NDN Blog

President Obama at the UN on Open Civil Society

President Obama addressed the UN General Assembly yesterday, and focused his speech around three ideas: nonproliferation, the new peace process in the Middle East, and human rights.  In the third part came this excerpt on the importance of open civil societies:

The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble and by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change and by free media that held the powerful accountable. We have seen that from the South Africans who stood up to apartheid, to the Poles of Solidarity, to the mothers of the disappeared who spoke out against the Dirty War, to Americans who marched for the rights of all races, including my own.


Civil society is the conscience of our communities and America will always extend our engagement abroad with citizens beyond the halls of government. And we will call out those who suppress ideas and serve as a voice for those who are voiceless. We will promote new tools of communication so people are empowered to connect with one another and, in repressive societies, to do so with security. We will support a free and open Internet, so individuals have the information to make up their own minds. And it is time to embrace and effectively monitor norms that advance the rights of civil society and guarantee its expansion within and across borders.

Open society supports open government, but it cannot substitute for it. There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny. Now, make no mistake: The ultimate success of democracy in the world won’t come because the United States dictates it; it will come because individual citizens demand a say in how they are governed.

It's great to see this kind of strong human rights language coming from the President.  It's also nice to hear the President mention the potential of new technologies in the context of facilitating stronger, more open societies around the world. Here, why don't you just read the whole thing.

Choosing Evils

I'm in Budapest this week for a conference co-hosted by Google and Central European University-- "Internet at Liberty 2010." The highlight of this morning's sessions was a "very short history of the internet and free expression" offered by Rob Faris of Harvard's Berkman Center; I'd commend you to read Jillian York's liveblog of that session if you're curious. The highlight of the afternoon, and what I'll reflect on, was a conversation looking at the challenges for the internet industry in dealing with the issues surrounding freedom of expression on the internet. In these questions of corporate policy lie much of the current struggle to ensure the free flow of information and freedom of expresion on the internet. And tension between these values and concerns of privacy, security and decency are driving much of the debate.

As Leslie Harris of Center for Democracy and Technology aptly put it in a comment, content hosts like Facebook are, in many ways, the "arbiters of free speech" in our technology-dense world. With the network becoming increasingly global, they often find themselves caught between protecting the value of free speech and obeying the rule of law-- what's free speech in one place might be libelous, or obscene, or just downright felonious somewhere else. So when one country comes to Facebook with a request that they remove some piece of content, Facebook has to make a choice. A choice that Lord Richard Allan, Facebook's head of European Privacy, describes as choosing the lesser of two evils.

Illustrating one of the evils Facebook has chosen was the scandal earlier this year around the Facebook group "Draw Mohammed Day." Despite the Pakistani government's demands to eliminate the group, Facebok deemed it a legitimate expression of free speech. As the inevitable consequence, Pakistan blocked access to all of Facebook for a period of days. In the end, Facebook and the Pakistani government both earned the ire of different groups.

But there have been other instances in which Facebook has chosen to censor content-- the conversation today took a zany turn today for a case study on breastfeeding. In the United States, it turns out, breastfeeding in public is against the law. And in compliance with the law, Facebook has taken down thousands of photos of women breastfeeding-- including many photos taken outside the U.S., and submitted by users living outside the U.S. But because they're accessible in the U.S., Facebook won't host the photos; they could be sued if they did.

It's certainly a curious position for a company to be in, making decisions about what constitutes free speech and what's over the line. And it can surely become an uncomfortable position when they make a controversial call. But what's the altnerative?  The role of the intermediary-- Facebook, in this case-- is one of the toughest questions for people working on these issues, and incorporates huge concerns about privacy and security. I'm looking forward to more of this discussion tomorrow.  Check back here for more in-depth recap and analysis...

(Unrelated, I was on the radio today-- AM 1500 in DC-- talking about digital diplomacy. Enjoy.)

