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Thai Website Blacklist Leaked

Wikileaks managed to find the official list of blacklisted sites from the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) in Thailand. Thailand has aggressively, if often ineffectually, attempted to control the internet, especially supposed infractions of its severe lese majeste law (see my piece earlier this year, as well as this article for more background on Thai censorship).

The list demonstrates exactly what is to be expected. Many sites were over-blocked and nixed for political reasons, even by the standards of lese majeste, itself a politically motivated statute, intended to “protect” the King. I trust Thai bureaucrats much less than Google, about whose policy of evaluating flagged YouTube clips I feel some unease. More abstractly, this story brings an Orwellian truth to light, that citizens should always distrust a government’s control over their information world.

What is fascinating to me though is how clearly the Thai government’s attempt to tame a medium as porous and expansive as the internet is failing. In the good old days, you forced the newspapers and TV stations either to license or self-censor under the threat of fines and jail. You might arrest a few prominent journalists as an example and call it a day. Although today many bloggers are being jailed (now, according to Bruce Etling here at Berkman, more frequently than traditional journalists) the mechanisms of state censorship are no longer as shrouded in mystery or difficult to assess.

The internet, by publishing leaks which none but the most underground of traditional newspapers might dare to print, naturally resists the yoke of the censorship regime. The harder a country tries to censor the internet (and China and Thailand are trying pretty hard), the more its stream of information slips like sand through their fingers.

1,203 is a paltry sum of websites, and yet probably represents a significant exertion of man hours on the part of government employees, bewildered that they must patrol a world wide series of interconnected networks, mirrors and proxy servers of free information. The censorship regime, as I see it, even the fancy Chinese firewall, is doomed to crumble under the weight of this exponentially expanding infrastructure of ideas. That includes all the taboo, dissident and revolutionary ones, too.

The Internet and Fascism

Andrew Keen has penned a provocative editorial criticizing Obama’s plans for the democratization of broadband internet access (for more on the plan itself, see my summary of Obama’s technology platform). Keen’s chief worry seems to be that universal technological empowerment, particularly of the internet, does not correlate to a more enlightened citizenry.

Even more than that, he suggests that under significant economic stress (a reality towards which, the economists murmur, we’re rapidly hurtling), the technologically literate but hopeless ranks of the unemployed could find themselves more attracted to dangerous mass movements like fascism. Social networking and mass media venues like YouTube could become the Hitler youth rallies of the past.

Superficially at least, the viral Obama/Muslim conspiracy theories may seem modest proof that free information does not a reflective citizenry make. The “Obama is a Muslim” myth was amplified with alarming speed by the conservative blogosphere and Obama’s Conservapedia page, eventually making its way into the mouth of that “He’s an Arab” women at the McCain rally. Keen is right to think that on a mass scale this could threaten representative democracy. The Framers (Hamilton comes to mind) were openly distrustful of the mob’s judgment; it was too often hasty and irrational.

On the other hand, part of the success of Obama’s PR camp was in reaching out to thinking voters with immediate corrections, frequently through information technology. The subsequent and obsessive media/internet conversation sparked by the controversy proved to be an open forum which Muslim-baiting bigots simply could not win. As far as I can tell, that is democracy in action.

(Along similar lines, James Glassman over at the State Department has suggested that engaging jihadists in online debates, instead of lecturing them from the West’s “city on the hill,” often wins public support for liberals in the Middle East by exposing Islamic fundamentalism to be precisely that.)

This doesn’t mean that the Internet is a democratic panacea. The new frontier of astro-turfing, propaganda tools and internet media censorship are troubling developments for a medium that has otherwise liberalized expression and encouraged revolutions, if not always successful ones. Robert Faris and Bruce Etling have written some great analysis for Berkman on the effects, both postive and negative, of digital networking on democracy. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in blogging, China, Current Events, Free Speech, I&D Project, Ideas, Tech Tools. Comments Off on The Internet and Fascism

NYT in China Blocked and Unblocked

Last week, I posted about China  re-blocking several of the sites temporarily accessible during the Olympics. During this re-censorship spree, the New York Times website was blocked for mainland Chinese users, but only for three days. This morning it was finally free again. When pressed for comment about the ostensible arbitrariness of this action, Chinese authorities played dumb. Such highly visible waffling can only be counter-productive to the censorship regime. The average Chinese internet citizen must know what he or she is missing, had temporarily and could have again. A porous Chinese firewall (and the more users, the more porous it will become) is destined to fail.

