You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

AlJazeera’s Twitter Feed in Gaza, Part I

AlJazeera, the popular Qatari news network, has always inspired strong reactions. Some accuse it of acting as a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment; others praise it as the only editorially independent news source in the Middle East. Whatever you think, AlJazeera has scooped the Gaza crisis from the inside using innovative social media like YouTube and Twitter.

After the mainstream media picked up and amplified pictures of the destructive invasion of Lebanon in 2006, Israeli military planners have been particularly careful to shutter the press from the current Gaza war zone. Most of the foreign journalists covering the story are marooned at the Israeli enforced security cordon with binoculars. Wading through Israel’s Public Affairs version of the war, Hamas’ periodic statements of defiance and sporadic reports from international aid agencies has complicated accurate reporting.

AlJazeera, however, already had six reporters in Gaza when the conflict began. Now, those reporters are providing some of the only on-the-ground footage, images and details of the conflict available. The information is passing from reporters to Doha, and from there across a broad range of social media. By correlating GPS coordinates with their reports, AlJazeera has even constructed a map of the war zone with statistics and interactive features.

Getting news out of Gaza is hard enough when much major infrastructure in the poorly wired region has been destroyed by the Israeli military. Using cellphones and mobile upload technology, however, AlJazeera has been able to tweet updates to a feed which already has more than 5,000 official followers. In turn, those subscribers are passing on the stories in a sort of frenzied multiplier effect.

Israel, too, has seen the potential in a micro-blogging “battle for hearts and minds.” It is now running its own government Twitter feed, even staging a Twitter conference, complete with a Q&A.

Since the beginning of this war, I have wondered whether the same twitter/citizen journalism used for information sharing during the recent Mumbai attacks would translate to the technologically depressed Gaza Strip. In highly tech literate Mumbai, average citizens caught in the cross fire could contribute instantly to collective information sharing.

By contrast, Gaza, more heavily bombarded and less internet friendly, still needs some sort of central network to disseminate news stories, but uniquely (and perhaps specifically because of the constraints which the war has placed on traditional reporting) a major network like AlJazeera is finding itself more and more using the tools of citizen journalists. This will have, I think, a definite effect on the way a war is reported, on which euphemisms are thrown around and on what civilian casualties really mean.

(To be continued…)

Ushahidi and Click Diagnostics Finalists for Innovation Award

Congratulations to our friends at Ushahidi and Click Diagnostics who filled two of the top three finalists spots (out of 115 nominated projects) in USAID’s Development 2.0 Challenge. The Click Diagnostics CEO is Mridul Chowdhury who graduated from the Kennedy School, is a longtime friend of the Berkman Center, and also wrote the Internet and Democracy case study on Burma. Besides being a documentary film maker and a super nice guy, he’s also co-Founder of Click Diagnostics, which uses technology to improve rural health care delivery in the developing world. And we’ve already sung the praises of Ushahidi, whose story is detailed in our other recent case on Kenya’s post election violence. I see that Ushahidi is now also being used by Al Jazeera to map violence in Gaza. Several Berkman friends helped create Ushahidi including Ory Okolloh and Erik Hersman. You can see Erik and several other important Kenyan bloggers in this short film made after our digital activism event last year–along with a number of other leading digital activists. Neither walked away with the top prize in this one, but congratulations again to the Ushahidi community and the whole team at Click Diagnostics for snagging the runners up prizes!

Posted in Africa, blogging, Developing world, Tech Tools. Comments Off on Ushahidi and Click Diagnostics Finalists for Innovation Award

Censorship Hurts Free Trade?

I thought this Huffington op-ed pretty uniquely turns the tables on the “evil American corporations are complying with foreign autocrats” meme. The argument is that censorship ends up being a trade barrier, by cramping IT products from functioning fully. Google in China is a tainted product. Instead of punishing U.S. companies who, for legal reasons, comply with the demands of censorship regimes, the whole issue could be recast as an unfair trade barrier, and therefore addressable by a body like the WTO.

This would effectively turn the levers of international finance against censorship, and may provide the kind of incentive needed for a county like China to consider opening up a bit. I’m not totally convinced it would work. The Chinese Communist Party seems, despite cost and bad PR , pretty hellbent on controlling information. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to hear the unusual perspective of Big Business on the question.

Posted in China, Developing world, I&D Project. Comments Off on Censorship Hurts Free Trade?

Barack Obama and the Future of Broadband

Timothy Karr, a prominent net neutrality warrior-cum-blogger, has written a great piece for Huffington on what place broadband infrastructure spending should have in the current economic stimulus debate. Karr, I think rightly, sees investment in the information superhighway as analogous to real highway spending. Although the outlay to the government (and thus taxpayers) in the short-term is high, the increase in productivity, interconnectivity and new business models is worth the cost.

Corollary to this economic stimulus is the potential for greater information sharing, discussions and debates over the web. In short: the substance of civil society. The closer knit our fiber optics are, the argument goes, the more cacophonous, multi-perspectived and democratic our political discourse will become. While simply having access to information does not make an enlightened, reflective citizenry (witness the viral “Barack Obama is Muslim” conspiracy), I think, at the very least, connecting the last remaining segment of the American population without internet (mostly the urban poor and very rural areas) will bring new voices, concerns and constituencies into the national debate.

