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What the McCain and Obama Campaigns Say About the Impact of the Internet

This morning at the Internet and Politics conference in Cambridge we’re having a fascinating, and surprisingly frank, discussion with representatives from the McCain and Obama online campaign staff; likely because its under Chatham House rule, so no names or direct quotes below.

First the McCain Team:
They argue that the web strategy is what kept McCain alive when he was left for dead in 2007. It was critical during what was really three campaigns for them (early on when he had tons of support/money, then the phase where they went from hundreds of staff to a handful, then after he became nominee.)

Republicans believe that YouTube was a huge help for them in getting their message out. They really liked a totally in-house produced video about John McCain’s record of service. They believe that it helped to define McCain in the terms that the he wanted.

They also report that the Internet responsible for 1/3 of all money raised in primary.

This campaign was a David and Goliath story according to Republicans. They argue that they did more with less; but next time they’d rather be in Obama’s shoes–with lots of resources and lots of people.

McCain didn’t keep bloggers at a distance like Obama did. Bloggers and conservative blogosphere hugely important to the McCain comeback according to his e-campaign folks. They say McCain loved the conference calls and outreach that he had with conservative bloggers. Loved their questions; loved the whole thing. This seems like an under-reported story to me. Not entirely surprising given McCain ‘straight-talk’ approach.

They said they had a different audience online and on YouTube. I’d imagine that’s a big reason why they were less successful was because their supporters, and their candidate was older and less likely to use the Internet.

They argue that pro-Sarah Palin blogs and grass roots activism around her was totally organic. The Palin google search/optimization strategy was one of their biggest spends, but there really was a groundswell of organic support around her that really re-energized the campaign. They in no way saw her as a drag on the ticket.

And now to the Obama folks:

Define their role as tapping the huge grass roots network that was out there for Obama and putting them into a larger organization. They argued that there was a lot of people already excited and waiting to help. Leadership in campaign said that having a successful online strategy was critical because the party establishment was behind Hillary. Also sounds like they had a good management team.

Interesting to hear the words they use to describe the campaign as work place: values and ethos around candidate, creativity encouraged, told what to do but not how to do it, expertise of teams valued.
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Hackers v. US, the New Cyberspace

In the last twelve months alone, several high-profile cyber-attacks have either infected or stolen data from computer systems run by the State Department, DoD, Department of Homeland Security and other federal entities. Particularly worrisome is the very real possibility that critical U.S. infrastructure (think nuclear power plants, commercial banking and major telecom networks) could fall prey to attacks, information theft and extortion. Back in July, Barack Obama put the threat of cyber-terrorism on the same level as chemical and nuclear weapons.

A few days ago, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a bi-partisan security think tank from the Cold War, released a detailed and lengthy set of recommendations for Pres. Elect Barack Obama about the future of cyberspace security and regulation. Much of the report is uncontroversial, pragmatic and sober when it comes to its recommendations for security implementation.

In order to stem the capabilities of “hackers, espionage, and criminal elements” (58), the CSIS report proposes greater federal coordination under a new National Office for Cyberspace, increased information sharing with private sector IT companies, and new regulations and minimum cyber-security standards.

The possibility of increased web regulation, however, is like to meet stiff resistance on two important fronts: private business reeling from recession and civil libertarians concerned about privacy. Thankfully, the report acknowledges these facts and attempts to address them upfront.

As the report writers suggest, greater (and costlier) internet safety regulations are needed because comprehensive cyber-security is not a public good market forces have an incentive to provide. In theory, at least, these new regulations would function like mandatory sprinkler systems in a building code; though more expensive for the private sector in the short term, they save private business a considerable amount in the event of an attack. I concede that they are probably right on this point, though the specter of tangled bureaucratic regulation of a field as dynamic and innovative as information technology worries me.

The report’s proposal for beefing up internet security is what will seem unsavory to civil libertarians: much stronger digital identification of individual users (chapter 5). If the government were to require more substantial digital identification for network access, attacks could be either prevented beforehand or more adequately traced afterward. Robust digital identification would also be required in critical public sectors such as energy and finance, where a catastrophic attack would cripple national security and economic performance.

