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Morozov: The Internet No Democratic Cure

I’ve had some time to pour over Evgeny Morozov’s thoughtful and sobering piece on cyber-utopianism. He’s dead on in diagnosing Western academics and activists with quixotic belief in the Internet’s power to democratize. The web is no panacea for totalitarianism, Morozov warns, and to fervently hope otherwise is hopeful blindness.

In at least two respects, I agree with Morozov. First, simply increasing access to the internet has not taken down the world’s notorious human rights offenders. “Logistics,” as Morozov points out, “are not the only determinant of civic engagement.” The web may have amplified the efforts of democracy activists (in the Ukraine, Burma or China), but this fact has not necessarily swelled the ranks of freedom fighters.

Connected to this is a corollary point, and one which I previously discussed in connection to a paper Morozov wrote for the Open Society Institute. The Web contains as much distraction as dissidence; it’s a hall of mirrors, often a projection of active fantasy, not political activism. In the BR piece, Morozov nails this:

Once they get online unsupervised, do we expect Chinese Internet users, many of them young, to rush to download the latest report from Amnesty International or read up on Falun Gong on Wikipedia? Or will they opt for The Sopranos or the newest James Bond flick? Why assume that they will suddenly demand more political rights, rather than the Friends or Sex in the City lifestyles they observe on the Internet?

Returning to my first point, Chinese and Burmese cyber-dissidence has simply been met with heavier repression and authoritarian backlash. In direct proportion to the expansion of internet access, Chinese users have seen the creation of a behemoth Great Firewall, monitoring all traffic, even Skype conversations, for subversive keywords. Those bloggers and netizens caught red-handed are shut down or arrested — in chilling 1984-esque slang, they are “harmonized.”

In Burma, by contrast, the Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks was defeated by a complete take down of the internet and brutal military repression, despite well publicized and shocking photographs from citizen journalists and bloggers. Indeed, one of the motivating questions in our study of the Saffron Revolution was why democratic reform did not materialize in Burma despite the pro-democratic catalyst of internet activists.

However warranted Morozov’s cyber-pessimism may be, there is some room for counter-argument. Cyber-utopians may falsely subscribe to technological determinism, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that the web’s influence on democratic reform is subtle and slow, almost Burkean in quality.

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Posted in blogging, China, Citizen Journalism, Developing world, Free Speech, I&D Project, Ideas, Iran, Middle East. Comments Off on Morozov: The Internet No Democratic Cure

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…?

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

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…

China, Wikileaks and Democracy

For a good primer and summary of Chinese internet censorship, including the hilarious alpaca incident, read this TIME magazine piece on the topic.

The justification for sweeping control of the internet has always superficially been to combat vice like child pornography or gambling. What is alarming, but unsurprising, is how often these public reasons are simply cover for political blacklisting. As an author for Wikileaks puts it:

[C]ases such as Thailand and Finland demonstrate that once a secret censorship system is established for pornographic content the same system can rapidly expand to cover other material, including political material, at the worst possible moment — when government needs reform.

I think most people, including most Chinese, understand that the Great Fire Wall is explicitly political as well, uniformly banning discussion of the Party’s opponents: Falun Gong, Charter 08 democracy agitators and foreign journalists.

What seems to me almost as pernicious is the new crop of open Westernized democracies now instituting nanny-filters as well as blacklists. This includes countries like Denmark and Australia, and to a lesser degree Thailand, where a presumption of free speech seems warranted. According to Wikileaks, the Danish blacklist is “generated without judicial or public oversight and is kept secret by the ISPs using it. Unaccountability is intrinsic to such a secret censorship system.”

Thankfully, Wikileaks and others have uncovered some of the blacklists, exposing free speech violations, like the banned anti-abortion site in Australia. The Australian bureaucrats’ solution?

Just ban Wikileaks. And the cycle continues.

Alpacas Launch War on Chinese Censors!

This morning my blackberry buzzed with a link to this gem of an internet censorship story (Hat Tip: Byran Haut). I haven’t had a chance until now to pile on, and of course Andrew Sullivan has already beaten me to the punch.

Regardless, here’s the story. Since China moved to contain the pro-democratic Charter 08 movement by shutting down sympathetic online forums, China’s massive internet firewall has become even more draconian. The government’s public campaign has always about pornography, but this is often convenient cover to censor sites with uncomfortable political content. Bloggers, long burdened by the censorship regime, have even started referring to site takedowns as “harmonizations,” a joke on President Hu Jintao’s constant reference to the “harmonious society” of Confucian social theory.

Chinese netizens, in a move as frankly subversive as it is deeply funny, are striking back. A video released last January plays a seemingly innocuous children’s song about alpacas, or “river-mud-horses”, who fight against a band of “river crabs” (a near homonym to the word for “harmony”) seeking to invade their fields. As it turns out, these mythological creatures sound like something quite else in spoken Chinese. VideoGum has the translation the Times won’t give you:

The children are singing about grass mud horses (“Fuck Your Mother”) who live in a desert (“Your Mother’s C-word”) (ha), and defeat the river crabs (a word synonymous with “censorship.”) Do you know what this means? It means YouTube is IMPORTANT.

At first, it may tempting to see the video as childish, like “Ataturk is gay” and “Thai king monkey” videos which convulsed censors, Turkish and Thai respectively. On the other hand, as those episodes illustrate, where the law punishes open speech about sensitive material, farce may be the only remaining outlet. Make me think of the many vulgar Revolutionary War cartoons printed with gleeful impunity. Also remember that the Internet is much more heavily filtered in China than in either Thailand or Turkey.

