Posts Tagged Internet Freedom

New Paper on “Internet Freedom” & “21st Century Statecraft”

10 September 2010

Hot off the inter-presses today is a new paper from NDN & the New Policy Institute by yours truly looking at the State Department’s “21st Century Statecraft” and “Internet Freedom” initiatives. The paper is more overview than analysis– something I decided was necessary after reading the July essay on digital diplomacy in Foreign Affairs that I took down in a blog post and then delicately deconstructed for Foreign Policy. From the executive summary:

Not intended to be comprehensive or critical, this paper attempts to define and clarify these initiatives and the arguments supporting them, and offer a platform for further debate. These are new, evolving but crucially important issues, and informed conversation about the role of technology in our world is critical if these technologies are to be a positive force in history.

I mean, right? The hope is that this paper will be a resource for people new to these issues, and a fact-based starting point for further debate.  So here it is. Enjoy.

21st Century Statecraft, a Poor Choice of Words, and How Much that Matters

7 September 2010

I know I’m not the only one glad to have Evgeny Morozov back from the Belarusian forest and his poking, prodding skepticism back in the blogosphere– I missed having his posts as fodder to disagree with, and my blood pressure has felt a little low in recent months. His critique last week of Haystack, the much-ballyhood secret censorship-evading software developed by Austin Heap, though almost too snarky to take seriously, leveled serious criticism and raised good questions about a project that has received a lot of press and praise. But his latest contribution, The 20th Century Roots of the 21st Century Statecraft, is a little lite.

Morozov’s basic critique is, first, that the tech folks in the government are a little too chummy with the tech industry people. Fair enough. It is surprising that more people haven’t ended up in hot water for the very close relationships between a few select tech firms and the federal government. It may yet cause problems– both political and, as Evgeny points out, for the implementation of our foreign policy.

In the second half of his post, though, things get weird. Evgeny warns of ill-defined “spillover effects” that will follow from pursuing “21st Century Statecraft” and “Internet Freedom.” Because Twitter won’t solve all manner of non-digital foreign policy problems, he argues, these new strategies are likely to corrode the rest of foreign policymaking, and the State Departments new “utopian agenda” will distract from the real business at hand.

This doesn’t really make much sense, and I think Evgeny senses this, as he keeps backing away from his snarkier rhetoric, to the position that the real problem is a failure to communicate.  That is, his main issue seems to be that “Internet Freedom” and “21st Century Statecraft” are just bad labels. Which they are, I’d say. The phrase “internet freedom” has been widely hijacked to mean everything from Twitter-fuelled regime change to net neutrality; a more apt definition for the State Department’s stated ambitions would be “freedom of expression on the internet.” Bad name? Yeah, probably. Utopian agenda that will overwhelm all other forms of diplomacy? Nuh uh.

All this is made weirder by the fact that, in closing, Morozov pines for “A much more important and far-reaching global debate about the future of foreign policy in the digital era.” With her speech on Internet Freedom in January, Secretary Clinton probably did more to broaden the debate about foreign policy in the digital era than anybody else could have.  Yes, State’s work has spun off a lot of tangential, even unhelpful side conversations– that’s to be expected. But I’d say the sort of side-swipes Morozov takes at State in this post are equally unhelpful in advancing a broad global debate about international affairs in a digital age. Language matters, but getting hung up on a few bad labels doesn’t get us anywhere.

Phony Democracy and the Internet’s Influence

6 July 2010

The Post has published a couple opinion pieces in the past couple days– one from Fred Hiatt, and a column by Anne Applebaum– both addressing the state of democracy in the world. Applebaum applauds Secretary Clinton for her appearance at the Community of Democracies in Krakow, and issues a call for full-throated support of democracy to return as an objective for American foreign policy.

