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Antony Loewenstein Speaks At Berkman

Anthony Loewenstein, author of the recent book The Blogging Revolution, stopped by for a luncheon/lecture here at the Berkman Center yesterday. Loewenstein, a journalist in background, prepared for the book by traveling to some of the world’s more repressive regimes and interviewing bloggers about how the internet and blogging in particular is changing the world they live in. The full transcript of his remarks can be found here. I wanted to offer a few of the points I found to be particularly interesting.

1. Loewenstein repeatedly pointed to a sort of blind spot in Western journalism that is actually obscuring our view of the non-Western world. This includes the fact that most Western coverage is reported by Western correspondents who sometimes (as he himself confessed during the Q&A; he only spent a month there and mostly spoke to American bloggers living in Syria) do not remain long in a country or learn the requisite local languages to penetrate deeply into more indigenous stories and perspectives.

In particular, the Western “lens” (and here Loewenstein singled out the New York Times) tends to self-filter news into the categories and pre-suppositions that fit the exigencies of American foreign policy. On this point, one had the feeling that Loewenstein was mostly right (e.g. the newspeak “War on Terror”), though he seemed to have an almost conspiratorial conviction about Washington’s influence. He was careful to stress that the Manichean division of “good” versus “bad” nations (for example, “Israeli” vs “Arab”) has been more a hallmark of Bush-era policy.

The point of all of this is that bloggers fill in our picture of the developing and Islamic world where newspapers and major media fail, in large part because the bulk of Western stories obsessively follow themes like “terrorism” and “Palestine/Israel” which tend to reduce and oversimplify our view of the entire region. Instead of puffing our ghosts and specters, the West should be tuning in to hear the real story from the ground, as provided by citizen journalists and just average people writing blogs.

2. This does not mean, however, that bloggers are the harbingers of upcoming democratic revolutions in the Middle East or China. Although the internet widens the scope of free expression (or at least makes it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to contain dissent), Loewenstein often encountered a kind of weariness for calls to arms and revolution. One Iranian blogger, in particular, told Loewenstein that he felt strongly about reform, but that it needed to come about in a gradual, almost Burkean, sort of way.

Loewenstein connected this to a need for the West to overcome its epistemological shortcomings and embrace moderate factions, particularly elements of political Islam like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Instead, in the relentless fight against a spooky AlQaeda menace and pragmatic energy policy, Washington props up pretty bad rulers. If they read native blogs, they would have a better idea of who these factions are. The would hear the voices of moderate factions who are as uneasy with American or European meddling as they are with the regular torture, repression and abuse which characterizes their own regime. This includes Muslim women against female circumcision or restrictive social policies, pro-reform Islamists and change-eager Cubans.

3. Having said all that, most blogging in the developing world is not political in scope. Not everyone running a blog (and these are generally middle class folks to begin with) is a dissident or human rights activist. Much of it centers on dating or music, fashion and everyday life. Loewenstein rightly insists, however, that this is itself a kind of free expression and step toward an open society worth paying attention to.

I think there is a kind of cynical rebuttal to his argument which says that the banality of everday blogs in repressive regimes is highly conditioned by the fear of speaking out on anything political. Of course, this dynamic must differ from regime to regime. In Iran, where even Western music and fashion is banned by the morality police, the struggle to do banal and everday things is already a political struggle; in Thailand, where only the borders of internet are really policed (lese majeste and jihadist websites), it’s easier to maintain an apolitical kind of free expression.

4. Loewenstein had harsh words for internet companies which collude in censorship. He pointed, as we have before as well, to the geo-locational filtering YouTube uses to adapt content to local countries. He did concede that perhaps blocking four videos instead of four thousand is better, but I almost wanted him to stick to his guns and insist that countries take YouTube all or nothing. Not because I think this will loosen the knots of censorship, but because public outcry and dissent could be wide enough to choke back the state’s ever encroaching authority and control over democratic discourse.

All in all, a great talk and we thank Antony for stopping by!

The King and I: Thailand’s Royal Firewall

Five days ago, Reporters Without Borders reported that the Thai government is stepping up its efforts to censor pornographic, terrorist and anti-monarchy material on the web by installing a country-wide firewall overseen by MICT (Ministry of Internet and Communications Technology). Estimates for the cost of the project range from 3 to 15 million dollars and would presumably replace the secret process of blacklisting and selective filtering already in place. (YouTomb, an outfit of MIT Free Culture, discovered awhile back that YouTube was using special coding flags to filter Thai content geographically, especially content held to be offensive to the royal family.)

