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Kenya Tries to Block and Monitor Access to Anti-Corruption Website

According to Mwalimu Mati, Kenya is trying to limit access by government employees to the Kenyan Anti-Corruption Commission’s whistle-blower website. The site is supposed to allow users to anonymously report incidents of corruption for the commission to investigate. However, the government is apparently trying to monitor who is posting to it and prevent public sector employees from accessing the site–making it much less likely that government employees will use the site to report cases of possible corruption. Fortunately, the anti-corruption commission also has a hotline and a number of other ways to report corruption anonymously, but the government’s actions are obviously of great concern.

Another great example of the Internet’s ability to improve transparency and accountability is the Wikileaks website, where anyone can post sensitive documents that they feel should be in the public domain. Kenya has its own section on the site, and the above story also appears there. Not surprisingly, corporations are taking notice of Wikileaks and taking steps to pull down content that shows malfeasance or is just plain embarrassing. Governments may also begin to take similar steps. At least for now, though, Wikileaks has successfully fended off those attempts, including one by Julius Baer Bank and Trust to have the courts force the site’s ISP to shut down the entire domain name. In the end the case was dismissed, and you can see details on the Citizen Media Law Project’s legal threats database and analysis on their blog.

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Secretaries Rice and Miliband Discuss Internet and Democracy at Google

The Internet and Democracy Project’s Josh Goldstein, who is interning at Google this summer, sent us a link to a discussion hosted by Google with Secretary of State Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

According to Secretary Rice, “the Internet is possibly one of the greatest tools for democratization and individual freedom that we’ve ever seen.”

That’s one of the more Utopian statements we have heard about the Internet in a while, but she did also raise concerns about filtering. She also mentioned the digital divide in places like Cuba which she says have decided to allow more computers into the country, but not necessarily computers connected to the Internet. British Foreign Secretary Miliband stated that the communications revolution allows for people to connect but also can fuel the drive for social justice. He also said that Iranian bloggers make him optimistic about Iran since people there are asserting their rights and trying to be part of a global debate. As our report shows, however, the democrats are not the only ones using the Iranian blogosphere to promote their agendas.

In a question from moderator David Drummond about censorship, no doubt with recent requests by Senator Lieberman to restrict speech on YouTube in the back of his mind, both Rice and Miliband encouraged erring on the side of allowing more free speech instead of censorship.

You can see the whole talk here.

Free Speech Vs. Terrorism on the Internet

Joe Lieberman recently called for Google to pull down a number of YouTube videos that showed attacks by Al Qaeda on US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. YouTube reviewed the clips in question and removed 80 some videos for violation of their community guidelines because they “depicted gratuitous violence, advocated violence, or used hate speech,” but refused to pull down many of clips Lieberman criticized, and also refused to pull all content created by groups the US government designates as terrorist groups. In response to Lieberman, a YouTube blog post stated:

YouTube encourages free speech and defends everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view. We believe that YouTube is a richer and more relevant platform for users precisely because it hosts a diverse range of views, and rather than stifle debate we allow our users to view all acceptable content and make up their own minds.

In another example from the New York Times we learn that a Belgian woman, Malika El Aroud, is using the Internet as her primary vehicle to support jihad. She was married to a former Al Qaeda operative who killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, on September 9, 2001. This assassination was almost surely carried out on the orders of Osama Bin Laden to get rid Masoud, who would have been the United States’ primary ally in the invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks. It seems that Belgian law allows a great deal of free speech and that she stays within its bounds–she was kicked out of Switzerland for running similar jihadi sites.

One of the foundational questions in the study (and use) of the Internet is whether or not online speech, and the Internet in general, should be regulated. It also goes to the heart of questions of whether the Internet and its widely available interactive technologies, low barriers to entry and easy publication tools will be used to support democracy, or, in the dystopian view, will be used to support terrorism and to spread messages of hate.

