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Iran has a vital online community of around 60,000 active blogs and up to 20 million people connected to the internet. As the Iranian cyber world is dynamic, so is government filtering of what content is accessible to Iranian citizens.

Beyond pornography websites, Iranian authorities target many political and social blogs and websites, depriving many from receiving information and expressing their ideas. The Iranian government does not have well-defined red lines, and it changes its filtering policies often, “giving” or “taking” virtual lives at will.


Iranian internet users are met with this image if they attempt to access content that is filtered

In this post we will discuss several issues related to filtering and try to clarify some common misunderstandings.

– Astronomic numbers:

Iranian officials in 2006 reported that 10 million websites and blogs had been filtered and 90 percent of them contained “immoral” content. A few months ago, another report said 5 million websites and blogs had been blocked. A judiciary official also said at the end of last year, that an additional $5 million (US) will be invested in a new ‘filtering system’. Faced with these astonishing numbers, Bruce Etling from the Berkman Center’s ‘Internet and Democracy Project’ blog at Harvard School of Law was not entirely pessimistic writing that the Iranian government claims are overblown, and that their own study shows that only a fraction of the Iranian blogosphere is blocked.

– Top filtering priorities:

  • Persian news websites such as BBC Persian, AmirKabir, a student news publication, and Balatarin, a popular citizen media portal.
  • Women’s rights activists, student movements, anti-government, political, anti-filtering and human rights blogs: We4change, a women’s activist blog/website, has been filtered more than 20 times. In reality, no website or blog is immune to filtering.
  • Social networking: Flickr and Orkut are currently blocked, BUT in last two months Iranians have been able to access Facebook and YouTube, although they were also blocked before. Iranians also have access to MySpace and Twitter.

The Iranian state’s change of policy regarding Facebook and YouTube again shows the changing nature of its filtering policy. The reasons for this change of policy have not been announced and people are left to speculate. Some think the government became ‘more gentle and open’ because the presidential elections will are coming up in the summer. Others are more pessimistic and think security forces want to watch people’s of the social networking websites to learn ‘who is who’ on the internet.

– What about English news sites?:

Iranians have access to most international news media such as the New York Times or Israeli news websites. It may be surprising for some to learn that anti-Bush and anti-Iraq war publications such as the Huffington Post or Informed Comment where many demands for the US government to engage with Iran have been filtered from the public for a long time.

– Are Islamist websites filtered too?

The answer is yes. Fatemeh Rajabi, is the wife of the Iranian government’s spokesman and a strong supporter of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Still, her site/blog was filtered. She used to insult many other high-ranking Iranian politicians. Websites that favour the former president, Mohammad Khatami, such as Yari News, get filtered too.

– Who does the filtering?

An official filtering committee is composed of members of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the Intelligence Ministry, National TV and Radio. Their orders are executed by the Iranian Ministry of Telecommunication. It is rumoured that police forces, wish to send a member to this committee too.

– Testimonies and stories:

  • A first-hand testimony, interview with Jomhour an Iranian blogger.
  • A few Global Voices roundups about Iranian challenges, from collective filtering to the feelings of a filtered blogger.
  • I know many bloggers share Freekeybord’s opinion that filtering is really stupid. He claims his blog was filtered two months ago, but he now gets more visitors than before..

We have got some disturbing news from Bangladesh.

E-Bangladesh reports:

RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) members assisted by BTRC (Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission) officials are conducting house-to-house searches in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet pinpointing each and every internet user with a fast connection. In an unprecedented move that clearly violates privacy rights and threatens freedom of speech and communication, a special cell comprising RAB and BTRC officials are now collecting user details — name, address, login and usage statistics — from all the ISPs (Internet Service Provider) in order to profile more than 450,000 internet subscribers in the country.

(Photo credit: E-Bangladesh)

In a memo no. BTRC/E&O/ISP-Gen.(302)/2007-1697, issued on September 26 (displayed above) BTRC is asking from 72 ISPs of Bangladesh the followings:

– To provide BTRC with details of bandwidth lease and usage.
– To provide details of “corporate/dedicated/shared” clients: Name, address, IP.
– To provide copies of technical agreements with connectivity providers.
– To reveal individual client MRTG URL (which monitors internet usage) with user id and passwords.
– Full subscription forms of users.
– ISPS must have complete information regarding the exact location of the client (No mention of what will happen with the scratch card dialup users with internet based simple registration).

Failure to comply with BTRC demands within 15 days of the letter date may result in closure of the ISP, the memo warned.

A System Administrator of one of the ISPs told E-Bangladesh:

If this continues then using internet in Bangladesh will become a crime sometime soon. We have to shut down our business. These people [RAB] enter our server rooms without permission and ask stupid questions and misbehaved. I was informed by my sources inside BTRC that these house-to-house searches will intensify from next Thursday. If they go to people’s houses like this they will stop using internet out of fear. If I have to reveal my admin password, user logins and passwords, what kind of service am I going to provide? Where in world they have found this formula?

Its apparently a process of registering the users through the ISPs. The authorities are collecting these sensitive info under duress from ISPs. Every users internet usage then can be monitored and they will be within reach because they have to provide address.

It is clearly a huge blow against human rights. So under whose authority BTRC is doing this is a question, which every Bangladeshi should be asking. A commenter in E-Bangladesh reveals:

This current action is primarily carried out under the purview of an amendment [of 2006] to BTRC Act, 2001 which basically gives blanket wiretapping/monitoring powers to law enforcing agencies. BTRC Act 2001: Amendment 97: a, b, c.

Although this amendment contradicts one of BTRC’s prime directives: “To ensure protection of the privacy of telecommunication.” (BTRC Act, 2001. Para 30(1)(f))

And I’m not sure searching individual private citizens’ residences are permitted even under the amended rules! And there may be doubts on the constitutionality of the entire 2006 amendment.

BBC Bangla Service picked up this story in its daily Parikrama of its evening show on October 4, 2007.


Headline: Authorities in Bangladesh have taken measures to strengthen control on internet services provided.

