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

Fiji’s Bloggers Menaced By Junta

Facing a tighter clampdown by military authorities on traditional media like newspapers and radio, many Fijians are evading the censors with blogs. After Frank Bainimarama, the disarmingly named Fijian dictator took power in a 2006 coup, the country has been creeping toward hysterical martial law.

As in Burma (and to a lesser degree in Thailand recently), the most obvious target after the licensed mainstream media (many of whom have simply been deported) will undoubtedly be  bloggers and cyber-dissidents. Some bloggers had already been targeted back in May 2007.

In the meantime, the web may be the only source of information the islanders have, and only 10% of them have regular web access. Soon, the island could be completely isolated from world contact. As Peter Waqavonovono told VOA:

It is unfortunate that I have to say this and that is blogs have actually become one of the main mediums of getting information out there, whether it’s credible or whether it’s not. It’s just the fact that right now people are just desperate for information.

Posted in Current Events. Comments Off on Fiji’s Bloggers Menaced By Junta

The Pentagon’s Plan To Hack The Hackers

Following up December’s CSIS report and in anticipation of the National Research Council report due out tomorrow, the New York Times has the skinny on cyber-warfare in the 21st century.

As Estonia learned the hard way, democracies (and their infrastructures) are increasingly the target of nationalist hackers,  digital pirates, and government spooks (from China, Russia, the USA?). The alarming possibility that all these groups have or could be in cahoots is scaring the pants off the Pentagon, which is considering developing an alternate strategic command simply for cyber-related conflicts.

Up until now, most of the discussion has focused on defense, the so-called “fortress” method: secure and separate networks for critical infrastructure, virus protection and a cyber-czar to coordinate federal response. As this article illuminates, however, the Pentagon is preparing to bolster those defensive capabilities with offensive cyber-weapons. Hacking the hackers, the article suggests, is the newest form of deterrence.

But here, I think, the Cold War metaphor breaks down. Mutually assured destruction might be a functional way to deter a world war by superpowers, but will it really stop what amount to de-localized (possibly independent) digital guerrillas? There’s a certain asymmetry in favor of the hackers. You don’t have to enrich uranium in defiance of world opinion to hack Wall Street or the U.S. power grid.

In fact, you need to do surprisingly little. With millions of potentially anonymous actors, the problem is multiplied. As in the 1983 film War Games, no one knows whether you’re dealing with a real threat or just a clever punk in a Chinese basement. It’s a warzone as dangerous as it is hazy.

Roxana Saberi on Hunger Strike

Reporters without Borders reports that Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi — sentenced last Saturday to 8 years in prison after a sham 1 day closed trial in Tehran — is protesting her detention with a hunger strike. (For more background on Saberi, and her dubious arrest by Iranian authorities, read this profile by her former employer, the BBC.)

Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not typically the most civil liberties friendly, had directly appealed to the Iran’s independent judiciary to process the case of Saberi with openness and transparency. Perhaps he is feeling the pressure of a potential American rapprochement. The visibility of the Saberi case could easily flare up into a full grown diplomatic feud. So far, Secretary Clinton’s language has been measured, though concerned.

Might the internet play a constructive role here in changing the diplomatic end game by raising the heat on Iranian authorities? Imagine, it was years before Solzhenitsin could get The Gulag Archipelago published in the West, much less in the Soviet Union. Now, despite all the Iranians’ best efforts at a low key and hack job political trial, anyone with Google can learn the inner workings of Saberi’s detention and moreover Iran’s infamous Evin political prison where she’s being held.

While — as AbuAardvark and NetEffect’s Evgeny Morozov have been right to point out — the internet is not radically democraticizing the world, it does raise the embarassment and diplomatic costs of political prisoners. Hard to complain you’ve been shut out of the community of nations when your injustice is plainly on display. And the web is what solves this informational assymetry, even if it can’t shake kings and autocrats.

