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Internet Opening Up Space for Religious Debate in Egypt

In today’s Times Michael Slackman highlights how the Internet has led to greater pluralism in political and religious debates in Egypt by profiling Gamal al-Banna, a liberal religious thinker who just happens to be the brother of the decidedly less liberal Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan al-Banna. Slackman writes that although Gamal al-Banna been sharing his ideas publicly for years:

…only now, he said, does he have the chance to be heard widely. It is not that a majority agrees with him; it is not that the tide is shifting to a more moderate interpretative view of religion; it is just that the rise of relatively independent media — like privately owned newspapers, satellite television channels and the Internet — has given him access to a broader audience.

Of course, the Internet alone isn’t responsible for the changes that take place in any society. Slackman notes:

Several factors have changed the public debate and erased some of the fear associated with challenging conventional orthodoxy, political analysts, academics and social activists said. These include a disillusionment and growing rejection of the more radical Islamic ideology associated with Al Qaeda, they said. At the same time, President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world has quieted the accusation that the United States is at war with Islam, making it easier for liberal Muslims to promote more Western secular ideas, Egyptian political analysts said.

Our research into the Arabic blogosphere found that Egypt does indeed have large, relatively open and in many ways oppositional blogosphere. The debates within the Muslim Brotherhood cluster of bloggers, where younger members challenge the old guard on the goals and future direction of the Muslim Brotherhood, are some of the most interesting in the online Middle East, because they show how the Internet has the power to change existing institutions and the way decisions are made in those previously hierarchical, top-down institutions. As we wrote in our paper:

The Muslim Brotherhood that mobilizes mindshare in the networked public sphere is no longer the same Muslim Brotherhood. As we see with advocacy organizations in the United States, or Shi’a religious students in Iran, the move to Internet modes of communication can alter the forms of organization among people committed to similar goals, ideas, and values. The Internet does not just promise (or threaten) to change the balance of power among players on the field, it changes the field and changes the players too.

Posted in Ideas, Middle East. Comments Off on Internet Opening Up Space for Religious Debate in Egypt

Iranian Forced to Blog From Prison

Image Credit: The New Yorker

Image Credit: The New Yorker

Hamid Tehrani over at Global Voices reports today that Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the former vice president and well known blogger whose gaunt appearance in his show trial has spread virally across the Internet as proof that he has been tortured, is now being forced to blog from prison. Hamid summarizes the post:

“He says that the interrogation continues but he has very friendly relation with interrogator and protesters in prison know that there was no significant fraud in Iran’s presidential election.”

Yeah, right.

Clearly, his captors haven’t gotten the memo that the show trials, forced confessions and now blogging at gunpoint just aren’t working like they used to. As Laura Secor writes in this week’s New Yorker:

“Show trials have been staged before, most notably in Moscow in the nineteen-thirties. Typically, such rituals purge élites and scare the populace. They are the prelude to submission. Iran’s show trials, so far, have failed to accrue this fearsome power. In part, this is because the accused are connected to a mass movement: Iranians whose democratic aspirations have evolved organically within the culture of the Islamic Republic. It is one thing to persuade citizens that a narrow band of apparatchiks are enemies of the state. It is quite another to claim that a political agenda with broad support—for popular sovereignty, human rights, due process, freedom of speech—has been covertly planted by foreigners.”

Secor highlights later how the Iranians, and indeed those from around the world, have taken to the Internet to mock the entire show trial process and the ridiculous confessions that their interrogators have made up for them, kicked off by satarist Ebrahim Nabavi’s stripped pajama confession that he has met with the CIA, imported green velvet and cavorted with the likes of Angelina Jolie. As Secor concludes, “…the spectacle that was meant to produce compliance and terror instead has stoked fury and derision.”

