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

I&D Project Releases New Case Studies on Switzerland

Great news! The team over here at the Internet and Democracy project is happy to announce today the release of Three Case Studies From Switzerland, the newest installment in its ongoing set of case studies on the evolving interface between networked technologies and democracy. Headed up by Berkman Center Executive Director Urs Gasser and a team of collaborators at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, this three-part report reviews a variety of experiments happening on all parts of the democratic process. As the report outlines in our Executive Summary, the case study reviews projects affecting:

The pre-voting stage in the first case study of the automated Swiss candidate-voter matching system, Smartvote; The voting stage itself in our second study on the implementation of electronic voting (e-voting) in Switzerland; The post-voting phase in our third study on the use of blogs by elected candidates in the Swiss government.

It is important to note that this report marks a departure from our usual focus in the I&D case studies to date, where activity online was often assessed in conflict with the adversarial efforts of institutions to supress or resist. In contrast, these new studies examine an opposite scenario: a unique political environment in which institutions and networked technologies are actively working together in an effort to enhance democratic governance.

The report is accessible here.

We hope this piece will provoke lively discussion and broaden our understanding of the role technology can play among strong, established democracies. Enjoy! We’re looking forward to any comments or responses you might have.

Posted in Elections, I&D Project, Publications. Comments Off on I&D Project Releases New Case Studies on Switzerland

From China With Love…?

There’s nothing sexier than a spy. Unless, of course, that spy is a faceless web spook stealing documents from the Dalai Lama. Hope all of you have already read this fascinating Times piece about GhostNet, the shadowy malware espionage project uncovered by those smart folks at the Munk Centre, affilited with the University of Toronto. (Munk’s Citizen Lab also broke the story of China’s Skype monitoring, which I wrote about back in December.) GhostNet covertly spied on computers in over 103 countries, including a host of different computers affiliated with the Dalai Lama. Read the full report here.

Researchers traced the servers back to their physical locations, and as it turns out three of the four are in China. It’s hard to not to feel, especially given the focus of Tibetan computers, that this wasn’t an inside job by People’s Liberation Army cyber-warriors. James Fallows, however, has made a persuasive case for skepticism.

Fallow’s chief point is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish state from non-state actors on the web. GhostWeb might be in cahoots with the Chinese intelligence service, or it might be a band of patriotic hackers, or, God knows, the CIA. One does wonder though what patriotic Chinese hackers would do with sensitive Tibetan documents besides hand them over to Chinese authorities.

Regardless, the Web’s dense underbrush of anonymity empowers astro-turfers, spreaders of misinformation and, as we can now say with certainty, powerful hacker-spies (do they wear tuxedos and drink martinis too?) to prowl unnoticed. No fancy glass cutters or laser trippers needed. This includes dramatic digital cossacks, like the kids that nearly toppled Estonia’s government websites, and more pernicious and hidden efforts like Ghostnet.

For all the powerful and positive changes the Internet heralds (and we have been eager prophets on this blog), there are coequal dangers posed by our greater inter-connection and -dependence. Not to go Luddite on you all, but remote access is always a blessing and a curse.

Posted in China, Current Events, I&D Project, Ideas, Tech Tools. Comments Off on From China With Love…?

Missionary/Blogger Detained in Iran

The Committee to Protect Bloggers reports that an Iranian blogger and convert to Christianity has been detained by a police dragnet for writing about the Bible. Conversion from Islam to another religion has long been a taboo in Muslim countries, and in some (like Iran or Afghanistan) it still carries penalties like death or jail time for “apostasy.” For more background, read the Council on Foreign Relations’s primer on theocratic sharia law and conversion.

What is unique to this case is the blogging aspect. Of course, as global access to the Internet increases,  I think an inevitable conflict between conservative sharia courts and free expression will explode and multiply. The recent condemnation of an Afghan journalism student for even downloading articles which question Islam represents an extreme example of the phenomenon.

In more internet savvy Iran, there are over 60,000 Farsi language blogs. Potentially, that includes thousands of aberrant opinions, converts to other faiths, missionaries, satirists and dissidents — many of whom are currently self-censor out of fear.

