NDN Blog

Friday New Tools Feature: Who Will Guard the Guards?

The internet continues to become an increasingly important part of many people's lives - there have been several studies showing that many people would rather give up sex than internet access, and with each day more of our communications, media consumption, and commerce are conducted online. And we have seen in Iran these last few weeks just how important the internet has become for political organizing and citizen journalism.

But as our lives become increasingly digitized, a number of fundamental questions are being raised. Who owns the internet? Who polices it? What constitutes acceptable or unacceptable behavior on the web? Many internet users are accustomed to thinking of it as a free and open communal place, something which seems integral to the very nature of the net itself. Yet there is no law guaranteeing this, and companies and governments have increasingly sophisticated ways of monitoring and controlling internet traffic.

A cyber war is being now waged, fortress walls now replaced with firewalls. China's hacking of U.S. agencies and companies is well-known, as is its strict censorship of internet content within its own borders. China even went so far as to crack down on Google this week, perhaps as a reaction to their perceived role in prolonging unrest in Iran. This despite the fact that Google has already made considerable concessions to China, removing a huge amount of political and pornographic content from their Chinese service.

The United States supposedly advocates freedom of speech on the internet, and we have invested millions of dollars in Iran over the last few years in technologies designed to circumvent the state's censorship efforts:

“Our goal was to promote freedom of speech for Iranians to communicate with each other and the outside world. We funded and supported innovative technologies to allow them to do this via the Internet, cell phones and other media,” former State Department Iran democracy program coordinator David Denehy tells Eli Lake of the Washington Times.

Forget the driven-by-DC mock-populism and the all-too-clever schemes; this is how America should be promoting democracy abroad. Give activists the tools — and then let them decide how and when to use ‘em.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the Voice of America and the Farsi-language Radio Farda, has a three-person anti-censorship team that focuses on China and Iran. “Iran has a growing audience of young activist Internet users and we have repurposed our tools to work in Farsi and make it available to Iranians,” BBG’s Ken Berman says. “We open up the channels so the Iranian blogosphere is more accessible to Iranians in Iran.”

However, there are questions about the U.S. Government's commitment in this space: FOIA requests have unearthed an incredible amount of abuses of spying powers at the NSA and the FBI, among others. And the front-runner for Obama's Cyber Security Czar, Tom Davis, is no champion of online rights. From a Wired profile of the former GOP Congressman:

...an examination of Davis’ record in Congress shows that he’s been on the wrong side of key privacy issues, including the controversial REAL ID Act, which aims to turn state driver’s licenses into a de facto national identification card linked by shared databases and strict federal authentication standards.

“Given his role in REAL ID, Tom Davis would not be a good choice for privacy, which is something that President Obama specifically promised to protect in his remarks on the cyber security strategy,” says Jim Harper, the director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Many cyber security planners refer obliquely to ‘authentication’ and ‘identity management’ programs that would devastate privacy, anonymity and civil liberties. Davis would probably work to roll past these issues rather than solve them.”


In announcing the creation of the new position last month, Obama stressed that privacy was key to the government’s cyber security efforts. But Davis’ most notable action on privacy was his failed attempt to undo a measure that put a chief privacy officer in every major government agency.

The ACLU’s legislative scorecard on Davis shows he disagrees with that group on many privacy matters.

For instance, he voted consistently to give the government wide latitude to wiretap the internet and spy on Americans’ communications. That program, including the NSA’s massive database of emails known as “Pinwale,” made news recently again when The New York Times reported that the NSA examined Americans’ domestic e-mails without authority.

Desperate Messages from Iran

I am going to simply repost a few of the recent Tweets from a reliable Iranian protestor I've been following on Twitter:

persiankiwi: we must go - dont know when we can get internet - they take 1 of us, they will torture and get names - now we must move fast - #Iranelection

persiankiwi: they pull away the dead into trucks - like factory - no human can do this - we beg Allah for save us - #Iranelection

persiankiwi: Lalezar Sq is same as Baharestan - unbelevable - ppls murdered everywhere - #Iranelection

persiankiwi: saw 7/8 militia beating one woman with baton on ground - she had no defense nothing - #Iranelection sure that she is dead

persiankiwi: they were waiting for us - they all have guns and riot uniforms - it was like a mouse trap - ppl being shot like animal

persiankiwi: we must go - dont know when we can get internet - they take 1 of us, they will torture and get names - now we must move

persiankiwi: in Baharestan we saw militia with axe choping ppl like meat - blood everywhere - like butcher - Allah Akbar - #Iranelection RT RT RT

Citizen Journalists Propel Iran Protests

On Friday, I wrote about the importance of citizen journalism in Iran. That importance has only continued to increase; while foreign reporters were already restricted to their rooms and barred from publishing anything without state approval, they are now being arrested in droves, most without formal charges. Reporters Without Borders issued this statement yesterday:

The Islamic Republic of Iran now ranks alongside China as the world’s biggest prison for journalists. The crackdown has been intensified yet again following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s endorsement of the result of the 12 June presidential election and the opposition’s decision to call another demonstration on 20 June.