RIAA Enlists ISPs To Fight Piracy

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced yesterday it will shift the focus of its anti-piracy efforts, particularly against P2P users, by using ISPs to deter illegal file-sharing, instead of relying on costly, PR killing lawsuits against individuals. The idea is that the RIAA would notify a local ISP if one of its users, identified by IP address, is thought to be illegally sharing music, movies or other copyrighted material.

The ISP would then send a desist warning with the added threat that internet access for that user may subsequently be permanently revoked. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the new strategy already has netizens worried about civil liberties, censorship and potential blacklisting (cf. also this great summary of the situation over at Public Knowledge).

The tactic is not exactly new. It has been used before on college campuses, long the front line in the battle over digital piracy. Individual users who were repeatedly caught hogging bandwidth with filesharing were banned from university network access for a period of time, sometimes up to a year or longer.

What concerns me is how powerful this collaboration between the RIAA and ISP companies could turn out to be. Will there be any process for appeal if internet service is terminated? If access to, say, Comcast has been revoked for copyright infringement, will it be possible to seek service elsewhere? In an increasingly consolidated media environment, the possibility of blacklisting across ISPs seems quite real, despite the protestations of RIAA president Cary Sherman.

Moreover, for a world in which the internet is becoming increasingly central to everyday functioning, communication and civic participation, categorically banning access equals quasi-pariah status. Nor will this loss of privileges be weighed by a judge in a court of law where minimum due process is required; rather, the RIAA, long eager to twist the arms of ISPs protected by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, will call the shots.

Will it deter music piracy? Quite possibly. But is there also potential for abuse and arbitrary denial of service? Absolutely. It doesn’t seem too far to count out systemic internet filtering either. The RIAA will no doubt make the same argument already voiced over child pornography. If it’s illegal material, then networks have a responsibility to filter it. Anything else you’d like censored or controlled? Jihadist websites? Unsavory but legal erotica?

The internet is too powerful and democritizing a means for free expression to be leashed by either governments or powerful companies. This is the hard lesson of Burma and China where not just child porn and stolen records are illegal; political dissent is too.

Posted in Current Events, Free Speech, I&D Project. Comments Off on RIAA Enlists ISPs To Fight Piracy

Media Re:public Launch and Human Rights Media

A year long Berkman research collaboration called Media Re:public has just been released. It is a wide-ranging and diverse set of papers analyzing the seismic shifts which the internet and the participatory media are creating in the landscape of traditional news.

What I like so far from what I’ve read is how it engages not only the obvious questions of new and different revenue streams, but also the stickier complexities of how the internet is altering how the news is written, disseminated and consumed. I highly encourage you to read the pdf of the overview (fair warning: it’s fifty some pages long). It’s a comprehensive, readable summary of this exciting initiative.

I was particularly interested in the section on how the slow contraction of foreign newspaper coverage in remote or dangerous areas has de facto transferred the responsibility of covering them to coalitions of human-rights groups and citizen journalists (p. 17 and following, Overview). It may be too expensive (or indeed, illegal) to maintain a foreign correspondent in Burma, but international human rights groups and the activists they support are in the business of writing investigative reports and sharing them with the world.

Allowing human rights types to shoulder reportorial responsibilities may have other benefits as well. I think a greater sense of urgency could permeate the international news cycle, particularly when it comes to repressive regimes. If produced with the help of local activists and citizen journalists, the report could also avoid the pitfalls of some MSM international coverage, which can seem America-centric or out of touch with historical and cultural realities.

Recall that in Burma, due to a restrictive foreign journalist visa policy, much of what was happening during the Saffron Revolution came from locals with camera phones and blogs. Human rights advocacy groups could thus function as the facilitating network (and the internet, their conduit) for a totally reconceived kind of international coverage of the developing world.

Posted in blogging, Citizen Journalism, Current Events, Developing world. Comments Off on Media Re:public Launch and Human Rights Media

China Re-Blocks Sites Open During Olympics

Anyone who thought the Beijing Olympics would be a catalyst for greater freedom and human rights in China should be upset (though perhaps unsurprised) to learn that many of the websites unblocked during the games have now been re-censored. The Times has the full story here.

