South Korean Blogger Freed

Some fascinating news coming from the New York Times earlier this week that the massively popular Korean blogger Park Dae-sung has been freed from jail after a court acquitted him on all charges brought by government prosecutors, who claimed that the statements on his blog “undermined the financial markets.”

The Dae-sung case has huge free speech implications. As the Times article describes the situation,

In July and December, Mr. Park wrote that the government had banned financial firms and major corporations from buying dollars in an effort to arrest the fall of the South Korean currency, the won — a statement the court said on Monday had been false but not criminal.

Prosecutors had demanded an 18-month sentence for Mr. Park, accusing him of “blatantly stoking fears among the people” in an economic crisis. Quoting from his writing, they accused Mr. Park, who often used satire, of advising people to hoard daily necessities in anticipation of runaway inflation and to “send children to orphanages.”

Due to the extensive penetration of networked technologies among its citizens, South Korea continues to be a dramatic experiment in the complex, evolving relationship of the Internet, government and the public sphere. This is not the first time that these elements have tangled: some of you may remember last year’s June riots coordinated and driven by web protestors, and the large role that the community news site OhmyNews played in the 2002 election.

“Apps For America” Announces Winners

Back in January, I reported on an innovative new contest called Apps For America being sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation. The contest was to build easy-to-use apps with raw government API data dumps. The sprawling federal government seems (and often is) frustratingly inaccessible. Bypassing expensive IT consultants, this contest sought to increase citizen participation with iPhone-like simplicity.

The winners were announced yesterday, with hip Filibusted taking first place. It’s a brilliant little program that tracks filibuster and cloture votes, and sends updates to users via tweet. This could help your average Joe follow the arcane procedural dance also known as the U.S. Senate in an open, comprehensible way.

I encourage you to check out the other winners here, and also to use them. Transparent government depends upon an active citizenry. When the bureaucracy shields itself with paper, the web can lower the transaction cost of democratizing access.

Ahmadinejad Defends Saberi and the Blogfather

In an unexpected move, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly called on the Iranian judiciary to respect the legal rights of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi and Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan. Saberi was recently sentenced to eight years in prison by Iran’s secretive Revolutionary Court. Derakshan, known in Iran as the “Blogfather” is currently being held on charges of spying for Israel.

As reported by Reuters, the letter read:

“Based on the president’s insistence, please make sure that all the legal stages about the mentioned people be based on justice,” it said … and you personally make sure that the accused people enjoy all freedoms and legal rights to defend themselves and their rights are not violated.”

The politics of the gesture are not entirely clear, and Ahmadinejad may not ultimately be successful in cajoling the independent Iranian judiciary, but this is still welcome news and a sliver of hope that the detention of journalists on trumped up national security charges cannot be business as usual.

Alabama Considers Overseas E-Voting

It was hard not to chuckle a bit when I first read this. Alabama? E-Voting? And yet, making up for abysmally slow absentee vote processing in the 2008 elections (roughly 80 days), the Alabama State Legislature is now debating a bill that would provide secure channels for e-voting to Alabamans overseas. The plan is modeled on a similar system used in parts of Florida (hanging chads?).

The bill seems particularly targeted at military personnel. Alabama is a heavy recruiting ground for the Army, which enlisted over 6,000 new soldiers from Alabama in the past three years alone. Regardless, so long as the system can be reasonably hack-proof — I still worry about Estonia, though Switzerland had some positive test results — this is a positive step toward making technology serve democratic participation. Here’s hoping other states will catch on.


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.

Hey Judge, TXT Me

A month ago, I wrote about the disturbing use of Twitter by American jurors. The private sphere of the jury box — sealed-off in order to preserve impartiality — is slowly being permeated by Tweets, status updates and unauthorized trips to Wikipedia for information.

Twitter may not belong inside the courtroom, but in Dubai at least SMS is a clerk’s best friend. For about 16 cents (60 fils), any member of the public may now text the Dubai Public Prosecution agency, and receive text message sized updates on the details of the case.

Nothing sounds so deadening to my soul as dealing with legal bureaucracy. But this kind of e-Government — streamlining and making legal services accessible — is a smart solution to the morass of paperwork, the kind of thing Vivek Kundra would think up.

UPDATE: I missed this ABC report on a federal judge allowing court reporters to follow the case by Twitter. Excellent read!

Thai Gets Ten Years For YouTube Post

Suwicha Thakhor, a Thai national, has been sentenced to ten years (reduced from twenty) for uploading content to YouTube that violated Thailand’s medieval lese majeste laws and a junta-era cybercrime law. The exact details of Thakhor’s alleged insult to Thailand’s aging monarch are unknown. The three judge panel presidinginstructed reporters not to take notes. In short, his story:

Suwicha’s nightmare began on Jan. 14, when the oil engineer was arrested and charged by the police for posting a video clip on the YouTube website that was considered to be defaming the royal family. He had done so using a pseudonym.

The police had tracked his web postings and read his e-mails, according to his wife, Thitima Thakhor. ”He was arrested after he had dropped his children at school.”

