Mobile Activism Specific to East Asia? No.

In last week’s WaPo, Anne Applebaum writes about mobile phones in political organizing in East Asia. “That covert cellphones have become the most important means of transmitting news from certain parts of East Asia is no accident. Llasa, Rangoon, Xinjiang and North Korea are all places dominated, directly or indirectly, by the same media-shy, publicity-sensitive Chinese regime.”

She is almost certainly wrong that there is something specific to China-dominated regions that make them more amenable to using mobile phones for activism. Anyone who follows this space can immediately think of a handful of anecdotes from Eastern Europe or East Africa where mobiles have played much the same role. But is these any evidence that certain types of regimes make certain digital activist tools more useful? While there may be different kinds of government surveillance or various levels of internet penetration in different regimes, I think the fundamentals of digital activism are the same. What MIT Computer Science professor Steve Mann calls ‘sousveillence‘, using mobile technology to keep governments accountable, is useful regardless of location.

Cross-posted to In An African Minute

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Will the Abundance of Footage of Political Unrest Desensitize Us?

China has provoked another flurry of online posts seething with disdain over its attempt to curtail open Internet access even further and blocking off access to YouTube, as well as other video/audio sharing sites, in the wake of protests in Tibet. This move comes just over a month after a new policy set in requiring “website operators [to] get a license before airing audio and video content”. Much of the coverage of the continued reinforcement of the “Great Firewall of China” seems to bring up the difficulties Chinese authorities—conscious of the need to control China’s image with the Beijing Olympics quickly approaching—face by the ease with which tourists and citizens can upload embarrassing footage. But over at the Chicago Tribune, an article suggests that the abundance of content may have the unintended consequence of desensitizing the public rather than invigorating it to mobilize for change.

Per the article, Rod Slemmons, director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College in Chicago, “wonders” whether online content, because of its volume, will be as effective at inciting the public consciousness as the solitary photographs that once captured political unrest. At the very least, I think this brings up a question worth considering: does the sheer volume of footage that captured the recent riots, in Tibet or Myanmar, makes them less likely to galvanize the public than the picture of the solitary man standing in front of the oncoming tanks in Tiananmen Square? Would hours of coverage have etched the devastation that napalm caused into the collective memory the way that a single photo did?

While reading article, my brain couldn’t help but connect it to Stalin’s notorious comment, that “The death of one man is a tragedy [while] the death of millions is a statistic.”

Ostensibly, it makes sense that having a common visual referent connects people and helps them mobilize. But I’m not sure that merely because an abundance of footage is available, that it means that one particular video or photograph won’t become ingrained into the collective consciousness because of its extraordinary effect on viewers. As far as I know, there were thousands of photographs taken during the Vietnam War by war photographers and eventually made available through newspapers, journals, and books. Yet the impact that Slemmons seems to be referring to came from the handful of photographs that rose out of that abundance and are now etched into our collective memory.

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Inside Out: How Tibet Showed the Cracks in the Great Firewall of China

Last week, as protest rocked Tibet, the news was not only of the protests themselves but also of the role of the Internet in bringing news of those protests to a global audience. However, it was unclear whether the overall Internet story was hopeful or pessimistic. Did the Tibet case show critical weaknesses in the ability of China to control the Internet or was it just another story of oppression and censorship?

On one hand, the protests demonstrated the capacity of native and expatriate Tibetans, as well as foreign tourists, to use the Internet to get news of the protest out of the country despite the Chinese governments attempts to keep the story contained. (Chinese media – all state-controlled – paint Tibetan protests in a very negative light, which results in rampant anti-Tibetan feeling in most of China. There is a ban on non-Chinese journalists in the Tibetan region.)

It is noteworthy just how many means were used to spread the news online. From the cell phone images sent to Tibetan rights NGOs abroad (see image above) who posted the photos on their web sites to the travel blog of two Belgian tourists that became ad hoc citizen journalists and published photos, video, and text about the protest on their travel blog to mainstream news outlets like the BBC that published user-generated images, the options for ordinary people to collect and distribute news is growing ever broader.

Wrote theVancover Sun:
“During nearly 50 years of Chinese rule since the Dalai Lama was forced into exile in 1959, periodic reports of protests and violent repression have been based mainly on second-hand accounts, often well after the events. But digital technology coupled with the Internet has made it nearly impossible to seal off parts of the world where media access is closely controlled by the authorities.”

cell phone image of protests published on the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, based in India

But there is a darker story as well. China blocked YouTube over the weekend of March 14th and 15th after it became clear the dissidents and foreigners were using the service to upload cell phone videos of the protests.

