Monthly Archive for March, 2008

Do you Know Where Your News Is? Predictions for 2013 by Media Experts:

Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center, is moderating a panel on the future of news at Berkman’s Media Re:public Forum. The panelists were given two minutes and gave us some soundbites.

Paul Steiger is Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica, a non profit with 25 journalists created to fill the gap left by the shrinking newsrooms in the country. He was a Wall Street Journal managing editor for 16 years previously. When he was at the WSJ, he remembers 15% of the budget being allocated to news and the rest to operations, and now at ProPublica more than 60% of the budget is on news. This is due to the web and how easy operations are now. When asked about his vision in 2013, he doesn’t anticipate making money since their mandate is not to sell advertising and remain a nonprofit.

Jonathan Taplin is a Professor at USC Annenberg and a former producer of films with Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese. He worries 2013 might bring commercial overload and not just an information overload. He agrees with David Weinberger that the struggle will be over meta-data. He sees an advance of the commodizing of freedom – social networks mine information about you even though they seem free. So he sees an eventual FaceBook/MySpace type polarization widely on the web where some users are in an ad free world they pay for and others in a free world full of ads. These become two separate world that don’t interact.

Jennifer Ferro is Assistant General Manager and Executive Producer of Good Food at KCRW. She sees a convergence of devices and platforms where devices become less relevant. She doesn’t think people are going to carry radios and the internet will become pervasive with a backbone of media sites people primarily visit.

Jonathan Krim is Director of Strategic Initiatives of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. He thinks the traditional story telling model, based on objectivity, will be abandoned and journalists will seek to attribute all points of view to others. He sees the blogosphere, television, and some print pioneers creating spaces where reporters are free to write what they know – where the quality of the reporters is important and considering the other side is important. This means that we will approach something closer to a press that reports along certain lines that will identify them. Krim believes this scenario enhances the credibility of the journalists and allows for wider sourcing and more public participation.

Lisa Williams, of Placeblogger.com, sees shorter job tenure with a greater number of popular journalists rather than a cabal of a few. This gives a wider breadth to the stories and more depth: for example 6000 amputee soldiers have returned from Iraq – but how many have been fitted with prosthetics? Important questions like this would be tough to answer in a traditional newsroom but in 2013 the media will be capable of answering this.

David Cohn, from digidave.org and Newstrust.net, has 2 mantras: 1) the future is open and distributed and 2) journalism is a process not a product. Cohn sees these converging to the question how does the process become more open and distributed? He wants newspapers to be more like a public library in that they are a source of information about your community. He follows ideas in Richard Sambrook’s talk last night in that he wants to content to be open and distributed through networked journalism.

Jon Funabiki is a Professor of Journalism at San Francisco University. He thinks dialog in 2013 will center around our passions. He sees 3 trends: 1) increasing democratic diversity in the US and increasing globalization 2) an explosion of ethnic new media from identity based communities 3) the increasing practice of community based organizations using new media tools like journalistic narrative story telling designed to move services to communities. So he wants to couple old media with new community produced media since it all contributes to the ongoing civic dialog.

Solana Larsen is managing editor of Global Voices and previously a commissioning editor of Open Democracy. She is worried about journalistic integrity – journalists interviewing journalists who are on the scene and reporting secondhand information with an aura of knowledability. She wants journalists to talk to local people and be honest with their audiences about how much they really know about the topic. She thinks in 2013 there will be no foreign correspondents and news will be reported by people who understand the local context and culture.

Crossposted in I&D Blog

Media Re:public Forum Panel on Participatory Media: Defining Success, Measuring Impact

Margaret Duffy is a Professor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and she is speaking at Berkman’s Media Re:public Forum. She leads a Citizen Media Participation project to create a taxonomy of news categories and get a sense of the state of citizen media via sampling news across the nation. They are interested in where the funding in coming from, the amount of citizen participation, and getting an idea of what the content is. They are also creating a social network called NewNewsMedia.org connecting seekers and posters to bring together people interested in the same sorts of things.

She’s sampled the country in local regions and found that, for example, Richmond Virginia is a hotbed for citizen journalism and blogging and says their methods of connecting to each other are unique. This suggests that blogging and citizen media seems to remain a local phenomenon. Across the country, they were suprised by how the sites were not all that particpatory, for example there isn’t much capability to upload on these sites. She suggests this is because gatekeeping seems very important and blogs tends to be tightly controlled by their authors. They also have seen a lot more linking to outside their sites and many blogs are trying to sell advertisihng (with highly varying levels of success).

The driving force behind the project is the idea that from a social capital standpoint they think that strong community connection make a difference to how to community survives in a democratic process. Her results on the local nature of citizen media suggests a more traditional notion of what a community is. Ethan Zuckerman discusses that community can define itself by local geography or aroudn subject matter and he suggests (referencing the talk below) that we are developing new metric for monetizing site based on reaching the right community and how we define the community is important for the sustainability of websites.

Duffy is followed by Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet (ipdi) at George Washington University. She is discussing the “Media Habits of Poli-fluentials” and building on work from The book The Influentials by Ed Keller and Jon Berry. The idea is that one person in ten tells the other nine how to votes, where to eat, etc. The interesting thing Darr notes is that poli-fluentials (her term) are not elites in the traditional sense but local community leaders and ordinary folk who appear to be knowledgable to their peers. She notes that people who seem to know a lot of people tend to be these poli-fluentials.

In a study she published at the www.ipdi.com the internet users political campaigners had traditionally not focused on are in fact the most active and most connected people in their local community. So now the campaigns and news media understand their audiences differently. If you read a newspaper or watch Sunday morning talk shows and PBS you are more likely to be a poli-fluential (about doubling your odds). Interestingly, purchashing political paraphenalia online increases your odds of being a poli-fluential about 5-fold, as with joining political groups and actively emailing representatives. But the kicker is that people who are self-declared independents who made a political contribution are 80 times more likely to be a poli-fluential than not.