Iran now has a total of 33 journalists and cyber-dissidents in its jails, while journalists who could not be located at their homes have been summoned by telephone by Tehran prosecutor general Said Mortazavi.

“The force of the demonstrations in Tehran is increasing fears that more Iranian journalists could be arrested and more foreign journalists could be expelled,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The regime has been visibly shaken by its own population and does not want to let this perception endure. That is why the media have become a priority target...”

Iran security forces have also begun to target anyone with cell phones or video cameras, meaning that those providing amateur footage from inside Iran are now taking an even greater personal risk. Even so, their work continues to provide a rallying point for demonstrators -- footage of a young Iranian woman named Neda, who was shot in the heart while standing in the street by a Basij militiaman, has "become a rallying cry for Iranian reformists and their allies internationally," prompting a mourning rally today and garnering coverage from CNN and Time, among others. I've reposted one of the videos below (there are several angles), because it is the most shocking, heartwrenching, and powerful footage I've seen out of Iran so far. However, please be aware that it is also very disturbing -- she dies on camera, so watch at your own risk

Police violently broke up the memorial protest for Neda today and prevented many from joining the thousands already gathered in 7 Tir square, but there will surely be further ramifications of her death. From the Time Magazine coverage,

...her death may have changed everything. The cycles of mourning in Shi'ite Islam actually provide a schedule for political combat — a way to generate or revive momentum. Shi'ite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh and 40th days after a death, and these commemorations are a pivotal part of Iran's rich history. During the revolution, the pattern of confrontations between the Shah's security forces and the revolutionaries often played out in 40-day cycles.

...Shi'ite mourning is not simply a time to react with sadness. Particularly in times of conflict, it is also an opportunity for renewal. The commemorations for Neda and the others killed this weekend are still to come. And the 40th-day events are usually the largest and most important.

Neda is already being hailed as a martyr, a second important concept in Shi'ism. With the reported deaths of 19 people on June 20, martyrdom provides a potent force that could further deepen public anger at Iran's regime.

Today, Senator McCain paid tribute to Neda on the Senate floor, joining the thousands of tributes already up on the web. But we should also pay tribute to those who are helping to document these atrocities; as one Iranian protestor wrote today on TehranBureau.com (via HuffPo and Nico's excellent liveblogging):

i wanted to take photos of the milit presence, but it was way too scary. honestly people who manage to record or take photos are incredibly shoja (brave).

Monday Buzz: Interpreting Iran, Much Ado About Millennials, More

Simon's essay about Obama and his response to the protests in Iran was at the top of the Huffington Post front page for a full day. His commentary on Iran was also the lead in the Moderate Voice's Iran roundup.

Morley and Mike have an excellent op-ed in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, entitled "Are the Millennials the New GI Generation?" (spoiler alert: yes, we are). Here's how it starts out:

It's a daunting time to be entering the workplace. Today's young adults -- like their great-grandparents eight decades earlier -- are graduating from high school and college and starting careers at a time when the American economy is shedding jobs at a record pace.

This newest adult generation, dubbed the Millennials, is known for its optimism and sense of personal confidence. But will those traits survive the new economic realities? Recent survey results suggest the answer is a resounding yes. Millennials are demonstrating remarkable resilience in the face of an economic crisis, even though the downturn has affected them disproportionately.

Check out the rest here.

Finally, HispanicBusiness.com reprinted Simon's quote in the Houston Chronicle from last week:

"This is a new America," said Simon Rosenberg, CEO of the Democratic group NDN, which specializes in demographic and technological change. "America is going through one of the most profound demographic transformations in all of its history. The Obama administration is simply reflecting the emerging reality of America in the early 21st century."

Friday New Tools Feature: A Different Kind of "Green Tech Revolution"

It's been a very busy week on the new tools front. On Monday, I wrote about "Social Media and the Iran Protests." On Tuesday, I wrote about how internet users around the world were hacking Iranian government sites, providing mirror proxies for Iranian activists, and even changing their locations to "Tehran" in a move straight out of "Sparticus."

