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Internet Weakens Democracy?

Check out this provocative and fascinating piece by Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute. The central question it raises, whether the Internet is really a force for democratic change, is as complex as it is necessary to ask. Cyber-savvy young voters (see also our coverage of “Born Digital”), kindled by Obama, may have heralded a civic reawakening for America, but as Morozov rightly points out, one should be cautious about overstating the internet’s power as a catalyst for an activist citizenry, especially in authoritarian countries. As Morozov sadly notes:

The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but the Chinese Firewall has been erected in its place.

The role of the internet in democratization is sometimes ambivalent or contradictory. The Berkman study of the Saffron Revolution in Burma turned on this question. Why was the internet, so crucial in organizing and publicizing protests, not ultimately effective in overthrowing Burma’s repressive military junta?

Morozov provocatively points to the web’s endless stream of entertainment as a possible explanation for the malaise of democratic movements. The internet is a sirensong of cheap thrills and escapism, foreign movies and sex. It is slowly transforming “digital renegades” and potential activists into “digital captives” of Hollywood distraction. As Antony Loewenstein, author of a book about blogging in repressive regimes, remarked at a recent Berkman luncheon, far more bloggers want to meet girls than agitate for reform.

Having said all that, Morozov’s conclusion — that young people in repressive regimes prefer Paris Hilton clips to freedom — strikes me as too cynical. Though no quick fix panacea, the internet has contributed to greater participation and group association. Strong correlations between increased internet capability and democratization, though not ultimately conclusive, surely reinforce this belief.

Perhaps the changes have less to do with formal democratic movements than the immense proliferation of speech on the web. This is what makes the Iranian blogosphere so vibrant, the Chinese one so resilient and the Burmese one so dedicated, despite varying levels of autocratic control. The web has broken the authoritarian choke-hold over information, even if what is flooding in from the outside is imperfect or censored. Web 2.0 technology is clearly one source of this altered dynamic; it’s easier to gag a newspaper than censor a thousand blogs.

The more impossible internet output becomes to contain, the more plausible I think it is that censorship regimes will crack, even ones as massive as the Chinese firewall. This may not be democratic activism of the most visible form, but perhaps it gives more radical democratizing movements a chance to succeed.

“Conversation, not Dictation”: Public Diplomacy 2.0

As Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, James Glassman has vamped up efforts to debate with jihadists on the internet. In fact, Glassman has completely retooled the federal government’s virtual presence, hoping to harness the power of web 2.0 interactive technology to fight a “war of ideas, ” a sort of public diplomacy 2.0.

During a recent appearance at the New America Foundation (an mp3 of his talk can be found here), Glassman made this particularly striking comment about the internet:

This new virtual world is democratic. It is an agora. It is not a place for a death cult that counts on keeping its ideology sealed off from criticism. The new world is a marketplace of ideas and it is no coincidence that Al Qaeda blows up marketplaces.

Glassman has been pushing for open debates between State Dept. representatives and members of foreign publics on Facebook and Iranian blogs. He helped to organize a conference of international bloggers, not all of whom were vetted for pro-Western views. He helped to fund (but not to direct or control) a series on Morrocan television about American Islam and religious tolerance and to sponsor a legal debate about Guantanamo at a Kuwaiti university.

Of course, it is easy to see in all of this simply the newest twist in a global propaganda battle, one smacking moreover of Cold War influence jockeying. Yet Glassman, a conservative libertarian naturally uneasy with excessive state power and control, takes, I think, a more nuanced position. He seems to believe that instead of lecturing the world about “American values” from our city on a hill, public diplomacy efforts should be aimed at the facilitation of their practice and I think he’s right. An actually open debate about democratic values (not simply PR to “sell” American policy) will expose extremism for the shallow dogmatism and violence it actually represents.

Instead of defensively exclaiming the superiority of Western civilization (so often the timbe of existential “the West vs. Islam” discussions), the State Department should encourage debate and dissent, dialogue and peaceful protest, or, as Glassman put it, “conversation, not dictation.” It should make space for moderate forces to stand on their own (away from Washington’s deadly imprimatur) and it should take seriously the grudge, borne by much of the world, that America arrogantly dismisses its input.

