Facebook and Iranian Election Redux

Hamid Tehrani and CNN report that Facebook is up again in Iran. Berkman’s new Herdict Reporter tells us that over the last few days Facebook was indeed inaccessible to some users in Iran, but, reflecting the distributed filtering model that Iran seems to employ, it was still accessible by some users depending on their ISP. These days I always go straight to Herdict to see what actual users in country are saying about filtering in real time instead of relying solely on press reports, and I’m deeply appreciative of the users in Iran that give us reports of what is blocked. For more on filtering in Iran check out Hamid’s excellent overview at Global Voices. As we’ve cataloged on this blog over the last couple months, it seems that filtering of Internet content by political threats like former president Khatami has been part of an overt strategy by the government.

A number of blogs and traditional media outlets, including those in Iran, reported that Facebook was blocked by Ahmadinejad in an attempt to thwart his more net savvy opponent Mousavi’s online campaign–although Ahmadinejad now denies it. Hamid has been doing a wonderful series on the use of social media by the Presidential candidates including reformists like Mousavi as well as Ahmadinejad and the least effective online campaigner, former Revolution Guard leader Mohsen Rezai. Unfortunately, the campaign has become far less interesting since former President Khatami dropped out in favor of Mousavi, but many speculate he was pressured to drop out since he was a larger threat to Ahmadinejad than Mousavi.

In the end, the Facebook debacle is another black eye on the election process in Iran, which has elements of a democratic election but falls far short of minimal ‘free and fair’ standards due to, first and foremost, the ability of small body of clerics, the Guardian Council, to approve or reject candidates, to say nothing of the limits on free speech and political organization in Iran. Let’s hope that the apparent easing of tensions between the US and Iran leads to an opening in the political process in the country. A smart first move might be for the Obama administration to ease restrictions on US social media providers who have users in Iran.

Pope Making Moves To Spread The Catholic Message Online

Interesting news coming out this week from Ruth Gledhill at The Times reporting that the Pope has officially announced that he is rolling ahead on getting the Roman Catholic Church online in a real way. As she reports:

The Vatican is seeking ways to embrace full online “interactivity” with all one billion members of the global Roman Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church wants to emulate and globalise President Obama’s use of the internet both during his election campaign and with more recent events, such as an online question-and-answer session at the end of March that attracted 100,000 questions and 3.6 million votes

Not surprisingly given this new strategy, the internet figures prominently in the Church’s  43rd Annual World Communications Day (this year on May 24th) — with the Pope actively urging young people to spread the religious word online. The campaign’s site comes complete with a YouTube channel, iPhone application and “WikiCath” — a collaborative text in the style of Wikipedia. A little digging also reveals plans for a papal Facebook profile, set to go live during the event.

I wonder about the long-term effects of this, particularly with regards to the way that the Catholic Church has traditionally regulated its doctrine and message from a centralized hierarchy. Will increased exposure to the internet and adoption of more collaborative, dialogue-based platforms threaten this standing order? This question somewhat emulates the question of governments and the internet: and it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the case of organized religion, and if the outcomes will be the same or quite different.

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France Passes Strict Anti-Piracy Law

While much of the world is worried about what to do about Somali pirates of the 19th century variety, France has seen fit instead to go after the 21st century type. The French parliament has passed a three strikes law which will literally prevents users from accessing the Internet once they’ve been caught downloading copyrighted content three times. Worse, they will have to continue to pay for their Internet subscriptions after they have been kicked off. Sarkozy, whose wife is a French pop star, supports the law, as do music and film industry groups. A socialist parliamentarian, however, called the bill “dangerous, useless, inefficient, and very risky for us citizens.” Meanwhile, Somali pirates have captured the crew of the Atlantis.

David Miliband and Britain’s Virtual Diplomacy

Today the New America Foundation held a ‘new media’ press conference with Britain’s blogging Foreign Minister David Miliband. Miliband noted that his blogging isn’t that great since as Foreign Minister he can’t say anything interesting (which I take to mean he’s constrained by his press people, not that he doesn’t have enough material at his fingertips to blog about). Instead, he argues that the best new media work the British government is doing is from it’s younger staff and those in the field like former British Ambassador to Afghanistan Sherard Cowper-Coles, who actually had a quite interesting blog while he was posted in Kabul–which I may just like because I served there at roughly the same time.

Here’s a video from his blog which shows his daily rounds including the dreaded daily ‘country team’ meetings (at least that’s what we called it in the US Embassy) and more interesting snapshots with some important Afghan political players such as Ashraf Ghani (who’s running for President) and the speaker of the lower house of Parliament Yunus Qanuni. This post from a trip to Helmand Province, where Britain’s troops and development efforts are focused, is also worth checking out.