New Paper on "Internet Freedom" & "21st Century Statecraft"

Hot off the inter-presses today is a new paper from NDN & the New Policy Institute by yours truly looking at the State Department's "21st Century Statecraft" and "Internet Freedom" initiatives. The paper is more overview than analysis-- something I decided was necessary after reading the July essay on digital diplomacy in Foreign Affairs that I took down in a blog post and then delicately deconstructed for Foreign Policy. From the executive summary:

Not intended to be comprehensive or critical, this paper attempts to define and clarify these initiatives and the arguments supporting them, and offer a platform for further debate. These are new, evolving but crucially important issues, and informed conversation about the role of technology in our world is critical if these technologies are to be a positive force in history.

I mean, right? The hope is that this paper will be a resource for people new to these issues, and a fact-based starting point for further debate.  So here it is. Enjoy.

In the Paper: Mobile Phones Transforming the Developing World

In today's Washington Post, I'll highly recommend Cecilia Kang's review of the ways mobile phones are beginning to transform the developing world.  Snippits:

The Grameen Foundation, a Washington-based group known for helping women with the smallest of business loans, has two dozen people in a technology lab here developing mobile Internet applications to help spread its microfinance model. It's warning farmers in Uganda about banana crop rot through text messages and collecting data on spreadsheet applications on smartphones.

And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has dedicated $12 million to help village farmers in Tanzania, Cameroon and Rwanda save money through electronic mobile phone deposits. It has launched a $10 million contest in Haiti to fund the best mobile banking ideas to channel earthquake relief to people who would otherwise stand in long lines at overwhelmed bank branches to collect cash. (Melinda Gates is on The Washington Post Co. board of directors.)


A bank branch transaction costs $2.50 in the Philippines but if done on a mobile phone can be reduced to 50 cents or lower, according to CGAP. The cost to set up a village shop as a bank agent is relatively low, the group said, and studies in Africa show that mobile banking agents at village shops are generating more cellphone banking transactions than Western Union on the continent.

Mobile phones have also spurred new programs in health, agricultural and educational development.

In the past two months, Grameen has registered 500 expectant parents in the Kassena-Nankana area of Ghana, near the border with Burkina Faso, to receive free, regular phone calls and text messages guiding them through pregnancy. At week seven in the pregnancy, a parent receives a text reminder to take a malaria vaccination. At week 37, the parent is told that contrary to myth, eating fruit such as mango and proteins such as eggs is nutritious and won't harm the fetus.

Read the whole thing here.

21st Century Statecraft, a Poor Choice of Words, and How Much that Matters

I know I'm not the only one glad to have Evgeny Morozov back from the Belarusian forest and his poking, prodding skepticism back in the blogosphere-- I missed having his posts as fodder to disagree with, and my blood pressure has felt a little low in recent months. His critique last week of Haystack, the much-ballyhood secret censorship-evading software developed by Austin Heap, though almost too snarky to take seriously, leveled serious criticism and raised good questions about a project that has received a lot of press and praise. But his latest contribution, The 20th Century Roots of the 21st Century Statecraft, is a little lite.

Morozov's basic critique is, first, that the tech folks in the government are a little too chummy with the tech industry people. Fair enough. It is surprising that more people haven't ended up in hot water for the very close relationships between a few select tech firms and the federal government. It may yet cause problems-- both political and, as Evgeny points out, for the implementation of our foreign policy.

In the second half of his post, though, things get weird. Evgeny warns of ill-defined "spillover effects" that will follow from pursuing "21st Century Statecraft" and "Internet Freedom." Because Twitter won't solve all manner of non-digital foreign policy problems, he argues, these new strategies are likely to corrode the rest of foreign policymaking, and the State Departments new "utopian agenda" will distract from the real business at hand.

This doesn't really make much sense, and I think Evgeny senses this, as he keeps backing away from his snarkier rhetoric, to the position that the real problem is a failure to communicate.  That is, his main issue seems to be that "Internet Freedom" and "21st Century Statecraft" are just bad labels. Which they are, I'd say. The phrase "internet freedom" has been widely hijacked to mean everything from Twitter-fuelled regime change to net neutrality; a more apt definition for the State Department's stated ambitions would be "freedom of expression on the internet." Bad name? Yeah, probably. Utopian agenda that will overwhelm all other forms of diplomacy? Nuh uh.

