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(Mostly) Quiet on the Cambodian Blogosphere

Reactions to the July 27th election were largely reserved within Cambodia’s blogosphere this week, as the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) clinched a large majority of votes. E.U. monitors have criticized the handling of the election, claiming that the CCP and the National Election Committee dominated media coverage, disenfranchised groups of voters, and mis-used state resources in the campaign effort. Only a small portion of Cambodian bloggers (self-referenced as “Cloggers”) have responded to the E.U. criticism or the campaign in general, and many have refrained from staunchly opinionated postings.

Blogger Vutha has frequently shared his observations of the campaign and other current issues within and around Cambodia. But his posts have remained, for the most part, politically neutral, and his blog appears to serve more as an information mechanism rather than an editorial forum. Blogger Drummond has kept up on the election, reporting poll results and reactions from local and international news media. His posts have also been largely informative and somewhat reserved, although he has expressed disappointment in the opposition party.

But sifting through the Cambodian blogosphere I found very little political content. Recently, APF News had an interesting piece about the burgeoning blogosphere in Cambodia. The article detailed how bloggers in the country have been opening up a traditionally conservative society, but it also explained how most bloggers opt not to incorporate political issues in their online diaries. One Khmer-language blogger, Be Chantra, even houses a “No Politics” banner on his site.

Fears of government repression may be steering the public discourse away from political issues. Gary Kawaguchi, a digital media trainer at the Department of Media and Communications of Cambodia explains:

The good thing about a blog is that it can be anonymous… But the press here is very controlled and people still find out who you are, so bloggers still have to be careful.

With approximately 1,000 bloggers, the Cambodian blogosphere is largely in a developmental stage. Bloggers are still learning the tricks of the trade and exploring new software applications, with the help of university-sponsored technology workshops. Such workshops indicate that the Cambodian blogosphere has much potential to grow. As it continues to mature and a new generation of bloggers develops, it will be quite interesting to follow. But the question remains if political content on the Cambodian blogosphere will be more ubiquitous in the future or if it will continue to be scarce.

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Online Fundraising Recreating Democratic Forums

As November 2008 draws near, the fundraising teams of both presidential campaigns continue to devise new methods for increasing their cash-flow. Articles like “Online GOP is playing Catch-Up,” and Obama’s “Amazing Money Machine” have been hitting headlines as the media continues to compare candidates’ ability to raise funds through digital means. Last month, the Atlantic reported that of the $55 million that Obama raised during February, $45 million of it was collected over the Internet. And the Washington Post recently revealed that the GOP is hiring “technocrats” to aid its e-campaign financing efforts.

Just as the Internet has dictated the course of presidential electoral politics – through email, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, and of course blogging – so too, has it affected political fundraising, giving new meaning to “campaign-finance reform.” Fundraising tools are becoming widely accessible to voters online, including: making donations by the click of a button, signing up for a subscription model, or establishing one’s own fundraising page, as Obama’s campaign has successfully done. Other examples of how the Internet has helped candidates rake in the cash? Representative Ron Paul set a GOP fundraising record through overwhelming support from the Internet community tied to his commemoration of Guy Fawkes Day; and the online gambling community helped fuel Senator Dodd’s Presidential aspirations by playing games of online poker, providing his campaign with more money in a year, than it had received since 1997. As those at iStockAnalyst recently noted, “In general, online contributions offer two things TV spots and phone banks cannot: an interactive relationship between the contributor and the candidate and an easy way to donate small amounts.”

Bottom line: It’s not only efficient, it’s easy, and anyone can do it. Web sites such as,, and FastTrack Fundraising, are allowing citizens other than presidential candidates and their “online political operatives” to gain access to public funding. The trend of online fundraising has the potential to, as Yochai Benkler would say, “decentralize democratic discourse.” By providing an accessible alternative to the top-down hierarchy of political fundraising, web-based fundraising tools are giving more people a voice, and the resources, to participate in democratic forums.

