Are Nations Worried About the Internet?

Posted January 25th, 2011 at 3:08 pm (UTC-4)
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New Signals that Governments Might Crack Down on the Web

Protests in Tunis, Jan. 19 2011 (photo: AP)

Swiftly moving events in Tunisia continue to challenge headlines’ ability to keep up.   And now come signs that what’s happening there may be presenting challenges in the minds of leaders of neighboring states, and elsewhere as well.

At the recent Arab Economic Summit held in Egypt, the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, warned that other Arab nations may not be too far from the turmoil of Tunisia:

“The recent events in Tunisia are an example of big social shocks that many Arab societies are exposed to,”  he said.  “It is on everyone’s mind that the Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and a general slide in indicators.”

Others need more convincing.  Stephen Walt, writing in Foreign Policy, sees little or no historic evidence that the “contagion” of revolt spreads across borders…despite what he calls the “obvious warning signs” Tunisia presents to other Arab leaders:

“Tunisia’s experience may not look very attractive over the next few weeks or months, especially if the collapse of the government leads to widespread anarchy, violence and economic hardship. If that is the case, then restive populations elsewhere may be less inclined to challenge unpopular leaders, reasoning that ‘hey, our government sucks, but it’s better than no government at all.'”

And it isn’t just Arab leaders that may be nervous.

In a speech last week, long-time Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen sounded off about unnamed foreign sources he suggests are using the Internet to stir up unrest.  In his address Hun Sen warned:

“There is a guy saying that Cambodia should foment a Tunisia style-revolt.  I would like to send you a message that if you provoke or foment a Tunisia style-revolt, I will close the door to beat the dog this time,” he said, adding he would “…beat on the head…” of anyone using the web to incite revolt.

And now a new wrinkle: VOA’s Bun Tharum, in his superb “Musings on Cambodia” blog, has been tracking what might be efforts by the Cambodian government to restrict Web-speech or access to the Internet…at least parts of it.

A screen-grab from ki-media.blogspot.com

KI Media is a dissident blog run on Google’s popular “blogspot” platform from outside of Cambodia.  Long a source of irritation to the government of Hun Sen, access to the site was recently cut off by Cambodia’s three largest ISP’s.  Bun Tharum writes:

“From Tuesday afternoon, web users with service providers AngkorNet, Ezecom and Metfone had no access to KI Media specifically. Users for Ezecom and Metfone also had no access to any blogspot.com platform.

“That means that some bloggers using Google’s Blogger platform have been unable to connect to their sites.

“’Dat’s it,’ tweeted sreisaat, on Thursday. ‘[S]till no accesss to blogspot sites. I’ve a feeling I’ve been singled out for sum reason.’ Her blog, “The Sreisaat Adventures,” is hosted by Blogger and chronicles the everyday life of a Cambodian wife.”

So far a number of Cambodian government officials have denied any involvement in blocking KI or blogspot more generally, while the ISPs have sent conflicting signals – strong denials from one, silence from another, and suggestions a non-committal statement from the third.

Are Blogs to Blame for the Jasmine Revolution?

Posted January 20th, 2011 at 3:24 pm (UTC-4)
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The Role the Internet Did – And Didn’t – Play In Tunisia’s Turmoil

Like any revolution, a host of factors can help explain the fall of long-time Tunisian ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.  Faltering economic conditions, decades of autocratic rule and media suppression and a civic culture of corruption and nepotism are but a few.  And as many have noted, the self-immolation of 26-year-old Muhammad Al Bouazizi and resulting public outrage served as something of a catalyst for many of these factors to pour out into the streets.

But before the riots, before Al Bouazizi, even before the economy went sour, Tunisian social media and blogs struggled for years to talk about Tunisia’s ills, identify the causes and perhaps even propose solutions.

The Tunisian public were first given access to the Internet in 1996; it took nearly 10 years for broadband to become available – not so surprising for a poor nation.   But in that time, the government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali kept an ever-tighter rein on what the public could see, and what they could say, online.

A 2005 Harvard report criticized Tunis for implementing “…an Internet filtering regime that aggressively targets and blocks substantial on-line material on political opposition, human rights, methods of bypassing filtering, and pornography.”   In 2009, the free-speech advocacy group Freedom House ranked Tunisia second worst in the world – ahead of Iran and behind only Cuba – in terms of web freedom.  And the group Global Voices documents 23 Tunisian bloggers who have been harassed, threatened, jailed, and in two cases killed by the Tunisian government.

And yet web culture and social media have rapidly been adopted by the young Tunisian populace.  Most recently online activists used the web to document the various protests across Tunis, and Twitter served as the most reliable news outlet for updates on Al Bouazizi’s condition.  For a time tweets about Tunisia far outpaced those regarding the situations in Sudan or Cote d’Ivoire.