Can we find sustainable funding models for citizen journalism? She suggests the poli-fluentials are the ones to target by advertisers since their opinions are those that filter out influentially to the community and where you get the most band for your advertising buck.

ini the panel discussions following the talk, Marc Cooper from the HuffingtonPost and a USC professor comments on how much it matters who is reading his site. He wants to maximize this number, rather than target the poli-fluentials. Impact is whether people are reading the stories, whether they filter into the broader media and whether they spawn debate. Clint Ivy from Fox Interactive Media suggests that you need to decide whether your goal is to make money or not and the appropriate metric flows from this. He uses the number of comments per post to measure influence, others might just decide whether or not they get a sense a satisfaction from blogging. Dan Gillmor, another Berkman fellow and Director of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU. reframes the problem as one of finding the right things to measure – how do you get a handle on the community mailing list that never bubbles out beyond the community. He thinks this things are enormously valuable and get overlooked. Ethan Zuckerman of GlobalVoices and another Berkman fellow is concerned about agenda setting and whether the right stories are coming up onto the front page and he is worried about the fact that the numbers tend to reflect not influence but whether the stories are important and underheard. Is is easy to get many hits on your blogs by picking a sensational story but having tens of hundreds of the right readers reading the right story is tough to measure. Marc Cooper questions whether any of these questions are new in the digital age or just a rehashing of the same question journalists have always faced.

Crossposted at I&D Blog

John Kelly: Parsing the Political Blogosphere

John Kelly is a doctoral student a Columbia’s School of Communications, a startup founder (Morningside Analytics), as well as doing collaborative work with Berkman. He’s speaking Berkman’s Media Re:public Forum.

Kelly says he takes an ecosystem approach to studying the blogosphere since he objects to dividing research on society into cases and variables because it is an interconnection whole. This isn’t right and basic statistical methods that use variables and cases and designed specifically to take interconnections into account. What he is doing with the research he presents today is using a graphical tool to present descriptions of the blogosphere.

Kelly shows a map of the entire blogosphere and the outlinks from the blogosphere. Every dot is a blog and any blogs that are linked are pulled together – so the map itself looks like clusters and neighborhoods of blogs. The plot seems slightly clustered but there is an enormous amount of interlinking (my apologies for not posting pictures – I don’t think this talk is online). In the outlinks maps to links from blogs to other sites – the New York Times is most frequently linked to and thus the largest dot on the outlinks map.

Kelly compares maps for 5 different language blogospheres: English, Persian, Russian, Arabic, and Scandinavian languages. Russian has very separate clusters and other languages get progressively more interconnected. In the Persian example, Kelly has found distinct clusters of ex-pat cloggers, poetry, and religious conservative bloggers concerned about the 12th Inam, as well as clusters of modern and moderately traditional religious and political bloggers. Kelly suggests this is a more disparate and discourse oriented picture than we might have thought.

In the American blogosphere Kelly notes that bloggers tend to link overwhelmingly to other blogs that are philosophically aligned with their own blog. He shows an interesting plot of Obama, Clinton, McCain blogopsheres’ linking patterns to other sites such as thinktanks and particular YouTube videos.

Kelley also maps a URL’s salience: main stream media articles peak quickly and are sometimes over taken by responses, but Wikipedia article keep getting consistent hits over time.

The last plot he shows is a great one of the blogs of the people attending this conference (and their organizations): there are 5 big dots representing how much people have blogged about the people – main stream media sites are the 5 big dots. Filtering out of those gives GlobalVoices as the blogs people mainly link to.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

David Weinberger: How new technologies and behaviors are changing the news

David Weinberger is a fellow and colleague of mine at the Berkman Center and is at Berkman’s Media Re:public Forum discussing the difference the web is making to journalism: “what’s different about the web when it comes to media and journalism?”

Weinberger is concerned with how we frame this question. He prefers ‘ecosystem’ rather than ‘virtue of discomfort’ since this gets at the complexity and interdependence in online journalism. But the ecosystem analogy is too apt and too comforting and all-encompassing so he pushes further. He doesn’t like the ‘pro-amateur’ analogy since it focuses too much on money as the key difference in web actors, and yet somehow seems to understate the vast disparity in money and funding. The idea of thinking of news as creating a better informed citizenry so that we get a better democracy doesn’t go far enough – Weinberger notes that people read the news for more reasons than this.

So he settles on ‘abundance’ as a frame due to the fact that control doesn’t scale which is something being address currently with online media. “Adundance of crap is scary but abundance of good stuff is terrifying!” The key question is how to deal with this. We are no longer in a battle over the front page since other ways of getting information are becoming more salient. For example, Weinberger notes that “every tag is a front page” and email recommendations often become our front page. He sees this translating into a battle over metadata – the front page is metadata, authority is metadata – and we are no longer struggling over content creation. So we create new tools to handle metadata – in order to show each other what matters and how it matters. Tools such as social networks and the sematic web. All these tools unsettle knowledge and meaning (knowledge and meaning that has not been obvious but was always there).

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Robert Suro: Defining the qualities of information our democracy needs

Robert Suro is a professor of journalism at USC and spoke today at Berkman’s Media Re:public Forum. His talk concerns journalism’s role in democratic processes and he draws two distinctions in how we think about journalism that often get conflated: journalism is a business but also a social actor. he points out that when main stream media’s profitability decline we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming its impact of in the democratic arena declines as well.

He also has trouble with the term “participatory media” and draws a distinction between the study of who is participating and what means they use (his definition of participatory media) and “journalism of participation” which evaluates the media in terms of a social actor – the object is effective democratic governance. He is worried these two concepts get confused and people can mistakenly equate the act of participating in the media, for example adding comments to a web site, with effective participation in the democratic process.

The result of this distinctions is that if you want to assess participatory media in terms of social impact you have to study more than who they are and what they produce but also whether this activity is engendering civic engagement that makes democracy more representative and government more effective.