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“Legal” Harshness

As a follow up to our post on the draft Iranian law that would expand the number of crimes that can be punished by death, including forming Web sites or blogs that promote prostitution or apostasy, we were quite concerned to see that the bill passed on the first reading by a vote of 180 to 29, with 10 abstentions. While a number of bloggers have focused on the letter of the law, some Iranians seem much more concerned with the spirit of the law and how it will be applied. The quite legitimate concern of online free speech advocates is that the Iranian regime will use the overly broad and poorly defined terms like “Fesad and Fahsha” (corruption and prostitution) to prosecute and even put to death political opponents.
People guilty of these crimes will be considered “Mofsed o fel alrz” (corrupters on Earth) and “Mohareb” (a person that fights an Islamic government). According to Islamic Shari’a , the punishment could be as high as the death penalty. Once (and if) the legislation is approved in the council, there will be committees formed in Tehran and in the centers of all other states which will monitor the execution of this law. Furthermore, the media is to cooperate with the committees (involved and formed) to promote the objectives of this law.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights‘ Article grants us all “the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” When bills such as the above are proposed, we all shiver and murmur that this is the feared apokalupsis eschaton!

Unfortunately, Iran’s position with respect to bloggers is not unique. As Human Rights Watch reports, past prosecutions of bloggers around the world have often used a number of overly broad and poorly defined terms to prosecute those that upset the regime. In the past, it has often been on “national security” grounds. For example:

• (February 2005, Iran) The Iranian government sentenced blogger Arash Cigarchi to 14 years in prison for expressing his opinions on the Internet and in the international press. Charges brought against him included espionage, “aiding and abating hostile governments and opposition groups,” endangering national security and insulting Iran’s leaders.

• (December 2006, Iran) Branch 1059 of Tehran’s Judiciary commenced a trial against Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, Shahram Rafizadeh, Omid Memarian, and Javad Gholam Tamimi, on charges of “participation in formation of groups to disturb national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “dissemination of disinformation to disturb public opinion by writing articles for newspapers and illegal internet sites,” and “interviews with foreign radio broadcasts.”

• (August 2007, Russia) Blogger Savva Terentyev was arrested and sentenced to one year probation for suggesting his local police should be set on fire in the town square(1).

• (June 2007, Syria) Human Rights Watch has documented at least five cases since 2005 in which critics of the government were arrested because of posting or emailing critical comments or information. In particular, Tarek Biasi was arrested because he “went online and insulted security services.” He was held incommunicado by the authorities and then sentenced to three years imprisonment for “diminishing national feeling” and “weakening the national ethos.”

• (March 2008, Egypt) Blogger al-Sharqawi and 16 other bloggers (including bloggers Wa’il Abbas and `Ala’ Seif al-Islam), journalists and activists were cited as being responsible for “spreading false news” that could harm Egypt’s image abroad and organizing demonstrations. l-Sharqawi told Human Rights Watch that his captors beat him for hours and then raped him.

• (February 2007, Egypt) Blogger Abdel Nabil Suleiman (“Kareem Amer”) was sentenced to four years in prison for “incitement to hatred of Islam” on his blog and for insulting Mubarak(2). It’s interesting to note that these charges stem from Article 102(bis) of the Egyption Penal Code which allows for the detention of “whoever deliberately diffuses news, information/data, or false or tendentious rumors, or propagates exciting publicity, if this is liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest”, Article 176 of the Penal Code which allows for the imprisonment of “whoever instigates…discrimination against one of the people’s sects because of race, origin, language, or belief, if such instigation is liable to disturb public order”, and Article 179 that allows for the detention of “whoever affronts the President of the Republic.” (3)

Although Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) allows restriction of expression in the interest of “the rights or reputations of others, the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”, capricious, harsh punishments are not justified. As Hamid Tehrani suggests on Global Voices, certain regimes have and will continue to stifle online opposition, and bills such as the above will only make it possible to “legally execute” political opponents.

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Chinese Netizens are Finding Ways to Skirt around Censorship

The news media in the U.S. and abroad has kept a watchful eye on China’s “Great Firewall.” Those who are critical of Beijing’s Internet governance policies have zeroed in on censorship issues in particular. What is perhaps as interesting and somewhat under-reported are stories of Chinese citizens attempting to circumvent government censorship.

Recently, NPR had an interesting piece, which detailed the importance and regularity of text messaging to modern Chinese. Correspondent Laura Sydell reports that political activists often utilize SMS technology to organize protests, as online platforms are routinely censored or taken down by government officials. Many citizens also relay criticisms of the regime through their mobile devices, instead of on the Web. Chinese activist Yu Jie says that he often receives “sarcastic jokes about corruption and government inefficiency” via text. It appears that SMS messaging provides a communication channel that is, for now, largely unchecked by state censors.

