Ethan Zuckerman has run some quanty numbers on the Moldovan #pman protests. Initially convinced that the broad publicity the event garnered had “as much to do with self-congratulatory Twitterers talking about the revolutionary potential of social media as… actual discussions concerning people in Moldova and the Moldovan diaspora,” the numbers suggest the opposite. Many users were Romanian speakers, propagating news of the flash protest and significantly increasing the visibility and viability of the protest movement.

To a degree, this is an encouraging sign of technology’s influence on political outcomes, especially in a country as poor as Moldova (though see my post about Twitter and rioting here). It’s initial effect is undeniable, but a larger question must be raised. How sustainable really is the movement? When will the “twittesters” or their followers lose interest?

The immediate goals of reversing electoral fraud seem within reach — after the bruising publicity #pman tags brought down Moldovan communists — but could any broad agenda of reform really succeed via crowd-sourced agitation? That I would be interested to see.

For more on the developing Moldovan Revolution, see the BBC’s report, NetEffect’s first story, then Daniel Bennet, and back to Morozov.

Moldovan Youth Organize Protests With Twitter

NetEffect has some preliminary thoughts on the role of Twitter in the on-going Moldovan youth protests. I think Morozov’s right to see them as a tech protest movement a la the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine (for full background, read Berkman’s study here). Both of these social movements were stoked, organized and facilitated by technology.

Twitter has not only helped rally protesters, though, it has also given us — as during the Mumbai bombings or the war in Gaza — a glimpse of reality on the ground. Visceral, real micro-news before the MSM or anyone else can write up a narrative of what’s happening. If you want to follow the action, start reading this tweet aggregator or search for tweets with the hashtag #pman.

One more point should be raised. Cell phones, Facebook and Twitter are morally neutral. Although they can be positive tools of peaceful protest and democratic engagement, they can’t prevent flashmobs become real mobs which break windows and destroy property, or worse. G-20 activists in London used Twitter to elude police and stage more coordinated (and sometimes violent) anti-globalization protests.

I don’t know if the Black Bloc anarchists who set the Strasbourg hotel on fire used Twitter to organize, but I wouldn’t be in the least surprised. It’s important not to forget this darker side of mass coordination. At least in a traditional social opposition movement, the supposed leader can call off violence. By contrast, a de-centralized twitter mob may not have enough allegiance or restraint to prevent destructive mayhem from breaking out.

Senate Introduces Cyber-Security “Czar”

John Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe, Senate backers of a bill which gives the executive branch broad crisis powers over the internet, have separately introduced legislation to create a “cyber-security czar.” This new federal position will oversee the many new programs, regulations and crisis planning which the Cybersecurity Act of 2009 lays out in fuller detail. The “czar” will require Senate confirmation, but will come with a high security clearance.

It’s not yet clear to me whether the president must give authority to shut down private networks for “national security” reasons, or whether, like the Federal Reserve, Obama’s technology “czar” will have broad discretionary power to determine and enact crisis measures. A figure like this may be necessary in an increasingly interconnected web filled with patriotic hackers (ask the Estonians about Russian DDOS attacks), astro-turfers and other digital mercenaries.

Still, while the vagueness of “national security” may match the amorphousness of cyber-threats, this is certainly a momentous power shift toward “federalizing” the web. I wonder how far down the road some kind of law enforcement censorship regime is. Australia and other Western democracies are facing that battle right now, and web freedom advocates are losing in spades.

Could Obama Close The Internet?

New Senate legislation introduced by John Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would grant the president sweeping powers to control the internet in the event of a cyber-security crisis, including control of the on/off switch for both public and private U.S. networks. The bill is said to follow many of the suggestions of a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report released Dec. 8, 2008, calling for a cyber-security czar. See my coverage of that report here.

Then, as now, my concern was how to balance self-defense from hackers and digital cossacks and civil liberties from bureaucrats and federal agencies. Crisis powers and preparations are one thing, unrestrained federal control of the web is quite another. Who will be able to declare an internet emergency… the executive branch? Could this end up being a backdoor for new surveillance efforts in the war on (digital?) “terrorists”?

The Center for Democracy and Technology managed to get a draft PDF of the legislation, which you can check out here. More coverage of this bill, which is already scaring the pants off computer professionals and civil libertarians, can be found here and here.