Suro notes that this isn’t new: he hypothesizes that journalism doesn’t change often but when it does it is a big change, and we’re in the middle of just such a change right now. As an example of a previous change he gives the debate between two editors who were interested in the creation of civil society. One was supported by Jefferson and Madison and the other by Hamilton and Adams. Both were partisan in what they said and who funded them and both were committed to democracy but understood the role of the state differently, resulting in the creation of the democratic and republican parties. Although both would be fired as editors today there is a long history of social democratic results in journalism and the fundamental role of journalism in a democratic society is subject to change. We should study the ongoing redefinition and try and understand causality and impact.

Suro also thinks the Lippmann/Dewey argument about whether the goal of journalism should be to produce highly informed elites or mobilize the masses and create informed debate is alive and well. He suggests we have always produces a mix of these outcomes and will inevitably continue to do so, but now we have the address the mix of journalistic processes. He thinks the right way to look at this is to asses what outcome to they produce in terms of quality of leadership. Suro also touches on Cass Sunstein’s polarization concern in that is will produce less effective governance: we need to understand how a mix of new and old media can create a megaphone that artificially amplifies a voice that might not be the most effective.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Richard Sambrook at the Media Re:public Forum

I’m at Berkman’s Media Re:public Forum and Richard Sambrook, director of Global News at the BBC is giving the first talk. He is something of a technological visionary and his primary concern is with how technology is affecting the ability of, not only traditional media but anyone, to set the international news agenda.

The model that news stories may break on the blogs and travel to main stream media seems incomplete to Sambrook and he hopes to use the news audience to develop the agenda in an interactive way through network journalism. An example he gives is how the BBC puts their NewsNight show’s agenda online in the morning and invites people to comment on the choice of stories and angles they are taking on them. But this seems quite small, and as Ethan Zuckerman points out in a question, not much of a change in paradigm: Zuckerman laments that main stream media is trying to involve the public on their terms and in their way, through site-hosted comments and being quite closed about sharing their content. Sambrook explains this as slowness of cultural change at organizations like the BBC and is changing. For example, BBC video can now be hosted on any site. Sambrook is also worried that they just can’t seem to find the audience – the right people to engage with in various areas. He notes that the top ten sites (Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia Fox News etc) control 1 billion eyeballs. He doesn’t think current business models are sustainable and perhaps energy should be directed into a different metric than eyeballs to more accurately measure engagement and be able to monetize it.

Sambrook notes that across main stream media it is well understood that the future of news is online but there are cultural legacies within main stream media and even where there aren’t solutions to new problems aren’t obvious. Sambrook gives the example of the BBC’s river boat trip through Bangladesh. They experimented with several ways of reaching potentially interested audiences: twitter, google maps to track the boat, images on Flickr, radio and traditional news. They had 26 followers on twitter and 50k on Flicker but millions on the radio. This highlights the difficulty news outlets are having reaching their audience – the methods chosen are key, and how to do this is not obvious.

Sambrook says that he sees an upcoming tipping point for the data-driven web, or semantic web, in news applications. For Sambrook, this manifests as an improvement in the personalization of news. He mentions the BBC’s dashboard tool – a way to pull content from all over the BBC’s website to suit your interests and tastes. He is also concerned about the tension with agenda setting: “who is the curator of the kind of news you are interested in?” This also brings to mind Cass Sunstein’s polarization critique of the internet, especially for news delivered online – that we will only seek out news that fundamentally agrees with our own opinions and create echo chambers in which we never hear opposing thinking and thus open discourse and debate becomes stultified. He seems to see the future as communication within communities and he frames the problem as finding the right community and getting them involved in an effective way.

Crossposted at I&D Blog

A Test of the Internet's Free Speech Promise: China and Tibet

I haven’t seen any evidence that the internet was an important facilitator of the organization of the protests in Tibet, but citizen reporting on the events in Lhasa beginning March 10 made heavy use of the internet. The interesting question is whether perspectives other than the official view are getting through to discussions inside China. There is a common belief that one of the biggest potential benefits of the internet is its ability to thrust free speech on a country whether the government likes it or not. The internet is thought to be just too porous and too amorphous for blocking to be successful for long – another site will carry the blocked content and technology will circumvent the blocks or get ahead of censorship.

It is clear how events were communicated to the world, through both traditional main stream media correspondent reporting (now first hand foreign correspondent reports are impossible (see Rose Luqiu’s and Ming Pao’s entries)), and the internet including: human rights reports; YouTube videos of the violence; cell phone videos; and pictures; and summary sites for example. The interesting question is whether the internet has facilitated communication about these events within China in a more open way than Chinese officials might prefer. For example, there are Chinese citizen reports that the news is forbidden to carry any stories related to the protests, YouTube has been blocked since March 15, same with Google news, and there are reports of internet searches returning results that include only the government version of events. For a fantastic discussion of Chinese media censorship see this OpenNet Initiative blog post.

Bothbloggers and twitter style posts (Fanfou and Jiwai in China) are reporting in real time on the events in Lhasa. Fanfou appears to be just such a technology that the Chinese government is not blocking completely. Some Fanfou users seem to be posting information the Chinese government might be sensitive about (such as “troops have now been dispatched toward Tibet. Wuhouci Rd. going both north and south have been completely sealed off…” and “Faint, it looks like we really are at war. Ximianqiao St and Wuhouci Rd. are all blocked off”, with posts like “For the most part Tibet related webpages are all closed” and “If Tibet is really rebelling, tomorrow we won’t be allowed to discuss this topic…” (both posted March 15). And posted on March 16: “Baidu Baike has locked out the term “Tibet” wiki has partially blocked the term” and “Can’t visit youtube, I wanted to see videos of the Taiwan traffic incident, Tibet incident, the UN referendum (in Taiwan), arggghh.” Translating and collecting these tweets has been the work of Davesgonechina as he encourages people in the West to engage the Chinese through Fanfou and Google’s Chinese/English translation tools.