Posted in Iran. 2 Comments »

Saudi Arabia Blocks Twitterers It Doesn’t Like

I’m still moving at just-back-from-vacation speed instead of blog speed, so Evgeny Morozov over at Foreign Policy is way ahead of me on this story about the Saudis blocking the Twitter accounts of two human rights activists who were saying things the Kingdom didn’t appreciate about its rights record. He cites Reporters Without Borders for the background:

Nasser, who keeps a blog called Mashi Sah (“That’s not true”) said his Twitter messages included references to the human rights situation and governance in Saudi Arabia and links to human rights sites. Abdelkhair, a human rights lawyer and head of a Saudi human rights organisation, had also referred to human rights violations in his “tweets,” the short text messages that are Twitter’s speciality. Ahmed Al-Omran, a blogger who first drew attention to the situation, said it was the first time the authorities had moved against Twitter users in Saudi Arabia

According to the OpenNet Initative’s Saudi profile in their recent report on filtering in the Middle East region, Saudi Arabia blocks political content pervasively, has one of the most restrictive media environments in the region and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists is one of the ten worst places to be a blogger. ONI concludes:

Saudi Arabia publicly acknowledges censoring morally inappropriate and religiously sensitive material, but the authorities also filter oppositional political sites and sites focused on human rights issues. In addition, the state has introduced new surveillance measures at Internet cafés and has announced plans to start a system that will require local sites to register with the authorities.

Saudi citizens have started to use the Internet for online activism, but the authorities have arrested several online writers and blocked their content. A local human rights group expressed interest in legally challenging the government’s censorship of human rights sites.

Evgeny holds Berkman’s Jonathan Zittrain’s feet to the fire on the supposed resiliency of Twitter to blocking, and although he concedes that you can still access the two blocked Twitter accounts here in the US, he’s right that that won’t matter so much to someone trying to read them in Riyad. [Still, it might be possible to access these accounts in the Kingdom using other Twitter aggregating tools, similar to how one might easily get around filtering of blogs or news sites by using an aggregator–Correction and update: This approach wouldn’t actually circumvent Twitter blocking in Riyad because it would still have to retrieve the data from Twitter, as Evgeny notes in his comment below]. In any case, I imagine that the more the media (and, ahem, bloggers) keep talking about Twitter’s use in highly censored media environments, the more it will become a target of filtering by the censors.

A Japan Shake Up?

U.S.-Japan relations have never been stronger, but change during the month of August is perhaps the greatest since 1955.  On August 20 the U.S. Ambassador John Roos assumed duty of the Embassy in Tokyo, bringing with him from his perch as CEO of a top Silicon Valley law firm, a wealth of Internet, high technology, and legal expertise:

“Throughout his tenure, John helped lead the firm during the various waves of innovation in Silicon Valley, from the growth of software and communications to the Internet Age, the emergence of biotechnology to the present focus on clean technology and renewable energy.”

Concurrently Japan, the world’s second largest economy, is to host its national elections. A Parliamentary Democracy, Japan has both an Upper House of Councillors and a Lower House of Representatives. On August 30, elections in the latter will determine the distribution of power across the 480 seats, and it’s interesting because the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power (except for 10 months, 20 days) since 1955. Largely seen as the guardian of the post-Cold War U.S.-Japan relationship, the LDP has been relatively unopposed in ruling seats in the Japanese Diet.  However, polls indicate that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) could alter Japanese history.

Currently the DPJ holds 112 seats in the Lower House.  They would need 220 to have a “relative majority,” 241 for a “majority,” and 269 for an “absolutely stable majority,” according to Takako Hikotani of Japan’s National Defense Academy, formerly at Harvard. A potential LDP loss, and DPJ win would unsettle an institutional path dependence, and shake up ties in a country built of relationships. Such a DPJ win could have profound impact on US-Japan political, security, and technology relations.  With issues such as the Support of Forces Agreement, a potential US-Japan Free Trade Agreement (FTA), Okinawa U.S. troop deployment, and Japan’s perennial “Article 9” debate on the purview of its military, a DPJ win next Sunday could create substantive bilateral and regional change.

On security issues the U.S. collaborates with Japan on regional air defense, missile defense, and maritime security, but it’s the economics that are perhaps even more central to the bilateral US-Japan amity. The US and Japan cooperate on multiple fronts, not least of which is technology development. Recent Japanese GDP data indicated 3.7 percent growth, but confirmation that the country is still reliant on export demand in the West.  “Decoupling” remains but a sound-bite on CNBC. Domestic groups such as the Japanese Business Federation state that a DPJ win could mean labor reform, new targets on unemployment, and potential for immigration policy alteration.