All this is made weirder by the fact that, in closing, Morozov pines for "A much more important and far-reaching global debate about the future of foreign policy in the digital era." With her speech on Internet Freedom in January, Secretary Clinton probably did more to broaden the debate about foreign policy in the digital era than anybody else could have.  Yes, State's work has spun off a lot of tangential, even unhelpful side conversations-- that's to be expected. But I'd say the sort of side-swipes Morozov takes at State in this post are equally unhelpful in advancing a broad global debate about international affairs in a digital age. Language matters, but getting hung up on a few bad labels doesn't get us anywhere.

Global Mobile Goes Global

Mobile Phone CakeGlobal Mobile has been quiet this week, and we'll be quiet for another week while I'm away from Washington and my blogging tools, exploring the world in the first person.

It bears noting that Global Mobile will celebrate its first anniversary while I'm gone.  So light a candle, have a cupcake, and revisit what we were talking about one year ago next week.

See you soon!

Verizon & Google Propose a Legislative Path to Preserve the Open Internet

Well, everything our trusted news outlets told us last week was wrong.  Google and Verizon weren't cooking up a back-backroom scheme to undermine the open internet, nor were their talks about placing shipping containers full of Google servers in Verizon's parking lots, as a NYT op-ed suggested (I couldn't tell if it was serious speculation or a joke at the expense of the rumor-hungry tech media). 

Verizon & GoogleAs it turns out, their announcement, which is only the latest in a year of cooperation between the companies on this issue, is simply a suggested legislative framework for Congressional action on net neutrality-- and a very moderate one, at that. In March, Tom Tauke, EVP of Verizon, gave a speech here at NDN in which he made the argument that Congress needed to write new legislation, clarifying the government's role in regulating the internet. With their joint proposal, Google & Verizon have waded deeper into the specifics of how that legislation could be written.

The proposal offers clear support for the fundamental principles of net neutrality: ISPs would not be allowed to discriminate against any legal content, applications, or devices, and would be required to be transparent in their network management practices. The FCC would hold regulatory authority over the internet, enforcing consumer protection rules on a case-by-case basis, and would have the power to execute on their widely-lauded National Broadband Plan. The proposal does, however, have two important carve-outs, which I will address in turn:

Wireless. Mobile broadband is exempt from the proposed net neutrality rules, with the exception of the transparency requirement. The wireless market, they argue, is both more competitive and less mature than the wireline broadband market, and because of that, ought not be subject to new regulation. I think this is compelling.  The U.S. wireless market is legitimately competitive, unlike the wireline broadband market. I, for one, have but a single unsavory choice for broadband at my home-- and that's in a major city-- but everyone has at least four options of wireless carrier. And wireless truly is changing rapidly: 3G networks, rolled out in the middle part of the last decade, completely changed the way we use our mobile devices, and as 4G networks spread in the next year or two, I think we'll see yet another revolution. 

This blog is always keen to point out that the future of the internet lies on mobile devices, and eventually, the mobile internet will be virtually indistinguishable from wireline broadband. It's important that the Google & Verizon proposal doesn't rule out future regulation of the wireless space. In the proposal, the GAO is tasked with monitoring the wireless space to ensure it remains competitive and open, and consumer protection groups must remain vigilant as well. But for now, the market is working well, and consumers have options. While that persists, and while we see where wireless innovation leads us, I think it wise to avoid new regulation.

"Differentiated Services." This is a more complex carve-out, and one that raises more questions than it answers. Google & Verizon describe a network parallel to the "public internet" that could host such services as "health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options." The proposal explains that "Such other services would have to be distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service, but could make use of or access Internet content, applications or services and could include traffic prioritization."

Critics of the plan worry that, despite assurances, this parallel network would serve as a loophole for ISPs to prioritize paid content at the expense of the free, open, "public" internet. That is a legitimate concern, and your support for this element of the plan will probably track with your trust that ISPs will be transparent and supportive of the broad principles laid out in this proposal. But I think the more important question is whether there is a role for the kind of services they describe, and whether there is a need for those services to run on a network separate from the "public" internet.