Bangladesh Telecommunication regulatory commission (BTRC) has taken some measures to monitor the Internet usage after a meeting with the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Association of Bangladesh. BTRC has also decided to create a database of the internet users of Bangladesh.

The ISP association’s general secretary Russel T Mahmood tells BBC Bangla: “The most important thing is security. You know that people are threatening with emails, using email for various things. If these are not controlled from a central point you cannot trace them. The whole thing is to establish a control mechanism. We ISPs have corporate clients as well as individual clients. They have sought the details of these clients from us. How much bandwidth they uses, what are their IPs, what are their usage patterns these are basically the requirement from us. What we can fathom is that this is to monitor and prevent people from doing anything outside the legal boundary with bandwidth purchased from ISPs.”

Mister Chairman, distinguished members of the Committee:

I would like to offer my deep appreciation for the Committee’s interest in this important matter. Congressional engagement is an important factor in deepening understanding of the nexus between global Internet freedom and corporate responsibility, and an essential element for ensuring that the Internet continues on its path towards becoming an ever-greater force for democratic participation and human rights advancement worldwide.

My name is John Palfrey. I teach Internet law at Harvard Law School. My primary research interest is in examining issues related to the Internet and democracy. I am also Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Of relevance to this hearing, I am a Principal Investigator of the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a project based at the University of Toronto, the University of Cambridge, the Oxford Internet Institute, and Harvard Law School, that has been conducting research and analysis of Internet censorship, filtering, and surveillance practices worldwide. I submit this testimony along with my colleague, Colin Maclay, Managing Director of the Berkman Center. Together with other great colleagues at Berkman, we have spent over two years on a multi-stakeholder effort—involving companies, non-profits, socially responsible investors, and other academics—to develop principles and associated implementation measures for technology companies seeking to protect and advance privacy and free expression worldwide.

The strides made through this initiative—engaging a range of parties, deepening understanding of the complexity of the issues for each stakeholder, and working towards a viable solution—have been encouraging. I would urge you to support the recommendations generated by this process, in lieu of strong legislation at this time. As this testimony will demonstrate, due to the dynamic nature of the ICT sector and the complexities of the existing regulatory environment, legal regimes cannot adequately address the dilemmas posed by the rise of global filtering, censorship, and surveillance practices worldwide, and are unlikely to be capable of doing so in the near term. Furthermore, the proposals currently being considered could be harmful in the long run, by forcing organizations out of foreign countries altogether or by requiring them to break local laws. At this moment of dynamic change, it would be premature to act now with blunt legislation. Rather, there are several activities which the US government could support and contribute to, such as constructive policy engagement, collaborative learning, multi-stakeholder input and commitment, further technological innovation, and user empowerment, that could have immediate impact not only on our understanding of the landscape, but on our ability to positively contribute to protecting the human rights that are at risk. Furthermore, with practical implementation and global acceptance, the principles that arise from this multi-stakeholder initiative may merit codification by Congress in the relatively near future.

Current State of Affairs and Trends

Since I last testified in February 2006 before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations and the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, the prevalence of Internet censorship has continued to grow in scope and in depth. Our research through the ONI has identified over two-dozen states actively filtering Internet content, up from a handful five years ago. As access to information and communications technologies (ICTs) increases further, this trend seems likely to continue.

Technological innovations have fueled the expansion of Internet filtering and censorship, enhancing their sophistication and consequently creating troubling implications for human rights. Recent research suggests that several countries are investing in technologies that increase their capacity to target specific web pages, information sources, and applications. Surveillance technologies are likewise advancing, offering states expanded opportunities to eavesdrop on the communications of their citizens. Meanwhile, systems for storing and analyzing data continue to decline in cost, which allow governments to extract new information from existing data originally collected for other purposes.

A related and significant development is the growth of social media (including video and photo-sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr among others), which significantly amplifies—and further complicates— unresolved tensions concerning content control. As these platforms are combined with other emerging technologies for content analysis, new censorship and privacy concerns will emerge.

Conflicts between differing expectations of privacy, data retention laws and practices, in addition to divergent approaches to traditional telecommunications and Internet communications regulation, give rise to increasingly hard problems. For example, Internet filtering and surveillance involves hardware providers, software providers, and service providers, and US firms are not the only companies offering these products and services. These factors remind us that issues of Internet freedom are part of a much larger policy and technology ecosystem, and require care accordingly.

The Corporate Dilemma

With over a billion people on the Net and about half the world with a mobile phone, more people than ever are using digital technologies and integrating them deeply into their lives and livelihoods. Governments are ever more cognizant of the double-edged sword that technology represents— as both a tool to foster economic growth and competitiveness, and as a potential threat to government sovereignty and power. As governments seek to control information and online activities, private actors, including ICT-related firms, are increasingly called upon to assist in carrying out those efforts.

In our recent book with our ONI partners, Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering, we proposed a taxonomy that describes various types of companies and their involvement in these practices. We identified ICT firms as hardware providers, software providers, online service providers, online publishers, telecommunications providers, and other content providers. Describing them in terms of function, we characterized their activities as direct sales to governments of software and services for filtering online content and for surveillance; direct sales to governments of dual-use technology similar purposes; and offering a service that is subject to censorship, that censors publications, or requires personal information that could be subject to surveillance. Considering these companies functionally is a useful way to examine their activities.

In past hearings, proposed legislation, and the public eye, perhaps the greatest focus has been placed on the activities of the most visible and widely known companies—those in the third category, offering online services. These companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!, have shown sustained interest in resisting government demands to assist with censorship and surveillance, and a desire to engage proactively in developing strategies to address the human rights challenges they face. It is important to note that for each of these companies, a core business goal is to provide access to high-quality and secure information and communications services, and that their incentives are thus better aligned with the interests of their users than those of repressive governments.

Within this landscape, it is important not to neglect the companies selling software and hardware directly to governments, as they too form an important layer of the censorship and surveillance ecosystem, and have thus far been relatively silent on these issues. In addition, there are a host of other US businesses that use the Internet to transmit data across borders —from banking and other financial services, technology licensing, news media, and hotel services— each of which may come into contact with government policies on free expression and privacy as they operate in different countries and across jurisdictions. In this testimony, we focus primarily on those who provide online services, because that is where we can lend the greatest insight, precisely because these companies have been willing to jointly explore the obstacles they face.

