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A Look at Personal Democracy Forum’s ‘Rebooting America’

This week Personal Democracy Forum has released a promising new publication. Rebooting America is a collection of forty-four essays that ponder, discuss, and debate issues of governance and democracy in the Internet Age. Many friends and fellows of the Berkman Center have contributed to the anthology and have put forward some thought-provoking analysis and visionary ideas. One of Rebooting America’s four editors, Allison Fine, visited the Berkman Center this spring and presented her thoughts on social change, online activism, and millenials.

The topics of Rebooting’s essays are diverse, ranging from political participation and government transparency to youth engagement and political campaigning. But they all regard a common theme, namely “reorienting” our government for a new digital age. In the book’s forward, Esther Dyson muses, “Just as the Net created new business models, so can it foster new governance models.” Rebooting America starts off a fascinating conversation about such models.

The anthology brings together the past, present, and future of democracy in this nation, and considers where technology fits into this picture. Looking to the past, Zephyr Teachout draws a vivid picture of the Constitutional Convention. She muses about how our Founders would have altered the Constitution, if they had known how technology has helped to spread certain vices of our democracy like corruption. Drawing on the present, Michael Turk reflects on the current state of participation in this country, concluding that it has been depressed by mass media “sound bytes” and weakened by an uninformed electorate. Both Turk and Yochai Benkler agree that the Internet is changing this dynamic by providing a forum for “effective, active social cooperation.” In another essay, Craig Newmark discusses transparency, and how citizen journalism on the Internet is augmenting our procedural system of checks and balances. And looking to the future, Lance Bennett examines how digital natives are shifting “citizenship styles” and changing preconceived patterns of engagement.

Perhaps the best part of Rebooting America is its diversity of ideas. Each essay presents a unique vision that moves the conversation forward. The anthology engages in a reasoned debate about the political and social effects of the Internet, the avenues that it has opened, and the possibilities it has created. It is clear that no one author has come up with all the answers to these debates. Rather we are left with an amalgamation of thought-provoking ideas and an appeal for deliberation and dialogue.

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Camera Phones: Democratizing the Global Media Landscape

NPR recently reported that Morocco’s state-run TV stations have taken a big hit as an increasing number of Moroccan youths prefer to get their news, especially on controversial issues, through online video-sharing networks such as YouTube and Daily Motion. A major reason for this increasing interest in video-sharing networks is the growing use of camera phones, which – as they become increasingly accessible – have become powerful allies with the Internet in revolutionizing the global media landscape. For example, following clashes between protestors and security forces in the southwestern port city of Sidi Ifni, and the subsequent trial of Hassan Rachidi, the majority of young Moroccans relied on YouTube for coverage of the event.

Moroccans are not alone in their growing dependence on this form of amateur picture-video reporting. During recent protests in Korea against US beef imports, tens of thousands of Koreans used their cell phones to document the demonstrations; In Tibet, footage of violent protests in the capital were recorded using camera phones and were soon uploaded onto the Internet by the Indian branch of Students for a Free Tibet; And in Baghdad, Robert Fisk writes that mobile phones are playing a pivotal role in capturing “the dangerous face of ordinary life” by “reaching the places Western photographers can no longer go.”

Their small, convenient size and affordability have undoubtedly made camera phones increasingly accessible to a wide-range of people, allowing them to take strikingly honest photographs and videos with less risk of notice or reprimand than say, a journalist working in a conflict zone. Yet, despite these advantages, such reporting has its risks, as was demonstrated earlier this year when a Chinese man was killed for filming a violent clash between villagers and officials in rural China.

Whether it is a video of protests in Korea or Tibet, or a snapshot of life in Iraq, camera phones have the ability to transform their owners into photojournalists, redefining the concept of “independent media.” Ethan Zuckerman notes that by allowing virtually anyone to record and broadcast an event, mobile phones equipped with cameras have become a powerful force for “sousveillance.”

A possible shortcoming of this form of reporting could be a decline in the quality of news coverage due to information overload, or the “babel effect.” There are also concerns about credibility of citizen journalists. However, in the case of Morocco and other countries where the media are controlled by the state, or shy away from politically controversial stories, the use of camera phones have raised awareness about issues that would otherwise not be available in the public sphere.

Iran Considering Death Penalty Bill for Weblog Crimes (updated)

Proceeding with its campaign to curb freedom of speech, Iran may now expand its list of crimes punishable by death to the World Wide Web. Under a new draft bill, authors and editors of websites and weblogs found to promote “corruption, prostitution, and apostasy” would be subject to the death penalty. In recent years, online content in Iran has been targeted in an effort to defend the “moral security” of Iranian society. If the draft bill is accepted, Iran’s penal code will punish bloggers in the same way as those who create prostitution networks or commit armed robbery and rape. Procedurally, judges will determine whether the accused party is a “mohareb” (enemy of God) or “corrupter on Earth.”

