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…

Google in China

I’m looking forward to a day of watching the fallout from the Google-China-HK announcement yesterday. I give Google an enormous amount of credit for the approach that they are taking; it’s a worthy effort to meet what they consider their human rights obligations while seeking to engage in the China market, both of which are laudable. I’ll be surprised, though, if the Chinese government doesn’t decide fairly promptly to block the redirects from Google.cn to the uncensored Hong Kong site, though.  This chess-game also demonstrates the importance of (and challenges inherent in) the work of the Global Network Initiative, of which Google is a member, along with Microsoft and Yahoo!

(For more info: See generally the OpenNet Initiative site, blog, research papers, and so forth online.  There’s also a chapter on this issue, written by our colleague Colin Maclay, in the forthcoming OpenNet Initiative book called Access Controlled, due out within the month from MIT Press, as there is in our previous book, Access Denied, available online.  Here’s a piece in which I make a cameo on CNN on Google and China, one of many video-clips on this topic.  And Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog is always informative on these topics.)

Green Dam Implementation Delayed in China

Xinhua is reporting that the MIIT in China has decided to delay implementation of the Green Dam Youth Escort software program. (HT: Rebecca MacKinnon, who has been doing a terrific job documenting the proposed Green Dam regulation from the start on her blog.)

Much to their credit, leaders like Commerce Secretary Gary Locke of the Obama Administration have been pushing back on the proposed Chinese regulations on trade-related grounds.  Today’s announcement from Xinhua suggests that perhaps reason has prevailed and the push-back has been effective.

Here’s hoping implementation of the Green Dam software mandate(-or-is-it?) is indefinitely delayed. The software had all manner of problems, which we at the ONI, among others, documented. And the notion of requiring, or even just “strongly encouraging,” implementation of a given software program on all computers would set a terrible precedent in terms of the ability for the state to control communications of its citizens.

NYT story on Iran Elections and Technology, with Linkage to Green Dam

The New York Times’ Brian Stelter and Brad Stone have a very thoughtful piece in the paper today about the changing role of censorship in an Internet age, with references to ONI work. The final point, made in the story by Ethan Zuckerman, draws an appropriate connection to the Green Dam story in China from a few weeks ago.

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!

Spamdog Millionaire: Social Media Spam and Internet Filtering

Our friends at StyleFeeder have offered up some great data about the geographic sources of social media spam on their tech blog.  The background: Philip Jacob, the founder of StyleFeeder, is a long-time anti-spam advocate, while also being a careful guy who doesn’t want to ruin the Net in the process of fighting nuisance online.  At StyleFeeder, they are seeing a growing number of posts about illegal movie downloads, pharaceuticals, adn the usual spammy subjects.  Along with his colleagues, he’s developed a tool called Assassin to identify the source of the posts and get rid of them on the StyleFeeder site.  In the process, they’ve noticed that the vast majority comes from India (with the US next, Pakistan as a distant third, and China weighing in over 5% in fourth place).

The rest of the post examines a familiar ONI-style question: wouldn’t it be much easier for a US-based site simply to filter out users from India, Pakistan, and China, for instance?  After all, it’s a for-profit company, with no revenues being generated through these markets.  Much to their credit, Phil and co. are taking a different path.

Phil’s post ends with a great research question: “How widespread is this kind of blocking by startups who are susceptible to the armies of computer-literate Indian social media spammers? I’m wondering what other small companies do when faced with annoying users in countries that aren’t part explicitly part of their target markets. If our experience is representative, this challenge may be more widespread than most people realize.”  In the ONI world, we study state-mandated Internet filtering.  It’s a dream to be able to figure out how frequently corporate actors in one part of the world are filtering content in another on their own, for simple business reasons.

(My disclosures: I hold equity in Stylefeeder and am an unpaid member of its board of advisors.)