NDN Blog

Recap: Advancing the Global Free Flow of Information

Earlier this week, we hosted a great conversation here at NDN on internet freedom and the global free flow of information. We heard from Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House, and Anita Ramasastry of the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration.

At Commerce, Ms. Ramasastry is also co-chair of the "Free Flow of Information on the Internet" working group in the Internet Policy Task Force. She spoke about the work of the IPTF, which has consisted of beginning to look at how censorship and restrictions on the free flow of information may impact trade, investment or economic growth. The Free Flow of Information working group has begun to meet with a number of stakeholders to determine the economic impact of restrictions and censorship, and is planning to publish a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) that will formally reqeust input from stakeholders to determine what restrictions exist, where they exist, and what burden they impose on business. 

Mr. Calingaert opened his talk by asserting that the internet offers great potential to advance human freedom, but is under assault from authoritarian governments.  He observed that many the most restrictive regimes in the world had become a great deal more technologically sophisticated in their censorship, contributing to five years of decline in freedom. He offered four major policy efforts that need to be pursued to promote internet freedom: First, a strengthening of the international consensus around internet freedom and bringing together stakeholders with a commitment to these issues. Second, to stop western companies from abetting internet censorship and surveillance. Third, empowering netizens and giving them a voice to fight against restrictive practices. Fourth, restrictions on the free flow of information need to be challenged diplomatically and multilaterally.

But don't take my word for it... The full video, including the feisty Q&A session, is here (the sound is a little low, so you may have to crank the volume):

Global Information Freedom: A Primer

I hope you'll be able to make it to our event tomorrow on practical approaches to internet freedom and the global free flow of information.  Should be an interesting talk.  You can RSVP here.  If you can't make it, tune in for the webcast here, which gets rolling at 12:15 pm EDT.

Below, I've pulled together some of our past work on internet & information freedom. Enjoy:

Phony Democracy and the Internet's Influence 7/6/10 by Sam duPont

Pakistan Quashing Net Freedoms, Citizens Speaking Out 5/20/10 by Sam duPont

Alec Ross on How the Internet Will Shape Open and Closed Societies 4/13/10 by Sam duPont

The Practical Questions of Internet Freedom 2/23/10 by Sam duPont

China's Censorship and Information Freedom 1/26/10 by Sam duPont

Should Access to Mobile Networks be a Universal Right? 12/21/09: by Simon Rosenberg

Twitter, Iran, and More: Impressions from the Front Lines of the Global Media Revolution 7/15/09: with Nico Pitney, Eric Jaye, and Theo Yedinsky

Harnessing the Mobile Revolution 10/8/08: By Tom Kalil

A Laptop in Every Backpack 05/01/07: By Alec Ross and Simon Rosenberg

Xenophiles Building Bridges

In the TED talk he delivered in Oxford yesterday, Ethan Zuckerman noted that while our world is more and more connected, and the problems we face are increasingly global, our media is becoming less global, and ever more isolated in national, lingual, and racial silos.  He talks about how people connect and (more often) fail to connect across boundaries, how xenophiles can find their place in "the full width and wonder of the world," and how we all can tackle global problems, globally.

But that's sort of a clumsy summary.  I'd rather you just watch the talk:

Upcoming Event on Internet Freedom: Tackling Barriers to the Global Free Flow of Information

Since Secretary Clinton's groundbreaking speech on Internet Freedom in January, the conversation about the free global flow of information has devolved into a back-and forth between tech-utopians and tech-doomsayers. Internet and mobile networks can be used effectively by dictators and democracy activists alike, and the more relevant question is how can we, as supporters of democracy, free commerce, and unfettered access to information, craft policy and otherwise support the use of these technologies to advance our goals.

I'm excited to say that on Tuesday, July 20, at 12 p.m., Global Mobile will be hosting a conversation about practical approaches to internet freedom and the global free flow of information.  Joining us will be Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House, and Anita Ramasastry, Senior Policy Advisor in the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration. A third panelist may be forthcoming, but you'll have to check back later for news on that.

