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

Sunstein speaks on extremism

Cass Sunstein, Professor at Harvard Law School, is speaking today on Extremism: Politics and Law. Related to this topic, he is the author of Nudge, Republic.com 2.0, and Infotopia. He discussed Republic 2.0 with Henry Farrell on this bloggingheads.tv diavlog, which touches on the theme of extremism in discourse and the web’s role is facilitating polarization of political views (notably, Farrell gives a good counterfactual to Sunstein’s claims, and Sunstein ends up agreeing with him).

Sunstein is in the midst of writing a new book on extremism and this talk is a teaser. He gives us a quote from Churchill: “Fanatics are people who can’t change their minds and will not change the subject.” Political scientist Hardin says he agrees with the first clause epistemologically but the second clause is wrong because they *cannot* change the subject. Sunstein says extremism in multiple domains (The Whitehouse, company boards, unions) results from group polarization.

He thinks the concept of group polization should replace the notion of group think in all fields. Group Polarization involves both information exchange and reputation. His thesis is that like-minded people talking with other like-minded people tend to move to more extreme positions upon disucssion – partly because of the new information and partly because of the pressure from peer viewpoints.

His empirical work on this began with his Colorado study. He and his coauthors recorded the private views on 3 issues (climate change, same sex marriage and race conscious affirmative action) for citizens in Boulder and for citizens in Colorado Springs. Boulder is liberal so they screened people to ensure liberalness: if they liked Cheney they were excused from the test. They asked the same Cheney question in Colorado Springs and if they didn’t like him they were excused. Then he interviewed them to determine their private view after deliberation, and well as having come to a group consensus.
Continue reading ‘Sunstein speaks on extremism’

Benkler: We are collaborators, not knaves

Yochai Benkler gave a talk today in reception of his appointment as the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. Jack Berkman (now deceased) is the father of Myles Berkman, whose family endowed both the Berkman Center (where I am a fellow) and Benkler’s professorial chair.

His talk was titled “After Selfishness: Wikipedia 1, Hobbes 0 at Half Time” and he sets out to show that there is a sea change happening in the study of organizational systems that far better reflects how we actually interact, organize, and operate. He explains that the collaborative movements we generally characterize as belonging to the new internet age (free and open source software, wikipedia) are really just the instantiation of a wider and pervasive, in fact completely natural and longstanding, phenomena in human life.

This is due to how we can organize capital in the information and networked society: We own the core physical means of production as well as knowledge, insight, and creativity. Now we’re seeing longstanding society practices, such as non-hierarchical norm generation and collaboration more from the periphery of society to the center of our productive enterprises. Benkler’s key point in this talk is that this shift is not limited to Internet-based environments, but part of a broader change happening across society.

So how to we get people to produce good stuff? money? prizes? competition? Benkler notes the example of YouTube.com – contributors are not paid yet the community thrives. Benkler hypothesizes that the key is that people feel secure in their involvement with the community: not paying but creating a context where people feel secure in their collaboration in a system. Another example is Kaltura.com: Benkler attributes their success to ways they have found to assure contributors that when you produce you will be able to control what you produce. Cash doesn’t change hands. The challenge is to learn about human collaboration in general from these web-based examples. In Benkler’s words “replacing Leviathan with a collaborative system.”

Examples outside the web-based world include GM’s experience with it’s Fremont plant. This plant was among the worst performance in the company. GM shut it down for two years and brought it back 85% staffed by the previous workforce, the same union, but reorganized collaboratively to align incentives. This means there are no longer process engineers on the shop floor and direct control over experimentation and flow at the team level is gone. The plant did so well it forced the big three to copy although they did so in less purely collaborative ways, such as retaining competitive bidding. Benkler’s point is that there is a need for long term relationships based on trust. An emphasis on norms and trust, along with greater teamwork and autonomy for workers implies a more complex system with less perfect control than Hobbes’ Leviathan vision. The world changes too quickly for the old encumbered hierarchical model of economic production.

Benkler thinks this leads us to study social dynamics, an open field without many answers yet. He also relates this work to evolutionary biology: from group selection theory of the 50’s to the individualistic conception in Dawkins’ theory of the selfish gene in the 70’s, and now to multi-level selection and cooperation as a distinct driving force in evolution as opposed to the other way around. This opens a vein of research in empirical deviations from selfishness, as a pillar of homo economicus, just as Kahneman and Tversky challenged the twin pillar of rationality.