It’s great to see that the British Foreign Office is encouraging their ambassadors to blog, but Cowper-Coles clearly saw it as a lot of effort, and the British Ambassador will likely be remembered more for his comments (leaked by the French) that called the American strategy in Afghanistan was doomed to failure and that our best hope was to install an ‘acceptable dictator.’ Advice, gladly, that the US hasn’t taken.

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Roxana Saberi’s Sentence Reduced; Journalist to be Freed Today

According to the BBC, Roxana Saberi’s sentence has been reduced to to a two year suspended sentence, which will allow her to be released and to leave the country. Her appeals trial was much more open than her initial one. It is likely, though, that politics had a great deal more to do with the court’s decision than legal arguments. There were formal requests from the US government, a request from Ahmadinijad himself, to say nothing of a sustained international media and blogging campaigns calling for her freedom. Saberi was noticeably thinner due to a hunger strike she ended only last week for health reasons. This is all, of course, fantastic news, but we should not forget that bloggers and others remain behind bars in Iran for what in most of the rest of the world is simple political expression or normal civic activity.

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Internet Opens Up Malaysia’s Political Struggle


Much has been made of US politicians’ use of new media technology, including the President’s crackberry addiction and the ridiculous meme that Republican’s will be able to recapture the youth vote because some of them are on twitter. But in Malaysia, where traditional media are closely monitored and tend to follow the governing party line, the Internet, Twitter, cellphone cameras and blogs seem to have opened up a political power struggle in Perak, the largest state in the country. Unidentified plainclothes personnel who may or may not have been security officials, walked into the state legislature and literally dragged the elected speaker V. Sivakumar (from the opposition) from the room and escorted the governing party’s man to his seat. According to the New York Times:

Khalil Idham Lim, an opposition assembly member, blogged throughout the heated exchanges and posted pictures, including one of the speaker being hauled away.

Malaysia’s independent news Web sites offered minute-by-minute updates. “If this event had taken place 10 years ago, people might never have known what really transpired inside the assembly,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling agency.

A number of opposition members of parliament were also arrested and Web sites showed the MPs being led out in handcuffs.

This is a nice example of the Internet’s ability to empower minority parties that don’t control the press in ‘mildly authoritarian’ states and, hopefully, for Malaysians to hold the governing party accountable for what appears to be a ham-fisted response to political deadlock.

Photo from Opposition MP Khalil Idham Lim’s blog

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Russian Youth Charged for Online Extremism

The Moscow Times reports that prosecutors in the northern Russian port region of Arkhangelsk have opened a criminal case against a student for “inciting ethnic hatred through pictures and comments posted on the Internet,” which could lead to a two-year prison sentence if convicted. MT continues:

The student posted pictures “humiliating Africans and Jews as ethnic groups,” as well as comments inciting ethnic and national hatred and “accessories resembling Nazi ones” on the Vkontakte.ru social network, the Investigative Committee said on its web site on Wednesday.

The Russian Internet is generally a surprisingly open space when compared to broadcast media (particularly TV), and Russia has rarely prosecuted bloggers for online speech, especially when compared to countries like Iran and China that go to great lengths to limit speech they disagree with. Those cases where bloggers have been charged usually revolve around extremist or racist commentary. The Independent reported recently that the Kremlin is now concerned with Russian nationalist groups it has long tolerated (and even encouraged), but that are now seen as a threat to national security. According to The Independent, Russia’s large migrant population, mostly from neighboring former Soviet states, are increasingly being made scape goats for rising poverty and unemployment caused by the economic crisis and diminished oil revenues.

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Blogging Leads to Better Books

I enjoy the Economist’s award winning blog Democracy in America, which I’ve only just recently stumbled across. It’s somewhat annoying that, like the magazine, authors are anonymous, but even in the Internet age looks like the folks at the Economist are sticking to tradition. So, with that caveat, a ‘New York’ blog author writes that blogging has actually helped him/her to write a better book, thanks to the instantaneous fact checking that happens on the Web. He/she/it writes:

The single biggest insight I have from blogging has directly affected my book. If I say something stupid or wrong, I can expect that I will be humiliated for it, quickly and viciously. I will write a better book as a result. I’ll still make errors of course, at least of interpretation or judgment and possibly small ones of fact. But If I wrote what I plan to write before blogs, I could take some dusty volume of research off the shelf and misquote it or misinterpret it, safely. Who would catch me? An annoyed letter-writer, who would send his observations in response to a review in (say) the New York Times? Who would see it? Who would care for longer than a day? The temptation not to worry about that level of error would be strong, bordering on overwhelming. As is, I don’t want to screw anything up, lest my name be made mud on a good blog (or blogs) that will have more heft and half-life than any old small, cranky review in a middle-circulation journal.

