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Mobile Phones Easier to Find Than Food for World’s Poor

This news from Foreign Policy’s Joshua Keating is pretty amazing. He writes that:

We’ve reached a very strange point in human history when it is assumed that people who don’t have access to food will have working cell phones.

He points to an announcement by the UN that it will use cell phones to send $22 vouchers to Iraqi refugee families in Syria every two months. They are provided with special SIM cards for the transactions, and the vouchers can then be exchanged for staples such as rice, flour, lentils, chickpeas, and oil at selected stores.

Perhaps expecting that eye brows might be raised at the idea that those needing food aid would have cell phones, the UN’s Emilia Casella reports, “all the 130,000 Iraqi refugees currently receiving food aid from the agency in Syria have mobile phones.”

UN Dispatch’s Matthew Cordell further points out that, according to the ITU, “worldwide at the end of 2008 there were 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions, buoyed by developing countries, where two-thirds of those subscriptions were used.” Even if most of us look at ITU data with a fair amount of skepticism, that is a pretty phenomenally high number of cell phone subscriptions, and stories like this seem to indicate that the digital divide may be shrinking faster than many of us expected.

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.

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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

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.

A $20 Laptop?

According to Foreign Policy, India is ready to unveil a $20 laptop that could seriously undermine One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) efforts to get its technology into the hands of those on the far side of the digital divide. The Indian laptop, called Sakshat, will have 2 GB of memory and wireless connectivity to the Internet. There was quite a bit of discussion here at Berkman recently when it was announced that OLPC would lay off half of its staff, and force those that remained to take pay cuts. The Indian government also apparently refused to support the OLPC project, citing it’s costs as too high and better spent on other areas of primary and secondary education. At least for now though, OLPC may not have too much to worry about since India has yet to find a manufacturer, and this is not exactly best time to launch any new technology project. In the mean time, SMS and cell phones will most likely remain the technology of choice for the majority in the developing world, which raises the need for more innovative tools like Frontline SMS to tap into their full potential for civil society.

Internet Boasts 1 Billion Users Globally

An influential Thai newspaper, The Nation, ran this unique op-ed, reflecting on the fact that there are now at least 1billion internet users globally. Many of its more hopeful conclusions echo the thoughts I have been writing about in this blog for several months. The hope, for instance, that the Internet will increase democratic participation and that a medium so vast and decentralized must be a naturally democratic tool of free expression and assembly.

Importantly, however, the op-ed is quick to qualify by also stating some of the new problems which global internet usage represents: sexual exploitation, illegal downloads and the slow decline of traditional journalism. (Unfortunately, the article remains conspicuously silent about Thai internet censorship.)

I was thinking about these things this afternoon, particularly the much talked-about demise of journalism. And I began to think that perhaps the more connected we are — the more we produce and consume our own information — the less objective or restrained our national and international debate may ultimately become.

Whether it’s the Internet “echo chambers” (a phrase coined by, I believe, Cass Sunstein) of the partisan American blogosphere or the Israeli and Hamas factions which collided in cyberspace as well as on the ground, the Internet hold at least as much potential to produce the kind of brash and overamplified YouTube message box discourse as substantive discussion and reflection.

This felt quite disappointing, of course, and I might have given in to cynicism when I stumbled on this quotation:

But such things are the cost of this new form of democracy, a “truer” democracy in many people’s view. Opportunities provided by the Internet must simply be taken by all. New knowledge is being grabbed, exchanged, shared and spawning new knowledge. Ideologies are being tested, challenged and questioned, not by those who used to have the power to say “this is right” or “that is wrong”, but by common people searching for their own truths.

I think it sums up in just the right way how the Internet’s pitfalls (and they are real) may matter less in the end than the combinatorial testing of ideologies and beliefs which its cacophanous medium creates. There is and will be a lot of fruitless, narrow and ugly discussion online, but it will also be laid bare to a civil society whose boundaries now eclipse most national borders. Taboos will fall, but so will prejudice. In an open discussion, there is room for revision.

Ushahidi and Click Diagnostics Finalists for Innovation Award

Congratulations to our friends at Ushahidi and Click Diagnostics who filled two of the top three finalists spots (out of 115 nominated projects) in USAID’s Development 2.0 Challenge. The Click Diagnostics CEO is Mridul Chowdhury who graduated from the Kennedy School, is a longtime friend of the Berkman Center, and also wrote the Internet and Democracy case study on Burma. Besides being a documentary film maker and a super nice guy, he’s also co-Founder of Click Diagnostics, which uses technology to improve rural health care delivery in the developing world. And we’ve already sung the praises of Ushahidi, whose story is detailed in our other recent case on Kenya’s post election violence. I see that Ushahidi is now also being used by Al Jazeera to map violence in Gaza. Several Berkman friends helped create Ushahidi including Ory Okolloh and Erik Hersman. You can see Erik and several other important Kenyan bloggers in this short film made after our digital activism event last year–along with a number of other leading digital activists. Neither walked away with the top prize in this one, but congratulations again to the Ushahidi community and the whole team at Click Diagnostics for snagging the runners up prizes!