Benkler’s vision is to move away from the simple rigid hierarchical models toward ones that are richer and more complex and can capture more of our actual behavior, while still being tractable enough to produce predictions and a larger understanding of our world.

Justice Scalia: Populist

Justice Scalia (HLS 1960) is speaking at the inaugural Herbert W. Vaughan Lecture today at Harvard Law School. It’s packed – I arrived at 4pm for the 4:30 talk and joined the end of a long line…. then was immediately told the auditorium was full and was relegated to an overflow room with video. I’m lucky to have been early enough to even see it live.

The topic of the talk hasn’t been announced and we’re all waiting with palpable anticipation in the air. The din is deafening.

Scalia takes the podium. The title of his talk is “Methodology of Originalism.”

His subject is the intersection of constitutional law and history. He notes that the orthodox view of constitutional interpretation, up to the time of the Warren Court, was that the constitution is no different from any other legal text. That is, it bears a static meaning that doesn’t change from generation to generation, although it gets applied to new situations. The application to pre-existing phenomena doesn’t change over time, but these applications do provide the data upon which to decide the cases on the new phenomena.

Things changed when the Warren court permitted in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan 376 U.S. 254 (1964) that good faith libel of public figures was good for democracy. Scalia says this might be so but that change should be made by statute and not by the court. He argues this is respectful of the democratic system in that the laws are reflections of people’s votes. This is the first, and perhaps the best known, of two ways Scalia comes across as populist in this talk. In a question at the end he says that the whole theory of democracy is that a justice is not supposed to be writing a constitution but just reflecting what the american people have decided. If you believe in democracy, he explains, you believe in majority rules. In liberal democracies like ours we have made exceptions and given protection to certain minorites such as religious or political minorities. But his key point is that the people made these exceptions, ie. they were adopted in a democratic fashion.

But doesn’t originalism require you to know the original meaning of a document? and isn’t history a science unto itself, and different from law? Scalia responds to this argument by saying first that history is central to the law, in the very least through the fact that the meanings of words change over time. So inquiry into the past certainly has to do with the law and vice versa. He notes that the only way to assign meaning to many of the phrases in the constitution is through historical understanding: for example “letters of mark and reprisal” and “habeas corpus” etc. Secondly, he gives a deeply non-elitist argument about the quality of expert vs nonexpert reasoning. This is the second way Scalia expresses a populist sentiment.

In District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. ___ (2008), the petitioners contended that the term “bear arms” only meant a military interpretation, although there are previous cases that show this isn’t true. But this case was about more than the historical usage of words: the 2nd Amendment didn’t say “the people shall have the right to keep and bear arms,” for example, but that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” – as if this was a pre-existing right. So Scalia argues that here there was a place for historical inquiry here that showed there was such a pre-exsiting right: in the English bill of Rights of 1689 (found by Blackstone). So now it’s hard to see the 2nd Amendment as more than the right to join a militia. Which goes with the prologue of the 2nd Amendment: the right of a well regulated militia to keep arms. This goes much further than just lexicography.

So what can be expected of judges? Scalia argues, like Churchill’s argument for democracy, that all an originalist need show is that originalism beats the alternatives. He says this isn’t hard to do since inquiry into original meaning is not as difficult as what opponents suggest. He says one place to look when the framer’s intent is not clear is to look at states’ older interpretations. And in the vast majority of cases, including the most controversial ones, the originalist interpretation is clear. His examples of cases with clear original intent are abortion, a right to engage in homosexual sodomy, or assisted suicide, or prohibition of the death penalty (the death penalty was historically the only penalty for a felony) – these rights are not found in the constitution. Determining whether there should be (and hence is, for a non-originalist judge) a right to abortion or same sex marriage or whatnot, requires moral philosophy which Scalia says is harder than historical inquiry.

He also uses as evidence for the symbiotic relationship between law and history that history departments have legal historical scholars and law schools have historical experts.

Scalia gives the case of Thompson v. Oklahoma 487 U.S. 815 (1988) as an example of a situation in which historical reasoning played little part and he uses this as a baseline to argue that the role of historical reasoning in Supreme Court opinions is increasing. The briefs in Thompson were of no help with historical questions since they did not touch on the history of the 8th Amendment, but Scalia says this isn’t surprising since the history of the clause had been written out of the argument by previous thinking. Another case, Morrison v. Olsen 487 U.S. 654 (1988), considered a challenge to the statue creating the independent counsel. Scalia thinks these questions could benefit little from historical clarification, so the briefing in Morrison focused on historical questions such as what did the term “inferior officers” mean at the time of the founding. Two briefs authored by HLS faculty (Cox, Fried) provided useful historical material, but the historical referencing was sparse and none of these briefs were written by scholars of legal history.