One quote in particular, from Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Berkman Fellow and co-founder of Global Voices, helps to shade China’s particular brand of censorship in relief relative to the more mild, though to my mind still serious, censorship that many Western countries are now implementing (child pornography blocks in the US and Australia; Holocaust denial websites in Germany):

Ms. MacKinnon noted that, in contrast to other countries, the Chinese government defines crime very broadly, imposes censorship with little if any explanation and provides no process for operators of blocked Web sites to appeal censorship decisions. She added that even when entire Web sites are not blocked, the Chinese government still sometimes limits certain keyword searches.

There is something all together arbitrary about the Chinese firewall, an absurdity which will no doubt only increase as the size of the Chinese web rapidly outpaces the government’s ability to police it. There are already signs that the Great Firewall is relatively permeable when it comes to blog censorship. The renewed interest, however, in re-censoring previously open sites (in principle, like the shuffling of Beijing’s heavy industry outside the city limits during the Games) demonstrates the Chinese aren’t going to give up the battle without a fight.

Digital natives: digital renegades or digital captives?

[Cross-posted on Corinna di Gennaro‘s blog and Digital Natives blog]

A few days ago in the IHT Evgeny Morozov, a Fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York, has published an interesting op-ed entitled: “Digital renegades, or captives?” where he analyzes the role of the Internet in promoting civic engagement in authoritarian regimes. Evgeny asks: “What if the original premise was wrong and the Internet is not a great force for democratic change but rather the clay that keeps authoritarian regimes together?” Evgeny alerts us to the dangers of seeing the Internet as a magic wand, which will necessarily promote democratic change and warns us about the importance of context (America vs. non-Western European countries) when analyzing the role of the Internet in aiding political change and political participation.

Evgeny goes on to argue (and I quote his words, again): “We have to be aware of the fact that the Internet has given the youth living in controlled societies infinite venues for digital entertainment – without any religious or social censorship – that may not necessarily be enhancing their digital sense of citizenship and civic engagement. Risking the comfort of their bedrooms – with their hard-drives full of digital goodies – for the gloom of a prison cell does not appeal to many of them. The governments are all too happy to promote this new cult of ‘cyber-hedonism’.”

In other words, the Internet is just a tool – we must avoid technologically deterministic arguments which stress the effects of technology by taking it out of context, and by devoiding it of social agency. Evgeny suggests two ideal types (a la Weber): ‘digital renegades’ vs. ‘captives’ which I think are much more than just another trendy name, but they are two categories which may well turn out to be a really useful analytical tool in studying young people’s civic engagement.

Estonia To Allow Cellular Voting

Estonia, the remarkably wired and internet savvy Baltic state, has just passed a law making voting in the 2011 national elections possible by cellphone. Special identification chips, freely available from the government, will allow cell phone voters to be properly vetted. Proponents of the law claim it will increase participation and reduce lines at voting precincts.

It’s a clever idea, and if they can pull off the security, it heralds an interesting new direction for democratic participation. Still, something in my gut makes me feel uneasy. The horror stories of American voting “irregularities” are bad enough; Estonia, a country targeted by sophisticated (Russian?) hackers before, will be transmitting votes through an even more unreliable kind of system, albeit smaller in scale. This may not even be a concern over hacking. What is to stop me from stealing a cellphone and casting a false ballot?
It certainly seem easier than stealing someone’s driver’s license/voter registration and impersonating them/signing a sworn statement before an election official.

I also worry cellular voting could be careless, an instant poll-the-audience kind of decision instead of reflective democratic discourse. Then again, we already tolerate careless voting. Most poeple are fine with straight-ticket party ballots, only come to the polls for major elections and feed themselves on talkradio and tv ads.

In contrast, voting by cellphone may help ingrain democratic decision-making into everyday life, making people more responsive and committed to common goals than before. Then perhaps national elections would spark the same interest as PTA meetings and bowling leagues. This may be a stretch, but if it’s not, then “eStonia” (as its jokingly called) is developing a polis for the 21st Century.

Internet Weakens Democracy?