Conflicting law and dual purpose technologies

Mapping digital technologies onto the governance gaps created by globalization—and identified in the fine work of John Ruggie, our colleague at the Harvard Kennedy School and the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights— creates multiple conflicting legal and normative regimes for companies to navigate. Governments may regard companies providing online services to their citizens as similar to their own national media and telecommunications companies—and therefore subject to the same expectations—regardless of the law of the company’s country, its market orientation, or its physical presence in the country. They may expect these companies to adhere to laws and social norms about content parameters (ranging from intellectual property to pornography and national security), and to provide personal information about their users when requested for law enforcement purposes. Some governments have also shown a lack of understanding of how the Internet works—and what is realistically under the control of a company, and what, such as user-generated content, is not.

Companies face a huge challenge as they seek to separate legitimate state requests from those that would require them to abridge human rights. For example, they must discern the difference between claims related to ongoing criminal cases, including kidnapping, terrorist threats, or child pornography, and those that seek to limit fundamental rights by stopping the flow of relevant public information or staunching peaceful political opposition. Thus, a priority must be the creation of effective internal systems, to enable thoughtful assessments of these types of requests, and to ensure that their responses are nuanced and appropriate, protective of the rights of specific citizens in addition to the rights to expression and privacy.

Once a company comes to a decision regarding the legitimacy of the request, it must also consider the consequences of complying or not complying. Acquiescence to illegitimate requests may cause them to jeopardize their social and economic values by abridging core human rights. They may also incur risks such as losses in user confidence, brand identity, profit, and employee satisfaction, as well as the threat of legal (including shareholder) action. However, choosing to push back or initiate legal action can also generate risks. In choosing to resist law enforcement demands, companies may endanger operating licenses and institutional relationships, and more importantly, the potential safety of their employees on the ground. In the case of ill-chosen resistance, the risk can be broader, extending to public safety and beyond.

Public Awareness, Pressure, and Understanding

Public awareness of these issues continues to grow. High profile violations of the rights to expression and privacy, shareholder actions, human rights campaigns, academic analysis, and Congressional interest have kept the pressure on. Companies are increasingly aware that the challenges they face are real and lasting and require a concerted and sustained effort in order to confront them effectively. The value of this rising awareness, however, will be greatest if accompanied by a deep understanding of the issues, so as to create robust and lasting solutions.

The cases that attract public attention are often extreme examples of the challenges ICT companies face. For example, China’s censorship, manipulation, and detention practices are a real and immediate danger. However, associated media coverage does not span the range of issues but instead directs public attention to the problems that are the most straightforward to address. High profile cases are deeply unsettling at best, but they are closer to the sharp and menacing tip of the iceberg rising above the waterline than they are to the substantial and complicated dangers lying below it. The threat to digital expression and privacy is global and extends well beyond what is commonly reported, and the practices of any one state should not dominate our understanding and approach to solutions. We must opt to address the complexities of these issues that lie beyond the public eye, and bring them to light with greater transparency and accurate data. From that understanding, we have a much stronger platform upon which to develop solutions that engage the wide range of stakeholders necessary to affect change.

Constructive Engagement

Despite the substantial human rights challenges that the ICT sector faces, the continued presence and constructive engagement of technology companies in these markets is critical. The tools and services offered by ICT companies bring social, economic, and political value through increased information and communication and through improved business and cross-cultural connections. They also hold great promise for international development. Furthermore, American businesses can influence positively the practice of government and local businesses, bring greater transparency to interactions that are often opaque, and provide a continued platform for informed government-to-government and government-to-individual exchanges. A collaborative approach in which stakeholders create principles for operating in such regimes will, over time, generate opportunities for mutual learning, respectful exchange of views, and more effective solutions.

Conversely, the disengagement of these stakeholders from foreign markets through legislative would likely not improve the situation. Competitors to the US companies are on the rise, and placing limitations on the engagement of US firms in these markets runs a very real risk of simply handing them to other companies who may be less open to constructive influence and may have a lower commitment to human rights. Thus, rather than focusing on limiting opportunities for US corporate activities, it is important to address challenges to privacy and free expression so as to have a positive and sustained global impact on the behavior of companies based both in the US and around the world, as well as having a positive impact on the regulatory environment in which these companies operate overseas.

In an industry in which rapid change, innovation and evolution dictate that these dilemmas will remain a moving target, and subject to shifting technologies, business models, regulations and politics, the creation of an adaptive platform is essential. These multi-faceted scenarios suggest the wisdom of establishing a collaborative forum for multiple stakeholders— including government, nonprofit, academics, and business— to come together for learning, coordinated action, increased transparency, innovation, and enhanced channels of communication, to promote a nuanced understanding that will benefit all stakeholders. This process has been started, and would benefit from broad support.

Recommendations on a Starting Point

Over the past two years, in partnership with the Center for Democracy and Technology and Business for Social Responsibility, in addition to other academic institutions, human rights groups, socially-responsible investors, and leading ICT firms, the Berkman Center has been involved in a collaborative initiative designed to identify solutions to the problems related to freedom of expression and privacy online.

As the Committee recognizes, these matters are complex. After two years of deliberation and study, we understand more clearly the nuances and complexities of the issues. However, we are still far from defining solutions to these growing challenges. Furthermore, we believe that legislative action now that would prescribe what US companies can and can not do overseas would be premature and potentially damaging to the long-term objective of promoting greater freedom online.

This process represents a promising way forward, one that we believe will ultimately inform legislation and serve as a productive means of interaction with government. It calls on companies to develop a dynamic principles-based approach to ensuring that they operate ethically, consistently, and strategically (for human rights advancement) in these charged contexts, with an emphasis on strong internal rights-focused processes that are supported and informed by group collaboration. While the Principles, Implementation Guidelines and governance structure are as yet not finalized, we expect that agreement and initiation of collaboration will take place in fall 2008.