The question is whether this digital license threatens the powerful, even intoxicating, freedom which web anonymity provides to millions of users. Will the government maintain this data, and for how long? What is to prevent law enforcement, intelligence agencies or private business from abusing these records for political or private reasons (cf. the theft of Obama’s phone records by Verizon employees and the passport records of Obama, McCain and Hilary Clinton by State Department employees)? Will this simply be the next frontier after library records were made accessible to the government by the Patriot Act?

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Hoder Arrest Confirmed by Globe and Mail

According to this article in the Globe and Mail, the well-known Iranian blogger Hossein (Hoder) Derekshan (who has dual Canadian citizenship) has indeed been arrested, but it is not clear if he is being “detained.” Details are still murky on the reasons for his arrest, but his family confirms that he has been arrested.

Obama’s Classic and Jazz

The best tools in the world do not build a house–skilled carpenters do. (Paraphrasing Marshall Ganz)

Social organizer extraordinaire Marshall Ganz from the Kennedy School and Jeremy Bird of Obama for America are talking today about the Obama campaigns technological organizing as the kick off session of Berkman’s 2008 Internet & Politics event. Love that Marshall started out with a quote by Tocqueville and the process of combination of ideas as a transformative experience as opposed to just aggregation of disparate ideas. Marshall says three things are needed in successful social movements:


Community building to create collective agency, and;


The Obama campaign made a great investment in terms of building social capital through the grass roots compared to previous campaigns. Shared values are critical to social movements–because they are the source of motivation. Creating peer commitments to one another moves social movements beyond just aggregation. Structure behind the movement in Obama campaign was critical. Thousands of trained leaders who then trained others and created structures that led to success. Do not have to have bad group experiences (which we’ve all had, likely in grad school) by properly training leaders.

Adaptation is the most creative and purposeful part of campaigns: Elect Obama President. The structure of the org allowed that to happen.

Shared action also important. Mobilization and deployment of individual resources required for change and success. In a campaign outcomes are clear and explicit–get obama elected, contact voters, get them to the voting booth. To what extent, how, and in what way can this new technology help improve governance now is the unanswered question.

Jeremy was a graduate of the divinity school about six years ago and this is his first time back at Harvard. He loves John Palfrey’s classical and jazz thesis to explain use of technology in campaigns and riffed off it several times (pun intended). Jeremy argues that the Net is the organization, but not necessarily the engine. He talked about three states that showed the interdependence of technology and classic campaign skills can be combined. South Carolina: Not the most tech savvy in the nation. Jeremy thinks back to April 11, 2007, two days before the primary, the campaign decided to ask ticket holders to give the campaign their cell phones so that they could text. This was under-reported according to Jeremy at the time but now a big story including the announcement of VP, but more importantly having those numbers allowed the campaign to text supporters to motivate them and get them involved.

Fast forward to Maryland 14 days before the election where a lot of people had organized themselves through tech tools built in Chicago. 1200 people in montgomery county alone signed up in 24 hours through to volunteer for get out the vote (GOTV) efforts. The Net meant that GOTV effort allowed Obama campaign to contact each targeted voter three times before the election. Organizers had tools that created an accountable community that allowed classic campaign techniques and jazz of the Internet to come together.

Jeremy also talked about Ohio, where I grew up, and follow closely politically. The campaign started to shoot all kinds of video in Ohio because it told the story of the campaign and what they were doing–but always connected it to a follow up action that was required for the campaign. Sounds to me like a motivational tool, which may have been Obama’s greatest strength as a candidate and leader.

The website was also critical to voter registration–700,000 individuals downloaded the registration forms and organizers used it to contact those voters. It actually became a great base of people to recruit volunteers from because they were largely young people registering to vote for the first time and they were motivated to help Obama win.

Jeremy also noted that the online tools designed with field people and organizers by getting sitting down together.

