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Saudi activists launch a daring and bold move to support human rights

For the first time in Saudi Arabia, a defense team for jailed Saudi activists are observing, and calling for a two-day public hunger strike to protest the detention without charge of human rights activists. The Saudi and Arab media ignored the group’s call but the group started Facebook and Google groups and a special Web site ( where they disseminate information about the strike and coordinate campaign efforts.

The activist said in a statement they distributed online: “Saudi Justice system and legal procedures (e.g., Criminal Procedure and Arrest and Detention Laws) had failed to render just judgments to jailed Saudi human-right activists who have been arrested with no official indictments, and incarcerated indefinitely in solitary confinements with no right for an attorney or access to habeas corpus.”

“After exerting all means to get fair treatments to the constitutional movement’s detainees, the defense teams decided to observe a 48-hour hunger strike. The proposed strike will take place on Thursday and Friday, 6-7 November 2008, in protest against flagrant human-right violations for all detainees in Saudi prisons who have been deprived of their basic rights as guaranteed by Criminal Procedure Law and Arrest and Detention Law …” the statement added.

“Our demand is quite simple: either to set the detainees free or instantly grant them fair and public trials.”

Apparently for fear of repercussion, very few Saudi bloggers picked up the story and placed the campaign banner on their blogs. Saudi Jeans and Esam Mudeer are among the few.

This move is very risky and the participants face serious consequences, especially because strikes and demonstrations are banned in Saudi Arabia.

Interestingly, all of the campaigns Web sites are accessible from Saudi Arabia, at least so far.

The local and almost all of the Arab media ignored the event, but the activists managed to draw the attention of international media including CNN, Washington Post and France24.

The campaign’s Facebook Arabic group‘s membership grew from 11 in the first day to 376 in just 3 days (173 members in the Facebook English group) and the participants who publicly signed up to participate in the strike reached 26.

While it is obvious that activists throughout the world would use the Internet for activism and advocacy, the Saudi case has three interesting issues:

    1. The Saudi activists live with one of the most repressive Internet regimes in the world, yet the campaigners managed to utilize the online resources available to them to win supporters from inside and outside the country, and to get the attention of foreign international media.

    2. The Saudi activists use the online campaign not just to highlight their grievances and advocate reform, but also to perform an equally challenging task: to counter the government-endorsed fatwa (Islamic edict) that hunger strikes are not permissible in Sharia law. The campaigners have effectively used online tools to present well-documented research that Islam does indeed permit hanger strikes when necessary.

    3. The fact that the campaign’s Web sites are currently accessible from Saudi Arabia does not necessarily reflect tolerance from the authorities to this movement, but could be a trap to find out who the supporters and sympathizers of the movement are.

Can the Internet restore Congressional power?

A cross-post from Berkman Fellow Gene Koo’s blog, Anderkoo:

The crisis on Wall Street and subsequent negotiation between the Bush Administration and Congress over solutions expose a dangerous weakness of the people’s branch in the modern era: legislators lack unity and the power that unity affords. They will lose almost every time they get into a showdown with the President, especially without an O’Neill or Gingrich to rally them. The fact that the representative branch of government operates at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the executive branch presents an enormous threat to our democracy.

High school civics classes teach that Congress makes the laws and the President enforces them. Americans would be forgiven if they think that it’s the President who makes law and Congress who has the veto power. The Wall Street bailout and the Iraq war resolution illustrate how — in high-profile crises — the Executive branch drives its agenda through Congress due to its superior ability to plan, focus attention, and control national discourse. Often, Congress is relegated to nibbling around the edges or poking holes in the President’s plans.

Making the first offer gives the Administration enormous leverage over Congress. In both the Iraq war resolution and the Wall Street bailout, Congress never really questioned the core premise (Iraq presents an imminent threat; the economy will collapse without intervention) nor strayed very far from the proposed solution (invade; bail out). We know, in the case of Iraq, at least, that this is not because the President was right on the merits. Rather, he was simply in the better bargaining position, having “anchored” the negotiation.
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Burmese Web Sites Attacked on Eve of Saffron Revolution

As we near the one year anniversary of Burma’s Saffron Revolution and the total shut down of the Internet in that country, a number of dissident Web sites have come under Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks since September 17. The sites include a number of those that have provided critical news and information on events inside Burma that are run by exiled dissidents, including Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma, and New Era Journal. Most have set up mirror sites to get around the attacks.