While it was hard to confirm reports due to intentional limitations on the flow of information by the Chinese government, estimates range from 30 to 300 as of early this week. Web sites from outside the country, which support Tibetan sovereignty, posted reports of mass arrests and shootings in areas of China with high populations of ethnic Tibetans. The overall feeling of pessimism was summed up by the title of a Tibet post by tech mega-blog Boing-Boing’s: “Tibet: China blocks YouTube, protests spread, bloggers react”

Yet I believe that despite the tragic nature of China’s repression of the protests, the Internet story from Tibet is a positive one. These protests would have occurred with or without the Internet, but it is because of the Internet that (to the great chagrin of China) the world is now aware of what is occurring behind the Great Firewall of Chinese Internet censorship.

The Internet cannot yet stop genocide merely by shining a light on it (Internet activity around the crisis in Darfur provides another discouraging example.) But shining a light is a necessary precursor to public pressure and diplomatic rebuke.

It is harder than ever to cage information. While the Chinese government has proven very effective at preventing outside information from getting into China (outside-in control), it is more difficult to prevent information from getting from inside China out into the wider world (inside-out control).

It all depends on the freedom of the network, regardless of the point of entry. If sensitive information enters China through a savvy citizen using a proxy server, there are multiple forms of filtering and censorship on the domestic Chinese Internet which would limit the spread of that information. However, once one Tibetan sends a few cell phone images and a press release to a New York Times reporter, the whole world is watching.

Outside of China, information about the country flows much more freely than it does with China, so as soon as there is a leak of information to the outside world, the Chinese government has lost significant power over their ability to control the story. The Chinese government can control the Internet within its borders, but it cannot control the Internet in the world at large, a distinction which becomes problematic in the case of human rights abuses with an eager international audience.

The internationalization of China’s domestic human rights abuses causes a considerable headache for China, not only through humiliating denunciations by supposed allies, but also through a boomerang effect, by which international coverage of Chinese news creates unrest within other parts of the country, such as Taiwan.

Tibet showed the cracks in the Great Firewall. While the country can control the inflow of information it is far more difficult to control the outflow. Moreover, this outflow has a very feel effect on China’s relations both with the rest of the world and with its own citizens. The effects of the inside-out cracks in the firewall should give hope to those who look forward to its demise.

cross-posted on ZapBoom

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Book Review: “Development as Freedom” by Amartya Sen

What is a developed country? According to Sen, development should be measured by how much freedom a country has since without freedom people cannot make the choices that allow them to help themselves and others. He defines freedom as an interdependent bundle of:

1) political freedom and civil rights,
2) economic freedom including opportunities to get credit,
3) social opportunities: arrangements for health care, education, and other social services,
4) transparency guarantees, by which Sen means interactions with others, including the government, are characterized by a mutual understanding of what is offered and what to expect,
5) protective security, in which Sen includes unemployment benefits, famine and emergency relief, and general safety nets.

Respect for Local Decisions

By defining the level of development by how much the country has, Sen largely sidesteps a value judgment of what it means specifically to be a developed country – this isn’t the usual laundry list of Western institutions. It’s a bold statement – he gives the example of a hypothetical community deciding whether to disband their current traditions and increase lifespans. Sen states he would leave it up to the community and if they decide on shorter lifespans, in the full-freedom environment he imagines, this is perfectly consistent with the action of a fully developed country (although Sen doesn’t think anyone should have to chose between life and death – this is the reason for freedom 3). This also is an example of the inherent interrelatedness of Sen’s five freedoms – the community requires political freedom to discuss the issues, come to a conclusion and have it seen as legitimate, with social opportunities and education for people to engage in such a discussion.

Crucial Interrelatedness of the Freedoms

Sen is quite adamant that these five freedoms be implemented together and he makes an explicit case against the “Lee Thesis” – that economic growth must be secured in a developing country before other rights (such as political and civil rights) are granted. This is an important question among developing countries who see Singapore’s success as the model to follow. Sen notes that it is an unsettled empirical question whether or not authoritarian regimes produce greater economic growth, but he argues two points: that people’s welfare can be addressed best through a more democratic system (for which he sees education, health, security as requisite) since people are able to bring their needs to the fore; and that democratic accountability provides incentives for leaders to deal with issues of broad impact such as famines or natural catastrophes. His main example of the second point is that there has never been a famine under a democratic regime – it is not clear to me that this isn’t due to reasons other than the incentives of elected leaders (such as greater economic liberty), but whether or not there is a correlation is something the data can tell. Sen notes that democracies provide protective security and transparency (freedoms four and five) and this is a mechanism through which to avert things like the Asian currency crisis of 1997. Democratic governments also have issues with transparency but this seems to me an example of how democracy avoids really bad decisions even though it might not make the optimal choices. Danny Hillis explained why this is the case in his article How Democracy Works.