Reporters without Borders quickly condemned the proposal and was careful to point out the dangers of loose interpretation on the part of judges:

This proposal is horrifying. Iranian Internet users and bloggers already have to cope with very aggressive filtering policies. The passage of such a law, based on ill-defined concepts and giving judges a lot of room for interpretation, would have disastrous consequences for online freedom.

The Iranian blogosphere has already shared their reactions to the draft bill. The responses express anxiety about the consequences of this proposal, including how easily a judge would be able to charge bloggers of certain crimes. But the blogosphere has also called on Parliament to reject the bill and prevent the adoption of it as law. Blogger Bazri writes:

We should do our best to stop members of Parliament from approving this draft bill. Tomorrow it will be too late. It is easy to accuse a blogger of corruption or apostasy. Let’s tell the Parliament that to think differently is not a crime that should be punishable by death.

Unfortunately, Iran is not the first Mid-East country to enact such legislation. According to Global Voices, Yemen has adopted equally repressive measures in dealing with owners and editors of websites. If Iran steps up its repression of cyber-space, it will not be an anomaly. In some authoritarian countries, dissent—whether political, social, or moral—has been punishable by death. As new platforms for dissent open up in these countries, it appears that the same rules apply.

Update: This draft bill seems to have generated a lot of buzz in the blogosphere. If you read Persian, you can read the text of the bill yourself here. From a distance, it seems that this bill is not that likely to pass since only 19 members of the Majlis have signed on, and we understand at least 129 votes would be needed for it to be approved. Anyone else out there have a sense of how likely this bill is to actually pass? Let us know.

Howard Rheingold to Korean Protestors: “A Smart Mob Is Not Necessarily a Wise Mob”


The Korean citizen journalism site OhmyNews, has a video and transcript of Smart Mobs author Howard Rheingold reflecting on recent Korean protests over US beef. According to Rheingold, we need to make sure that smart mobs become smarter, and less mob-like. (You can read our earlier post for more background on the protests.)

In the video, Rheingold argues that he has been tracking events around the world where he sees the convergence of politics, political discontent and technology. He says:

…my investigation revealed what I believe to be an important stage in human development in that every time there’s a technology that enables people to communicate in new ways, whether it’s speech, the alphabet, or printing or the Internet or the mobile phones, people develop literacies. They develop ways of using those technologies in communication media to do things together.

Science, technology, democracy, knowledge. Many of the aspects of the modern world really have been enabled by the literacies and collective action from the technologies that made print and the Internet possible.

Rheingold also sees an important role for citizen journalism, including OhmyNews and its impact on the 2002 Korean Presidential election, which was one of the first Internet and Democracy case studies. Rheingold believes that with OhmyNews, its citizen reporters, editors and activist, all the pieces are in place to move from spontaneous demonstrations to movements that can actually impact policy. He believes that for protesters to have impact, there needs to be more than just mass demonstrations and protests; this is where he argues that smart mobs need to become smarter. In Rheingold’s own words:

How do you build movements? There needs to be rational, critical debate among citizens. Citizens need to use the Internet and other media to talk about issues, to use the news media — OhmyNews citizen journalism and mainstream media — and what kind of research can they do on the Internet to find out what’s true and what’s not true, and to debate policies.

Until citizen are able to do that in an informed way, and in a rational way, their demonstrations may be doomed ultimately to the kind of failure that demonstrations were doomed to in the USA [in the 1960s].

You need to be able to influence the political apparatus in a democracy, in order to have a long-term influence.

For Smart Mobs to really become smart, they may need to adapt many of the traditional, successful organizing techniques that Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz teaches. Although others like Lance Bennett argue that the Internet and online organization may be creating new types of citizenship and totally new ways of organizing for impact, I think the jury is still out on this question. It’s more likely that some mix of ‘old school’ organizing techniques with new communication and social networking technologies will have the greatest impact. I also think we are still waiting for an example of a movement, campaign or protest that truly combines the two well enough to have long-term political impact.

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Cuba’s Mobile Opening

Although the U.S. embargo against Cuba remains fixed, President Bush recently announced a slight, although not insignificant, change in policy. It appears that Americans are now permitted to send mobile phones to relatives in Cuba. Although U.S. citizens are barred from visiting family members inside the closed island country, it may now be easier to communicate with them. Bush’s announcement follows the recent change in Cuban domestic policy, whereby President Raul Castro eased restrictions on “luxury electrical goods.” This move has allowed Cubans to purchase mobile phones, computers, DVD players, and other goods. Already, one can find Cubans in Havana lining up outside telephone centers for a chance to purchase mobile devices. In fact, cell phone service is expanding in portions of the country.

