral candidates are using the Internet to reach potential supporters. Like the reports on this side of the Atlantic focusing on Obama and Clinton, the BBC report compares how each candidate is making use of social networks, video sharing websites, and blogs to garner support. But it also incorporates some skepticism regarding the notion that the “Internet is the great leveller for candidates with tiny marketing budgets.”

At least as between London’s mayoral candidates, it points out that although the clips on YouTube of the smaller party candidates get roughly as many views as the larger party candidates, the numbers of views is small. This is particularly true of clips that do not incorporate gaffs or embarrassing missteps. While Conservative candidate Boris Johnson’s election related clips have peaked at “7,385 hits”, the entry featuring him with the most views is “of the Tory MP indulging in an over-enthusiastic tackle at a charity football match”.

With perception of the importance of the Internet for electoral victory rising, candidates–as for example Labour’s Ken Livingstone who has hired Blue State Digital (the company used by the Obama Campaign)—will have to invest campaign funds into coordinating and updating online activity, creating graphics, applications, infiltrating online social networks, etc.

Although the article doesn’t mention it, at least with regards to the Obama-Hilary campaigns, a sizable part of the heavily viewed entries on YouTube feature footage from sponsored debates to which the 3rd party candidates are simply not invited. And that inability to participate in the dialogue in the brick and mortar world also seems likely to undermine the “leveling” effect of the Internet.

Another interesting points BBC report did mention was that Livingston “used a YouTube video to hit back at Conservative candidate Boris Johnson’s first party election broadcast – something that would not have been allowed on TV, with its strict rules on balance.” As the US presidential race moves into the period where the more stringent campaigning regulation comes into effect, it will be interesting to track how candidates will use the Internet to undermine the campaigning laws they supported as Senators.

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ICT & Public Diplomacy at Fletcher: Eric Mullerbeck


Note: This post in the fourth and final post in a series on a panel, entitled “ICT and Public Diplomacy,” at the Edward R. Murrow 100th Anniversary Conference on public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. The first post covered the presentation of Berkman fellow Ethan Zuckerman. The second post covered the presentation of I&D research assistant Josh Goldstein. The third post covered a discussion of online dialogue between the “East” and “West” by Abeer Mohammad.

Eric Mullerbeck is the Senior Web Manager for UNICEF. He believe that the salient elements of the Internet and public diplomacy issue are how Internet speeds up the news cycle, facilitates the spread of video, and eliminates the intermediaries so that everyone can be a publisher.

He starts with an example from 2004, the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Because it occurred on December 26th, many Western tourists were involved in the disaster. In fact, more Swedish citizens were killed in that disaster than in any other in history, due purely to the number of Swedish tourists in the regions. For UNICEF, their web site allowed them to publish their own news, including video from the ground, and reports on how the funds donated were used. UNICEF has a news team dedicated to creating content for the site, which allowed the site to publish high-quality original content on the disaster.

The web site also allowed the public to engage directly in the relief effort. When people were looking for news, they were able to find the information they were looking for on the UNICEF site, which raised the profile of the organization. In addition, visitors to the site could donate to the cause on every page of the site. Following the disaster, there was a sevenfold increase in participation in the web site, both for information and to donate. (Mr. Mullerbeck unfortunately does not have a figure for how much money was raised online)

Mr. Mullerbeck’s second example is of the Belgian UNICEF affiliate, which created a public service announcement involving the Smurf children being killed as an anti-war message. It was captured by a non-Unicef person and posted on YouTube. Many people saw it online and found it upsetting and in bad taste. It was only because of the Internet that it was available outside of Belgium. As a result, UNICEF received critical letters asking why they had created a video which could traumatize children.

Mr. Mullerbeck says that UNICEF perhaps should have responded directly to the angry e-mails and responded to comments on blogs explaining why they felt the video was justified. UNICEF’s strategy was to respond by e-mail to all letters from concerned citizens, yet there was a fair amount of vetting up the chain which slowed down the response. His take-aways are the importance of rapid response in this media age using the Internet to engage on issues important to an organization.