In contrast, in 2007 in Heller there was again little historical context but in this case many amicus briefs focused on historical arguments and material. This is a very different situation to that of 20 years ago. There were several briefs from legal historical experts and each contained detailed discussions of the historical right to bear arms in England and here at the time of the founding. Such foci were the heart of the brief, and not relegated to a footnote as it likely would have been 20 years ago, and was in Morrison. Scalia thinks this reinforces the use of the originalist approach, by showing how easy it is compared to other approaches.

Scalia eschews amicus briefs in general, especially insofar as they repeat the arguments made by the parties because of their pretense to scholarly impartiality which may convince judges to sign on to briefs that are nothing but impartial. “Disinterested scholarship and advocacy do not mix well.”

Scalia takes on a second argument made against the use of history in the courts – that the history used is “law office history.” That is, the selection of data favorable to the position being advanced without regard or concern for contradictory data or relevance. Here the charge is not incompentance but tendentiousness: advocates cannot be trusted to present an unbiased view. But of course! says Scalia, since they are advocates. But insofar as the criticism is directed at the court, it is essential that the adjudicator is impartial. “Of course a judicial opinion can give a distorted picture of historical truth, but this would be an inadequate historical opinion and not that which is expected” from the Court. Scalia admonishes that one must review the historical evidence in detail rather than raise the “know nothing” cry.

This is Scalia’s second populist argument: it is deeply non-elitist since it seems to imply that nonprofessional historians are capable of coming up with good historical understanding. It provides an example that dovetails with the notion of opening knowledge and the respect for autonomy in allow individuals to evaluate reasoning and data and come to their own conclusions (and even be right sometimes). Scalia notes that he sees the role of the Court as finding conclusions from these facts, which is different from the role of the historians.

But he feels quite differently about the conclusions of experts in other fields. For example, in overruling Dr. Miles Medical Co. v. John D. Park and Sons, 220 U.S. 373 (1911), holding that resale price maintenance isn’t a per se violation of the Sherman Act, he didn’t feel uncomfortable since this is the almost uniform view of professional economists. Scalia seems to be saying that experts are probably right more often than nonexperts, but nonexperts can also contribute. He phrases this as an expert in judicial analysis – and he says there is a difference in historical analysis vs, say, the type of engineering analysis that might be required for patent cases. He makes a distinction between types of subject which are more susceptible to successful nonexpert analysis.

Scalia then advocates for submission of analysis to public scrutiny with data open, thus allowing suspect conclusions to be challenged. The originalist will reach substantive results he doesn’t personally favor and the reasoning process should be open. Scalia notes that this is more honest that judges who reason morally, who will never disagree with their own opinions.

There was a question that got the audience laughing at the end. The questioner claims to have approached a Raytheon manufacturing facility to buy a missile or tank, since in his view the 2nd Amendment is about keeping the government scared of the people, and somehow having a gun when the government has more advanced weaponry misses the point. Scalia thinks this is outside the scope of the 2nd Amendment because “You can’t bear a tank!”

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: Opening Scientific Research Requires Societal Change

In the A2K3 panel on Open Access to Science and Research, Eve Gray, from the Centre for Educational Technology, University of Cape Town, sees the Open Access movement as a real societal change. Accordingly she shows us a picture of Nelson Mandela and asks us to think about his release from prison and the amount of change that ushered in. She also asks us to consider whether or not Mandela is an international person or a local person. She sees a parallel with how South African society changed with Mandela and the change people are advocation toward open access to research knowledge. She shows a worldmapper.org map of countries distorted by the amount of (copyrighted) scientific research publications. South Africa looks small. She blames this on South Africa’s willingness to uphold colonial traditions in copyright law and norms in knowledge dissemination. She says this happens almost unquestioningly, and in South Africa to rise in the research world you are expected to publish in ‘international’ journals – the prestigious journals are not South African, she says (I am familiar with this attitude from my own experience in Canada. The top American journals and schools were considered the holy grail. When I asked about attending a top American graduate school I was laughed at by a professor and told that maybe it could happen, if perhaps I had an Olympic gold medal.) She states that for real change in this area to come about people have to recognize that they must mediate a “complex meshing” of policies: at the university level, and the various government levels, norms and the individual scientist level… just as Mandela had to mediate a large number of complex policies at a variety of different levels in order to bring about the change he did.

