Kenyan Stock Debut Indicates Growth of Mobile Tech Industry

Safaricom—Kenya’s largest mobile phone network and East Africa’s most profitable firm—made an impressive debut on the stock market this week. Soaring nearly 50 percent on its first day, shares ended trading at 7 Kenyan shillings after reaching a high of 8 shillings. Analysts point to the importance of renewed “investor appetite” in the Kenyan economy after months of grueling post-election violence. But Safaricom’s successful debut brings to my attention the potential growth of digital connections across the African continent. Kenya is at the lead of the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world, as use in Africa has increased at an average annual rate of 65 percent. Although only one-third of Kenyans own mobile devices, providers are beginning to target new customer bases, such as low-income citizens.

In many respects, the increase in use can be traced to local entrepreneurs, who have taken advantage of innovative mobile phone technology. Kenyans use mobile phones not only as a device for voice communication, but also for a multitude of daily tasks. For example, a free (and popular) Safaricom service entitled M Pesa allows users to transfer money electronically. This allows many Kenyans to transfer money to family members, especially those residing in rural provinces. Moreover, mobile telephony has found a place in the agriculture and fishing industries, as workers are able to find information on pricing and potential buyers using their mobile phones.

There is undoubtedly much room for growth in mobile technology industries in Africa. The market is far from saturated, but is certainly growing across the continent and in other parts of the developing world. The energy with which Kenyans rushed to buy stock in Safaricom suggests to me that East Africans are looking for a share of the industry’s future. Investor confidence only bolsters claims that digital communication has grabbed hold of Africa and will continue to play a part in its development.

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China Tightens Internet Control Three Weeks After Earthquake

The Los Angeles Times reported on June 5th that, “China has begun rolling back many of the media and Internet freedoms that were permitted in the immediate aftermath of last month’s earthquake.”

As opposed to the tight media control during the unrest in Tibet, the Chinese government seemed to adopt a new media strategy in the first three weeks of the devastating earthquake in Sichuan. The government released information in a timely manner, gave foreign and domestic journalists freedom to travel and report, and remained hands-off when there was online criticism of the government. The Korea Times and the Gizmodo stated that Sichuan’s earthquake allowed millions of Chinese netizens to enjoy almost complete freedom from censorship for the first time.

However, in the three weeks since the major earthquake in Sichuan province, public concern has begun to shift from the heroic efforts of rescue workers and the plight of trapped victims to issues of corruption, embezzlement, and shoddy school construction. In response to this pressure on political authority and social stability, China’s government has issued directives to online websites and Internet portals outlining forbidden topics related to Sichuan’s earthquake and urging news websites to “emphasize positive propaganda,” and tighten the control of online forums, including limiting discussions and deleting postings about sensitive topics concerning the Sichuan earthquake.

It was disappointing to see China reverting to its previous position on media control. In the current Chinese context, it is difficult to recognize how much freedom of online speech the government will allow. With the world’s largest Internet user base, the Chinese government hopes citizens’ online activities can promote its political reform efforts and anti-corruption work, but, on the other hand, it worries about the use of the Internet as a threat to its political authority and to social stability. It seems the Chinese government may allow people to exchange information about certain sensitive topics via the Internet within small groups, but tries to prevent large scale dissent on the Web. In the case of the Sichuan earthquake, the government began to tighten its control over online speech when issues of corruption and shoddy school construction became hot topics in Chinese cyberspace, since they had the potential to ignite mass protests. Rebecca MacKinnon stated that, “They [the Chinese government] increasingly recognize they can’t control everything, and pick and choose.” In fact, both the Chinese authorities and Chinese Internet users know the ‘rules’ of the game–China is changing and government control of the media/Internet may relax a bit from time to time, but each side knows where the ‘red line’ is.

At least one positive outcome from the earthquake is that the Chinese government began to directly respond to the outcry from netizens, who grilled local officials about whether it was substandard building codes or even extremely poor construction that led to the death of so many students. Under mounting online public scrutiny, government officials promise to investigate the cause of collapsed school buildings and bring those responsible to justice.

