Internet Filtration in the Middle East

This week the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) released its 2009 report on Internet filtration across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  Research for this release was conducted in 2008-2009, but it builds upon findings dating back to 2003, including a report released in 2007.  The full release (available in PDF) chronicles the detailed testing of over 2,000 websites in each country. The ONI’s work on Internet controls in the region provides crucial context for the Internet & Democracy’s work on the networked public sphere.

Back in June, the Internet & Democracy team released a study of the Arabic Blogosphere, authored by John Palfrey and Bruce Etling of the Berkman Center, and John Kelly of Morningside Analytics.  The research spanned 35,000 Arabic language web logs across 18 countries in the Middle East.  A few weeks ago, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) released the webcast, including the interpretations by three panelists Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University, Acting Director of USIP’s Muslim World Initiative, Saad Ibrahim of Voices for a Democratic Egypt, and Raed Jarrar, a prominent Iraqi Blogger who writes Raed in the Middle.

Here’s a quick rundown on the conversation at USIP:

In June, 150  viewers from 26 countries –with the highest Middle East representation coming from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon– watched the presentation of the Arabic Blogosphere study for at least 30 minutes, and many asked challenging questions of the researchers via Twitter and chat.  The research findings proved not only illustrative, but also provocative.

Saad Ibrahim of Voices for a Democratic Egypt, expressed a predominantly Egyptian perspective, highlighting blogs as indicative of youth perspective, and youth’s centrality in Egyptian demographics.  He discussed the “electronic unveiling” of Saudi women, the protective “tribalism” displayed by Egyptian bloggers, and the fact that “Egypt today is the online voice of Iran.” Commenting on the study’s findings, Ibrahim declared that the Egyptian blogosphere is witnessing a new age, where “issues and technology” dominate the political online discourse, and where “bashing the U.S. is not a pastime” so much as an occasional necessity.

Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University and Acting Director of USIP’s Muslim World Initiative discussed the role of the Internet in “globalizing moderates, and marginalizing militants,” pointing out that bloggers were overwhelmingly critical of both extremist tactics and United States interventions.  He discussed the importance of blogs in bridging between conflicting parties, noting that authoritarian regimes are usually less nervous about criticism inside “walled gardens” than cross-cluster talk. Beyond discourse, he elucidated the importance of political and social institutions, demographic understanding, and context to frame blogger perspectives.

Raed Jarrar, a prominent Iraqi Blogger who writes for Raed in the Middle, critiqued some of the study’s findings. He maintained that the choice of many Iraqi bloggers to write in English is dictated by the political realities of “foreign occupation” rather than personal preference.  He was additionally critical of the study’s research framework, taking issue with the parlance of labels such as “moderates” and “militants,” “secular reformists” and “Muslim Brotherhood.” Furthermore, he pointed out the “inherent bias” in investigating Arabic blogs’ support of “terrorism” or “extremism,” positing that “resistance” might be a more uniformly understood term for “terrorism” in the Arab world.  He argued that the map would appear very different with re-framed parameters – for example, a different set of political categories could be seen across geographic or religious lines if attentive clusters were bifurcated by demographic understanding. Similarly, new patterns would emerge from categorizing bloggers by their political agenda rather than their religious affiliations.

During the question and answer section, the study methodology was further elucidated, and the incorporation of Arabic speakers and regional experts explained. The researchers also responded to questions regarding shortcomings in the study’s choice of parameters and labels, emphasizing that their focus was primarily on understanding the digital discourse phenomenon, and providing a set of tools to study it. Categorizations will always be crude approximations of a reality far more complex than can be conveniently articulated – it is important though to be aware of these limitations and draw conclusions commensurate with such approximations.

Several questions centered on the relation between the Arabic blogosphere and transnational and local media, and by extension, the connection between online life and real life in the Arab world. The researchers said it is hard to estimate the extent to which Arabic blogs reflect public opinions or consensus views, though they pointed out that Al Jazeera, the BBC and Al Arabiya are the top three mainstream media sources linked to by Arabic bloggers. In answer to the question “does online discussion distract from activism?” panelists called for a more careful analysis of who is blogging and who has access to the Internet. Jarrar for example stated that the Iraqi online discourse is “not mature enough to have its own mobilization.” Brumberg said that one of the biggest challenges ahead is to get bloggers to move to the public and political spheres.

