Joho the Blog » censorship

June 28, 2011

How much do you trust the Internet?

I love the Internet. I trust what I learn from it, or, more exactly, I generally trust my ability not to be fooled by it. But, like all of us (?), I have a limit.

For example, Google has a new service called What Do You Love? It’s mainly a marketing tool: Tell it something you love, and it will aggregate that term across many of the services Google offers: Send an email, find it on a Google Map, find Google Groups that mention it, etc.

So, I entered “Ted Kaczynski” (the Unabomber), and WDYL cheerfully created the online equivalent of one of those creepy walls of souvenirs that clinch a suspect as the crazypants stalker/killer in cheesy crime movies. I enjoyed it, anyway, even as I made a joke to myself about now probably being on a Homeland Security watch list.

But I realized that there were limits to what I would enter into the site for fear of government consequences: “I love terrorism.” “I love child porn.” I’m actually even nervous putting those sentences into this post as examples. (Granted, either would make for WDYL responses that are more disturbing than amusing.)

So, a part of me apparently believes that the government is watching. And that the government has no sense of humor.

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February 28, 2011

Am I blocked or Not: Wisconsin version

From the Berkman Center:

The Herdict team is looking for help testing the hypothesis that the Wisconsin Capitol building guest wireless blocks Websense’s “advocacy” category. (Background here, and see the various links in those posts).

If you have friends/family/contacts/colleagues who might be in a position to help Herdict with this testing, please share the links above or point them to Herdict’s “am I blocked or not?” testing queue for the US — Many thanks!

1 Comment »

February 16, 2011

In praise of what Secretary Clinton did not say about Wikileaks

Especially when a prepared talk is being given in the midst of a difficult controversy, most of what matters is in what is not said. For that reason, I think Secretary Clinton’s speech on Net Freedom yesterday was actually quite encouraging about the State Department’s attitude toward Wikileaks. In this I seem to differ with many of my friends and colleagues. (See, for example, this thread from the Berkman mailing list. See also Mathew Ingram. Ethan Zuckerman posts his overall reaction, plus a brilliant draft speech he’d suggested Clinton deliver. Yochai Benkler has posted a draft of a paper [pdf] that — with Yochai’s accustomed astounding command of facts, law, argument, and moral insight — assails the claimed grounds for prosecuting Wikileaks) [Disclosure: I am a Franklin Fellow at the State Dept., attached to the group that works on the internal use of social media. This is a non-paying fellowship, and I feel no obligation to make nice, although I'm human.]

Secretary Clinton spent a substantial portion of her talk discussing Wikileaks.

The Internet’s strong culture of transparency derives from its power to make information of all kinds available instantly. But in addition to being a public space, the Internet is also a channel for private conversations. For that to continue, there must be protection for confidential communication online.

Think of all the ways in which people and organizations rely on confidential communication to do their jobs. Businesses hold confidential conversations when they’re developing new products, to stay ahead of their competitors. Journalists keep the details of some sources confidential, to protect them from retribution.

And governments also rely on confidential communication—online as well as offline. The existence of connection technologies may make it harder to maintain confidentiality, but it does not change the need for it.

Government confidentiality has been a topic of debate during the past few months because of Wikileaks. It’s been a false debate in many ways. Fundamentally, the Wikileaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase.

Some have suggested that this act was justified, because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of their work out in the open, in the full view of their citizens.

I disagree. The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our most sensitive operations.

Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise. Consider our work with former Soviet states to secure loose nuclear material. By keeping the details confidential, we make it less likely that terrorists will find the nuclear material and steal it.

Or consider the content of the documents that Wikileaks made public. Without commenting on the authenticity of any particular documents, we can observe that many of the cables released by Wikileaks relate to human rights work carried out around the world. Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments. It’s dangerous work. By publishing the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks exposed people to even greater risk.

For operations like these, confidentiality is essential, especially in the Internet age, when dangerous information can be sent around the world with the click of a keystroke.

Of course, governments also have a duty to be transparent. We govern with the consent of the people, and that consent must be informed to be meaningful. So we must be judicious about when we close off our work to the public and review our standards frequently to make sure they are rigorous. In the United States, we have laws to ensure that the government makes its work open to the people. The Obama Administration has also launched unprecedented initiatives to put government data online, encourage citizen participation, and generally increase the openness of government.