What makes this kind of internet investment such a pressing need is the United States’ now abysmal ranking (15th in the world) for broadband access. Due to sluggish competition and the sheer cost of large networks, the American market has been slipping in quality (speed and access) and rising in cost.

This outcome is equal parts low competition and market failure; with more concentrated resources, however, the government has the capacity to bridge the problem, just as universal road networks require public investment. As such, Obama should step up incentives for comprehensive build-out in broadband’s reach, while respecting that when it comes to actually delivering the internet, private companies will be more efficient.

Karr mentions this policy paper on Obama and internet stimulus spending by the advocacy group One of the most interesting details in this paper has to do with a joint public/private program currently underway in Switzerland, where fiber optics were being wired with capacity for multiple competitors (pg. 10). The Swiss government subsidizes building the necessary physical network, and then sells off the connections to competing private providors.

That strikes me like just the kind of smart public internet investment the Obama team should be thinking about. Moreover, the FreePress folks estimate (conservatively) that 38.2 billion dollars of stimulus for internet infrastructure could radically change things. While 38.2 billion is no pocket change, it doesn’t seem that much in the grand scheme of the near 800 billion in stimulus that Obama has proposed.

Obama has the potential (amid the flurry of references to FDR) to inflect his stimulus proposals not just with economic and employment relief, but also with the kind of transformative modernization which the Tennessee Valley Authority heralded by bringing electricity to Appalachia. Let us hear Obama’s New Deal for the internet.

Posted in Current Events, I&D Project, Ideas, Tech Tools. Comments Off on Barack Obama and the Future of Broadband

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Take on the Internet

From I&D Guest Blogger Hamid Tehrani, Global Voices Iran Editor

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) at the end of 2008 made a historic announcement: a project to launch 10,000 blogs for the paramilitary Basij forces. (1)

IRGC’s official press organ, Sobh Sadegh, writes that it considered the Internet and other digital devices including SMS as a threat to be controlled. It announced that the 10,000 blogs will promote revolutionary ideas. IRGC considers the Internet as an instrument for a “velvet revolution” and warned that foreign countries have invested in this tool to topple the Islamic Regime.

The use of social networking or blogging by military forces is not new. The U.S. Army has launched a video series that documents events in Iraq. (2) A series of blogs have also covered military activities in a number of countries, including Sri Lanka. (3)

What makes the IRGC project particularly interesting is its uniquely large scale, its timing and its possible consequences.

For years, different political groups, ranging from leftist students and women activists to ready-to-be-martyrs Hezbollah members, have been active in the blogosphere. Reformist politicians and hardliners such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discovered blogging years ago.

It seems that IRGC, an ideologically motivated military force with important business interests in the country, is acting like a supermarket that wants to establish its shops all over the city and shut down small groceries by any means necessary. But why now?

Uncontrolled bytes bite

Iranian authorities control all TV and radio programming in the country. Almost all newspapers that express an independent viewpoint have been banned. The only media tool available for Iranian citizens and the civil society movement is the Internet. And they use it as a tool to both inform and organize.

For example, last year information about corruption emerged on Iranian Web sites and blogs, which had an impact in real life. Such news challenged Ayatholas, informed people about student demonstrations and the repression of women by security agents, and forced some high-ranked officials to resign. The Islamic republic finally had to face non-controlled information and the reaction from the public.

In early summer 2008, a member of Iran’s Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, Abbas Palizdar, created a scandal by accusing several top clerics and influential members of the Islamic Republic of corruption in a speech at Booali University in Hamadan. (4) He offered details of many illegal business deals and criminal offences, and pointed the finger at several of Iran’s leading political figures, including influential Ayatollahs. Video footage of the speech spread through blogs and Internet media. Palizadar was arrested, and for the first time high-ranking clerics were named and shamed.

In another event in summer 2008, students at Zanjan University in northwest Iran recorded and uploaded a video of their school’s vice president, Hassan Madadi, with his shirt unbuttoned. He was allegedly preparing to have sex with a female student. Several Iranian websites and blogs say the female student had alerted her university’s Islamic Student Association that he had pressured her to have sex with him. (5)

These two examples only begin to show the growing impact of Iranian citizen media.

Iranian bloggers have used the Internet to talk about demonstrations against dictatorship and gender discrimination, or to support political prisoners.

According to officials, 5 million blogs and sites have been filtered. But it seems that filtering has not had the desired impact.

A good example of the inefficiency of filtering is the Campaign4equality case. This feminist site has been filtered 18 times. It seems that civil activists have not been discouraged by the filtering policy.

The Iranian government continues to put pressure on cyber activists but it is almost impossible to fight the ones who are anonymous.

Since filtering and repression does not stop the civil rights movement from growing, then it is IRGC’s turn to play the game.

IRGC is the military force that enforces Islamic Revolution principles, just like the Turkish army that protects secularism. IRGC realized that the Internet and the free flow of information is out of its control and can hurt the regime. Does IRCG have a solution? Is 10,000 is the magic number?