Legal Barriers to Open Science: my SciFoo talk

I had an amazing time participating at Science Foo Camp this year. This is a unique conference: there are 200 invitees comprising some of the most innovative thinkers about science today. Most are scientists but not all – there are publishers, science reporters, scientific entrepreneurs, writers on science, and so on. I met old friends there and found many amazing new ones.

One thing that I was glad to see was the level of interest in Open Science. Some of the top thinkers in this area were there and I’d guess at least half the participants are highly motivated by this problem. There were sessions on reporting negative results, the future of the scientific method, reproducibility in science. I organized a session with Michael Nielsen on overcoming barriers in open science. I spoke about the legal barriers and O’Reilly Media has made the talk available here.

I have papers forthcoming on this topic you can find on my website.

A2K3 Kaltura Award

I am honored and humbled to win the A2K3 Kaltura prize for best paper. Peter Suber posts about it here and gives the abstract. His post also includes a link to a draft of the paper, which can also be found here: Enabling Reproducible Research: Open Licensing For Scientific Innovation. I’d love comments and feedback although please be aware that since the paper is forthcoming in the International Journal of Communications Law and Policy it will very likely undergo changes. Thank you to Kaltura.com and the entire A2K3 committee. I’m very happy to be here in Geneva and enjoying every minute. 🙂

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.

A2K3: A World Trade Agreement for Knowledge?

Thiru Balasubramanian, Geneva Representative for Knowledge Ecology International presents a proposal (from a forthcoming paper by James Love and Manon Ress) for a WTO treaty on knowledge (so far all WTO agreements extend to private goods only). Since information is a public good (nonrival and nonexcludable), we will have a “market failure” if single countries act alone: hence the undersupply of global public goods. The WTO creates binding agreements and thus such an agreement for public goods such as knowledge creates large collective benefits and high costs to acting against them. Such a WTO agreement would outline and influence norms. Why do this within the WTO? There are strong enforcement mechanisms here. Are we really undersupplying open and free knowledge? I can think of several scientific examples. Balasubramaniam doesn’t dig in to what such an agreement would look like and seems quite complex. Thinking about this might provide a coherent framework for approaching free information issues globally.

A2K3: Access to Knowledge as a Human Right

Building on the opening remarks, the second panel addresses Human right and Access to Knowledge. Caroline Dommen, director of 3D, an advocacy group promoting human rights consideration in trade agreements, emphasizes the need for metrics: how can we tell how open countries are? She suggests borrowing from the experience with human rights measurement. For example measuring the availability of a right, nondiscrimination in access, economic access (is it affordable?), acceptability or quality or the available good. She also suggests using the 4A human rights approach of 1) respect 2) protect and 3) fulfill the rights. There are corollary obligations: 1) non-discrimination 2) adequate process (including redress of violated rights) 3) participation 4) effective remedy.

Marisella Ouma, Kenyan team researcher for the African Copyright and Access to Knowledge Project, says that most African countries have had copyright laws since independence (starting with Ghana in 1957). She is concerned about the educational aspect of access to knowledge and related results of the educational materials access index: the highest ranking is Egypt and the lowest is Mozambique. So, why? What are the issues? Ouma notes that these countries have the laws but not strong policies: she asserts they need a copyright policy that acknowledges the basic fundamental right to education so there isn’t a conflict between property rights and the right to access educational information. She is concerned that people don’t understand copyright law and this makes advocacy of their rights difficult. She is also concerned that policy is not comprehensive enough: For example in Kenya or Uganda, the education policy is limited to basic education. She also describes the sad situation of there being billions of dollars available to build libraries but no money to stock them with information. Something is really wrong here. She notes that wireless internet is important for this, and how many people really have access? So how do they access the knowledge? she asks.