Hiatt riffs on the work of Freedom House, observing that the forward march of freedom, after decades of remarkable progress, has ground to a halt.  In recent years, we have seen the tide recede, with basic freedoms curtailed and many democratic governments slipping away from basic democratic values like rule of law, press freedom, and open markets. Hiatt blames this regression on repressive governments learning from past mistakes and evolving to be smarter and more effective:

Dictators have learned from each other to stamp out any buds of independent civil society by means of tax laws and supposedly neutral regulation. With China in the lead, they learned not only to neutralize the World Wide Web but to turn it into an effective weapon for propaganda, tracking and repression of their own citizens, and attacks against democratic rivals. Taking advantage of their control of television, they mobilized ideologies of nationalism and anti-terrorism to undermine the rhetoric of freedom…

Three assertive powers — China, Russia and Iran — not only resist democratization but actively seek to disseminate their model of authoritarian rule in their spheres of influence.

I think Hiatt is quite right that there is a new trend in authoritarianism, and one that is gaining momentum.  But one of the funny things about this resurgence of authoritarianism is that, unlike the communist states of the 20th century, these autocrats aren’t trying to win on the power of their argument. Really, democracy can already boast rhetorical victory, and the fact that these autocrats hold power in part by perpetrating a charade of democracy is a testament to that.  As Applebaum writes:

Countries as disparate as Russia, Venezuela and Iran have become adept at using the rhetoric of “democracy” — along with faked elections, phony political parties, even state-controlled “civil society” organizations — to deflect pressure for change.

These prosperous yet undemocratic states like Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and China offer the trappings of democracy, with few of the freedoms. Their ideology is a daunting competitor, and developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia face a choice between developing as open, free-market democracies, or as closed, statist autocracies. Increasingly, countries are sliding in the wrong direction.

ChinaIn the quote above, Hiatt cites control of the internet as a powerful tool for manipulation and repression by these authoritarian governments. And in truly, madly, deeply authoritarian states like China, North Korea, Belarus, or Syria (or the other 16 countries that grace the pages of Foreign Policy’s review of the 20 least free places on earth), that’s true.  But I think that internet and mobile networks actually make it harder for states to put on the “charade of democracy” that lets modern authoritarian governments legitimize themselves to their own people and to international observers.

Up until last June, Iran’s Islamic Republic was a prime example of a repressive, dictatorial government that managed to be seen as legitimate by many of its own people and many in the Islamic world thanks, in part, to a machinery of democracy that they operated.  But when it didn’t produce the result they wanted– the wrong guy won the presidential election– the machine started working against them, with the relative free speech and free association they permitted on internet and mobile networks helping to organize an opposition movement.

Iran cracked down, hard.  The government gave up its claim to democratic legitimacy, and the state has been pushed out of the middle ground into a position where everyone can see the regime’s true nature.  Increasingly in the coming years, new connection technologies will force governments in this phony middle ground to make a choice.  With powerful tools for organizing, advocacy and communication in the hands of every individual, you can’t fake democracy.  Elections are easier to monitor, movements are easier to organize, and the truth has a lot more routes to the people.

Some countries will follow Iran’s path: give up their claim to democratic legitimacy and tightly control freedoms of speech and assembly on ICT networks. For other governments, that may not be worth it, or may not be possible, and we may see some developing countries, faced with a fork in the road, taking the path toward openness. As these technologies make phony democracy impossible, countries will have to choose their course, and if anything, we can surely expect the chasm that divides open and closed societies in the 21st century to grow still deeper and wider.

In Kashmir Uprising, Government Bans SMS

30 June 2010

Kashmir, the restive and contested region divided between India and Pakistan, has in recent weeks seen a surge in violence after a long period of relative calm.  Kashmir has been the flashpoint of three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947, and Indian-controlled Kashmir saw brutal, persistent violence from 1989 up until the early part of this decade, as the Indian government tried to crush an independence movement, with Pakistan-based terror groups throwing fuel on the fire. The past few years, however, have been characterized by relative calm, with violence abating, tourism returning, and tensions relaxing.

KashmirIn the past few weeks, a great deal of that progress has evaporated.  On June 11, a 17-year old Kashmiri student was killed by an exploding tear gas shell during an independence demonstration in Srinagar.  Since then, at least 11 more Kashmiri civilians have been killed, as Indian forces have shot and beaten protesters after being pelted with stones.  In their latest move, the Indian Army has instituted a lockdown on the cities where protests have occurred, and, as of yesterday, the Indian government has banned text messaging.

