Opinion

The Great Debate

Social media and the new Cold War

There is a new Cold War starting. It does not involve opposing military forces, but it does involve competing ideas about how political life should be organized. The battles are between broadcast media outlets and social-media upstarts, which have very different approaches to news production, ownership and censorship. And some of the biggest battles are in Russia, where the ruling elites that dominate broadcast media are pitted against the civil society groups that flourish through social media.

Whereas broadcast media is most useful for authoritarian governments, social media is now used by citizens to monitor their government. For example, in early 2012, rumors circulated that a young ultranationalist, Alexander Bosykh, was going to be appointed to run a Multinational Youth Policy Commission. A famous picture of Bosykh disciplining a free-speech advocate was dug up and widely circulated among Russian language blogs and news sites, killing his prospects for the job (though not ending his career).

These are not simply information wars between political elites and persecuted democracy activists. There is a deep structural rift between the organization and values of broadcast media and those of social media. Putin is media savvy, but his skills are in broadcast media. The Kremlin knows how to manage broadcast media. Broadcasters know where their funding comes from, and they know what happens if they become too critical. Indeed, Putin’s recent changes to the country’s media laws are specifically designed to protect broadcast media and burden social media.

In Russia, critics have been driven into social media, where they have cultivated new forms of anti-government, civic-minded opposition. Russian political life is now replete with examples of online civic projects doing things the state can’t or won’t do. Liza Alert helps coordinate the search for missing children. Other sites track complaints about poor public services and coordinate volunteers. (Disclosure: I recently accepted financial support from Moscow State Humanities University for research and travel expenses.)

The most recent battle in the Media Cold War involves the government’s webcam system for monitoring elections. To prepare for the last election, the government spent half a billion dollars on webcams for every polling station in the country. With widespread skepticism about the transparency of Putin’s regime, this move was designed to improve the credibility of the electoral process.

from Paul Smalera:

Twitter’s censorship is a gray box of shame, but not for Twitter

Twitter’s announcement this week that it was going to enable country-specific censorship of posts is arousing fury around the Internet. Commentators, activists, protesters and netizens have said it’s “very bad news” and claim to be “#outraged”. Bianca Jagger, for one, asked how to go about boycotting Twitter, on Twitter, according to the New York Times. (Step one might be... well, never mind.) The critics have settled on #TwitterBlackout: all day on Saturday the 28th, they promised to not tweet, as a show of protest and solidarity with those who might be censored.

Here’s the thing: Like Twitter itself, it’s time for the Internet, and its chirping classes, to grow up. Twitter’s policy and its transparency pledge with the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects is the most thoughtful, honest and realistic policy to come out of a technology company in a long time. Even an unsympathetic reading of the new censorship policy bears that out.

To understand why, let’s unpack the policy a bit: First, Twitter has strongly implied it will not remove content under this policy. If that doesn’t sound like a crucial distinction from outright censorship, it is. Taking the new policy with existing ones, the only time Twitter says it will ever remove a tweet altogether is in response to a DMCA request. The DMCA may have its own flaws, but it is a form of censorship that lives separately from the process Twitter has outlined in this recent announcement. Where the DMCA process demands a deletion of copyright-infringing content, Twitter’s censorship policy promises no such takedown: it promises instead only to withhold censored content from the country where the content has been censored. Nothing else.

As a biological weapon, H5N1 is for the birds

By Peter Christian Hall
The opinions expressed are his own.

Amid the furor over the U.S. government’s move to restrict publication of vital research into H5N1 avian flu, no one seems to be challenging a key assumption—that H5N1 could make a useful weapon. It wouldn’t.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recently pressured Science and Nature not to fully publish two widely discussed papers detailing separate efforts to devise an H5N1 avian flu strain that transmits easily in ferrets and might do so among human beings. The proposed solution is to issue redacted versions and circulate details only to approved institutions.

This unprecedented interference in the field of biology could hinder research and hamper responsiveness in distant lands plagued by H5N1. If institutions there don’t know what gene changes to watch for, how quickly will we know if H5N1 replicates a pandemic combination defined by researchers on three continents?

Stopping the Stop Online Piracy Act

Now that Congress has hit pause on its controversial Stop Online Piracy Act and nearly every argument about the merits and failings of the piece of copyright legislation has been made, it’s a good time to ask: what, in 2012, will it take to actually stop a bill like this?

Because despite the delay, the situation still isn’t looking so hot for those looking to bring down SOPA. Amendments to tone down the bill’s more disliked points have been routinely defeated in the House Judiciary Committee by numbers sufficient to pass the bill to the full House floor.

But, at this point in the process, numbers aren’t everything. In the wake of the Arab Spring, talk of censoring technology hits the ears differently. More important is that in SOPA’s short two-month life, opposition to it has catalyzed online and off. But to succeed, its opponents will have to both boost the volume of their public alarm and convince Congress that, in an Internet-soaked 2012, questioning SOPA needn’t be politically fatal.

from David Rohde:

China’s newest export: Internet censorship

BEIJING -- This great city is the epicenter of a geopolitical battle over cyberspace, who controls it, and who defines its rights and freedoms. China’s 485 million web users are the world’s largest online population. And the Chinese government has developed the world’s most advanced Internet censorship and surveillance system to police their activity. 

Yet the days of Americans piously condemning China’s “Great Firewall” and hoping for a technological silver bullet that would pierce it are over. China’s system is a potent, vast and sophisticated network of computer, legal and human censorship. The Chinese model is spreading to other authoritarian regimes. And governments worldwide, including the United States, are aggressively trying to legislate the Internet.

“There is a growing trend toward Internet censorship in a range of countries,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a prominent online democracy advocate and author of the forthcoming book “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.” “The same technology that helps secure your network from attack, that actually enables you to censor your network also.”

China’s Web filtering starts in the West

Eric Auchard– Eric Auchard is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

The Chinese government has backed away from mandating filtering software on all personal computers in China, in a move that averts a dangerous escalation in its censorship powers.

But however controversial and unworkable China’s plan to require Internet filters on PCs proved to be, Western firms have largely themselves to blame for creating and selling such filters in the first place.

Advancing global Internet freedom

Leslie Harris – Leslie Harris is the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, DC. The views expressed are her own. —

In the wake of troubling reports as recently as last year that Western companies were assisting China with Internet censorship and the unmasking of cyber-dissidents, governments around the world seemed poised to regulate the conduct of Internet companies. Lawmakers appear to have stepped back from those efforts, but the challenges of advancing global Internet freedom remain.

The Global Online Freedom Act, drafted in the U.S. Congress, would have made it a crime for Internet companies to turn over personal information to governments in cases where that information could be used to punish dissent. The bill produced a firestorm of controversy. Human rights groups campaigned for swift passage, while the tech industry scrambled to stop the bill, which they viewed as a global eviction order from many difficult but emerging markets. At the same time, several members of the European Parliament proposed a European version of the measure, taking the accompanying controversy global.

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