It seems much of the Chinese blogosphere is censored within the PRC. Popular blogs in China such as EastSouthWestNorth were quick to report eyewitness accounts although in this case the poster says “note: This blog post was copied from elsewhere; attempts to post this blog post in China ends with eventual deletion.” Another report from within the PRC, at the the time of the protests, calls the Chinese blogosphere “a wind of peace, richness and harmony” with “movie stars’ and beauty’s pictures, seven-colored front page, but nothing related to what’s happening in Tibet, except a tiny link “Tibet” under the headline “traveling”” at Bokee.com, the self proclaimed “No.1 global Chinese BSP (blog service provider).” Blog readers from within China acknowledge the availability of information from the blogosphere that is not available in the main stream press.

Most reports of blogs and twitter style posts note that there is anger from Chinese citizens toward Tibet, and toward Western support of Tibet (such as Richard Gere’s call for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics). As Rebecca MacKinnon writes “John Kennedy has translated chatter from Chinese blogs and chatrooms that generally runs along the lines of: those ungrateful minorities, we give them modern conveniences and look how they thank us…” Many commentators are concluding this is the inevitable result of a state controlled media, but I suspect this is too facile. As discussed above, it appears there is some information on the internet that does not appear in the main stress press in the PRC. It is not a crazy notion that the events in Tibet might solidify grassroots Chinese support of official Chinese behavior, even if the press is fully transparent. The fact that information is getting through is vitally important, even if public opinion appears to be unswayed, or swayed in ways the West might not understand.

Just the fact that some of the communication on blogs and on twitter-like sites that would ordinarily be a target for censorship appears within the PRC is an enormous success for those who champion the internet as an unstoppable force for free speech. This step, albeit an involuntary one, toward the open and free flow of information should not be overlooked in media analysis of the coverage of Tibet.

Crossposted on I&D blog

Book Review: "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen

What is a developed country? According to Sen, development should be measured by how much freedom a country has since without freedom people cannot make the choices that allow them to help themselves and others. He defines freedom as an interdependent bundle of:

1) political freedom and civil rights,
2) economic freedom including opportunities to get credit,
3) social opportunities: arrangements for health care, education, and other social services,
4) transparency guarantees, by which Sen means interactions with others, including the government, are characterized by a mutual understanding of what is offered and what to expect,
5) protective security, in which Sen includes unemployment benefits, famine and emergency relief, and general safety nets.

Respect for Local Decisions

By defining the level of development by how much the country has, Sen largely sidesteps a value judgment of what it means specifically to be a developed country – this isn’t the usual laundry list of Western institutions. It’s a bold statement – he gives the example of a hypothetical community deciding whether to disband their current traditions and increase lifespans. Sen states he would leave it up to the community and if they decide on shorter lifespans, in the full-freedom environment he imagines, this is perfectly consistent with the action of a fully developed country (although Sen doesn’t think anyone should have to chose between life and death – this is the reason for freedom 3). This also is an example of the inherent interrelatedness of Sen’s five freedoms – the community requires political freedom to discuss the issues, come to a conclusion and have it seen as legitimate, with social opportunities and education for people to engage in such a discussion.

Crucial Interrelatedness of the Freedoms

Sen is quite adamant that these five freedoms be implemented together and he makes an explicit case against the “Lee Thesis” – that economic growth must be secured in a developing country before other rights (such as political and civil rights) are granted. This is an important question among developing countries who see Singapore’s success as the model to follow. Sen notes that it is an unsettled empirical question whether or not authoritarian regimes produce greater economic growth, but he argues two points: that people’s welfare can be addressed best through a more democratic system (for which he sees education, health, security as requisite) since people are able to bring their needs to the fore; and that democratic accountability provides incentives for leaders to deal with issues of broad impact such as famines or natural catastrophes. His main example of the second point is that there has never been a famine under a democratic regime – it is not clear to me that this isn’t due to reasons other than the incentives of elected leaders (such as greater economic liberty), but whether or not there is a correlation is something the data can tell. Sen notes that democracies provide protective security and transparency (freedoms four and five) and this is a mechanism through which to avert things like the Asian currency crisis of 1997. Democratic governments also have issues with transparency but this seems to me an example of how democracy avoids really bad decisions even though it might not make the optimal choices. Danny Hillis explained why this is the case in his article How Democracy Works.

Choosing not to Choose (Revisited)

Sen reasons that since no tradition of suppressing individual communication exists, this freedom as not open to removal via community consensus. Sen also seems to assume that people won’t vote away their right to vote. He doesn’t deal with this possibility explicitly but this is what Lee Kuan Yew was afraid of – communists gaining power and being able to implement an authoritarian communist regime. Sen’s book was written in 1999 and doesn’t mention Islam or development in the Middle Eastern context, so he never grapples with the issues like the rise of Shari’a Law in developing countries such as Somalia. I blogged about the paradox of voting out democracy in Choosing not to Choose in the context of the proposed repeal of the ban on headscarves in Turkish universities and the removal of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia in 2006. I suspect Sen’s prescription in Turkey would be to let the local government decide on the legality of headscarves in universities (thus the ban would be repealed), and implement all five forms of freedom in Somalia and thus explicitly reject an authority like the UIC.

The Internet

Sen doesn’t mention the internet but what is fascinating is that communication technologies are accelerating the adoption of at least some of Sen’s 5 freedoms, particularly where the internet is creating a new mechanism for free speech and political liberty that is nontrivial for governments to control. The internet seems poised to grant such rights directly, and can indirectly bring improvements to positive rights such as education and transparency (see for example MAPLight.org and The Transparent Federal Budget Project). Effective mechanisms for voices to be heard and issues to be raised are implicit in Sen’s analysis.

What Exactly is Sen Suggesting We Measure?

Sen subjects his proposed path to development, immediately maximizing the amount of freedoms 1 through 5, to some empirical scrutiny throughout the text but he doesn’t touch on how exactly to measure how far freedom has progressed. He suggests longevity, health care, education are important factors and I assume he would include freedom of speech, openness of the media, security, and government corruption metrics but these are notoriously hard to define and measure (and measuring longevity actually runs counter to Sen’s example of the hypothetical community above… but Sen strongly rejects the argument that local culture can permit abridgment of any of his 5 freedoms, particularly the notion that some cultures are simply suited to authoritarian rule). The World Bank compiles a statistical measurement of the rule of law, corruption, freedom of speech and others, that gets close to some of the components in Sen’s definition of freedom. This also opens the question of what is appropriate to measure when defining freedom. And whether it is possible to have meaningful metrics for concepts like the rule of law or democracy.