A Wall Street Journal article details how Chinese netizens have developed new technology that allows users to “write backwards” by flipping sentences for English phrases and shifting to a vertical orientation for sentences written in Chinese. Moreover, some utilize Twitter to send short bits of information at a quick speed, as to avoid censors.

Some sources heed caution, warning others not to be overly optimistic about the ability of Chinese citizens to evade government censorship. Open Net Initiative has tested purportedly unblocked foreign websites inside China, and unfortunately, many of the sites are still inaccessible. Nevertheless, it is interesting to think of how alternative technologies, like SMS and text inversion, allow at least some degree of freedom in a highly monitored digital landscape.

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Ortega Faces Student Opposition Online

It appears that Nicaraguan cyber communities are taking part in growing opposition to the Ortega presidency. Ortega’s administration recently disqualified two opposition parties from participating in local November elections (Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense and Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista), a move that has stirred many young citizens to angry online protest.

Nicaraguan students have participated in the growing opposition movement through social networking channels like Facebook. When former Sandanista rebel leader, Dora Maria Tellez, began a hunger strike to protest the “dictatorial intentions” of the Ortega administration, a small number of Managua’s students formed a Facebook group entitled “We Support Dora Maria Tellez.” Cyber protests against Ortega policies have since grown on Facebook. A new group has been created entitled “Daniel Ortega no mi representa!!!”, which has attracted over 1600 members. The Facebook group has been an organizational platform as well as portal to other websites related to the opposition. The “cyber-savvy” youth have also made use of Youtube to post videos of recent demonstrations.

Nicaragua is one of a group of Latin American nations whose citizen youth are taking advantage of social media to further democratic causes in their countries. This past year, young Colombian activists used Facebook to campaign against the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). In Venezuela, students organized on cyber platforms to protest a proposed Constitutional reform that would have broadened the powers of President Hugo Chavez.

Student protest is nothing new in Latin America, however. There is a strong history of university-based political activism in these countries, and it most often reaches beyond democratization movements. In the past, students have been engaged in populist and pro-Marxist pursuits, challenging everything from education reform to free trade and globalization policies.

But youth activism in Latin America has adapted to this digital age. The Internet has changed the tactics and mobilization methods of many activist groups, as students capitalize on digital media and social networking sites in order to spread the word. Traditionally, student activism in Latin American countries has been confined inside the university structure. In many universities, student government itself is associated with certain political parties, and students can participate in political movements through the highly organized party machines on campus. But as more online platforms open up in Latin America, some student activists are shifting the locus of their campaigns to the Web. The Internet offers cyber-savvy youth a chance to operate outside institutional structures, and it appears that many students are taking advantage of this opportunity.

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Online Activists Emphasize Offline Activism

Political bloggers gathered in Austin, Texas recently for a conference aimed at generating methods for bringing cyber activism to the real-world. The Netroots Nation event served as a “boot camp for bloggers,” Dallas News reported, showing bloggers how to “take their intensity and connections off their laptops and use them to push their political agenda.” Due in large part to the upcoming 2008 presidential elections, such conferences and discussions on the impact of the Internet revolution on offline activism have become prevalent among members of the online community. Last month, NPR detailed how prominent bloggers at the annual Personal Democracy Forum in New York City not only discussed the impending problem of Internet access in the United States, but more importantly, the goal of online communities to “bring the conversation that is offline, online and then bring it back – to effect change, ideally.”

The Internet and blogosphere have proven to be vital tools in facilitating the development of our democratic culture by promoting an active interest in and disseminating knowledge of a diverse range of issues and opinions to the public, even providing free electronic handbooks such as the Online Politics 101 E-Book. Yet, nowadays, blogger-activists are questioning the capacity by which these methods are impacting the real-world. Some argue that the Internet revolution has created a more “comfortable” space in which people can operate; a concept which has labeled today’s youths “Generation Q” or the “Quiet Americans,” implying that our digital methods of democratic participation make us “less outraged” or “less radical” than previous generations.

Yet, are we really “quiet”? Or are we just different? Given the growing interdependence between the Internet and democratic participation, especially the central role blogs have played in building – or weakening – political muscle in presidential campaigns, this concern seems unfounded. The Daily Kos Blog cited a report by the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet which found that “Online Political Citizens” are “seven times more likely than the average citizen to be opinion leaders” or “Influentials.” True, the Internet offers a platform for individuals to communicate with a broad audience, but offline activism is equally important, especially for reaching those not connected to the networked political public sphere.