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ICT & Public Diplomacy at Fletcher: Abeer Mohammad


Note: This post in the third in a series on a panel, entitled “ICT and Public Diplomacy,” at the Edward R. Murrow 100th Anniversary Conference on public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. The first post covered the presentation of Berkman fellow Ethan Zuckerman. The second post covered the presentation of I&D research assistant Josh Goldstein.

Abeer Mohammad is a scholar of social networks in the Middle East. She says the end of the Cold War has led to a decrease in interest in public diplomacy, and a resulting decrease in funding for such efforts. In addition, terrorists are using the Internet to spread hatred. NGOs are needed to assist governments in overcoming this public diplomacy gap.

Ms. Mohammad states that there are three elements to successful public diplomacy: a need for equal voice, a sense of commonality, and building long term relationships and trust.

She started with an example of Soliya an organization which has been organizing online dialogue session 2 hours per week between Middle Eastern, Europeans, and American university students. This young population has been chosen because they make of 60% of the Middle Eastern population. The discussions occur in an online “meeting room,” a chat room hosted by Soliya. An online white board and image viewer can be used by the Soliya facilitator to focus the discussion. Polls are also used to take short surveys of opinions. These poll often cause participants to realize the complexity of the views of the students they are dialoguing with, as difficult issues often reveal that several opinions are at play. This causes participants to start questioning the easy dichotomies drawn in the East-West debate.

How can the US government benefit from these online programs? They increase the reach of public diplomacy. This is not going to defeat terrorism, but at least we will have a presence in the online space, where terrorists are already very present. There are 180 millions young people in the Middle East, and Ms. Mohammad states that we are in a race against time to convince them not to take up the values of terrorism

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Do the Democrats Rule the Web?

Time Magazine reporters Micahel Scherer and Jay Newton-Small seem to think so, or at a minimum imply it in a recent article. As evidence Scherer and Small highlight how the Internet has facilitated the grass roots campaigning of a Pennsylvania couple Tom and Mary Bashore and compare the success of online fundraising for McCain, Obama, and Clinton.

Without passing judgment on how the candidate’s web endeavors actually fare compared to each other, the article’s evidence for its suggestion that Obama’s online success stems primarily from the quality of his website or that this online success “could spell trouble for John McCain come November” does not adequately address other possibilities.

It seems probable that Obama supporters have more reason to contribute now than later in the campaign. His nomination, while likely, still remains uncertain. Calls from the Obama campaign for a pressing need of volunteers and donors seem more credible and supporters probably feel a sense of urgency: if they don’t contribute or volunteer now, they may not get the chance to vote for him in November.

McCain supporters are certain that he will be the Republican nominee. The need for volunteers or contributions now does not carry urgency.

Also, without the fervor that accompanies supporting a “team” in a struggle (as between Clinton and Obama), McCain supporters aren’t operating under the same incentives as their Obama (or Clinton) counterparts.

The article also doesn’t do a particularly better job of showing why success in online fundraising will translate in an election victory. Judging by the Republican primaries, where Ron Paul’s ability to mobilize support through the Internet was extraordinarily disproportionate to his success at the polls, dexterous use of the Internet may only help at the margins. Of course, its possible that success at the margins may be enough in November, but the article did not really go further than to point out a disparity in online fundraising.

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Lessig stars at the Stanford FCC hearing

After Comcast admitted to stuffing seats at the FCC hearing at Harvard Law School February 24th, the FCC decided another hearing was necessary. They chose to hold it at Stanford April 17 and I’m watching the FCC’s videocast of the event, which is oddly appropriate, since the focus of the hearing is video on the internet.

After an introduction by Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer, FCC Chairman Martin explained that every ISP, excepting Lariat Networks from Lariat, Wyoming, was invited and declined to attend this hearing: Comcast, Verizon, Time/Warner, and AT&T. Comcast has stated it is working with an industry consortium on a Consumer Bill of Rights. The hearing begins with each of the FCC commissioners making a statement, then proceeds through panels and then opens to questions.

Commissioner Copps states that a free internet is a requirement for the type of growth, a fact we’ve seen from Silicon Valley. If network operators consolidate their control, which is more likely with fewer network operators, they’ll prevent inventors from bringing their innovations to consumers and make investing more risky. So Copps wants to eliminate and punish discrimination.