Slim Amamou self-portrait, taken from his Flickr photostream

There’s no question the web has influenced the unfolding events in Tunisia.  And these days, rather than being seen a threat, elements in the new government are seeking to embrace the Internet.  One need look no further than today’s news of the appointment of Slim Amamou – longtime blogger and critic of the government – as Secretary of State for Youth and Sports.  And much in the way the Internet works almost one step ahead, there’s already a Facebook App – “Defender of Tunisia” – where users defend 24 Tunisian cities against government tanks trying to roll back the revolution.

Still, can the Internet be credited with Tunisia’s revolution?  It’s almost a default position among some in Western media to label any contemporary unrest as “a Twitter Revolution.”  But is Twitter really to blame?  And if it happened in Tunisia, where else may the Internet topple a government?

Over at the excellent “Tangled Web” blog (run by VOA’s sister organization RFE/RL) Luke Allnut wonders why journalists hunt for singular  explanations such as Twitter, YouTube or Wikileaks for a process as complex as a national revolution:

“In our search for a single cause, we’re much more likely to settle on an “new technology” explanation rather than something as dull as a great many of the participants were unemployed or wearing socks. Not only do “Twitter revolution” explanations mean more page views, but they fulfill some deterministic urge within us — the dual promises of technology and modernity.”

Ethan Zuckerman writing in Foreign Policy grants that social media “…played a significant role in the events that have unfolded in the past month in Tunisia.”   As an example he details how images from early protests in Sidi Bouzid, ignored by official Tunisian media, moved from Facebook to YouTube to Dailymotion, drawing wider viewership across the nation.  But he cautions:

“…any attempt to credit a massive political shift to a single factor — technological, economic, or otherwise — is simply untrue. Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update.”

And in the rush to find a “webby” explanation, journalists may be overlooking more traditional – and thus more boring – media forms.  Inside Tunisia, VOA’s Lisa Bryant spoke with journalists struggling to re-learn a craft long-hobbled by government sanction and punishment.  And former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton, writing in the GlobalPost, credits an external force – Al-Jazeera Television – for “awakening Arab public opinion.”   He writes:

“Its news, talk shows and discussion programs have raised the level of political sophistication of its Arab viewers and increased their reluctance to believe the pronouncements of their own governments. Traditional Arab rulers see it as subversive.  By helping to educate and reshape Arab public opinion, it changed the political landscape and created the mindset that encouraged the overthrow of Tunisian President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali.”

As unpredictable as they are rare, revolutions result from the interplay of almost impenetrably complex factors and forces.  Answering the questions of “how” and “why” may not be possible.  But if there are answers, they’re likely to be closely examined not just in Tunisia, but in many other nations around the world where leaders fear the next “Twitter” revolution.

Google Goes Back to Iran

Posted January 19th, 2011 at 1:08 pm (UTC-4)
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Will Chrome and Google Earth Make Iran’s Web Safer?

In the wake of Iran’s controversial 2009 presidential elections, millions of Iranians took to the web to trade information, organize, and communicate within their nation and with the rest of the world.  Until, that is, Tehran decided to tighten the Internet’s spigot and began a serious campaign to restrict web and mobile usage.

Iran still bans many foreign-based websites, such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.  And U.S. law prohibits the export of most software-based products to Iran.  However this week, following lengthy and complex negotiations, Google announced its products will again be available to Iranian web users.

Scott Rubin is Google’s director of public policy and communications strategy.

“The citizens of Iran will be able to download three Google products: Google Chrome, which is our browser, Picasa, which is our photo-sharing software, and Google Earth, which provides users a 3-D way to scan and world, and users can add their own layers to earth to create their own version about what they want to share with people about the world where they live.”

The trade and export sanctions against Iran date back as far as the 1980’s, but companies such as Google can apply for narrow trade licenses to the U.S. State Department.  Google still has to abide by the overall sanctions – it can’t offer more products than specifically detailed yet – and per U.S. law, these new Google downloads will block all IP addresses associated with the Iranian government.

However, Rubin says these three products could greatly enhance how Iranians share information with each other and the rest of the world online.

“There are millions and millions of people (online in Iran),” says Rubin, “and one of our core missions at Google is to provide access to information around the world.  For all this time, this particular way to share information has not been available to the people of Iran.”

The three Google downloads – all free – will allow Iranian users to scan and share photos, to document the physical world around them adding any text or information overlays they wish with Google Earth, and surf the net with Chrome, which Rubin describes as a very secure browswer.