The U.S. government’s ability to protect America — to secure the liberties of our people — and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what’s public and what should remain out of the public domain. The scale will always be tipped in favor of openness. But tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests—and the public’s least of all.

Let me be clear. I said that we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that Wikileaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it. Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom.

One final word on this matter. There were reports in the days following the leak that the U.S. government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to Wikileaks. This is not the case. Some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to dissociate from Wikileaks, while others criticized them for doing so. Public officials are part of our country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct. But any business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own policies regarding Wikileaks was not at the direction or the suggestion of the Obama Administration.

Now, one way to read this is to imagine what you wish Clinton had said, or what you would have said if given the opportunity. That certainly has its uses. But it’s essentially a daydream, for it acts as if high-visibility political speeches occur outside of political consequences and negotiations. (Ethan’s imagining, noted above, was within a pragmatic context, attempting to provide a vision for the talk.) If instead we take this speech as the result of a political struggle, then we have to hear not just the daydream, but the nightmare: Forces within the government must have been urging Clinton to take a hard line against Wikileaks and to use Wikileaks as a justification for constraining the Internet. When you consider all that Clinton does not say about Wikileaks, this speech is actually, in my view, quite encouraging. Indeed, in saying that “It’s been a false debate in many ways,” she does not narrow the criticism to the media’s participation; we are left to assume that she is also scolding elements of the government.

You say “Pshaw!” to the idea that this is a pretty enlightened speech? I understand that reaction, since this address is coming from a government that has reacted overall quite poorly to the Wikileaks leaks. (See especially Yochai Benkler’s comments in the Berkman thread and his comprehensive article.)( But that’s exactly why we ought to view the speech as a sign of hope that at least some elements of the government are catching on to what the Net is about, what it’s for, and what it can and cannot do. (“What the Net can and cannot do” is, from my point of view, pretty much the theme of the entire speech, which by itself is encouraging.)

Here’s an example of what I mean by reading the speech in light of what it does not say. Secretary Clinton does say that the Wikileaks incident “began with an act of theft.” But, she is careful not to say that Wikileaks was the thief. Instead, she refers to Wikileaks as making the documents public, as releasing them, and as publishing them. You can imagine the pressure on her to characterize Wikileaks as the source of the documents — as the thief — rather than as the recipient and publisher of them. (She does slip in an ambiguous phrase: “we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase.”)

Overall, I read the Wikileaks section of the speech as a refusal to blame the Internet, and as a refusal to issue threats against Wikileaks (and against the next Wikileaks-like site). True, Secretary Clinton “condemns” the leaks, but given the range of options for a Secretary of State, what else would you expect? That she would condone the indiscriminate leaking of confidential information? It’s confidential. Of course she’s going to condemn leaks, and in no uncertain terms.

The question is what follows from that condemnation. What followed were not threats against Wikileaks, not a clamping down on State Department security to ensure that “this never happens again,”not a retreat from Clinton’s emphasis on building a “need to share culture” within State, and not support for new policies that would put “reasonable” controls on the Internet to “ensure” that such “illegal acts” never recur, for “a free Internet does not mean a lawless Internet.” (All items in quotes are phrases I’ve made up but that I can imagine some in the government insisting be inserted.) The only statement about policies to address such leaks says that the Obama Administration did not “coerce” private companies to act to shut down (or shut off) Wikileaks; the clear implication is that the government should not engage in such coercion.

Now, we can imagine our own preferred words coming out of Secretary Clinton’s mouth, and we certainly can and should compare her statements with the actual behavior of State and the government overall. There was room for her to have gone further; I would have liked it better if she had, as per Yochai’s suggestion, acknowledged that State initially over-reacted in some chilling ways. But, in the context of the political debate, I think Secretary Clinton’s remarks on Wikileaks are encouraging, and her explicit rejection of limiting Internet freedom because sometimes leaks happen is hopeful.

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December 20, 2010

Effect of DDoS on human rights

Ethan Zuckerman has an excellent post about the new Berkman report on the use of Distributed Denial of Service attacks to silence human rights groups

Here’s an abbreviation of Ethan’s summary of the “take-aways”:

  • DDoS is a pretty common form of attack against human rights and independent media sites, and the volume of attacks does not appear to be slowing.

  • DDoS doesn’t usually affect independent media and human rights organizations in isolation.

  • Attacks don’t need massive amounts of bandwidth to adversely affect sites.