A2K3: Tim Hubbard on Open Science

In the first panel at A2K3 on the history, impact, and future of the global A2K movement, Tim Hubbard, a genetics researcher, laments that scientists tend to carry out their work in a closed way and thus very little data is released. In fact he claims that biologists used to deliberately mess up images so that they could not be reproduced! But apparently journals are more demanding now and this problem has largely been corrected (for example Nature’s 2006 standards on image fraud). He says that openness in science needs to happen before publication, the traditional time when scientists release their work. But this is a tough problem. Data must be released in such a way that others can understand and use it. This parallels the argument made in the opening remarks about the value of net neutrality as preserving an innovation platform: in order for data to be used it must be open in the sense that it permits further innovation. He says we now have Open Genome Data but privacy issues are pertinent: even summaries of the data can be backsolved to identify individuals. He asks for better encryption algorithms to protect privacy. In the meantime he proposes two other solutions. We could just stop worrying about the privacy of our genetic data, just like we don’t hide our race or gender. Failing that, he wants to mine the UK’s National Health Service’s patient records through an “honest broker” which is an intermediary that runs programs and scripts on the data that researchers submit. The data are hidden from the researcher and only accessed through the intermediary. Another problem this solves is the enormity of the released data that can prevent interested people from moving the data or analyzing it. This has broad implications as Hubbard points out – the government could access their CCTV video recordings to find drivers who’ve let their insurance lapse, but not track other possibly privacy violating aspects of drivers’ visible presence on the road. Hubbard is touching on what might be the most important part of the Access to Knowledge movement – how to make the access meaningful without destroying incentives to be open.

Access to Knowledge 3: Opening Remarks

I’m at my first Access to Knowledge conference in Geneva and I’ve never felt so important. Walking to the Centre International de Conférences in Geneva I passed the UN High Commission for Refugees and I’m sitting in an enormous tiered conference room with translation headphones and plush leather chairs. Maybe I’m easily impressed, but this is really my first exposure to influencing policy through any means other than academic idea generation and publication. A2K3 is held literally across the street from the World Intellectual Property Organization‘s headquarters and the focus is changing the global intellectual policy landscape.

So that means there are more lawyers and activists here than I am used to seeing at the usual academic conferences. The introductory remarks reflect this: Sisule Musungu lists the multitude of groups involved such as eiFL, EFF, OSI, for example. Google and Kaltura are the only corporate sponsors. Laura DeNardis, the executive director of Information Society Project at Yale (the group primarily responsible for A2K3) is giving opening remarks. Laura makes the point that technical standards contain deep political stances on knowledge sharing and dissemintation so the debate isn’t just about regulation any more. This means A2K is not just about laws and treaties, but also about the nature of the communciation technologies. Many of our discussions about net neutrality at Berkman note this fact, and in followup remarks Jack Balkin, the founding directory of the Yale ISP, makes this observation. He states that the A2K movement brings attention to much of International Trade Law that flies under most people’s radars, especially how it impacts the free flow of information, particularly on developing countries. A2K is at core about justice and human rights, since more and more wealth creation is coming from information tools in our information-driven world. This is clearly true: think of the success and power of Google – an information company. A2K is at least in part a reaction to the increasingly strong correlation between wealth and access to information. Balkin relates the FCC ruling preventing Comcast from discriminating between packets based on application or content, meaning that this movement is really about the decentralization of innovation: he states that without net neutrality innovation would be dominated by a small number of firms who would only allow innovations that benefit them directly. The A2K movement is about bringing more minds to solve our greatest problems, and this also engenders a debate about control, most deeply the control people can effect on their own lives: “will people be the master’s of themselves or will they be under the control of others?” The internet is a general purpose tool facilitating communication however people see fit, so the internet can be understood as a commons in that we can use it and build on it for our own self-determined purposes.

Book Review: The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond

I can’t believe I haven’t read this book until now since it intersects two areas of deep interest to me: technology (specifically programming) and freedom. Essentially the book celebrates liberty as a natural mode for creativity and productivity, with open source software as an example. Raymond has two further findings: that openness doesn’t necessarily imply a loss of property rights, and selfish motives are pervasive (and not evil).

When does open source work? And how about computational science?

Raymond’s biggest contribution is that he gives a wonderful analysis of the conditions that contribute to the success of the open approach, quoting from page 146 of the revised edition:

1. Reliability/stability/scalability are critical.
2. Correctness of design and implementation cannot readily be verified by means other than independent peer review.
3. The software is critical to the user’s control of his/her business.
4. The software establishes or enables a common computing and communication infrastructure.
5. Key methods (or functional equivalents of them) are part of common engineering knowledge.

I’m struck by how computational research seems to fit. Adapting Raymond’s list in this light:

1. Reproducibility of research is critical.
2. Correctness of methodology and results cannot readily be verified by means other than independent peer review.
3. The research is critical to academic careers.
4. Computational research may lead to common platforms since by its nature code is created, but this is not necessarily the case.
5. Key methods, such as the scientific method, are common research knowledge.