However, the supposed chasm between online and offline activism is not an indicator of how the Internet is fueling less participation in the real-world. Rather, it illustrates how the Internet has changed the dynamics of democratic participatory politics by altering our relationship to and perception of political activism from the traditional protests and sit-ins of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Although online activism should be neither underestimated nor undervalued, the question remains: Which is more powerful? Banners in the streets, or blogs in cyberspace?

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Tweets Sparked Over Twitter in Congress

Congress has been engaged in a heated debate recently. Not just about the Iraq war, the economy and health care, but about whether House members are free to “tweet.” The NY Times reports that a proposal to limit House members’ use of social media outlets on the Web has been causing a brouhaha both in Congress and cyberspace. In his NPR interview, Andrew Noyes of the Tech Daily Dose Blog explained that debates ensued after Rep. Capuano (D-MA) was asked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to head the Franking Commission and revamp rules on how members of Congress communicate with constituents, especially in the Internet age.

The blogosphere and House floor have been excited with twitters concerning Capuano’s proposal which he claims was only meant to regulate how members of Congress post videos on the web in order to “prevent members from endorsing commercial or political advertisements” in keeping with a vintage house rule. Yet, twitter-happy, tech-savvy House members such as Rep. Culberson of Texas are in an uproar, describing the move as an “attack on free speech.”

Internet activists, bloggers, and avid Twitter users have also been quick to respond. The Sunlight Foundation created the “Let Our Congress Tweet” campaign, encouraging people to “tweet” their disdain through an online petition, while the TechSailor Blog offers Congressional source documents to readers. Other bloggers such as those at Shelly Blog and Techdirt Blog, although supportive, are critical of Culberson’s approach, even calling him out for “igniting a misleading partisan fight.”

Yet, this debate goes beyond the issue of maintaining house rules or partisan politics. It exposes the disconnect between the 75% of American adults now using the Internet, and the unfortunate number of House members who are falling behind in their use and understanding of new, interactive Internet technologies.

In its 2008 Communicating with Congress Project report, the Congressional Management Foundation found that although the Internet is a simpler, more cost-effective method for contacting Congress, “neither citizens nor congressional offices have learned to use it in ways that facilitate truly effective communications between citizens and members of Congress.” Furthermore, “a significant number (of representatives) still respond to email with post-mail, 42% have substandard or failing websites, and few have embraced new media tools for better serving online constituents.”

However, progress has been made. YouTube recently vowed to create a “government ghetto” and provide legislators with their own commercial-free video sites; a move which discourages congressman’s over-dependence on traditional, “snail-mail” methods of communication with constituents.

Given the currently low approval rates of Congress, it is surprising that more members do not take advantage of the potentially powerful new interactive communication technologies out there, and even more discouraging that they feel the need to regulate what many do not use or understand. As Rep. Capuano admitted to the Washington Post, “I make no bones about it. I don’t know anything about this stuff.” More elected officials should be embracing these new technologies, in order to empower themselves and promote greater political participation by their constituents. As the authors of Rebooting America note, “In a full circle of thought and commitment, the Internet revolution has enabled us to rediscover our passion for broad public participation in government and governance.”

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Unease over Sim-card Registration Policy in Botswana

Fear and unease have spread throughout Botswana this past week, over suspicion of possible government surveillance. On Wednesday, the Botswana Telecommunications Authority (BTA) stated its plans to continue mandating the registration of all pre-paid sim-cards as a security procedure. According to BTA Chief Executive Officer Thari Pheko, all unregistered lines will be cut off by the first of the year, 2010.

The BTA office has stated that the registration is intended to track down criminals who utilize cell phones to commit crimes. In addition, the procedure will make it easier to track down sim-card locales, thus tackling the problem of mobile theft in Botswana. Some journalists, however, see the measure as infringing on citizens’ liberties. They are concerned that the administration of the newly appointed president, Ian Khama, will step up its surveillance of digital communication in an effort to “keep tabs” on people. Khama’s administration has already expressed distrust for the media, as demonstrated by a recent draft Media Practitioners bill now under consideration, which would give the government greater control over the media.

