A $20 Laptop?

According to Foreign Policy, India is ready to unveil a $20 laptop that could seriously undermine One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) efforts to get its technology into the hands of those on the far side of the digital divide. The Indian laptop, called Sakshat, will have 2 GB of memory and wireless connectivity to the Internet. There was quite a bit of discussion here at Berkman recently when it was announced that OLPC would lay off half of its staff, and force those that remained to take pay cuts. The Indian government also apparently refused to support the OLPC project, citing it’s costs as too high and better spent on other areas of primary and secondary education. At least for now though, OLPC may not have too much to worry about since India has yet to find a manufacturer, and this is not exactly best time to launch any new technology project. In the mean time, SMS and cell phones will most likely remain the technology of choice for the majority in the developing world, which raises the need for more innovative tools like Frontline SMS to tap into their full potential for civil society.

Conversation on Media, Internet and Public Diplomacy at USIP

Today there is what looks like a great conversation at USIP on the role of media, including the Internet, in public diplomacy: “Media as Global Diplomat.” Rebecca McKinnon is live blogging and twittering, and you can catch the live feed and online chat on the USIP site here. Right now I’m listening to a panel moderated by Ted Koppel on public diplomacy including James Glassman talking about Public Diplomacy 2.0. A theme I hear coming out of the panel so far is that public diplomacy needs to be a conversation, which is inherent in the Internet’s architecture, and strikes me as a smart move. Worth checking out… .

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Geotagging Protest?

Ars Technica ran this thought provoking piece on the political meaning of geotagging. The campaign of Barack Obamas proves that at least some politicos know how to make the internet work for them, and the organizational power of Facebook is by now well-publicized and global in scale. But what if when you looked up a business (an upscale animal fur store, for example) on Google maps, and the dense user-uploaded data included information on how this business obtained its fur or links to investigative reporting on the fur industry in general.

You could call it a virtual protest of sorts. Of course, I have the feeling netizens are more likely to cross virtual picket lines than they are real ones. Nonetheless, this dimension of how we relate to geo-locational information politically seems unexplored.

The Ars piece makes an even more intriguing suggestion. What if programs which use your camera phone to  identify products (like Amazon Remembers or SnapTell) also instantly told you whether your coffee was fairtrade, what kind of labor conditions it was produced under, and whether its production hurt the environment? You might re-think your decision. The article captures this dynamic exactly:

When the effort required to import political values into consumption decisions is dramatically reduced, the number of politically-conscious shoppers should increase significantly.

At the moment, barriers to reliable information remain high enough for consumers to be ethically lazy, where clear and open knowledge about a product’s back history would correct the informational assymetry. Not every consumer would be so inclined, but many without serious commitments to social justice might be more swayed by guilt. That is fine, I think. Indeed perhaps this the lever of a more benevolent capitalism: businesses chasing principled consumers for what they really want.

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News Flash: Bad People Use the Internet Too!

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Internet isn’t always used just by do-gooders to do good. Alas, security analyst Bruce Schneier reminds us bad people can use the Internet too. However, he encourages us to avoid the urge to shut down new technologies, like Google Earth, just because they might some day, possibly, be used by terrorists.

If India bans Google Earth, a future terrorist won’t be able to use it to plan; nor will anybody else. Open Wi-Fi networks are useful for many reasons, the large majority of them positive, and closing them down affects all those reasons. Terrorist attacks are very rare, and it is almost always a bad trade-off to deny society the benefits of a communications technology just because the bad guys might use it too.

Our case study on post-election violence in Kenya is a perfect example of how during one episode of violence, individuals can simultaneously use the Internet for positive change (Ushahidi), while others employ it for more nefarious ends (text messages coordinating violence). In the Kenya example, we saw the same impulse by government to shut down the cell phone network that Schneier observes today, but note that instead of shutting off Kenyans’ primary form of communication, they chose to allow the cell carrier to remain in service while also sending messages encouraging peace and calm to all subscribers.

As Schneier concludes:

Criminals have used telephones and mobile phones since they were invented. Drug smugglers use airplanes and boats, radios and satellite phones. Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then. I haven’t seen it talked about yet, but the Mumbai terrorists used boats as well. They also wore boots. They ate lunch at restaurants, drank bottled water, and breathed the air. Society survives all of this because the good uses of infrastructure far outweigh the bad uses, even though the good uses are – by and large – small and pedestrian and the bad uses are rare and spectacular. And while terrorism turns society’s very infrastructure against itself, we only harm ourselves by dismantling that infrastructure in response – just as we would if we banned cars because bank robbers used them too.

Now, if only I could take a bottle of shampoo on my next flight….

Hat Tip: Sullivan

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Dear Mr. President, China is Listening

Make sure you give some time to this great piece by Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Berkman fellow and currently an indispensable inside-source on China, freedom, internet censorship, etc. Her open letter to Pres. Obama on the value of the internet in re-defining U.S.-China relationships hits it exactly on the mark, especially in suggesting that a new post-“Radio Free Asia” kind of public diplomacy is necessary to engage the Web 2.0 generation of Chinese fervently using blogs, Skype and Twitter. (On the theme of revamping public diplomacy, see my piece about James Glassman.)

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