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I&D Budapest Session 4: Internet, Democratization and Authoritarian Regimes

Cross-posted from Patrick Meier’s blog, IRevolution:

I moderated the final panel of the day, which focused on the impact of the Internet on democratization and authoritarian regimes. Gwendolyn Floyd and Joshua Kauffman led the first presentation. Gwendolyn and Joshua recently returned from a field study in Cuba and emphasized the importance of working in developing countries in order to seek insight into the possible future scenarios of the information society in repressive contexts.

The exchange of non-state information in Cuba occurs at the extremities of informality. Indeed, distributed public spheres are facilitated by the distributed transportation network, i.e., taxis and buses. Clandestine libraries also exist. Because of limited ICTs and access, people have built their own antennas and satellite dishes (hidden under a potato bag as one picture revealed). Crackdowns and confiscations of satellite dishes and any connected technologies recently have recently occurred. This was because the state noticed that the youths began combing their hair differently, which they concluded could only be happening if they were exposed to (illegal) satellite television channel(s).

There is Internet in Cuba, all through satellite. There is also a large parallel market that operates vis-a-vis ICTs. When Joshua and Gwendolyn were in Cuba they decided to put a sign up “Free Internet Access Available Here” in a marginalized neighborhood. People knew what the Internet was and suggested they take the sign down with haste lest they get in trouble. Flash drives are also widely used to share non state-controlled information.

So Gwendolyn and Joshua have developed a device that allows for the rapid copying of flash drives without the need for a computer. This means that data on flash drives can be copied during a taxi ride, for example. The device also includes a small LCD screen and a built-in speaker. It can be operated using batteries and/or solar power. In addition, the device can be plugged into a television to watch video clips since there are virtually no computers in Cuba while one in five Cubans own a TV.

Gwendolyn and Joshua also spoke about Cuba’s University of Information Science (UCI), the largest university in Cuba with some 10,000 students. The university is a direct extension of the state, which uses surveillance as market research on public opinion which they can then respond to without acknowledging the existance of the surveillance infrastructure. Students work on developing technologies and software for surveillance purposes, such as pattern recognition of visual images. For example, one project extracts headline information from CNN broadcasts by recognizing any text that might be displayed on the screen. This technology proved key in disseminating a YouTube video of (non-UCI) students challenging government officials directly at a university talk.

It was particularly insightful to learn the selection criteria for students accepted to the program: (1) highly developed computer and analytical skills; (2) lack of world knowledge and interest in world affairs. Students are also kept on campus six days a week. The presenters are working on a follow up project to introduce the technology in Burma. The challenge, like in Cuba, is twofold: (1) how to extract sensitive information, and (2) how to create and maintain a secure network of sensitive information.

One of the important findings from their research in Cuba was that people are not prepared to take on the responsibility that comes with democratic action and activism simply because the idea is particularly foreign to Cubans given the long history of state control. Understanding the local culture and history is absolutely critical before introducing any type of “liberating technology.” In Cuba’s case, the question is how to promote small “d” democracy? How does one ready a people for small “d” participation? Another question is whether technology that facilitates information dissemination increases incentives to engage in activist events because of the assurance that these will be widely distributed?

John Kelly’s work blends social network analysis, content analysis and statistics to render complex online networks more visible and understandable. John began his presentation by showing the different structures/typologies/clusters of blogospheres in different languages. Which of the network structures might reveal more democratic societies? Individual blogs can also be color coded to represent different ideologies and attitudes to public issues. See my previous blog entry on the Iranian blogosphere here. John asks whether it is possible to have an online democratic society operate within an offline repressive regime?

John compared the network structure of the Iranian and Russian blogospheres that showed evident differences in structure. The former was more mixed while the latter clearly more clustered. His network visualization software also depicts how the networks appear differently depending on where blogs are blocked or not within the countries in question. More detailed characteristics of individual blogs can also be depicted as a social network, such as age, areas of interest and so on. Of particular interest are blogs that critize the current goverment. Key word social network rendering can also be visualized, such as blogs that use terms such as democracy, Palestine etc.

During the Q & A session, it was argued that the Blogosphere is not representative of any nation state in terms of age, gender, economic status, education, etc. On the other hand, even if Blogospheres are characterized by the participation of elites, the number of different elites and arguments/ideologies can serve as a good sign of democracy in (virtual) action.

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