Although China still appears monolithic from the outside, and still keeps a watchful eye on the online activities of Chinese citizens, the Internet seems to be sowing the seeds of free speech in China. That may be the most important lesson in Sichuan’s earthquake.

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Blogger Jailed in Singapore for Dissent

It appears that an ‘Asian Tiger’ is continuing its policies of censorship and limiting freedom of expression in the blogosphere. Gopalan Nair, a Singaporean-American lawyer whose blog is Singapore Dissident, was arrested on May 31st after criticizing the Supreme Court’s handling of a defamation suit. Nair was held in custody until Wednesday June 4th, when he was released on 2,400 euros bail. Reporters Without Borders has condemned the arrest and subsequent jailing, stating:

We urge the authorities to drop charges against Gopalan Nair who has only exercised his right of freedom of expression. This charge is improper and will add to the intimidation of bloggers and Internet users who express themselves about Singapore’s political life.

This week’s events call into question Singapore’s commitment to a democratic system. The country maintains a highly competitive market economy and one of the most clean and transparent governments in Asia. But if Singapore’s People’s Action Party continues its suppression of dissent, the nation may also continue to be labeled a “hybrid” regime or “illiberal” democracy well into the future.

A Map of the German Blogosphere

Map of the German Blogosphere

This is a social network map of the German blogosphere, created by John Kelly, our partner on Iranian and other blogosphere studies. German blogger Markus Beckedahl interviewed John about the map and his early findings. Berkman Center visiting researcher Jan Eilhard was kind enough to provide a summary translation of Markus’s post.

This post summarizes Podcast 057 with John Kelly, the founder of Morningside Analytics and a partner for the democracy and internet project at Berkman. Presenting an alpha-version of a map of the German blogosphere, he explains how mapping the blogosphere works: They used spiders to explore 10000 German blogs and all linked pages from these blogs. In a next step a scientific team familiar with the cultural background evaluates the blogs, sorts out spam-blogs and sites that are not blogs. At the same time they also evaluate several properties of the blog and the bloggers themselves, e.g. age, gender, blog topics etc. This material is updated regularly.

The analysis shows that a lot of blogs link with mass media, e.g., More interestingly, a large number of blogs appear to belong to spam blog networks, more than in other countries. Apart from the large chunk of general blogs, two clouds are noticeable, blogs on knitting and blogs on They assume that involves a lot of anti-fascist sites that link to each other. In contrast, right-wing blogs were more closely related to law blogs, suggesting that readers link to both types of blogs.

Comparing this with a map of the French blogosphere [see below], they see that in France the majority of blogs are hosted on one site, John Kelly interprets the different pattern as signs for different degrees of maturity. The author is looking forward to seeing more results as well as a global map of the blogosphere and ends the article with a link to Ethan Zuckerman’s blog about John Kelly’s speech from the Media Re:public conference.

And here is the French Map referenced above:
A Map of the French Blogosphere

You can catch the full podcast in English at the netzpolitik blog, as well as an old interview with Berkman Faculty Co-Director Yochai Benkler.

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Anonymity, protection and privacy

The Center for Democracy and Technology, CDT, announced the launch of a new site today that is meant to “take advantage of the extraordinary collaborative power of the Internet to help CDT craft a final version of its … draft of policy recommendations on Internet and technology policy for the next Administration and Congress.”

Similar to our objectives and projects here at the Berkman Center, CDT is concerned with:

  • Protection of free speech on the Internet
  • Protection of children in such an open environment (1,2)
  • Role of government in Internet regulation;
    • Regulating online (government) surveillance which John Palfrey discusses in detail in one of his posts.
  • Regulating the juxtaposition of the right to anonymity online, consumer privacy and protection (against predators)?
  • Consideration of the Internet as an open, non-discriminatory platform where freedom of global access to it is a fundamental right

I found these very interesting. In particular, the CDT recently released an article arguing that because of the power and potential of the Internet and its tremendous utility to the development and continuance of democracy, governments should consider Internet freedom as a top human rights and foreign policy priority.

