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…

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!

The Risks of a Digital Blindspot

One of the questions Americans need to ask over the next few days is whether a self-described computer “illiterate” can lead our nation effectively in the 21st century.  There are few greater contrasts between John McCain and Barack Obama than on the issue of how comfortable they are with the culture and technologies of the digital era. 

Young people in America ride to school in the same yellow buses and play in the same parks as their parents and grandparents did.  But the way they are learning and socializing is radically different.  They shape their identities via Facebook, MySpace, and cell phones.  America’s youth are growing up in a hybrid world: part analog and part digital.

Digital natives – young people with access to digital technologies and the skills to use them – are, for the first time, a major bloc of our nation’s voters, employees, entrepreneurs, and consumers.  They are relating to one another, information, and institutions in fundamentally different ways than past generations.  Some of the things they are up to online are great; others, not so much. 

Parents and teachers of digital natives are often not connected to the digital world that their children are living in.  Getting connected is the first, most important step that we can take to help children thrive in a digital era.  Our children will gladly be our guides to these new public spaces online.  Then good teaching and parenting can work its magic, keeping kids safe online and off, helping them distinguish credible information from falsehoods, helping them make the most of the opportunities the digital world offers.

The next president needs to be connected to this enormous culture, too.  The digital policy issues facing America are not unlike the issues kids face in the home.  Just as parents worry about the safety of their children in a digital world, our next president needs to understand the security implications of a fast-growing global network, like how a cyberattack – no longer mere fantasy, as the Defense Department makes plain – might cripple our nation’s infrastructure and how to protect against it. 

In times dominated by fears of terrorism, the next president will have to consider the extent of government surveillance.  He will need to help us grow our high-tech economic sector, as digital natives in countries like Brazil and India vie for the digital-era jobs our graduates also seek.  Issues like network neutrality and how U.S. companies operate in countries like China that censor the Internet will land on the next president’s desk.

Just as social life takes place for young people online, so too does political life.  This no doubt helped cybergenic Obama reach young voters in the primary.  But more important than how he reaches voters during an election is how the next president will govern.  To ignore online public discourse and the possibilities for engagement, by young people and old, would be to squander one of the great opportunities of our age.  That much of today’s conversation online is unconstructive only heightens the need for a leader who can help to create effective online spaces, not one who will pretend it doesn’t exist.

Much turns on whether Americans choose McCain, who is new to email, or BlackBerry-toting Obama.  This distinction is about more than age or hipness.  It is about an ability to understand crucial issues of how we surveil terrorists, protect civil liberties, and defend against cyberwarfare.  It is about jobs, growth, and the nation’s economic place in the world.  And, fundamentally, it drives at the issue of how our democracy will function for the next four years and beyond.

Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth

I’ve been making my way with care (and great pleasure) through the fine series of books that the MacArthur Foundation and MIT Press have put together on Digital Media and Learning. There are six in total, each worth reading. (I previously blogged about the volume on Youth, Identity, and Digital Media.)

I’m trying to finish the edits on Born Digital, the book on related themes that Urs Gasser and I are writing. The sticky chapter for me at the moment is called “Activists.” It will probably end up as the next-to-last chapter. I think it’s crucially important as a topic. A few weeks ago, our wonderful-and/but-tough editor at Basic Books said the chapter had to be rewritten from scratch, starting with a blank, new page (she doesn’t like Microsoft Word much). As I’ve gone through the rewrite, I am working in inspiration from another of the DM&L books, Civic Life Online. As I’ve felt about the others, it’s a great contribution to our understanding of a critical topic. The entire collection of essays is worthy of a read; I point out just a few things that jumped out at me, but I don’t mean to imply that other segments aren’t helpful, too.

The opening essay, by editor W. Lance Bennett, sets the frame for the book. He looks at “Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age,” and compares two paradigms: one of young people as engaged and active in civic life, the other as disengaged and passive. He argues that we need to “bridge the paradigms” or else our youth, digitally inspired or not, will continue to get disconnected from formal civic life. He argues in favor of a better approach: show young people how, through their use of new technologies and otherwise, they can have an impact on the political process (p. 21). In the process, we ought to enable young people to “explore, experiment, and expand democracy.” Sounds quite right to me.