  • For many organizations, DDoS can be a crippling attack, making sites inaccessible for long periods of time..

  • We see no silver bullets for the independent media and human rights community.

1 Comment »

December 8, 2010

Standing with the Net

Life is complex, but sometimes it comes down to taking sides.

I don’t mean about Wikileaks. As Micah Sifry [twitter: mlsif] has tweeted, “I don’t know if I’m pro-Wikileaks, but I know I’m anti-anti-Wikileaks.”

Me, too. Especially when the full power of government and commerce is unleashed against it. Wikileaks embodies transitional ambiguity in several intersecting, crucial social processes normally handled unambiguously by traditional institutions. So, ambivalence is a proper response, and, arguably the only proper response. (For contrast, see the right-wing American Enterprise Institute’s reaction, by Mark Thiessen.)

I know I’m anti-anti-Wikileaks not because I know I like Wikileaks (although I do lean that way). It’s not Wikileaks that has summoned the wrath of the incumbents. It’s the Internet. The incumbents have now woken up to the Net’s nature, and are deploying every weapon they can find against it, including siccing Interpol on Julian Assange for incidents of what were reportedly consensual sex. (You’ve probably already read Naomi Wolf’s scathing, hilarious response.) [Later that day: Wolf's casual assertions are likely wrong. The charges are more serious than what I said.] As Milton Mueller writes at the Internet Governance Project:

Whatever one’s opinion about the wisdom, responsibility and ethical justification of the revelations, it has shown that there is a new countervailing force in the world that the militarists and diplomats don’t know how to control yet. This is, on the whole, a good thing. It is true that the disclosure power Wikileaks invoked can be abused. It can do real damage. But in relative terms, it is far more benign that the power it is being used against in this case and its legitimacy resides more in public opinion than anything else. The hysteria generated by foreign policy hawks polarizes the world around the internet and its capabilities and shows that, all too often, those who claim to be defenders of freedom are its worst enemies.

Denizens of the Net are choosing sides. To my dismay, Amazon and eBay’s PayPal have decided that they are on the Net but not of the Net. When it comes down to it, they have decided they don’t really care for the Internet all that much, except as a low-friction cash register. How we would have rejoiced if Amazon and eBay had stood up to those who want to stop the flow of information that they don’t like. Instead they folded.

Amazon’s capitulation is especially disappointing. It has so benefited from its enlightened ideas about trust and openness. Yet, because karma does occasionally get itself out of bed in the morning, they will pay: What business is going to trust its data to Amazon’s cloud, knowing that one phone call from Senator McScrooge is enough to get Amazon to inspect or destroy its data?

I have my leanings, but I am ambivalent about everything in the past fifteen year’s messy cultural, societal transition. But my ambivalence shows up in how to navigate on the unambivalent ground on which I stand. I stand with the Net.

19 Comments »

December 5, 2010

Truth is not enough

I haven’t posted anything about Wikileaks because it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of commentary. Also, I am deeply conflicted about it, for predictable reasons: I’m happy to see some nasty government programs exposed, but I also believe governments and the people who work for them need to have conversations that are frank, honest, private, and even regrettable.

I here just want to comment on a particular theory of truth that many are using to justify Wikileaks. This ideas says that “the truth” is a neutral and accurate depiction of how the world is. One is thus always justified in stating the truth.

That definition may be true, or it may be true as stipulated, but it’s not useful. In fact, it’s the opposite of useful because it misses truth’s value. Someone who babbles an endless series of true statements is insane. Kierkegaard talked about this as “objective madness.” He imagines a patient walking home from a stay in an insane asylum trying to convince people he’s sane by repeating over and over something true: “The world is round. The world is round.” The same ex-patient would be just as insane if he varied his list of true things as he strolls down the street: “The world is round. Books have weight. Wheels roll. My toenails are growing.”

Truth can be noise. Truth can be used to distract us. Truth can be wicked violence. It is not enough, therefore, to justify your blurtings by saying, “But it’s the truth!” Truth’s value comes from its role in the complex social fabric — network — within which we live. That network contains many other human values, purposes, and fallibilities. The truth matters because it helps us act in our world, together.

So, I don’t think Wikileaks’ actions can be justified simply by saying, “But the site is just saying the truth!” It’s far more complex than that. What effect will this exposure have? How might it have been a more effective exposure? What do we gain and what to we lose. With this round of Wikileaks, we both gain and lose, imo.

