Archive for the 'Internet and Democracy' Category

Optimal Information Disclosure Levels: Data.gov and "Taleb's Criticism"

I was listening to the audio recording of last Friday’s “Scientific Data for Evidence Based Policy and Decision Making” symposium at the National Academies, and was struck by the earnest effort on the part of members of the Whitehouse to release governmental data to the public. Beth Noveck, Obama’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, frames the effort with a slogan, “Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration.” A plan is being developed by the Whitehouse in collaboration with the OMB to implement these three principles via a “massive release of data in open, downloadable, accessible for machine readable formats, across all agencies, not only in the Whitehouse,” says Beth. “At the heart of this commitment to transparency is a commitment to open data and open information..”

Vivek Kundra, Chief Information Officer in the Whitehouse’s Open Government Initiative, was even more explicit – saying that “the dream here is that you have a grad student, sifting through these datasets at 3 in the morning, who finds, at the intersection of multiple datasets, insight that we may not have seen, or developed a solution that we may not have thought of.”

This is an extraordinary vision. This discussion comes hot on the heels of a debate in Congress regarding the level of information they are willing to release to the public in advance of voting on a bill. Last Wednesday CBS reports, with regard to the health care bill, that “[t]he Senate Finance Committee considered for two hours today a Republican amendment — which was ultimately rejected — that would have required the “legislative” language of the committee’s final bill, along with a cost estimate for the bill, to be posted online for 72 hours before the committee voted on it. Instead, the committee passed a similar amendment, offered by Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.), to put online the “conceptual” or “plain” language of the bill, along with the cost estimate.” What is remarkable is the sense this gives that somehow the public won’t understand the raw text of the bill (I noticed no compromise position offered that would make both versions available, which seems an obvious solution).

The Whitehouse’s efforts have the potential to test this hypothesis: if given more information will people pull things out of context and promulgate misinformation? The Whitehouse is betting that they won’t, and Kundra does state the Whitehouse is accompanying dataset release with efforts to provide contextual meta-data for each dataset while safeguarding national security and individual privacy rights.

This sense of limits in openness isn’t unique to governmental issues and in my research on data and code sharing among scientists I’ve termed the concern “Taleb’s crticism.” In a 2008 essay on The Edge website, Taleb worries about the dangers that can result from people using statistical methodology without having a clear understanding of the techniques. An example of concern about Taleb’s Criticism appeared on UCSF’s EVA website, a repository of programs for automatic protein structure prediction. The UCSF researchers won’t release their code publicly because, as stated on their website, “We are seriously concerned about the ‘negative’ aspect of the freedom of the Web being that any newcomer can spend a day and hack out a program that predicts 3D structure, put it on the web, and it will be used.” Like the congressmen seemed to fear, for these folks openness is scary because people may misuse the information.

It could be argued, and for scientific research should be argued, that an open dialog of an idea’s merits is preferable to no dialog at all, and misinformation can be countered and exposed. Justice Brandeis famously elucidated this point in Whitney v. California (1927), writing that “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Data.gov is an experiment in context and may bolster trust in the public release of complex information. Speaking of the Data.gov project, Noveck explained that “the notion of making complex information more accessible to people and to make greater sense of that complex information was really at the heart.” This is a very bold move and it will be fascinating to see the outcome.

Crossposted on Yale Law School’s Information Society Project blog.

Bill Gates to Development Researchers: Create and Share Statistics

I was recently in Doha, Qatar, presenting my research on global communication technology use and democratic tendency at ICTD09. I spoke right before the keynote, Bill Gates, whose main point was that when you engage in a goal-oriented activity, such as development, progress can only be made when you measure the impact of your efforts.

Gates paints a positive picture, measured by deaths before age 5. In the 1880′s he says about 30% of children died before their 5th birthday in most countries, and this gradually moved to 20 million in 1960 and then 10 million in 2006. Gates postulates this is due to rising income levels (40% of decrease), and medical innovation such as vaccines (60% of decrease).

This is an example of Gates’ mantra: you can only improve what you can measure. For example, an outbreak of measles tells you your vaccine system isn’t functioning. In his example about childhood deaths, he says we are getting somewhere here because we are measuring the value for money spent on the problem.

