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April 6, 2009

Ethanz at his best

Ethan Zuckerman has a fantastic post about Paul Simon’s South African collaboration. It’s a long, complex story that Ethan tells with his usual clarity and gusto, but it’s not about Paul Simon so much as about the nature of paths between cultures. The simple is complex because cultures emerge from (and shape) history, and history is everything there is plus some more on top of that.

Few can combine his simultaneous grasp of details, his breadth, and his ability to synthesize context. There’s also his vast heart. Read the post. Only Ethan could have written it.

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March 22, 2009

New blog by old China hand

My old college housemate and good friend Hank Levine has started a blog. He’s was a Foreign Service Office for a long time, and has spent a lot of his life in China, so it’s no surprise that his blog focuseson US-China relations. It’s a bit wonky, but it’s great to hear Hank’s voice.

Hank was the funny one in a pretty funny group. (Funny haha, not so much funny peculiar.) We fell out of touch for about 25 years, but a few weeks ago we video-skyped. He looks distressingly the same. And he’s still funny, although not so much in his blog. Howdy, Hank!

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March 3, 2009

[berkman] Rebecca MacKinnon on the Chinese Internet and democracy

Rebecca MacKinnon isgiving a Berkman talk on the Chinese Internet. [Note: Live-blogging, hence full of errors and omissions and typos and misspellings and inadequate paraphrases.] [For a better report, see Ethan Zuckerman‘s]

She begins by pointing to Lao Tze’s saying that directly grasping something is often the worst way of controlling it. Then she shows a video of Chinese kids lipsyncing to the Backstreet Boys. They’re now famous in China as the “Back Dorm Boys.” The Chinese government has lost control of the culture, she says. Novelists and artists are routing around the control structure. For 66% of Chinese young people, the Web is the primary source of video entertainment. Most of it is found through social networking.

Premier Wen Jiabao gave a two hour chat online with Netizens. Questions came in from the Web, moderated by a journalist. It showed a human side of the Chinese leaders. “This is being greeted by many in China with euphoria.” The Premier said that he spends 30-60 mins on line everyday and considers it an important way to hear what people are thinking. There’s an egov site, including chat rooms and forums, as well as providing online services.

The National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meets for two weeks every year, primarily to rubber stamp decisions. The Premier gives a live press conference once a year. Now he’s on the Web responding to questions directly. The meeting has a site (run by a Chinese newspaper) where people can comment, make suggestions, etc. Someone posted that the one child policy should be ended, with a lively open discussion among Chinese citizens.

So, asks Rebecca, is this “Chinese cyber-glasnost”? Chinese government Web sites are celebrating this as “Internet democracy.” But …

… Blogger Wang Xiaofeng blogged yesterday that people are getting too emotional about this. “Without a proper political structure, all Premiere Wen can do is interact with people on an emotional level…” He posted that yesterday. Today is blog is “closed temporarily.” He was told to close his blog. Other blogs talking about this have to insert spaces between words that otherwise would trigger inspection.

Dissidents are still in jail, Rebecca says. Bloggers, opposition party folks, lawyers… Yongnian Zheng talks about “authoritarian deliberation.” (His book: Technological Empowerment). Authoritarian regimes allow different degrees of deliberation. China is more deliberative because of the Internet, says Rebecca, but institutionally it hasn’t changed.

Our common Western paradigm makes it hard for us to understand Chinese Internet control, Rebecca says. We tend to think of it like the Great Wall: A barrier blocks people from accessing outside information. It is, as Lokman Tsui calls it, the “Iron Curtain 2.0.” Internet filtering is only one small part of censorship in China. It only affects sites hosted outside of China. For those hosted inside, the “Net nanny” metaphor is more accurate: A paternalistic state that protects people from themselves and maintains order. Google China does not show gory photos when you search for “Tianamen Massacre.” Baidu, the largest search service in China, returns zero results. If you try to post a post that contains trigger words, it goes into a moderation queue from which it never emerges. Eight out of 15 blog hosting services removed “objectionable” political content. The censoring is done by the hosting companies.

We could also use the metaphor of hydroelectric engineering. Most of the Chinese leaders have engineering backgrounds. When the storm comes, you put up the dam, then you let water out. New technique: The official news agencies quickly break stories that are bad news for the government (e.g., riots in Weng’an county in 7/08), and then they censor the unofficial versions. The official version “flooded” the Web.

People routed around this censorship. Youc ouldn’t talk about Weng’an, but you can talk about pushups, because the official story behind a murder was that a man was doing pushups on the bridge. Bloggers used pushups as a way of talking about the forbidden content. Or:” the government used “Harmonious Society” as a slogan. People had started using “harmonized” to mean “censored,” but then “harmonized” got censored, so people started using “rivercrab,” which is very close to “harmonious.” Then people started posting rivercrabs wearing three watches because that’s close to another slogan.

Another example. There was an anti-porn crackdown in January. Political discussions were removed along with smut. So, a video showed up, a happy children’s chorus about alpaca sheep, because “alpaca sheep” and “fuck your mother” are very similar; it’s a protest against censorship. It went viral. Now it’s spawned academic research.