Choosing not to Choose (Revisited)

Sen reasons that since no tradition of suppressing individual communication exists, this freedom as not open to removal via community consensus. Sen also seems to assume that people won’t vote away their right to vote. He doesn’t deal with this possibility explicitly but this is what Lee Kuan Yew was afraid of – communists gaining power and being able to implement an authoritarian communist regime. Sen’s book was written in 1999 and doesn’t mention Islam or development in the Middle Eastern context, so he never grapples with the issues like the rise of Shari’a Law in developing countries such as Somalia. I blogged about the paradox of voting out democracy in Choosing not to Choose in the context of the proposed repeal of the ban on headscarves in Turkish universities and the removal of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia in 2006. I suspect Sen’s prescription in Turkey would be to let the local government decide on the legality of headscarves in universities (thus the ban would be repealed), and implement all five forms of freedom in Somalia and thus explicitly reject an authority like the UIC.

The Internet

Sen doesn’t mention the internet but what is fascinating is that communication technologies are accelerating the adoption of at least some of Sen’s 5 freedoms, particularly where the internet is creating a new mechanism for free speech and political liberty that is nontrivial for governments to control. The internet seems poised to grant such rights directly, and can indirectly bring improvements to positive rights such as education and transparency (see for example MAPLight.org and The Transparent Federal Budget Project). Effective mechanisms for voices to be heard and issues to be raised are implicit in Sen’s analysis.

What Exactly is Sen Suggesting We Measure?

Sen subjects his proposed path to development, immediately maximizing the amount of freedoms 1 through 5, to some empirical scrutiny throughout the text but he doesn’t touch on how exactly to measure how far freedom has progressed. He suggests longevity, health care, education are important factors and I assume he would include freedom of speech, openness of the media, security, and government corruption metrics but these are notoriously hard to define and measure (and measuring longevity actually runs counter to Sen’s example of the hypothetical community above… but Sen strongly rejects the argument that local culture can permit abridgment of any of his 5 freedoms, particularly the notion that some cultures are simply suited to authoritarian rule). The World Bank compiles a statistical measurement of the rule of law, corruption, freedom of speech and others, that gets close to some of the components in Sen’s definition of freedom. This also opens the question of what is appropriate to measure when defining freedom. And whether it is possible to have meaningful metrics for concepts like the rule of law or democracy.

Sen eschews two common ways of thinking about development: 1) that aid goes to passive recipients and 2) that increasing wealth is the primary means by which development occurs. His motivation seems to come from a deep respect for subjective valuation: the individual’s autonomy and responsibility in decision making.

Crossposted in Victoria Stodden

Privacy Officers from Facebook and Google Descend on Cambridge For JOLT’s Annual Symposium

Privacy officers from Google and Facebook took part in the Journal of Law and Technology’s annual Symposium last week, both addressing privacy concerns. Neither made claims that were particularly controversial (at least as far as I could gauge the audience’s reaction), but at least two innocuous points came up that are worth noting.

Chris Kelly, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, focused primarily on setting up a paradigm under which privacy would be gauged by how much control users had over who could see their profile, how much of the profile others could see, and what other entries in the network their profiles would be associated with. But he emphasized, during Q & A, that Facebook does not envision anonymity as a privacy control for users.

This probably doesn’t mean a whole lot since in its current incarnation, Facebook’s (anti)anonymity policy isn’t readily enforced or effectively enforceable. But that isn’t to say that a decision couldn’t be made some time in the future whereby a trusted third party would certify the identity of users. And if that should happen, it may be worth asking whether Facebook will be less useful for users hoping to harness it to help democratize regimes (assuming it is useful now).

On the one hand, some sort of means by which users could be assured that another user is, for example, a NGO worker rather than a government official may be beneficial. One the other hand, as Chris Kelly conceded, user control would be subject to Facebook’s willingness not to share information with third parties. Although he said that Facebook would be take into consideration the human rights implications of handing over information to government officials in non-democratic nations, that expression of policy seems to be too vague to provide adequate assurance.

