Monthly Archives: April 2008

Netting War Criminals using Web 2.0?

The Aegis Trust in London has turned to Facebook and Google Maps/Earth to track the movements of Sudanese Government Minister Ahmad Harun and Janjaweed leader Ali Kushayb. The two are charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with organizing the destruction of Darfur’s town during which more than 100 civilians were murdered, and women and girls raped. Some 34,000 people were forced to flee in the mayhem which also saw the destruction of food stores and the mosque.

Could this be the beginnings of Michele Foucault’s Panopticon albeit reversed? The panopticon is a prison structure originally designed by Jeremy Bentham in which well-lit prison cells surround a central watchtower. Guards can monitor any prisoner’s activities without the latter knowing they are being watched. Foucault uses Bentham’s panopticon as a metaphor for power dynamics in society more generally. However, the information revolution potentially challenges this metaphor, allowing the multitude to observe elites.

While the predominant feature of the information society in the West is the spread of the Internet this is not the case for the majority of developing countries with repressive regimes. Indeed, mobile phones are the most widely spread ICT in developing countries and also the technology of choice for activist networks in these regions. To this end, I hope the Aegis Trust will include SMS text messaging as a way to report sightings of individuals charged with crimes against humanity.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Back to the Future: ICT in CCCP

As Winston Churchill once said, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” Understanding the unraveling of the Soviet Union from perspective of information communication technologies is particularly instructive in this regard. I noted in a previous blog that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics communication network was so centralized that phone calls between two neighboring towns several hundred kilometers away from the capital would nevertheless be routed through a single switchboard in Moscow. How was the Kremlin’s iron grip on the information blockade eventually loosened?

Former US Secretary of State George Shultz recalls a conversation he had with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow back in 1985, more than 20 years ago:

I then talked about the information age: “Society is beginning to reorganize itself in profound ways. Closed and compartmented societies cannot take advantage of the information age. People must be free to express themselves, move around, emigrate and travel if they want to, challenge accepted ways without fear. Otherwise they can’t take advantage of the opportunities available. The Soviet economy will have to be radically changed to adapt to the new era.”

Far from being offended, Gorbachev suggested, “You should take over the planning office here in Moscow, become the new head of Gosplan [the Soviet ministry charged with economic planning], because you have more ideas than they have.”

Three years later, Gorbachev would address the UN’s General Assembly thus:

The newest techniques of communications, mass information and transport have made the world more visible and more tangible to everyone. International communication is easier now than ever before. Nowadays, it is virtually impossible for any society to be “closed.”

The literature towards the end of the 1980s was already taking note that modern horizontal ICTs emerging within the Soviet Union were eroding the “top-down vertical” systems of the Kremlin. As part of Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign, the USSR’s first privately owned and operated telecommunication network, Relcom, or Reliable Communication, came online in 1989.

According to the company’s president, the purpose of Relcom was,

specifically to support commercial activity otherwise stultified by the intentionally constrained Soviet telecommunication structure. […] Although economic conditions necessitated its invention, Relcom proved to be a powerful social weapon against centralized power. During the attempted coup in 1991, for example, Relcom played an important role gathering and disseminating information.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Web 2.0 in Arab World

Mohammed Ibahrine from Al Akhawayn University presented a paper on “Social Media and Political Activism in the Arab World” at the Politics 2.0 conference. Mohammed drew on the following 4-point conceptual framework to assess the role of social media in political activism: information management; conversation management; identity management and network management. The presenter stressed that conversation is more important than information.

In his presentation, Mohammed referred to the comment by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales: “Broadcast media brought us broadcast politics. Participatory media will bring us participatory politics.” He drew on the Arab world’s version of YouTube called Ikbis to support his argument. Mohammed also noted that the Egyptian government, unlike others, is less bent on using physical force and detentions as a means to deter the use of the Internet for the purposes of advocacy but rather works hard on discrediting the Social Media, by referring to it spying journalism.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: The Politics of Blogging

This is the final round of panels organized by the Politics 2.0 conference in London. The title of one presentation in particular caught my interest: “Web 2.0 and Political Conflict: Can News Blogs Strengthen Democracy through Conflict Prevention?” by Maria Touri at the University of Leicester.

Blogs provide an alternative source of news and some scholars argue that they democratize the news media system by enabling individuals to establish an online presence and to involve themselves in networked expression of opinion knowledge. To citizens, some  can effectively emerge from the spectating audience as a player and a maker of meaning. Can citizen journalists contribute to conflict prevention?

Touri draws on three components of framing to explore her research question: news framing, procedural framing and substantive framing. News framing addresses the selection/exclusion and salience of information. News stories become a platform for framing contests where political actors compete by sponsoring their preferred meanings. Blogs can therefore be a source of power. This is mediated by the cultural congruence of the frames and media-government power relations. Procedural framing is the process and politics of decision-making. In other others, procedural framing determines which aspect of specific event is being emphasized. Substantive framing is the vehicle by which decisions are justified.

Touri argues that these framing processes can combine to raise the domestic costs of conflict and war. Will perpetual blogs lead to Kant’s notion of perpetual peace? I think this remains to be seen.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Citizen Journalism

Veronica Alfaro from the New School for Social Research gave an excellent presentation based on her paper entitled “Comparing Social Movements in the Virtual Public Sphere, From Silence and Disruption to Cyberactivism 2.0: Cyberzapatistas, Electrohippies and Global Voices.” Veronica opened her presentation at the Politics 2.0 conference with a reminder that most politics is not institutional; most politics is not state politics. What is particularly refreshing about her work is that she addresses the issue of cyberactivism from the perspective of sociology. To this end, Veronica does not refer to cyberspace as a tool but rather a space.

