Internet & Democracy: China, Iran, the Arabic Blogosphere

These are heady days for the study of Internet and its relationship to the practice of politics and the struggles over democratic decision-making. Three stories — in China, in Iran, and throughout the Arabic-speaking world — make a powerful case for the deepening relevance of the use of new technologies by citizens to the balance of political power around the world.

First, there was the Green Dam story. The Chinese government upped the ante in the Internet filtering business by announcing a new regulation on the providers of computer hardware. This regulation would require that new computers be shipped along with filtering software, the so-called Green Dam filtering software. We at the ONI released an analysis of this proposed software mandate. This story matters because having state-mandated software at the layer closest to the user would have an extraordinary chilling effect on the use of these technologies, not to mention the possibilities for censorship, surveillance, and other forms of control that such software would open up for the state. (Plus, there was an increase in censorship activity around June 4.)

Today, there is the crisis in Iran. At a moment of political upheaval, the key stories about what is happening on the ground is being told, and supplemented, by citizens on web 2.0 tools — blogs, Twitter, social networks, on sites like Global Voices. The State Department is reportedly working with Twitter to keep the service up — and the information flowing in and out from Iran, as traditional media find themselves more constrained than in other settings. I am imagining the conversation within the intelligence and diplomatic communities, and elsewhere in politics, about the value of this discourse and open source intelligence in general in these moments of crisis. If ever it were in doubt, I’d imagine today is helping to put many doubts to rest about the importance of this networked public sphere.

In the same spirit, tomorrow, we are releasing our study of the Arabic language blogosphere. The real-space, official session will take place at the United States Institute of Peace, as part of their wonderful “bullets to bytes” series. We’re delighted to have the chance to release our study with these terrific colleagues — and, together, to bust some myths about the networked public sphere in the Arabic world. The idea is to set forth a systematic, empirical study of the extraordinary public conversations we can observe in tens of thousands of blogs across the Arabic-speaking world.

What a week!

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