Internet censorship is nothing new in Thailand. What makes this new initiative alarming is the political climate Thailand currently finds itself in. After years of military coups and failed constitutions, Thais held their first reportedly free and legitimate election in 2001. This brought Thaksin Shinawatra and his populist Thai Rak Thai party to power by a landslide. After winning again in 2005, however, allegations of corruption and hostility to the free press fomented a series of highly visible anti-government protests by an opposition group and then, even more dramatically, a bloodless military coup on September 19, 2006.

The junta scrapped the 1997 Constitution, dissolved the Thai Rak Thai party and, last May, passed an expansive Cyber Crimes Bill. (The bill gives Thai police extraordinary latitude in data seizure and investigation into “illegal” access.) Then, when elections were finally held in December 2007, a reorganized People’s Power Party (made up mostly of ex-Thai Rak Thai folks) managed to take a near majority in the Thai House of Representatives, despite intimidation from the junta.

In this politically charged environment, the internet has become a battlefield. Arguments over free expression and the touchy issue of Thai beloved monarchy are fanning partisan flames. The chief anti-government party has repeated claimed that Thaksin, and now his successors in the People’s Power Party, are perpetrators of lèse majesté, that is, the offense of insulting or defaming the Royal Family. Lèse majesté is an offense punishable by three to fifteen years.

According to some, the current government’s proposed firewall to block content insulting the king (many of the controversial YouTube videos mock the monarch as an “ape king”) is a bid to win over the anti-government opposition. Controlling the internet also gives the government the sort of law and order credibility needed to stave off another coup by the brass.

Thailand’s aging constitutional monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, seems to be above the fray. In 2005, the king publicly distanced himself from lèse majesté laws, often pardoning those convicted. Still, the zeal with which the Thai police are allowed to investigate allegation of lèse majesté is frightening.

An Australian national, Harry Nicolaides, is currently being held in a detention center without bail for writing three sentences in a small self-published novel (it reportedly sold seven copies), which may or may not “suggest” that the crown prince has a torrid sex life.

This example, combined with the fervor the government showed in attacking puerile YouTube videos, leaves one unsettled as to the potential for further and more substantive internet censorship in Thailand. After all, Burma’s crackdown on “cyber dissidents” took place just across the border. Thailand’s current instability (anti-government forces occupied the parliament building again today) would be fertile ground for using and controlling the internet as a political weapon.

Israeli Conservatives Copy Obama Web Tactics

Campaign managers of the world unite!

While Obama online organizers are busy trying to figure out how to adopt their online tactics to help them actually govern, Benjamin Netanyahu of the conservative Israeli Likud party has already adopted the look and feel of Barack Obama’s Web site. It’s not surprising that an overseas campaign adopted successful strategies from the US, but Netanyahu in particular may be more familiar with the US political scene, having studied business and political science at MIT.

The resemblance to the Obama campaign site is striking; the policy positions not so much. For example, the Russian version of his sight today shows missiles and the text “The Iranian threat” and a button to click for more information. It also allows you to join the party and ways to get involved.

While the campaign has adopted some tactics from Obama, the justification for adopting a broader Net strategy are closer to what we heard from Palin and other conservatives in the US–they have to go online to get past a perceived media bias against them. According to Netanyahu’s Internet campaign manager Sani Sanilevich, “The main advantage of the Internet is the ability to communicate with citizens and people directly,” he said. “You can actually hear them and get them involved in this campaign. The whole idea is, together we can succeed.” And as the Times article continues, “Netanyahu aides say direct communication with voters is important for many reasons; one of them is their belief that Israel’s mainstream news outlets are not sympathetic to the candidate, and he needs to go around them.”

Sound familiar?

Stuart Shieber and the Future of Open Access Publishing

Back in February Harvard adopted a mandate requiring its faculty member to make their research papers available within a year of publication. Stuart Shieber is a computer science professor at Harvard and responsible for proposing the policy. He has since been named director of Harvard’s new Office for Scholarly Communication.