Sen eschews two common ways of thinking about development: 1) that aid goes to passive recipients and 2) that increasing wealth is the primary means by which development occurs. His motivation seems to come from a deep respect for subjective valuation: the individual’s autonomy and responsibility in decision making.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Media Re:public Forum: Los Angeles March 27-28

Berkman’s Media Re:public project is bringing people together to discuss the state of participatory media within the current information environment, called Media Re:public Forum. I’m going to be there!

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Implementing a Human Rights Policy at the World Bank

Galit Safarty gave a talk at Harvard Law School today titled: Why Culture Matters in International Institutions: The Marginality of Human Rights at the World Bank. Sarfaty obtained her JD from Yale and is a lawyer and anthropologist. She is a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program and writing her dissertation based on 4 years of field work at the World Bank. She is studying why no mandate for human rights has been incorporated into the organizational culture at the Bank.

She sees the reason as resulting from a clash in ideology between the human rights people, which are largely the lawyers, and economists. Economists dominate the bank, hold most powerful positions, and have a unique and prestigious research group. Sarfaty also notes that the articles of agreement for the World Bank explicitly states that only economic considerations can be taken into account in World Bank decision making. The World bank is the largest lender to developing countries at $30 billion per year. Sarfaty notes that their mission is poverty reduction and this gives a crack through which supporters for a World bank policy on human rights can work. She suggests three reasons she expects the World Bank to have implemented a human rights policy:

1) peer institutions like UNICEF, UNDP, DFID, have one,
2) the Bank is subject to external pressure by NGOs and internal pressure from employees,
3) even banks in the private sector have human rights frameworks. ICS (the World Bank commercial banking arm) has a human rights framework based on risk management.

Sarfaty thinks the World banks legal mandate has become less salient in the recent years, but now bureaucrats stand in the way.

She has conducted about 70 interviews over 4 years at the WB in Washington DC, and found that professional identity is the source of conflict within the bureaucracy, and economists dominate at the Bank. Within the Bank lawyers are seen as technocrats that aren’t directly involved in projects. The legal department has a culture of secrecy because of this.

She concludes that the goal is to frame human rights issues for economists, rather than playing to the perception that it is a political issue. So the idea is to frame human rights goals for economists: presenting empirical data as to how they advance human development and thus is a relevant issue for the Bank and within its poverty eradication mandate. Also, the Bank is creating a new indicator that measure human rights performance not just legal compliance with contracts. Another avenue she suggests is exploiting the rigidness of some of the guidelines for working with countries – human rights could be a lever to incrementally convince the Bank to be more flexible, which not a constraint on lending.

Sarfaty makes this sounds like a tough road, especially when she explains that no explicit policy on human rights has even been put forward at the World Bank because the board of directors has seats held by China and Saudi Arabia. She sees the only option as working through the staff level.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Internet & Democracy Digital Activism Event

On February 7th and 8th, the Berkman Center hosted a three day conference entitled “Digitally-Empowered Activists: Getting the Tools to the People Who Need Them” in Istanbul, Turkey. The presentations highlighted efforts by people to use tools, such as video, SMS, and blogging, and focused on ways of communicating these methodologies to activists who can benefit from them.

Video Mashups and Activism

The first speaker was Sami ben Gharbia, a veteran activist in Tunisia and leader of Global Voices Advocacy. Gharbia showed several examples of video mashups he and others have created to comment on Tunisian issues: some of the videos he showed regarded internet censorship (a play on the “404,” a Peugeot motor car and a video decrying the use of SmartFilter); one showed a comment on the the 2005 World Summit on Internet and Society and the democratic gap; and another pointed to presidential spending excesses (use of the presidential plane, and a tour of the presidential palaces). Other videos pointed to specific criticisms of Tunisian President Ben Ali, such as his military background and the extent of his time in power.

Aside from video mashup, Gharbia has also created a Tunisian Prison Map, depicting the locations of prisons using Google Earth and including popup widowns for each prison showing video from an interview with a current prisoner, Human Rights Watch, or Medecins Sans Frontiers, or similar commentary.

Social Mobile: FrontlineSMS

The second speaker was Ken Banks, creator of FrontlineSMS, a tool geared toward nonprofit groups seeking SMS communication. It was designed to reintegrate a group of South Africans, displaced to make way for Kruger National Park, into the dialog about conservancy. The tool is useful because other media are often unable to reach the populations targeted, and the creation of a portable messaging hub to send and receive messages to mobile phones makes it difficult for the service to be blocked by governments. The service has been used for elections monitoring in Nigeria and the Philippines among others, communication between the media and rural areas in Zimbabwe, circumventing the state of emergency in Pakistan late last year, communicating coffee prices to farmers as part of the post-tsunami rebuilding effort in Aceh, and others.

Facebook as a Tool for Activists?

Imran Jamal then spoke as a representative of the Burma Global Action Network and its use of Facebook as a tool for advocacy. The Facebook Group “Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma” is one of the largest groups with 403,393 members as of February 12, 2008. It was started by Jamal and others to document information about the Saffron Revolution and coordinate various global events. Jamal noted that Facebook was good at reaching lots of users and serving to align and inform the various advocacy groups, but he notes that the Facebook format is not customizable by the groups themselves and does not naturally lend itself to advocacy. For example, comments are difficult to search and retrieve information from, and it is difficult to grow and maintain an activist base, particularly since Facebook groups larger than 10,000 are not permitted to send messages to all their members.

The Role of Blogs in the Kenyan Elections

The next presentation highlighted the role of blogs and twitter in last December’s Kenyan presidential elections, especially with respect to monitoring the violence and strife in the aftermath. Several blogs, such as KenyanPundit.com and Ushahidi.com, are nearly exclusively covering the elections protests. Many of the blogging sites are organized into the Kenyan blog webring kenyaunlimited.com. One blog site, Mashada.com, became ethnically divisive enough to be unmoderatable and the forums were closed. In its place, the organizers set up ihavenotribe.com, where Kenyans and others are successfully submitting their thoughts.