Mass production of toothless soldiers

The Basij (Persian for “mobilization”) is a large and omnipresent paramilitary organization with multifaceted roles, such as repressing urban unrest. It created human-wave attacks against Iraqi forces during the final years of the Iran-Iraq war. It seems that IRCG took the wrong virtual path through Tehran’s streets and battlefields in that war.

The presence of 10,000 Basiji blogs without interesting content and quality will fail to attract readers or promote any ideas. The Islamic Republic’s state-controlled media has been a failure for three decades. The Iranian regime in recent years launched several TV channels, but even poor-quality satellite dishes became a must-have for millions of Iranians to access banned foreign films, music clips or news.

The Islamic Republic easily banned certain journals and magazines, but it failed to attract readers to its conservative Keyhan and similar publications.

The Islamic Republic will likely end up with another failed scenario in the media world, this time in the blogsphere.

The Iranian State has supported a cleric-controlled organization, the Office for Religious Blogs Development, to promote religious bloggers in the last two years. Yet, this organization has come under fire from Islamists for its lack of revolutionary zeal.

Blogs are personal and accessible, with no intermediaries. They are where people express their ideas and opinions. In contrast, Basij blogs probably will be a mass production of obedient voices who will be careful about the content of their posts as Big Brother watches them.

According to Harvard University’s Berkman Center study, a very significant number of Islamist bloggers who support the Islamic Republic write anonymously.(6) The main reason is that red lines are not defined in the Islamic Republic. These same ill-defined red lines will restrain any free action and thought in mass-produced blogs. They are an invisible border that makes people shut up and be censored.

Basij forces have a reputation for loyalty to Islamic leaders — ready to repress and sacrifice. Such characteristics are not an asset in the Iranian blogosphere. Perhaps the IRGC should open a military base in Second Life and try to chase Iranian activists there, if it is able to find any.

A New Foreign Policy

…blog, that is. The already excellent foreign affairs blog Passport, by the editors at Foreign Policy magazine, has undergone a major expansion as part of an upgrade to their Web site. It’s well worth checking out. They are now calling the site an online magazine, and have adopted a number of star foreign policy bloggers to write for them. This includes our friend Laura Rozen who has a new blog on the site called The Cable–she’s already digging up scoops on potential candidates for top foreign policy slots in the Obama administration (looks like I’m not the only one waiting for the phone to ring). Long time blogger and Fletcher School professor Dan Drezner has moved his blog to the new site, as well as Harvard heavy weight Stephen Walt who today memorializes Samuel Huntington, and GW’s Marc Lynch (aka Abu Aardvark), among others. An impressive cast. I’ve also been reading Steve Coll’s new blog Think Tank at the New Yorker, which he seems to be growing into–initially he didn’t quite bring the personal touch to his blog, but getting better with dispatches on his recent travels to India and Pakistan. For those stuck in the print age, you can still find Foreign Policy on the news stands as well as online; including articles this month on the impact of the Internet on foreign affairs, one of which highlights the work of our friends over at Ushahidi, and quotes our recent case study on post-election violence in Kenya.

Posted in blogging. Comments Off on A New Foreign Policy

Vivek Kundra, Possible Obama Tech Czar

Check out this interesting Post piece about Vivek Kundra, the District of Columbia’s chief technology officer. His gangantuan task is accelerating the implementation of innovative technology, despite an often dilatory Washington bureaucracy. What makes Kundra so exciting, and what has caught the eye of the Obama folks as a tech policy advisor, is his desire to use technology to open and speed up local governance by utilizing the power of social networking and Web 2.0 technology.

Instead of contracting with expensive software developers, Kundra used a YouTube-based contest to crowdsource the software he needed. He also has plans to digitize the vast reams of the government data about crime rates and police response times, which are currently available, but poorly accessible. This has naturally rankled some bureaucrats, but I think there is some potential in his proposals, if not for more transparent, then atleast for more efficient local government.

Vivek has the mind of a private sector tech start-up balanced with his commitment to public service. I think that puts him quite clearly into the orbit of Obama’s vision of the internet and citizenship (see my piece from a few months ago for more), which emphasizes broad access, open information and creative tech solutions to democratic problems. Here’s hoping Obama might even tap Kundra tomorrow for the much hyped technology czar position.

Hoder’s Detention Confirmed

The detention of prominent Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakshan (aka Hoder) has been confirmed. Everyone has been concerned since reports of his arrest were confirmed by friends and family about a month ago. The question was how long and on what charges the Iranian authorities would be holding him.

In 2006, Hoder, who has dual citizenship with Canada, visited Israel. Possibly in connection with this trip and the recent high pressure diplomatic sparring between Iran and Israel, the Iranians now accuse the blogger of espionage. Matching the gravity of this political charge, an Iranian Revolutionary Court (designed to deal with issues of national security) will be taking on the case.

Hoder helped to ignite the Iranian blogosphere, now one of the world’s most vibrant and diverse (see Berkman’s research report on the topic).  His blog, an often insightful and incisive voice in Iranian politics, has not been updated since October when he was detained.