Indicating how huge this issue has become, Commissioner Adelstein states that 45k dockets were filed with the FCC for this hearing, and the vast majority of them came from public citizens. He warns that the recent consolidation across internet providers from the backbone to the largest service providers will lead to more FCC regulation. He advocates greater competition in the broadband market place since 90% is dominated by cable and telephone companies. This gives the companies who control the “last mile” (the distance from the backbone to the consumer’s computer) the ability to discriminate over packets that reach end users. He’s concerned about allegations like Verizon’s refusal to send pro-life text messages and AT&T’s censoring of Pearl Jam online. He would like a 5th principle on the FCC policy statement to address this as well as enforcement and compliance. Broadband providers should declare in clear plain English what their policies are.

Commissioner Tate applauds the industry-wide effort to create a bill of rights for P2P users and ISPs. She has a strong preference for industry based collaborative solutions over direct regulation.

Commissioner McDowell wants to ensure that the FCC takes the anticompetitive allegations, such as the text messaging one, seriously. Comcast is alleged to have manipulated packet allocation of video – video is something Comcast provides and runs the pipes for other competitor, so Comcast appears to discriminate against
bit torrent for anticompetitive reasons not just for traffic management. McDowell, like Commissioner Tate, would like to see the industry develop is own solutions to these problems such as what might come from the industry consortium Comcast is involved in and says “engineers should solve engineering problems not politicians.”

Chairman Martin states the four principles the FCC adopted in August 2005 in their internet policy statement (“Powell’s Four Freedoms”).

1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

Larry Lessig, Professor at Stanford Law School, is the first speaker on the first panel.
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ICT & Public Diplomacy at Fletcher: Joshua Goldstein


Note: This post in the second in a series on a panel, entitled “ICT and Public Diplomacy” at the Edward R. Murrow 100th Anniversary Conference on public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. The first post covered the presentation of Berkman fellow Ethan Zuckerman.

Joshua Goldstein is a master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Government, with a focus on Africa, and a research assistant for the Internet & Democracy Project. He begins with a plug for the Audio-Visual Club, a group of graduate students who meet at a bar down the street from the Fletcher School to discuss the intersection of public affairs and technology. Josh also mentions how his interest in technology began when he was part of a team using an Internet application to determine issues of land tenure in Uganda.

In December of 2007, the Kenyan elections occurred, pitting the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki against challenger Raila Odinga. When a winner was not immediately announced and Kenya fell into economic instability, technologies were used both by groups interested in promoting messages of hate as well as peace and reconciliation. One of the key groups of activists were Kenya’s bloggers.

The Kenyan blogosphere has been active since 2003, one of the most active in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are over 400 blogs in the country although the national Internet penetration is less than 10%. From approximately December 25th to January 1st there was a media black-out in Kenya, making the role of blogs all the more critical to the collection and dissemination of information. Blogs like AfroMusing, Mentalacrobatics, and Mzalendo reported and posted photographs of the aftermath.

One of the most interesting technological outcomes of the crisis was a map mash-up called Ushahidi (witness) which allowed people on the ground in Kenya to send texts and video taken via cell phone, which appear on an online map of Kenya. This kind of “mash-up,” which combine different types of media (video, text, and a map, in this case). Mash-ups are a critical new tool in visualizing data.

However, technology was also used to encourage hate. Text messages like this:

“Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future…we must deal with them in a way they understand…violence.”

“No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know…we will give you numbers to text this information.”

These messages were sent en masses, hoping to stir up ethnic violence. The Kenyan government was considering shutting down mobile phone service in the country to put a hault to these incitations to violence, but Safaricom’s CE0, Michael Joseph, convinced them not shut down his network but instead sent text messages of peace and calm to its 9 million subscribers. A chat room called Mashada, however, was also shut down due to pervasive hate speech between Lou and Kikuyu.

What does this mean to governments interested in public diplomacy? If you want to influence people, get involved in networks. The online space is another public sphere, which can influence and exert influence which touches the outside world (online organizing during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which Josh has also written on, provides another key example.) There are great opportunities for engagement, though doubtless new challenges as well.

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