It is important that any legislation not be tailored so broadly as to attempt to confront every issue and actor with one set of rules, but neither should the law address one set of issues and ignore the others. A better approach is to promote the learning and deeper understanding that would lay the foundation for future legislation, ideally in conjunction with the aforementioned Principles process.

If the Principles that are currently being developed in the context of the multi-stakeholder process are implemented, grow in stability, and gain acceptance, they will be a good basis for future legislation to codify and bolster the norms that emerge.

We offer the following for your consideration, many of which have emerged from the Principles initiative:

1. Support Research, Learning and Awareness

Contribute knowledge and resources to improve understanding of online censorship, filtering, and surveillance practices. Facilitate the preparation of annual human rights reports that include assessments of the risks to freedom of expression and privacy with respect to ICT. Fund research into relevant legal regimes, events, and trends in Internet freedom, and make the results publicly accessible.

2. Create Alternative Paths

Fund and promote the development and dissemination of innovative technologies that promote Internet freedom. Contribute to education and awareness regarding online security.

Explore options for structured cooperation with foreign law enforcement by creating or adhering to a recognized, standardized and streamlined process for legitimate requests for information from US companies, such that companies have guidance on the appropriate course of action, and pressure on companies to physically locate data in certain jurisdictions is mitigated.

3. Build Partnerships and Enhance Coordination

Create regular opportunities for open exchange between the ICT sector, human rights organizations, academic researchers, and the US government. Consistently and strategically raise concerns about surveillance and censorship in appropriate international bi- and multi-lateral fora.

4. Create Incentives

The current multi-stakeholder initiative is a promising near-term approach to understanding and addressing the challenges faced by US companies providing services internationally via the Internet. The US government can best assist this effort by providing incentives to cooperate with this multi-stakeholder effort, and should avoid legal restrictions or penalties that could discourage cooperation.

Promote the compilation and sharing of information. Facilitate the sharing of information by companies on threats to free expression and privacy. Assist companies in tracking threats to free expression and privacy.

Recognize and reward legal, practical, organizational and technical progress on these issues by countries, companies and other innovators.

5. Lead the Way

The US government can help to facilitate change in policy regimes worldwide by closely examining our own regime and then sharing resources with other countries willing to follow our lead.

Identify and address inconsistencies in US policy including privacy, data retention, surveillance, anonymity and speech, recognizing that a holistic US policy framework informs related approaches in other nations.

Assist countries in clarifying and improving their policy regimes with respect to ICT generally, and privacy and expression specifically.

6. Foster Transparency

In order to address fully the challenges in this sphere, we should encourage companies to be more transparent about the impact of their policies and practices on rights of privacy and freedom of expression. There are a number of ways that these companies can make their actions more transparent to users, more protective of civil liberties, and more accountable to all of us.

Encourage US companies to inform users about content restrictions or threats to privacy in a clear and timely manner, recognizing legal restrictions.

7. Codify the Principles

To extent that the multi-stakeholder Principles initiative leads to a workable solution, the US Congress should consider legislating this approach over time, much as Congress did with regard to the Sullivan Principles.


The Internet has the capacity to foster active and participatory democracies around the world, and to advance and protect the human rights of expression and privacy. The rise of filtering, censorship, and surveillance practices worldwide has profound implications for the global development, proliferation and health of democratic values—such as privacy, access to information, participation, freedom of expression, and other human rights. Because the Internet is a truly global network that shows no sign of slowing down, the ramifications of restrictions within the online space should be of paramount concern to US policy-makers, and should inform their relationships and negotiations with governments worldwide. We support Congress’ laudable effort to improve understanding of these important and timely issues.

There are significant challenges and complex ethical dilemmas across this landscape for corporations, governments, and users. At this relatively early stage of our understanding, any legislative approach should support adaptive, realistic, and engagement-oriented efforts by companies operating in these contexts. We must buttress this legislative approach with increased knowledge, communication, study, and coordination to help turn back threats to human rights. Ultimately, while the measures we and others have offered will hopefully increase Internet freedom, the only truly reliable way to reduce excessive filtering and inappropriate surveillance is via a change of policy within the countries where this occurs.

Written testimony of John Palfrey with Colin Maclay, May 20, 2008, to the US Congress.

2005 » Jun » 15 » Internet Reshaping Middle East Politics, Starting with Iran…

Internet Reshaping Middle East Politics, Starting with Iran

Unlikely ‘net geek,
Likely winner

If the free flow of information is the enemy of repressive regimes, it’s no wonder authoritarian states have attempted to censor online access to it. So the U.S. foreign policy establishment might do well to reconsider its approach to altering the political map of the Middle East. After all, why place hundreds of thousands of troops, not to mention civilians, into harm’s way and spend hundreds of billions of dollars to wage a war when the growth of the internet is already redefining and reshaping Middle East political processes? USA Today writes that the country apparently most affected is none other than that prominent “Axis of Evil” bogeyman, Iran. Meanwhile, an article in MarketingProfs highlights the online and offline branding efforts of the frontrunner, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in this Friday’s presidential elections in Iran.

Internet usage is growing faster in Iran than anywhere else in the Muslim Middle East, according to a recent Stanford University study. It has transformed campaigning and is laying the groundwork for political change. The transformational power of the internet has brought to the election campaign a free-flowing flurry of blogging activity, allowing the campaigns themselves, not just the man – and woman – on the street to bypass restrictive state-run television and the limited number of newspapers.

Personal freedom is a major issue in the presidential campaign, as are the economy and Iran’s isolation from the West. Candidates often use the unofficial political sites “to spread rumors and trash other candidates,” says Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian who introduced blogging in Farsi (Persian) three years ago. Iranian newspapers then print the information, citing the websites. “They are using this mix of media to influence the public,” Derakhshan says, who adds that there may be as many as 100,000 blogs in Farsi.


The Emergence of New Media in Hong Kong Politics

By Rikkie L.K. Yeung

The new media—manifested by Internet fundraising, online volunteer recruitment, political blogs, homemade Youtube videos promoting or bashing candidates, etc.—are playing a significant role in the 2008 American presidential election. Encouraged by the rise of the “netroots” influence in the 2006 mid-term elections, benefiting mainly liberal insurgents against the Republicans, at least three Democratic presidential candidates (Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards) announced their candidacy on the Internet instead of through conventional means of press conferences. The traditional media are leveraging on the rise of Internet politics, too. CNN, for example, organized primary debates through Youtube.

