Connecting India: Why Elections Need The Web

With over 700 million voters, India is the world’s largest democracy. Naturally, electoral fraud is a frequent problem. But social media may be changing that bleak picture. Guarav Mishra, a current Yahoo! Fellow and co-founder of Vote Report India, has been working to ensure fair (or fairer) elections, not by relying on international observers, but by appealing to the strength of India’s “digital” civil society.

How does civil society go “digital”? By adapting social networking technology and blogs to important civic aims like transparency, clean electoral practices and democratic legitimacy. Web-savvy young Indians — jolted into democratic participation some say by the horrific Mumbai terrorists attacks (see my coverage here) — are versatile with web 2.0 media, Twitter and, of course, SMS. Mishra’s Vote Report India, for example, builds a dynamic map (a la Al-Jazeera’s Gaza coverage) based on user-submitted reports of electoral abuse. Users can upload this data in a variety of ways:

By sending a message starting with VoteReport to 5676785
By sending an email to  report at
By sending a tweet with the hashtag #votereport
By filling a form at the website

Despite India’s bewildering diversity of languages, customs and religions, technology is building a bridge to more robust civil society. I am heartened by the cacophanous and lively blogospheric debates about the elections, which now compete with the Indian MSM and party propaganda machines for attention (see Guarav’s round-up here).

The toleration of dissent and the encouragement of debate is key to democratic functioning, and so it’s also remarkable that these discussions include the voice of India’s Muslim minority and in broader contexts the vigorous debate over Varun Ghandi’s comments. Things aren’t perfect (see this recent Atlantic piece about the BJP in Gujarat), but blogs, SMS and Twitter are strengthening India’s democratic pulse.

Economic crisis leading to political opening in Russia

In a meeting with human rights activists, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said that competition among political forces should be restored in the country. He also argued for changes in the NGO registration law, which many civil society leaders argue was created as a legal means to shut down civil society groups the government disapproved of–including the Salvation Army.

These recent moves appear to be part of a deliberate policy shift to allow greater political openness as a means to respond to the economic crisis, which has led to the first widespread protests in Russia in years. Medvedev said in the meeting with civil society leaders:

It is clear that in times of crisis, we should think about strengthening mutual understanding and trust between the state and the civil society. Without this, we will not be able to overcome the crisis.

This is not the first time we have heard the idea that the economic crisis will require political changes; last February Medvedev aid Igor Yurgens said:

The social contract consisted of limiting of civil rights in exchange for economic well-being. At the current moment, economic well-being is shrinking. Correspondingly, civil rights should expand. It’s just simple logic.

If this liberalization continues, it will add credence to the theory that economic development and democracy go hand in hand. Of course, it could also mean that once the Russian economy recovers, that Russia could retract any of the political changes allowed now in order to sate Russians’ anger over the economic crisis.

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.

The Internet and the 2008 US election: participation and/or fragmentation?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just released a report on the role of the Internet in the 2008 US election, which analyses trends in how people consume political news & information and the ways they use the internet to engage with politics. Here are some of the key findings:

More than half  (55%) of the voting-age population has used the Internet to get involved in the political process during the election year (74% of Internet users).

The survey findings show that the Internet has become a paramount tool for people’s engagement in the political process, not only as a source of information (60% of Internet users have gone online to look for political information in 2008 compared to 22% in 1996), but as a tool for active participation. 18% of Internet users actively engaged online by posting comments on the campaign on online forums such as blogs or social networking sites and 45% watched online videos related to the campaign.

Young voters  (18-24 year olds) showed the highest levels of political involvement online. They engaged heavily in the political debate through social networking sites: two-thirds of young people with a social networking profile took part in some form of online political activity. Read the rest of this entry »

Revolutionary Guards’ soft power: from “cyber repression” to “humanitarian action”

By Hamid Tehrani, Global Voices Iran Editor and I&D Guest Blogger

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has been celebrating its soft power over the past two months by dismantling several sites it accused of being anti-religion, pornographic, and conducting anti-national security activities. (1)

It seems the Revolutionary Guards Corp was so pleased by its conquest of the virtual world that it launched a Web site (2) where it names the sites this military ideologically motivated organization has dismantled and hacked. The Web site also reveals photos of arrested people who were allegedly involved with these sites.