Here, by the way, I think Assange’s interests diverge from many of us who believe in the power of transparency. I find persuasive Zungzungu’s argument, based on a 2006 writings attributed to Assange [pdf], that Wikileaks is not about letting sunlight into the room so much as about throwing grit in the machine: It is aiming at rendering “authoritarian conspiracies” ineffective. I am glad that the site has exposed some of my government’s wickedness; I am unhappy that it is going to render it less effective in the good that it does. And I am unhapy with my government’s response to the leak.


Here are links to some Berkman posts about Wikileaks. And here’s a discussion initiated by Jay Rosen about Assange’s non-answer to a question like the one this post raises.

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October 18, 2010

Berkman report on circumvention tools

The Berkman Center has released a new report on the use of tools to circumvent restrictions on the Internet imposed by countries that control their citizens’ access to the Net. This is important especially given the State Department’s commitment funding of such tools (“We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship.”).

Here is a brief summary from the email announcing the report:

In this report, the authors use a variety of methods to evaluate the usage of the first three of these four types of tools to test two hypotheses. First, even though much of the media attention on circumvention tools has been given to a handful of tools, they find that these tools represent only a small portion of overall circumvention usage and that the attention paid to these tools has been disproportionate to their usage, especially when compared to the more widely used simple web proxies. Second, even when including the more widely-used simple web proxies, the authors find that overall usage of circumvention tools is still very small in proportion to the number of Internet users in countries with substantial national Internet filtering.

1 Comment »

June 25, 2010

Google vs. Apple control freakism

Rich Cannings, Android security lead, blogged about remotely removing an app from people’s Android phones [excerpted]:

Recently, we became aware of two free applications built by a security researcher for research purposes. These applications intentionally misrepresented their purpose in order to encourage user downloads, but they were not designed to be used maliciously, and did not have permission to access private data — or system resources beyond permission. As the applications were practically useless, most users uninstalled the applications shortly after downloading them.

After the researcher voluntarily removed these applications from Android Market, we decided, per the Android Market Terms of Service, to exercise our remote application removal feature on the remaining installed copies to complete the cleanup.

I’m not sure what terms of service the app maker violated, although I’d guess there’s something in there about not purposefully misrepresenting your app. But John Gruber at Daring Fireball concludes that this is:

…proof that while Android Market is significantly less regulated than Apple’s App Store, it’s not a Wild West free-for-all.

Well, sure. But there seems to me to be a difference in kind, and not just degree, between Google removing an app that’s purposefully misleading and Apple removing apps because it doesn’t meet some vague standard for inoffensive content.

Does this matter? Well, it sure does to Dan Gillmor, who’s switching from Mac to Linux because he doesn’t like Apple’s control over his computer. Dan has been a leading indicator before. I’m not willing to leave my Mac yet, mainly because Apple hasn’t AppStored it yet. (Also, I’m still finding Linux — Ubuntu 10.04 — to be high maintenance, at least for my desktop activities.) But the competition between Apple and Google, and the continued progress made by desktop Linux, makes me very happy.

See, the system works!

4 Comments »

April 12, 2010

Is the iPhone generative?

Steven Johnson makes one of his typically brilliantly insightful points in his recent NY Times op-ed: The iPhone is a locked-down device, but it has been the site of arguably the greatest burst of software generativity in the computing era, much of it by small developers. This has led Steve to re-evaluate his adherence to the “unifying creed” that “Open platforms promote innovation and diversity more effectively than proprietary ones.” When Dan Gillmor challenged this in a tweet, Steve responded with a terrific blog post, further considering the point.

The argument is over the issue framed by Jonathan Zittrain in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. JZ defines “generativity” as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.” (p. 70) Steve suggests that we instead judge generativity by the type of results we see, not by the nature of the software or hardware environment on which they run; a generative platform is “a platform that is constantly being re-invented in surprising new ways by a diverse group of creators, where individuals, hobbyists, small startups, and amateurs compete on a level playing field with large incumbents.” So, while JZ assumes that a system’s capacity to produce generative results depends on the system’s openness, the burgeoning of software for the iPhone shows that closed systems can produce wildly generative results.

I think a few things are going on here.