The Iranian state’s battle against free religious speech may already be underway. As Al-Jazeera recently suggested, a proposed Iranian law making seditious blogging a capital offense would include, from the perspective of Sharia, conversion in its definition of “fasad.” Fasad is a category from Islamic legal interpretation which broadly encompasses what we might call sedition or “mischief against the State.”

Posted in blogging, Current Events, Free Speech, I&D Project, Iran. Comments Off on Missionary/Blogger Detained in Iran

The New Censorship Regime Frontier: Western Democracies

FP has a great piece on the increasing number of Westernized democracies joining the internet censorship game. I made some similar observations last week about Australia (available here). Internet censorship is a tricky business, and because anonymity by web users and censors is high, the potential for abuse is palpable.

Even if there are narrowly tailored and legitimate reasons to block content from the Internet (say child pornography), the framework under which actual censorship takes place ought to be very carefully designed.

To the degree I agree with any censorship regime, I like the compromise reached by Google and the German government. Google removes sites which do not comply with German laws (those banning Nazi propaganda, for example), but also makes you aware that they are doing so, with directions to (for other background on German censorship, see here and here.) My search for “Mein Kampf” on yields several results, but two, likely white supremacist merchandise stores, are blocked:

Aus Rechtsgründen hat Google 2 Ergebnis(se) von dieser Seite entfernt. Weitere Informationen über diese Rechtsgründe finden Sie unter

For legal reasons, Google has 2 Result(s) from this page. For more information on these reasons, see

This anyway is somewhat more upfront than other censorship regimes (China, Thailand, Turkey), which alter the information universe of their users. Tiennamen or the recent Tibet police beating video simply do not exist for Chinese users. Perhaps this is one explanation for the polls which suggest the Chinese are supportive of benign internet censorship. They have been excluded from the necessary and demystifying power of internet muckracking. Internet censorship, including troubling new developments in Western democracies, cuts muckrackers off at the source.

China “Harmonizes” YouTube

I was so preoccupied with work this week that I somehow missed that YOUTUBE IS NOW COMPLETELY DOWN IN CHINA. As yet, the take down has not been explained by any Chinese official, though as the WSJ put it:

The latest YouTube ban coincides with the March 20 release by the Tibetan Government-in-Exile of a video allegedly showing Chinese forces beating Tibetans during protests that occurred in March 2008.

From the perspective of authoritarian Chinese bureaucrats, perhaps it makes sense to grab this bull by the horns. The Tibet video would no doubt have gone viral like Tienanmen , and perhaps they’re still smoldering in humiliation over the alpaca meme. Best to “harmonize” all of YouTube instead. To the degree they’ve said anything, Chinese officials have denied there is a ban, also claiming that the video footage of Chinese police beating Tibetan protesters was fake.

I know China and the U.S. have a complex, if schizophrenic relationship, but if any other country had taken down YouTube to silence videos of police brutality (Burma, anyone?), wouldn’t the US be inclined to say something? How long can we sit on the fence, waiting for China to magically bloom into a regime which protects civil rights, if all we can come up with are muted expressions of concern. Good luck Chinese users and good luck to YouTube trying to compete against Chinese video sharing sites which eagerly self-censor and the strong arm of the Chinese censorship regime.

Posted in China, Current Events, Free Speech, I&D Project, Uncategorized. Comments Off on China “Harmonizes” YouTube

Obama Livechat

Obama giving live townhall-style meeting online right now. Check it out here. Users email questions to a live video feed of the President, who answers them. For the recent history of White House online forums and their relative worth and transparency, read this round up in the CS Monitor.

Wiki Worries

Pete Peterson, executive director of Common Sense California, thinks the Obama camp’s revolutionary effort to crowd-source policy (at is not all it’s cracked up to be. These problems, Peterson persuasively argues, stem from the nature of representative government. So far, although there has been much response to the site and at least one presidential briefing book, the results have been less than inspiring. Money quote:

The scope of the issues are often so broad and complex, asking the general public to send in question ideas is a bit like sending Paris Hilton in to ask questions of a brain surgeon during surgery: she might look the part in her scrubs and mask, she might even ask a couple interesting questions, but she’s not really helping the surgical team. She’s just…participating.