Another issue that was raised in their draft, that I found immensely interesting, alluded to the tension between the right to privacy, anonymity and protection of other individuals online. Recently, the Federal court of California charged a woman involved in the MySpace suicide case. The Federal prosecutors in this case have invoked an anti-hacker law to charge the defendant with violating MySpace’s terms of service agreement. This led me to think more about hypothetical scenarios where anonymity, privacy issues and protection clash. Where should we draw the line and say that officials have no right to use technology to determine the true identity of users? Should there be complete anonymity available at all? I ‘m sure that there are situations (for e.g. blogging from inside of a politically-stiffened country) that make the need for anonymity necessary but where is the line between the right to protect and need for anonymity?

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Understanding the Arabic Blogosphere

I was pleased to see that the Foreign Policy editors’ blog picked up our research on the Iranian blogosphere. We are already off and running on our next blog research project, which will analyze the Arabic blogosphere and will use a similar methodology to our Iran study (a combination of social network analysis and content analysis). As we dig into the Arabic blogosphere, I was interested to see a post about Arabic bloggers on PostGlobal. Nicholas Noe and Maha Taki raise many of the same criticisms that John Kelly and I heard about the Iranian blogosphere–specifically, that the view of foreign bloggers is driven by media attention on a limited number of bloggers, often those who write in English and are therefore easily accessible to the Western press. These types of bloggers also fit with what the West wants to think about the Arabic (and Iranian) blogosphere–that it is full of secular democrats. As Noe and Taki write, “These bloggers are the type to which the Western media generally reaches out. Young, active, secular and opposing the authoritarian states of the Arab world, they fit well with the general rhetoric surrounding the use of the Internet for democratization.” As we wrote in our Iran study, “In contrast to the conventional wisdom that Iranian bloggers are mainly young democrats critical of the regime, we found a wide range of opinions representing religious conservative points of view as well as secular and reform-minded ones, and topics ranging from politics and human rights to poetry, religion, and pop culture.” We expect we will find a similarly wide range of opinions in the Arabic blogosphere.

Our understanding of foreign blogospheres is also clouded by the natural bias of bloggers (and most of us, to be fair) to inflate ones own importance and to interpret the world based on our understanding of one little corner of it–be it your hometown, or, in the online world, your network neighborhood. John Kelly calls this phenomenon ‘Network Myopia.’ Social network analysis of blogospheres allows us a better way to understand the shape of an entire blogosphere, and the issues discussed in it, than talking to a few ‘A-list’ bloggers.

Social network analysis also shows that most bloggers tend to read, write about and link to similar things, usually sources that reinforce their own views. This tendency to surround ourselves with those that think and read the same things is called homophily, a term originally coined by Lazarsfeld and Merton in 1954 and more recently discussed by Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and James Cook in “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks.” Berkman Fellow Ethan Zuckerman has thought a lot about this recently and has a long but thoughtful post on the subject that is well worth the read; it also has several great links. Some of the most important bloggers, then, may be those that are read by more than one network formation (or social group), and that draw different groups into debates on certain topics. In terms of the Arabic blogosphere, it will be interesting to find those bloggers that link different countries together, since early mapping of the Arabic language blogosphere seem to show that different Arabic speaking countries form the largest groups in the network.

We expect to release the results of our research on Arabic blogs this summer. In the mean time, we will present our Iran research and early Arabic maps at the Networks in Political Science Conference here at Harvard next week.

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Egypt’s Fear of Facebook

Yesterday Sherif Mansour argued in an LA Times Op-Ed that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is considering shutting down Facebook. Mansour writes that Facebook activists have been targeted for mobilizing 80,000 activists to protest food prices and because they helped organize a textile workers strike, as we have discussed here.

Even without a potential shut off, the government is applying pressure. According to Mansour:

…Facebook activists are being targeted by government-based media campaigns defaming the website and the youth activists who use it. The government also warns media not to talk about the phenomenon. I saw the heavy-handed efforts of the government while recording a TV show with Maher. During the taping, Egyptian police broke into the studio, threatened the station manager and forced the guest outside the room.

Mansour notes that so far nearly 20 Egyptian human rights have shown their support, lead by Ahmad Samih, but that that the international community has been less quick to take up the cause. Mansour concludes that, “It would be shameful for the international community not to stand up on their behalf against a government that seeks to deny them even that small space to express themselves.”