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Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression

Some years back, I gave a talk at O’Reilly’s ETech conference that urged the audience to spend less time thinking up clever ways dissidents could blog secretly from inside repressive regimes and more time thinking about the importance of ordinary participatory media tools, like blogs, Facebook and YouTube, for activism. I argued that the tools we use for sharing cute pictures of cats are often more effective for activism than those custom-designed to be used by activists.

Others have been kind enough to share the talk, referring to “the Cute Cat theory”. An Xiao Mina, in particular, has extended the idea to explain the importance of viral, humorous political content on the Chinese internet.

I’ve meant to write up a proper academic article on the ideas I expressed at ETech for years now, and finally got the chance as part of a project organized by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light at the Institute for Advanced Studies. They invited a terrific crew of scholars to collaborate on a book titled “Youth, New Media and Political Participation”, now in review for publication by MIT Press. The volume is excellent – several of my students at MIT have used Tommie Shelby’s “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop & the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth“, which will appear in the volume, as a key source in their work on online dissent and protest.

I’m posting a pre-press version of my chapter both so there’s an open access version available online and because a few friends have asked me to expand on comments I made on social media and the “Arab Spring” at the University of British Columbia and in Foreign Policy. (I also thought it would be a nice tie-in to the Gawkerization of Foreign Policy, with their posting today of 14 Hairless Cats that look like Vladimir Putin.)

So – Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression.

Abstract: Participatory media technologies like weblogs and Facebook provide a new space for political discourse, which leads some governments to seek controls over online speech. Activists who use the Internet for dissenting speech may reach larger audiences by publishing on widely-used consumer platforms than on their own standalone webservers, because they may provoke government countermeasures that call attention to their cause. While commercial participatory media platforms are often resilient in the face of government censorship, the constraints of participatory media are shaping online political discourse, suggesting that limits to activist speech may come from corporate terms of service as much as from government censorship.


Look for the Allen and Light book on MIT Press next Spring – it’s an awesome volume and one I’m proud to be part of.


Bloggers in Bangladesh facing arrest, assault, murder

This is a hard day to write about issues other than sudden, unexpected disasters – the bombing in Boston, the earthquake in Iran – and horrific ongoing disasters of continuing violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. But I’ve been trying to get my head around a complicated situation in Bangladesh that’s become very dangerous for bloggers and activists in that country: the aftermath of the Shahbagh protests and the arrest of Bangladeshi bloggers for alleged atheism.

Some background: When Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971, the Pakistani Army violently attempted to prevent “East Pakistan”‘s breakaway, killing anywhere between 300,000 and 3 million Bangladeshis, raping hundreds of thousands of women and targeting intellectual and potential political leaders. In 2009, under a secular government in Bangladesh, the country began an international crimes tribunal, prosecuting local collaborators with the Pakistani Army, who include leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in the nation.

The court convicted Abdul Quader Molla, assistant secretary general of Jamaat, of war crimes in February 2013 and sentenced him to life in prison. Many Bangladeshis were dissatisfied with this sentence and demanded capital punishment. On February 6, demonstrators began occupying Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka to demand Molla’s execution.

Bloggers and online activists were prominent in urging people to take to the streets, where the protests expanded beyond demands for punishment and into a call to oppose political Islam. Supporters of Molla’s party reacted with counter-demonstrations. CLashes between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators killed at least four and injured over a thousand.

A Bangladeshi blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, who wrote under the pen name “Thaba Baba (Captain Claw)” had written about war crimes for years and was active in calling for the Shahbagh protests. The 26 year-old was brutally murdered near his home on February 15th. Bloggers speculate that he was killed by Islamists, as his laptop was left at the scene of the crime, implying he wasn’t a mugging victim.

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Arrested bloggers and the tools of their trade. Image by Demotix

As protests continued, Islamists groups argued that the bloggers helping instigate the protests were anti-Islamic, anti-social and atheistic and demanded their arrest and prosecution. The Bangladeshi government responded by founding a committee to track anti-Islamic activity on Facebook and other online media. On April 1st, the police arrested three bloggers for their alleged “derogatory content”.

Global Voices, Reporters Without Borders and others have condemned these arrests, but arrests continue, most recently targeting Asif Mohiuddin, whose blog has been banned, and who was stabbed by Islamists in January, before protests began – his arraignment was scheduled for yesterday. We understand that Bangladeshi bloggers are terrified of arrest or assault, and some have gone into hiding.

The invisibility of this story in international media is making the prosecution of bloggers and activists possible – with international attention, it is possible the Bangladeshi government would be less likely to cooperate with demands to prosecute activists for alleged atheism, which isn’t a crime under Bangladesh’s constitution. If you can help by calling attention to the story, particularly by pitching it to reporters who cover international news, Global Voices would appreciate your help.


Mourn, and take action on guns

I tweeted earlier today about my horror regarding the shootings in Newtown, CT, and my connections to the community. I grew up nearby and have friends who attended the school where the shooting took place.