Fast forward to the next day and Google’s Global Privacy Counsel, Peter Fleischer, also addressed anonymity—from the ability to remain anonymous while walking down the street in a world with Google’s Street View to the ability to remain anonymous in a world where Google stores at least part of the ISP address associated with a search indefinitely. But I think that one of the more interesting points Fleischer raised related to the need for and the likelihood that nations will harmonize Internet privacy laws.

Fleischer made at least a good introduction for the need for harmonization, by way of describing the disparate conceptions of privacy between Europe and the United States and the correspondingly different legal obligations imposed. I have no doubt that he’s quite right that its difficult, if not impossible, for businesses like Google to simultaneously comply with the myriad of laws that exist from nation to nation. And there’s a good argument that without some sort of international compromise, the more restrictive sovereignty’s laws may become the standard because that would be cheaper than adapting technology that could discriminate users based on citizenship or geographic location.

Still, the argument for harmonization needs to account for the detrimental consequences of international harmonization. Competition between laws may pose a challenge for industries, but competition between laws may be more beneficial for users.

Competition between laws, like competition elsewhere, is more likely to produce laws better calibrated to local desires. It also sets up a mechanism that provides information about the costs and benefits of different legal standards, which is important since we can’t know ex ante which standard for privacy is the “best” .

An international standard that requires broad consent between nations for future alterations also places a hurdle in the way of public policy innovation. At the same time, a uniform standard removes an incentive from industry to invest in technology that would enable it to comply with different standards simultaneously.

Like Sweden’s recent decision to begin ardently pursuing illegal file sharing in reaction to pressure from the US, harmonization of privacy laws begs the same question: perhaps consumers in the US and Sweden would be better off if the laws reflected the different values each culture places on privacy?

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Media Re:public Forum: Los Angeles March 27-28

Berkman’s Media Re:public project is bringing people together to discuss the state of participatory media within the current information environment, called Media Re:public Forum. I’m going to be there!

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

Implementing a Human Rights Policy at the World Bank

Galit Safarty gave a talk at Harvard Law School today titled: Why Culture Matters in International Institutions: The Marginality of Human Rights at the World Bank. Sarfaty obtained her JD from Yale and is a lawyer and anthropologist. She is a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program and writing her dissertation based on 4 years of field work at the World Bank. She is studying why no mandate for human rights has been incorporated into the organizational culture at the Bank.

She sees the reason as resulting from a clash in ideology between the human rights people, which are largely the lawyers, and economists. Economists dominate the bank, hold most powerful positions, and have a unique and prestigious research group. Sarfaty also notes that the articles of agreement for the World Bank explicitly states that only economic considerations can be taken into account in World Bank decision making. The World bank is the largest lender to developing countries at $30 billion per year. Sarfaty notes that their mission is poverty reduction and this gives a crack through which supporters for a World bank policy on human rights can work. She suggests three reasons she expects the World Bank to have implemented a human rights policy:

1) peer institutions like UNICEF, UNDP, DFID, have one,
2) the Bank is subject to external pressure by NGOs and internal pressure from employees,
3) even banks in the private sector have human rights frameworks. ICS (the World Bank commercial banking arm) has a human rights framework based on risk management.

Sarfaty thinks the World banks legal mandate has become less salient in the recent years, but now bureaucrats stand in the way.

She has conducted about 70 interviews over 4 years at the WB in Washington DC, and found that professional identity is the source of conflict within the bureaucracy, and economists dominate at the Bank. Within the Bank lawyers are seen as technocrats that aren’t directly involved in projects. The legal department has a culture of secrecy because of this.

She concludes that the goal is to frame human rights issues for economists, rather than playing to the perception that it is a political issue. So the idea is to frame human rights goals for economists: presenting empirical data as to how they advance human development and thus is a relevant issue for the Bank and within its poverty eradication mandate. Also, the Bank is creating a new indicator that measure human rights performance not just legal compliance with contracts. Another avenue she suggests is exploiting the rigidness of some of the guidelines for working with countries – human rights could be a lever to incrementally convince the Bank to be more flexible, which not a constraint on lending.