Gates thinks the wealthy in the world need to be exposed to these problems ideally through intermingling, or since that is unlikely to happen, through statistics and data visualization. Collect data, then communicate it. In short, Gates advocates creating statistics through measuring development efforts, and changing the world by exposing people to these data.

Craig Newmark: "no vision, but I know how to keep things simple, and I can listen some"

Craig Newmark was visiting the Berkman Center today and he explained how founding Craiglist brought him to his current role as community organizer. But these are really the same, he says.

In 1994, Craig was working at Charles Schwab where he evangelized the net – figuring that this is the future of business for these types of firms. He showed people usenet newsgroups and The Well and he noticed people helping each other in very generous ways. He wanted to give back so he started a cc list for events in early 1995. He credits part of his success to the timing of this launch – early dot com boom. People were alwyas influential and for example suggested new categories etc. He was using pine for this and in mid 1995 he had 240 email addresses and pine started to break. He was going to call it SFevents, but people around him suggested CraigsList because it was a brand, and the list was more than events.

So he wrote some code to turn these emails into html and became a web publisher. At the end of 1997 3 events happened: CraigsList had one million page views per month (a billion in August 2004, now heading toward 13 billion per month), Microsoft Sidewalk approached him to run banner ads and he said no because he didn’t need the money, and then he was approached with the idea of having some of the site run on a volunteer basis. He went for volunteer help but in 1998 it didn’t work well since he wasn’t providing strong leadership for them. At the end of 1998 people approached him to fix this and so in 1999 he incorporated and hired Jim Buckmaster who continued the traditions of incorporating volunteer suggestions for the site, and maintained the simple design. Also in 1999 he decided to charge for job ads and to charge real estate agents (only apt brokers in NYC, which they requested to eliminate the perceived need to post and repost).

He has generalized his approach to “nerd values:” take care of yourself enough to live comfortably then after that you can start to focus on changing things.

After 2000 there was slow continuous progress, like the addition of more cities. He also says they made a mistake of anonymizing all email as a default. The idea was to protect against spammers, but people requested the choice, because there is personal branding in email. He notes conflicting feedback can be tough to deal with. For example people feel strongly about “backyard breeders” of pets and there was bickering that crossed into criminal harassment. He says this kind of thing is hard to deal with emotionally.

So why was CraigsList so successful? He claims it is their business model… and a culture of trust. Bad guys are a tiny percentage of the pop and people look out for each other. For example, the flagging mechanism (a post is removed automatically if many people flag it). How did they build this culture of trust? Craig says it was by acting on shared values from the beginning, ie golden rule, especially in customer service, and live and let live and to be forgiving and give breaks. They are still trying to listen to people although novel suggestions are rare – the biggest decisions are which new cities to include.

He still runs pine as the primary email tool. He says it keeps down RSI because it minimizes point and click.

Newmark sees himself as a community grassroots organizer: organizing people in mundane ways. So he has capitalized on this to help in other ways beyond CraigsList. He doesn’t see anything about CraigsList as philanthropic, but he wants to extend this approach to help in the future of the media. For example face to face communication doesn’t scale on the Internet, but democracy is best facilitated through in person communication. So Craig sees the Internet as a great facilitator of face to face communication. He believes 2009 is the new 1787! This is about accountability and transparency – exposing everything the government is doing to sanitize it.

Another quip of advice from Craig: socialize more than he did as an undergrad – he says he got a better education than he needed and would have been better off spending more time socializing.

Crossposted on Berkman’s I&D Blog

A2K3: Connectivity and Democratic Ideals

Also in the final A2K3 panel, The Global Public Sphere: Media and Communication Rights, Natasha Primo, National ICT policy advocacy coordinator for the Association for Progressive Communications, discusses three questions that happen to be related to my current research. 1) Where is the global in the global public sphere? 2) Who is the public in the global public sphere? and 3) How to we get closer to the promise of development and the practice of democratic values and freedom of expression?

She begins with the premise that we are in an increasingly interconnected world, in economic, political, and social spheres, and you will be excluded if you are not connected. She also asserts the premise that connection to the internet can lead to the opening of democratic spaces and – in time – a true global public sphere.