Posted in Africa, blogging, Developing world, Tech Tools. Comments Off on Ushahidi and Click Diagnostics Finalists for Innovation Award

Censorship Hurts Free Trade?

I thought this Huffington op-ed pretty uniquely turns the tables on the “evil American corporations are complying with foreign autocrats” meme. The argument is that censorship ends up being a trade barrier, by cramping IT products from functioning fully. Google in China is a tainted product. Instead of punishing U.S. companies who, for legal reasons, comply with the demands of censorship regimes, the whole issue could be recast as an unfair trade barrier, and therefore addressable by a body like the WTO.

This would effectively turn the levers of international finance against censorship, and may provide the kind of incentive needed for a county like China to consider opening up a bit. I’m not totally convinced it would work. The Chinese Communist Party seems, despite cost and bad PR , pretty hellbent on controlling information. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to hear the unusual perspective of Big Business on the question.

Posted in China, Developing world, I&D Project. Comments Off on Censorship Hurts Free Trade?

Thai Website Blacklist Leaked

Wikileaks managed to find the official list of blacklisted sites from the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) in Thailand. Thailand has aggressively, if often ineffectually, attempted to control the internet, especially supposed infractions of its severe lese majeste law (see my piece earlier this year, as well as this article for more background on Thai censorship).

The list demonstrates exactly what is to be expected. Many sites were over-blocked and nixed for political reasons, even by the standards of lese majeste, itself a politically motivated statute, intended to “protect” the King. I trust Thai bureaucrats much less than Google, about whose policy of evaluating flagged YouTube clips I feel some unease. More abstractly, this story brings an Orwellian truth to light, that citizens should always distrust a government’s control over their information world.

What is fascinating to me though is how clearly the Thai government’s attempt to tame a medium as porous and expansive as the internet is failing. In the good old days, you forced the newspapers and TV stations either to license or self-censor under the threat of fines and jail. You might arrest a few prominent journalists as an example and call it a day. Although today many bloggers are being jailed (now, according to Bruce Etling here at Berkman, more frequently than traditional journalists) the mechanisms of state censorship are no longer as shrouded in mystery or difficult to assess.

The internet, by publishing leaks which none but the most underground of traditional newspapers might dare to print, naturally resists the yoke of the censorship regime. The harder a country tries to censor the internet (and China and Thailand are trying pretty hard), the more its stream of information slips like sand through their fingers.

1,203 is a paltry sum of websites, and yet probably represents a significant exertion of man hours on the part of government employees, bewildered that they must patrol a world wide series of interconnected networks, mirrors and proxy servers of free information. The censorship regime, as I see it, even the fancy Chinese firewall, is doomed to crumble under the weight of this exponentially expanding infrastructure of ideas. That includes all the taboo, dissident and revolutionary ones, too.

Media Re:public Launch and Human Rights Media

A year long Berkman research collaboration called Media Re:public has just been released. It is a wide-ranging and diverse set of papers analyzing the seismic shifts which the internet and the participatory media are creating in the landscape of traditional news.

What I like so far from what I’ve read is how it engages not only the obvious questions of new and different revenue streams, but also the stickier complexities of how the internet is altering how the news is written, disseminated and consumed. I highly encourage you to read the pdf of the overview (fair warning: it’s fifty some pages long). It’s a comprehensive, readable summary of this exciting initiative.

I was particularly interested in the section on how the slow contraction of foreign newspaper coverage in remote or dangerous areas has de facto transferred the responsibility of covering them to coalitions of human-rights groups and citizen journalists (p. 17 and following, Overview). It may be too expensive (or indeed, illegal) to maintain a foreign correspondent in Burma, but international human rights groups and the activists they support are in the business of writing investigative reports and sharing them with the world.

Allowing human rights types to shoulder reportorial responsibilities may have other benefits as well. I think a greater sense of urgency could permeate the international news cycle, particularly when it comes to repressive regimes. If produced with the help of local activists and citizen journalists, the report could also avoid the pitfalls of some MSM international coverage, which can seem America-centric or out of touch with historical and cultural realities.

Recall that in Burma, due to a restrictive foreign journalist visa policy, much of what was happening during the Saffron Revolution came from locals with camera phones and blogs. Human rights advocacy groups could thus function as the facilitating network (and the internet, their conduit) for a totally reconceived kind of international coverage of the developing world.

Posted in blogging, Citizen Journalism, Current Events, Developing world. Comments Off on Media Re:public Launch and Human Rights Media