But at the end of the day, a DPJ win will not likely alter Japanese green technology development as a priority, and U.S.-Japan technology transfer as a silicon cornerstone of pan-Pacific partnership. While the acronym associated with Lower House Diet seats may change, while business-to-government relationships may need to refresh, and while this is no doubt historic, bilateral technology cooperation will remain a core issue. President Obama’s appointment of John Roos, a lawyer skilled in Internet venture capital, heralds a cooperative continuation. Perhaps it’s fitting that Ambassador Roos’ transition from Silicon Valley to Akasaka can be monitored across Japan on Palo Alto-based Facebook, and described on Deputy Chief of Mission James Zumwalt’s blog, “Z Notes.”

Posted in Elections. Comments Off on A Japan Shake Up?

Internet Filtration in the Middle East

This week the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) released its 2009 report on Internet filtration across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  Research for this release was conducted in 2008-2009, but it builds upon findings dating back to 2003, including a report released in 2007.  The full release (available in PDF) chronicles the detailed testing of over 2,000 websites in each country. The ONI’s work on Internet controls in the region provides crucial context for the Internet & Democracy’s work on the networked public sphere.

Back in June, the Internet & Democracy team released a study of the Arabic Blogosphere, authored by John Palfrey and Bruce Etling of the Berkman Center, and John Kelly of Morningside Analytics.  The research spanned 35,000 Arabic language web logs across 18 countries in the Middle East.  A few weeks ago, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) released the webcast, including the interpretations by three panelists Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University, Acting Director of USIP’s Muslim World Initiative, Saad Ibrahim of Voices for a Democratic Egypt, and Raed Jarrar, a prominent Iraqi Blogger who writes Raed in the Middle.

Here’s a quick rundown on the conversation at USIP:

In June, 150  viewers from 26 countries –with the highest Middle East representation coming from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon– watched the presentation of the Arabic Blogosphere study for at least 30 minutes, and many asked challenging questions of the researchers via Twitter and chat.  The research findings proved not only illustrative, but also provocative.

Saad Ibrahim of Voices for a Democratic Egypt, expressed a predominantly Egyptian perspective, highlighting blogs as indicative of youth perspective, and youth’s centrality in Egyptian demographics.  He discussed the “electronic unveiling” of Saudi women, the protective “tribalism” displayed by Egyptian bloggers, and the fact that “Egypt today is the online voice of Iran.” Commenting on the study’s findings, Ibrahim declared that the Egyptian blogosphere is witnessing a new age, where “issues and technology” dominate the political online discourse, and where “bashing the U.S. is not a pastime” so much as an occasional necessity.

Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University and Acting Director of USIP’s Muslim World Initiative discussed the role of the Internet in “globalizing moderates, and marginalizing militants,” pointing out that bloggers were overwhelmingly critical of both extremist tactics and United States interventions.  He discussed the importance of blogs in bridging between conflicting parties, noting that authoritarian regimes are usually less nervous about criticism inside “walled gardens” than cross-cluster talk. Beyond discourse, he elucidated the importance of political and social institutions, demographic understanding, and context to frame blogger perspectives.

Raed Jarrar, a prominent Iraqi Blogger who writes for Raed in the Middle, critiqued some of the study’s findings. He maintained that the choice of many Iraqi bloggers to write in English is dictated by the political realities of “foreign occupation” rather than personal preference.  He was additionally critical of the study’s research framework, taking issue with the parlance of labels such as “moderates” and “militants,” “secular reformists” and “Muslim Brotherhood.” Furthermore, he pointed out the “inherent bias” in investigating Arabic blogs’ support of “terrorism” or “extremism,” positing that “resistance” might be a more uniformly understood term for “terrorism” in the Arab world.  He argued that the map would appear very different with re-framed parameters – for example, a different set of political categories could be seen across geographic or religious lines if attentive clusters were bifurcated by demographic understanding. Similarly, new patterns would emerge from categorizing bloggers by their political agenda rather than their religious affiliations.

