Hard Questions for #iLaw2011's Freedom of Information/Arab Spring Sessions

We’ve revived the iLaw program after a five-year hiatus. This year, it’s an experiment in teaching at Harvard Law School: part class (for about 125 students) and part conference (with friends from around the world here for the week). And JZ has taken the baton from Terry Fisher as our iLaw Chair.  An exciting day.

I’ve been preparing for two sessions on Day 1: “Freedom of Expression and Online Liberty” and then a case study on the Arab Spring (which will feature, among others, our colleague Nagla Rizk of the American University in Cairo). I’ve been thinking about some of the hard questions that I’m hoping we’ll take up during those sessions.

– What effect does a total shutdown of the network have on protests? I’ve been enjoying reading and thinking about this article on SSRN.  The author, Navid Hassanpour, argues (from the abstract): “I argue that … sudden interruption of mass communication accelerates revolutionary mobilization and proliferates decentralized contention.”

– We’ve assigned two chapters from Yochai Benkler’s landmark book, the Wealth of Networks (the introduction and the first 22 pages of chapter 7, which you can read freely online).  I am trying to figure out how well Yochai’s theoretical from a few years ago is holding up.  So far, so well, I think.  The examples in the second chapter that we assigned – Sinclair Broadcasting and Diebold – feel distant from the Arab Spring and Wikileaks examples that are front-of-mind today.  But the essential teachings seem to be holding up very well.  How might we add to the wiki, as it were, of WoN, knowing what we now know?  (Another way to look at this question, riffing off of something Yochai hits in his own lecture: what was the role of Al-Jazeera and other big media outlets, in combination with the amateur media and organizers?)

– We have gotten very good at studying some aspects of the Internet, as a network and as a social/political/cultural space.  We can show what the network of bloggers or Twitterers look like in a given linguistic culture.  We can show what web sites are censored where around the world (see the ONI).  We can survey and interview people about their online (and offline) behaviors.  But lots of things move very fast online and in digital culture, and it’s hard to keep up, in terms of developing good methods and deploying them.  What are the things that we’d like to be able to know about that we haven’t learned yet how to study?  Plainly, activity within closed networks like Facebook is a problem: lots is happening there, and surveys of users can help, but we can’t do much in terms of getting at Facebook usage patterns through technology (and there are privacy problems associated with doing so, even if we could).  Mobile is another: our testing of Internet filtering, for instance, is mostly limited to the standard web-browsing/http get request type of activity.  What else do we want/need to know empirically, to understand politics, activism, and democracy in a networked world?

– How much did the demographic element — a large youth population in several Middle East/North African cultures — matter, if at all, with respect to the Arab Spring?  How important were the skills, among elite youth primarily, to use social media as part of its organizing?

– How did the online organizing of the Arab Spring mesh with the offline activism in the streets?

– How much did the regional element matter, i.e., the domino quality to the uprisings?  Does this have anything to do with use of the digital networks, shared language, and social/cultural solidarity that crossed geo-political boundaries?

– What, if anything, does the Wikileaks story have to do with the Arab Spring story?  Larry Lessig pulls them quickly together; Nagla Rizk and Lina Attalah balk at this characterization.  We’ll dig in this afternoon.

– [Student-suggested topic #1, via Twitter:] What’s the effect of the US State Department’s Internet Freedom strategy?

– [Student-suggested topic #2, via Twitter:] Does the distribution/democratization of channels of discourse undercut rather than support dissent, organizing, etc.?

There’s much more to unpack, but these are some of the things in my mind…

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