Veronica’s first case study analyzes the early stage of strategic silences, and the actions of the Electronic Disturbance Theater, the group that developed the virtual sit-in as an action of electronic civil disobedience in 1998. I found the example of FloodNet particularly interesting. The second case study assess the struggles for acting in concert through the orchestration of the protests in 1999 against the WTO in Seattle. The third case study focuses on the Global Voices project, which not only draws on blogging, but also in practices of e-advocacy that are exemplified by cyberactivism related to the conflict in Burma from August 2007 to date.

Taina Bucher from the University of Oslo presented the final paper on the same panel. Her presentation addressed “The Rhetorics of Participatory Culture: Investigating a Case of Citizen Journalism.” This was also a very interesting paper that drew on Assignment Zero as a case study. Taina seeks to understand what motivates individuals to blog and participate in the Social Web. She draws on “Kairos“, the ancient Greek word meaning the “ripe and opportune moment.” Her research findings suggest that we participate in the Social Web because it is a new, alternative and revolutionary medium for communication.

During the Q & A session, a member of the audience asked Taina whether the novelty of the Social Web would eventually wear off. I think this misses the point. The Social Web taps into the human desire to express oneself, this desire does not have a shelf-life in contrast to technologies.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Bringing the Tech Back In

During one of today’s panel Q & A sessions at the Politics 2.0 conference, I suggested that coercive states were becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to monitor, control and censor information. I added that the technology for Internet filtering, to cite one example, was becoming more effective and widely used as confirmed by the Berkman Center‘s recent empirical study on internet filtering. The response from the panel: technology is not as important as the underlying motivation behind the uses of technology.

I understand the point, but am nevertheless concerned that technology is being swept under the Web 2.0 rug so easily, just like the role of the coercive state has not made a strong appearance at the conference as per my previous blog. Again, participants at this conference are necessarily a self-selected group. Few of us, however, have a background in software engineering and computer science. This may be why we all too easily dismiss the significance of technology in our presentations.

The Berkman book entitled “Access Denied” includes a chapter on “Tools and Technology of Internet Filtering” by Steven Murdoch and Ross Anderson. In this chapter, the authors identify the following techniques:

  • TCP/IP Header Filtering
  • TCP/IP Content Filtering
  • DNS Tampering
  • HTTP Proxy Filtering
  • Hybrid TCP/IP and HTTP Proxy
  • Denial of Service (DNS)
  • Domain Deregistration
  • Server Takedown
  • Surveillance

This should give us pause before we minimize the impact of technology on state-society relations. What is also lacking from the panel presentations is the perspective of the private sector and the profit-motivated interests in the technologies that implement techniques listed above. Cisco and other companies are catering to increasing demand for data security. As long as there is a market, the tools will be enhanced accordingly.

Of course, there is also a market for technology and software to counter monitoring and censorship. However, this only goes to show that technology in and of itself does matter. This in no way implies technological determinism, it simply suggests that scholars of Politics 2.0 should become more familiar with existing techniques and technologies if they are going to make sweeping statements about technology.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Bringing the State Back In

Finally a panel at the Politics 2.0 conference that brings the state back in: “Surveillance, Censorship and Democracy.” The panel included three papers, two on Singapore and one on Russia. This was for me the best panel of the conference thus far as it was more balanced. The presenters were also very well informed about the ability of the state to control the social web. In addition, the arguments presented by the respective panelists were intellectually satisfying as they were not limited to simply scratching the surface of Web 2.0.

Sarah Oates from the University of Glasgow presented her paper on the Internet and Democracy in Russia. Sarah is an expert scholar on Russia and speaks the language fluently. Her wealth of knowledge about the country was readily apparent in the quality of her presentation. Sarah was very clear that the Russian state is using the blogosphere as another method of media influence, control and co option. In fact, in the run up to the most recent elections, a widespread number of pro-government messages appeared on numerous blogs. She concluded her presentation with the following comment:

The Internet is not changing Russian politics; rather, Russian politicians are subverting the Web for their own interests, which parallels the state’s influence on traditional media in Russia. The Web is not colonizing Russian politics but rather the other way around.

The two presentations on Singapore were also superb, critical and well-informed. Cherian George of Nanyang Technological University made compelling arguments to demonstrate that governments like Singapore were more effective in their control of information by using calibrated coercion. By that, Cherian means employing a strategic self-restrained use of force, which is a crucial factor in consolidating authoritarian rule. He noted that the means of state coercion vis-a-vis the control of information has become less visible over time.

While physical force and state control of the media have been the traditional means by which repressive regimes have sought to maintain a grip on the information revolution, today’s tactics are predominantly focuses on technological fixes such as filtering and also on economic incentives. Cherian gave a fascinating example of the latter tactic as used in Singapore. The government has demonstrated that a state does not necessarily need to own, or directly control, the media. Instead, the government of Singapore simply ensured that media companies were publicly listed and had a large number of shareholders. This in effect forces company directors or CEOs to focus on profits as opposed to editorial content. “A newspaper that focuses on profit is by definition a conservative newspaper,” Cherian argued. His paper is available here.

The third presentation was on the blogosphere in Singapore. As I have already blogged on the application of social network analysis by internet and democracy scholars here and here, I’ll leave it at that.

Patrick Philippe Meier