The idea of digital democracy—adopting digital media tools that are accessible, affordable, interactive and network-based to empower individuals to participate in politics and enrich grassroots democracy—has stimulated much attention in the new millennium. This was partly why last year Time Magazine selected “You” as its Person of Year. In America, the concept of digital democracy is being gradually developed into real politics through strategic deployment of the new media (mainly the Internet) in elections by politicians and activists.

What about Hong Kong? E-politics clearly is emerging in the wealthy international city. Hong Kong is technologically ready. But the progress of political use of the new media lags much behind that in the United States, mainly due to constitutional constraints in addition to other socio-economic and cultural factors. The Hong Kong experience contrasts with that of America in many ways. Whereas the netroots are making a direct impact on electoral outcomes in the U.S., the new media has only had indirect impact on political results in Hong Kong. So far, the use of new media in Hong Kong politics has been found mostly in the democracy movement and opposition to government policies. Ordinary citizens took the lead over political leaders in digital activism. They spontaneously employed information technologies successfully to mobilize many mass protests and get-out-the-vote operations.

Hong Kong politicians are gradually realizing the potential of e-politics. The campaign blogs of Alan Leong versus those of Donald Tsang in the Chief Executive election last March created much excitement in the still immature political blogosphere. The new media will most likely make a larger presence in upcoming elections this year and in 2008. Other political usage of the new media is also emerging in the civil society.

Technologically ready but …

Hong Kong has one of the best information-technology infrastructures in the world. Its educated population readily accepts new communications technology and has affordable access to the Internet and mobile networks. In fact, information technology is already part of the American and Hong Kong ways of life. Internet penetration rates in the US and Hong Kong were over 69%, ranking as the world’s eighth and ninth respectively. Hong Kong has even more impressive penetration rates in broadband and mobile networks. The household broadband penetration rate (over 66%) ranks higher than that of the US. On average, each Hong Kong citizen holds more than one mobile phone (at a subscription rate of over 120%) whereas the subscription rate in the US is around 70%.

Despite the technological readiness, many aspects of cyberspace that already are a must in American political life do not exist yet in Hong Kong; these include a vibrant political blogosphere, Internet fund-raising, online volunteer recruitment and election campaign websites that allow interactivity with readers. Political and civil society leaders in Hong Kong seem slow to recognize, and sometimes hesitant to explore, the potentials of Internet power. Instead, the use of cyber-power gradually emerged from mobilization of mass protests against the HKSAR government in a bottom-up, grassroots-based and often spontaneous fashion.

Turning point in 2003

The turning point was no doubt the mass protest by more than half-a-million people on July 1, 2003, the commemoration day of the 1997 handover to China. The Internet was an “accidental hero” of that protest. In the spring of 2003, the vibrant city almost stood still behind surgical masks when the mysterious SARS epidemic, originating in China, broke out in Hong Kong. All classes in schools and universities were closed. Business activities were dramatically reduced. Many citizens, especially young people, stayed home and relied on the Internet for communication. The SARS outbreak was the calm before a political storm
Before SARS, a mass opposition campaign against the government’s national security bill was already in the making. Those unpopular legislative proposals were to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law to outlaw activities of subversion, succession, treason and political connection to foreign bodies, etc. The national security bill triggered Hong Kong citizens’ worst fears about losing freedoms, especially among middle-class professionals and educated people. The community detested the government’s method of bulldozing legislation to passage and for siding too often with pro-Beijing groups in debates. After SARS broke out, public campaigns against Article 23 became impossible. Campaigners delayed a planned protest to July 1, a few days before the 23 bill was expected to be passed by a pro-establishment majority in the legislature.

During the silent SARS period, nonetheless, public grievances towards the HKSAR government accumulated quickly. People vented their anger at its handling of the national security bill, the failure to contain an epidemic that caused the highest number of deaths (299) of any city in the world, as well as other unpopular government policies—through the Internet. People exchanged jokes and criticism of the administration, participated in chat-rooms to discuss Article 23 and sent emails to their personal networks of families, friends and colleagues, urging them to join the July 1 protest.

Spontaneous virtual campaigns against Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Article 23 legislation flourished. Article was initiated by former legislator Cyd Ho to provide information to “counter official misinformation and misrepresentation” about the national security law. The popular was initiated by a freelance website designer and political unknown, who found himself having plenty of free time during SARS and built the website to express disapproval of the government. Adapting a classic Canto-pop tune, “Under the Lionrock”, RebuildHK produced an online music video that became an instant cyberspace hit through snowball emailing in the pre-Youtube days. That online video flashed back to many sad post-1997 incidents, and encouraged viewers to take to the streets on July 1. Other cyber networks were formed. For example, many members of a popular chat-room, “Anti-23 newsgroup”, joined the July 1 mass protest and got themselves involved in subsequent rallies.

e-mobilization in protests

Even though the impact cannot be quantified, spontaneous mobilization through the Internet facilitated a surprisingly large and peaceful turnout on July 1 in a supposedly politically-apathetic city. Since then, spontaneous mobilization via new technologies has become a practice in annual July 1 rallies, other mass protests and the democracy movement. The tools used have expanded from the Internet (emailing, chat-room and websites) to mobile text messaging (SMS). The use of SMS was particularly apparent in another time-critical pro-democracy rally in 2005. On December 14, 2005, tens of thousands of people protested against Mr. Tsang’s constitutional reform package for 2007/8, which was considered conservative and a further twisting of the already peculiar political system. Through SMS and emails, people mobilized their families and friends to join the protest to ensure that pro-democracy legislators would not vote for these government proposals.

Constraints and potentials

The early stages of development of the new media in the democracy movement were not led by political or civil society leaders, not even those from the pro-democracy camp. A survey of websites of political parties and legislators finds them resembling simple e-brochures with little interactivity. Many online functions such as blogs, fund raising, e-newsletters and volunteer recruitment that are basic to most American political websites are absent from their Hong Kong counterparts. In past elections, few candidates (mostly those competing in direct elections) launched campaign websites, which were more or less online versions of their election pamphlets. It appears that most Hong Kong politicians were not imaginative enough to recognize the potential of the new media.