I hope you'll RSVP if you can make it to our offices on 15th Street.  If not, we'll of course be webcasting the event live.  Should be an interesting conversation on a timely subject. I, for one, am looking forward to getting pas the hype hearing about how various groups and organizations are practically addressing barriers to the global free flow of information. Which is to say nothing of the sandwiches that will be available, as well.

Phony Democracy and the Internet's Influence

The Post has published a couple opinion pieces in the past couple days-- one from Fred Hiatt, and a column by Anne Applebaum-- both addressing the state of democracy in the world. Applebaum applauds Secretary Clinton for her appearance at the Community of Democracies in Krakow, and issues a call for full-throated support of democracy to return as an objective for American foreign policy.

Hiatt riffs on the work of Freedom House, observing that the forward march of freedom, after decades of remarkable progress, has ground to a halt.  In recent years, we have seen the tide recede, with basic freedoms curtailed and many democratic governments slipping away from basic democratic values like rule of law, press freedom, and open markets. Hiatt blames this regression on repressive governments learning from past mistakes and evolving to be smarter and more effective:

Dictators have learned from each other to stamp out any buds of independent civil society by means of tax laws and supposedly neutral regulation. With China in the lead, they learned not only to neutralize the World Wide Web but to turn it into an effective weapon for propaganda, tracking and repression of their own citizens, and attacks against democratic rivals. Taking advantage of their control of television, they mobilized ideologies of nationalism and anti-terrorism to undermine the rhetoric of freedom...

Three assertive powers -- China, Russia and Iran -- not only resist democratization but actively seek to disseminate their model of authoritarian rule in their spheres of influence.

I think Hiatt is quite right that there is a new trend in authoritarianism, and one that is gaining momentum.  But one of the funny things about this resurgence of authoritarianism is that, unlike the communist states of the 20th century, these autocrats aren't trying to win on the power of their argument. Really, democracy can already boast rhetorical victory, and the fact that these autocrats hold power in part by perpetrating a charade of democracy is a testament to that.  As Applebaum writes:

Countries as disparate as Russia, Venezuela and Iran have become adept at using the rhetoric of "democracy" -- along with faked elections, phony political parties, even state-controlled "civil society" organizations -- to deflect pressure for change.

These prosperous yet undemocratic states like Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and China offer the trappings of democracy, with few of the freedoms. Their ideology is a daunting competitor, and developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia face a choice between developing as open, free-market democracies, or as closed, statist autocracies. Increasingly, countries are sliding in the wrong direction.

ChinaIn the quote above, Hiatt cites control of the internet as a powerful tool for manipulation and repression by these authoritarian governments. And in truly, madly, deeply authoritarian states like China, North Korea, Belarus, or Syria (or the other 16 countries that grace the pages of Foreign Policy's review of the 20 least free places on earth), that's true.  But I think that internet and mobile networks actually make it harder for states to put on the "charade of democracy" that lets modern authoritarian governments legitimize themselves to their own people and to international observers.

Up until last June, Iran's Islamic Republic was a prime example of a repressive, dictatorial government that managed to be seen as legitimate by many of its own people and many in the Islamic world thanks, in part, to a machinery of democracy that they operated.  But when it didn't produce the result they wanted-- the wrong guy won the presidential election-- the machine started working against them, with the relative free speech and free association they permitted on internet and mobile networks helping to organize an opposition movement.

Iran cracked down, hard.  The government gave up its claim to democratic legitimacy, and the state has been pushed out of the middle ground into a position where everyone can see the regime's true nature.  Increasingly in the coming years, new connection technologies will force governments in this phony middle ground to make a choice.  With powerful tools for organizing, advocacy and communication in the hands of every individual, you can't fake democracy.  Elections are easier to monitor, movements are easier to organize, and the truth has a lot more routes to the people.

Some countries will follow Iran's path: give up their claim to democratic legitimacy and tightly control freedoms of speech and assembly on ICT networks. For other governments, that may not be worth it, or may not be possible, and we may see some developing countries, faced with a fork in the road, taking the path toward openness. As these technologies make phony democracy impossible, countries will have to choose their course, and if anything, we can surely expect the chasm that divides open and closed societies in the 21st century to grow still deeper and wider.

