Politics and the Internet at Berkman@10

An exciting speech by Dean Kagan opened the formal Berkman@10 conference, with the announcement of the Center becoming a university-wide research center, the promotion of John Palfrey to Vice Dean for Library and Information Services, Phil Malone to Clinical Professor of Law, and a hard pitch to get Jonathan Zittrain to accept an offer to return to Harvard Law School. (PLEASE COME BACK JZ!)

JZ’s excellent book talk led to the session I’m really interested in, the Politics and Internet session.

What is the impact of the Internet on democracy?

Ethan Zuckerman from Global Voices talked about how useful blogs have been to get the voices of the unheard out–including about Burma and other places before the mainstream media. But he’s worried. Haven’t figured out how to shape the agenda through citizen media yet.

Moved to our study of the Iranian blogosphere–what did we learn from it? John explained the map which you can see in our study here. John also referenced his work on the US blogosphere and the bi-polar political network structures where you see conservatives vs. liberal bloggers, as compared to Iran’s four major networks and seven clusters. Victoria Nash, one of our friends at Oxford Internet Institute asked about Cass Sunstein’s criticism of talking in silos. And it seems that blogs may have us falling into silos more than other online discussion platforms, according to her and to John Kelly.

Rob Faris of the OpenNet Initiative went to the second part of the argument. More speech is possible than ever before, but governments are figuring how to block and stop that speech that they don’t like–especially political. Azerbaijan/Jordan/Tajikistan filter exclusively political speech. The dictators dillema is critical here–do dictators stop political speech at the expense of killing all the great generativity that the Internet allows that Jonathan Zittrain discussed in his book talk. According to Rob there is a push and pull between citizens and government on filtering.

From the crowd had a discussion of the Samizdat that is taking place with Cuban UBS sticks and sharing information virally. He thinks that if you are a dictator, this is what you should be worried about. And the fact that the regime filters it, gives it a level of legitimacy. What we need next is Tor (an anonymizer) for UBS sticks. Joshua Kaufman of Regional also told how they are testing equipment to allow UBS sticks to be read with a regular old TV that is more common in Cuba than a personal computer. Blocking in Cuba is blocking access to Internet in its entirety. So how do we design systems like UBS sticks and sneaker net?

Esther Dyson quoted the famous Russian politician that said, “The question is not freedom of speech, its freedom after speech.” People need role models of courage. People who grumble can start a revolution. But her solution to blocking and filtering is to “fix the people” who are doing the censoring.

Theory number two in the discussion was, do people have greater autonomy because of the Internet. Used the story of Jeff Ooi, an important blogger, who was able to use Ethan’s blog hosting service to keep political speech online in Malaysia. The upside is that although the government has harassed him for comments left by others on his blog, he still bravely used the blog medium to win election to the Parliament.

Ethan believes that Esther’s “fix the people” example is right. People will start to figure out unique ways to use the tools of the Internet to turn it into political power.

Berkman Fellow Beth Kolko talked about democracy (with a small d). How do people use technology in their own environment, and navigate the roadblocks to information that are put in their way? One example that gives her hope is the election in Kyrgyzstan. She also brought up computer games–people in the developing world are extremely smart about figuring out ways to access this technology. People are learning by doing through games, even if they seem trivial.

Joshua from Regional teed up two videos from YouTube that showed a prized student leader who leads efforts to censor info on the web, but who turned around and critically questioned a Cuban leader for struggles in everyday life in Cuba–citizens in Cuba then found ways to be spread the video virally via flash drive within Cuba. Sadly, he later was shown in another video leaked on flash drive by the government nervously confessing his mistake. Joshua also noted that foreign embassies are passing around flash drives like candy.

One participant from the audience noted (quite rightly) that in a place like India and around the world the Internet is that only 1 billion of 4 billion in the world are gaining access to the Internet. We are only getting part of the views of world, especially in places like India.

The third argument that was discussed was the formation of groups online, and their unsettled impact on democracy. Ellen Miller from the Sunlight Foundation discussed their project “PublicMarkup.org”, where over 150 people came online to help markup a bill, which lead one lobbyist to remark, “If they do this openly in a collaborative fashion, what’s next?” Ellen’s asking the same question, but more enthusiastically. She also noted that the burden is on people to ask for government information now, and it should be the opposite.

Yochai Benkler (of Harvard Law School and Berkman) left us with the questions that we should ask in the next ten years on the impact of the Internet and democracy. He said that we have moved generationally from “lets imagine what the world might look like,” to a world now that we can measure and empirically test what is out there. Move from hoping to grabbing large sets of data and doing large scale link and content analysis to understand what the online world really looks like. We need to look at how ideas are created, move through the Internet and who sets the agenda. Are we talking about democratization, or is it elitist democracy where a small group have the market of democracy cornered.

How ambitious can we be?

Just wait and see!

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3 Responses to “Politics and the Internet at Berkman@10”

  1. Lizzie Nolan Says:

    Thanks so much for support. From what we hear, Berkman10 was a great event for all the Sunlight staff.

    Just a quick note, our Executive Director’s name is Ellen Miller.

    Thanks again,

  2. Lizzie Nolan Says:

    PS. Woops, my contact didn’t make that last comment:

    Lizzie Nolan
    media  sunlightfoundation.com

  3. Bruce Says:

    Corrected! Sorry about the error–the danger of conference blogging. It was great to have the Sunlight Foundation at Berkman@10; you all are doing wonderful work over there.