In diplomatic speak, Glassman is trying to rebuild “soft power,” the good old battle for “hearts and minds” (though see Marc Lynch’s thoughts on Glassman and on the “war of ideas” in general). Glass believes the election of Barack Obama could itself be a catalyst for selling democracy and restoring America’s tarnished international reputation.

But he further, and rightly I think, believes that the internet, a naturally democratic communication platform, is where such a battle of ideas will ultimately take place. Social networking sites decentralize officially sponsored messages, be they from Al-Qaeda or the State Department, opening them up to the rigor of debate and democratic discourse. Instead of being feared, social networking sites should be encouraged. Let go a bit of the officially controlled message, of the narrow and current foreign policy agenda of the United States, and I think America can show itself through the more complex prism of its strengths, ideals and imperfections. Glassman believes that that is how the fight is won.

How Google Decides

Check out this interesting article in New York Times Magazine on the legal team Google currently employs to make decisions about controversial content. Nicole Wong, Google’s deputy general counsel, leads the group and daily must walk the thin line between protecting free expression and mollifying the world’s easily offended governments.

YouTube in particular has proved treacherous legal ground in Turkey and Thailand, where statutes make it illegal to speak out about certain taboo topics (respectively: Ataturk and Thailand’s aging constitutional monarch). Part of Google’s controversial response has been to program geolocational filters into YouTube’s search function.

Nicole Wong runs the other half of the operation. Her team of humans attempt to analyze videos flagged as “inappropriate” by users and angry governments. They must then make decisions which balance local laws and YouTube’s terms of service agreement with a purported commitment to free speech.

The most interesting part of the article speculates on how long, in a rapidly proliferating landscape of user content, Google can practically keep up this kind of case by case kind of judgment. The approach is itself already flawed. Only the most clamorous and sensitive material crosses Wong’s desk. That means that hundreds of content decisions are given much less legal attention and care, but are just as final and unquestionable.

The alternative I suppose is the nastiness of auto-filters and national firewalls, but my faith in a benevolent Google dictator, both capable and just in its patrol of the net, is not overwhelming. Nor am I completely convinced as yet that agree to censor a small number of videos (let us say, for example, the offensive “Ataturk is gay” clips) is a moral compromise small enough to swallow, even for the sake of partial YouTube access.

I was thinking about a possible analogy with the former East Germany. Should the West have capitulated in shielding East Germans from images or reports of its quality of life and political freedom? Google is a company, not Radio Free Europe, but complicity, however careful, with any government’s attempt to create a closed information world is troubling, at best.

If there is some hope, it rests with something like the Berkman-backed GNI (Global Network Initiative), which created an international, multi-company framework for guidelines and legal accountability when it comes to free expression online. Google is participating in this agreement; but it is not alone, co-signing with giants like Yahoo! and Microsoft and prominent human rights groups (minus Amnesty International which has criticized the initiative).

This will hopefully distribute the burden of responsibility away from companies with potentially compromising internal profit motives (even gentle giants like Google) to a cross-market competition for high compliance ratings (and the potential of “socially responsible” investment capital to follow). In that picture, companies will have an incentive to stick to their guns when it comes to free expression and allies when parliaments and bureacrats come calling for the internet’s silence.

Antony Loewenstein Speaks At Berkman

Anthony Loewenstein, author of the recent book The Blogging Revolution, stopped by for a luncheon/lecture here at the Berkman Center yesterday. Loewenstein, a journalist in background, prepared for the book by traveling to some of the world’s more repressive regimes and interviewing bloggers about how the internet and blogging in particular is changing the world they live in. The full transcript of his remarks can be found here. I wanted to offer a few of the points I found to be particularly interesting.