Since then, the new-media blitz in Iran has only continued to accelerate. As foreign reporters leave the country in droves, citizen journalists there are taking matters into their own hands, uploading videos of beatings and shootings to YouTube and giving real-time first-hand accounts and organizing directions on Twitter.

These services, realizing how politically consequential they have now become, responded well to the situation. Twitter, heeding the pleas of many of its users and even the State Department, put off a critical scheduled update that would have interrupted service. YouTube made exceptions to its policy of banning violent material. From the New York Times:

“In general, we do not allow graphic or gratuitous violence on YouTube,” the company said in a statement. “However, we make exceptions for videos that have educational, documentary, or scientific value. The limitations being placed on mainstream media reporting from within Iran make it even more important that citizens in Iran be able to use YouTube to capture their experiences for the world to see.” 

Google, which owns YouTube, also just added Farsi (Persian) to its translator service, stating that they "hope that this tool will improve access to information in Iran and outside." Over half of Google's employees were born in other countries, which may help to explain their particular sensitivity on this issue. Finally, although the Iranian government has blocked Facebook, the social networking service added a Persian version today.

On Twitter, people around the world continue their outpouring of support - #iranelection is still the top topic, and a great deal of Twitter users (myself included) have made their icons green in a show of solidarity. For those that are not photoshop-inclined, you can even change it automatically by visiting helpiranelection.com, which turns your existing icon green (the "friendly web-geek" creator of this app is running this off of his own server at his own expense).

We will see where all of this leads. As I said myself, I don't think that the use of these new tools in and of itself constitutes a "revolution," as some have asserted. But it is very clear that, as the techniques and technologies of power multiply and evolve, so too do the methods of resistance. This organic, horizontal, distributed, and deeply democratic process stands in stark contrast to the autocratic theocracy that is the Iranian government.

What Is the Best Way for Americans to Help Iranians Now?

As we watch the situation in Iran unfold here in the United States, many of us feel a desire to do something to help - the human struggle for freedom is one of the most powerful things we can witness. In the past few days, much has been made of the Iranian opposition's use of Twitter to organize internally and communicate with the outside world. But what is equally remarkable is the response internationally, and particularly in the United States. Many users have made their icons green in a show of solidarity. And as Iranian authorities attempt to block Twitter as well, a cyber-battle has broken out, with activists inside Iran asking people to use simple hacks to overload Iranian government websites. Many Americans are trying to get involved this way, and are also setting up mirror proxies that allow people inside Iran to tweet without being blocked by the government's firewall.

As I said, the desire to help the people of Iran is a natural reaction for anyone observing the situation there. But I'm not really sure that this is the best way to go about it. Today, President Ahmadinejad

... sat side-by-side with world leaders at a summit in Russia, defiantly proclaiming the age of empires had ended and attacking the United States.

In a show of confidence after the worst riots in his country in a decade, Ahmadinejad made no mention of the violence or his hotly disputed reelection victory in his address to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

State-controlled Iranian newspapers are running headlines like "The vote of the Iranian people made U.S. and Israel's work much harder." It's great that Iranians have found a way to help ordinary people fight back online in a distributed fashion, both inside Iran and without, but I also worry that the more we get involved in this, the more Ahmadinejad and his ilk will capitalize on our "interference." 

Citizens here who want to help face the same difficult question that President Obama does - how can we support democracy and justice in Iran without fanning the flames of anti-Americanism? I think he played it just right in his comments today:

"When I see violence directed at peaceful protesters, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it is of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people."

Mr. Obama also said that "something has happened in Iran," leading to "a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past. That there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate and want to see greater democracy. How that plays out over the next several days and several weeks is something for the Iranian people to decide."

By all means, the rest of the world can and should show solidarity with the people of Iran. But if we are serious about the ideals of democracy and self-determination, we must also remember that in the end, this is Iran's fight, and we cannot fight it for them.

Social Media and the Iranian Protests

Iran is the third-largest blogger nation in the world (see video below), and has a particularly vibrant social media environment. So it comes as no surprise that, as the Iranian government tries to clamp down on media coverage of the unrest there, students and activists are turning to social media to bypass the regime's censorship. Andrew Sullivan wrote a very excited post today titled "The Revolution Will Be Twittered," where he exclaims that the opposition's innovative use of Twitter

...reveals in Iran what the Obama campaign revealed in the United States. You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.