During the question and answer section, the study methodology was further elucidated, and the incorporation of Arabic speakers and regional experts explained. The researchers also responded to questions regarding shortcomings in the study’s choice of parameters and labels, emphasizing that their focus was primarily on understanding the digital discourse phenomenon, and providing a set of tools to study it. Categorizations will always be crude approximations of a reality far more complex than can be conveniently articulated – it is important though to be aware of these limitations and draw conclusions commensurate with such approximations.

Several questions centered on the relation between the Arabic blogosphere and transnational and local media, and by extension, the connection between online life and real life in the Arab world. The researchers said it is hard to estimate the extent to which Arabic blogs reflect public opinions or consensus views, though they pointed out that Al Jazeera, the BBC and Al Arabiya are the top three mainstream media sources linked to by Arabic bloggers. In answer to the question “does online discussion distract from activism?” panelists called for a more careful analysis of who is blogging and who has access to the Internet. Jarrar for example stated that the Iraqi online discourse is “not mature enough to have its own mobilization.” Brumberg said that one of the biggest challenges ahead is to get bloggers to move to the public and political spheres.

Participants wanted to know if the study’s findings could be read as evidence for the Internet Balkanization, as “similarly minded publics are being tied with similarly minded publics.” The national clusters that emerge in the Arabic blogosphere do seem to reflect an increasing focus on local issues. Others wanted to understand how this study compared with studies in the West, and if so whether the perspectives of the Western blogosphere matched Western social attitudes, questioning the assumption that online discourse can be extrapolated to understand larger societal trends.  Yet others wanted to more comprehensively understand the linkages between online discourse and offline events, and how discourse percolated through and impacted the functioning of domestic institutions.

While some called the research Western centric, broad participant consensus was that an analytical Pandora’s box had been opened, and its understanding was both vital and daunting. Perhaps most importantly, one participant asked, “We now know who’s writing, but what about who’s reading online?”

Manal Dia, a Berkman Center Researcher & MIT graduate student, contributed to this post.

Apture Increases Congressional Transparency

This week the burgeoning Silicon Valley start-up Apture announced further media integration possibilities by adding Google Street View to its suite of integrated multimedia options.  Apture enables website publishers to add depth to pages and easily surface hand-selected information to elucidate points and add clarity to journalism. These links allow publishers to incorporate multimedia links –Wikipedia, photo, video, audio, or map– that can improve accountability. Though many records are “public,” current access requires a skill and patience many lack. As “Aptures” on the net become more prevalent, their hope is that transparency and access to information will improve.

As used by the New York Times, BBC News, Washington Post, and Reuters, Apture efficiently enables media outlets to surface contextual information, and allows users to better understand issues. For example, Washington Post uses Apture to efficiently reveal Senator voting and disclose financial records. Apture is attempting to facilitate the exposure of public information hidden in hard-to-access formats. U.S. Congressional votes, financial records, and floor speeches are publically available, but tedious to access.  Using C-SPAN closed captioning data, Apture allows publishers such as the Washington Post to highlight debate, hand-select specific videos of House or Senate floor speeches, and even specify video start-times to pinpoint exact issues.  With health-care bills that are 1,000 pages long, such specific references become increasingly relevant and useful for anyone seeking fact over annecdote.

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

As the Obama Administration and members of Congress attempt to reform the American health-care system, perhaps tools such as Apture can enable prominent media outlets and citizen journalists alike to surface relevant information with fluidity. In fact, last week Tech President aptly utilized Apture embeds to surface a White House memorandum from Peter Orzag at the Office of Management and Budget and John Holdren at the Science and Technology Office calling for greater use of technology to solve tomorrow’s problems.

Update: A reader corrects us; it is actually that collects the data used by Apture in the Congressional voting record example above, which is available here. A great project.

