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Internet Boasts 1 Billion Users Globally

An influential Thai newspaper, The Nation, ran this unique op-ed, reflecting on the fact that there are now at least 1billion internet users globally. Many of its more hopeful conclusions echo the thoughts I have been writing about in this blog for several months. The hope, for instance, that the Internet will increase democratic participation and that a medium so vast and decentralized must be a naturally democratic tool of free expression and assembly.

Importantly, however, the op-ed is quick to qualify by also stating some of the new problems which global internet usage represents: sexual exploitation, illegal downloads and the slow decline of traditional journalism. (Unfortunately, the article remains conspicuously silent about Thai internet censorship.)

I was thinking about these things this afternoon, particularly the much talked-about demise of journalism. And I began to think that perhaps the more connected we are — the more we produce and consume our own information — the less objective or restrained our national and international debate may ultimately become.

Whether it’s the Internet “echo chambers” (a phrase coined by, I believe, Cass Sunstein) of the partisan American blogosphere or the Israeli and Hamas factions which collided in cyberspace as well as on the ground, the Internet hold at least as much potential to produce the kind of brash and overamplified YouTube message box discourse as substantive discussion and reflection.

This felt quite disappointing, of course, and I might have given in to cynicism when I stumbled on this quotation:

But such things are the cost of this new form of democracy, a “truer” democracy in many people’s view. Opportunities provided by the Internet must simply be taken by all. New knowledge is being grabbed, exchanged, shared and spawning new knowledge. Ideologies are being tested, challenged and questioned, not by those who used to have the power to say “this is right” or “that is wrong”, but by common people searching for their own truths.

I think it sums up in just the right way how the Internet’s pitfalls (and they are real) may matter less in the end than the combinatorial testing of ideologies and beliefs which its cacophanous medium creates. There is and will be a lot of fruitless, narrow and ugly discussion online, but it will also be laid bare to a civil society whose boundaries now eclipse most national borders. Taboos will fall, but so will prejudice. In an open discussion, there is room for revision.

Less Talk, More Action

So far the Obama administration has been quiet about its approach to democracy promotion, and that may be intentional according to democracy expert and Obama advisor Michael McFaul. After Bush’s use of the ‘freedom agenda’ as retroactive justification for the the war in Iraq, it might indeed be wise for the new administration to talk less, but to do more. As McFaul told Helene Cooper at the Caucus Blog,

Rather than speeches or even grand goals, the next administration should seek to achieve small, concrete outcomes that advance political freedoms in very tangible ways and do so, without talking about doing so.

McFaul cites Egyptian opposition member Ayman Nour as an example where rhetoric previously beat out action. McFaul wrote in a paper last year that, “President Bush delivered several lofty speeches explaining why the United States should promote freedom, yet Ayman Nour sits in jail in Egypt.” (Bush’s used ‘free,’ ‘freedom,’ or ‘liberty’ 49 times in his second inaugural address). He also said in a paper with Francis Fukuyama that, “democracy promotion should be placed in a broader context of promoting economic development, reducing poverty, and furthering good governance.”

Unfortunately, George Bush may have done as much damage to the idea of promoting free speech and democratic governance around the world as he did to the Republican ‘brand.’ When WMD never turned up in Iraq, democracy promotion and the freedom agenda suddenly became the central justification for the invasion of Iraq. Francis Fukuyama argues that the previous administration also often looked insincere after the Abu Ghraib scandal, and when it pushed for elections in the Middle East but then refused to engage Hamas after they beat out what many saw as a corrupt Fatah organization in Palestinian elections. As Francis Fukuyama told the Times, ”

“The problem with Bush’s legacy is they tied democracy promotion so much to the Iraq war justification and the war on terrorism that it made American policy look hypocritical,” Mr. Fukuyama said. “If you use the language that Bush used in the second inaugural, all of that soaring rhetoric, it’s going to make you look stupid when Hamas comes to power.”

The key point that needs to be reinforced, however, is that the way one promotes democracy globally is even more important than what you say about it. As Karin von Hippel first noted in the Balkans, promoting democracy at gunpoint will never work. Instead, diplomatic engagement, the frank and open exchange of ideas, and open access to information may be just the right touch that is needed today. Going on Al Arabiya for the President’s first official interview seems like it might be a small but symbolic step in the right direction.

