China Ramps Up Internet Controls, Again

The New York Times reports this morning that China has recently taken additional steps to control the Internet. Under the new measures China has shut down 700 Web sites, prohibited anyone but officially registered businesses from obtaining a .cn domain and limited third parties from providing content over China’s largest mobile network. China argues that the changes are to improve security, protect children from pornography and limit piracy (which is odd considering how much pirated content is tolerated by the government). However, many see the measures as a means to limit political opposition and further censor the Internet. The Times writes:

In various pronouncements, top propaganda and security officials have stressed anew the need to police the Internet on ideological and security grounds.

The ‘Internet has become an important avenue through which anti-China forces infiltrate, sabotage and magnify their capabilities for destruction,’ wrote the public security minister, Meng Jianzhu, in the Dec. 1 issue of Qiushi, a magazine published by the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

‘Therefore it represents a new challenge to the public security authority in maintaining national security and social stability,’ he said.

And as our friend Rebecca MacKinnon says in the article:

‘The trend in China is toward tighter and tighter control,’ said Rebecca MacKinnon, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in Chinese Internet issues. ‘They are basically improving their censorship mechanisms.’

These moves follow previous, less-than-successful attempts to place filtering software on all computers in China, Green Dam and Blue Dam. Of course, China already has what the OpenNet Initiative calls one of the most sophisticated filtering regimes in the world.

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I think Thomas Friedman vastly overstates the role of the Internet in violent extremism in his New York Times column today. He wastes no time in blaming the Internet for terror:

Let’s not fool ourselves. Whatever threat the real Afghanistan poses to U.S. national security, the “Virtual Afghanistan” now poses just as big a threat. The Virtual Afghanistan is the network of hundreds of jihadist Web sites that inspire, train, educate and recruit young Muslims to engage in jihad against America and the West. Whatever surge we do in the real Afghanistan has no chance of being a self-sustaining success, unless there is a parallel surge — by Arab and Muslim political and religious leaders — against those who promote violent jihadism on the ground in Muslim lands and online in the Virtual Afghanistan.

The inspiration for his indictment of the Web is the widely reported story that the five Muslim Americans from Northern Virginia who were picked up in Pakistan last week had used the Internet to connect with an extremist in Pakistan. He quotes the Washington Post with the emerging beltway consensus:

‘Online recruiting has exponentially increased, with Facebook, YouTube and the increasing sophistication of people online,’ a high-ranking Department of Homeland Security official said. … ‘Increasingly, recruiters are taking less prominent roles in mosques and community centers because places like that are under scrutiny. So what these guys are doing is turning to the Internet,’ said Evan Kohlmann, a senior analyst with the U.S.-based NEFA Foundation, a private group that monitors extremist Web sites.

First, the ‘Sargodha Five’ are kind of an odd group to cite as evidence since they were by all accounts a complete failure. They were not able to gain access to or acceptance into any local Al-Qaeda groups and were picked up by the Pakistani authorities relatively quickly. That said, don’t get me wrong, these extremist sites exist and extremists use the Internet just like a lot of other groups. But those sites are small in number and states, combined with civil society, have been pretty effective at getting many of them shut down or forced into the more hidden areas of the Web. The Internet is also a place where, increasingly, the type of reasoned, informed and interactive religious debate that Friedman argues for are actually taking place.

The broader point to be made here is that blaming the Internet for extremism is like blaming boats, cars or shoes, just because terrorists used them in the last attack. I think Tim Stevens at the ICSR blog captures my thoughts pretty well when he writes:

You’d have to be a fool to argue that the internet plays no role in many of the cases that come to light in the press and in the courts. It almost always does. So do cars, telephones and cheap hotels. The internet is so deeply embedded in the lives of most people residing in the West that it would be unusual were this not so. It is too easy to argue that government consistently fails to spot extremist use of the internet, and that more powers are needed to combat it. If, as liberal societies, we determine that total surveillance of interpersonal communication is undesirable, we should also understand that it is utterly impractical. It also won’t stop people turning to violence as a solution to their particular problems.

He goes on to argue, appropriately, that clamping down on the Internet will not solve the problem.

The answer is not to monitor us all to combat the actions of a few. Total security, in cyberspace or otherwise, is impossible, and attempts to create it are subject strongly to the law of diminishing returns. The only way to combat violent extremism is to tackle its causes, a banal statement in itself perhaps. Like it or not, states will decide what types of material are deemed inappropriate to view and share online, but treating all internet use as de facto potentially problematic and appropriate for regulation does no-one any favours.