Broadband Stimulus: Jobs Now, Jobs Later

President Obama announced 66 new stimulus projects this morning devoted to expanding broaband networks, particularly in rural America. This announcement came as the decidedly mixed June jobs report showed how far we have yet to go before we're on solid economic ground. Said Obama, in the announcement:

Broadband can remove geographic barriers between patients and their doctors. It can connect our kids to the digital skills and 21st century education required for the jobs of the future. And it can prepare America to run on clean energy by helping us upgrade to a smarter, stronger, more secure electrical grid.

The projects draw from funding contained in the Recovery Act passed last year, and the $795 million will be handed out by the Commerce Department and the Department of Agriculture. Altogether, the projects are expected to create 5,000 constructions and installation jobs in the coming months.

That's a low number, but it doesn't account for the long-term benefits that come from broadband.  As Obama said, "All told, these investments will benefit tens of millions of Americans. More than 685,000 businesses, 900 health care facilities and 2,500 schools will see positive gains from them." Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack emphasized the benefits that farmers could reap from broadband access, but talked also about the benefits to education, healthcare, and economic development that rural areas would gain from broadband.

In Kashmir Uprising, Government Bans SMS

Kashmir, the restive and contested region divided between India and Pakistan, has in recent weeks seen a surge in violence after a long period of relative calm.  Kashmir has been the flashpoint of three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947, and Indian-controlled Kashmir saw brutal, persistent violence from 1989 up until the early part of this decade, as the Indian government tried to crush an independence movement, with Pakistan-based terror groups throwing fuel on the fire. The past few years, however, have been characterized by relative calm, with violence abating, tourism returning, and tensions relaxing.

KashmirIn the past few weeks, a great deal of that progress has evaporated.  On June 11, a 17-year old Kashmiri student was killed by an exploding tear gas shell during an independence demonstration in Srinagar.  Since then, at least 11 more Kashmiri civilians have been killed, as Indian forces have shot and beaten protesters after being pelted with stones.  In their latest move, the Indian Army has instituted a lockdown on the cities where protests have occurred, and, as of yesterday, the Indian government has banned text messaging.

Back in November, I wrote about the Indian government's ban of pre-paid cell phones in Kashmir-- a part of their effort to diminish the photos, videos, and other first-hand accounts of the disproportionate, often unprovoked violence of the Indian army. This new ban of SMS messaging is not cloaked in any excuse about fighting terror-- it's simply part of an effort to prevent protesters from organizing themselves while under citywide lockdown.

India certainly has legitimate security concerns in Kashmir; Pakistani terrorist groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba have exploited the situation to stage attacks on Indian forces. But banning text messages is just the latest iteration of the Indian government violating the rights of all people in these cities to quell violence that began with their own army's misconduct.  Increasingly, tools like SMS and pre-paid cell phones are vital tools for information access and communication, and denying access to these tools has to be seen as a violation of the right of equal access to information. 

What's more, this episode is evidence that mobile phones-- which put extraordinary power in the hands of individuals-- tend to empower groups of individuals, rather than centralized authority.  Yes, the government has the power to switch off the network, but that's an extreme move.  Maybe the most accurate way to say it is that the advent of the mobile phone makes it harder to be "just a little autocratic." If you're going to crack down, you've got to crack down all the way, or the power of the network will remain.

To some degree, that's what's happened in Iran since last year's fraudulent election.  A government that used to be "somewhat authoritarian," was faced with an increasingly well-organized opposition, and forced to either let the opposition movement continue to gain steam, or crack down hard.  The government opted for the latter, and in so doing, lost an awful lot of legitimacy in their own country and around the world.

Ultimately, I do think this growing global network will be a force for freedom rather than oppression.  In the shorter term, I think it is likely to widen the chasm between democracies and dictatorships, as it will force the countries in between to choose one path or another.

Poll & Presentation: The Changing Coalitions of 21st Century America

Today we hosted a special presentation of the second installment of a poll release which takes another in-depth look at how America's population is changing, and how the two political parties are responding to these changes.

The poll finds that 21st Century America looks, acts and thinks differently than the country did in the last century and that only one political party is be building a coalition that reflects the demographic and attitudinal direction in which the nation is headed.  Specifically, the survey finds major differences between Democratic and Republican identifiers on the major issues currently confronting America. 