But the people factor is only partly to blame. A more fundamental challenge is a political system that discourages political participation and party development. In particular, the functional constituencies (important participants in Hong Kong’s system of “indirect elections”) are designed to institutionalize vested interests and reduce competition. It makes little sense for candidates from those functional constituencies, comprising no more than a few hundred corporate voters, to spend resources on new media when they either run unopposed or may meet their voters on golf courses or at yacht clubs. Only in the few constituencies composed of individual professionals—such as the Education or Information Technology functional constituencies—would the use of email, SMS or websites be meaningful. Electoral regulations are also more inhibitive than in the US. All content of candidates’ websites, emails and supporters’ websites are subject to declaration, filing and expense caps, thereby creating administrative burdens and disincentives for candidates to initiate online electioneering as a complement to their conventional campaigns.

The political system creates little incentive for innovation. Political apathy and the public’s general skepticism of politicians is always an issue in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, most politicians have been slow to realize this is exactly why they should explore new technologies. Regardless of the political system, effective use of the new media helps alleviate the problems and promote democratic participation in five ways.

– First, new media reduce frictions in political mobilization, particularly in fundraising, voting and protests—especially when general discontent among the ordinary people and desire for change is strong.
– Second, people-based media reduce political apathy by reviving a sense of empowerment among ordinary citizens. This creates a positive cycle when successful mobilization of mass protests or voting energizes civic spirit and encourages people to participate a little more at the next critical moment.
– Third, the user-autonomous new media serve as alternatives to the (often biased) oligopoly of traditional media.
– Fourth, the new media enable civil society to rapidly form effective operational networks and alliances in the absence of formal organization.
– Finally, the use of new media reduces biases in an uneven political playing field by facilitating political insurgents (such as Hong Kong democrats), who are disadvantaged in resources and access to the main media, to compete more effectively.

Gradual development in elections

After 2003, some political parties and politicians started to explore e-politics. In the Legislative Council elections of 2004, more candidates than before posted websites even though most remained e-brochures with little interactivity. In addition, a non-partisan website,, was launched by Civic Exchange, a think tank, to motivate voting by providing information, polls, commentaries and forums.

The most effective use in Hong Kong elections was in get-out-the-vote (GOTV) operations as part of the pro-democracy movement. Again, mobilization through e-mailing and SMS by citizens was largely spontaneous in response to critical political moments. The first large-scale e-mobilization of voters was found in the 2004 election. The voter turnout (55.6%) set a historical record. Voters saw that election as an opportunity to express their demand for a faster pace toward democracy following Beijing’s formal rejection earlier that year of universal suffrage in the 2007/8 elections. In spite of a rather successful vote mobilization and that over 60% of the popular vote went to pro-democracy candidates, these candidates could win only 40% of all seats due to the political system in effect.
More recent examples were sub-sector elections to the 800-member Election Committee held in December, 2006. The public used to pay minimal attention to this small-circle game in which only 220,000 individuals and corporate representatives are qualified to vote for an Election Committee that chooses the Chief Executive, who is in effect, therefore, handpicked by Beijing. Hence, the voting rate in the sub-sector elections used to be extremely low (below 20%). But the 2006 elections were different. Alan Leong of the Civic Party chose to enter the race and make it competitive, even though he had essentially a zero chance of defeating the incumbent Mr. Tsang. Mr. Leong’s first hurdle was the need to obtain at least 100 nominations from the 800-person Election Committee, which made the sub-sector elections more significant than ever before. Online campaigning and SMS GOTV were used in several competitive functional constituencies in which the voters were individuals, not organizations. All candidates in the Information Technology constituency posted websites; and some launched email campaigns and blogs. In the accountancy constituency, SMS was used to get out the voters. Consequently, the overall voter turnout reached a record 27%. Of the candidates supported by the pro-democracy camp, 83% won their races, giving them 114 Election Committee seats despite the system’s biases. E-mobilization indirectly facilitated Hong Kong’s first “competition” for Chief Executive between a sure-winner and a democrat.

Small breakthrough in an immature blogosphere

Another encouraging development during that Chief Executive election was the competition between the two candidates’ blogs. In contrast to the influential (liberal) blogosphere in American politics, the political blogosphere in Hong Kong is immature. The challenge is partly cultural. Most Hong Kong people (including the highly educated) prefer verbal or visual communications over text. The Hong Kong blogosphere is full of photos but short on words. But the articulation of ideas and arguments are important in politics. A small breakthrough came when Mr. Leong’s election blog was launched in December, 2006. In response, Mr. Tsang started the first-ever blog by any top Hong Kong official. The mass media often reported on both blogs and stimulated public excitement. In the virtual world, Mr. Leong won. By the end of the election, his blog achieved a daily average of a few thousand hits, and at one time topped the Yahoo! blog chart. However, no matter how popular political insurgents are in the cyberspace, the winners in real politics will be Beijing-supported candidates.

Outside electoral politics, the Internet is also being used to counter a mainstream media that has been accused of practicing self-censorship and being increasingly biased towards the establishment. Internet radio operations (such as Radio CP (formerly Radio45), Hi-radio, Radio 71, People’s Radio HK) and activist journalism (such as emerged to provide an alternative public voice. Internet radio on politics, however, is less prominent than in the U.S. Members from InmediaHK were active in the recent opposition movement against the demolition of the Star Ferry clock tower and Queen’s Pier. Others have also explored using the Internet as a platform for coordinating action against and opposition to government policies. The “Save RTHK” blog (, which was started as one individual’s effort to express dismay at the SAR government’s broadcasting policy, was turned into a cyberspace action center for activists seeking to deter the government from dissolving or marginalizing the government-owned public service broadcaster.