First, Steve is right about the fecundity of the iPhone as a platform, and about its openness to amateur and small developers. But, he’s right because the iPhone is not purely locked down. Apple could exert any control it wants, to any degree, any time it wants, but so far it’s been pretty open. So, the iPhone and the iPad are generative because in practice they generally meet JZ’s criteria. They are, in JZ’s taxonomy, hybrid animals.

But, the fact that there are over 150,000 apps for the iPhone is not the only measure of generativity. Apple has announced it will exclude unruly guests from its party (and Apple gets to define “unruly”), so the unruly don’t even bother to ask for admittance. The AppStore is a ruly environment. Now, there are obviously advantages to the user (as well as to Apple, but we’ll leave that aside for now) in having a device that cannot be disrupted. (“Disruptive” figures large in JZ’s book, but not in Steve’s definition.) For one thing, a ruly device is less likely to melt into a puddle of palm-sized uselessness. But, that’s to say that the iPhone’s limits on generativity are desirable. Steve’s argument is different. He’s saying that the iPhone is generative.

In any case, I think Steve is wrong in his causality. The iPhone has generated 150,000 apps because it’s a cool piece of hardware with a preternaturally appealing UI, useful software affordances built in, and an appealing SDK. Not to mention, it’s got a gazillion users. And the App Store is well-designed for marketing small programs. The iPhone is not wildly generative (in Steve’s sense) because it’s a walled garden; the iPhone could allow other marketplaces for apps to exist without losing its generativity (as Steve notes in an aside).

But, the most important issue is not whether the iPhone is generative. The question is whether Steve is right to renounce the “unifying creed” that generativity depends on open platforms. The argument should not be over whether a particular hybrid device is generative — although it’s helpful to have the case raised — but over the future of the Internet. That’s why JZ raises the issue of generativity in the first place.

JZ defines generativity as part of a polarity. Here’s what he says at the beginning of his book:

…the pieces are in place for a wholesale shift away from the original chaotic design that has given rise to the modern information revolution. This counterrevolution would push mainstream users away from a generative Internet that fosters innovation and disruption, to an appliancized network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today’s Internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacity—and, for better or worse, heightening its regulability. A seductive and more powerful generation of proprietary networks and information appliances is waiting for round two. If the problems associated with the Internet and PC are not addressed, a set of blunt solutions will likely be applied to solve the problems at the expense of much of what we love about today’s information ecosystem. (p. 8)

The danger is that as cellphones become mobile Internet devices, and as iPods become mobile computing platforms, our new generation of computing devices will be appliances open only at the forbearance of their creators. Those creators may be relatively benevolent, but the question isn’t whether this device or that creator is open. It’s what the future of the Internet and of computers will look like. If appliances become the dominant way of interacting with the Net (and thus how we interact with one another), then no matter how loosely the device creators hold the reins, we are accepting the bit in our mouths. If appliances become the default, then the market for challenging, risky, disruptive, subversive app development is in danger of drying up.

From that point of view, the generativity of the iPhone and the iPad is — to use JZ’s word — seductive. Steve Johnson is right that they have unleashed a torrent of creativity. But it is creativity within bounds. The very success of these devices, driven by the generativity that Steve Jobs allows us and to which Steve Johnson astutely points us, can lead us to the future that JZ fears.

15 Comments »

March 25, 2010

My two days in Saudi Arabia

I came back yesterday from a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t blog about it beforehand because I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the chances of my getting a visa, which arrived on the morning of the day I left.

Now I’m back and I’m suffering from a type of cognitive dissonance — something more like cultural dissonance. I’m having so much difficulty making sense of it that I’ve found myself anxious about trying to describe the two days to my family. Blogging about it is yet more difficult.

First, there are so many reasons I distrust my own impressions: I was there for two days. I hung out with Saudis studying the Internet and with Netty foreigners. I saw only the inside of the Marriott, King Saud University, and a coffee shop. I was one of two Americans (as far as I could tell) at the event I went for. I was the sole Jew (as far as I could tell). I am a Jew with deeply mixed feelings about Israel. (No, I won’t elaborate.) I’ve never been to the Middle East before. I speak no Arabic. I am liberal democrat (small “d”). I am a vegetarian who keeps incidentally kosher. I am male. In short, Saudi Arabia — The Kingdom — not only is so foreign to me that I have no reliable framework for understanding it, it challenges more aspects of my identity than anywhere I’ve been.