In case you missed the event, the presentation and executive summary of the poll are available here.  Enjoy!

The World is Going Wireless

The world is going wireless.

- Barack Obama, June 28, 2010

At least, that's what the press release said.  In a few more words, the White House outlined yesterday a general plan to release 500 mHz of spectrum for use in mobile & wireless broadband.  The plan didn't get into the nitty gritty specifics-- where exactly all the spectrum will come from, whether some will be reserved for smaller carriers-- but it offered a mandate for Congress and federal agency heads to go forward with updating our spectrum allocation. 

Really, I don't have a lot to add to the President's memo:

Few technological developments hold as much potential to enhance America's economic competitiveness, create jobs, and improve the quality of our lives as wireless high-speed access to the Internet. Innovative new mobile technologies hold the promise for a virtuous cycle -- millions of consumers gain faster access to more services at less cost, spurring innovation, and then a new round of consumers benefit from new services. The wireless revolution has already begun with millions of Americans taking advantage of wireless access to the Internet.

Expanded wireless broadband access will trigger the creation of innovative new businesses, provide cost-effective connections in rural areas, increase productivity, improve public safety, and allow for the development of mobile telemedicine, telework, distance learning, and other new applications that will transform Americans' lives.

In the past couple years, mobile video has been driving innovation and adoption of mobile broadband.  It's also been choking up networks-- mobile data traffic has been increasing by over 130% annually-- and it's only going to get more congested without additional spectrum. This is important leadership on an important issue, and I'm glad to see the White House pushing the ball forward.

Innovation in Learning: Lessons from the Slums

Charles Leadbeater is a researcher at British think tank Demos who focuses his work on innovation. He recently delivered a TED talk about innovation in education, and he challenges his audience to think beyond the places we typically look for new ideas in education-- places like Finland, where prosperity and homogeneity contribute to success that is difficult to replicate.

Leadbeater knocks the "19th century Bismarckian school system" that still prevails in most of the world as increasingly irrelevant to students and to the world they live in.  And he encourages people to look for innovation in the places where that system is least relevant: the favelas of Rio, the slums of Patna, or Kibera in Nairobi.  In these places, where a teacher in a traditional classroom delivers lessons based on a tight curriculum, forcing students to memorize the kings and queens of England, the education system couldn't more more irrelevant for children. 

For these students, more relevant learning would cover topics like "how not to contract HIV," or "carpentry 101," that would help them stay alive and find a job.  But even this "extrinsic" motivation for going to school, based on a long-term payoff, is not enough for the slum-dwelling poor-- the "long-term" is just too long.  And so the most successful innovations in education have also included some intrinsic motivation, making learning relevant, fun and accessible.  Put another way, if the Bismarckian education system was based on a "push" of knowledge to students, a new model needs to be based on a "pull" toward learning.

Not surprisingly, many of the most successful innovations in education have introduced technology to technology-poor regions.  Leadbeater talks about programs that have brought computer labs into Rio's favelas, or installed single computers at the entrances to the slums in India's megacities. These projects have gone a long way toward pulling children and adults alike toward learning by making it relevant and accessible. 

Why is this important here in the US? Because here, also, students are increasingly finding the schools they visit everyday disconnected and unrelated to the world they live in.  This is particularly true with regards to technology. More and more students have cell phones, and they're texting up a storm.  Increasingly, they won't find a job after graduation if they're not computer-literate. So when they go into a classroom in which a 19th century schoolhouse teacher would feel at home, it's a bad disconnect from the outside world.

Innovation in EducationLeadbeater broke down innovation in education into a two-by two box, which I've replicated at right.  Most of the innovation we see today occurs in the top-left box: sustaining innovation based in formal classroom settings that, at best, improves what we have.  He argues that we need a lot more innovation in the other three boxes-- particularly in the bottom right, where disruptive innovation in informal, non-classroom settings will lead to a transformation of learning.

It's a really interesting talk, and now that you've spent half an hour reading me gush about it, you might as well spend the 20 minutes to watch it yourself. 

(h/t Jason)

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