On November 12 Shieber gave a talk entitled “The Future of Open Access — and How to Stop It” to give an update on where things stand after the adoption of the open access mandate. Open access isn’t just something that makes sense from an ethical standpoint, as Shieber points out that (for-profit) journal subscription costs have risen out of proportion with inflation costs and out of proportion with the costs of nonprofit journals. He notes that the cost per published page in a commercial journal is six times that of the nonprofits. With the current library budget cuts, open access — meaning both access to articles directly on the web and shifting subscriptions away from for-profit journals — is something that appears financially unavoidable.

Here’s the business model for an Open Access (OA) journal: authors pay a fee upfront in order for their paper to be published. Then the issue of the journal appears on the web (possibly also in print) without an access fee. Conversely, traditional for-profit publishing doesn’t charge the author to publish, but keeps the journal closed and charges subscription fees for access.

Shieber recaps Harvard’s policy:

1. The faculty member grants permission to the University to make the article available through an OA repository.

2. There is a waiver for articles: a faculty member can opt out of the OA mandate at his or her sole discretion. For example, if you have a prior agreement with a publisher you can abide by it.

3. The author themselves deposits the article in the repository.
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Can Google Predict Election Winners?

A recent article in the New York Times which showed how Google search results can track the spread of the flu as well and sometimes ahead of the CDCs monitoring program got me to wondering if Google searches also show us who will win Presidential elections. The quick answer appears to be yes.

In the below graph for Obama v. McCain searches, Obama was leading McCain in the final month of the campaign and opened a larger lead in the run up to election day (the highest peak in this normalized chart is actually on Nov. 5, the day after the election.)

It is also interesting to note where the searches were most prevalent. In most of battleground and toss up states you often see the highest search volume, including Ohio, Florida, Colorado and North Carolina. Even though voters in those states were drenched in advertising and door to door canvasing, they were still searching the Net for more information on the candidates.

And Google also predicted the Bush win over Kerry in 2004, as shown below.

Perhaps Nate Silver should add this into his predictions in 2012.

Next steps for President-elect Obama and We the people

Today an outstanding panel gathered at Harvard Law School to discuss Obama’s election and the next steps for Obama’s administration and the American people: “In Order To Form a More Perfect Union: Next Steps for President-Elect Obama and For We the People”. Panelists included:
* Douglas Blackmon, Atlanta Bureau Chief, Wall Street Journal
* Alan Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
* David Gergen, Professor of Public Service, Harvard Kennedy School; CNN Political Commentator
* Lani Guinier, Bennett Boskey Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
* Orlando Patterson, John Cowles Professor of Sociology, Harvard University
* María Teresa Petersen, Executive Director, Voto Latino
* William Weld, Partner, McDermott Will & Emery LLP; Former Governor of Massachusetts

Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Executive Director of Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice acted as moderator. He opened the discussion by asking panelists how we should assess the election of Barack Obama.

According to David Gergen, Obama’s election was the best organized campaign seen in years. Obama succeeded beyond the impossible by running a very strategic campaign and by putting together a first class team. He was especially successful in mobilizing Black, Latinos and young voters. (Interestingly, Gergen mentions how Kerry increased the youth vote by 9% and Obama by 35%). Gergen emphasized the great fear of excessive expectations now that Obama is in power – not just in the US, but also in Europe where people are seeing Obama’s election as a sign of hope for change in their home countries too.

Lainie Guinier echoed Gergen’s assessment of the campaign by stressing how Obama’s success in mobilizing people is something which has never been seen on the Left (she juxtaposed this to the Right’s mobilization of evangelicals). For Guinier the challenge now is to keep the ‘movement’ going, where by movement she did not mean special interest group or national leaders, but keeping in motion the organization that Obama put in place.

Sociologist Orlando Patterson expanded on some of his thoughts which he wrote up in this NYT op-ed the day after the election. For Prof. Patterson, Obama’s election should be seen as the triumph of the public sphere and of American democracy. It should not be seen as a radical change but as the culmination of a process: the success of American hybridism, cultural capital fusing and generating America. For Patterson Obama is very much a character of that process. He went on to stress what for him is now the biggest paradox of American society: with Obama’s election black Americans are now fully included in the public sphere but they remain totally excluded from the private sphere. Segregation has worsened in the last decades: schools are more segregated now than in the 1970s and black Americans remain the most endogamous group (less than 10% of unions with other races). For Prof. Patterson the biggest and most fascinating question for him as a sociologist is now: Do black Americans now want to assimilate?