The Revolutionary Guards Corp accused some Western countries of supporting these anti-religion sites and cyber dissidents who, they claim, are planning a soft overthrow of the regime. The Corp has also warned that the Internet is not out of its reach anymore.

Several Iranian bloggers and Western media members pointed out that this virtual, well-organized attack is a sign that a new era has dawned where the Iranian cyber world is less secure, and repression is more frequent and real.

Some Iranian bloggers also write that this well-publicized action, which was covered several times on national TV, is just the tip of the iceberg, and that it aims to make people scared and tarnish the image of the blogosphere among Iranians. Some bloggers have also demanded that those arrested for running the sites should have access to legal defense as their rights have been violated by mistreatment and torture.

It seems all these thoughts, doubts, and speculations have some roots in reality and that imprisonment for Iranian bloggers, filtering of Web sites, and censorship are hard facts in the country.

But the Western media have chosen to ignore one very important fact, one not discussed much in the Iranian blogosphere–that the action by the Revolutionary Guards involved not only hacking and jailing.

Some of the pornographic sites shut down were not ordinary, normal ones. They exposed naked Iranian women and girls who were filmed without their knowledge, and even some of the victims in these films were sexually violated.

Hacking and dismantling these sites has nothing to do with either censorship or freedom of speech. The action of the Revolutionary Guards, by ending the virtual existence of these sites, can be considered as a humanitarian action because it upholds the honor, private life, reputation, and existence of its people. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an Iranian citizen in Iran to hire an international lawyer to complain against a foreign-based hosting company.

The Revolutionary Guards frequently use soft-overthrow conspiracies and threats to justify their actions. Soft overthrow can be considered a sad reaction to the George Bush regime’s changed mantra, and the former American Government’s $75-million investment in soft power to achieve this goal.(3)

Bush’s soft power rhetoric not only failed to empower Iranian cyber activists or NGOs but it became an excuse for the Iranian regime to step up pressure on Iran’s civil society.

Now that Bush is gone, the Iranian regime is being courted by the Obama administration’s offer to help in Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Guards Corps flourished with its soft power, and instead of haggling over half measures such as filtering, it wiped off sites and blogs. Cyber dissidents are worried about what their next move will be, and do not know to whom they can pray. But at least they have Bush to curse.


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!

Medvedev Talks to Novaya Gazeta on Internet Control, Democracy in Russia

Russia watchers are reading a lot into President Medvedev’s decision to give a rare and wide-ranging interview to Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper that has had four of its journalists assassinated in recent memory, including Anna Politovskaya. Many believe those journalists have been killed for their critical political coverage. The trial and eventual release of Politovskaya’s alleged killers was quite a bit of political theater (as both comedy and tragedy), which Keith Gessen described well in this New Yorker piece. Novaya Gazeta has also been critical of the Kremlin, although it’s worth noting that newspapers in Russia are allowed more latitude in their coverage than television. The Internet, it appears, remains a relatively free space relative to other Russian media, especially TV.

The Washington Post summarized the interview here, but they left out an important section: Medvedev’s view of control of the Internet in Russia. As I’ve written here before, the Russian president’s views on freedom of the Russian Internet are more liberal and open than one might expect. He confirmed those views again in the Novaya Gazeta article (in Russian), reminding us that he uses the Internet everyday (take that John McCain!), and that the Internet is “the best platform for discussion” that there is. He also called for expanded Internet access in Russia, but noted the steep costs for wiring such a large country. In terms of regulation of the Internet, Medvedev says that Russia needs to be smart about how they go about it; on the one hand ensuring its continued development, but at the same time preventing criminal elements from taking advantage of Internet technologies. The Internet, he concludes, is not any more dangerous than any other means (of communication), and is not “absolutely evil.”

When asked about the need for the “rehabilitation of democracy” in Russia, Medvedev demurred, noting that Russian democracy did not need rehabilitating, that many Russian view democracy and particularly the institutions created in the 1990s skeptically, in part due to economic upheavals at the time, and that “nowhere does democracy require rehabilitation.” I’ll have to disagree with that statement, since many have argued that democracy, including established democratic systems, require constant attention, care and feeding to ensure their survival. He concludes that democracy existed, exists and will exist in Russia, which the Post reminds us, is not dissimilar from the Soviet slogan that Lenin lived, lives, and will live. We’ll have to wait and see if the same holds for the Internet in Russia.

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.