Tag Archives: Berkman

Berkman Conference: Internet and Democracy

This week I am in Budapest for the Berkman Center’s conference on “Building a Framework for the Study of Internet and Democracy” (and the Global Voices 2008 Summit later in the week). I have been invited to moderate the panel on “Democratization and Authoritarian Regimes,” which closely overlaps with the topic of my dissertation.

The conference will include the following 5 panels:

  • Networked Public Sphere and Media. This panel will ask whether networked communication will lead to more democratic, deliberative and inclusive public spheres. The panel will include presentations by Lance Bennett, Bruce Etling and Michael Xenos.
  • Methodology. As the title suggests, this panel will address challenges in methodology and research design vis-a-vis the study of the Internet’s impact on democracy. Michael Best, Corinna di Gennaro and Victoria Stodden will figure as panelists.
  • Political Parties and Elections. Does the Internet make a difference to election campaigning by increasing citizen participation and turnout? The panelists for this discussion will be Urs Gasser, Rachel Gibson and Stephen Ward.
  • E-Mobilization and Participation. This panel addresses the topic of digital activism. Networked technologies are said to unite, motivate and enable citizens to take their political future into their own hands. What impirical evidence exists? The discussion will include presentations by Marshall Ganz, Helen Margetts and Beth Kolko.
  • Democratization and Authoritarian Regimes. Is the information revolution empowering repressive regimes at the expense of social movements? The panel will weigh the arguments presented by cyber-optimists and skeptics. Joshua Kauffman, Gwendolyn Floyd and John Kelly will figure as panelists.

Clearly the panel topics interweave which should make for a rich dialogue over the two-day period. I plan to blog live from each panel (apart perhaps from the one I’m moderating).

Patrick Philippe Meier

Berkman@10 Roundup of Day 1

This blog entry summarizes the first day of Harvard’s Berkman@10 conference in Boston. The blog includes talks given by Jonathan Zittrain, John Palfrey, Jimmy Wales and Yochai Benkler.

Jonathan Zittrain kicked off Berkman’s birthday party with an animated presentation of his book, The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It. I began reading JZ’s book last week in the hopes of having finished it by today but alas it was not to be. So I will write a review on The Future of Internet in a future blog entry. In any event, JZ’s concern seems to be a re-centralization, or control, of the Internet and associated technologies like the iPhone. He is particularly peeved by Steve Jobs’ comments when he launched the iPhone:

We define everything that is on the phone … You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go make a call and it doesn’t work anymore. These are more like iPods than they are like computers.

Zittrain worries that companies like Apple and Facebook will increasingly constrain the generative nature of the Internet and thereby undermine the creativity, freedom and innovation that have driven the information revolution to this day. He likens this to dark matter or energy which keeps the universe expanding at an accelerating rate. JZ is genuinely concerned that the IT ecosystem’s dark energy will cease expand the Internet as we know it today; a reversal of the “bit bang” to the “bit crunch“.

As mentioned, I have yet to finish Zittrain’s book but my preliminary thoughts are one of skepticism. My reaction is based on my recent dissertation research. I suspect that we are unlikely to see the kind of tipping point described by JZ, which I refer to as the “bit crunch” theory of the Internet. Zittrain draws on the example of hitchhiking, once a widespread mode of transportation but much less so today given fears over personal safety. At the same time, Zittrain does highlight the fact that websites dedicated to hitchhiking do exist. In my opinion, this points to a game of cyber cat-and-mouse, a dynamic whereby adaptation and evolution are likely to be the Internet’s constants, i.e., factors unlikely to change in the dark energy equation of the Internet regardless of who the players are.

Other tidbits: JZ made interesting references to the IETF, Nanog, StopBadWare.org and the origins of ITU (to deal with encryption in telegrams).

John Palfrey led a discussion on the impact of the Internet on Democracy, a topic closely related to my dissertation research. In John’s words, “The internet allows more speech from more people than ever… but states are finding more and more ways to restrict online speech and to practice surveillance.” My dissertation question is whether repressive regimes will manage to impose an information blockade on sensitive communications or whether resistance groups will ultimately prevail, and why?