Morozov: The Internet No Democratic Cure

I’ve had some time to pour over Evgeny Morozov’s thoughtful and sobering piece on cyber-utopianism. He’s dead on in diagnosing Western academics and activists with quixotic belief in the Internet’s power to democratize. The web is no panacea for totalitarianism, Morozov warns, and to fervently hope otherwise is hopeful blindness.

In at least two respects, I agree with Morozov. First, simply increasing access to the internet has not taken down the world’s notorious human rights offenders. “Logistics,” as Morozov points out, “are not the only determinant of civic engagement.” The web may have amplified the efforts of democracy activists (in the Ukraine, Burma or China), but this fact has not necessarily swelled the ranks of freedom fighters.

Connected to this is a corollary point, and one which I previously discussed in connection to a paper Morozov wrote for the Open Society Institute. The Web contains as much distraction as dissidence; it’s a hall of mirrors, often a projection of active fantasy, not political activism. In the BR piece, Morozov nails this:

Once they get online unsupervised, do we expect Chinese Internet users, many of them young, to rush to download the latest report from Amnesty International or read up on Falun Gong on Wikipedia? Or will they opt for The Sopranos or the newest James Bond flick? Why assume that they will suddenly demand more political rights, rather than the Friends or Sex in the City lifestyles they observe on the Internet?

Returning to my first point, Chinese and Burmese cyber-dissidence has simply been met with heavier repression and authoritarian backlash. In direct proportion to the expansion of internet access, Chinese users have seen the creation of a behemoth Great Firewall, monitoring all traffic, even Skype conversations, for subversive keywords. Those bloggers and netizens caught red-handed are shut down or arrested — in chilling 1984-esque slang, they are “harmonized.”

In Burma, by contrast, the Saffron Revolution of Buddhist monks was defeated by a complete take down of the internet and brutal military repression, despite well publicized and shocking photographs from citizen journalists and bloggers. Indeed, one of the motivating questions in our study of the Saffron Revolution was why democratic reform did not materialize in Burma despite the pro-democratic catalyst of internet activists.

However warranted Morozov’s cyber-pessimism may be, there is some room for counter-argument. Cyber-utopians may falsely subscribe to technological determinism, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that the web’s influence on democratic reform is subtle and slow, almost Burkean in quality.

Read the rest of this entry »

Second Life Regime Change?

Read this great Boston Review think piece. It turns on the central question of this blog: Does the Internet spread democracy? The author cites and, to an extent, criticizes some of the Berkman research on the Orange Revolution and “smart mobs.” I’ll have a fuller critique tomorrow. In the meantime, money quote:

Regime change by text messaging may seem realistic in cyberspace, but no dictators have been toppled via Second Life, and no real elections have been won there either; otherwise, Ron Paul would be president.

Bluehost To Sack Iranian Blogs

Bluehost, which hosts several WordPress blogs in Iran, is set to start removing Iranian users due to a clause  which allows them to deny service to countries under American government sanctions. The sad irony is that this action only hurts political speech, civil society and democratic participation in Iran, the very values that thinking Americans would like to flourish there.

In deeply conservative Iran, whose outspoken anti-Americanism and atomic ambitions have prompted punitive sanctions from the West, the blogosphere has become one of the few avenues of robust political speech. As Persian blogger Arash Kamangir eloquently puts it:

My father once took me to the streets in front of the University of Tehran, now called Revolution Street, and showed me the pavement. He said, “There was a time when, at every inch of this pavement, a person was passionately advocating for a political group.” The Persian blogosphere is the electronic version of those packed streets which were silenced soon after the takeover of power by the current administration.

There are, of course, enormous complications to any Iranian-American rapproachment, Obama’s recent holiday well-wishing aside. See The Atlantic’s sobering Netanyahu interview for what I mean by this. At the same time, the Manichean image of Iran as an evil theocracy of mad mullahs must be checked against the aspirations of average Iranians, who simply desire the autonomy to speak, discuss and protest. Bluehost’s disappointing denial of service does nothing to foster this web-based civil society and, in fact, may only prop up hardliners, anxious to shackle hosting services and executve bloggers.

