Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Internet in Egypt – and the P2P alternatives

Last year I attended the Internet Governance Forum in Sharm-el Sheik, Egypt.  It was my first high-level international meeting, and I was shocked at what I perceived to be the lip service paid to openness and transparency, while all around was the experience of a repressive regime – armed police, walled compounds topped with barbed wire, security theatre at every door.  A controversy about a poster mentioning Chinese internet censorship.

One of my other memories was of the Egyptian First Lady Mrs Murabak usurping part of the IGF program to advance a personal interest in child safety that some delegates saw as a way of justifying limiting internet access in that country.

I came away from the meeting feeling rather depressed about the usefulness of these meetings for negotiating a global platform for free and open communication.

It seems my feelings were not unfounded.  As more and more Egyptians are joining demonstrations against Mr Murabak, Egypt has left the internet:  as James Cowie notes, “the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet.”

The protests will continue, of course.  But without as much freedom of speech for those in the streets, and without as much information for them about what the rest of the world sees.

What this also tells us is that the internet transformation into centralized infrastructure is complete.  It is now possible for a government to close down the internet for an entire country.  The promise of democratic distributed networks, remnants of which were being quibbled over at the IGF meeting in Sharm, has now been largely replaced by the reality of national-level routing by national ISPs. The myth of the internet as the de facto platform for citizen communication has been usurped by the reality of commercial platforms and ISPs subject to local laws and thus to local strictures.

Maybe it’s time now to think again about autonomous infrastructure. Since the 1950s and 1960s radio hams maintained a parallel network of radio communications in many countries, using frequency bands set aside for amateur use.  Community Wi-Fi networks have developed peer-to-peer networking systems that allow computers to communicate with each other over the air, and these ad-hoc networks are increasingly possible on mobile devices.  From past to future, all of these possibilities provide alternative means of distributing information among a public in times of crisis.

This is not to say that having a ham radio network or developing mobile handsets so they can more easily form an ad-hoc network will in itself compensate for the removal of an entire country from the world’s communication network.  Removing Egypt from the internet is a clear effort by the government to remove international oversight from today’s activities, as well as cutting off its citizens from each other.  It is only to underline that there are other means for publics to be formed, as as the internet comes increasingly to resemble a mass media behemoth, we might want to return our attention to them.

Not Yet Deluded: Responses to Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion

Tonight I chaired a public lecture by Evgeny Morozov, who is on a book tour with his The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World.

The book argues that, in the hype about the democratic potential of the Internet, we have overlooked the technology’s capacity to control dissent and even to support authoritarianism.  The internet, despite our hopes, doesn’t automatically establish democratic communications in repressive regimes.  Thus, we should make better internet policy that looks at the contexts in which technologies operate.

I’m not sure I agree.  I thought that the proclamations of cyber-utopia and the attendant disappointment when the reality fell short of the vision had been consigned to history at the end of the 1990s.  Surely, it is now possible to see that the Internet and the multitudes of social connections that it produces could be either positive or negative, or surely both positive or negative, depending on the context?  Is there a technology on earth that would be guaranteed to bring freedom and democracy without any of the bad stuff?

Regardless, the book presents some interesting new examples of how everyday people, activists, corporations and even authoritarian governments can use the opportunities of social media – for both good and evil.  The general narrative of these examples goes like this:  “activists use social networking sites to mobilize, and the rich data about connections that is generated helps them to situate their activism so it includes more links and connections than in the past.  HOWEVER, all those links and connections create data that evildoers (corporations or authoritarian governments) can use to track down those activists and dissidents.”   The more interesting examples cover the way that policy structures play into this duality – for example how existing policies are threatened by digital practice, or changed because of it.  Morozov also highlights how this “cyber-utopianism” and “internet-centrism” limit effective policy making by being too techno-centric.

There’s a weird way that the book falls into the same technological determinism it claims to decry.   If you didn’t imagine to begin with that the internet was going to be a democratic force, it wouldn’t be such a surprise that it wasn’t.  And further, the ‘democratization’ in question seems to be primarily American-style representative democracy, rather than radical participative democracy or media democracy – which you could argue adopt some of the internet’s opportunities.