Back in November, I wrote about the Indian government’s ban of pre-paid cell phones in Kashmir– a part of their effort to diminish the photos, videos, and other first-hand accounts of the disproportionate, often unprovoked violence of the Indian army. This new ban of SMS messaging is not cloaked in any excuse about fighting terror– it’s simply part of an effort to prevent protesters from organizing themselves while under citywide lockdown.

India certainly has legitimate security concerns in Kashmir; Pakistani terrorist groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba have exploited the situation to stage attacks on Indian forces. But banning text messages is just the latest iteration of the Indian government violating the rights of all people in these cities to quell violence that began with their own army’s misconduct.  Increasingly, tools like SMS and pre-paid cell phones are vital tools for information access and communication, and denying access to these tools has to be seen as a violation of the right of equal access to information. 

What’s more, this episode is evidence that mobile phones– which put extraordinary power in the hands of individuals– tend to empower groups of individuals, rather than centralized authority.  Yes, the government has the power to switch off the network, but that’s an extreme move.  Maybe the most accurate way to say it is that the advent of the mobile phone makes it harder to be “just a little autocratic.” If you’re going to crack down, you’ve got to crack down all the way, or the power of the network will remain.

To some degree, that’s what’s happened in Iran since last year’s fraudulent election.  A government that used to be “somewhat authoritarian,” was faced with an increasingly well-organized opposition, and forced to either let the opposition movement continue to gain steam, or crack down hard.  The government opted for the latter, and in so doing, lost an awful lot of legitimacy in their own country and around the world.

Ultimately, I do think this growing global network will be a force for freedom rather than oppression.  In the shorter term, I think it is likely to widen the chasm between democracies and dictatorships, as it will force the countries in between to choose one path or another.

Pakistan Quashing Net Freedoms, Citizens Speaking Out

20 May 2010

Yesterday, on orders from a Pakistani court, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority (PTA) blocked access to Facebook. The move was in response to a page on the site called “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day,” exhorting Facebook users to draw depictions of Mohammed, in the purported hope of spurring debate about Muslims’ objection to images of the founder of their faith. Today, the PTA expanded their ban to include Flickr, Wikipedia, and YouTube, citing a rise in “objectionable content.”

Twitter, however, has remained online, and many of Pakistan’s tech-savvy have been venting frustration there. Shoaib Taimur (@shobz) captured the basic sentiment of the Twitterati in one remark:

note to everyone: I oppose the ban on websites. I dont endorse Blasphemy but curtailing our freedom of speech is too much #fb

The Facebook group is broadly considered to be a tasteless and tactless effort, but the ham-handed response by the Pakistani courts and the PTA is worse. Huma Imtiaz (@HumaImtiaz), a Pakistani journalist, sees the work of Islamic hard-liners in the action of the government. In a blog post, she argues that the PTA has previously shown great ability to block individual pages showing content that would be damning to the Pakistani government, but is now responding with blanket censorship to appease a radical minority.

Sabeen Mahmud (@sabeen) and Dr. Awab Alvi (@DrAwab) organized a press conference this afternoon to speak out against censorship.  As Mahmud tweeted later:

I have been insisting that the outrage needs to be about Internet censorship not FB. @kidvai

The press conference quickly devolved into an accusatory shouting match, with the media taking the side of the government.  As Dr. Alvi tweeted afterward:

Safely home Sad experience, our point we condemn cartoon caricature but Not a blanket ban on websites, became issue of muslim non-muslim

And Mahmud followed, sarcastically:

>> Well done mainstream media. You outdid yourself today. To think we marched on the streets for your freedom.

Oh wait, I remember now! You thought I shouldn’t have expressed outrage and should have watered down my stance >>

It’s heartening to see individuals standing up against censorship for their freedom of speech and freedom to information. What’s happening in Pakistan right now is a prime example of the danger the internet faces of losing its open, global nature, and becoming a series of national networks, subject to censorship, borders, and the whims of policymakers. Some of Pakistan’s Twitterati predict the bans will be lifted in the coming days, and I hope they’re right.

It’s nearly midnight in Karachi now, but I expect these individuals and this situation will be active and exciting to follow tomorrow.  On Twitter, I’d recommend following @sabeen, @DrAwab, @HaroonRiaz, and @HumaImtiaz for good, regular (English-language) updates.