Primo, like Ó Siochrú in my blog post here, doesn’t see any global in global public sphere. She thinks this is just a matter of timing, and not a systematic problem. She notes that the GSM organization predicts 5 billion people on the GSM network by 2015, whereas we now have 1 of 6 billion connection to the internet> note that Primo believes internet access will come through the cell phone for many people who are not connected today. She refers us to Richard Heeksproposal for a Blackberry-for-development. Heeks is professor and chair of the Development Informatics Department at the University of Manchester. But Primo sees the cost as the major barrier to connectivity among LCDs and thinks this will abate over time.

With regard to the cost of connectivity, she notes that Africa has a 10% internet subscription rate versus in Asia-Pacific and 72% in Europe. South Africa is planning an affordable broadband campaign: to have some facilities declared ‘essential’ to make them available to the public at cost to the service providers. This comes from the A2K idea of partnership for higher education in Africa – African universities are to have cheaper access. She also sees authoritarian behavior by states as another obstacle to connectivity. She cites research by our very own OpenNet Initiative that 24 of 40 countries studied are filtering the internet and using blocking tools to prevent freedom of expression. This is done via blocking blogging sites and YouTube. She is worried about how this behavior by governments impacts peoples’ behavior when they are online. She notes surveys that show two extreme reactions: people either practice substantial selfcensorship or put their lives on the line for the right to express an opinion.

Primo notes the cultural obstacles to the global public sphere. She relates a story that some groups are not accustomed to hearing opinions that diverge from their own and will, innocently, flag them as inappropriate content. Dissenting opinions come back online after a short amount of time, but with the delay dialogue can be lost.

A2K3: Communication Rights as a Framework for Global Connectivity

In the last A2K3 panel, entitled The Global Public Sphere: Media and Communication Rights, Seán Ó Siochrú made some striking statements based on his experience building local communication networks in undeveloped areas of LCDs. He states that the global public sphere is currently a myth, and what we have now is elites promoting their self-interest. He criticizes the very notion of the global public sphere – he wants a more dynamic and broader term that reflects the deeper issues involved in bringing about such a global public sphere. He prefers to frame this issue in terms of communication rights. By this he means the right to sek and receive ideas, generate ideas and opinions of one’s own, speaks these ideas, have a right to be heard, and a right to have others listen. These last two rights Ó Siochrú dismisses as trivial but I don’t see that they are. Each creates a demand on others’ time that I don’t see how to effectuate within the framework of respect for individual automony Belkin elucidated in his keynote address and discussed in my recent blog post and on the A2K blog.

Ó Siochrú also makes an interesting point that if we are really interested in facilitating communication and connection between and by people who have little connectivity today, we are best to concentrate on technologies such as the radio, email, mobile phones, the television, or whatever works at the local level. He eschews blogs, and the internet, as the least acessible, least affortable, and the least usable.

A2K3: Technological Standards are Public Policy

Laura DeNardis, executive director of Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, spoke during the A2K3 panel on Technologies for Access. She makes the point that many of our technological standards are being made behind closed doors and by private, largely unaccountable, parties such as ICANN, ISO, the ITU, and other standards bodies. She advocates the concept of Open Standards, which she defines in a three-fold way as open in development, open in implementation, and open in usage. DeNardis worries that without such protections in place stakeholders can be subject to a standard they were not a party to, and this can affect nations in ways that might not be beneficial to them, particularly in areas such as civil rights, and especially for less developed countries. In fact, Nnenna Nwakanma in the audience comments that even when countries appears to be involved, their delegations are often comprised of private companies and are not qualified. For example, she says that there are only three countries in Africa that have people with the requisite techinical expertise in such state standards councils and that the involvment process is far from transparent. DeNardis also mentions the Dynamic Coalition on Open Standards designed to preserve the open architecture of the internet, with the Yale ISP is involved in advocacy at the Internet Governance Forum. DeNardis powerfully points out that standards are very much public policy, as much as the regulation we typically think of as public policy.

Lessig stars at the Stanford FCC hearing

After Comcast admitted to stuffing seats at the FCC hearing at Harvard Law School February 24th, the FCC decided another hearing was necessary. They chose to hold it at Stanford April 17 and I’m watching the FCC’s videocast of the event, which is oddly appropriate, since the focus of the hearing is video on the internet.

