How Russia Can Influence Speech in Iran

Not (or not only) through sharing information on censorship tactics. Instead, as a mapping of the .ir domain by the firm Lumeta found, “one router in the .ir domain that passes the most traffic is physically located in Russia. Iran is apparently outsourcing a significant portion of its routed infrastructure.” This implies that Russia could also cut off that information, through that ‘choke point,’ if it wanted. According to Information Week, Lumeta also found that only about 10% of US-based traffic into Iran is blocked.
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Lumeta also has a map of the Internet in the Middle East.

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Which you can compare to our map and study of the Arabic blogosphere.

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Hat Tip: Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH)

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.

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.

The Pentagon’s Plan To Hack The Hackers

Following up December’s CSIS report and in anticipation of the National Research Council report due out tomorrow, the New York Times has the skinny on cyber-warfare in the 21st century.

As Estonia learned the hard way, democracies (and their infrastructures) are increasingly the target of nationalist hackers,  digital pirates, and government spooks (from China, Russia, the USA?). The alarming possibility that all these groups have or could be in cahoots is scaring the pants off the Pentagon, which is considering developing an alternate strategic command simply for cyber-related conflicts.

Up until now, most of the discussion has focused on defense, the so-called “fortress” method: secure and separate networks for critical infrastructure, virus protection and a cyber-czar to coordinate federal response. As this article illuminates, however, the Pentagon is preparing to bolster those defensive capabilities with offensive cyber-weapons. Hacking the hackers, the article suggests, is the newest form of deterrence.

But here, I think, the Cold War metaphor breaks down. Mutually assured destruction might be a functional way to deter a world war by superpowers, but will it really stop what amount to de-localized (possibly independent) digital guerrillas? There’s a certain asymmetry in favor of the hackers. You don’t have to enrich uranium in defiance of world opinion to hack Wall Street or the U.S. power grid.

In fact, you need to do surprisingly little. With millions of potentially anonymous actors, the problem is multiplied. As in the 1983 film War Games, no one knows whether you’re dealing with a real threat or just a clever punk in a Chinese basement. It’s a warzone as dangerous as it is hazy.

Roxana Saberi on Hunger Strike

Reporters without Borders reports that Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi — sentenced last Saturday to 8 years in prison after a sham 1 day closed trial in Tehran — is protesting her detention with a hunger strike. (For more background on Saberi, and her dubious arrest by Iranian authorities, read this profile by her former employer, the BBC.)

Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, not typically the most civil liberties friendly, had directly appealed to the Iran’s independent judiciary to process the case of Saberi with openness and transparency. Perhaps he is feeling the pressure of a potential American rapprochement. The visibility of the Saberi case could easily flare up into a full grown diplomatic feud. So far, Secretary Clinton’s language has been measured, though concerned.

Might the internet play a constructive role here in changing the diplomatic end game by raising the heat on Iranian authorities? Imagine, it was years before Solzhenitsin could get The Gulag Archipelago published in the West, much less in the Soviet Union. Now, despite all the Iranians’ best efforts at a low key and hack job political trial, anyone with Google can learn the inner workings of Saberi’s detention and moreover Iran’s infamous Evin political prison where she’s being held.

While — as AbuAardvark and NetEffect’s Evgeny Morozov have been right to point out — the internet is not radically democraticizing the world, it does raise the embarassment and diplomatic costs of political prisoners. Hard to complain you’ve been shut out of the community of nations when your injustice is plainly on display. And the web is what solves this informational assymetry, even if it can’t shake kings and autocrats.

Saberi’s partner, Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, has written an open letter appealing to Iranian authorities. The letter can be read in full here and is circulating on numerous media outlets and websites (BBC, Campaign for Human Rights in Iran to name a few).

Tweet it, RT it, blog, and howl. Roxana should be free.

Thai “Red Shirt” Unrest Spurs Censorship Dragnet

In reaction to the ongoing and violent anti-government “red shirt” protests, the ruling Democrat Party of the Thailand has ordered a broad range of media outlets connected to the pro-Thaksin United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (or UDD) shut down. This sweep delivered gag orders to radio stations, the satellite television network D Station and at least 67 political websites with links to the UDD.

The picture of what’s happening on the ground has been blurred by the barring or mistreatment of journalists by both sides. The ruling party, seized by crisis fever, is locking down any media perceived to be “inciting violence” with the unintended consequence, as Reporters without Borders put it, of increasing the “climate of fear” around Bangkok. The Thaksin demonstrators (see here for TwitPic updates and images of the unrest) have not been entirely innocent either, reportedly roughing up several TV crews and expelling reporters from the protests.

The government’s reaction is premised on a heavy handed survival impulse. It’s true, some of the protests have descended into violence, and the perception that social chaos is being spread by pro-Thaksin media probably has truth to it. On the other hand, punitive media-unfriendly martial law seems unlikely to assuage the supporters of a movement who feel wrongfully ousted by the 2006 coup and the banning of the PPP back in December 2008 (for more of the run up to this conflict, read this). Now, adding to the uncertainty of the social fabric, blue shirts, evidently supported by royalists, have joined the fray.

Nor is the unaligned portion of the Thai public likely to take kindly to the broad and hysterical censorship crack-down, which risks making the “red shirts” more powerful or bringing the military storming back in. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Thaksin himself, exiled for the past three years in Dubai, has urged aging king Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene and encourage reconciliation. The king, revered by the Thais, has been charateristically silent.

UPDATE: Evidently MICT, the Thai telecommunications authority, has lifted the emergency decree on websites related to the “red shirt” cause. The list of formerly blocked websites is here. Freedom Against Censorship Thailand, a WordPress blog which agitates for free internet speech remains somewhat inexplicably blocked by Thai ISPs.

Cyber Pessimism and its Discontents

A couple days late, but I highly encourage you to read some of NetEffect and AbuAardvark‘s really brilliant discussion this past week about why the internet promises a lot less democracy than originally hoped for. I don’t agree on all counts (see some more of my thoughts here and here), but I do think they understand the situation more clearly and soberly than many of the cyber-utopians out there.

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The Moral Failure of Promoting Democracy

Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, has posed a depressing, if necessary question. If internet activism rarely topples an authoritarian regime (see, for example, the failure of Burma’s Saffron Revolution or Egypt’s April 6 Facebook strike, which I perhaps too cheerily praised back in Jan.), isn’t it morally problematic for Westerners to egg on activists they know will not succeed? For all our efforts to praise individual movement leaders, all we end up doing is putting those folks more squarely in the crosshairs of the secret police.

This is all in line with the appropriate caution that Evgeny Morozov outlined in his recent Boston Review piece (see also my thoughts on that piece here). Power is power, and in most of these countries, it continues to flow straight from the barrel of a gun, not any robust notion of democratic legitimacy. X Arab autocracy or Y East Asian dictatorship is likely to feel threatened from within by an independent blogging class and humiliated from without by the ridicule of Westernized democracies. When the Burmese junta could no longer take the heat, they simply downed the internet completely, convenient to do when all ISP’s are centrally licensed and controlled anyway.

Read the rest of this entry »

“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.

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 votereport.in
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.