Hong Kong political bloggers, Internet radio operators and activist journalists face challenges in sustaining their e-initiatives. First are the issues of long-term funding and manpower sources. Popular websites in American civil society may sustain themselves through support from the Internet audience in the form of donations and voluntarism. The U.S. Internet population is so big that a tiny fraction will be enough to sustain websites of minority interest or political nature. The Hong Kong “market,” however, is too small for that kind of self-sustaining model. Second, pro-democracy websites have experienced many instances of petty sabotage, hacking, defamatory scams and suspected influence from across the border, for which the motives can only be a matter of speculation.

Reality check vs. vision

On top of the socio-economic and cultural challenges, there is a reality check on results. No matter how successful is political mobilization achieved through the new media—as in the examples of the July 1 protests, pro-democracy rallies and voter mobilizations of 2004 and 2006—the impact on real politics in Hong Kong has been only indirect. After all, the SAR political system was designed to minimize the impact of the people’s will. Nonetheless, these examples provide a positive lesson. Even in the incomplete democracy of Hong Kong, the new media can facilitate political mobilization, thereby stimulating political participation, overcoming apathy and partly reducing the bias in the system.

The first-stage emergence of the new media in political mobilization was encouraging. But that kind of spontaneous use with little strategic leadership has limitations. The future of e-politics in Hong Kong requires vision by political and civil society leaders. Upcoming elections include: the by-election for a legislative seat (due to the death of pro-Beijing DAB chairman Ma Lik) in December, District Council elections in the fall and Legislative Council elections in 2008. Politicians and activists from both conservative and democratic backgrounds are likely to make more use of the new media in their campaigns. Those who have the courage and imagination to innovate are the most likely to be the winners in both the virtual and real worlds.

Rikkie L.K. Yeung is a Hong Kong-based public affairs consultant. This article is based on Dr. Yeung’s research about the increased use of new media in the United States and Hong Kong while a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC during 2006-07.

Civic hacking: a new agenda for e-democracy

The political potential of the internet lies not in connecting people to politicians, still less in online voting; it lies in the possibility of bringing citizens together to help themselves, argues a veteran of online politics.

Representative democracy seems troubled. People are ignoring it. It is not exactly hip with the kids. A little like the unfortunate uncle who gate crashed the party, it hangs around trying to convince people that its magic tricks are interesting.

Electronic democracy (e-democracy) is viewed squarely within the remit of representative democracy. ‘The Internet’ is the new trick. This amazing device – full of youth, verve, and energy – might just be The Answer to its problems.

This, give or take, is the UK government’s current strategy. It recognises that our democratic system, while not exactly broken, needs pepping up. In particular, it recognises that young people, who tend to be keen on all things wired, frankly do not see the point of politics. It reflects the fact that the political classes are hunkered down under a big tent marked ‘disengagement’. The Blair government thinks the internet, this marvel of the modern age, can help.

At best, this view is half right. Networked technology can help representative democracy a little, but it is unlikely to be able to help a lot. It comes down to a basic problem: if someone isn’t interested in politics, and they don’t see the point in taking part, doing it online is not going to help much.

The good news is that there may be a better way. The internet can help to improve the civic lives of ordinary people, but only if it is based on a different principle. E-democracy should not be primarily about representation, participation, or direct access to decision makers. First and foremost, it should be about self-help.

Public investment in e-democracy should be about allowing people to help themselves, their communities, and others who are interested in the same things as them. As I will explain, the centre of such a strategy should be state support for what I call ‘civic hacking’, or the development of applications to allow mutual aid among citizens rather than through the state.

If you are not interested in politics, electronic politics will not help

The current British government has got the right question, but the wrong answer. Its question is: how can we use the internet to help people get the most out of civic life, politics, and the way in which they are governed? This is based on a fairly sound analysis of the current problems of democracy. Steven Coleman and John Gotze, in their pamphlet Bowling Together, put this analysis rather well:

“There is a pervasive contemporary estrangement between representative and those they represent, manifested in almost every western country by falling voter turnout; lower levels of public participation in civic life; public cynicism towards political institutions and parties; and a collapse in once-strong political loyalties.”

So far so good. But Coleman and Gotze, and by extension the British government, come up with the wrong conclusion. They seem to think that people are in some way held back from participation. If we made it easier – step forward ‘the internet’ – they might decide to get involved. If we made participation in traditional processes a little less tedious, the punters would come back. There would be greater citizen involvement in policy making.

The assumption seems to be that if we make the entry route a little sexier (electronic voting not ballots, online consultation not paper consultation) it will make the system work. To be fair, it might make a difference. The excellent British website Fax Your MP, for instance, notes that “67% of our users report that they have never contacted their MP before” suggesting that new ways of access can bring “mostly new participants to the debate”. But this is by no means the only avenue open to government.

Reciprocity online

The opportunity is the construction of a civic space in where citizens talk to each other, rather than to the state. An analogy will help explain this. If you are stuck in a computer game, what do you do? Gamers today – and remember around three in ten people play computer games – will go to a gaming community online, and ask others for advice. They will almost always find someone willing to help them overcome the challenge. Other gamers will help for a variety of reasons: they may get respect for their knowledge; their standing in the community will improve; or they may simply be in a good mood that day. But mostly they do it on the principle of reciprocity.

Common in social capital literature, reciprocity means nothing less than you scratch my back, I will scratch yours. This principle is limited if there are only two people, and only two backs. It works better if reciprocity is distributed: I will scratch your back, because this will create a system in which back scratching is the norm, and when I need my back scratched, someone will do it for me.

In politics, as in computer games, reciprocity means helping someone because, at some unspecified point in the future, you will need someone else to help you out too. It is the rational realisation of ‘do unto others as you would have done to yourself’.

What you definitely do not do when stuck in a computer game (or how to load it, or how to make it work better) is e-mail the software designer and ask them to make the game easier or better. Yet this is precisely the current British government’s strategy for e-democracy. Got a problem? Go take part in an impenetrable consultation exercise that might, in some distant way, improve the system. Not exactly a hot selling proposition.

The game analogy holds because, for most people, politics is like being stuck in a really difficult computer game. Government bureaucracy – the software designer – is a total irrelevance to their daily lives. Citizens rub up against the state in numerous complicated ways: bins need to be taken out, unemployment benefits collected, and doctors visited. But the process of deliberative politics is not part of everyday life.