Thapelo Ndlovu, director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, fears that certain procedures of the BTA, such as sim-card registration, could be used to target media sources. He explains:

We know that we have a government that has made no secret of its disregard for the media. We have a president who on his first day dismissed the media as a trouble-maker without even acknowledging the role it plays in a democratic society. We also know that a number of organizations including unions have often complained of being subjected to surveillance by the security agents and seen under the context, one could say the system could be open to abuse.

In some respects, the alarm is a bit cursory. We do not know yet how the system of sim-card registration will affect Botswana’s security procedures or if the media will indeed be targeted. There is reason to hope that the initiative will be used in the way it is intended.

However, it is a bit unnerving to hear about infringements of civil liberties in Botswana, because the country is supposed to be the most functioning democracy in Africa. The country has been touted as an “African Miracle” because of its economic turn-around, steady GDP growth, commitment to multi-party democracy, and solid government institutions. Moreover, Botswana has largely steered clear of political corruption and graft, which so often plague its neighbors. But digital surveillance, restrictions on freedom of speech, and disruptions of media neutrality are offenses that need to be taken seriously, if they are indeed found to be taking place. Often, these kinds of infractions sneak by under the public radar. If Botswana is to retain its place as a leading African democracy, the government needs to respect freedom of speech broadly and steer clear of surveillance of its own citizens.

(Indispensable) Corporate Responsibility

Recently I wrote about corporate responsibility and how certain corporations are playing a part in helping other countries stifle certain rights, today I ‘d like to shift my focus to the positive collaboration between big corporations, NGOs in amazing ongoing projects that make a significant, positive difference.

Here are a few examples: Google is developing algorithms that will help detect child pornography and is helping NCMEC find missing children using its pattern recognition and other interesting algorithms. Microsoft in collaboration with UNESCO has organized an educator leaders forum. Speak2me Inc combines education and contextual ads to provide free English lessons in China. UNESCO and Repetto Foundation have launched the Dance for Life partnership with Alicia Alonso, to support educational projects which use dance to help marginalized children.

These are but a few examples of the collaborations ongoing. Numerous corporations have taken strong initiatives in making a difference in our global village. Incentives are numerous; both noble and financially motivated, but the results in most cases are indisputably indispensable!

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Indian Nationalist Models Campaign After US

The web-centered presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Ron Paul have demonstrated how much the Internet has changed the face of political campaigning in America. Now it appears that the web is changing campaign landscapes in newly wired countries. The Washington Post reports that India’s elder candidate for Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, is using a similar campaign model as Senator Obama. Advani’s political strategists hope to take advantage of cyberspace in order to mobilize voters in India, especially the millions of youth who will be first-time voters in the up-coming election.

The Hindu nationalist and his party, Bharatiya Janata, plan to utilize Youtube, Flickr, and social networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut to spread Advani’s message of “change.” The campaign will also make use of cell phones as a medium for political communication. This is likely to be an effective strategy, as India has one of the fastest growing mobile markets, with an annual growth rate of 18% (CAGR) or roughly 5.5 million new subscribers per month.

With his web-based, bottom-up strategy of campaigning, Obama has been able to capitalize on a largely untapped, yet connected, youth population in America. Advani hopes to echo Obama’s success, and given India’s demographic landscape, he just may be successful. As the Post reports, more than two-thirds of India’s one billion plus people are under the age of 35 and a good portion of the youth are urbanized. But the party aims to utilize the Internet to attract voters of all ages. The head of the campaign’s technology initiative, Prodyut Bora, explains:

Obama’s site successfully created communities of supporters and voters. It was used to call a meeting of friends and plan events. We would like the Advani portal to enable millions of voters to connect with him and with each other. This would encourage people to become Advani’s local campaigners.

As observers, we will have to wait and see how successful a cyber campaign will be for Advani. I have to question how viable an Internet-based campaign strategy can be in a country like India, in which a substantial portion of the population is mired in poverty and where the digital divide between the rising class and the poor is so palpable. In the U.S., cyber-space is increasingly becoming the backbone of political campaigning. Not only is the Internet the first stop for information about the candidates and their policy preferences, but also it is a forum where people can express their own views about the presidential race, build enthusiasm for candidates, and even fundraise. The question remains if this type of environment can subsist beyond the highly connected, industrial democracies. In India and other developing countries, the Internet may be a useful mobilizing device for portions of the population, like youth voters and the urbanized electorate. But, given the constraints of mobile access in these countries, we will likely see the traditional pattern of top-down, offline campaigning continue well into the future.