“If you think about what happened after the elections in Iran in 2009 when foreign journalists were expelled or their licenses were revoked to practice journalism,” notes Rubin, “the people of Iran used tools like YouTube and Twitter to share what was happening.  This is just one more step to opening up the world, even in countries where information is restricted.”

Interestingly, Google’s trade license would have permitted the distribution of Google Chat, but company officials had too many concerns that security and privacy of users could too easily be breached by Iranian web snooping.  “It’s a balancing act between providing information but doing it in a way that doesn’t compromise people’s safety,” says Rubin.

The Google downloads are all free and available to users in Iran at www.google.com

Future War

Posted January 18th, 2011 at 7:53 pm (UTC-4)
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Jennifer Glasse | London

A new OECD cyber-security study by British  professors says cyber weaponry will be used routinely in future wars.

The study says computer attacks on their own will not necessarily constitute a threat, but a coordinated attack – or in combination with more computer attacks – could have serious consequences.  Read moreRead the rest of this entry »

When Too Much Is Not Enough

Posted January 18th, 2011 at 6:28 pm (UTC-4)
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Don’t Expect Anyone in “Generation Wiki” to Give Up Mobile

Last week we partnered with our pals over at the VOA Student Union – a great blog by the way – in posing this question: what technologies do you use in your daily life, and whether you think the younger generation is too “plugged in”?

One responder – Tara – answered the question at several levels when she tweeted about her BlackBerry from her Blackberry.  As Jessica noted, “now that’s dedication to your device.”

Overall mobile devices figured prominently, and so, too, did the differences between the US and other places.  Sebastian wrote that Bolivians seem as addicted – if that’s the word – to wired gadgets as much as anyone.  However, he wrote:

“For example, in Bolivia cellphones, and hardware in general, are overall more expensive than in America and for that reason far less people are used to having fancy phones like iPhones or Blackberrys. But on the other hand, services are usually cheaper. One big difference is the mobile companies, in Bolivia talking is not really expensive, as opposed to America, and talking and texting in a phone is almost the same price.”

Nareg Seferian hit a similar theme, noting that much of the gizmos associated with the digital revolution have hit Armenia as well as the States, but noted that in Armenia they don’t seem as prevalent.  He continues:

“I think the clearest difference, however, is that many in the U.S. have grown up with video games and have had e-mail or online profiles at a very young age. Maybe that’s the way all societies are headed, but for now, I feel that the way the internet is used in daily life or for work or academics is definitely still a novelty in many parts of the world.”

Perhaps Alex Busingye from Uganda put it best:

“In just five months, I have become addicted to my 4G EVO, I take my laptop everywhere. I am on the go streaming live games, doing research while making conversation on Facebook. I used to talk too much, now I tweet too much.

There is no question about it; the technological climate in America has changed the way I communicate. I have evolved a bionic relationship with technology. Whether it’s good or bad for me? Am yet to find out, at this rate, who stops to wonder?”

We appreciate all who stopped – even for just a moment to tweet – to consider the possibilities.

What Devices Rule Your Life?

Posted January 11th, 2011 at 2:07 pm (UTC-4)
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Is the “Wiki” Generation Too Wired For Its Good?

This week we’re partnering with our pals who run the really-worth-your-time blog “VOA Student Union” with this question: what does the Internet generation think about all the wired devices that have come into our lives?

It’s a question we’ve been returning to as we’ve read, and re-read, Ethan Wilkes’ provocative essay “Generation Wiki’s web savvy“, first published in the Guardian on December 14.   Spurred by the controversy still swirling around the Wikileaks organization – and to some degree its just-as-controversial co-founder Julian Assange – Wilkes steps into the discussion with a bit of a generational slap-down.

“We are Generation Wiki,” he begins.  “We are the first of our kind.”

Wilkes goes on to make a new form of a very old argument: you grown-ups just don’t understand us.  The Internet revolution, Wilkes says, and all the devices and changes its spawned have created an entirely different set of expectations of privacy and speech.  And it’s those devices that are pushing a new social order – still undefined – where information necessarily runs free:

“We are aware of these ambiguities of the digital age, and we are comfortable with them. They are the products of a networked world where information is in abundance and easily diffused; it is the only world that we have known…What seems to be missing is an understanding of what Generation Wiki has known all along about information gone viral: we consume, comment and move on; the story dies when we are done with it. Trying to put the genie back in the bottle is no way to deal with an expose once it has gone online. “

OK…perhaps.  Arguably this generation does have different expectations of the boundaries between public and private.  And certainly growing up in an increasingly networked world has changed everyone’s relationship with  information – free or otherwise.