This is why we have a pluralist theory of democracy. Interest groups, the media, and other functional groups represent the interests of people in a battle of ideas. The basic foundation of democracy – that I should be able to have a fair shot at influencing a decision that affects me (if I can be bothered to) – sits within this framework.

In everyday life, however, most people encounter problems. Some of these problems are caused, not solved, by the action of the state. By this I do not mean theoretical concepts such as regulatory capture, inefficient use of public money, or government disconnection from the views of ordinary people. I mean that tax forms are a real pain. I mean that paying council tax is complicated, and finding a good school for your daughter is time consuming. Starting a new business is a nightmare, and trying to work out how much of a pension contribution you should be making is difficult. These are everyday problems that government is pretty good at creating, but not very good at fixing.

These problems are exactly the same as getting stuck in a computer game. They are life problems – obstacles to be overcome. The best way to overcome them is to find someone else who has done it before, and get them to help you. And this is where the internet can really help.

The democracy application

Network technology is very good at bringing people together, if they have a reason for getting together in the first place. It is, as anyone who has surfed will know, a veritable haven for cranks and obsessives of all varieties. But it is also the most incredible fund of distributed intelligence ever conceived.

It allows the aggregation of distributed and networked knowledge, and makes it accessible to pretty much anyone with a bit of skill and a modem. For computer games players, or financial investors, or stamp collectors, it is a dream come true. It can also be for citizens.

The question is: how can you translate this self-evident quality of the network into an application which can help people overcome life problems, or participate in civic communications with others interested in the same issue? At present, this is the problem: you can’t. Why not? Because no one has developed the application.

Application is another way of saying programme or software. It is a thing that uses the power of the internet in a relevant and useful way. Internet Explorer is an ‘application’ which allows users to see HTML code as web pages. More famously, Napster, the music file sharing system, was an application that allowed you to download music. It was developed by a 19-year-old called Shawn Fanning.

Fanning’s story is internet folklore. A young techy gets an idea. After a considerable amount of time spent in his bedroom, he developed an application that would allow others like him, albeit illegally, to swap compressed music files. It took off, and the music industry will never be the same again. Other applications have since been written which do the same thing, but better or faster or with less central control. But it needed an application to work in the first place.

The point is that it required someone to develop the application. Napster was useable, cool, and fulfilled a previously unavailable function. It introduced file sharing – or peer-to-peer (P2P) technology – to a mass audience.

Andrew Schapiro, author of The Control Revolution, thinks that Napster remains the defining lesson in how the internet changes static systems: “when you are thinking about this always ask ‘Napster is to music as X is to Y’.” So: Napster is to music as what is to politics? Who is developing Citizster, or Polster?

The problem is, we do not know yet. But, somewhere, someone should be developing it. My contention is that the role for the state should be to fund people to do this. They should be giving money to civic-minded groups, or 19-year-old kids, to develop applications that will help meet social goals.

This is exactly what happens in broadcasting, where the state (and by extension all of us) ladles out millions every year to develop socially beneficial television and radio programmes. This is done, quite rightly, because it is socially useful. The same should be true with software. I call this idea ‘civic hacking’.

Hacking in this case does not mean computer piracy, or breaking into computer systems. Instead I take the original meaning, a process of designing software in an open collaborative way. It is defined as: “The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing free software and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.” A Hacker is someone who follows these principles in the development of software, not someone who tries to electronically break into Fort Knox. Click for more ‘Hacker-information

Funding civic hacking

The website Meetup is a good example of civic hacking. It is not an application as such, but it is based on much the same idea. The site allows people with common interests to meet up with each other. Let us imagine that Mr Kennedy moved to a new town, and wanted to meet other people who were interested in the works of J S Mill, the principles of social justice, and popular news quiz shows. But Mr Kennedy does not know anyone like that. He could go on to Meetup, and register his interests. When enough other people have done the same, the site sends you an e-mail and suggests you meet for a drink.

Equally, the British website UpMyStreet recently launched a site called Conversations, in which people from a local area can initiate discussions about topics of interest in their street or local area. Both are a simple idea. They will not make anyone a gazillion dollars, but they could become useful tools for the social capitalist and ways of making social connections. And both required someone to develop software to make it happen.

A civic hacking fund could help develop similar ideas. At the moment there is a market failure, in as much as people tend not to make money off these types of application, no matter how socially useful they are. The applications that can help people help each other need state funding to get going.

I stress this is not the total answer. It will not end disengagement as we know it. It will be completely useless for people who are not online. It will also not be any help to people who cannot be bothered with politics full stop. But then these are the sorts of people who, for the foreseeable future, are not going to go anywhere near a political website anyway.

But, in a decade or so, everyone in the country will be online. Most people will have made the internet part of their everyday life. By this time we need to have developed useful programmes – Napsters for civic life, Meetups for democracy – which people will want to use. And that means we need to start doing so now.

The e-democracy ethic

The question is simple: what is the ethic of e-democracy? What is the underlying principle that should guide us in this process of development? The current consensus is that money and time should be spent developing new ways of allowing citizens to interact with parliament and the state. It claims that representation is the ethic of e-democracy. I disagree.

Marshal McLuhan’s dictum was: “The medium is the message”. At base, this means that certain media, or mediums, are good at doing different things. The internet is peculiarly effective at connecting groups of people together. In fact, this is what it does best.

So, a sensible strategy would start on this principle. But the people it should be connecting are not citizens and parliamentarians, or voters and civil servants. It should be connecting ordinary people with other ordinary people. And there should be applications that help these people to help each other. A programme supporting civic hacking can do this.

This should become the ethic of e-democracy: mutual-aid and self-help among citizens, helping to overcome civic problems. It would encourage a market in application development. It would encourage self-reliance, or community-reliance, rather than reliance on the state.

Such a system would be about helping people to help themselves. It would create electronic spaces in which the communicative power of the internet can be used to help citizens help each other overcome life’s challenges. Most importantly, by making useful applications, it would help make participatory democracy seem useful too.

Bottom line: it is a political project. It needs backers. Any champion of e-democracy should take up the fight.


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