Remaining questions are:
How do you develop leaders in the online space? The person to volunteer to lead a group is often the worst person to lead. So need to figure out how to do this training and leader identification remotely and online. Marshall is planning to teach his popular organizing class at the Kennedy School online.

Biggest remaining question is how to use the Internet and this social movement to help govern–something we’ll hopefully start to figure out together over the next couple days.

Drawing the Map: Egypt’s Ban of GPS

This brief Times piece is worth a look. Egypt demanded for national security reasons that GPS capability be disabled in Egyptian iPhones and Apple very quietly complied. At first glance, this may seem a trivial detail to complain about, and even in an often volatile Egypt, a reasonable kind of security restriction. (Anti-American insurgents in Iraq have become very sophisticated in adapting disposable phones to evade eavesdropping and to detonate homemade sticky bombs.) The article did raise, however, this very interesting point:

It is enough to make one ask if new technologies — the personal computer, the World Wide Web, the all-powerful smartphone — will help set us free or merely give us that illusion.

One of the leading questions driving the Berkman study of the Saffron Revolution in Burma was why, if the internet and mobile phone technology had helped thousands to organize, to protest and to publicize the internal nightmare of Burma’s authoritarian military regime, had substantial democratic freedom or even some level of reform not resulted?

There seems to be a gap between the democratic potential for technology and its actual effect on the ground. Though the internet was more difficult to contain than old mass media models (which could be “licensed” and gagged), Burma quickly discovered ways to monitor and clamp down on internet activity of any kind.

Much more subtle has been the attempt of countries like Turkey and Thailand (in collaboration with YouTube) to close off information worlds involving sensitive political topics by implementing geolocational filtering into search queries.

In this context, Egypt’s ban of GPS (though admittedly less driven by taboo content or free speech restrictions) is simply another step down the road to a re-bordered technological future, where the liberating potential of devices like the iPhone is hamstrung in the name of broadly worded memes like “national security,” “lèse majesté” or “insulting Turkishness.”

“Conversation, not Dictation”: Public Diplomacy 2.0

As Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, James Glassman has vamped up efforts to debate with jihadists on the internet. In fact, Glassman has completely retooled the federal government’s virtual presence, hoping to harness the power of web 2.0 interactive technology to fight a “war of ideas, ” a sort of public diplomacy 2.0.

During a recent appearance at the New America Foundation (an mp3 of his talk can be found here), Glassman made this particularly striking comment about the internet:

This new virtual world is democratic. It is an agora. It is not a place for a death cult that counts on keeping its ideology sealed off from criticism. The new world is a marketplace of ideas and it is no coincidence that Al Qaeda blows up marketplaces.

Glassman has been pushing for open debates between State Dept. representatives and members of foreign publics on Facebook and Iranian blogs. He helped to organize a conference of international bloggers, not all of whom were vetted for pro-Western views. He helped to fund (but not to direct or control) a series on Morrocan television about American Islam and religious tolerance and to sponsor a legal debate about Guantanamo at a Kuwaiti university.

Of course, it is easy to see in all of this simply the newest twist in a global propaganda battle, one smacking moreover of Cold War influence jockeying. Yet Glassman, a conservative libertarian naturally uneasy with excessive state power and control, takes, I think, a more nuanced position. He seems to believe that instead of lecturing the world about “American values” from our city on a hill, public diplomacy efforts should be aimed at the facilitation of their practice and I think he’s right. An actually open debate about democratic values (not simply PR to “sell” American policy) will expose extremism for the shallow dogmatism and violence it actually represents.

Instead of defensively exclaiming the superiority of Western civilization (so often the timbe of existential “the West vs. Islam” discussions), the State Department should encourage debate and dissent, dialogue and peaceful protest, or, as Glassman put it, “conversation, not dictation.” It should make space for moderate forces to stand on their own (away from Washington’s deadly imprimatur) and it should take seriously the grudge, borne by much of the world, that America arrogantly dismisses its input.