It would seem odd that anyone besides Burma’s military government would want to carry out such an attack, and many dissident groups suspect as much. As the mirror site for Irrawaddy claims:

Many in the Burmese community—both inside and outside Burma—believe that the military authorities are behind the cyber attack. Our Web hosting companies have been assisting us day and night tracing IP addresses to identify the cyber criminals.

However, as we’ve seen from similar attacks last month on official Georgian Web sites, we may never be able to prove who was behind the attacks.

An I&D case study which investigates the Internet’s impact on the Saffron revolution will be released in the coming weeks. Look for it here on the I&D blog, as well as the Berkman Web site.

A2K3: Connectivity and Democratic Ideals

Also in the final A2K3 panel, The Global Public Sphere: Media and Communication Rights, Natasha Primo, National ICT policy advocacy coordinator for the Association for Progressive Communications, discusses three questions that happen to be related to my current research. 1) Where is the global in the global public sphere? 2) Who is the public in the global public sphere? and 3) How to we get closer to the promise of development and the practice of democratic values and freedom of expression?

She begins with the premise that we are in an increasingly interconnected world, in economic, political, and social spheres, and you will be excluded if you are not connected. She also asserts the premise that connection to the internet can lead to the opening of democratic spaces and – in time – a true global public sphere.

Primo, like Ó Siochrú in my blog post here, doesn’t see any global in global public sphere. She thinks this is just a matter of timing, and not a systematic problem. She notes that the GSM organization predicts 5 billion people on the GSM network by 2015, whereas we now have 1 of 6 billion connection to the internet> note that Primo believes internet access will come through the cell phone for many people who are not connected today. She refers us to Richard Heeksproposal for a Blackberry-for-development. Heeks is professor and chair of the Development Informatics Department at the University of Manchester. But Primo sees the cost as the major barrier to connectivity among LCDs and thinks this will abate over time.

With regard to the cost of connectivity, she notes that Africa has a 10% internet subscription rate versus in Asia-Pacific and 72% in Europe. South Africa is planning an affordable broadband campaign: to have some facilities declared ‘essential’ to make them available to the public at cost to the service providers. This comes from the A2K idea of partnership for higher education in Africa – African universities are to have cheaper access. She also sees authoritarian behavior by states as another obstacle to connectivity. She cites research by our very own OpenNet Initiative that 24 of 40 countries studied are filtering the internet and using blocking tools to prevent freedom of expression. This is done via blocking blogging sites and YouTube. She is worried about how this behavior by governments impacts peoples’ behavior when they are online. She notes surveys that show two extreme reactions: people either practice substantial selfcensorship or put their lives on the line for the right to express an opinion.

Primo notes the cultural obstacles to the global public sphere. She relates a story that some groups are not accustomed to hearing opinions that diverge from their own and will, innocently, flag them as inappropriate content. Dissenting opinions come back online after a short amount of time, but with the delay dialogue can be lost.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

Posted in A2K3, Africa, blogging, Citizen Journalism, Developing world, Free Speech, Ideas, Tech Tools. Comments Off on A2K3: Connectivity and Democratic Ideals

A2K3: Communication Rights as a Framework for Global Connectivity

In the last A2K3 panel, entitled The Global Public Sphere: Media and Communication Rights, Seán Ó Siochrú made some striking statements based on his experience building local communication networks in undeveloped areas of LCDs. He states that the global public sphere is currently a myth, and what we have now is elites promoting their self-interest. He criticizes the very notion of the global public sphere – he wants a more dynamic and broader term that reflects the deeper issues involved in bringing about such a global public sphere. He prefers to frame this issue in terms of communication rights. By this he means the right to sek and receive ideas, generate ideas and opinions of one’s own, speaks these ideas, have a right to be heard, and a right to have others listen. These last two rights Ó Siochrú dismisses as trivial but I don’t see that they are. Each creates a demand on others’ time that I don’t see how to effectuate within the framework of respect for individual automony Belkin elucidated in his keynote address and discussed in my recent blog post and on the A2K blog.