John made references to Global Voices and asked Ethan Zuckerman to comment on the projects impact and continuing challenges. Ethan opined that the biggest challenge was not necessarily government censorship but rather that citizen journalism had yet to influence mainstream media in a concerted and significant way. Later on in John’s moderation of the discussion, the subject of Cuba and in particular the use of flash drives came up. Interestingly, flash drives are the ICT of choice for activists in Cuba who seek to communicate and share information with one another. As one blogger in Havana exclaimed:

Cubans have a new saint. It is a small and is called USB-flash, memory stick….Praise be this new protector and distributor of information that has come into our lives!

Several interesting points were articulated during the question and answers session:

  • There are now more Internet users in China than in the US, and the vast majority of these users actually welcome censorship.
  • The Internet is ultimately about people, not routers. If we want to change the future of the Internet, we need to change people, who will find ways to exert power in new network fashion as they learn about the world of network organizing (Ethan Zuckerman).
  • The impact of the Internet on democracy (small “d” as opposed to big “D”) is an area of study that is as important as the impact on Democracy (Beth Kolko).
  • The Kyrgyz revolution was particularly interesting vis-a-vis the use of information communication technology beyond the Internet. Indeed, mobile phone usage is particularly high, and civil society made use of this technology to protect shops and stores from being looted by marauders. In other words, ICTs were used for protection by civil society where and when the state was unable to do so (Beth Kolko).
  • The impact of computer games should not be overlooked since young people who wish to play inevitably become accosted to technology and find ways to deal with the last mile problem in order to play. This also enables them to access new sources of technology that they were not privy to heretofore (Beth Kolko).

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia and Yochai Benkler also spoke at Bekrman@10. Both made very interest points and intriguing references. For example, Jimmy explained why consensus was more important than democratic voting. For example, if 30% of individuals who vote on an issue are then overruled by the majority vote, the tyranny of the majority is unlikely to appease potential spoilers (much like challenges in managing peace processes). So instead, Jimmy emphasizes the importances of process, i.e., continued deliberation and rewriting of Wikipedia entries until consensus is reached, by which time some engaged in the ongoing arguments will have demonstrated behavioral problems and therefore have been discredited. This reminded me of the value of Wikis emphasized by the creaters of Intellipedia, which I blogged about here.

Benkler’s comments were very much in line with his book The Wealth of Networks, so I shan’t repeat them here. Benkler did make a number of interesting references, however. For example, Porkbusters and Kaltura. The question is whether features can be designed to improve or incite more sustained cooperation. While I’m skeptical about the feasibility of such goals, I thought Jimmy made an excellent point, “make it cheaper to do something good and more expensive to do something bad.” In essence, Jimmy’s Wikipedia experiment demonstrates that people tend to cooperate far more often than traditional theories in sociology and political science would allow.

This is the stuff that Jonathan Zittrain’s dark matter is ultimately made of, which explains why I am skeptical about his tipping point thesis regarding the Internet. The human desire to communicate and be heard is innate and unlikely to lay dormant for long should JZ’s future temporarily come to pass.

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: Misplaced Optimism?

In all the panels I have thus far attended at the Politics 2.0 conference in London, the majority of presenters have expressed their optimism regarding the democratizing and liberalizing impact of the information revolution. I’m still uncomfortable with this position. Panelists at this conference are scholars, not state officials from repressive regimes. This necessarily means there is only of side of the debate being represented at the conference.

I have noted my concern regarding this unchallenged optimism at several Q & A sessions, referring to the increasing ability of governments to monitor and censor information on the Web. To this end, I have repeatedly cited the Berkman Center‘s excellent empirical study on internet filtering: “Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering.” For some reason, many scholars at the conference assume that civil society and social networks are the only beneficiaries of the information revolution.

This is simply not the case. Governments also benefit from the dramatic decline in communication and associated technologies that the information revolution has spurred. The costs of monitoring and the technical difficulty of censorship are declining, not increasing. Again, I would refer any optimists to read the Berkman’s study.