In diplomatic speak, Glassman is trying to rebuild “soft power,” the good old battle for “hearts and minds” (though see Marc Lynch’s thoughts on Glassman and on the “war of ideas” in general). Glass believes the election of Barack Obama could itself be a catalyst for selling democracy and restoring America’s tarnished international reputation.

But he further, and rightly I think, believes that the internet, a naturally democratic communication platform, is where such a battle of ideas will ultimately take place. Social networking sites decentralize officially sponsored messages, be they from Al-Qaeda or the State Department, opening them up to the rigor of debate and democratic discourse. Instead of being feared, social networking sites should be encouraged. Let go a bit of the officially controlled message, of the narrow and current foreign policy agenda of the United States, and I think America can show itself through the more complex prism of its strengths, ideals and imperfections. Glassman believes that that is how the fight is won.

How Google Decides

Check out this interesting article in New York Times Magazine on the legal team Google currently employs to make decisions about controversial content. Nicole Wong, Google’s deputy general counsel, leads the group and daily must walk the thin line between protecting free expression and mollifying the world’s easily offended governments.

YouTube in particular has proved treacherous legal ground in Turkey and Thailand, where statutes make it illegal to speak out about certain taboo topics (respectively: Ataturk and Thailand’s aging constitutional monarch). Part of Google’s controversial response has been to program geolocational filters into YouTube’s search function.

Nicole Wong runs the other half of the operation. Her team of humans attempt to analyze videos flagged as “inappropriate” by users and angry governments. They must then make decisions which balance local laws and YouTube’s terms of service agreement with a purported commitment to free speech.

The most interesting part of the article speculates on how long, in a rapidly proliferating landscape of user content, Google can practically keep up this kind of case by case kind of judgment. The approach is itself already flawed. Only the most clamorous and sensitive material crosses Wong’s desk. That means that hundreds of content decisions are given much less legal attention and care, but are just as final and unquestionable.

The alternative I suppose is the nastiness of auto-filters and national firewalls, but my faith in a benevolent Google dictator, both capable and just in its patrol of the net, is not overwhelming. Nor am I completely convinced as yet that agree to censor a small number of videos (let us say, for example, the offensive “Ataturk is gay” clips) is a moral compromise small enough to swallow, even for the sake of partial YouTube access.

I was thinking about a possible analogy with the former East Germany. Should the West have capitulated in shielding East Germans from images or reports of its quality of life and political freedom? Google is a company, not Radio Free Europe, but complicity, however careful, with any government’s attempt to create a closed information world is troubling, at best.

If there is some hope, it rests with something like the Berkman-backed GNI (Global Network Initiative), which created an international, multi-company framework for guidelines and legal accountability when it comes to free expression online. Google is participating in this agreement; but it is not alone, co-signing with giants like Yahoo! and Microsoft and prominent human rights groups (minus Amnesty International which has criticized the initiative).

This will hopefully distribute the burden of responsibility away from companies with potentially compromising internal profit motives (even gentle giants like Google) to a cross-market competition for high compliance ratings (and the potential of “socially responsible” investment capital to follow). In that picture, companies will have an incentive to stick to their guns when it comes to free expression and allies when parliaments and bureacrats come calling for the internet’s silence.

More Online Journalists Jailed Last Year Than Traditional Reporters

Source: Committee to Protect Journalists

For the first time in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ prison census, more online journalists than traditional journalists are now in jail. From the press release:

Reflecting the rising influence of online reporting and commentary, more Internet journalists are jailed worldwide today than journalists working in any other medium…45 percent of all media workers jailed worldwide are bloggers, Web-based reporters, or online editors. Online journalists represent the largest professional category for the first time in CPJ’s prison census.

As our case study series and the CPJ report have shown, bloggers and online journalists have increasingly drawn the attention of governments that limit free speech, and they rarely have the type of protection a large, traditional newspaper can provide. As the CPJ’s Joel Simon notes:

The image of the solitary blogger working at home in pajamas may be appealing, but when the knock comes on the door they are alone and vulnerable. All of us must stand up for their rights–from Internet companies to journalists and press freedom groups. The future of journalism is online and we are now in a battle with the enemies of press freedom who are using imprisonment to define the limits of public discourse.