An editor at CNN’s opinion section read earlier commentary I’d posted here about the difficulty in opening a debate about gun control in the US. He asked for my reactions to today’s shootings, and I responded with a brief commentary. It is currently running on CNN’s site, and it begins:

I logged onto Facebook this afternoon, terrified of what I would read.
I grew up near Newtown, Connecticut, and went to high school in Danbury, Connecticut. A close friend spent her childhood at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the school where a shooter killed at least 26 people today, police said, most of them children.

Police reports are still coming in, and we are only beginning to grasp the scale of this tragedy. Friends are describing their panic as they try to reach their children in schools that are on lockdown. One of my high school classmates is trying to support her best friend, whose daughter was one of the children killed.

My Facebook timeline is filled with expressions of relief for those who escaped the violence, sorrow for those lost, and prayers for recovery. It’s also filled with friends demanding that America take action on gun control. Their calls are answered by others who protest that this is a time to mourn, not a time for politics.

A tragedy like today’s shooting demands we both mourn and take action.

Please visit CNN.com to read the rest.

Predictably, for a post about the difficulty of having open dialog about gun control in the US, it’s generating thoughtful and reasoned debate. Here’s one of the carefully reasoned tweets engaging with my argument:


@ thanks for being another gun control fucktard shamelessly and cynically exploiting your bullshit agenda
@njack
njack

Looking forward to more and less helpful responses.


Good and bad reasons to be worried about WCIT

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced “wicket”) opened Monday in Dubai. If you’re heard about the conference, it’s likely because many articulate and smart proponents of an open internet have been waving arms and warning of the potential dangers that may come from this meeting. Fight For the Future, an organization focused on mobilizing individuals to the defense of a free and open internet, have switched the Internet Defense League’s vaunted “cat signal“, urging supporters to stop an internet coup by the International Telecommunications Union, the UN agency responsible for communication technologies.

There are reasons to be concerned about WCIT and about the ITU asserting more control over Internet governance. But there’s also a great deal of exaggeration and fear-mongering that’s making it hard to see the issues clearly. And one of the reasons offered for defending against an ITU “takeover” is a disturbing one, the idea that the Internet works well enough as it is, and that we should be opposed to any changes that would alter how it functions and is governed.

It’s possible to oppose increased ITU involvement in internet governance without demonizing the organization. It’s possible to believe this is the wrong venue and wrong mechanism without concluding that the Internet works as well as it ever will and ever could. I’m interested in trying to pull some of these arguments apart because I worry some opponents of WCIT are accepting these arguments as a whole package, not considering their individual merits, and may be swallowing some unhealthy presumptions that hinder future debate about internet governance going forward.

I”m far from expert on the topic of WCIT, so I’m going to point to some of the better arguments I’ve heard in the past few weeks. (My friend Sunil Abraham tweeted many helpful links earlier today, and I recommend his Twitter feed for WCIT links from various perspectives.) For general background, I’d recommend Jack Goldsmith’s “opinionated primer” on the topic. To summarize, Goldsmith (who knows a thing or two about internet governance):

– Because WCIT is about amending international rules through a treaty process, it’s a slow, consensus-seeking process that nations can opt out of. In other words, we shouldn’t expect US net regulations to change because of it.

– It’s relevant not because lasting changes will come out of these meetings, but mostly because it gives us a window into what some nations would like in terms of internet governance, and may seek to accomplish through their own national telecoms laws.

In effect, Goldsmith argues that impact isn’t a good reason to pay attention to WCIT, as the gathering is likely to have little direct impact. In that spirit, I want to consider some better and worse reasons to be concerned about the ITU, the WCIT meeting and the broader question of how internet governance is and is not changing.

Good reasons to be concerned about WCIT include:

Opacity:
WCIT is open to member governments and to hundreds of corporate and organization members, but their proposals and deliberations are secret. This makes it very difficult for civil society and the general public to be aware of what’s going on in the meeting and to influence the process. As with other international policymaking organizations that work in secret, like the WTO, there’s a good case to be made that these organizations need to be pushed to greater transparency before they are given public trust. WCITleaks, a project from Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado, both researchers at George Mason University, is a laudable effort to increase transparency by inviting WCIT participants to share documents in a public repository.

Censorious governments:
Many of the anti-WCIT arguments begin by asserting that China and Russia would like to take over internet governance and manage the global internet in ways that would restrict speech. Those are valid concerns, and both countries will likely negotiate for an internet governance structure that increases state control over net content. That nations attempt to control the internet isn’t new, nor is the argument that states should have more influence over net governance – as Milton Mueller points out in this helpful piece, states have been seeking increased roles in internet governance since 1996 and have been thwarted. Their response has been to restrict internet usage within their own countries.