And yet, while the dissonance can be jarring, I know yet more of dissonance is hidden behind the normalcy of the Saudi world. The fact that the entire audience of the conference at which I spoke was male is simply normal for the Saudis. When the voice of a woman is piped in over a loudspeaker — the women students were watching over a fiber optic connection — to ask a question, the Saudis think they’re being progressive by allowing women to be heard, but the Westerner wants to walk out and enter a different century. Then there are the dissonances that are invisible to the tourist’s experience: death for homosexuals, an economy built on carbon, an all-powerful monarchy.

I went because I understood the day was intended to advance the cause of integrating Saudi Arabia into the rest of the world through a (relatively) open Internet. I’m in favor of that. The Internet track was part of the traditional Al Janadriyah festival; the festival’s theme this year was “One World — Multiple cultures,” which shows admirable intent. I was part of a morning panel, and gave a 10-minute talk that summarized a 10-page article I’d written for the event. Having given it, I now think that the talk wasn’t particularly useful, but I think and hope my being there helped in some tiny way to reinforce the belief that the Net is an opportunity for Saudis to engage with the rest of the world. (Disclosure: In addition to paying all expenses, the festival has promised to pay me a relatively modest speakers fee. [Update: They reneged on the promise to pay me.])

I was treated very hospitably by every man I met, no matter what his station. Every man was generous, seemed delighted to be talking with an American, was open-minded or at least willing to have a frank conversation. I did not talk with a single woman. I would have loved to have talked with one of the women’s classes, but in fact I didn’t meet with any classes, and I would not have been allowed to be in the same room as women students. The Saudis I did talk with (a non-representative sample) think that this segregation respects women and simultaneously were slightly apologetic, pointing to the progress women have made: The woman’s campus is being moved to be a mere half kilometer from the men’s, women “participate” on campus via fiber optic cable, more women have been sent abroad for study this year than men (which I found quite surprising), the King says women will eventually have full rights.

Of course this is outrageously unacceptable. And yet, you fly out of The Kingdom, stop at Frankfort, and are confronted by a newspaper that has a fully naked woman on the front page for no reason except to excite men, and the truth of your own culture’s outrageousness hits you right where your cultural dissonance lives. The structural oppression of women, the whipping of women for being the female participant in adultery, the removal of women’s voice from the public sphere, the systematic deprivation of power over their own fates, all of this goes far beyond whether the culture strips women naked or clothes them in sacks with eyeholes. Nevertheless, seeing that naked woman on the front page of a Western newspaper extended the cultural dissonance into my own culture.

 


I am going to continue my act of ridiculous generalization by telling you about the state of the Internet in Saudi Arabia. Please re-read the part above where I go through all the reasons I am not qualified to have an opinion about such things. It is especially important to remember that I only spoke with educated, Netty men, mainly people studying new media as faculty and students. I’m leaving them anonymous because I don’t want to get them in trouble, especially by misrepresenting them because of the language differences.

So, we know from the Open Net Initiative that the Saudi government filters porn, Jihadist sites, and some Israeli sites. I encountered little desire to undo that: Why would a devout Moslem want to see such sites? They are not looking for more liberty. Far more at the forefront of the
concerns of the men I met was the opposite issue: How can the Saudis not only maintain their traditional values on the Net but present themselves as they are so the world will understand them?

I asked one of my interlocutors whether the Saudis see the Net as transformative or as way of further accomplishing traditional goals. The answer: Mainly the latter. Saudis have traditionally taken new media as a way to route around traditional taboos, he said. When phones were first introduced, men would hold up signs with their numbers on them when stopped at lights so that women could call them if they wanted; phones were for forbidden flirting. Likewise, the Net is providing a new medium for flirting, and for meeting with women within the same (virtual) space. He said the Net is also for expressing risky political ideas, although that seemed secondary in his explanation.

The same man drew an appropriate distinction between the Net as an extension of old media — e.g., news organizations send out mass SMS news alerts — and as a transformative medium that allows new uses and new social forms. But just as I asked whether he thought the bottom-up nature of the Net might allow for a new configuration of power in The Kingdom, we got interrupted. Probably just as well. My guess is that he would have said no; Saudi Arabia works pretty well, if you’re a man.

 


I saw four places and stretches of road in between them. In order:

1. The Riyadh airport is large and modern, but empty of shops aside from some coffee-and-pastry stands, at least as far as I saw. While I was waiting for Customs clearance, I was taken to a hall in which I was served a small cup of cardamon-scented tea. Because of the total power of the government, the airport remains a somewhat scary experience, even while you are being served from a gold tray.