Maria Teresa Petersen explained the election from the Latino community’s point of view – according to Hillary Clinton’s campaign Latinos would have never voted for a black candidate, and this was wrong. Obama got their vote because he was talking about the issues that Latinos care about. Petersen stressed how Obama went into the neighborhoods in a way that no other candidate ever did by focussing on issues such as the education gap, which do not only matter to Latinos but to all Americans. For Petersen the three priorities for Obama are (1) the need to address the education gap (2) to ensure that candidates do reflect Latino communities and (3) that Democrats in general need to solidify the Latino base by identifying different congressional seats to bring Latinos into leadership positions, thus creating a Latino agenda. Conversely, for Petersen Republicans need to figure out whether they should continue with someone like Palin with a really narrow base or whether they need to open up to embrace American diversity.

According to Alan Dershowitz, Obama’s primary responsibility now is to the future of the
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In Burma, War Against Cyber Dissidents Expands, Even Non-Political Bloggers Jailed

Since the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a popular uprising of students and Buddhist monks, Burma’s military government has been watching the internet with growing unease. The web, as our study of the conflict demonstrates, played a pivotal role in organizing and increasing the visibility of that conflict to the outside world. Citizen journalists, utilizing the content creation powers of Web 2.0 technology, were able to smuggle mobile videos and pictures out to the world, not only in person, but through anonymous uploads and file hosting sites at poorly regulated internet cafes.

Now, according to the exile newspaper Irrawaddy, Burmese authorities are stepping up their efforts to punish political activists who use the internet by imposing lengthy and draconian prison sentences. During the Saffron Revolution, the government’s response was to black out all internet access (possible because the government owns the only two ISP’s) and most mobile phone coverage. Yet when the internet was restored several weeks later, the government changed tactics. First, it limited bandwith at internet cafes, making even highly compressed audio and visual data difficult to transmit. Then, it began invoking a little used 1996 national security law which punishes unlawful access to an electronic network with jail time ranging between 7 and 15 years.

Burma’s authoritarian military-led government has never had a particularly warm relationship with free speech. Since its junta in 1962, the government has consolidated, restricted and stifled all traditional media outlets, putting them firmly under the watchful eye of state censors. The internet, however, and the rise of digital activism which it inspired, has been a much harder beast to tame. Even when it became possible (through ISP consolidation) to monitor and block internet access, citizens circumnavigated the blocks using foreign proxies and encrypted email services.

A disturbing sign in these most recent developments is that the increasingly nervous military government has begun cracking down not only on political dissidents critical of the regime (like the Generation 88 pro-democracy activists), but average Burmese citizens who happen to run blogs, like Nay Phone Latt who last Monday was sentenced to 20 years and 6 months in prison for blogging.

If the military autocracy hadn’t so ruthlessly (though perhaps less brutal, given the high internet visibility) quashed the Saffron Revolution, perhaps we could nurture aspirations for a freer, more open Burma. If there is any hope of cracking a regime that asserts absolute control over the individual, the internet’s capacity for instant and global expression is it. Right now, even this seems in jeopardy.

Craig Newmark: “no vision, but I know how to keep things simple, and I can listen some”

Craig Newmark was visiting the Berkman Center today and he explained how founding Craiglist brought him to his current role as community organizer. But these are really the same, he says.

In 1994, Craig was working at Charles Schwab where he evangelized the net – figuring that this is the future of business for these types of firms. He showed people usenet newsgroups and The Well and he noticed people helping each other in very generous ways. He wanted to give back so he started a cc list for events in early 1995. He credits part of his success to the timing of this launch – early dot com boom. People were alwyas influential and for example suggested new categories etc. He was using pine for this and in mid 1995 he had 240 email addresses and pine started to break. He was going to call it SFevents, but people around him suggested CraigsList because it was a brand, and the list was more than events.

So he wrote some code to turn these emails into html and became a web publisher. At the end of 1997 3 events happened: CraigsList had one million page views per month (a billion in August 2004, now heading toward 13 billion per month), Microsoft Sidewalk approached him to run banner ads and he said no because he didn’t need the money, and then he was approached with the idea of having some of the site run on a volunteer basis. He went for volunteer help but in 1998 it didn’t work well since he wasn’t providing strong leadership for them. At the end of 1998 people approached him to fix this and so in 1999 he incorporated and hired Jim Buckmaster who continued the traditions of incorporating volunteer suggestions for the site, and maintained the simple design. Also in 1999 he decided to charge for job ads and to charge real estate agents (only apt brokers in NYC, which they requested to eliminate the perceived need to post and repost).