In conclusion, I am concerned about the widespread interchangeable use of the terms Web 2.0 and Social Web. Using the latter, which seems to be the more popular term among panelists at this conference, implies a Web free of government influence; the Social Web is too easily perceived as the “People’s Web”, which is particularly misleading. Web 2.0 is also referred to the “Read/Write Web”; this is an improvement vis-a-vis terminology since it doesn’t imply social ownership over government ownership. At the same time, however, I would modify the term as follows: Read/Write/Edit/Delete/Censor Web.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Mapping the Persian Blogosphere (Updated)

Harvard’s Berkman Center has just released a fascinating study on the politics and culture of the Persian Blogosphere.

Berkman’s social network analysis reveals four major network clusters (with identifiable sub-clusters) in the Iranian blogosphere. The authors have labeled the four clusters as 1) Secular / Reformist, 2) Conservative / Religious, 3) Persian Poetry and Literature, and 4) Mixed Networks.

Surprisingly, a minority of bloggers in the secular/reformist pole appear to blog anonymously, even in the more politically-oriented part of it; instead, it is more common for bloggers in the religious/conservative pole to blog anonymously.

Blocking of blogs by the government is less pervasive than we had assumed. Most of the blogosphere network is visible inside Iran, although the most frequently blocked blogs are clearly those in the secular/reformist pole. Given the repressive media environment in Iran today, blogs may represent the most open public communications platform for political discourse. The peer-to-peer architecture of the blogosphere is more resistant to capture or control by the state than the older, hub and spoke architecture of the mass media model.

So are we likely to witness iRevolutions in Iran?

In authoritarian regimes, networked communications can allow participants to get around state control. As an example, Radio B92 in Serbia simply broadcast through the Internet after the government attempted to shut it down. In Iran, satellite TV, Internet based radio stations, cell phones, and other Internet based tools are difficult if not impossible for the regime to control. Costs are generally high for regimes that limit access and connectivity. The Internet will not lead automatically to liberal, open public spheres in authoritarian regimes, but it will make it harder to control and more costly for authoritarian states to do so. […]

Early conventional wisdom held that bloggers were all young democrats critical of the regime, but we found conversations including politics, human rights, poetry, religion, and pop culture. Given the repressive media environment and high profile arrests and harassment of bloggers, one might not expect to find much political contestation taking place in the Iranian blogosphere. And yet oppositional discourse is robust. […]

In conclusion, the authors essentially pose the same question that I am exploring for my dissertation:

The question at hand is not whether the Iranian blogosphere provides a Samizdat to the regime’s Politburo, but whether the new infrastructure of the social nervous system, which is changing politics in the US and around the world, will also change politics in Iran, and perhaps move its hybrid authoritarian/democratic system in a direction that is more liberal in the sense of modes of public discourse, if not necessarily in a direction that is more liberal in the sense of political ideology.

Berkman’s next step should be to move from static network analysis to dynamic analysis. The topology of the network itself over time should reveal other interesting insights. I would recommend they look up Mark Newman at the Santa Fe Institute. Another software program for networks analysis that I would suggest they use is one used to model foodweb dynamics in 3D. This clip demonstrates the program’s features.

Update: I just met with Josh Goldstein, a researcher at the Berkman Center who contributed to this study. Josh was interested in getting more of my thoughts on possible next steps regarding future research using social network analysis (SNA). I suggested they track network parameters (such as degree centrality) over time and find explanations for changes over time. In other words, plot the number of edges that each node (blogger) is connected to over time. For example, how does degree centrality change within the different clusters identified by Berkman after a terrorist events, i.e, events exogenous to the network? Recent research suggests that blogs display a power law relationship between frequency and magnitude, i.e., there are many nodes with few edges, and few nodes with many edges. Does the Persian blogosphere follow this distribution? Why or why not? Does the slope of the power law distribution become flatter or steeper following crises events? Again, why or why not? What social science explanations account for changes in network topologies over time?

Patrick Philippe Meier