Diplomacy and the Iranian Blogosphere

Yesterday, the Boston Globe ran a piece on US-Iran relations. With all the news cycle obsession over a possible military conflict, this may seem like nothing new. The unique twist, however, is that instead of focusing on outspoken president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the article follows the considerably more complex relationship between bloggers, both Iranian and American, in dialogue with each other.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s diplomatic relationship with the United States has been tense, to say the least. Publicly at least both governments have exhibited mutual distrust, if not downright hostility. Average people writing blogs in Iran, however, seem to think that if not rapprochement, at least some form of dialogue with the West could be healthy.

The Berkman Center has been interested in the Iranian blogosphere ever since we published a full-length quantitative report on it. One of our key findings was that, although Iran harasses and jails bloggers, the Iranian blogosphere itself is wide-ranging, tolerant of a surprising amount of dissent, and spread across numerous ideological persuasions. Contrary to popular perceptions about Iran and the internet, it is not just young democracy dissidents writing blogs; instead, there are distinct sectors of reformists (both expat and native), conservatives, Shi’a religious blogs and Persian poetry enthusiasts.

The upshot of this diversity is that it is, to a degree, democratic in character. It resembles (even with the inconsistent interference of authoritarianism) the vital social organism which generally makes up public communication in a democracy. Though speculative, the question of whether the nature of blogging is responsible for this is still worth asking.

When, as for blogs, there are low barriers (economic or ideological) to expression, a continuum of democratic discourse seems to have less difficulty cropping up. The wider and more ample these networks of individuals become, the less plausible it is that the government can contain or adequately filter them (unlike the old mass media model). In a sense, blogs distribute influence and, potentially, power.

The Globe piece highlights a particularly interesting development in all this. Despite the best efforts of Iranian censorship and a hostile American embargo, bloggers and internet users from both sides are communicating, exchanging information and ideas.

“People are relating to the Americans on the computer,” he [Farhad Ghorbani, a 24-year-old journalist] said. “We can chat. Regardless of the political views and what the politicians do, we want to have this kind of cultural relationship with the United States.”

As if in response, both governments have begun to copycat these techniques of more open exchange. Ahmadinejad writes a blog in which he periodically addresses Americans, and even the State Department has started organizing informal debates with Iranian officials on blogs.

Perhaps if this trend continues, the political divide between Iran and America can be broached by the internet instead of diplomats, by ideas instead of drums of war.

Chinese Bloggers Find Cracks in “Great Firewall”

Rebecca MacKinnon just posted an interesting excerpt of academic research on Chinese censorship. She focused her work on domestic blogging services in China and how politically sensitive material is censored within or without the “Great Firewall.” Since some blogging services are foreign companies operating domestically in China (MySpace, Yahoo! China), she broaches the now familiar quandary of corporate complicity in Chinese state censorship.

Google (and YouTube’s geolocational filtering) have been much discussed. Perhaps less visible was the story that came out a month ago about even Skype conversations are now being monitored (thanks to Toronto-based Citizen Lab) by an automatic filtering system hunting for keywords and targeted users. One wonders if there will ever be a moment when the sprawling expanse of internet expression will become too large and unwieldy for Chinese authorities to keep a costly censorship regime.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government has already found ways of increasing the efficiency of the operation. In addition to automatic filters and regional censors, China has practically outsourced the work to private companies by requiring licenses (and their implicit conditions) to operate.

What is interesting about MacKinnon’s work (which we earlier covered here) is how uneven and inconsistent blog censorship in China turns out to be:

All Chinese blog-hosting companies are required by government regulators to censor their users’ content in order to keep their business licenses. But as Liu [Liu Xiaoyuan, a prominent Chinese blogger] discovered, they all make different choices not only about how to implement censorship requirements, but also how to treat the users who get censored.

If you don’t get shut down on one site, you’re likely to slip through on another…