The book dabbles in philosophy and popular culture, nodding at Kierkegaard and titling a chapter “Orwell’s Favorite LOLcat” but it lacks a sustained and deep theory of media.  Despite the length (400 pages) it reads as a collection of anecdotes that ultimately fails to develop a sustained policy critique based in a theory of what is unique about the internet.  This is a shame, since Morozov has strong expertise in internet advocacy in many non-Western contexts.

Beyond the simple premise, I had one other serious misgiving about the book.  Even though there is a bibliography for each chapter, none of the direct quotations in the text are cited.  This is no petty academic quibble – without a citation for a direct quote, it’s impossible for me to find the original work and judge Morozov’s interpretation of it.

I’m glad to see how this book captures the increasingly reflective zeitgeist of American geeks and cheered that Morozov thinks we need better policy (who doesn’t!).  But I encourage Morozov to dig a little deeper, push a little further, in his future writing.

“It is a new story, there was never one quite like it before” Moments in Media History

This week, I have learned effective means of  encoding criticisms of repressive governments, as well as how to distribute these messages in a distributed, non-hierarchical way that avoids the original source being located.  I have also become enlightened about the potential of individual citizens to transform a new technology into an alternative channel of communication, in contravention of local laws.  Finally, I’ve been reminded of the gap between the visions of the high-tech industry produced during economic bubbles, and the realities that they present for consumers.

All in a week’s work for a scholar of contemporary social media?  No, this week I’m reading communications history, which is my favorite way to reflect on the significance of changes to mediations of society, past and present.  The first example above is useful for thinking about what’s new about WikiLeaks and participatory media:  as Robert Darnton describes, when the Parisians of the Ancien Regime were forbidden to publish newspapers or anything containing news of the king, they created novels and songs that buried the un-knowable knowledge in rhyme and anagrams.  Because the songs changed every time someone sang them, the police were never able to find the “original” songwriter.  Instead they found a web of relationships that they tracked through tiny scraps of paper. (Note to student readers – we’ll discuss this next week.  Hopefully no spoilers here)

And lest we become too excited about the “single person organizations” facilitated by participatory culture and open-source, Susan Douglas reminds us of the popular furore about the “radio boys” in the first decade of the 20th century, when young men (note, never women, and see some of Susan’s later work) built their own crystal radio sets and formed an international brotherhood that also helped them to gain jobs and legitimacy in the new industrial economy – but also resulted in them breaking, and then changing, wireless transmission laws.  She also describes how the radio industry itself was a product of boom and bust, much like the Wi-Fi networking boom of the early 2000s.  Throughout the history of radio in America is a familiar narrative about innovation, progress, and American values.  There’s also a strong sub-plot in which the same rugged individualist inventors seek monopoly control, and the people struggle for rights to the airwaves.

Now I’m not saying that there’s nothing new under the sun.  As I wrote last time, some of the key things that has changed since the Ancien Regime and even since America in the 1900s are the structures of power.  18th century Paris was slowly industrializing but still shaking off feudal relationships and the chains of absolute monarchy.  19th century America invented broadcasting – and with it, the “mass public” of undifferentiated consumers as well as the monopoly communications companies that served them, and made money from connecting content and carriage.

The point I’m trying to make here is that every story is simultaneously an old story and a new story.  We keep remaking the world. Industrial and post-industrial human societies have amazingly persistent narratives of technological progress as positive, and individual innovation as the motor of that progress.  But beyond, and under these narratives are our sometimes scurrilous means of making do, speaking truth to power, putting status in the system, whatever you like. These small actions make changes:  they become part of the bigger stories.  And in order to see them, we have to be able to see both forward, and back.

* the title quotation is from Harper’s Weekly, January 30, 1909, and quoted in the always-excellent Inventing American Broadcasting by Susan Douglas (1987, p. 200)