Saberi’s partner, Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, has written an open letter appealing to Iranian authorities. The letter can be read in full here and is circulating on numerous media outlets and websites (BBC, Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to name a few).

Tweet it, RT it, blog, and howl. Roxana should be free.

Thai “Red Shirt” Unrest Spurs Censorship Dragnet

In reaction to the ongoing and violent anti-government “red shirt” protests, the ruling Democrat Party of the Thailand has ordered a broad range of media outlets connected to the pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (or UDD) shut down. This sweep delivered gag orders to radio stations, the satellite television network D Station and at least 67 political websites with links to the UDD.

The picture of what’s happening on the ground has been blurred by the barring or mistreatment of journalists by both sides. The ruling party, seized by crisis fever, is locking down any media perceived to be “inciting violence” with the unintended consequence, as Reporters without Borders put it, of increasing the “climate of fear” around Bangkok. The Thaksin demonstrators (see here for TwitPic updates and images of the unrest) have not been entirely innocent either, reportedly roughing up several TV crews and expelling reporters from the protests.

The government’s reaction is premised on a heavy handed survival impulse. It’s true, some of the protests have descended into violence, and the perception that social chaos is being spread by pro-Thaksin media probably has truth to it. On the other hand, punitive media-unfriendly martial law seems unlikely to assuage the supporters of a movement who feel wrongfully ousted by the 2006 coup and the banning of the PPP back in December 2008 (for more of the run up to this conflict, read this). Now, adding to the uncertainty of the social fabric, blue shirts, evidently supported by royalists, have joined the fray.

Nor is the unaligned portion of the Thai public likely to take kindly to the broad and hysterical censorship crack-down, which risks making the “red shirts” more powerful or bringing the military storming back in. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Thaksin himself, exiled for the past three years in Dubai, has urged aging king Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene and encourage reconciliation. The king, revered by the Thais, has been charateristically silent.

UPDATE: Evidently MICT, the Thai telecommunications authority, has lifted the emergency decree on websites related to the “red shirt” cause. The list of formerly blocked websites is here. Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, a WordPress blog which agitates for free internet speech remains somewhat inexplicably blocked by Thai ISPs.

Cyber Pessimism and its Discontents

A couple days late, but I highly encourage you to read some of NetEffect and AbuAardvark‘s really brilliant discussion this past week about why the internet promises a lot less democracy than originally hoped for. I don’t agree on all counts (see some more of my thoughts here and here), but I do think they understand the situation more clearly and soberly than many of the cyber-utopians out there.

Posted in Ideas. Comments Off on Cyber Pessimism and its Discontents

The Moral Failure of Promoting Democracy

Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, has posed a depressing, if necessary question. If internet activism rarely topples an authoritarian regime (see, for example, the failure of Burma’s Saffron Revolution or Egypt’s April 6 Facebook strike, which I perhaps too cheerily praised back in Jan.), isn’t it morally problematic for Westerners to egg on activists they know will not succeed? For all our efforts to praise individual movement leaders, all we end up doing is putting those folks more squarely in the crosshairs of the secret police.

This is all in line with the appropriate caution that Evgeny Morozov outlined in his recent Boston Review piece (see also my thoughts on that piece here). Power is power, and in most of these countries, it continues to flow straight from the barrel of a gun, not any robust notion of democratic legitimacy. X Arab autocracy or Y East Asian dictatorship is likely to feel threatened from within by an independent blogging class and humiliated from without by the ridicule of Westernized democracies. When the Burmese junta could no longer take the heat, they simply downed the internet completely, convenient to do when all ISP’s are centrally licensed and controlled anyway.

Read the rest of this entry »

South Korean Blogger Freed

Some fascinating news coming from the New York Times earlier this week that the massively popular Korean blogger Park Dae-sung has been freed from jail after a court acquitted him on all charges brought by government prosecutors, who claimed that the statements on his blog “undermined the financial markets.”