Twitter: Eye of the Beholder

Late last week Foreign Policy‘s Evgeny Morozov authored a piece entitled “Twitter: Think Again” in which he highlights a series of Twitter statements such as “Authoritarian regimes should fear Twitter,” Twitter was the best source of news about the post-election protests in Iran,” and “Twitter is a great organizing tool.” While he certainly underscores salient deficiencies in micro-blogging, many of his points target the platform, rather than the provider.  As explained by Harvard researcher Tim Hwang, innovator behind the Web Ecology Project:

“I think Morozov’s basic insight is right — there were gems of information popping up on Twitter throughout the #iranelection explosion, though it was quickly swamped out by noise, spam, and disinformation. However, this is only true if people take a naive view of Twitter as “just” the data stream. Simple methods like filtering the list of users with the highest number of RT’s or @’s give a much higher signal-to-noise in using Twitter as an information source. So while this time around and for most users Twitter may have been a fuzzy news source at best, this is a problem of platform design and available tools, rather than something inherent to the structure of Twitter or its users.”

While Twitter offers search, Facebook offers Lexicon to track wall-post trends, and Google offers Insights for Search, the value such services provide will increasingly become reliant on the ability to sift through, and determine what is truly important. Understanding trends may require deeper probing than is currently available through public interfaces, but such probing will likely invoke privacy concerns, impeding the facility of such analysis.  This science of “Web Ecology” will become increasingly relevant. The Internet ecosystem is only growing in its complexity. Platforms that empower citizen journalists can also enable opportunistic marketers. Faster content syndication can help broaden access to information, but it also facilitates spam.  Relevance is being conflated with noise, and dissection is intensive. As Google economist Hal Varian stated last week:

“…The sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.  And I’m not kidding.”

And as Morozov concludes, the Twitter is in the eye of the beholder, and in the understanding of Web Ecology:

“Figuring out how to sift through all the noise and actually get hold of signal can be a challenging task… But ultimately it pays off. A carefully maintained Twitter feed can deliver you information that is far more diverse and interesting than it was in the pre-Twitter day.”

Google Earth on Darfur

Despite the global implications of what has been called the “21st Century’s Genocide,” online interest on “Darfur” is predominately regional, with primary interest stemming from East Africa.  In an attempt to expose the crisis to 200 million users of Google Earth, the “Crisis in Darfur” Initiative on Google Earth coordinates with the United States Holocaust Museum Memorial and uses data from the U.S. State Departments Humanitarian Information Unit to show 3,300 destroyed villages. For 200 locations, it even features before and after photographs. The “Crisis in Darfur” Initiative exposes the decimation of more than 100,000 homes, and is the first of forthcoming joint projects to map Genocide. Exposure of the crisis cannot alone impel action, but perhaps exposure to 200 million Google Earth users will deepen understanding, help citizens exercise a democratic right, apply political pressure, and change policy.  The broad use of Google tools is empowering citizen activism, and helping policymakers understand citizen interests.

Behind the Internet news Meme curve, the New York Times last week published an editorial on the topic “Are We What We Search?” in which author Eduardo Porter considers the scope of the Google oracle:

“Polls are a useful indicator of people’s tastes because they ask people what they like. Prediction markets require players to forecast. Google searches offer a roundabout impression of the world: what people want, what they fear, what they expect. It’s harder to tell what they mean.”

Google Earth and Internet search analytics do require an understanding of user demography, linguistic preferences, user behavior, and search query context, but understanding what people do on Google provides insight into the geographic concentration and amplitudes of interest. Search context will determine the scope and direction of interest.  Google Earth is relevant in that it extends access to information, and provides citizens with the knowledge that empowers their democratic voice offline. Porter concludes that polling is more readily comprehensible than search, yet polling is notoriously deceptive and unreliable.  In Indonesia, polling indicated that Jusuf Kalla would contend for second place in their July Presidential elections.  Google Trends contended he would place third, and the latter got the election ordering correct.  In this case, Internet search analytics proved more accurate than polling. While certainly not yet confirmation of “the oracle at Mountain View,” one must also question what polls can truly tell us.  As the Carnegie Council’s Devin Stewart puts it, “Polls only tell us how people answer polls.”

The advent of enhanced transparency via Google Earth in Darfur, and Google search brought into Larry Summers’ second-floor West Wing office, has created an emerging field of Web Ecology.  The mouse may yet become mightier than the pen, and many are anxious to understand in what ways, and to what extent.