Global Mobile is a big booster of the role the global network could play in healthcare, education, energy, and other sectors. Connection technology could play a huge part in reducing healthcare costs, as has already been demonstrated around the world. Access to the world's information will clearly be a crucial part of a 21st century education. And the smart grid-- a necessary facet of energy reform in this country-- will rely heavily on the broadband network. Is there a need to prioritize these types of information, and separate them from the "public" internet? Well, we don't know because we haven't tried.

The proposal puts the onus on the FCC to monitor these "differentiated services" and ensure that they're not being used as an end-run around net neutrality rules. As in the mobile space, careful vigilance will be necessary to ensure this carve-out isn't being exploited as a loophole. But provided these differentiated services don't hamper the internet as we know it, there is ample room for ISPs to experiment with new services over their network, and help healthcare, education, energy, and other sectors innovate their way into the networked 21st century.

Bottom line: This is a serious contribution to a debate that has not always been sensible and reasoned.  It's not the solution-- just a compromise suggested by two of many stakeholders-- and our policymakers will still have to make the final decisions. But I hope this proposal will provide critics on both sides a framework for more serious discussion.

21st Century Statecraft & Digital Diplomacy

On Friday I responded to an ill-informed Foriegn Affairs article that levelled mostly unfounded criticism at the State Department's "21st Century Statecraft" initiative. Apparently I wasn't the only one irked by the article, and the editors at Foreign Policy asked me to expound upon my response, and offer a different perspective of digital diplomacy.  So I did.  Here's your teaser:

This summer, techies across Africa are racing to develop mobile-phone "apps" that make their users' everyday lives just a little bit better. The best among them will be chosen as the winners of the "Apps <4> Africa" contest, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and three local technology communities: the Nairobi-based iHub, Kampala-based Appfrica Labs, and the Social Development Network, which works throughout East Africa. Judged on such criteria as their "usefulness to the citizens, civil society organization or government of East Africa," the winner will receive "a small bit of fame and fortune" and the tools to keep honing his or her craft. What the United States hopes to get out of the project is a little bit of grassroots, bottom-up development driven by nothing more than African ingenuity and the continent's mobile-phone network.

This is "21st Century Statecraft," a new diplomatic initiative that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has fully embraced over the past year. Forget the grandiose name; the idea behind it is actually a modest, practical one: In today's interconnected world, individuals and organizations -- not just countries -- can play a defining role in international affairs, and the State Department needs to capitalize on this new landscape. Ultimately, Foggy Bottom plans to infuse its mission with an understanding of how the global communications network ties the world together; for now, the initiative consists of a series of smaller projects designed to use the Internet, mobile phones, and social media to promote U.S. foreign-policy goals.

But to read the whole thing, I'll have to encourage you to visit Foreign Policy. Enjoy!

Setting the Record Straight

Working in a geeky little niche as I do, it's never a surprise to encounter well-informed people who actually don't have a clue what I mean by "mHeatlh" or "digital learning" or "intermediary liability."  But (and maybe this is just the IR student in me) I expect more from Foreign Affairs. Their online article "Getting Digital Statecraft Right," by Betsy Gelb and Emmanuel Yujuico is so flawed and misinformed, I feel the need to set them straight here-- a bloggerish indulgence that I don't usually go in for.

The problems begin in the first sentence, as Gelb & Yujuico announce that "In January, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the United States to pursue a policy of 'twenty-first-century statecraft,'" which is, in fact, something the Secretary first called for eight months earlier, in May of 2009. But the bigger issues with their piece are rhetorical, and seem to stem from a misunderstanding of how the State Department has integrated connective technology into their work over the past 18 months, and the nature of their stated plans to continue doing so.

The authors compare our government's efforts to leverage the global communications network to Henry Ford's crackpot scheme to build a model midwestern town in the Amazon rainforest, and to the One Laptop Per Child program's misguided attempts to shower the developing world with inexpensive technology. It's entirely unclear how these failed schemes relate to State's efforts to conduct public diplomacy via social media, or their effort to see internet censorship treated equally to offline censorship.  But somehow, the authors take the lesson that Secretary Clinton is overreaching with her "grandiose" strategy.