Participants wanted to know if the study’s findings could be read as evidence for the Internet Balkanization, as “similarly minded publics are being tied with similarly minded publics.” The national clusters that emerge in the Arabic blogosphere do seem to reflect an increasing focus on local issues. Others wanted to understand how this study compared with studies in the West, and if so whether the perspectives of the Western blogosphere matched Western social attitudes, questioning the assumption that online discourse can be extrapolated to understand larger societal trends.  Yet others wanted to more comprehensively understand the linkages between online discourse and offline events, and how discourse percolated through and impacted the functioning of domestic institutions.

While some called the research Western centric, broad participant consensus was that an analytical Pandora’s box had been opened, and its understanding was both vital and daunting. Perhaps most importantly, one participant asked, “We now know who’s writing, but what about who’s reading online?”

Manal Dia, a Berkman Center Researcher & MIT graduate student, contributed to this post.

Young Muslims Look to Technology to Fight Extremism

There is no shortage of stories about how the Internet enables extremists in the Middle East, so it’s nice to see a more balanced look at how young people in the region are actually using these online tools. This excellent CNN piece by Manav Tanneeru, which is part of Christian Amanpour’s Generation Islam series, looks closely at Esra’a al Shafei of MidEastYouth, and cite her as an example of someone who:

…represents a generation of Muslims who are using technology to express themselves, connect with others, challenge traditional power structures and create an identity in an era when Islamic extremists often grab the headlines.

The article also cites your humble (er, self-promoting) blogger on some results from our recent research on the Arabic blogosphere:

It’s long been a concern that the Web is being used by extremist groups such as al Qaeda to recruit young Muslims to their cause. However, Bruce Etling, who co-authored recent studies of the Arabic and Persian blogospheres at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said he found little evidence of such activity.

“In the Arabic blogosphere we found no specific clusters related to extremism, and when it was discussed, it tended to be in negative terms,” he said. “It was a counter-narrative we were surprised to find.”

The Cloud of War

As examined in “Orwell’s Google Search for Peace,” Google Internet search query data can provide useful insight. In observing the prevalence of proper nouns, such as electoral candidate names, linguistic variation is uncommon and need not be examined.  For example, interest in “Obama” around the world does not vary according to local language. Observing the online prevalence of nouns such as “war” and “peace,” linguistic nuance does help broaden the scope of the observation. Google Insights for Search allows for semantic nuance through the use of language, “+” or statements, and adding “-” negative queries to preclude similar, but unrelated, queries from slanting results.

Below, I focus on three Middle East geographies in particular, Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories, observing  the terms “war” and “peace” across three languages: Arabic, English, and Hebrew.   The “Fog of War” was once used to describe the level of ambiguity in situational awareness in battle.  Today, Google is allowing us to understand what should be known as the “Cloud of War” by observing conflict and reconciliation via online search interest.


"War" and "Peace" Arabic, English, and Hebrew Google Search Volume.

Iraqi Google Search Query Volume on Linguistic Variants of War & Peace.

Though search query data only goes back as far as 2004, and the initiation of the Iraq War came in March 2003, throughout the period of observation (from 2004-present) “war + מלחמה + الحرب” always outpaced “peace + שלום + سلام.” The largest spike in relative online traffic on linguistic variants of “war” came in October 2007.  A comparison with Google News volume during the same month indicates a corresponding expansion of press coverage.


Israel Google Search Query Volume on Linguistic Variants of War & Peace.

Israel Google Search Query Volume on Linguistic Variants of War & Peace.*

In Israel, despite a history of fairly evenly distributed Internet search queries on Arabic, English, and Hebrew versions of “war” and “peace,” there is a spike in search on war terms coinciding with the Israeli January 3-18, 2009 invasion of Gaza. Israeli Google search on war reached its peak between January 4-10, 2009. What is noteworthy, however, is that Israeli queries on “war” subsided, and by the week of January 25-31 –only seven days after the January 18, 2009 troop withdrawal from Gaza– they were again commensurate with “peace” queries. What appears to be a blip in Israeli Internet focus is not quite so unpronounced in the Palestinian Territories.


Palestinian Google Search Query Data on Linguistic Variants of "War" and "Peace."

Palestinian Google Search Query Data on Linguistic Variants of War and Peace.