I also think Friedman overstates the level of support for extremism among Muslims, and offering as proof the relative levels of Muslim outrage over the Swiss vote to ban minarets compared to the insufficient, in his view, condemnation of a recent bombing in Iraq is bizarre. The US press (including, ah hem, the New York Times) spilled a lot more ink on the Swiss vote than anything that happened in Iraq last week. Does that mean all Americans – Christian, Muslim or agnostic – now support extremism? Obviously, no.

terror justified

In fact, a number of surveys in the Muslim world and other evidence have shown decreasing support for violent extremism, including this Pew poll. Pew notes that support for suicide bombings has dropped since 2002, and that in Pakistan support plunged from 33% to 5%. And as Gary Bunt, a scholar who has studied Muslims’ use of the Internet extensively, writes in his excellent book iMuslims:

Participation in militaristic jihad is a minority issue, on- and offline. Muslim individuals and organizations have expended considerable energies – on the Internet and elsewhere – distancing themselves from such acts.

Just as it is wrong to conflate everything good with the Internet, it’s also wrong to associate it with everything pernicious. As we wrote in our paper on the Arabic blogosphere, “The Internet lays a good foundation for a battle of ideas, but it does not necessarily favor a winner.”

China and Iran Lead Way in Detention of Journalists

According to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, China and Iran are the leading jailers of journalists in the world, with those two states accounting for more than a third of all journalists held behind bars today. Increased arrests by Iran following post-election protests helped make 2009 even worse than 2008, with 11 more arrested worldwide this year than last. In its annual census, the CPJ also found that freelancers (who often write online) are more likely to be jailed than their counterparts at traditional news outlets. Last year was the first time ever that online journalists were more likely to be jailed than traditional ones.

If Iran had thrown just one more journalist in jail on December 1, it would have tied China (which has 24 journalists behind bars), as the leading jailer, a title China has held for the last 11 years. As Joel Simon writes in Slate, as opposed to 10 years ago when most of those Chinese journalists wrote for traditional media outlets, today they are primarily online authors, and this impacts how they are handled by the government:

[O]nline journalists can’t be fired, blacklisted, or, in most cases, bought off precisely because most work independently. They don’t have employers who can be pressured. Chinese authorities have few options when it comes to reining in online critics—censor them, intimidate them, or throw them in jail. This explains why 18 of the 24 journalists imprisoned in China worked online.

In Iran, there’s a similar dynamic. The 23 reporters jailed there fall roughly into two camps—those who worked for print media outlets allied with opposition candidates and those who worked independently online.

Google’s “Broken Windows” Investment

Partnering with the U.S. Department of State, Google recently announced a plan to digitize the Iraqi National Museum’s artifacts. Google CEO Eric Schmidt made the announcement in Baghdad. In a November 24th New York Times article, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill is quoted as saying that the project is “part of an effort spearheaded by the State Department to bring technology to Iraq.” Since the outset of the Iraq War, over 15,000 artifacts have allegedly been stolen, or gone missing. The Google digitization project, already 14,000 photos underway and due for release in 2010, will provide greater transparency, and share the wonders of Mesopotamia with the online world. Google’s Iraqi National Museum digitization project, however, has even broader implications.

On the same day that Google made its announcement, the Iraqi government also announced the unveiling of its official YouTube Channel.  With 24,000 channel views, and over 400 subscribers already, the channel of the Iraqi National Media Center appears to be gaining quick traction.  It signals a forward-thinking acceptance of social media by the Iraqi government, and an aim for greater transparency and information sharing.

In a December 2 Ashoka Peace article, “What Can Social Media Do for Iraq?” author Priya Parker additionally makes a number of insightful observations about Google’s recent foray into Iraq. While this is a public-private investment partnership, it signals that creative innovation can also be compassionate, and that the ethos of investment in Iraq is undergoing tectonic shifts. Google’s announcement signals an opening salvo for business investment in Iraq, private capital investment that will have broad implications for macroeconomic stability, new infrastructure development, technology transfer, human capital capacity building, and job creation.

Moreover, as Parker explains, Google’s investment parallels the 1980s New York City Police Department’s tactic of mending broken windows to alter perceptions. Mending broken glass not only improves the neighborhood, but it changes how individuals perceive their surroundings, and in turn can alter human behavior. The Google investment is a start, and perhaps it will mend broken glass, fostering global appreciation for lost history, and creating the necessary normative change on the ground to impel peace.

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Israeli Defense Forces Embrace Web 2.0

In a quote that could have just as easily have come out of Sarah Palin’s mouth, IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu recently told a journalism conference that the Israeli military is creating an Internet and new media unit to get past the ‘filter’ of the mainstream media. This after their self-described success with YouTube during ‘Operation Cast Lead’ last year in Gaza. Haaretz reports:

Responding to criticism of Israel’s ability to face hostile entities on the Web, Benayahu said the new program would be able to deal with the problem. He said that from each group drafted to the Army Spokesman’s Office, between eight to 10 young people who are experts in Web 2.0 – YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – to be identified before induction, would be assigned to the new department. The new recruits would be put to work in the new media unit after undergoing a general Army Spokesman’s Unit training course.

Benayahu further stated that the primary target is “mainly an international audience that is less exposed to operational processes. Foreign media do more ‘zooming-in’ and so it’s important to us to show the totality of IDF actions without a filter.” Haaretz also reports that the military is reaching out to bloggers that are known opinion leaders. I suspect they just don’t want to be outdone by the Iranians.