To me, it no longer seems useful to wonder aloud whether a majority of Thais think lese majeste laws are good. For the most paltry offense — for the smallest shred of free expression — Thakhor was slammed with TEN YEARS. It’s Soviet. It’s Burmese. And it’s wrong.

New Mandala is right on to ask why the monarch, reputedly uneasy about the law, doesn’t speak more forcefully for reform. Regardless, the internet is accelerating a collision course between free speech (its natural tendency) and thuggish laws built to muffle satire and dissent. Who will win globally is not yet clear.

I wish I could say that to one side is stands a progressive path toward greater civil liberties and to the other self-defeating censorship regimes crumbling under the weight of isolation and sanctions. But when democracies, stable or emerging, lock up YouTubers on inflated “national security” charges, it’s hard not to feel dulled by pessimism and false hope.

One Web To Rule Them All…

ReadWriteWeb takes up the question of whether government standards for the web (interoperability and user identification) are a good thing. How much faith should we have in private companies to establish standards? How much should we fear the interference of bureaucrats?

A corollary exists in the 19th century American railroad. To consolidate monopolies and prevent free riders on expensive rail networks, private companies varied the width of their tracks. The variability in track width, however, was highly inefficient, requiring inter-regional trains to switch wheels to go from North to South. Congress eventually stepped, creating a standard of interoperability, and dramatically increasing the potential to move goods and passengers.

Does this hold for the Internet? To a degree, yes. We are living in a Digital Gilded Age, where gigantically powerful web companies compete to enshrine their standards and platforms across the web. The Microsoft, Google and Yahoo robber barons have every financial motive to squeeze the other one out. At what point, if at all, will the demand for open platforms necessitate the intervention of government standard setters?

The opposite side of the coin is whether Congress, and subsequently bureaucrats, can get it right, and the threat of creeping regulation. There seems to be a rash of Western democratic governments perfectly content to set up shoddy censorship regimes. Given the web’s international nature, Congress may also be an inadequate tool to standarize world networks. That’s why I tend to have more faith in trans-national, trans-industry groups like W3C, which is funded through universities and therefore public in spirit.

Though adherence is only recommended, the threat of neglecting the benefits of an open, interoperable web must also be economically tangible for all but the most popular proprietary platforms. Even Apple eventually gave in and packed BootCamp with Intel chipset Macs.

I’m all for a free and open internet, though I’m content to allow the standards which govern that freedom grow organically, even if that produces a few uneven edges. Besides, given the autonomous nature of the opensource crowd, even if private companies erect fences around themselves, someone will assure an open way to get around. I trust that dynamic a lot more than I do the whims and industry whispers in the ears of concerned regulators.

What’s In A Tea Party

I’ve been watching the rise of the quasi-libertarian “Tea Party” movement with bemused curiosity. The viral explosion of the net-based movement must far exceed the expectations of its original proponents: the unwitting Rick Santelli, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, and the host of libertarian organizations which helped to build up publicity.

Yet, as Andrew Sullivan and at least one perceptive Daily Dish reader have noted, there is a certain haziness to the movement’s goals. What exactly are they agitating for (or against)? Besides the Boston Tea Party metaphor and a populist and indistinct discontent with taxes and the stimulus bill, protesters seem to be running on the hot air of their own fervor. Social networking and brilliant internet marketing have created a behemoth with no head, all grassroots and no agenda.

This presents, as I see it, some of the limits of crowd-sourced politicking. Yes, as with the election of Barack Obama, we are seeing thousands of people participate in digital activism; but without some kind of central organization, the momentum is all centrifugal. Or as that Dish reader put it:

Let them find out how easy it is to have things go viral and how hard it is to sustain something without a cogent message or an articulate messenger.

If, on the other hand, the Tea Party camp can stay loud into next year, I think the effect on the big tent of mainstream conservative politics might be tangible. This “squeaky wheel” electoral effect would prove the power of the web to amplify messages, even mildly incoherent ones, through the blogosphere and beyond.

Internet Freedom Roundup

1. Oman, one of the world’s most closed societies, is prosecuting a Web forum moderator for allowing an anonymous post to go up criticizing a telecom company for corruption. I think Arab autocracies are going to come face to face with the explosion of internet speech sooner rather than later. Blogging (particularly anonymous) posting will continue, though aggressively prosecuting the fora where dissenting speech is found might set things back a bit.

2. For a comprehensive look at Chinese censorship and a chart of the security agencies which control the web, see this Digital East Asia article. As it turns out, even Chinese e-books have keyword filtering code buried in their javascript (Hat Tip: NetEffect). Add this to Skype, video sharing websites, WordPress, and so on… Between self-censorship and the Golden Shield, the crackdown on Chinese cyber-freedom is as terrifying as it is ubiquitous. I’m thinking aloud, but doesn’t it seem plausible that the oft-cited Pew poll which suggests the Chinese approve of censorship are results conditioned by fear of authority and a closed information world? From that grossly limited perspective, Tibetans and Falun Gongers may really seem like rabblerousing no-goodniks.