As the Times’ writer eloquently puts it:

The grass-mud horse is an example of something that, in China’s authoritarian system, passes as subversive behavior. Conceived as an impish protest against censorship, the foul-named little horse has not merely made government censors look ridiculous, although it has surely done that.

It has also raised real questions about China’s ability to stanch the flow of information over the Internet — a project on which the Chinese government already has expended untold riches, and written countless software algorithms to weed deviant thought from the world’s largest cyber-community.

As I have said several times now on this blog, costly censorship regimes like the Chinese will never be successful in the long run. Too costly and too ineffective. The Internet, and indeed language itself, resist this kind of comprehensive control. Nor is this movement a fringe; the joke is rapidly spreading across China, no doubt bristling the country’s zealous censors.

An irony, of course, is that “river crab” was scrubbed from Wikipedia yesterday. Someone seems to think it is a “NON notable neologism.” Only when the “grass mud horses” are victorious, my friend. Only then.

Facebook Diplomacy: How Governments are Exploiting the Internet

Our friend Evgeny Morozov has a great new piece in Newsweek exploring how democratic governments and dictatorial regimes alike are successfully leveraging the Internet. He cites a number of examples we’ve brought to light on this blog, including Iranian Basiji bloggers and their location on our new Iranian blogosphere map, Israel-directed bloggers during the war in Gaza, and public diplomacy 2.0 in the US. He cites our own John Kelly on Iran’s efforts, writing, “John Kelly, an expert in the Iranian blogosphere at Harvard’s Berkman Center, has found that in the last year, the proportion of religious sites among the top 5,000 most-linked Iranian blogs has grown from 16 percent to 31 percent.”

The Kremlin of course is no stranger to the benefits of the Web either. While it is surprising to many that the Kremlin doesn’t block the Internet at all, Evgeny thinks this might be because they have had better luck spinning it. He writes:

The Kremlin uses a private firm, New Media Stars, founded by Konstantyn Rykov, a 29-year-old Duma deputy. Rykov’s new media empire includes online news sites, a site for supporters of Vladimir Putin (—”For Putin!”), online games and an Internet TV channel with a pro-Kremlin bent. Navigating these mazes of propaganda and trying to plant effective pro-American messages would be difficult even for a Web-savvy State Department.

The article also sheds light on China’s ’50 cent party,’ or the “loose networks of ordinary Netizens to promote government ideology by identifying and countering dissenting opinions on the Web.” A sort of Red Guard for the Internet.

This mobilization of ordinary citizens to push government propaganda may be the most successful tactic for governments on the Internet, instead of public relations campaigns like the Bush administration’s failed efforts to ‘rebrand’ the US in the Middle East, or the Kremin hiring of a web-savvy PR firm to promote its agenda. Further, as Evgeny pointed out during Russia’s war with Georgia last summer, the government may not need to push that hard to get Netizens to act on their behalf, especially when public opinion and traditional media are behind the government. My analysis of our data on the Russian blogosphere during that time showed that the majority of Russian language bloggers were also supportive of the government and highly critical of Georgia, especially President Saakashvili. However, examples like this may say more about the ‘rally around the flag’ effect, than anything inherent about Internet communication during war.

Posted in China, Iran, Russia. Comments Off on Facebook Diplomacy: How Governments are Exploiting the Internet

China Tightens Online Filters

Interesting reports coming from the New York Times earlier last week that there are some indications that the Chinese government has been stepping up efforts to aggressively filter and censor content online. As they report:

Since early January, the government has been waging a decency campaign that has closed more than 1,500 Web sites found to contain sex, violence or “vulgarity.” Numerous other sites, including Google, have responded by removing any pages that might offend puritanical sensibilities.

But indecency is often in the eye of the beholder. Last month, Bullog, a popular bastion for freewheeling bloggers, was shut down for what the authorities said were its “large amounts of harmful information on current events,” according to a notice posted by the site’s founder, Luo Yonghao. When Mr. Luo briefly resuscitated the site on Sunday using an overseas server, it was blocked again.

Many people here believe that Bullog may have crossed a line by posting information about Charter 08, an online petition calling for democratic reforms. Organizers say the manifesto has garnered thousands of signatures since its introduction in December. Within the Chinese Internet firewall, it is now nearly impossible to find a copy.

It’ll be interesting to see how this back-and-forth game between China’s online public (which, at 300 million, is the largest in the world) and the government evolve, particularly as the worldwide economic downturn sparks increased dissent and anger against the ruling Communist party online.

Dear Mr. President, China is Listening

Make sure you give some time to this great piece by Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Berkman fellow and currently an indispensable inside-source on China, freedom, internet censorship, etc. Her open letter to Pres. Obama on the value of the internet in re-defining U.S.-China relationships hits it exactly on the mark, especially in suggesting that a new post-“Radio Free Asia” kind of public diplomacy is necessary to engage the Web 2.0 generation of Chinese fervently using blogs, Skype and Twitter. (On the theme of revamping public diplomacy, see my piece about James Glassman.)

Posted in blogging, China, Current Events, Free Speech, I&D Project, Ideas. Comments Off on Dear Mr. President, China is Listening

Chinese Censor Obama Speech (Part II)

Here’s the clip of the awkward censoring of Obama’s inaugural by China’s state-run CCTV, which we also blogged about yesterday. The Times also has a piece on this today.

Hat Tip: Joshua Keating

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