1, 2, and 3 seem fairly straightforward and a great fit for computational science. Computational research doesn’t tend to establish a common computing and communication infrastructure, although it can, for example David Donoho’s WaveLab or my colloborative work with him and others SparseLab. We were aiming not only to create a platform and vehicle for reproducible research but also to create software tools and common examples for researchers in the field. But at the moment this approach isn’t typical. In point 5, I think what Raymond means is that there is a common culture of how to solve a problem. I think computational scientists have this through their agreement on the scientific method for inquiry. Methodology in the computational sciences is undergoing rapid transformations – it is a very young field (for example, see my paper).

I think open source and computational research differ in their conception of openness. Implicitly I’ve been assuming opening to other computational researchers. But I can imagine a world that’s closer to the open source mechanism where people can participate based on their skill and interest alone, rather than school or group affiliation or similar types of insider knowledge. Fully open peer review and reproducible research would make these last criteria less important and go a long way to accruing the benefits that open source has seen.

Raymond notes that music and books are not like software in that they don’t need to be debugged and maintained. I think computational scientific research can bridge this in a way those areas don’t – the search for scientific understand requires cooperation and continual effort that builds on the work that has come before. Plus, there is something objective we’re trying to describe when we do computational research, so we have a common goal.

Property Rights – essential to a productive open system

The other theme that runs through the book is Raymond’s observation that openness doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of property rights, in fact they may be essential. He goes to great lengths to detail the community mores that enforce typical property right manifestations: attribution for work, relative valuation of different types of work, and boundary establishment for responsibility within projects for example. He draws a clever parallel between physical property rights as embodied in English common law (encoded in the American legal system) and the similarly self-evolved property rights of the open source world. John Locke codified the Anglo-American common law methods of acquiring ownership of land (page 76):

1. homesteading: mixing one’s labor with the unowned land and defending one’s title.
2. transfer of title.
3. adverse possession: owned land can be homesteaded and property rights acquired if the original owner does not defend his claim to the land.

A version of this operates in the hacker community with regard to open source projects. By contributing to an open source project you mix your labor in Lockean fashion and gain part of the project’s reputation return. The parallel between the real and virtual worlds is interesting – and the fact that physical property rights appear to be generalizable and important for conflict avoidance in open source systems. Raymond also notes that these property rights customs are strictly enforced in the open source world through moral suasion and the threat of ostracization.

The Role of Selfishness in Open Cultures

Raymond uses the open source world as an example of the pervasiveness of selfish motives in human behavior, stating that as a culture we tend to have a blind spot to how altruism is in fact “a form of ego satisfaction for the altruist.” (p53) This is an important point in this debate because the idea of open source can be conflated with a diminution of property rights and a move toward a less capitalist system, ie. people behaving altruistically to each other rather than according to market strictures. Raymond eviscerates this notion by noting that altruism isn’t selfless and even the open source world benefits by linking the selfishness of hackers and their need for self-actualization to difficult ends that can only be achieved through sustained cooperation. Appeals to reputation and ego boosting seem to do the trick in this sphere and Raymond attributes Linux’s success in part to Linus Torvalds’ genius in creating an efficient market in ego boosting – turned of course to the end of OS development.

Vacations or "Vacations" :)

I’m here at the Global Voices Summit in Budapest and I just listened to a panel on Rising Voices, a group within Global Voices dedicated to supporting the efforts of people traditionally underrepresented in citizen media. (See their trailer here). At the end of the panel, the question was asked ‘how can we help?’ The answer was perhaps surprising: although money is always welcome what is needed is skills. Specifically, people with web design or IT skills can come and stay with a blogging community for a week or two and teach people how to do things like design a web page, display their wares online, essentially support people in computer use… So, it occurred to me that I know many people for whom travel and learning are very important, who are both skilled in IT and would find an enormous satisfaction from having a purpose to their travel. I can put you in touch with people who might appreciate your skills, or you can reach Rising Voices directly. Another group that’s similar is spirit and might be able to facilitate this is Geek Corps.

Internet and Cell Phone Use in the Middle East

When people talk about the Internet and Democracy, especially in the context of the Middle East, I wonder just how pervasive the Internet really is in these countries. I made a quick plot of data for Middle Eastern countries from data I downloaded from the International Telecommunciation Union:

The US is the blue line on top, for reference. UAE is approaching American levels of internet use, and Iran has skyrocketed since 2001, and is now the 3rd or 4th most wired country. There seem to be a cluster of countries that, while adopting, are doing so slowly: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Oman, the Sudan, and Yemen, although Saudi Arabia and Syria seem to be accelerating since 2005.