The Dae-sung case has huge free speech implications. As the Times article describes the situation,

In July and December, Mr. Park wrote that the government had banned financial firms and major corporations from buying dollars in an effort to arrest the fall of the South Korean currency, the won — a statement the court said on Monday had been false but not criminal.

Prosecutors had demanded an 18-month sentence for Mr. Park, accusing him of “blatantly stoking fears among the people” in an economic crisis. Quoting from his writing, they accused Mr. Park, who often used satire, of advising people to hoard daily necessities in anticipation of runaway inflation and to “send children to orphanages.”

Due to the extensive penetration of networked technologies among its citizens, South Korea continues to be a dramatic experiment in the complex, evolving relationship of the Internet, government and the public sphere. This is not the first time that these elements have tangled: some of you may remember last year’s June riots coordinated and driven by web protestors, and the large role that the community news site OhmyNews played in the 2002 election.

“Apps For America” Announces Winners

Back in January, I reported on an innovative new contest called Apps For America being sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation. The contest was to build easy-to-use apps with raw government API data dumps. The sprawling federal government seems (and often is) frustratingly inaccessible. Bypassing expensive IT consultants, this contest sought to increase citizen participation with iPhone-like simplicity.

The winners were announced yesterday, with hip Filibusted taking first place. It’s a brilliant little program that tracks filibuster and cloture votes, and sends updates to users via tweet. This could help your average Joe follow the arcane procedural dance also known as the U.S. Senate in an open, comprehensible way.

I encourage you to check out the other winners here, and also to use them. Transparent government depends upon an active citizenry. When the bureaucracy shields itself with paper, the web can lower the transaction cost of democratizing access.

Posted in Current Events, I&D Project, Ideas, Uncategorized. Comments Off on “Apps For America” Announces Winners

Russian President Starts LiveJournal Blog

Looks like President Medvedev has decided the site just wasn’t pulling in the kind of traffic he expected to his blog. So today he starting a new blog on the popular LiveJournal blogging platform, which is a sort of social network/blogging hybrid. LiveJournal hosts a number of the most popular blogs in Russia including Rustem Adagamov and Anton Nossik (who just happens to help run SUP–see below). The NY Times even has a Russian language blog, which occasionally translates and invites comments on Russia-related articles that appear in the English version of the Times. You can also follow the (actually contested) Sochi mayoral race through opposition candidate Boris Nemtsov’s campaign blog.

There was quite a dust up in the Russian blogosphere when LiveJournal was bought by SUP media, which also owns one of the most popular online newspapers in Russia,, among other media holdings. SUP owner Alexander Mamut is seen as a Kremlin loyalist, which understandably concerned many Russian bloggers since SUP, it was thought, would have a different approach to privacy issues. Still, according to a 2007 Yandex study (pdf), LiveJournal remains the leading blog hosting service for ‘active’ Russian language blogs, although and have had stronger growth.

Medvedev will apparently continue his video blog format. His first post includes reaction and further discussion of his widely publicized interview with Novaya Gazeta, which I wrote about last week, including the development of democracy and civil society in Russia. Comments on the new blog will remain moderated–so no swearing at the president, please. An example of one of the first comments on the new blog: “Democracy doesn’t need the hungry, democracy needs the starving.”

Ahmadinejad Defends Saberi and the Blogfather

In an unexpected move, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly called on the Iranian judiciary to respect the legal rights of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi and Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan. Saberi was recently sentenced to eight years in prison by Iran’s secretive Revolutionary Court. Derakshan, known in Iran as the “Blogfather” is currently being held on charges of spying for Israel.

As reported by Reuters, the letter read:

“Based on the president’s insistence, please make sure that all the legal stages about the mentioned people be based on justice,” it said … and you personally make sure that the accused people enjoy all freedoms and legal rights to defend themselves and their rights are not violated.”

The politics of the gesture are not entirely clear, and Ahmadinejad may not ultimately be successful in cajoling the independent Iranian judiciary, but this is still welcome news and a sliver of hope that the detention of journalists on trumped up national security charges cannot be business as usual.