1. Loewenstein repeatedly pointed to a sort of blind spot in Western journalism that is actually obscuring our view of the non-Western world. This includes the fact that most Western coverage is reported by Western correspondents who sometimes (as he himself confessed during the Q&A; he only spent a month there and mostly spoke to American bloggers living in Syria) do not remain long in a country or learn the requisite local languages to penetrate deeply into more indigenous stories and perspectives.

In particular, the Western “lens” (and here Loewenstein singled out the New York Times) tends to self-filter news into the categories and pre-suppositions that fit the exigencies of American foreign policy. On this point, one had the feeling that Loewenstein was mostly right (e.g. the newspeak “War on Terror”), though he seemed to have an almost conspiratorial conviction about Washington’s influence. He was careful to stress that the Manichean division of “good” versus “bad” nations (for example, “Israeli” vs “Arab”) has been more a hallmark of Bush-era policy.

The point of all of this is that bloggers fill in our picture of the developing and Islamic world where newspapers and major media fail, in large part because the bulk of Western stories obsessively follow themes like “terrorism” and “Palestine/Israel” which tend to reduce and oversimplify our view of the entire region. Instead of puffing our ghosts and specters, the West should be tuning in to hear the real story from the ground, as provided by citizen journalists and just average people writing blogs.

2. This does not mean, however, that bloggers are the harbingers of upcoming democratic revolutions in the Middle East or China. Although the internet widens the scope of free expression (or at least makes it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to contain dissent), Loewenstein often encountered a kind of weariness for calls to arms and revolution. One Iranian blogger, in particular, told Loewenstein that he felt strongly about reform, but that it needed to come about in a gradual, almost Burkean, sort of way.

Loewenstein connected this to a need for the West to overcome its epistemological shortcomings and embrace moderate factions, particularly elements of political Islam like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Instead, in the relentless fight against a spooky AlQaeda menace and pragmatic energy policy, Washington props up pretty bad rulers. If they read native blogs, they would have a better idea of who these factions are. The would hear the voices of moderate factions who are as uneasy with American or European meddling as they are with the regular torture, repression and abuse which characterizes their own regime. This includes Muslim women against female circumcision or restrictive social policies, pro-reform Islamists and change-eager Cubans.

3. Having said all that, most blogging in the developing world is not political in scope. Not everyone running a blog (and these are generally middle class folks to begin with) is a dissident or human rights activist. Much of it centers on dating or music, fashion and everyday life. Loewenstein rightly insists, however, that this is itself a kind of free expression and step toward an open society worth paying attention to.

I think there is a kind of cynical rebuttal to his argument which says that the banality of everday blogs in repressive regimes is highly conditioned by the fear of speaking out on anything political. Of course, this dynamic must differ from regime to regime. In Iran, where even Western music and fashion is banned by the morality police, the struggle to do banal and everday things is already a political struggle; in Thailand, where only the borders of internet are really policed (lese majeste and jihadist websites), it’s easier to maintain an apolitical kind of free expression.

4. Loewenstein had harsh words for internet companies which collude in censorship. He pointed, as we have before as well, to the geo-locational filtering YouTube uses to adapt content to local countries. He did concede that perhaps blocking four videos instead of four thousand is better, but I almost wanted him to stick to his guns and insist that countries take YouTube all or nothing. Not because I think this will loosen the knots of censorship, but because public outcry and dissent could be wide enough to choke back the state’s ever encroaching authority and control over democratic discourse.

All in all, a great talk and we thank Antony for stopping by!

The King and I: Thailand’s Royal Firewall

Five days ago, Reporters Without Borders reported that the Thai government is stepping up its efforts to censor pornographic, terrorist and anti-monarchy material on the web by installing a country-wide firewall overseen by MICT (Ministry of Internet and Communications Technology). Estimates for the cost of the project range from 3 to 15 million dollars and would presumably replace the secret process of blacklisting and selective filtering already in place. (YouTomb, an outfit of MIT Free Culture, discovered awhile back that YouTube was using special coding flags to filter Thai content geographically, especially content held to be offensive to the royal family.)