I made a comparable plot of cellphone use per 100 inhabitants for these same countries, also from data provided by the ITU:

In this graph the United States is in the middle of the pack and growing steadily, but definitely not matching the recent subscription growth rates in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Oman (data for 2007 for Israel is not yet available). For most countries, cell phones subscriptions are more than three times as prevalent as Internet users. Interestingly, the group of countries with low internet use also have low cell phone use, but unlike for the internet their cell phone subscription rates all began accelerating in 2005.

So what does this mean? All countries in the Middle East are growing more quickly in adopting cell phones than the internet, with the interesting exception of Iran (I don’t know why the growth rate of internet use in Iran is so high, perhaps blogging has caught on more here. Although it doens’t address this question directly, the Iranian blogosphere itself is analyzed in the Berkman Internet & Democracy paper Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere). Syria, the Sudan, Yemen, and Iran have grown most quickly in both internet use and cell phone subscription. In 6 countries there is more than one cell phone subscription per person – conversely, the highest rate for internet use (other than the US) is 50% in UAE with the other countries in approximately two clusters of about 30% and about 10% each. With the rates of growth on the side of the cell phones, I doubt we’ll see their pervasiveness relative to internet use change in the next few years, in fact the gap will probably widen.

Cross-posted at I&D Blog

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.’

Amartya Sen at the Aurora Forum at Stanford University: Global Solidarity, Human Rights, and the End of Poverty

This is a one day conference to commemorate Martin Luther King’s “The Other America” in his 1967 speech at Stanford, and heed that speech’s call to create a more just world.

Mark Gonnerman, director of the Aurora Forum introduces the event by noting that economic justice is the main theme of King’s legacy. He references King’s 1948 paper where he lays out his mission as a minister, in which his goal is to deal with unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity. He doesn’t mention civil rights. So the effect of Rosa Parks was to turn him in a difference direction from his original mission, to which he returned, which is the gulf between rich and poor. Gonnerman reminds us of the interdependence of global trade and how, even before we leave the house for work, we have used products from all parts of the globe, rich and poor. He quotes King that the agony of the poor enriches the rest.

Thomas Nazario, founding director of The Forgotten International, outlines the face of poverty. He lists the 5 problems in the UN Millennium Report as the charge for the coming generation:

1. global warming
2. world health, including basic health and pandemic avoidance
3. war and nuclear proliferation
4. protection of human rights
5. world poverty

He describes world poverty in two ways: the first is by focusing on the gap between rich and poor. He says there are about 1000 billionaires and claims their money could provide services to half the people on Earth. The second way is to focus on the suffering associated with poverty. Nazario shows us some compelling images of poverty and busts some myths: children do go through garbage and fight rats and other vermin (usually dying before age 5); impoverished people tend to live around rivers since the riverbank is common land since it floods regularly; images of Ethiopia in the 1980’s war, conflict and famine (he notes that when there is extreme poverty, there is extreme fragility of life – any perturbation in the environment will cause death). He says 6 million children die before the age of 5 of hunger and lack of medical care. He also busts the myth that most of the poverty in the world is in Africa – it is in Asia, especially in India. There are 39 million street children in the world, often living in sewers. Of course, poverty is a cause of illiteracy not only because of the cost of education but because the impoverished children usually work to survive.

Amartya Sen is Lamont Professor and Professor of Economics and HIstory, Harvard University. He is a 1998 nobel prize winner in economics and I wrote a book review here of his book _Development as Freedom_. His talk has two components: he speaks first about global poverty and next about human rights. He begins by noting that hope for humanity, as Martin Luther King emphasized, is essential for these topics. Sen hopes the easily preventable deaths of millions of children is not an inescapable human condition and the fatalism about this in the developed world recedes. He also takes on the anti-globalization viewpoint by noting that globalization can be seen as a great contributor to world wealth. He insists globalization is a key component to reform, as there is an enormous positive impact to bringing people together, but the sharing of the spoils needs to be more equitable. Sen advocates a better understanding of economics to help us reform world development institutions, but with a caveat: “a market is as good as the company it keeps.” By this he means that circumstances such as the current conditions governing the distribution of resources or the ability of people to enter market transactions for example, depend on things such as the availability of healthcare and the existence of patents and contract laws conducive to trade.