After an introduction by Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer, FCC Chairman Martin explained that every ISP, excepting Lariat Networks from Lariat, Wyoming, was invited and declined to attend this hearing: Comcast, Verizon, Time/Warner, and AT&T. Comcast has stated it is working with an industry consortium on a Consumer Bill of Rights. The hearing begins with each of the FCC commissioners making a statement, then proceeds through panels and then opens to questions.

Commissioner Copps states that a free internet is a requirement for the type of growth, a fact we’ve seen from Silicon Valley. If network operators consolidate their control, which is more likely with fewer network operators, they’ll prevent inventors from bringing their innovations to consumers and make investing more risky. So Copps wants to eliminate and punish discrimination.

Indicating how huge this issue has become, Commissioner Adelstein states that 45k dockets were filed with the FCC for this hearing, and the vast majority of them came from public citizens. He warns that the recent consolidation across internet providers from the backbone to the largest service providers will lead to more FCC regulation. He advocates greater competition in the broadband market place since 90% is dominated by cable and telephone companies. This gives the companies who control the “last mile” (the distance from the backbone to the consumer’s computer) the ability to discriminate over packets that reach end users. He’s concerned about allegations like Verizon’s refusal to send pro-life text messages and AT&T’s censoring of Pearl Jam online. He would like a 5th principle on the FCC policy statement to address this as well as enforcement and compliance. Broadband providers should declare in clear plain English what their policies are.

Commissioner Tate applauds the industry-wide effort to create a bill of rights for P2P users and ISPs. She has a strong preference for industry based collaborative solutions over direct regulation.

Commissioner McDowell wants to ensure that the FCC takes the anticompetitive allegations, such as the text messaging one, seriously. Comcast is alleged to have manipulated packet allocation of video – video is something Comcast provides and runs the pipes for other competitor, so Comcast appears to discriminate against
bit torrent for anticompetitive reasons not just for traffic management. McDowell, like Commissioner Tate, would like to see the industry develop is own solutions to these problems such as what might come from the industry consortium Comcast is involved in and says “engineers should solve engineering problems not politicians.”

Chairman Martin states the four principles the FCC adopted in August 2005 in their internet policy statement (“Powell’s Four Freedoms”).

1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

Larry Lessig, Professor at Stanford Law School, is the first speaker on the first panel.

Lessig reminds us that companies are out to make profit and we shouldn’t trust them with public policy. The architecture of the internet has given us openness, transparency, and freedom and in a market with few firms, they can manipulate this architecture to weaken competition. It is important to note that the original openness of the internet has given us an enormous amount of economic growth – he likens the process to the electricity grid: it is transparent and open and anyone can do anything on it, as long as you know the protocols. It doesn’t ask if the TV you plug in is Panasonic or Sony and doesn’t allocate electricity based on that info. He advocates that for us to depart from this model requires a very strong demonstration that the proposed change will advance economic growth and that competition will continue.

We can’t just wait and see, says Lessig – witness the text messaging and bit torrent problems we have already. He reiterates the argument that venture capitalists needs stability about the vision of the future in order to invest. Thus the FCC needs to make a clear policy statement that net neutrality is a core principle of the internet infrastructure. In fact, Lessig says, the failure of the FCC to create
a clear policy about this is the reason for the hearing today. So the FCC needs to regulate things it understands, but is that sufficient to assure that what happens at the network level doesn’t destroy neutrality? Lessig gives two examples of such regulation, calling them “Powell’s Four Freedoms Plus.”

Plus 1) The zero price regulation: this is built into Representative Markey’s proposed bill: if data are prioritized, all data of that type must be prioritized without a surcharge. Lessig is against this: this blocks productive discrimination and so stops spread of broadband and thus growth. For example, iFilm wants fast pipes and he doesn’t care for email so these services can be differently prioritized, but iFilm’s competitors should find themselves subject to different discrimination practices by the provider.

Plus 2) Zero discrimination surcharge rules. Discrimination surcharge occurs if you have a provider that says Google pays x but iFilm pays 2x. Lessig explains this is a problem because it creates an incentive for a destructive business model such that the provider can inflate the premium price by maintaining scarcity in ordinary network provisions. This rule does allow for nondiscriminatory tiered pricing: ie. a surcharge for video but everyone pays the same price for that video privilege. Lessig’s advice is that the FCC should start here with a target of getting to broadband as a commodity like wheat – where there the market is characterized by fundamental competition in the provision of the commodity which drives the price down.