Another site that was discussed was MamaMikes.com, which allows people to log on and deposit money to have it delivered to people in Kenya in the form of various different commodities, such as gasoline, beer, mobile phone credit (note that through the m-pesa system money can be transferred from one mobile phone to another).

Favorite Digital Activism Tools

The group also discussed their favorite digital activism tools, such as gmail and other google apps, audio (especially for rural communities), collaborative tools such as wikis and google docs, photoblogging, digg and other story dissemination sites. Other concerns raised were security and anonymity measures, tools for fundraising, tools for translation, and attention paid to low bandwidth web use.

Getting KnowHow Into the Field

Stephanie Hankey, a co-founder of the Tactical Technology Collective, explained the tools her organization has created in order to disseminate knowledge about digital advocacy to groups who need it. She described several software packages for download and on CD for distribution that give people toolkits to set up the technical aspects of an NGO, and she mentioned two forthcoing toolkits for citizen journalism and mobile advocacy.

Ethan Zuckerman also blogged about mashups, SMS, and the Facebook presentations at the event.

Crossposted on I&D Blog.

Book Review: "What Went Wrong" by Bernard Lewis

When we were in Istanbul my mother picked up this book on a whim. It was published in 2002 and entirely written, excepting the preface, before 9/11. The subtitle of the book is “Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” and Lewis’s goal is to explain thinking in the Islamic world as they confront, after several centuries of being at the forefront of civilization and progress, being in a position of declining power and achievement.

Lewis is a professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and has specialized in medieval Islamic history. He’s written over 20 books and this one has created controversy (unsurprisingly, given the title) and made it to the New York Times bestseller list. For me, in my work with Berkman on technology and political structures in the Middle East, I was interested in his reasoning that focuses on democratic history and political change. Here are the most interesting points I noticed on these topics.

The Longstanding Attention to Political Science and Constitutional Law

Although they didn’t use those precise words, Lewis explains some contextual and cultural differences between how Westerners understand these concepts and how they appear in Middle Eastern history. For Muslims, Holy Law lays out the role of the ruler and his relationship to believers (his subjects). The typical Western metric for evaluating governments (on a scale from liberty to tyranny) is misplaced here since liberty is a legal term in the Middle Eastern context, not a political term as used in the West. The converse of tyranny is justice, not liberty, and justice meant that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation and that he governs according to God’s law, which usually came down to a spectrum between arbitrary and consultative government. Lewis notes that this latter issue is not well defined in the Koran, and thus debate ensues, but authoritative non-consultative government is seen as undesirable, even from a ruler accepted as legitimate. But even in the Western context the problem of definition abounds, for example the liberty/tyranny scale is seductively simple. We have a well-accepted understanding of what constitutes tyranny but maximizing liberty can mean different things depending on whether you ascribe to Marxist, socialist, libertarian, anarchistic, or another ideology. So ongoing debate is not a difference, but for people thinking about political institutions in the Middle East like myself, the prominence of the notion of justice is an important correction to make to typical Western liberty-based thought.

Interpretations of Women’s Rights

Lewis points out that emancipation of women in the Middle East has been most pronounced in pre-2002 Iraq and the former South Yemen, which were both ruled by comparatively repressive regimes, and lags behind in Egypt, one of the most tolerant and open Arab societies. He cites this as evidence that a more liberal regime won’t necessarily lead to greater rights for women, and further notes that the more conservative and fundamental the regime, such as Iran and most of Afghanistan (before 2002), the less pronounced women’s rights are. Lewis thinks that while the need to modernize is accepted throughout the Middle East even among the most anti-Western fundamentalists, the emancipation of women is seen as Westernizing and a betrayal of true Islamic values. This is an area Wafa Sultan has talked about extensively, pointing out that even modernization accepts Western tenets and accomplishments, and she suggests that women’s rights can be accepted in the Middle East in the same way.

There have been historical figures in the Middle East who have fought for women’s rights. Shi’ite Persian Qurrat al-’Ayn (1814-1852) became a follower of the Bab (forerunner of the founder of the Baha’i faith) and preached without a veil and denounced polygamy. Princess Taj es-Saltana was educated in French as well as Persian and denounced in her writings the bondage she saw her female compatriots subjected to. Apparently these writings, and women more generally, played a part in the Persian constitutional revolution of 1906-11, where there was a movement for the adoption of constitutional forms of government that would establish Western political mores, supported even by the Islamic leaders.

Modernization and the Internet

A Western eye might associate modernization with Western notions of liberty, but this is not always the way it has played out. Lewis explains that traditionally one way of expressing charity has been to create a waqf, an income-producing endowment dedicated to a pious purpose, such as a soup kitchen, water fountain, or school. Waqfs have predominantly been made by women, to whom Islamic law grants the right to own and dispose of property. In the effort to modernize in the 19th century, many of these waqfs came under state control. Lewis asserts that more recent efforts to modernize have followed this path of increasing state control rather than reducing it. He notes that many Middle Eastern states are evincing stronger control over schools, the media, and print. He feels that the internet, specifically the electronic media revolution, will “no doubt in time” undermine these controls and allow independent and self-supporting associations to emerge. Although he does not explain a mechanism, he suggests that perhaps this will spill into the existing state control over the economy where a large proportion of the population depends on the state for their income (this dependence bringing along with it the usual flourishing black market economy).