Internet censorship is nothing new in Thailand. What makes this new initiative alarming is the political climate Thailand currently finds itself in. After years of military coups and failed constitutions, Thais held their first reportedly free and legitimate election in 2001. This brought Thaksin Shinawatra and his populist Thai Rak Thai party to power by a landslide. After winning again in 2005, however, allegations of corruption and hostility to the free press fomented a series of highly visible anti-government protests by an opposition group and then, even more dramatically, a bloodless military coup on September 19, 2006.

The junta scrapped the 1997 Constitution, dissolved the Thai Rak Thai party and, last May, passed an expansive Cyber Crimes Bill. (The bill gives Thai police extraordinary latitude in data seizure and investigation into “illegal” access.) Then, when elections were finally held in December 2007, a reorganized People’s Power Party (made up mostly of ex-Thai Rak Thai folks) managed to take a near majority in the Thai House of Representatives, despite intimidation from the junta.

In this politically charged environment, the internet has become a battlefield. Arguments over free expression and the touchy issue of Thai beloved monarchy are fanning partisan flames. The chief anti-government party has repeated claimed that Thaksin, and now his successors in the People’s Power Party, are perpetrators of lèse majesté, that is, the offense of insulting or defaming the Royal Family. Lèse majesté is an offense punishable by three to fifteen years.

According to some, the current government’s proposed firewall to block content insulting the king (many of the controversial YouTube videos mock the monarch as an “ape king”) is a bid to win over the anti-government opposition. Controlling the internet also gives the government the sort of law and order credibility needed to stave off another coup by the brass.

Thailand’s aging constitutional monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, seems to be above the fray. In 2005, the king publicly distanced himself from lèse majesté laws, often pardoning those convicted. Still, the zeal with which the Thai police are allowed to investigate allegation of lèse majesté is frightening.

An Australian national, Harry Nicolaides, is currently being held in a detention center without bail for writing three sentences in a small self-published novel (it reportedly sold seven copies), which may or may not “suggest” that the crown prince has a torrid sex life.

This example, combined with the fervor the government showed in attacking puerile YouTube videos, leaves one unsettled as to the potential for further and more substantive internet censorship in Thailand. After all, Burma’s crackdown on “cyber dissidents” took place just across the border. Thailand’s current instability (anti-government forces occupied the parliament building again today) would be fertile ground for using and controlling the internet as a political weapon.

Stuart Shieber and the Future of Open Access Publishing

Back in February Harvard adopted a mandate requiring its faculty member to make their research papers available within a year of publication. Stuart Shieber is a computer science professor at Harvard and responsible for proposing the policy. He has since been named director of Harvard’s new Office for Scholarly Communication.

On November 12 Shieber gave a talk entitled “The Future of Open Access — and How to Stop It” to give an update on where things stand after the adoption of the open access mandate. Open access isn’t just something that makes sense from an ethical standpoint, as Shieber points out that (for-profit) journal subscription costs have risen out of proportion with inflation costs and out of proportion with the costs of nonprofit journals. He notes that the cost per published page in a commercial journal is six times that of the nonprofits. With the current library budget cuts, open access — meaning both access to articles directly on the web and shifting subscriptions away from for-profit journals — is something that appears financially unavoidable.

Here’s the business model for an Open Access (OA) journal: authors pay a fee upfront in order for their paper to be published. Then the issue of the journal appears on the web (possibly also in print) without an access fee. Conversely, traditional for-profit publishing doesn’t charge the author to publish, but keeps the journal closed and charges subscription fees for access.

Shieber recaps Harvard’s policy:

1. The faculty member grants permission to the University to make the article available through an OA repository.

2. There is a waiver for articles: a faculty member can opt out of the OA mandate at his or her sole discretion. For example, if you have a prior agreement with a publisher you can abide by it.

3. The author themselves deposits the article in the repository.
Read the rest of this entry »

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

Posted in A2K3, Developing world, Ideas, Organizing. Comments Off on A2K3: Opening Scientific Research Requires Societal Change

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