The role of net neutrality in FCC regulation. Lessig thinks net neutrality should be a very central principle, but a heavy weight and not an absolute bar. This means that countervailing notions that don’t compromise the incentive to produce open networks are ok.

When asked a question about how the commission should respond to claims that customers get less broadband then they pay for, Lessig says “the most outrageous thing about this story is you can’t get the facts straight.” He says if there were penalties for a company that misrepresents what’s going on during an investigation there would be more clarity right now.

Lessig explains that even if there were sufficient competition this is not enough to ensure net neutrality. He cites Barbara van Schewick, who is an assistant professor at Stanford Law School, co-director (with Lessig) of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and an upcoming panelist.

von Schewick claims that markets won’t solve the problem of content discrimination on the internet. Consumers need to have in depth and standardized disclosure, and even this is not enough because there are market failures. Providers have the incentive to block applications that use lots of bandwidth and don’t translate into higher profits. This harms application innovation, aside from discouraging investment since the blocking behavior is unpredictable. Network providers need to manage networks in a nondiscriminatory way.

Robb Topolski, a panelist and Software Quality Engineer, says tests he has done show that Comcast was blocking packets at 1:45am rather than at times of congestion like they claim. Topolski also notes that, there is a general complaint form provided by the FCC but no one knows about it. He also notes that routers manage network traffic on their own – it may not be optimal but it would be better than waiting on the provider industry to self-regulate. Interestingly, consumers seem to be testing networks themselves and tools are even appearing to monitor
cellphone use by consumer (see Skydeck.com, the company started by panelist Jason Devitt).

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler at MIT – Our Digitized World: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.

Last Thursday April 10 MIT hosted a debate/discussion between Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein (audio can be found here). Both are Harvard Law Professors (Sunstein coming here from Chicago in the fall) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the discussion became very philosophical. Both have written prolifically on technology and our future, especially Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks and Sunstein’s Infotopia and Republic.com 2.0. Henry Jenkins is moderating. he is co-director of Comparative Media Studies and Professor of Humanities at MIT. Jenkins is using those three books as the basis for his questions.

The first question Jenkins poses asks for metrics on how to measure the quality of online democracy. He quotes from both Sunstein and Benkler’s books to set off the dueling:

Sunstein1: “Any well functioning society depends on relationships of trust and reciprocity, in which people see their fellow citizens as potential allies, willing to help, and deserving of help when help is needed.”

Sunstein2: “A well functioning society of free expression must have two distinct requirements: first, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance, and second, many or most citizens have a range of common experiences.”

Benkler: “The new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and in an increasingly information-dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.”

Jenkins asks the professors to give the current space a grade. Sunstein ranks it a C- since there is still babble and chaos and cruelty, even though there is order and brilliance and ingenuity. He likes Benkler’s idea of a self-reflective culture willing ot appraise itself, but his sense is that the internet is the opposite of self-reflection and provides only for entrenchment of pre-existing views.

Benkler gives a higher grade than C- and ascribes this to the importance of the degree of constraint on action being lower on the internet – this is determinative of how evaluate “normative life lived as a practical matter”. He agrees that a well-functioning society depends on trust and reciprocity but finds this in existence on the web through pervasive collaboration. He contrasts this with the authority driven approach traditionally used by the main stream media.

Benkler states that Sunstein takes too passive a view of citizenship in his description of the requirements of a system of free expression. He doesn’t envision citizens as passively exposed to streams of information and equipped with some pre-existing common frame of reference. Benkler imagines a capacity to act, intake, and filter for accreditation and salience, and ultimately set the current agenda. He sees freedom of expression manifested in part by participating in production of the agenda and claims this view will make the networked public sphere more attractive than Sunstein sees it, which will have the result that main stream media will appear more attractive.