Posted in Africa. Comments Off on Google Earth on Darfur

Twitter Attack May Be Part of Russia-Georgia Dispute

According to the New York Times, yesterday’s DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack on Twitter originated in the disputed Abkhazia region in Georgia, one of the two semi-autonmous regions that Russia and Georgia fought over last August. The Times attribute the claim that the attack was an extension of the broader Russia-Georgia dispute to Bill Woodcock at Packet Clearing House. The Times writes:

It was not clear who initiated the attack, Mr. Woodcock said, but it was likely that “one side put up propaganda, the other side figured this out and is attacking them.” He said he found evidence that the attacks had originated from the Abkhazia region, a territory on the Black Sea disputed between Russia and Georgia.

Mr. Woodcock said the disruptions did not appear to have been caused by a botnet, or network of thousands of malware-infected personal computers.

Rather, he said, at about 10:30 a.m. E.S.T., millions of people worldwide received spam e-mail messages containing links to Twitter and other sites. When recipients clicked on the links, those sites were overwhelmed with requests to access their servers. “It’s a vast increase in traffic that creates the denial of service,” he said.

It is certainly plausible that some group linked to Russia would initiate an online attack near the anniversary of the Russian-Georgian conflict, since DDOS attacks and other online tomfoolery has coincided with other foreign policy disputes that Moscow has been involved in, including attacks against Estonian and Ukrainian sites, and last year DDOS attacks actually preceded Russian military action against Georgia. In the Estonia case, a leader of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi claimed credit for the attacks.

The Guardian also cites Facebook’s security chief as saying that the attack may have been aimed at a single Georgian blogger, Cyxymu:

Max Kelly, Facebook’s chief security officer, told CNet news that the strike was an attempt to silence Cyxymu – an outspoken critic of last year’s conflict between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia – as the anniversary of the war approaches.

“It was a simultaneous attack across a number of properties targeting him to keep his voice from being heard,” Kelly said. “We’re actively investigating the source of the attacks and we hope to be able to find out the individuals involved in the back end and to take action against them if we can.”

However, this type of attack on a large international site based in the US like Twitter doesn’t bear the hallmarks of previous attacks plausibly connected to Russia, since they were focused on government, NGO or banking sites in Georgia, Estonia or Ukraine. Since large sites with better security than Twitter, such as Google and Facebook were also attacked, as well as Gawker which also went down earlier this week, it leaves one to wonder whether someone else was behind these attacks, or if this is just a new tactic for those sympathetic to Russia’s more aggressive foreign policy stances. It is also possible that the role of twitter in recent protests in Iran made the site a juicy target for those trying to make a statement about the role of these technology platforms in foreign affairs.

UPDATE: Cyxymu blames Russia for the attack.

UPDATE 2: The Daily Beast points out that the attacks could be from Ahmadinejad’s henchmen or participants at the annual DEF CON hackers convention in Vegas after one too many complimentary beverages.

UPDATE 3: Morozov profiles Cyxymu, who he calls “the first digital refugee.”

Posted in Russia. 1 Comment »

Young Muslims Look to Technology to Fight Extremism

There is no shortage of stories about how the Internet enables extremists in the Middle East, so it’s nice to see a more balanced look at how young people in the region are actually using these online tools. This excellent CNN piece by Manav Tanneeru, which is part of Christian Amanpour’s Generation Islam series, looks closely at Esra’a al Shafei of MidEastYouth, and cite her as an example of someone who:

…represents a generation of Muslims who are using technology to express themselves, connect with others, challenge traditional power structures and create an identity in an era when Islamic extremists often grab the headlines.

The article also cites your humble (er, self-promoting) blogger on some results from our recent research on the Arabic blogosphere:

It’s long been a concern that the Web is being used by extremist groups such as al Qaeda to recruit young Muslims to their cause. However, Bruce Etling, who co-authored recent studies of the Arabic and Persian blogospheres at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said he found little evidence of such activity.

“In the Arabic blogosphere we found no specific clusters related to extremism, and when it was discussed, it tended to be in negative terms,” he said. “It was a counter-narrative we were surprised to find.”