2. The Marriott is a fine hotel with friendly service and excellent buffet meals, slightly run down by US standards. The lobby, which circles around the central elevators, is a more social place than American lobbies. People hung out there — mainly men, but occasionally local women, as well as women from outside Riyadh in various stages of modest not-entirely-coveredness. (Riyadh is the most conservative city in Saudi Arabia.) Security is heavy at the hotel.

3. King Saud University is large and modern. It’s home to 70,000 male students. 75% of the faculty got their degrees abroad. (It might actually be that 75% got degrees in the U.S.) The Mass Media Department, which was the host of the Internet Day of the festival, is well-equipped. They are building more new media facilities. The head of the department seems to have warm and friendly relations with his staff, the students, and the service staff of the university.

The Kingdom is engaged in a massive school building program, creating new universities at an impressive pace. I don’t know the mix of male and female schools, although the NYT reported that at least one of the universities was going to have gender-mixed classes. As it is, only female teachers can be in the classroom with women students; the classrooms are connected by fiber optic cable so male teachers can beam in. For the first time, more women are being sent to study abroad than men. The government picks up all expenses for foreign study, as well as paying all students a stipend for attending university; university is free. (A couple of Saudis I spoke with complained about the grade schools, which, they say, are fine facilities but very weak on the elements of education other than Koranic studies.)

4. Three of us got taken through Riyadh by a graduate student, who drove us to a coffee shop about 20km from the Marriott (see #5). So, this was far from a comprehensive tour of the city, but the student said that what we saw was typical. And what we saw was a vast city, almost entirely newly built, with few buildings higher than four or five stories. The streets were straight, flat, wide, and choked with traffic. But, there were virtually no pedestrians, perhaps because the distances between places to go is so vast, and certainly because for months of the year, the sidewalks would melt your sandals. The sidewalks are so empty that when we passed a couple of blocks bordering a park, our host pointed out that there were people walking.

By the way, when I asked at the hotel desk for a pamphlet with tourist attractions, the clerk said that they didn’t have any such list. He sent me to the gift shop, which also did not. I’m not saying there aren’t interesting places to visit (e.g., there’s an old part of the city, a museum, a market); I’m saying that this is not a town geared up for the tourist trade. For example, there is no such thing as a tourist visa.

5. The coffee shop the student took us to was nothing like a coffee shop. Forget I even called it that. It was a walled area with some grassy spots and some covered areas for smoking hookahs and drinking tea or coffee. (As the entry form you get on the airplane tells you, drug dealers are executed, so you need not doubt me when I tell you it was tobacco in the hookahs. Given the Saudis’ barbaric penal system, you don’t f*ck around in The Kingdom.) We sat in one of the semi-enclosed areas. It consisted of eight stalls separated by low walls. You sit on cushions on the floor. The attendant brings a TV unasked and puts it on your front wall. Everyone else has his TV blaring. You order a flavor of tobacco — I mimicked our host and chose orange — and tea or coffee. You smoke and talk about the Internet. I don’t smoke, so I didn’t inhale (insofar as I could avoid it). Our host tells us that this is where his classmates and friends hang out at night. Later, when we were telling another Festival speaker about the oddness of the TV, he pointed out that in English pubs, there’s always a TV on. Good point.

Of course the coffee shop is for men only.

 


So, I am deep in cultural dissonance. The men I met were warm, hospitable, eager to connect to the rest of the world. Once I was identified as an American, several of them volunteered to me how upset they were by 9/11, how much they hate the Jihadists, and how they have squashed the terrorists within their own country. (There was news today about an additional assault on terrorists within The Kingdom.) When I identified myself as a Jew, they would offer that Islam is not the only path and that Judaism is among the great religions; more than once, this included a passing denunciation of Israel, by way of separating Judaism and Zionism. The hospitality they offered to a Western Jew would have put to shame the reception they would have received, dressed in their traditional clothes, in most places in America. I had conversations that were warm and frank. I only had conversations with men. I made genuine friendships. The Kingdom is brutal to offenders. People were open to differing ideas. The Kingdom represses half its population. German tabloids have naked women on their covers. The Kingdom executes homosexuals. The Kingdom pays its young people to go to college.

Cultural dissonance is, I am afraid, a type of truth.

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