Posted in Ideas. 1 Comment »

The New York Times… Endowment

Amid the flurry of NYT doomsday sayers (for one recent sample, see Michael Hirschorn’s piece in The Atlantic), at least one interesting idea has emerged from the gloom. Yesterday, the Times ran an op-ed suggesting that major American newspapers build endowments similar to that of the multi-million (billion?) dollar funds which America’s universities use to operate. Essentially, The New York Times would be re-fashioned as a huge non-profit.

The notion has some merit. First, imagine a Times not in dire need of shuttering foreign bureaus and offering buy-outs to its veteran reporters; indeed, perhaps investigative coverage could be increased with a combination of classic advertising/distribution revenue and money from a well-guarded endowment treasure chest. Then, imagine a newspaper not beholden to shareholders et al. to sensationalize (sell, sell, sell) the news it does run, whether in print or digital form. Finally, the essential function of a free press — that of protecting constitutional democracy (on this, see the New Yorker‘s reaction) and ferreting out fraud — will persevere, despite dwindling margins in advertising.

All this sound rosy, and it makes one wonder why it hasn’t been tried before. Are there any obvious drawbacks to transforming newspapers into foundations which produce news. I can think of one. If the Times became a non-profit, new rules would govern its tax exempt status, and that includes rules about political behavior. As the authors of the op-ed point out:

One constraint on an endowed institution is the prohibition… against trying to “influence legislation” or “participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”

Would this prohibition end up functioning as a gag rule or an unintended ruler for fair and objective reporting? I’m not sure, though I worry a bit about the ability of, say, hotshot district attorneys to threaten a newspaper by challending its 501(c)(3) status. Then again, just as universities use tenure to insulate and protect the academic freedom of professors, perhaps newspapers could build legal safehavens for reporters which do strong investigative work, especially as it relates to government coverage.

So, any of you millionaires (billionaires?) out there going to make a move? The Times, and possibly our republic too, is depending on you.

Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Regulating Online Indecency

With a quiet decision last week to refuse to hear appeals on banning the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), the Supreme Court has effectively brought an end to ten years of litigation on the extent to which the government can constitutionally regulate material online.

Created in 1998, the COPA made it illegal to display pornographic material on a website without some kind of access code or system for verifying age. What’s notable about the COPA regulation, however, was how the Act defined “material harmful to minors” far beyond the scope of the usual standards for obscenity.

The ACLU and other supporters arguing that the Act violated the First Amendment are framing this as a win for freedom of speech online. As Chris Hansen, lead attorney at the ACLU on the case, recently reported to the AP:

“For over a decade the government has been trying to thwart freedom of speech on the Internet, and for years the courts have been finding the attempts unconstitutional,” said Chris Hansen, the ACLU’s lead attorney on the case. “It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and do on the Internet. Those are personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families.”

With COPA demolished and with the latest Berkman study suggesting that threats from child predators online may be overblown, the case for strong centralized regulation of content and accessibility online to protect minors seems largely stalled.

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Aid Critic Easterly Joins Blogosphere

Look out ICT4Ders, NYU economist and prominent aid critic William Easterly has started a blog, Aid Watch, whose objective is to “be brutally honest when aid is not helping the poor, but also praising it when it is.” His first post takes a shot at recent Op-Eds by World Bank president Robert Zoellick calling for donors to pony up more money for the Bank without necessarily calling for more accountability or commitments on how it will be spent. A TARP for IFIs, perhaps. I tend to think that Easterly’s criticisms on accountability are a bit overblown (at least outside of the Bank) since bilateral donors and NGOs I’ve worked with tend to spend an inordinate amount of time proving they are ‘responsible, well coordinated and achieving results,’ instead of actually implementing programs and connecting with their local counterparts. That said, he made some good points (and a lot of waves) with his book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, where he criticizes high minded “planners” in foreign aid and praises the “searchers” who find local solutions to local problems. He clearly welcomes and responds to comments and constructive criticism on the blog, so should be a great place to go for debate on foreign aid, which the Obama administration has pledged to increase, along with the Gates Foundation, which announced that it will also increase giving, even as its endowment shrinks.

Posted in Africa, blogging. Comments Off on Aid Critic Easterly Joins Blogosphere

Egypt and the Facebook Revolution

For most of us, Facebook has become a pleasurable if banal ritual: checking wall posts and new pictures, poking an old friend. But in Egypt — where so much speech via traditional media, particularly political speech, is highly regulated and restricted — Facebook is rapidly becoming the mouthpiece of dissent. As Samantha Shapiro explains in this excellent New York Times Magazine piece, groups which oppose the de facto one party rule of Hosni Mubarak are mobilizing protests and debates through social networking technology like Facebook because it is more difficult to control and the audience is instant and diffuse. (Israel’s offensive in Gaza, and Egypt’s quiet response, has generated tremendous resistance, often manifested in Facebook-organized protests.)