He has generalized his approach to “nerd values:” take care of yourself enough to live comfortably then after that you can start to focus on changing things.
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Mr. Obama goes to the Internet

From his SecondLife campaign headquarters to his comprehensive technology and innovation proposal, Barack Obama exudes an familiarity with the internet rare among his colleagues in the federal government. Though always measured, Obama seems “cool” in quite a different sense when discussing tech issues, something bordering on tech geek hip. The Boston Globe has amicably remarked that Obama possesses “cyber sensibility” and his popular, though debated, position in the “net neutrality” debate (about whether internet providers can discriminate against certain kinds of data) is just one such example.

His vision of the internet as an empowering tool is matched by his populism. His plan to beef up rural broadband access has the familiar ring of FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal program designed to bring electricity to isolated Appalachia.

Perhaps more important the specifics, however, are that his ideas seem to grasp not only the current importance of technology as an interface for democracy (take his staggering internet fundraising abilities, for example), but also a more visionary projection of how the internet will make government more transparent, efficient and responsive to the electorate.

The story of how Obama tapped the internet for fundraising has by now been thoroughly covered, re-hashed and debated. It earned him unique admirers, such as the conservative columnist George Will. Will was quick to point out the irony in McCain’s complaints that Obama’s massive fundraising was distorting politics with money, when the bulk of Obama’s war chest came from donations averaging around 86$ (in September) from thousands of first-time donors. The unstated implication to Will’s remarks is that the internet, when coupled with the First Amendment right to express support for a candidate financially, actually increases civic engagement and strengthens democracy.

If the new Obama administration can follow through on their promises with the same alacrity and skill they applied to fundraising, there is much to look forward to in the future of internet democracy. Yet, as the Boston Globe noted today, there are likely to be significant obstacles and interests working against his plans as well. Rural telephone companies are likely to oppose diverting some of their subsidies to build broadband networks. ISPs such as Comcast, who have tried to limit or eliminate the taxing bandwidth usage of torrent downloads and are now fighting the FCC in court, have a vested interest in opposing net neutrality legislation.

Obama’s various “sunshine” proposals are likely to be opposed by bureaucrats and lobbyists, who no doubt will find citizen oversight of the federal government alarming. Obama has even proposed video taping meetings, making large swaths of data available and encouraging periodic town hall sessions online, so that average citizens can participate in the workings of the government, even if they live far from the shadow of D.C. In particular, the proposed grant/earmark search engine, which allows citizens to track money in Washington, is likely to find lobbyists fighting for their livelihoods.

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Digitial Media in Repressive Regimes: How China Filters Blogs

According to recent research by Rebecca McKinnon of Global Voices, the Chinese regime spends a ridiculous amount of time filtering and censoring the Internet–and relies on blog service providers to do a lot of the heavy lifting for them. Rebecca shared results from her research (soon to be released) on filtering in China at a conference put together by Berkman friends Caroline Nellemann and Ole Bruun of Roskilde University in Denmark, and hosted by the Danish Institute of Human Rights.

Rebecca carried out a study where she and a team created a number of blogs in Hong Kong and posted content that was likely to be blocked to see how blog service providers and the government censors reacted. In most cases blogs with sensitive topics were not put up but instead a message was received which showed that it needed to be reviewed, and a link with more explanation of why. She also conducted interviews with blog providers (Chinese and Western based) to understand how they censor or filter blogs. Their research revealed that the 15 blog service providers they tested are heavily involved in filtering of content on behalf of the government, and employ teams of humans to read and determine if flagged blog posts should be published or filtered. Somewhat humorous results were also found because of the automated filtering–including the filtering of the government’s own news agency.

Patrick Meier blogged in more detail about Rebecca’s talk. As Patrick writes, “In conclusion, the Great Chinese Firewall is only part of Chinese Internet censorship. Domestic censorship is not centralized. Domestic web censorship is outsourced by government to the private sector. Censorship is inconsistent and it is usually possible to post your content on one platform, for at least a while.”

I look forward to Rebecca’s write up of her reserach, and think that her methodology would be extremely useful to carry out in Iran and other countries where we want to better understand how filtering is taking place.