But then again, perhaps not.  You don’t need to have lived so many decades to know it’s the folly of youth to believe it is somehow unique and new, completely different from what came before and freed from the old strictures.  And then, as youth slides into something else, the experiences and shared knowledge of those that came before take on greater resonance.

Pretty heady stuff.  All of which has lead both Digital Frontiers and VOA’s Student Union to pose this question: what devices rule your life?

“What technologies rule your life?  Do you spend a lot of time on your computer or your mobile phone, and what do you use them for?  If you’ve traveled or lived in different countries, how were their tech habits different than your own?  What devices do you wish you had, and which could you live without?”

We expect many of the Student Union’s responses will come from “Generation Wiki.”  We’re hoping here to hear from everyone – young or old, fresh or experienced, wired or not.

Year of the Tablet?

Posted January 9th, 2011 at 2:11 pm (UTC-4)
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Mike O’Sullivan | Las Vegas

More than 80 tablet computers similar to Apple’s iPad are being introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, along with the latest 3D TV sets and other gadgets. The industry trade show, which runs through Sunday, is generating excitement, but some consumers ask whether they want or need all the new gadgets.

More than 120,000 people have come to see the new TV sets with brilliant, vibrant color, including some that offer three-dimensional viewing without special glasses.

They are also getting to play with the latest high tech toys, including Microsoft‘s motion-controlled gaming device Kinect, and miniature devices like a high definition camera worn on the wrist.

But handheld tablet computers are creating the most excitement, like one from Samsung – the Galaxy Tab – released two months ago.  One-and-a-half million have already been sold worldwide.

Samsung’s Trevor Lambert says the Galaxy Tab is an entertainment center that fits in your pocket. “The device is extremely portable.  It comes loaded with Samsung’s media hub, which grants you access to thousands of TV shows and movies on the go.  And once you download it, you can share that content with up to five Samsung Galaxy devices,” he said.

The computer maker Lenovo is introducing its own new tablet, and so are Toshiba and other computer makers.

Electronics maker Coby is also making tablets, and Coby Americas President Michael Troetti says they are aimed at consumers who will not pay $500 for an iPad. “When you look at what Apple is offering you – they have a 10-inch unit – I believe they’re $499 or $599 at this point – you can get a 10-inch from Coby for $299 and get a very pleasurable experience,” he said.

Millions of Apple iPads have been sold since its release in April, but Beth, from Bethesda, Maryland, says she is not likely to buy one or any other tablet computer. “No, it just seems like something extra that I wouldn’t bother with, but I’m not a big user of electronic gadgets, so I’m probably on that other extreme,” she said.

But Pamela Sorensen is a blogger in Washington D.C. who says Apple has opened a new market. “About 80 percent of my friends has an iPad now.  Even people who have PCs versus Macbooks, they have an iPad.  I was just talking to one of my friends, and she absolutely loves it,” she said.

Consumers with money to spend can soon buy other gadgets and devices on display in Las Vegas, for example, a furry robot toy with artificial intelligence for just over $6,000, or an Audi automobile with the latest electronic systems and dashboard displays for many thousands more.

The worldwide economy is still sluggish, but industry analysts say that fickle, reluctant consumers can be persuaded to buy some of the new devices.

The Crystal Ball Says…

Posted January 3rd, 2011 at 4:39 pm (UTC-4)
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…that at least some of the 2011 tech predictions will be wrong.

As sure as the calendar slouched from 2010 to 2011, tech writers have been issuing their predictions about what the new year may bring in the Internet world.

Many of them are smart, interesting and thought-provoking.   Some of them will be right, and some will be wrong.  A sure-bet prediction for this year is that one of this coming year’s  biggest stories will certainly be something that nobody predicted.

Come gaze into the crystal ball, and tell us what you see, after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Trafficked, and Trapped, Online

Posted December 27th, 2010 at 2:54 pm (UTC-4)
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Escaping a Virtual Sex Trade

Jason Strother | Seoul

Pastor Chun Ki-won of the Durihana Church in Seoul goes online to help North Korean women who have become the victims of human traffickers in China. (Photo: Jason Strother)

North Koreans continue to flee their impoverished homeland in search of food and to escape political oppression. Christian missionaries have been at the forefront of the effort to bring these defectors to South Korea. But the work is difficult because of China’s crackdown on those who enter the country illegally. Now, some activists have taken their rescue effort online.

Jason Strother has much more in his report, after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Wikileaks and the Right to Know

Posted December 22nd, 2010 at 1:38 pm (UTC-4)
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Does National Security Trump Freedom of the Press?

Elizabeth Lee | Washington

Sensitive information released by the Wikileaks website has generated a  heated debate in the United States: should the news media publish  classified information, and does it compromise national security?  And who decides?

Those questions, and others, after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

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What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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