Sen distinguishes short run and long run policies. In the long run the goal is to keep unemployment low in all countries (so for example he advocated government help in training and job location for Americans whose jobs have become obsolete due to technological progress). In the short run it is essential to have an adequate system of social safety nets that provide a minimum income, healthcare, and children’s schooling (which has long run effects of people’s adaptability in the workforce). Sen eschews economic stagnation and the rejection of economic reform.

Sen is very concerned that the fruits of globalization are not being justly shared and, even though globalization does bring economic benefit for all, he sees this inequality as the root of poverty. He also warns people not to rely on “the market outcome” as a way of washing your hands of the problem since the outcome of the market relies on a number of factors, such as resource ownership patterns, various rules of operation (like antitrust and patent laws), that will give different prices and different income equality.

Sen, consistent with his hopeful theme, notes important things subject to reform and change:

1. an adequately strong global effort to combat lack of education and healthcare
2. improving existing patent laws and reduction of arms supply

For the first point, there is a need for further worldwide cooperation to combat illiteracy and provide other social services. Sen suggests immediate remedies such as halting the repression of exports from poor countries, and other longer term remedies like reconsidering the 1940’s legacy of global institutions such as the UN, and reforming patent systems that prevent getting drugs to poor countries. After all, understanding and modifying incentive structures is “what economics is supposed to be about.” Continuing the second point, Sen believes the globalized trade in arms causes regional tension and global tension from the trade. This isn’t a problem confined to poor countries, on the contrary, the G8 consistently sell more than 80% of arms exports (with about 2/3rd of American arms exports going to developing countries). The Security Council of the G8 were also responsible for more than 80% of the global arms trade (witness this issue has never been discussed in the Security Council). There is a cascade effect here – warlords can rely on American or Russian support for their subversion of economic order and peace (Sen mentions Mobutu as a case in point and the example of Somalia I have blogged about is another one with the American support for Ethiopia). To change this we need to reform the role of ethics, which Sen generalizes into a discussion of human rights.

The contraposition of opulence and agony makes us question the ethicality of the status quo, and regardless it is hard to change since with the status quo the power goes with the wealth. Jeremy Bentham in 1792 called natural rights “nonsense on stilts” and Sen notes this line of dismissal is still alive today when people question how a right can exist in the absence of legislation. Bentham says a right requires the existence of punitive treatment for those who abrogate them. Sen says the correct way of thinking about this is utility based ethics, not examining the foundational grounds. For him, this means an ethics that makes room for the significance of human rights and human freedom.

If human rights are a legitimate idea, how is it useful for poverty eradication? Moral rights are often the basis of legislation, such as the inalienable rights basis of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (its 60th anniversary is in 2008) inspired many countries to bring about this legislative change. Quoting Herbert Hart, Sen notes that the concept of a right belongs to morality and is concerned when one person’s action is limited by another – this is what can appropriately be made “the subject of coercive human rules.” So using this Sen provides a motivation for legislation. Sen also points out a motivation for the ethics of human rights through monitoring the behavior of the powerful and governments, like Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières, Amnesty International, and many others do.

Sen relates King and Gandhi in their call for peaceful protest, and thus enacting social reform that way. Sen believes religion plays a large part in social reform (Sen is an atheist but King invoked God frequently), but he says the argument does not rest on the religious components. Following King, Sen discusses the story of Jesus and the Good Samaritan and boils it down to the question of how a neighbor is defined. In the story Jesus argues with a lawyer’s limited conception of duty to one’s neighbor using strictly secular reasoning. Jesus tells the lawyer a story of a wounded man in need who was helped eventually by the Good Samaritan: Jesus asks the lawyer, when this is over and the wounded man reflects on it, who was the wounded man’s neighbor? The lawyer answers that the man who helped him is the neighbor, which is Jesus’s point. Using this understanding of the story Sen concludes the motivation to treat others as equals is not what matters – what matters is that in the process a new neighborhood has been created. Sen says this is a common understanding of justice and pervasive since we are linked to each other in myriad (growing) ways. “The boundaries of justice grow ever larger in proportion to the largeness of men’s views.” Shared problems can unit rather than divide.

Sen concludes that no theory of human rights can ignore a broad understanding of human presence and nearness. We are connected through work, trade, science, literature, sympathy, and commitment. This is an inescapably central engagement in the theory of justice. Poverty is a global challenge and there are few non neighbors left in the world today.

To whom to these human rights apply? Obviously everyone. Quoting Martin Luther King’s speech from the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, Sen decries “the fierce urgency of now” to “make good on the promises of democracy” and to make “justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Crossposted on I&D Blog

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

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

Archives

Do not edit this page

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