These examples show that the Internet, like any communication medium, can and will be used by both democracy advocates and terrorists. The issue is whether use by some for terrorism should lead to broader regulation to limit free speech on the Internet in democracies. Those with ideologies we would find abhorrent will use the same tools as the rest of the community at large to communicate. We wouldn’t ban the use of cell phones because terrorists use them, or regulate the speech allowed on a cell phone, so why would we do it on the Internet? The question of regulation is also much tricker on the Internet–where the old hub and spoke mass media model and related regulation regimes do not fit. Regulation in regards to terrorism is further clouded by the general recalibration of civil liberties and speech in the US following 9/11. Worse, the speech that often leads to cases that lead to regulation or court decisions often comes from the truly offensive and those with politically indefensible positions–terrorists, pornographers, etc. The danger, and yet one more unanswered question, is where do you stop limiting speech once you start, and who gets to choose?

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Does the Iranian Government Intentionally Limit Access to High Speed Internet Connections?

There are many who argue that the Iranian government is intentionally limiting the speed of the Internet to hinder access to information on the Web. As Victoria Stodden wrote last week, Iran’s Internet use is quite high relative to the rest of the Middle East. However, RFE/RL reports that in many cases download speeds are as many as 100 times slower than the average speed in the US or Europe. The story quotes Iranian Communications and Information Technology Minister Mohammad Soleimani as saying that there are not enough private Internet users in Iran who are wiling to pay for high-speed Internet connections (officially, only universities, the government and companies can have high-speed access).

It seems highly unlikely that there are not enough private users in Iran based on demands around the world for faster connections to fully enable many Web 2.0 applications and video downloads, including here in the US, as Persephone Miel notes. Cost of course also continues to be an issue that limits access in Iran. The article also argues that limiting Internet speed is another low-cost way for the government to filter content.

While many have commented that Iran is intentionally limiting access to high-speed broadband, has anyone seen any proof that the Iranian government intentionally limits high speed access?

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And The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

Digital Natives that were born after 1980 may not realize that the actual verse says the meek shall inherit the earth. David Brooks writes today about the rise of ‘alpha geeks’ to political and economic power thanks to the information revolution. He writes:

The future historians of the nerd ascendancy will likely note that the great empowerment phase began in the 1980s with the rise of Microsoft and the digital economy. Nerds began making large amounts of money and acquired economic credibility, the seedbed of social prestige. The information revolution produced a parade of highly confident nerd moguls — Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Larry Page and Sergey Brin and so on.

Nothing really new here.

However, as we have written often, the spread of easy-to-use, interactive (Web 2.0) technologies, increased Internet penetration rates and the spread of cell phones to even the poorest countries may lead to changes in the political balance of power. As Yochai Benkler writes, technology eliminates gatekeepers in media, corporations and government that formerly dictated what content was politically and culturally relevant. These technologies put decision making about what is politically salient into the hands of the individuals instead of institutions, who can then produce culture and organize themselves for political goals without the need for formal institutions or hierarchies.

This does not mean that the value of leadership has diminished. Brooks notes the rise of Internet stars like Larry Lessig and others who can lead otherwise disparate groups of geeks towards common goals. And The Atlantic also argues that this US election may result in major structural changes in how government uses technology to put more information into the hands of citizens about how government works.

Since governments are rarely hotbeds of innovation, especially in their use of technology, the best thing they can do is to automatically release more information about how the government spends its money, makes policy decisions and writes laws–including who influences those decisions. Now, the onus is on citizens to first request that information. Because of the distributed collaboration allowed by the Internet, this information (once released) can then be used by groups like the Sunlight Foundation, MapLight, Change Congress and others to sift through those records with the help of citizens and make it politically useful to the population.

If the narrative of the 1980 and 90s was the rise of Alpha geeks, the narrative of the Web 2.0 generation’s impact on politics may be Justice Brandeis’s phrase from the nearly 100 years ago–“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Posted in Ideas. 1 Comment »

Leaked Doc Implies Cisco Marketed Routers as Aid to China’s Great Firewall

Wired magazine posted a leaked document from Cisco which the magazine writes, “…reveals that Cisco engineers regarded the Chinese government’s rigid internet censorship program as an opportunity to do more business with the repressive regime.” The OpenNet Initiative (ONI) has documented China’s sophisticated filtering regime which relies in part on software from US firms, including Cisco.