Also, as Berkman’s Ethan Zuckerman speculates, Facebook is difficult to ban because it is also a popular source for non-political networking, and so a total site takedown negatively effects the millions of users who until the moment of censorship remainded largely apathetic. This is the so called “cute-cat theory of digital activism,” whereby average users, normally interested in uploading cute cat pictures, suddenly develops a political greivance against the censorsing authority. Egypt it seems contemplated banning the site; the fact they have not yet is remarkable.

The fact that Facebook speech is somewhat freer in Egypt has brought its political currents and opposition parties into greater profile. Of course, the banned Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, figures large in this picture, but the great surprise of the Facebook revolution is how many liberal (the April 6 Movement) or left-leaning parties (like the coalition Kefaya party), however marginal, are joining the debate. This broadening of Egypt’s ideological horizons may be the result of Facebook; or perhaps it’s the other way around, with Facebook being the medium by which the interests and greivances of diverse polities come to the surface. Or, indeed, as Shaprio puts it:

The new technologies and political movements grew symbiotically.

That social networking technology like Facebook tends to produce and simulate an open forum of ideas — or has the potential to do so in spite of the police state’s threats — ought to be taken as a positive sign for emerging democracies where civil society is otherwise lacking. (James Glassman, the State Department’s outgoing undersecretary of public diplomacy has been watching these developments for precisely this reason; for more on Glassman, see my profile here.) Egypt, long stalled between corrupt secularism and Islamic fundamentalism, may find its political situation radically altered by the rise of Facebook literate citizens, ready to blog, question and organize for their causes.

Posted in blogging, Current Events, Free Speech, I&D Project, Ideas, Middle East. Comments Off on Egypt and the Facebook Revolution

President To Keep Crackberry

Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

While journalists have been pestering President Obama about his smoking habit, turns out the one addiction he won’t have to kick is the one to his blackberry. Apparently he just wouldn’t take no for an an answer on this one, and his staff have devised a way for a small circle of senior staff, family and friends to get his email address–but only after they get a briefing from the White House lawyers. The Times speculates that this will set off a new round of competition for who gets access to this part of the President. Unfortunately, this very limited circle is not what Obama hoped for. As he put it in a recent interview, he hoped keeping his blackberry would be a way for him to reach outside of his small circle of advisers and be able to hear dissenting opinions. A worthy goal, but the lawyers seem to have quashed it for now.

Chinese Censor Obama Speech (Part II)

Here’s the clip of the awkward censoring of Obama’s inaugural by China’s state-run CCTV, which we also blogged about yesterday. The Times also has a piece on this today.

Hat Tip: Joshua Keating

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Posted in China. Comments Off on Chinese Censor Obama Speech (Part II)

Israel to Fund “Army of Bloggers”

A friend passed on this Haaretz article about how Israel, like Iran, is now recruiting an army of bloggers. Interestingly, however, the Iranian effort seems aimed at influencing opinion internal to the vibrant Iranian blogosphere, while the Israeli project utilizes Israeli citizens with non-Hebrew language skills to debate foreign blogs deemed to be anti-Zionist.

Although I think the trend of governments hiring people to astro-turf is in some ways disturbing, this kind of public affairs spin, or propaganda, is perhaps better debated in a democratic and cacophonous community of bloggers. The message can be analyzed, accepted or rejected as a contributor in a war of ideas. Its excesses can be corrected and its omissions highlighted. May be that is not such a bad thing.

China Censors Obama Speech

According to the BBC, Chinese censors took their little red pens to sections of President Obama’s inaugural address that mentioned defeating communism and silencing dissent. While English language versions of the speech were not filtered on the Internet, Chinese translations struck the following key passages:

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history,” which was cut in its entirety, while the following sentence had the work communism struck, “Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.”

As we have discussed here before, China has one of the most pervasive Internet filtering regimes in the world, which, according to Rebecca MacKinnon, follows the government’s playbook for censorship of traditional media. Chinese leaders are also apprehensive about the new administration’s policy towards China, which may break with Bush’s generally friendly approach.

Posted in China. 1 Comment »