While I think Gelb & Yujuico are right that "small wins" are a better objective than "transformative victories," I think the most cursory review of the State Department's 21st Century Statecraft initiative will reveal that its achievements and ambitions are, in fact, small-scale and focused on solvable problems. While the objectives of the Internet Freedom initiative are clearly broader, the intent is not any massive social change, as the authors imply; rather, it's about establishing an understanding that basic human rights ought to be respected in the online sphere.

But deeper than all that, what Gelb & Yujuico misunderstand is that the State Department's efforts are not rooted in some messianic desire to change the world. The truth is quite the opposite: 21st Century Statecraft and Internet Freedom are initiatives crafted in response to changes in the way our world works. We're not throwing technology at other countries and hoping it makes them prosperous and democratic. The technology is already there.  The network is already global. And what the State Department is doing is an attempt to use the same tools that everyone on earth is using, for the same objectives they've always pursued.

Shoot, maybe I should just write my own essay about this.

Global IP Rights & the Free Flow of Information: Prerequisites for Job Growth in Technology

Last week, Rob, Simon and Jake teamed up on a paper addressing the anemic job creation rates we've seen in the U.S. over the past decade, putting forward a few different explanations of the problem, and offering a series of policy ideas to address both short term unemployment problems and long term, systemic issues with job creation.

There's a lot in the paper that should interest we Global Mobile people.  The last real expansion in the American job market came in the 1990s, largely on the heels of growth in the telecommunications and technology sectors. But some of the driving factors behind the stagnant wages and negligible job growth of the past decade are technological as well.  From the paper:

The spread of information and Internet technologies across American factories and offices not only made millions of positions redundant. These developments also created a growing mismatch between the skills of millions of American workers and the new abilities required to be productive in jobs throughout the economy.

So it follows that part of the solution is technology-based, as well. The policy section of the paper calls for free IT training for all American workers, and "innovation centers" -- an idea that was echoed by David Brooks in his column yesterday. 

I want to post-facto add another dimension to the paper-- another possible explanation of lackluster job & wage growth, and another prescription for potential improvement.  It's less significant than the issues they hit upon in the paper, but one that is, I think, worth some thought and discussion: the question of intellectual property rights, and the closely related issue of the free flow of information on the internet. 

As Rob laid out in his (highly recommended) 2008 paper on The Idea-Based Economy and Globalization, intellectual property-- patents, brands, trademarks, databases, relationships, business methods, and other institutional knowledge-- make up 60% of the market cap value for the world's 150 top corporations.  In 1984, the proportion was very different: 75% of a company's value was in its physical assets.  This shift is thanks, in part, to the technological revolution of the past few decades. An improvement of IT has allowed companies to make much better use of information, and put a lot more investment into intangible intellectual property.  And throughout the 1990s, the U.S. saw significant economic growth thanks, largely, to growth in the telecom and technology sectors-- which are even more dependent on their IP than most other sectors. Microsoft, for example, is a company that is not worth very much at all without its IP.  The same goes for Google, or Apple, or even a company like Nike.

If we want to see more investment in innovation and R&D, innovation centers are a great way to go about it.  But no corporation is going to put money toward developing ideas if they can't be confident they will own their intellectual property, and have rights over it-- not just in the U.S., but around the world.  And as long as pirated copies of Microsoft Windows are easier to find in China than legitimate versions of the software, and the global trade in pirated DVDs rivals or outpaces the trade in legal DVDs, the incentive for investment is going to be lower than it could otherwise be.

Meanwhile, many of these same companies have great incentive for the global flow of information to be free and open.  Corporations in the telecom industry and the high-tech industry (particularly in software and web services), have a major stake in ensuring that the internet remains a single, global network, rather than a series of isolated, national intranets. The same is true for the media and entertainment industries. Time Warner, for example, has huge potential markets for their content in countries like China-- where more people speak English than in the United States.

Information and internet technologies drove a lot of job growth in the 1990s, and their successes have helped make a lot of jobs redundant in the past decade.  I think there is the potential, in the coming decade, for the high-tech sectors to again be major drivers of job growth. To maximize this potential, greater worldwide protection of intellectual property rights and the preservation of the global free flow of information are important objectives for our government.

For more on this, check out the remarks of Anita Ramasastry, Senior Policy Advisor at the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration, at an event we hosted last week.

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