Kathryn Montgomery traces a growing youth civic culture in the second chapter. Her emphasis is on the 2004 get out the vote (GOTV) efforts. She challenges the movement toward the insertion of corporations and their brands into the Rock the Vote process and other online communities. This strand of argument brought to mind the core themes of Montgomery’s recent book, also by MIT Press, called “Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet,” in which she builds out further on the issues of corporate branding in the online space and marketing geared toward children. To build on the growing youth civic culture, Montgomery calls for “a broader, more comprehensive, multidisciplinary effort, combining the contributions of communications researchers, political scientists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and young people themselves.” This too sounds right, though I was amused to see us lawyers left out of the mix of who might be useful — especially when the “key policy battles” that she refers to earlier in the chapter include intellectual property, net neutrality, and online safety, which seem to me issues on which lawyers might have something to say. (Perhaps we are indeed more trouble than we’re worth.) Lots of mentions here, too, of the work of danah boyd and Henry Jenkins to keep bad things from happening in the Congress.

In “Not Your Father’s Internet: The Generation Gap in Online Politics,” Michael Xenos and Kirsten Foot take up the fascinating question (to me, anyway) of how young people are getting their news and information about politics. They argue, as many others do, that young people do so in ways that are generally quite different from the ways that older people do. Young people, they find, are more likely to access news and information about politics either online (and in social contexts) or through comedy programs rather than through print newspapers and evening newscasts — which seems true enough. “Clearly coproductive interactivity is foundational to the way that young people, more than any other age group, engage with the Internet,” they claim. (p. 57) They do a nice job also of linking their theories back to the actual uses of the Internet by campaigns and pointing, in the process, to the kinds of interactivity that work for campaigns to engage young people by building a sense of efficacy and trust. (p. 62) They call, in the end, for a balanced approach between “transactional and coproductive web practices.” (p. 65)

Howard Rheingold has a typically (for him) colorful and engaging piece on the bridging of media production and civic engagement. It’s great to have his voice directly in the set of essays, especially since many others throughout the MacArthur series cite or quote him, especially for his work on Smart Mobs. Rheingold, not surprisingly, has the money line of the whole book, perhaps the series: “Talking about public opinion making is a richer experience if you’ve tried to do it.” (p. 102). He then sends the reader through a tour of exercises and points us to a wiki where we can play ourselves. Many of us talk about Media Literacy. Rheingold (like Henry Jenkins and others) is doing something about it. Right on.

Much in the same spirit, I loved the opening line — as well as what follows — in Peter Levine’s essay: “Students should have opportunities to create digital media in schools.” (p. 119) I get teased for this, but I believe it’s true not just for younger students but for law students, too. Levine’s four strategies are convincing. Marina Bers, our neighbor at Tufts, expands on this point. She uses a lively set of examples (including pulling the reader briefly into virtual worlds). Just as helpful, Bers sets the challenge of developing an effective civics curricula into a helpful theoretical framework. Kate Raynes-Goldie and Luke Walker take a deep dive into one of the most promising projects in this space, TakingITGlobal. They also set TIG in context of related sites.

Stephen Coleman, a British scholar and one of the giants of this literature, concludes the book with a short essay that puts the entire work in context for governments themselves. Coleman points to six things (pp. 202 – 3) that governments can do “to promote democratic youth e-citizenship” plus four “policy principles” (p. 204). Coleman links his themes back to arguments by Rheingold, Bers, and Levine in the process, bringing things full-circle.

I put down this volume hopeful again about what we can do to engage young people in civic life. It’s clear, from the work of these scholars, that we’ll have to expand our thinking about what we mean by “civic life” if we mean to engage these young people. It’s clear, too, that experiential learning — learning that is rewarding and fulfilling and encourages them to come back to these activities — is an essential part of what we have to do next, whether that’s something that we structure in the classroom or that we just encourage and promote when young people just do it themselves.

Status of the DRAFT LESSIG Challenge

… there are 350+ donors on ActBlue, (if you’re wondering: the official count is off; it’s too long, since it doesn’t show what we raised for the Draft committee) and hundreds more volunteers have signed up and raring to go, if Prof. Lessig takes the plunge. The goal: get him 1,000+ supporters in a week who give money, pledge to give, or pledge to volunteer for his campaign. We’re well on track. Go, netroots, go.

Among many others, the New York Times has the story, written by SF bureau chief Jesse McKinley, teed up for tomorrow’s paper.  That doesn’t hurt at all, either.