In the Palestinian Territories, Google search query traffic spiked on variants of the term “war” corresponding with the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Despite a history –since 2006– of commensurate “war” and “peace” search volume, the January 3-18, 2009 events had a lingering effect online.  Whereas Israeli query volume on “war” fell to levels of “peace” by January 25, Palestinian query volume on “war” failed to fully subside until June 23.

What reconciliation, online, had taken one week in Israel had taken six-months in the Palestinian Territories. As one additional data point for understanding mutual grievances across conflict zones, the “Cloud of War” is useful.

*Though Israel chart lists specific categories, “All Categories” selection was held constant across comparisons.

Internet and Democracy Releases Report on Arabic Blogosphere


After much work over the past year, the Internet and Democracy Project team is proud to officially announce today the release of our study on the Arabic blogosphere, a follow-up to last year’s I&D study on the shape of the Iranian blogosphere. Our research identified a base network of approximately 35,000 blogs, and aimed to generate a baseline for understanding the state of online discourse in the region. As in our previous work, we’ve worked with John Kelly to visualize the data on over 6,000 of the most connected blogs and had researchers read over 4,000 blogs to understand who the bloggers are and the issues they care about. We’re excited to report that there’s some intriguing findings on the state of the networked public sphere in the Middle East, some highlights include:

* The Demographics of Arab Bloggers: Demographic coding indicate that Arabic bloggers are predominately young and male. The highest proportion of women is found in the Egyptian youth sub-cluster, while the Maghreb/French Bridge and Syrian clusters have the highest concentration of men.

* The Makeup of the Arab Online Media Ecosystem: Bloggers link to Web 2.0 sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia (both English and Arabic versions) more than other sources of information and news available on the Internet. Al Jazeera is the top mainstream media source, followed by the BBC and Al Arabiya, while US-government funded media outlets like Radio Sawa and Al Hurra are linked to relatively infrequently.

* The Perception of the United States: The US is not a dominant political topic in Arabic blogs; neither are the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, when the US is discussed, it is nearly always in critical terms.

There’s much more here — our study revealed other interesting patterns in the online discussion around extremism, and the online presence of political opposition groups, including Kefaya (Enough) and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

You can get the complete study here. Also be sure to check out our event tomorrow at USIP where John Palfrey, John Kelly, Robert Faris and Bruce Etling will present the results and get reaction from a panel of experts and bloggers from the region. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

YouTube Shows Different Faces of Iranian Election

By I&D guest blogger Hamid Tehrani, Iran editor of Global Voices and co-founder of the March 18 Movement

The Iranian Presidential election will take place this Friday, and YouTube has been used both by Iranian citizens and politicians as a dynamic instrument during the campaign. Here, I would like to share a few examples to illustrate how YouTube has become a vibrant, interactive medium of expression in the hands of Iranians.

1. Fact Checking: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied, during a televised debate with one of his reformist candidates that he ever claimed a “halo” surrounded him during a U.N. address in 2005. A video clip on YouTube shows that Ahmadinejad did in fact argue that a “light enveloped him during his address to the U.N. General Assembly and that the crowd stared without blinking during the entire speech.”

2. Demands beyond candidates’ campaign platforms: Rakhshan Bani Etemad,a leading female director, made a film where various women activists talk about their own demands.

3. Creativity: One video appearing on YouTube compares former Prime Minister, Mir Hussein Mousavi to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the tune of the old Broadway tune, ‘Anything You Can Do’. The text at the end of the film concludes that Mousavi is more rational than Ahmadinejad, whose policies he argues have damaged Iran’s economy

4. Discrediting the Opposition: There is another YouTube film that targets former Reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, who is campaigning for Mousavi.
A couple of hundred Azeri students held a protest against Khatami for making this joke, and asked Mousavi, who is Azeri himself, to condemn Khatami. Meanwhile, Khatami has claimed the film is a fake montage.

5. Campaign Events: Mehdi Karroubi, former Speaker of the Parliament, and his supporters forcefully broke through the gates of Amir Kabir University when he was banned by university authorities from delivering his speech.

6. Campaign films: Candidates promote their own campaign films on YouTube. Ahmadinejad’s supporters published dozens of films to promote his campaign.

7. Get Out the Vote: Iranians in 25 cities around the world came together to encourage people to vote.

8. Citizens in motion: Candidates’ supporters are dancing and celebrating each night after each presidential debate.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.