...The key force behind this is the next generation, the Millennials, who elected Obama in America and may oust Ahmadinejad in Iran. They want freedom; they are sick of lies; they enjoy life and know hope.

Social networking sites have been helpful in mobilizing and organizing protests in a rapid and distributed fashion. They have also been crucial for getting information out of Iran to the rest of the world - the first word of today's shootings broke on Twitter, where today's top hashtag is #IranElections. Check out this firsthand account from @persiankiwi, or this one from mehran751 (translated):

RT: @nima68: RT: @mehran751: 4 shooted right in front of my eyes, i think 3 are dead #iranelection

Watching the footage of protesters in Iran today, it's impossible not to be moved - it reminds me in some ways of footage from the "velvet revolution" in the Czech Republic. But while I'm a strong proponent of the power of technology to affect social and political change, I do think that Sullivan's excitement about Twitter is a bit simplistic. As Tom Watson from TechPresident points out, "Twitter (and Facebook and text messaging and blog and YouTube) can be effective information outlets for revolutionaries, but it's utterly facile to suggest that information technology is driving the currents of unrest in Iran."

It may still be a bit of a stretch to call the use of Twitter itself a "revolution." That said, the Tweets and YouTube videos (and photos, like this one from the Boston Globe depicting a Mousavi supporter helping an injured riot policeman) that are streaming out of Iran are incredibly powerful, and we will continue to watch with acute interest to see how the online resistance takes shape there.

IRAN: A Nation Of Bloggers from ayrakus on Vimeo.

Monday Buzz: Hispanics' Widening Clout, A New Liberal Era, a Greener Grid, More

Simon was quoted in the Houston Chronicle and United Press International on the increasing political power of Hispanics in the United States. From the original article by Richard Dunham, the DC Bureau Chief for the Chronicle:

In addition to 33 positions requiring Senate confirmation, Obama has chosen 26 Hispanics for White House staff jobs— more than any of his predecessors. Civil rights advocates hail the increase in Latino employment in the West Wing and beyond.

“This is a new America,” said Simon Rosenberg, CEO of the Democratic group NDN, which specializes in demographic and technological change. “America is going through one of the most profound demographic transformations in all of its history. The Obama administration is simply reflecting the emerging reality of America in the early 21st century.”

But the record-setting pace of appointments reflects more than simple demography. It also reflects the complexity of a president who proudly calls himself an American “mutt” — the nation’s first biracial president, the son of an immigrant, a person who has experienced racism and benefited from affirmative action.

Simon was also quoted in Politics Daily on the prospects for immigration reform:

At the moment, though, there is no immigration legislation, just a vague Senate timetable. New York's Chuck Schumer, an adroit dealmaker who took over the immigration subcommittee from the ailing Kennedy, has promised to have a bill ready to send to the Senate floor by the fall. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (running for reelection next year in Nevada, a state in which about one-sixth of the voters are Hispanic) said last week that he wants to pass an immigration bill this year "if it is at all possible." But then there is the black hole known as the House of Representatives. Simon Rosenberg, the founder of NDN, a center-left Democratic think tank which supports immigration reform, said, "In the Senate, you have knowledge and sophistication on the issue. In the House – which has never gone through a serious debate on immigration – you have more ignorance and fear."

Simon also appeared extensively in an article by Chuch Raasch in the Statesman Journal called "Has a new liberal era begun?" From the piece:

Some leading Democrats believe demographic and technological trends have created a "new progressivism," in the words of Simon Rosenberg, founder of the left-leaning New Democratic Network.

"Allow us who survived the Bush-DeLay era to have at least a year of happiness," he joked. But in a seminar called "The Dawn of a New Politics" that he has given to Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, Rosenberg argues his case based on serious demographic facts:

— Obama won by more than 2-1 among voters under age 27 in 2008. They are part of the "millennial" generation, those between ages 6 and 27. Its 93 million Americans are 9 million more than the baby boomers. Rosenberg argues that voting patterns people establish in their 20s don't dramatically change later in life. But Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, says younger voters tend to be more malleable — and that this group is increasingly wary of the debt being piled upon it.

— Obama reopened a gap among Hispanic voters, winning them by roughly 2-1, after Bush had attracted 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.

These two groups help constitute "the most profound demographic change in all of our history since the Europeans arrived here in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries," Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg also says that like Franklin Roosevelt did with radio beginning in 1933, the left has embraced social networks and other new media more readily than the right. Obama organized volunteers and raised hundreds of millions of dollars on the Internet and is using the Web to push major policy initiatives, like health care, from the grassroots.