Purportedly, the younger Castro’s purpose in easing these restrictions is to improve Cuba’s trade relations across the globe and, thereby, strengthen their stagnant economy. But a policy change like this has the potential to domino into something greater, namely democratic reform. Connecting the population to the global discourse, and more importantly to each other, may bring with it calls for change. Expatriates, situated outside of Cuba, have already made these calls in the global blogosphere. We can ponder if an internal movement will develop in the future, given the improved mechanisms of mobilization that digital communication provides.

This, of course, is only a thought. In reality, access to cell phones is decidedly limited, as contracts sell for nearly six times the average state salary. Even for those Cubans who can afford means of digital communication, we must think about issues of censorship. The Internet and Democracy Project touched on this issue at a Budapest session led by Gwendolyn Floyd and Joshua Kauffman. They gave an interesting presentation on the Internet in Cuba and other authoritarian regimes. As they mentioned, Internet access and activity remains highly monitored in Cuba and is usually reserved for state elites or other persons of privilege. Any discussion of technological proliferation in Cuba will include such topics as the nation’s Intranet or black market, a clear sign of the regime’s digital repression.

Even still, I cannot help but hang onto my Utopian thoughts and consider the recent policy developments as promising. Blogger Rich Basas has been following Cuba’s transition and has recently posted his musings about their foreign policy changes and the possibility of a Cuban Perestroika. I remember an old college professor of mine, speculating that MTV helped to bring down the Soviet Union. He said that MTV provided a window into a world where people enjoyed a wealth of material goods and had the freedom to make their own choices. Today, the Internet may fulfill this role. If Castro permits a degree of Perestroika and Glasnost and Cubans take the opportunity to “get connected”, the Internet will undoubtedly provide them with an endless number of possibilities. At its most fundamental level, the Internet epitomizes the notion of choice. And, for all intents and purposes, the freedom to choose is the most basic characteristic of any democracy.

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The Internet and Network Structures in Iran

In a seminar on human rights in Iran, held in San Jose last weekend, one of the panels explicitly discussed how the Internet has emerged as a major social network structure in Iranian society. The panel director, Alireza Azizi, opened the discussion by explaining the growing role and importance of the Internet among different Iranian political activists and how it has affected their social networking practices. He argued that based on social statistics, Iranians trust the information on the Internet more than the official media in Iran.

The discussion continued on how some Iranian networks have been created based on the Internet and it was argued they could not exist without this networking tool. Parastoo Forouhar argued that Internet allows new ideas and movements to break the boundaries of governments and to spread around the world. Particularly in a society like Iran, where the Government suppresses the media and social life has been limited to private platforms, the role of the Internet as an important rival platform needs careful consideration.

Soheila Vahdaty argued that the international reactions towards some of the human rights violations and arrests in Iran have been a significant constraint for governmental actions. Considering the media environment in Iran, these reflections would have been impossible without the Internet. The major advantage in these cases is that the Internet is extremely fast and networking is widespread. Once news on human rights violation is released online, the UN immediately reacts to it by contacting Iran’s ambassadors in European countries, putting the Government under pressure to consider international opinion. The Internet has been extremely effective at mobilizing international networks particularly in cases of capital punishment of children.

The panel then discussed the limitations and disadvantages of the Internet. Arsham Parsi argued that there is no control on the publication of news on the Internet and this allows for a great deal of spam and misuse of the platform for false news and statements. Azarm Fanni raised an interesting issue about how the Internet limits network activities to the virtual world. When Iranians rely on the Internet as the primary forum for political expression and protest, it is easy to forget other alternatives for dissent in the real world. This is a concern we’ve heard from a number of Iran watchers, that an unintended consequence of the Internet’s use in Iran is that it allows individuals to complain and let off steam online, inadvertently preventing action in the real world.

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The Internet in China: Iron Curtain 2.0, or Political Liberalization 1.0?

A recent Chinese Internet Research Conference in Hong Kong has inspired much discussion about the myths surrounding the Internet in China. In his paper titled The Great Firewall as Iron Curtain 2.0, Lokman Tsui argues that U.S. communications policy towards China is still primarily based on the traditional broadcasting model of the Cold War, and the belief that freedom of information in regimes like China will eventually erode communist rule. However, Tsui warns that “our use of the Great Firewall metaphor leads to blind spots that obscure and limit our understanding of Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China.”