Sarfaty makes this sounds like a tough road, especially when she explains that no explicit policy on human rights has even been put forward at the World Bank because the board of directors has seats held by China and Saudi Arabia. She sees the only option as working through the staff level.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

Book Review: “What Went Wrong” by Bernard Lewis

When we were in Istanbul my mother picked up this book on a whim. It was published in 2002 and entirely written, excepting the preface, before 9/11. The subtitle of the book is “Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” and Lewis’s goal is to explain thinking in the Islamic world as they confront, after several centuries of being at the forefront of civilization and progress, being in a position of declining power and achievement.

Lewis is a professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and has specialized in medieval Islamic history. He’s written over 20 books and this one has created controversy (unsurprisingly, given the title) and made it to the New York Times bestseller list. For me, in my work with Berkman on technology and political structures in the Middle East, I was interested in his reasoning that focuses on democratic history and political change. Here are the most interesting points I noticed on these topics.

The Longstanding Attention to Political Science and Constitutional Law

Although they didn’t use those precise words, Lewis explains some contextual and cultural differences between how Westerners understand these concepts and how they appear in Middle Eastern history. For Muslims, Holy Law lays out the role of the ruler and his relationship to believers (his subjects). The typical Western metric for evaluating governments (on a scale from liberty to tyranny) is misplaced here since liberty is a legal term in the Middle Eastern context, not a political term as used in the West. The converse of tyranny is justice, not liberty, and justice meant that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation and that he governs according to God’s law, which usually came down to a spectrum between arbitrary and consultative government. Lewis notes that this latter issue is not well defined in the Koran, and thus debate ensues, but authoritative non-consultative government is seen as undesirable, even from a ruler accepted as legitimate. But even in the Western context the problem of definition abounds, for example the liberty/tyranny scale is seductively simple. We have a well-accepted understanding of what constitutes tyranny but maximizing liberty can mean different things depending on whether you ascribe to Marxist, socialist, libertarian, anarchistic, or another ideology. So ongoing debate is not a difference, but for people thinking about political institutions in the Middle East like myself, the prominence of the notion of justice is an important correction to make to typical Western liberty-based thought.

Interpretations of Women’s Rights

Lewis points out that emancipation of women in the Middle East has been most pronounced in pre-2002 Iraq and the former South Yemen, which were both ruled by comparatively repressive regimes, and lags behind in Egypt, one of the most tolerant and open Arab societies. He cites this as evidence that a more liberal regime won’t necessarily lead to greater rights for women, and further notes that the more conservative and fundamental the regime, such as Iran and most of Afghanistan (before 2002), the less pronounced women’s rights are. Lewis thinks that while the need to modernize is accepted throughout the Middle East even among the most anti-Western fundamentalists, the emancipation of women is seen as Westernizing and a betrayal of true Islamic values. This is an area Wafa Sultan has talked about extensively, pointing out that even modernization accepts Western tenets and accomplishments, and she suggests that women’s rights can be accepted in the Middle East in the same way.

There have been historical figures in the Middle East who have fought for women’s rights. Shi’ite Persian Qurrat al-‘Ayn (1814-1852) became a follower of the Bab (forerunner of the founder of the Baha’i faith) and preached without a veil and denounced polygamy. Princess Taj es-Saltana was educated in French as well as Persian and denounced in her writings the bondage she saw her female compatriots subjected to. Apparently these writings, and women more generally, played a part in the Persian constitutional revolution of 1906-11, where there was a movement for the adoption of constitutional forms of government that would establish Western political mores, supported even by the Islamic leaders.

Modernization and the Internet

A Western eye might associate modernization with Western notions of liberty, but this is not always the way it has played out. Lewis explains that traditionally one way of expressing charity has been to create a waqf, an income-producing endowment dedicated to a pious purpose, such as a soup kitchen, water fountain, or school. Waqfs have predominantly been made by women, to whom Islamic law grants the right to own and dispose of property. In the effort to modernize in the 19th century, many of these waqfs came under state control. Lewis asserts that more recent efforts to modernize have followed this path of increasing state control rather than reducing it. He notes that many Middle Eastern states are evincing stronger control over schools, the media, and print. He feels that the internet, specifically the electronic media revolution, will “no doubt in time” undermine these controls and allow independent and self-supporting associations to emerge. Although he does not explain a mechanism, he suggests that perhaps this will spill into the existing state control over the economy where a large proportion of the population depends on the state for their income (this dependence bringing along with it the usual flourishing black market economy).