Check out this provocative and fascinating piece by Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute. The central question it raises, whether the Internet is really a force for democratic change, is as complex as it is necessary to ask. Cyber-savvy young voters (see also our coverage of “Born Digital”), kindled by Obama, may have heralded a civic reawakening for America, but as Morozov rightly points out, one should be cautious about overstating the internet’s power as a catalyst for an activist citizenry, especially in authoritarian countries. As Morozov sadly notes:

The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but the Chinese Firewall has been erected in its place.

The role of the internet in democratization is sometimes ambivalent or contradictory. The Berkman study of the Saffron Revolution in Burma turned on this question. Why was the internet, so crucial in organizing and publicizing protests, not ultimately effective in overthrowing Burma’s repressive military junta?

Morozov provocatively points to the web’s endless stream of entertainment as a possible explanation for the malaise of democratic movements. The internet is a sirensong of cheap thrills and escapism, foreign movies and sex. It is slowly transforming “digital renegades” and potential activists into “digital captives” of Hollywood distraction. As Antony Loewenstein, author of a book about blogging in repressive regimes, remarked at a recent Berkman luncheon, far more bloggers want to meet girls than agitate for reform.

Having said all that, Morozov’s conclusion — that young people in repressive regimes prefer Paris Hilton clips to freedom — strikes me as too cynical. Though no quick fix panacea, the internet has contributed to greater participation and group association. Strong correlations between increased internet capability and democratization, though not ultimately conclusive, surely reinforce this belief.

Perhaps the changes have less to do with formal democratic movements than the immense proliferation of speech on the web. This is what makes the Iranian blogosphere so vibrant, the Chinese one so resilient and the Burmese one so dedicated, despite varying levels of autocratic control. The web has broken the authoritarian choke-hold over information, even if what is flooding in from the outside is imperfect or censored. Web 2.0 technology is clearly one source of this altered dynamic; it’s easier to gag a newspaper than censor a thousand blogs.

The more impossible internet output becomes to contain, the more plausible I think it is that censorship regimes will crack, even ones as massive as the Chinese firewall. This may not be democratic activism of the most visible form, but perhaps it gives more radical democratizing movements a chance to succeed.

the Internet and politics: analyzing the 2008 US election

[Cross-posted on Corinna di Gennaro‘s blog]

A group of McCain and Obama campaigners, academics, activists, bloggers and journalists have gathered for two days at Harvard at a conference organized by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society examining the role that the Internet has played in the the 2008 US election. Parts of the conversation were under Chatam house rule, nevertheless here are some highlights of the lively discussions that have taken place. Some preliminary outputs of the meeting can be found here in essay format and other Berkman colleagues have blogged about the event here and at the Internet and Democracy blog.

The first day of the discussion focused very much on the role played by the Internet in the campaign. Did Obama win thanks to the Internet? Did the Internet play a role in engaging people who would have not otherwise been engaged? The first question was prominent, and the message that was stressed many times over and over, especially by Obama campaigners, was that the Internet served as a wonderful tool to coordinate and link online and offline action, with the technology playing a central but complementary role to the efforts of offline grassroots organizing. I came home with the feeling that top-down strategy played the key role in getting people involved, but that success depended very much also on the bottom-up grassroots efforts and energy that Obama and his campaign people managed to mobilize and draw upon.

Marshall Ganz – who gave the keynote talk – emphasized the transformative power of grassroots organizing. Ganz made his point with a good metaphor: there is a distinction between carpenters and tools – tools could be the best, but if you don’t have a good carpenter you won’t build a house. You need people with the right skills, the right strategy, the right training in order to achieve goals and build capacity for transformative action. The Obama campaign was extraordinary in that it managed in building leadership, strategy and in engaging volunteers locally in a systematic way. Jeremy Bird, organizer for Obama for America, showed how these idea worked in practice by speaking of his experience on the field. He highlighted the interdependence between technology and field organizing – not just the Internet but for example mobile telephony – in South Carolina – a state with low Internet use the connection to people was made via text messaging.

In the afternoon breakout sessions were organized which analyzed several themes: the role of Web 2.0 tools such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter played in the campaign; the role of the Internet in contributing to transparency and the analysis of different campaign strategies such as micro-targeting. Some outputs of these dicussions can be found here (essays by conference participants).
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