Ó Siochrú also makes an interesting point that if we are really interested in facilitating communication and connection between and by people who have little connectivity today, we are best to concentrate on technologies such as the radio, email, mobile phones, the television, or whatever works at the local level. He eschews blogs, and the internet, as the least acessible, least affortable, and the least usable.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

Posted in A2K3, blogging, Developing world, Free Speech, Ideas, Tech Tools. Comments Off on A2K3: Communication Rights as a Framework for Global Connectivity

A2K3: Opening Scientific Research Requires Societal Change

In the A2K3 panel on Open Access to Science and Research, Eve Gray, from the Centre for Educational Technology, University of Cape Town, sees the Open Access movement as a real societal change. Accordingly she shows us a picture of Nelson Mandela and asks us to think about his release from prison and the amount of change that ushered in. She also asks us to consider whether or not Mandela is an international person or a local person. She sees a parallel with how South African society changed with Mandela and the change people are advocation toward open access to research knowledge. She shows a map of countries distorted by the amount of (copyrighted) scientific research publications. South Africa looks small. She blames this on South Africa’s willingness to uphold colonial traditions in copyright law and norms in knowledge dissemination. She says this happens almost unquestioningly, and in South Africa to rise in the research world you are expected to publish in ‘international’ journals – the prestigious journals are not South African, she says (I am familiar with this attitude from my own experience in Canada. The top American journals and schools were considered the holy grail. When I asked about attending a top American graduate school I was laughed at by a professor and told that maybe it could happen, if perhaps I had an Olympic gold medal.) She states that for real change in this area to come about people have to recognize that they must mediate a “complex meshing” of policies: at the university level, and the various government levels, norms and the individual scientist level… just as Mandela had to mediate a large number of complex policies at a variety of different levels in order to bring about the change he did.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

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A2K3: Technological Standards are Public Policy

Laura DeNardis, executive director of Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, spoke during the A2K3 panel on Technologies for Access. She makes the point that many of our technological standards are being made behind closed doors and by private, largely unaccountable, parties such as ICANN, ISO, the ITU, and other standards bodies. She advocates the concept of Open Standards, which she defines in a three-fold way as open in development, open in implementation, and open in usage. DeNardis worries that without such protections in place stakeholders can be subject to a standard they were not a party to, and this can affect nations in ways that might not be beneficial to them, particularly in areas such as civil rights, especially less developed countries. In fact, an audience member comments that even when countries appears to be involved, their delegations are often comprised of private companies and are not qualified. For example, she says that there are only three countries in Africa that have people with the requisite techinical expertise in such state standards councils and that the involvment process is far from transparent. DeNardis also mentions the Dynamic Coalition on Open Standards designed to preserve the open architecture of the internet, with the Yale ISP is involved in advocacy at the Internet Governance Forum. DeNardis powerfully points out that standards are very much public policy, as much as the regulation we typically think of as public policy.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

Posted in A2K3, Africa, Developing world, Tech Tools. Comments Off on A2K3: Technological Standards are Public Policy

A2K3: A World Trade Agreement for Knowledge?