Yes, indeed, lest your name be dragged through the mud.

In any case, Fact checking on the Internet is something we’ve written about here before, especially related to tea parties and the Santelli Rant. During the Internet & Politics conference here at Harvard I heard this same observation from journalists and campaign officials. Instead of taking a campaign spot or the media’s analysis of a speech as fact, users can now go online to investigate suspicious claims or watch an entire speech for themselves; the frequently download 30-minute Obama speech on race being one obvious example of where this happened. So why haven’t we heard this claim more often related to journalism more generally? I’d argue it’s because, as Clay Shirky best summarized, the journalism profession has spent more time complaining about the Internet’s impact on newspaper sales, and not enough time using it to improve the profession.

Saberi Ends Hunger Strike for Health Reasons

According to her father, Roxana Saberi, the jailed Iranian-American journalist who was sentenced to 8 years for espionage, has ended her hunger strike for health reasons. As we wrote here earlier, Saberi began her hunger strike on April 21 after being sentenced in a brief, secret trial. Saberi had worked for a number of foreign news organizations including NPR, which has done a commendable job of keeping a high profile around her case and appealing for her release.

Saberi’s case follows a string of similar arrests of bloggers, increased filtering, creation of a Basiji blogger corps, attacks by Islamic hackers on popular Web sites, and the death of blogger Omid Misayafi in prison. The increased pressure on bloggers and others was likely due to the start of the Presidential campaign; elections will take place in June. The Obama administration has called for a review of Saberi’s case, as has President Ahmadinijad, although the Iranian president has no official influence over the judiciary, which in controlled by even more conservative elements in Iran. Experts have speculated that Saberi’s arrest and swift conviction may have taken place to give the Iranians a chip in diplomatic maneuvering with the US, which has indicated a willingness for renewed engagement and a step back from years of hostility between the two countries.

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Misreading Blogging Identities

Evgeny Morozov over at Foreign Policy has an intriguing post that asks a couple simple but still difficult to answer questions: Who are bloggers, and how does this impact how we defend them when they are arrested for what they write? Evgeny was reacting to a recent Committee to Project Journalists report on the ten worst places to be a blogger, which my colleagues over at the OpenNet Initiative blogged about last week.

The crux of the matter for Evgeny boils down to identity and how various interests label bloggers. This is an issue that has actually come up in a number of conversations I’ve had recently with bloggers and activists from the Middle East, and it is clear to me from those conversations that they have multiple identities. Some folks I know here at Berkman probably think of themselves primarily, or substantially, as bloggers (I’m thinking of Ethan Zuckerman, Doc Searls and David Wienberger, among others). But many others that I have met, who write widely read blogs, actually have identities that they put well ahead of ‘blogger’: usually journalist, activist, writer or professor, to name just a few.

In the US, this might partly be explained by the fact that blogging is still often looked down upon by many traditional journalists who see it as an affront to their profession, and for the blame many assign to the Internet for its role in the demise of the newspaper industry more generally. While this view is slowly changing, I still often see a tone of condescension in how many traditional journalists discuss blogs and ‘what those blogs are saying,’ even though journalist use them as an important part of their daily work. In the US, though, online speech is still largely, if not yet completely clearly, protected, and can be defended when frivolous lawsuits are used to try to limit otherwise protected speech.

This is not the case for many of the individuals who are arrested overseas for what they write on blogs, though. The ability to write online anonymously can in many ways protect bloggers, but, as our studies into the Iranian and Arabic language blogospheres have shown, bloggers tend to write with their name more often than not, especially political bloggers. Their other identities, as activists, writers, journalists or politicians, may actually offer a higher level of protection, informal or formal, than the moniker ‘blogger’ ever might.

The practical question of how to protect those that are arrested for their blogging seems, in my mind, to come down to this: online speech should be protected, and people writing honestly about their personal opinions should have a protected right to do so, except in extreme circumstances. There are actually few laws abroad that currently limit online speech (I’m thinking of Iran, for example); instead, at least in many countries with limited freedom of expression, bloggers are prosecuted for threats to national security, insulting the nation or its leaders, or violation of other equally ill-defined concepts. So, yes, bloggers have multiple identities of their own choosing, and we may in some cases inaccurately label them primarily as bloggers. But that shouldn’t really matter. When it comes to the arrest and prosecution of individuals for what they write online, their right to freely express their opinion on any platform they choose should be respected and defended. Full stop.