A number of other US technology companies that do business in China are also working with the Berkman Center, leading human rights groups and academics to establish agreed upon principles of conduct for operation in China. Yesterday, the Berkman Center’s John Palfrey and Colin Maclay also submitted testimony before a Senate hearing on “Global Internet Freedom: Corporate Responsibility and the Rule of Law.”

The Wired article continues:

The document is the first evidence that the networking giant has marketed its routers to China specifically as a tool of repression. It reinforces the double-edged role that Americans’ technological ingenuity plays in the rest of the world. Companies including Cisco, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have faced criticism for cooperating to various degrees with the repressive Chinese regime, and the document leak on Monday came one day before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing into U.S. technology companies’ participation in foreign government censorship programs.

One powerpoint in the Wired story shows that Cisco routers could help the Chinese government to, “Combat ‘Falun Gong’ evil religion and other hostiles.”

Rebecca MacKinnon has thought a lot about this issue and has two blog posts worth reading on Cisco’s role in Chinese filtering. One related to marketing materials from Cisco aimed at security services in China, and another on her conversation with a Cisco executive on their policies in China, in reaction to her first post.

However, as a recent survey by Pew finds, many in China have far different attitudes towards filtering online content than Americans. As the survey states, “Many Americans assume that China’s internet users are unhappy about their government’s control of the internet, but a new survey finds most Chinese say they approve of internet regulation, especially by the government.”

Publius: Clay Shirky and Online Organization

The newly launched Publius Project at Berkman has a number of excellent essays on ‘constitutional moments’ on the Internet (the project is drawing its inspiration and name from Hamilton, Madison and Jay’s Federalist Papers, which were written under the moniker Publius). Clay Shirky’s essay, and I know a number of future pieces, deserves reading by those interested in the Internet and its impact on democracy. Shirky hits on a number of themes that have also been discussed on this blog, including the use of Facebook by activist overseas to organize protests.

Shirky tells the story of 40,000 students that organized themselves on MySpace and walked out of schools to protest HR4437–a bill that would have made illegal immigration a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Shirky writes:

There were several remarkable things about the protest. The size of the walkout alone made it unusual — getting tens of thousands people to take any coordinated political action is hard. Getting high school students to do so, when most of them are too young to vote, is even harder. Being able to do so without the school administration knowing was hardest of all — keeping a secret among 40,000 people has never been trivial. And doing it all in 48 hours should have been impossible — would have been impossible, in fact, even a year before.

The thing that made an instant, secret, and huge protest possible was the spread of new communication tools, especially MySpace and text messages on the phone. Armed with these tools, students were able to coordinate with one another, not just person to person but in groups. Using these tools, the messages they exchanged went to the people who mattered — the other students — without reaching the school administrators.

Shirky points out that the tool did not lead to the protests (political motivation did), but tools did make it easier to organize incredibly quickly and without the knowledge of the “authorities.” Shirky details a number of other cases in his book where citizens organize online for both substantive and inane objectives–from passing a passengers’ bill of rights to protesting the cancellation of a TV show. He shared a number of thoughts about the book with a group here at Berkman not long ago that you can view here.

We look forward to future essays from the Publius project on the Internet and democracy–as well as future work by Clay Shirky.

