#IMWeekly: October 28, 2013

German officials alleged that the US had monitored Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone for more than a decade. The allegations were based on leaked documents obtained by the German news magazine Der Spiegel. While the US administration has denied that President Barack Obama was aware of or approved any intelligence operations involving Merkel, the controversy has increased tension between the US and its European allies and has provoked calls within Germany to better shield domestic Internet traffic from foreign intelligence services.

Google announced the creation of Uproxy, a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that can allow users all over the world to bypass restrictive firewalls by using peer-to-peer connections. The new technology has the potential to provide uncensored Internet access for activists all over the world.

The administration of recently elected President Hassan Rouhani announced that it is closely reviewing and revising government censorship policies. The review process is beginning with censored books, but statements by Iranian officials suggest that they may also revisit government policies that restrict access to various websites and social media—a goal that is in line with statements made by President Rouhani prior to his election.

A group of nations led by Germany and Brazil joined together to push for a UN General Resolution to promote a right of privacy on the Internet. The meeting of diplomats in New York represented the first significant international effort to limit NSA surveillance powers exposed in recent revelations about American spying. Diplomats are reportedly considering a draft resolution that expands on the privacy rights contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#IMWeekly: September 16, 2013

Chinese Internet users, worried about the implications of the country’s new anti-online rumor policy, are scrambling to “un-verify” their Weibo accounts. The new policy, part of a judicial decision made earlier this month, allows Chinese Internet users to be charged with defamation (and sentenced to up to 3 years in jail) if they post a rumor online that is reposted more than 500 times or visited more than 5000 times. Weibo users with verified accounts—which indicate that the user, generally a celebrity, is who he or she claims to be—are asking the microblogging site to remove their verified status in the hopes that this might prevent them from being as easily identified (and potentially charged with defamation) online.

More than 20,000 people gathered in Berlin earlier this month to protest against surveillance. Protestors at Freiheit Statt Angst (Freedom Not Fear), organized by a coalition of human rights organizations, political parties, and NGOs, spoke out against the effects of surveillance on press freedom and human rights, among other issues.

Activist Ngo Hao has been sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of publishing false and defaming information about government officials online and of trying to overthrow the government. Hao is one of at least 35 bloggers and cyberdissidents currently detained in Vietnam.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Neuland or Nowhere Land? Reflecting on Evanescence, Immortality, and Internet Memes

In a joint press conference with President Obama last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the Internet as “Neuland”—literally, an “uncharted territory”—in response to a question about initial reports of the US National Security Agency’s PRISM program. Specifically, she said the Internet was “new or uncharted territory for all of us.” Merkel’s words immediately became the target of a widespread meme. According to Der Spiegel, #Neuland began trending on Twitter within minutes, and images and gifs that poke fun at Merkel from different angles began circulating shortly thereafter. Some images cast Merkel as a luddite or “Internet granny,” while others depicted her as a futuristic imperialist with designs on the new world.

(Image source: Know Your Meme: Neuland)

When people hear the name Richard Dawkins, they might think of the Oxford educated evolutionary biologist, or perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, which he is. But according to Dawkins, he is also the “father of the meme.” In Dawkins’ recent Just for Hits Talk, he reminds us that he is the man who gave the world the term “meme” and claims he would rather leave behind memes than genes. In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he used the term to explain the non-genetic transmission of meaning and social habits among human beings. Like genes, memes are replicators, but in the cultural rather than biological sense.  Dawkins claims they spread “blog to blog” rather than “brain to brain.”

In addition to being carriers of culture, memes have a social and political function; they galvanize and mobilize people. We’ve seen this globally over time and more recently in citizen-led protests in China and Turkey, the coup in Egypt, and civil war in Syria. The Neuland meme clearly conveys the frustration that people feel when government representatives and policy makers are out of touch with their needs and everyday experiences. Younger, tech savvy generations around the world are losing patience and respect for leaders with outdated mindsets who lack real-world knowledge and skills. The Neuland meme is an expression of the collective political disenchantment of our day. Its meaning transcends race, class, gender and state boundaries to resonate with citizens around the world, not just with Germans. Seeing Merkel as an Internet granny calls to mind other images that express citizens’ lack of faith in technologically challenged world leaders.

As the population of Internet users increases, questions about how ideas are generated and spread drive communication studies and information sciences forward. More than a decade ago, philosopher Daniel Dennett stated in TED talk that “people are surprisingly resistant to applying evolutionary thinking to thinking.” Today, however, the spread of ideas online is often described in biological terms—“going viral” being one of the most prominent—and the Internet’s ecosystem is undeniably lively. Ideas meet and mix and reproduce. They spread across online landscapes remarkably like wildflowers and behave at times like wildfire. There is life on the Internet, but what influences the birth and lifespan of a single meme is still uncertain.

In his Just for Hits Talk, Dawkins argued that a meme one creates “may live on long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.” We know the Twittersphere had a good laugh at the chancellor’s gaff last month, but it remains to be seen how long the effects of #Neuland will last. Angela Merkel is up for reelection in September, and we will find out if the Neuland meme is political terra firma or not. Chancellor Merkel is probably hoping this particular meme will not be her legacy, but that is for German citizens and global netizens to decide.