Thiru Balasubramanian, Geneva Representative for Knowledge Ecology International presents a proposal for a WTO treaty on knowledge (so far all WTO agreements extend to private goods only). Since information is a public good (nonrival and nonexcludable), we will have a “market failure” if single countries act alone: hence the undersupply of global public goods. The WTO creates binding agreements and thus such an agreement for public goods such as knowledge creates large collective benefits and high costs to acting against them. Such a WTO agreement would outline and influence norms. Why do this within the WTO? There are strong enforcement mechanisms here. Are we really undersupplying open and free knowledge? I can think of several scientific examples. Balasubramaniam doesn’t dig in to what such an agreement would look like and seems quite complex. Thinking about this might provide a coherent framework for approaching free information issues globally.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

A2K3: Tim Hubbard on Open Science

In the first panel at A2K3 on the history, impact, and future of the global A2K movement, Tim Hubbard, a genetics researcher, laments that scientists tend to carry out their work in a closed way and thus very little data is released. In fact he claims that biologists used to deliberately mess up images so that they could not be reproduced! But apparently journals are more demanding now and this problem has largely been corrected (for example Nature’s 2006 standards on image fraud). He says that openness in science needs to happen before publication, the traditional time when scientists release their work. But this is a tough problem. Data must be released in such a way that others can understand and use it. This parallels the argument made in the opening remarks about the value of net neutrality as preserving an innovation platform: in order for data to be used it must be open in the sense that it permits further innovation. He says we now have Open Genome Data but privacy issues are pertinent: even summaries of the data can be backsolved to identify individuals. He asks for better encryption algorithms to protect privacy. In the meantime he proposes two other solutions. We could just stop worrying about the privacy of our genetic data, just like we don’t hide our race or gender. Failing that, he wants to mine the UK’s National Health Service’s patient records through an “honest broker” which is in intermediary that runs programs and scripts on the data that researchers submit. The data are hidden from the researcher and only accessed through the intermediary. Another problem this solves is the enormity of the released data that can prevent interested people from moving the data or analyzing it. This has broad implications as Hubbard points out – the government could access their CCTV video recording to find drivers who’ve let their insurance lapse, but not track other possibly privacy violating aspects of drivers’ visible presence on the road. Hubbard is touching on what might be the most important part of the Access to Knowledge movement – how to make the access meaningful without destroying incentives to be open.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

Posted in A2K3, Ideas. 2 Comments »

Access to Knowledge 3: Opening Remarks

I’m at my first Access to Knowledge; conference in Geneva and I’ve never felt so important. Walking to the Centre International de Conférences in Geneva I passed the UN High Commission for Refugees and I’m sitting in an enormous tiered conference room with translation headphones and plush leather chairs. Maybe I’m easily impressed, but this is really my first exposure to influencing policy through any means other than academic idea generation and publication. A2K3 is held literally across the street from the World Intellectual Property Organization‘s headquarters and the focus is changing the global intellectual policy landscape.

So that means there are more lawyers and activists here than I am used to seeing at the usual academic conferences. The introductory remarks reflect this: Sisule Musungu lists the multitude of groups involved such as eIFL, EFF, OSI, for example. Google and Kaltura are the only corporate sponsors. Laura DeNardis, the executive director of Information Society Project at Yale (the group primarily responsible for A2K3) is giving opening remarks. Laura makes the point that technical standards contain deep political stances on knowledge sharing and dissemintation so the debate isn’t just about regulation any more. This means A2K is not just about laws and treaties, but also about the nature of the communciation technologies. Many of our discussions about net neutrality at Berkman note this fact, and in followup remarks Jack Balkin, the founding directory of the Yale ISP, makes this observation. He states that the A2K movement brings attention to much of International Trade Law that flies under most people’s radars, especially how it impacts the free flow of information, particularly on developing countries. A2K is at core about justice and human rights, since more and more wealth creation is coming from information tools in our information-driven world. This is clearly true: think of the success and power of Google – an information company. A2K is at least in part a reaction to the increasingly strong correlation between wealth and access to information. Balkin relates the FCC ruling preventing Comcast from discriminating between packets based on application or content, meaning that this movement is really about the decentralization of innovation: he states that without net neutrality innovation would be dominated by a small number of firms who would only allow innovations that benefit them directly. The A2K movement is about bringing more minds to solve our greatest problems, and this also engenders a debate about control, most deeply the control people can effect on their own lives: “will people be the master’s of themselves or will they be under the control of others?” The internet is a general purpose tool facilitating communication however people see fit, so the internet can be understood as a commons in that we can use it and build on it for our own self-determined purposes.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

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