“This is why keyword censorship is bound to fail. There’s so much discussion on the Web right now about rivercrabs and alpaca sheep.”

Cybernationalism is big in China, i.e., people on the Net who are very proud of their nation. There’s an anti-CNN site created by Chinese journalism students, to critique CNN’s errors in coverage. People resent foreigners criticizing their Internet. There are now Red Guard-like cyber-vigilantes. There are also paid informants on the Web. Cyber-police. Cyber-bonapartism, i.e., a strong centralized state using democratic means to make people feel more involved? Cyber-confucianism? Cyber-ocracy? She points to Isaac Mao who says we can’t have free speech until we have thinking, and thus he talks about “share-ism.”

Ultimately, we should be talking about off line institutions. Fair mechanisms, transparency, legal protection of free speech. Until you have that, Rebecca says, nothing much changes.

What does this mean for the global Internet? David Post, in Jefferson’s Moose, talks about the balance between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians (free speech vs. control). This debates rages in China now. The debate is “hampered by censorship and complicated by nationalism.” How do we support that debate, Rebecca asks. Between governments and citizens there’s now global layer of Web and IT services. How do we use this layer, in China and globally? Authoritarian governments may not be moved to democracy and freedom. If we don’t talk about this, we might all end up in the middle.

Q: This echoes the traditional Chinese leadership pattern of going out among the people. And different people in China use the Internet for different purposes. Elites vs, working class, etc.
A: Yes. The Net right now is an echo chamber for elites. If you want to know what the peasantry are thinking, the Internet is not the way to find out. But if you want know about the people who might be future leaders, the Internet is a good tool.

Q: Are there country-to-country discussion forums? And are they using The Onion Router?
A: Some do. Not a critical mass. And there are good-hearted attempts to “save” the Chinese. It’d be better not to be so paternalistic.

Q: Why don’t controversial bloggers post on hosts outside their country?
A: Because their audience would be too small. One guy I know posts the same posts to ten blogs and hope that not all of them are taken down. And the problem with circumvention tools is that you have to know what you want to know. It can be hard to know how much censorship there is if you’re within the system.

Q: Do the Chinese people want to be free? Russians tell you that freedom leads to conflict and misery.
A: What is freedom? There isn’t consensus in China about how much freedom vs. control. But how can you get consensus if you can’t have an uncensored debate about it? [Tags: ]


January 30, 2009

Pew Excellence in Journalism now watching blogs

Pew’s Research Center for Excellence in Journalism has now added a weekly new media report on what the ol’ blogosphere is blathering on about. That’s you and me, sister. Or what most people indexed by Technorati and Icerocket are talking about, anyway. For example, we seem to have focused a lot on Obama’s inauguration. (Wasn’t that three months ago? Time doesn’t fly when the Republicans are insisting on their old partisan ways.)

And here’s a hasty conclusion from the first week’s report: We bloggers really need to be reading Global Voices in order to get our gazes up from our American innie navels.

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January 5, 2009

Alternative voices

Habib Battah has an op-ed in Al Jazeera about the disparity between the American media coverage of the Israeli invasion and the Arab world’s. And there’s always Global Voices if you want to hear what bloggers in the region are saying.

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December 19, 2008

Support GlobalVoices

GlobalVoices needs your help. Need convincing? Check out GV’s bloggage about the Mumbai attack. Or, perhaps more important, check GV any day. The world speaks at GV. Worth a listen. Worth some support. [Disclosure: I’m a volunteer adviser.]

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December 7, 2008

Bridges and ‘Philes

Ethanz has a great post — abstract yet grounded in the personal — about the difference between those who can explain one culture to another and those who simply fall in love with another culture. Fascinating, as always.

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November 27, 2008

Control doesn’t scale

I sometimes put up a Powerpoint (well, Keynote) slide that says “Control doesn’t scale.”The assumption that large projects only succeed if they’re centrally controls led and managed turns out to have been true because we limited the scope of what we we considered realistic. You can build a Britannica using a centrally controlled system, but you could not build a Wikipedia that way.

But I know that there are some important counter-examples, so I’ll frequently add, “Except at an huge cost in expense and freedom,” for we know all too well that some regimes have managed to maintain intense control over massive populations for generations.

Today there’s an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald with Isaac Mao, pioneering Chinese blogger and Berkman fellow, in which he says the Chinese authorities are unable to keep up with increasing volume of social communications the 108M bloggers, millions in social networks, and people texting and twittering away.

So, maybe control doesn’t scale after all.

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November 25, 2008

[berkman] Antony Loewenstein on blogging in rerpressive regimes

Antony Loewenstein is giving a Berkman Center lunchtime talk on “The Blogging Revolution: Going Online in Repressive Regimes.” He begins by reading a short paper. [Note: I’m live-blogging. Getting it wrong, Missing stuff. And this comes out far choppier than the actual discussion.]