He says FDR's "progressive era" lasted for nearly 50 years, giving way to a quarter-century of "conservative ascendancy" that Rosenberg argues ended in 2006.

But whether Obama's "new progressivism" lasts is dependent upon several factors. One is whether median income rises; another is whether Obama gets comprehensive immigration reform passed.

Obama's selection of Sonia Sotomayor as his first Supreme Court nominee was significant to Hispanics, Rosenberg said, but he cautioned that if Obama doesn't do comprehensive immigration reform, it will be "a tremendous letdown" for this community.

Finally, Michael Moynihan argued for investment in smart grid planning in the Salem News:

"Before you spend billions of dollars on new lines, you have to spend millions of dollars on design work," said Michael Moynihan, green project director of Washington, D.C.-based think tank NDN. "Nobody had been thinking about this much money."

Most scientists and activists are touting that an investment of 2 percent of United States gross domestic product would solve carbon loading to the atmosphere. In the movie "A Sea Change," one expert compared the money needed to achieve green energy to spending an extra 10 cents on a bottle of cola.

6/15 Roundup: Iranians Take to the Streets (and Tweets), Obama and the AMA, More

Leader: Iran in Crisis

- The turmoil continues in Iran in the wake of Friday's disputed election results. Juan Cole makes a convincing argument that Ahmadinejad stole the election. Protestors continue to fill the streets. Iran's Supreme Leader calls for an investigation, but most are skeptical of his motives. The Iranian government continues to shut down domestic and foreign media. A blogger from Tehran University documents Iranian security forces destroying computers at the school. Although SMS text messaging has been blocked, some are still managing to get the word out on Twitter and YouTube. Meanwhile, Dennis Ross, the former State Department envoy to Iran, is reportedly being reassigned, leaving the U.S. position a bit unclear.


- President Obama is in Chicago today to sell his health care plan to a tough crowd: the American Medical Association (the group which originally coined that frightening term, "socialized medicine").

- In his Sunday column, Frank Rich looks at how conservative commentators are pushing right-wing domestic terrorists over the edge. Meanwhile, GOP electeds continue to rachet up the rhetoric. A prominent Republican activist likens Michelle Obama to an escaped gorilla on Facebook. Stay classy, GOP.

- In related news, the Holocaust Museum shooter's son says he wishes it was his father that had died. Disturbingly, Salon reports that the US military is now accepting white supremacists and neo-nazis.

- The New Yorker profiles Leon Panetta, Obama's new CIA chief, and looks at where he wants to take the organization. Panetta recently said that Dick Cheney's criticisms of Obama's national security policy suggest ""he's wishing that this country would be attacked again, in order to make his point." I like him already.


- Ahmadinejad has cancelled his trip to Russia, but leaders from China, Central Asia and Afghanistan met with President Medvedev today at "a summit that underscored Moscow's determination to maintain influence in its backyard and seek a stronger voice in global economic issues," reports the AP.

- Germany and France have summoned the Iranian ambassador to discuss their concerns about the contested election.

- Check out these realtime images from Iran via PicFog.

One More Thing:

- A 16-year-old boy recently discovered a plastic-eating microbe, which may help to solve our global waste crisis.


Watch, Attend: Tues, June 16 - Immigration Reform: Politics, Public Opinion and Legislative Prospects

On Tuesday, June 16, please join NDN to discuss the politics of, public opinion on and legislative prospects for immigration reform.

This forum is being held a day before President Barack Obama and Administration officials are slated to meet with congressional leaders about this critical issue. 

Joining NDN President Simon Rosenberg to discuss this important issue will be Andres Ramirez, NDN Vice President for Hispanic Programs.

Lunch will be served at 12 p.m. ET at the NDN offices, 729 15th St., NW, 1st FL. The program will begin at 12:15 p.m. ET. If you can't join us at NDN, you can watch the event and ask us your questions by clicking here for the live Webcast, which will begin at 12:15 p.m. ET.

To RSVP for the event this coming Tuesday, please click here.

To read more about immigration reform, please check out:

Making the Case: 7 Reasons Congress Should Pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform this Year, Huffington Post, 4/30/09

Making the Case for Passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform This Year, (PDF) by Simon Rosenberg, 2/19/09

Recent Polling on Immigration Reform, Benenson Strategy Group, 6/2/09

National Survey of Hispanic Voters on Immigration Policy, Bendixen & Associates, 5/18/09

NDN Backgrounder on Immigration Reform, 6/11/09

See you on Tuesday.

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