In fact, it turns out that the White House forum simply became the next turf for single issue interest groups like the marijuana legalization lobby. The more successful an individual group became in pushing its priorities to the top of the list, the most exposure they got for their cause, again increasing traffic.

Peterson, who is keenly interested in the possibilities of the internet for increasing civic participation, suggests a different direction for the project: either push wiki-policy efforts back to local government, where it is more plausible to have meaningful input, or vet opinion makers on forums. The idea, as I understood it, would not be to close off opposing positions, but to limit the public discussion to policy experts and other smart wonks. This, of course, is less democratic, but more in line with representative (small “r” republican) government and with coherent policy making. Peterson suggest that it might also reduce the interest group mongering, what Madison presciently termed “the mischiefs of faction” (Federalist 10).

Posted in Current Events, I&D Project, Ideas. Comments Off on Wiki Worries

How To Blog Anonymously

For readers and netizens living under an iron curtain of internet and political repression (fighting river crabs), anonymous blogging is an important free speech enabler. Like 18th century phampleteers (or even the writers of the Federalist papers), anonymous bloggers are empowered by their aliases to challenge taboos, censors and government power.

This updated guide (edited by Global Voices/Berkman guru Ethan Zuckerman) lays out the best practices of protecting your identity without silencing your voice, including the Tor anonymizer with WordPress and email tricks. The internet is the last bulwark against totalitarian control because of its fluid and democratic character. That is why anonymous blogging is so important. Difficult to trace or gag, it is the kind of speech most likely to impact an increasingly interconnected and web-dependent world.

Of course, be extremely careful. Use these tools at your discretion. Reporters Without Borders has a comprehensive list of jailed cyber-dissidents. This past week, an Iranian blogger died in prison custody, while the Iranian parliament considered passing a chilling law, turning seditious and anti-clerical blogging into a capital offense. And this in a country with millions of internet users and thousands of blogs…

Downloading Blasphemy

It’s hard to believe. Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, an Afghan journalism student, downloaded some articles critical of the treatment of women under sharia law. He then offered a few copies to other students at his university. For this “blasphemy,” he was sentenced to death, later commuted to twenty years in prison. As I write, he’s waiting on a promised (but undelivered) pardon from Hamid Karzai.

The de-criminalization of blasphemy in the States was a long time coming, but by the fifties (see the Burstyn case, for example), blasphemy laws were largely understood to be an unfair prior restraint on the freedom of speech. In Afghanistan’s fledgling post-Taliban state, the conflict of civil and religious law is still raging. All this despite a fancy Western-designed Constitution that in theory protects expression.

I can only see cases like these multiplying in direct correlation to increased Internet access. It’s much, much harder to gag the web (which is naturally democratic, cacophonous and, by some accounts, blasphemous) than it is to threaten a newspaper or traditional media format. I hope that in that coming war, the Internet is able to out-muscle repressive censors and provincial judges. Until then, I can only hope Mr. Kambakhsh receives his pardon.

Posted in Current Events, Free Speech, I&D Project. Comments Off on Downloading Blasphemy

What’s Filtered in Iran?

Hamid Tehrani at Global Voices has a great primer on what is currently filtered in Iran that is well worth the read. He reports that popular sites like Balatarin and BBC Persian service are top priorities for filtering, and that filtering changes over time, with heavily trafficked sites like YouTube and MySpace getting blocked momentarily but now viewable in Iran–perhaps due to popular demand for those sites within Iran.

I was most surprised, though, to see that the Huffington Post is blocked. Hamid notes that the Huff Post in the past has been quite opposed to Bush and others that were arguing for war with Iran, so I can’t quite figure why that one would be blocked.

And as Kamangir writes (in Persian), use of Herdict by those in Iran could be a good way to use the knowledge of the crowd to understand what is filtered there. I see that Iran is now fourth in the rankings of countries that are reporting through Herdict, which is fantastic, but I’d love to see it at the top of the list!

Posted in Free Speech, Iran, Middle East. Comments Off on What’s Filtered in Iran?