Political Change and Democracy

Lewis is careful to note that a view in which advancement assumes an increase in the Western understanding of freedom, such as in his words “freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny” is simplistic and perhaps not even the right answer. He notes one need only look at the Western history with democracy to know how long and hard that road is. But he does in the end call for some adoption of certain values: abandonment of grievance and victimhood, reasonableness in settlement of differences, cooperation in creative endeavors. Lewis’s enumeration of a list of freedoms and his implicit suggestion that, at least according to Western observers, they are essential underpinnings of a modern society strikes me as similar to Amartya Sen’s thesis in “Development as Freedom” – that development occurs best in a country that endows its citizens with freedoms, specifically: political, economic, social opportunities, transparency, and protective security. Sen is very clear that these are important because they “help to advance the general capability of a person” and because they reinforce each other development is most successfully made when the freedoms are granted together. I’m not sure if he is right, but both Lewis and Sen seem to be suggesting roads for Middle Eastern societies that aren’t politically correct and advocate changes in local societal norms.

Crossposted on Victoria Stodden

Is the Internet an Effective Tool for Political Engagement During Elections?

One major challenge of mature democracies such as the US is political engagement of its citizens. America has one of the lowest voter turnout rates among the developed countries. It is particularly true for the young population. But has the trend begun to change noticeably? Is the Internet a factor in all this?

Young voter turnout in the US has steadily declined since the 1970s till the end of the century. According to the US Census Bureau’s Survey, people aged 18-24 accounted for 52.1% of the voter turnout rate in 1972 presidential election and it steadily declined to 36.1% in 2000. However, there was an astonishing 11 percentage point increase in 2004, accounting for 46.7% of the voter turnout rate. The trend has been quite similar for all major groups, white, Hispanic and African-American.

While there may be socio-political factors involved that can explain this sharp hype, it is interesting to note that one difference between the world of 2000 and the world of 2004 is accessibility and popularity of Internet applications such as online petitions and online networking. It is not inconceivable that the Internet has had an important role to play in this, as many Internet enthusiasts believe. This belief will perhaps be put to the test in the upcoming presidential election.

Compared to 2004, the number and user-friendliness of Internet applications for political campaigning has improved dramatically with the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies. Applications such as Facebook can safely claim that these account for a sizeable proportion of the time spent on the Internet by US college students. Scores of Facebook groups have been formed with tens of millions of members who are actively debating about the policies and personalities of the presidential candidates. We have yet to see what impact this will have on the upcoming election with regards to young voter turnout.

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Manufacturing “e-Consent”

With the proliferation of the Internet, some believed that it would be a major step towards citizen’s right to information and freedom of expression – both important aspects of democracy. The advent of Web 2.0 further reinforced this belief as citizens were more empowered for information creation and broadcasting. However, a number of authoritarian governments have been keeping up with the changing times to curb the power that Internet promises to citizens. It is perhaps no surprise that governments of a number of developing countries would fall into this category. But who would think that a developed country such as Japan is also part of this ‘control game’?

In the last year or so, the Japanese government has been active in trying to pass legislation that would give the government more control over regulating Internet content. A 2007 report sponsored by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication discusses the possibility of bringing the Internet under the periphery of existing Broadcast Law with the justification that the Internet is a tool for “broadcasting information”. More recently, a high-level government panel is discussing the possibility of making the ISPs directly accountable to the government for any “illegal and harmful content” in a move to influence the online news websites.

However, despite the government’s “ominous” moves to control web content, there has been relatively little hue and cry over this issue inside Japan. According to some observers, the web community in Japan is largely unaware of this. There are very few bloggers who seem to be writing about this – although the reasons are unclear but many speculate that they may be still largely be in disbelief. The Japanese political structure perhaps explains – at least partly – why there is little dissension about this issue.

Many argue that the Japanese political system is hardly a true democracy with LDP solely dominating the government for decades and opposition parties playing a minimal role in the Parliament. The lack of healthy democratic political debates at the top-level and the government’s long-held influence over mainstream media has possibly contributed to a situation where the general public themselves are also not engaged enough in policy debates since they often do not have access to adequate information to be engaging in constructive debates – a classic case of Noam Chomsky’s famous tag: ‘Manufacturing Consent’.

The Japanese government is preparing for the new e-world with strategies for ‘Manufacturing e-Consent’ – if the public at large do not have a response strategy to this, we will perhaps need the resurgence of new-generation Noam Chomiskys to analyze and fight against a phenomenon that we see growing in many countries.

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