Political Change and Democracy

Lewis is careful to note that a view in which advancement assumes an increase in the Western understanding of freedom, such as in his words “freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny” is simplistic and perhaps not even the right answer. He notes one need only look at the Western history with democracy to know how long and hard that road is. But he does in the end call for some adoption of certain values: abandonment of grievance and victimhood, reasonableness in settlement of differences, cooperation in creative endeavors. Lewis’s enumeration of a list of freedoms and his implicit suggestion that, at least according to Western observers, they are essential underpinnings of a modern society strikes me as similar to Amartya Sen’s thesis in “Development as Freedom” – that development occurs best in a country that endows its citizens with freedoms, specifically: political, economic, social opportunities, transparency, and protective security. Sen is very clear that these are important because they “help to advance the general capability of a person” and because they reinforce each other development is most successfully made when the freedoms are granted together. I’m not sure if he is right, but both Lewis and Sen seem to be suggesting roads for Middle Eastern societies that aren’t politically correct and advocate changes in local societal norms.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

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Scoop08.com – A Lab for Developing Online Journalism Ethics?

Alex Heffner, is eighteen year old co-founder and editor in chief of Scoop08, and gave the Berkman Lunch Series talk on March 11, 2008. The new thing about Scoop is that it is designed to give non-partisan coverage to the election through a network of all-volunteer student journalists. “Not just the usual suspects” is their key mantra and ALex highlights this in a promotional trailer he plays on YouTube.

He is striving for a unique youth perspective, even digging back into high school for contributors, and is only really interested in submissions from youth. He wants accurate breadth of opinion so they have an editorial process Alex seems to take great pride in: they want to maintain old school journalistic techniques in their internet application, so a staff editor reviews the submission and then it goes to managing editor and to the co-founders. Authors sign a contract before publishing and each journalist gets an orientation to publishing on Scoop08. They are hoping to have about a half dozen or dozen reporters and photographers in every state – they see this election as a state based fight for the middle. The are covering every possible aspect of the campaigns, including movies, the arts…

Interestingly. the co-founders see this a live journalistic experiment – a lab in which to evolve effective journalistic ethics and sound journalistic practices for the online sphere, paralleling those in main stream reporting. Their board reflects this, as it includes Judy Woodruff, Frank Rich, and John Palfrey.

The goal is the break news, and have new ideas bubble up, such as their suggestion for a bi-partisan debate. They have a preference for the Q&A journalism technique since they want to dig deeply into candidates histories. They also see a role for this site beyond November, for example issue framing and discussion, but right now their entire focus in on the election.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Reducing Election Violence Cheaply – eVoting?

I can’t help but notice the violence surrounding the recent elections in Kenya, Pakistan, Zimbabwe (where I still have family) and many other places. To the extent that the problem is citizen mistrust of the voting process, this seems like an effective place to direct aid resources and energy. Why not fund, with the host country’s cooperation, open source election machines similar to those used in Australia? The Australian approach allows people to inspect the machine’s software if unsatisfied about the machine’s ability to count votes. Each machine is linked to a server via a secure local network so that information is not transmitted openly and a printout of the vote could be made and deposited in a ballot box to verify the electronic results if necessary.

Ethan Zuckerman suggested to me that one way to potentially keep the cost low would be to use SMS and have the machine send back periodic vote tallies throughout the voting period. This way there is no need to set up network infrastructure, since a cellphone system capable of handling this kind of traffic already exists across most countries. Secure SMS is an available technology and it might be straightforward to ensure a secure transmission for vote tallies. The average cost of a voting machine in the US is $3000, and the Australian ones cost about $750 each. Australia used 80 machines for their capital territory of Canberra which has about 325,000 people, approximately 4000 people per machine. So in Zimbabwe for example, with a population of about 1.3 million, they would need 325 machines. If each machine is even as much as $3000 that’s still less than a million dollars. Although I expect in many of the countries, including Zimbabwe, that would benefit from such a system, deployment would include more rural areas than Canberra and more machines would be necessary, but this back-of-the-envelope sketch makes it seem reasonably inexpensive and technically feasible.

Of course, this will only quell violence in so far as it is based in the perception of an unfair voting system. If the violence is thuggery bent on subverting fair electoral results, or garnering attention, then voting machines won’t stop it, although the transparency of this system might make it harder to promulgate an inflammatory mindset of corruption.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Choosing not to Choose – Turkish Headscarves and Governance in Somalia

What happens when the results of democratic choice do not align with traditional democratic values, such as freedom and choice? A Feb 19 New York Times article discusses the proposed repeal of a ban on the wearing of headscarves at universities in Turkey. Those supporting the ban are concerned about the rise of Islam and their view of the modernization of Turkey. But perhaps the most democratic reaction is to let such choices be made locally, even if the appearance is to promote non-democratic ideals. This is a fascinating question and I’m not sure of right answer.

It seems like a similar dilemma to that faced by developing countries when they try and move to democratic regimes. In Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew’s move toward a more democratic system used massive non-democratic efforts to dismantle the communist opposition. His justification was that no democratic government would be brought to the fore if an open vote was held in such conditions – the risk of the communists gaining power was too great. So it seems to be the case in other countries where a move to a system of democratically elected representatives might result in the ascendancy of Shari’a law.

For example, as Ethan Zuckerman has discussed at length (here), the overthrow of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia in 2006 by apparently US aided Ethiopian forces seems like an instance of the same underlying problem. The US’s involvement appears to be a policy of ‘not Islam’ rather than the traditionally articulated policy of pro-democracy/capitalism. The UIC regime, although Shari’a, brought enough stability to the region for Bakara Market to re-emerge as a functioning market in Mogadishu for the first time since Somalia descended into anarchy in 1991.

So what’s the policy goal? Is it, as Sen suggests in Development as Freedom, increasing choice so people can “exercise their reasoned agency,” or is it eradication of safety threats, perhaps perceived as associated with the rise of Islam, or something else?

Should we be willing to accept some Shari’a law in exchange for stability – the stability that might allow a market to develop, with the consequent increase in choice and the greater communication that comes with trade? Right now US policy seems not to accept any Shari’a law but perhaps that’s not the route that best promotes democracy, our traditional and explicit foreign policy goal.

It seems to be to be a cost benefit analysis where the costs and benefits are hard to measure: whether the costs of adhering to choice will undermine the value of choice itself. Is the right outcome to respect choices the citizens make, even if the choice is to dismantle the very freedoms typically undergird democracy, such as civil rights and political freedoms, or is there a mentality that must be in place before the citizenry can be “entrusted” with democratic institutions? And if democratic ideals are not present, what is the ideology? Nationalism? This seems to be counter to Fukuyama’s prediction of the universal adoption of Western liberal values.