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Iran Increases Efforts to Block Websites Supporting Women’s Rights

According to a story by AFP, the Iranian government has redoubled efforts to block websites that support women’s rights. In our paper on the Iranian blogosphere, we drew on research from the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) that found blogs are far less blocked than we would have expected. ONI researchers did indeed find that blogs by women’s groups were blocked, suggesting that this type of content is becoming increasingly sensitive. Women’s Rights activists such as Parvin Ardalan have also been jailed and harassed by the regime recently. According to Reporter’s Without Borders, Iran does indeed have one of the most restrictive media environments in the world. ONI’s recent book on global filtering also shows that Iran has one of the more technically sophisticated filtering regimes in the world. However, others have argued that under “Repression 2.0” governments like China and Iran have an interest in making others believe that filtering, censorship and surveillance are far more pervasive than they actually are, in hopes of increasing self-censorship. We look forward to more research from ONI on what filtering is taking place in Iran and how it is conducted, especially as it pertains to women’s rights groups.

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Internet and Cell Phone Use in the Middle East

When people talk about the Internet and Democracy, especially in the context of the Middle East, I wonder just how pervasive the Internet really is in these countries. I made a quick plot of data for Middle Eastern countries from data I downloaded from the International Telecommunciation Union:

The US is the blue line on top, for reference. UAE is approaching American levels of internet use, and Iran has skyrocketed since 2001, and is now the 3rd or 4th most wired country. There seem to be a cluster of countries that, while adopting, are doing so slowly: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Oman, the Sudan, and Yemen, although Saudi Arabia and Syria seem to be accelerating since 2005.

I made a comparable plot of cellphone use per 100 inhabitants for these same countries, also from data provided by the ITU:

In this graph the United States is in the middle of the pack and growing steadily, but definitely not matching the recent subscription growth rates in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Oman (data for 2007 for Israel is not yet available). For most countries, cell phones subscriptions are more than three times as prevalent as Internet users. Interestingly, the group of countries with low internet use also have low cell phone use, but unlike for the internet their cell phone subscription rates all began accelerating in 2005.

So what does this mean? All countries in the Middle East are growing more quickly in adopting cell phones than the internet, with the interesting exception of Iran (I don’t know why the growth rate of internet use in Iran is so high, perhaps blogging has caught on more here. Although it doens’t address this question directly, the Iranian blogosphere itself is analyzed in the Berkman Internet & Democracy paper Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere). Syria, the Sudan, Yemen, and Iran have grown most quickly in both internet use and cell phone subscription. In 6 countries there is more than one cell phone subscription per person – conversely, the highest rate for internet use (other than the US) is 50% in UAE with the other countries in approximately two clusters of about 30% and about 10% each. With the rates of growth on the side of the cell phones, I doubt we’ll see their pervasiveness relative to internet use change in the next few years, in fact the gap will probably widen.

Cross posted on Victoria Stodden

Egyptian Government Goes After Facebook Activists

Facebook has great potential as a tool to mobilize social networks. However, as activists in Egypt have recently discovered, it also has potential pitfalls. Some of the most promising examples of use of social networking sites have included organization of offline protests in Colombia against the FARC, generation of international support for monk-led protests in Burma, and organization of student protests in Venezuela against a Constitutional referendum that would have extended Chavez’s ability to compete in elections indefinitely. The US Presidential campaigns have also recognized the potential of social networking sites, including the Ron Paul campaign, which used Facebook as their primary online platform for organization and mobilization of supporters.

However, authoritarian governments are increasingly taking notice and reacting to the use of social network sites for mobilization. The Washington Post reports on one digital activist’s attempts to use the Internet to mobilize protesters in Egypt. According to the Post, 74,000 members have joined a group created by Ahmed Maher and Israa Abdel Fattah since March. However, recent attempts to get protesters on the streets on Mubarak’s 80th birthday resulted in interest by only 15 of the 74,000 (in contrast to earlier successes). He has run into the same problem as other activists when trying to send mass emails to members since Facebook thinks they are spammers. There are also concerns about infiltration by the State into the social networking groups. In the end, the security services resorted to old fashioned intimidation when they detained, interrogated and beat Maher for his efforts–demanding passwords for access to the group when they aren’t even required. The best option for these activists may be to understand and be able to use a number of online tools, including cellphones and SMS, to stay a step ahead of the governments they are trying to peacefully protest against, and to always have backup communication systems in place.