I&D Project Releases New Case Studies on Switzerland

Great news! The team over here at the Internet and Democracy project is happy to announce today the release of Three Case Studies From Switzerland, the newest installment in its ongoing set of case studies on the evolving interface between networked technologies and democracy. Headed up by Berkman Center Executive Director Urs Gasser and a team of collaborators at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, this three-part report reviews a variety of experiments happening on all parts of the democratic process. As the report outlines in our Executive Summary, the case study reviews projects affecting:

The pre-voting stage in the first case study of the automated Swiss candidate-voter matching system, Smartvote; The voting stage itself in our second study on the implementation of electronic voting (e-voting) in Switzerland; The post-voting phase in our third study on the use of blogs by elected candidates in the Swiss government.

It is important to note that this report marks a departure from our usual focus in the I&D case studies to date, where activity online was often assessed in conflict with the adversarial efforts of institutions to supress or resist. In contrast, these new studies examine an opposite scenario: a unique political environment in which institutions and networked technologies are actively working together in an effort to enhance democratic governance.

The report is accessible here.

We hope this piece will provoke lively discussion and broaden our understanding of the role technology can play among strong, established democracies. Enjoy! We’re looking forward to any comments or responses you might have.

From China With Love…?

There’s nothing sexier than a spy. Unless, of course, that spy is a faceless web spook stealing documents from the Dalai Lama. Hope all of you have already read this fascinating Times piece about GhostNet, the shadowy malware espionage project uncovered by those smart folks at the Munk Centre, affilited with the University of Toronto. (Munk’s Citizen Lab also broke the story of China’s Skype monitoring, which I wrote about back in December.) GhostNet covertly spied on computers in over 103 countries, including a host of different computers affiliated with the Dalai Lama. Read the full report here.

Researchers traced the servers back to their physical locations, and as it turns out three of the four are in China. It’s hard to not to feel, especially given the focus of Tibetan computers, that this wasn’t an inside job by People’s Liberation Army cyber-warriors. James Fallows, however, has made a persuasive case for skepticism.

Fallow’s chief point is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish state from non-state actors on the web. GhostWeb might be in cahoots with the Chinese intelligence service, or it might be a band of patriotic hackers, or, God knows, the CIA. One does wonder though what patriotic Chinese hackers would do with sensitive Tibetan documents besides hand them over to Chinese authorities.

Regardless, the Web’s dense underbrush of anonymity empowers astro-turfers, spreaders of misinformation and, as we can now say with certainty, powerful hacker-spies (do they wear tuxedos and drink martinis too?) to prowl unnoticed. No fancy glass cutters or laser trippers needed. This includes dramatic digital cossacks, like the kids that nearly toppled Estonia’s government websites, and more pernicious and hidden efforts like Ghostnet.

For all the powerful and positive changes the Internet heralds (and we have been eager prophets on this blog), there are coequal dangers posed by our greater inter-connection and -dependence. Not to go Luddite on you all, but remote access is always a blessing and a curse.

Missionary/Blogger Detained in Iran

The Committee to Protect Bloggers reports that an Iranian blogger and convert to Christianity has been detained by a police dragnet for writing about the Bible. Conversion from Islam to another religion has long been a taboo in Muslim countries, and in some (like Iran or Afghanistan) it still carries penalties like death or jail time for “apostasy.” For more background, read the Council on Foreign Relations’s primer on theocratic sharia law and conversion.

What is unique to this case is the blogging aspect. Of course, as global access to the Internet increases,  I think an inevitable conflict between conservative sharia courts and free expression will explode and multiply. The recent condemnation of an Afghan journalism student for even downloading articles which question Islam represents an extreme example of the phenomenon.

In more internet savvy Iran, there are over 60,000 Farsi language blogs. Potentially, that includes thousands of aberrant opinions, converts to other faiths, missionaries, satirists and dissidents — many of whom are currently self-censor out of fear.

The Iranian state’s battle against free religious speech may already be underway. As Al-Jazeera recently suggested, a proposed Iranian law making seditious blogging a capital offense would include, from the perspective of Sharia, conversion in its definition of “fasad.” Fasad is a category from Islamic legal interpretation which broadly encompasses what we might call sedition or “mischief against the State.”