In the paper he says that bloggers are at risk of being silenced in repressive regimes In Antony’s home, Australia, the PM is proposing filtering child porn and “excessively violent” sites. There has also been talk of blocking euthanasia and pro-anorexia sites. Wha next? Block Hamas sites? (Antony does not consider Hamas to be a terrorist group.) Despite all this, Australia isn’t one of the more repressive regimes when it comes to the Net. Antony’s book looks at bloggers’ attitudes toward their governments. E,.g., bloggers in the Middle East generally are angry at their governments for repressing the rise of Islamic government. There is a widespread desire to make incremental change without government involvement. Bloggers everywhere are unpacking issues governments would rather hide from view. “Blogging is not in itself revolutionary but the act of expressing yourself online can be.” Many of the bloggers he met with were aware of their international audience and hoped that would bring pressure on their regimes. They are also angry at global companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google in enabling the restrictions on the Net. “International laws and norms must be applied.” We need ethical labeling on media, as we have Fair Trade labels. And it’s not just other countries that we need to worry about it. Sen. Lieberman pressured YouTube to remove videos from supposedly Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Blogging lets people write and publish without a Western filter.”

Q: [ethanz] In your book, you look at how the rest of the world gets filtered by the Western media. You say that the blogosphere lets people see the world unfiltered. But, people aren’t queueing up to read international blogs. There isn’t enough demand for it. What’s an ideal relationship among the people raising their voices — probably not in English — and the people around the world who could change policy and structure?
A: The bloggers I met with have very popular sites within their own country. Part of my job as a journalist is to talk with other journalists and tell them they ought to be paying more attention to these voices. It doesn’t mean that they will, but it’s likely these people will have an effect. During the Olympics, over Tibet, bloggers on both sides were shouting across each other. For one thing, language is a key problem. On the positive side, newspapers ran what Arab bloggers thought about the election.
Q: [ethanz] But wouldn’t the old man-on-the-street interviews be more representative than a handful of bloggers?
A: We need both. You, Ethan, may be underestimating the effect bloggers are having on journalists.

Q: [me] Do you have examples of blogging affecting repression?
A: Egypt. Bloggers filmed torture and rape. It was distributed via mobiles. Eventually the government was forced to respond. Police torture still goes on, but now people talk about it. Also, in Iran there are far more discussions of issues such as women’s rights, religious affiliations, the Iraq War. I don’t want to overplay that, but that is going on.

Q: The effect of Al Jazeera?
A: Major. Satellite is having more effect in many ways than the Net. It reaches more people.

Q: Yes, Western media ultimately turns everything into what’s about “us.” Western media define Arabs in light of the geopolitical struggle. The press reduces my identity to whether I’m pro or against Hamas. What is a positive message we can get out about working the system to get them to report on the real cases happening on the ground?
A: The Western media sense is that the Israelis are good and the Arabs are bad. Almost all Western journalists are based in Israel. That biases them. Not every story about the Middle East has to be focused through the terrorism prism.

Q: [jillian] What about Syria? Why didn’t you write more about that?
A: I don’t the Syrian blogosphere as having as much impact on that country as the Iranian and Egyptian blogosphere does on those countries.

Q: I was born in Poland and saw the Solidarity movement go from tiny to 1/3 of the population supporting it, in just a couple of months. It was so successful not because the NY Times supported it (which it did). I haven’t seen similar movements come about through the Net or cell phones. Why is it that even though we have all of this beautiful technology, we haven’t seen anything like Solidarity happening?
A: Blogging communities generally don’t have massive mainstream support. Many of the bloggers are not dissidents. E.g., Iranian bloggers are frequently pro-regime. Blogging plays one role among many. Bloggers on their own won’t bring down a regime. Frequently the reforms are old school. It’s not easier to get people on the streets to protest. No one I spoke to is looking for a violent revolution.

My understanding is that with the advent of the Net in Islamic states, people are finding new channels to discuss their questions about Islam, instead of going to the religious authorities or your family. This is eroding the authority of traditional religious authorities. Have bloggers in Islamic states mentioned this to you?
A: Even those who criticize the state still want an Islamic state.

You say a great deal of speech comes out of the Moslem Brotherhood that represents the people better than the Egyptian government does. What should those bloggers be doing to have a bigger influence nationally and internationally?
A: There’s a struggle within the Brotherhood between moderates and hard-liners. The old guard doesn’t like showing these internal struggles. It’s not about the Brotherhood changing their message to make the West happy. To bring about greater engagement means putting a Western-friendly face on.

[From the IRC comes a strong recommendation for this post by Roland Soong about Chinese blogging.]

Q: Technology backbones?
A: Facebook and Twitter are being localized. YouTube.

Q: Should YouTube block particular videos that offend, say, the Thais. Or should they just pull out of Thailand? If they block the particulars, is that collusion?
A: I think it’s inappropriate to do this without transparency. I’d rather have them block a few sites than block all of them, but what happens next?

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November 24, 2008

US’s Somali war gets some MSM attention

The Chicago Tribune actually has an article about the war we’ve been waging — and losing — in Somalia.

By the way, it’s interesting to put that article, which I think is quite good, next to Ethan Zuckerman’s recent post about Somali pirates. Who do you think is the more interesting, more knowledgeable commentator?

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