At this Sunstein concedes his grade of C- was probably too harsh and he meant it in comparison to a realistic ideal, rather than a historic comparison. We’re doing better than in 1975. In response to Benkler’s point about passivity he states that his calls for exposure to new materials and shared experiences are only necessary conditions and they act as a counterweight to the notion that with unlimited free choice comes a capacity for self-sorting of internet communication. His sense is that “real internet geeks” come close to being libertarians in the University of Chicago tradition, so this notion of capacity becomes idealized as follows: if you are sovereign over your choices we have reached the ideal. Sunstein resists this and says we need to judge by outcomes: in a well functioning system you don’t construct a Daily Me and your attention needs to be grabbed or else you’ll never realize your interest in other issues. Self-sorting alone is too risky to be a reliable mechanism for people to get a good understanding of issues, so his two conditions become necessary features of the web and preconditions for a well functioning democratic society.

He thinks this paints a picture of people’s interaction with the web as more passive than what he meant. Active citizenship is fueled by shared experiences and unanticipated exposure to new materials and ideas. He cites national holidays like Martin luther King day or July Fourth and enabling us to see each others as involved in a common enterprise. This engenders a participatory approach to societal life among citizens.

Benkler responds that the difference between his and Sunstein’s position is power and context, freedom and constraint. He questions whether Sunstein’s proposed necessary condition of a common experience would result in something closer to traditional main stream media being desirable, where the sharing of experience was often through a government controlled agency or a newspaper. Benkler defines an elite as someone who can affect the agenda and observes that today that is a few million versus how it used to be a few thousand. So power is being diffused in myriad different ways. The example he gives is from the net roots of the Democratic party: citizens can now move their donations to marginal seats away from the war chest of safe seats rather than this being an internal decision by the party bosses. This freedom, what Benkler calls the “I can affect” freedom, is what he is interested in.

The second question Jenkins poses also starts with quotes, and he asks whether we are in danger of excessive fragmentation on the web:

Continue reading ‘Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler at MIT – Our Digitized World: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.’

The Internet Drives Election Results in Malaysia

On March 8, elections were held to the Malaysian parliament. The incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, who lost its two-third majority in parliament, had held power since independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. In the months leading up to the election, accusations had been flying about corruption and a system designed to keep the ruling party in power. 40,000 people are reported to have marched in Kuala Lumpur in November of last year demanding electoral reform. The government’s reaction targeted online media: the country’s most prominent blogs and news websites were blocked, including Malaysia Today at about 3:30pm, which began the day of the protest with minute-to-minute reports such as “Walkers are gathering in hundreds near Jalan Melayu (Malaya Road) Gate” and directing readers to as yet unblocked sites. In April of 2007, in a by-election in the town of Ijok, it was a Malaysian blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who reported that of the 12,000 voters in the district, some 1,700 were phantom voters, with people as old as 107 still on the rolls. Others listed as voters were as young as eight years old.

The power of blogs and online news outlets is established in Malaysia. Malaysiakini, a website, is the most popular news outlet in the country (and incidentally was available only sporadically after about 3:30pm during the protest of November 10, 2007). In the March 8 elections, Jeff Ooi, a member of Malaysia’s opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), won a three way race for a seat in parliament and now blogs on his political blog Screenshots, from within Parliament. In fact, five of Malaysia’s newly elected parliamentarians are bloggers.

Blogs are unusually powerful in Malaysian politics. According to a USINFO state report by Stephen Kaufman released today, “Weblogs (blogs), text messages and copies of
Internet-streamed videos became the most influential information
sources for voters ahead of Malaysia’s March 8 parliamentary elections.” On March 25, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the BN’s strategy of ignoring blogs and online media was responsible for his party’s losses in this election. He states the BN “certainly lost the Internet war” and that is was “a serious misjudgment” to rely only on government controlled newspapers and television to communicate their campaign message. Dr. Abu Hassan Hasbullah, a University of Malay Media Studies Lecturer, reports 70% of voters were influenced by blogs, claiming that the main stream media does not report on pertinent government corruption or on religious and racial tensions. Hasbullah claims that the BN had two websites and one blog in 2004, while the opposition had thousands of blogs. Voice of America reports readership of the country’s independent blogs surpasses that of print media.

What is interesting about this change in news delivery and citizen communciation is difficult for the government to completely control. Malaysiakini.com’s Steven Gan says “It’s not going to be easy” to impose government restrictions on bloggers and the internet. “I always describe like [this]: Press freedom is like toothpaste, in a sense. When you squeeze a little bit of it out, it’s going to be very hard to put it back in again.”

Crossposted on I&D Blog

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

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

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

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