As a Somali commented here, “any law is better than no laws.”

Crossposted in I&D Blog

Patrick Ball in NYT Magazine

Recently the Berkman Internet and Democracy group hosted a conference on Digital Activism in Istanbul. One of the attendees was Patrick Ball, Chief Scientist and Director of the Human Rights program at Benetech. His work was the focus of a story in the February 17 edition of New York Times Magazine. The article was called The Forensic Humanitarian and it describes the use of probability theory, such as capture-recapture, in the difficult problem of the estimation of death counts. It summarizes Ball’s work in the estimation of Colombian murders and whether or not they are decreasing over time, as the official numbers seem to indicate. Through examining various recordings of the same data, and intepreting them as samples from the same population, Ball can estimate the total number of murders whether reported or not.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Jesse Dylan and Hope|Act|Change

Jesse Dylan, the director behind Will.I.Am‘s Yes We Can song video and Rob Holzer, CEO of Syrup NYC, want to bring their vision for political change through the Hope|Act|Change web site (http://hopeactchange.com). Karim Lakhani, Harvard Business School professor, is moderating the discussion.

They are looking for advice on how the Hope|Act|Change movement can go beyond Barack’s speech and the resulting video, and into an effective web presence. He calls it a nonofficial “call to action” to get people connecting to each other and out to vote. He also notes how the song has become a “folk song” and a meme beyond the campaign itself. They want this to move beyond a campaign message and into action, by which he means primarily voting, but perhaps also a kiva-like contribution system or calendar based to-do actions for people to focus on particular issues at a time, or possibly, as Karim suggests, swarming in creating meetings. They have an interesting problem: boiling the message down to what a real person would connect to.

They started with the idea of a mosaic for the website – each tile is an image that has been uploaded by users or tagged with “hopeactchange” on Flickr. They remade the video from frames they have “mosaicked” so you can mouse over the video and see the user images pop up. Each uploading user has a page on the site detailing what they have uploaded and what their favorite images are.

Rob wants to improve the site by creating more peer-to-peer interactive tools so that people can pledge action or discuss issues and bring more people in. The hope is to move this beyond the election to a promulgator of discussion, even beyond Obama, but right now they are pretty focused on the upcoming general election. Rob notes that the site is a platform for some bigger ideas to develop responses and perhaps policy. Will Ferrell and Adam MacKay are involved in improving how funny the site is, and Jesse says animators are getting involved. He wants to see both more context and more discussion.

They are both very much in favor of a suggestion of a simple webform with your hope and your pledge and then use a Digg-like forum to rise the big ones to the top. Colin Maclay analogizes this to Tom Steinberg’s Pledgebank.com and a questioner notes you could use a visualization of pledges to show how big the movement is. Jesse and Rob are also interested in freely releasing as much media as possible so people can create mashups and build on their work artistically. They also want to release the API so that people can also build on the code.
They also note that a high quality site will encourage people to submit higher quality video and images, but also it helps candidates because voters will compare the different sites that supporters have created for their favorite candidates.

An HBS student, Dave, questions the wisdom of being so explicit about the voting goal, that it might make it uncool or too preachy. He also questions the durability of the hopeactchange mantra for the post election. Jesse thinks the site won’t talk about voting until the election is close and then it will emphasize a big push to vote. Dave suggests moving it beyond voting to just how these political messages can have emotional impact, since that is the original impetus of the site and a push to vote could undermine the emotional impact of the video, and the site itself. An audience member suggests changing the mantra from Yes We Can to Yes We Will. Another person suggests that if the message rises organically from the community it will be most effective.

This is new ground for this election and new ways of gathering and spreading electoral information – what is interesting is not just that candidates are aware of this but supporters are making this a battleground for voters as well. Gene Koo notes this seems to be consonant with Barack’s message of bottom up change and policy setting by community action.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Jim Besson on Patent Rights

Jim Bessen is a Lecturer in Law at Boston University School of Law and spoke today in the Berkman Center’s Luncheon Series on “Patent Failure,” the title of his new book with Mike Meurer. Jim is the author of the first WYSIWYG software in 1983.

Jim starts by reminding us of the justification of property rights because of their enhancement of economic growth. He then questions whether patents are property since property rights for patents aren’t always easy to define and assign. He shows the e-data patent (on kiosks in music stores, granted in 1985) and the battle to assert this patent over ecommerce, which Jim sees as beyond the original scope of the patent (the courts didn’t). This is problematic because of vagueness: going to court to enforce property rights is expensive, and courts aren’t that predictiable about how they will rule on high tech patents, and innovators might not realize their risk of infringing patents.

They note this creates an incentive for patent holders to be deliberately vague about their boundaries, especially since technology changes and so rights can change in ways the original inventor never intended. And there are a lot of patents to check – too many for most businessmen or innovators.

Patents provide incentives to invest in innovation, to commercialize them and to trade them, but high tech patents seem to be litigated about 10 times those in other industries. He shows how the number of software patents is accelerating so we are in for a tough future with our current system, since in industries outside pharma, the patent system is not creating big rents, and thus doesn’t create the promised big incentives from property rights. Jim and Mike wonder whether, even in Pharma where it seems to be working, it might still be the wrong approach.

He doesn’t really know how to fix this but suggests firmer limits of patents with abstract ideas like software, noting that the law already requires definiteness in patents, although it is only enforced in a limited way. He also suggests greater transparency in the patent approval process so that the way the claims are interpreted is more clear. Mike favors limiting the continuation process to reduce the ability of patent holders to rewrite patent rights over time, and reducing the overall number of patents perhaps by creating much higher renewal fees to flush out less valuable patents.

Jim’s remedies are not with patent office reform but with patent quality – he suggests this requires very deep changes. Jim makes an analogy to tangible property rights in that they are heavily circumscribed, and patents need to be similarly circumscribed.

Crossposted on I&DBlog