In traditional broadcasting systems, freedom of information and censorship are a zero-sum game: an increase in one leads to an automatic decrease in the other. But in the Internet realm, according to many empirical studies about the Internet in China, both access (the rise of the Internet population, blogging, instant messaging, and social networking sites) and control (See the OpenNet Initiative’s report) appear to both be on the rise. Although WikiPedia, Bloggers, and Typepad are blocked in China, Chinese Internet users can still have blogs, and wiki service hosts are also available, including Blogbus, Sina Blog, and However, as former Berkman fellow and co-founder of Global Voices Rebecca MacKinnon has noted, “the system that filters or blocks external websites from internal view is only one part of a complex set of mechanisms of China’s Internet control.”  The social behavior of users online is as important, if not more so, than access to information when determining the level of online free speech in China.

According to one Chinese blogger

We live in a strange society in which de-politicization and pan-politicization co-exist… The fates of certain democratic fighters have a cautionary effect on the people, who become politically indifferent. But when political incidents keep occurring inside and outside China to the point where cover-up is impossible, the repressed political demands and discontent are released and the people become politically passionate.

Unfortunately, China’s Internet surveillance and internal censorship regimes discourage and limit citizens’ online political expression. For example, many bulletin board systems do not allow individuals to discuss political issues, and many measures (such as real name registration policy) create a Foucault’s panoptic surveillance environment where participation in sensitive political discussion is highly risky. My empirical study of Chinese Internet users’ online political participation revealed that the perception of government surveillance is an important predictor of individuals’ online political expression, both in local and foreign online forums.

Although China’s online political space is limited, chaotic, and sometimes even nasty, internet scholar Zheng Yongnian believes it is enabling greater political liberalization and forcing the leadership to be more responsive to public opinion. For evidence of this one could look to Chinese President Hu Jintao  online chat with netizens via the People’s Daily online forum. He argued that “the web is an important channel for us to understand the concerns of the public and assemble the wisdom of the public.”  According to Hu’s webcast, online public opinion is considered by the government as a cooperative tool to improve the Party and the bureaucracy’s progress. In other words, China limits public online expression and the development of the Internet to the Party’s interests—not exactly a great harbinger for democracy.

However, Zheng says that most unsuccessful online movements in China tend to advocate the “exit” option (i.e. the Chinese people should exit one-party communist rule), while successful online movements tend to use what he calls the “voice” option, where the Internet provides the state with feedback from social groups to improve its legitimacy (see Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog on this topic).  Jiang Min has dubbed the public deliberation in Chinese cyberspace as “authoritarian deliberation.” Compared with the deliberation in democratic countries, authoritarian deliberation is akin to political liberalization 1.0. Min says that due to one-party rule, the goal of the deliberative process is to improve policies and create more accountable government, as opposed to Zheng’s “exit” option. Indeed, this is part of the process of political learning, where people can learn anew how to contemplate politics and make their own judgment and choice—a critical democratic process.

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Electronic Artists Carry on Tradition of Artist-Activism

As an NPR aficionado, I was intrigued by a recent series on Morning Edition entitled “In the Internet Age, a New Cultural Revolution” in which correspondent Laura Sydell detailed how Chinese artists have found a creative niche on the Web. Electronic musicians and authors such as B6 or Zhang Shuyu are not only using cyberspace as an outlet through which to display their unique talents, but to make a living as well – “skirting censors” to liberate themselves from China’s harsh censorship practices. Chinese online artists are an example of how the internet has become a hub for authors, musicians, and entertainers globally not only to promote their individual work, but more importantly, to evade and challenge restrictive state policies.

The Internet is not only helping artists create virtual studios or encourage new forms of art education, however, it is also promoting the tradition of activist-art. Some electronic artist-activists are more obvious about their objectives. For example, revealed that Zimbabwean protest singer Viomak launched the Voto Radio Station on the internet in opposition to Zimbabwe’s censorship policies. And others, such as British collector Charles Saatchi ,are more subtle: In an attempt to break down cultural and language barriers, he created an online art gallery site for the Chinese public not only to learn more about art, but also to display their work.

Whether their purpose is to challenge government policies and practices or break down cultural barriers, these online artists have used the Internet to facilitate the democratization of mainstream art. Artists have always been an active group in social movements across the world: contributing to calls for collective action, making powerful political statements, and challenging popular beliefs all through creative methods that touch a broad audience.

Now, whether consciously or not, they have changed the way we use the Internet: not simply as a tool for gathering information, but as an expressive space in which people from across different spectrums can combine their passions for art and social change. Ultimately, electronic artists have democratized cyberspace by continuing to perpetuate the relationship between art and activism – using the internet to propel socio-political movements and speak to the global community about the common struggle for freedom of expression.

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