Yes, it would be dreadful if China’s internet regulations applied to the whole world. But the current situation isn’t great either: countries create their own regulations to control the internet in part because they can’t get what they want in international fora. The battle over “internet freedom” has devolved into building expensive and unwieldy tools to invite a small set of Chinese and Iranian users to use the American and European internets, instead of the Chinese internet… a solution that won’t and can’t scale. The challenge of Chinese censorship is a helpful reminder that we don’t have binding international internet regulation, and probably never will. WCIT is worrisome because proposals to control the internet through widespread filtering and corporate regulation (China’s approach) or through legal and extralegal intimidation (Russia’s approach) may gain adherents and allies, and because nations that haven’t taken major steps to regulate the internet may look at these nations as examples to follow. But this is an argument for the US to engage in multinational processes like the ITU, to influence nations still on the fence, not to contest the legitimacy of the process.

The substance of proposals Even if we discount Jack Goldsmith’s suggestion that little is likely to come out of WCIT, it’s worth considering what potential impact proposals that have been put forth might have on Internet governance, if only to see what rival visions are competing with the status quo. Michael Geist argues that the most significant proposals on the table are not about who controls the internet, but who pays for it. He references a proposal from ETNO, an organization of European telecoms, that would start charging large content providers a carriage fee for delivering content – i.e., YouTube would pay a European network operator to reach European viewers. (Large internet content providers, predictably, hate this proposal. The one defender I’ve found of the proposal is Jean-Christope Nohias, who offers this stem-winder of a piece, accusing Google and other internet giants of hypocrisy in advocating for a system in which the poor pay money to access wealthy country’s networks.)

Dwayne Winseck sees concerns about the ETNO proposal, and other attempts to change internet billing, as overblown, but offers a long list of proposals to worry about, affecting the militarization of the internet, threats to privacy, anonymity and government control. In some cases, the proposals try to solve legitimate threats (like spam) and over-reach in terms of implementation, while at other times, they are simply trying to assert more government control, and bear opposition on principal. But we’d have a more intelligent debate about the future of the internet if we could address proposals individually, rather than attacking the process and the institution of the ITU as a whole.

Here are three reasons I’ve seen for opposing WCIT and the ITU that I think are unjustified, and may cause long-term harm to our conversations about internet governance.

Fear of multilateralism:
Steven Strauss argues we should oppose WCIT because it has UN sponsorship, and pulls out a laundry list of anti-UN complaints to justify his opposition. He offers faint praise to distinguish the ITU from the UN’s “standard meaningless international boondoggles”, suggesting that it has real power and might lead to substantial rule changes. But his argument centers on the strong representation of repressive governments on the UN’s Human Rights Council.

Yes, the presence of the UAE, Pakistan and Ethiopia on the UNHRC is an embarrassment. But the ITU and the UNHRC are two of dozens of institutions within the UN, and even most critics of the UN don’t want to see institutions like UNICEF, the World Food Program or the High Commission on Refugees disappear. Defenders of human rights on the internet often point to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a UN document, as a broadly adopted document that protects freedom of expression. Frank LaRue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has been a powerful advocate for protecting online speech. It would be a shame to disrespect the work a figure like LaRue is trying to do by dismissing UN institutions as a whole.

The reason so many controversial issues are being brought up in multilateral venues like the ITU is that existing “multisectoral” internet institutions like ICANN, IANA, IETF and others have had a hard time ensuring broad international representation. Some of the frustration other countries feel about internet governance comes from the slow pace these institutions have taken towards supporting global concerns, like providing full support for non-English domain names and suffixes. My friend Rebecca MacKinnon has an excellent essay on this topic in Foreign Policy, pointing out that there’s very little developing world participation in these groups and that they are very slowly finding ways to change their culture to be more welcoming to participants who don’t have years of experience in the internet engineering community.

The solution to these problems is not a retreat from multilateralism – it’s to find ways that existing internet institutions can better represent voices and perspectives from around the world. The good news is that many of the folks within the IETF, ICANN and other institutions understand this challenge, even if some people attacking the ITU don’t.

Because governments should never regulate
FCC commissioner Robert McDowell attributes the success of the Internet to the ITU’s failure to oversee it in 1988: “This insulated the Internet from economic and technical regulation and quickly became the greatest deregulatory success story of all time.” Only a regulator for an agency as broken and corrupted by corporate influence as the FCC would dare to suggest that the role of a regulator is not to regulate.

How’s the FCC’s lassez faire policy working out in the US? We’ve got internet access that’s almost four times as expensive as it is in France and roughly one tenth the speed. Why? Largely because the FCC has failed to ensure that markets remain competitive, that open access policies allow small players to build competitive businesses, and that broadband services reach rural areas. Yes, it’s fantastic that the internet now reaches over 2 billion people. But we’ve got more than five billion more people who can’t access the internet, which is becoming increasingly important as a space for political discussions, a channel for delivery of government services and a pathway towards education. If regulators want to take seriously the challenge of ensuring universal access, as American regulators did with telephony and electricity in generations past, that’s something to be lauded, not dismissed.

Because the Internet is perfect.
This argument is rarely stated outright, though this piece by Mike Masnick in TechDirt does us the favor of making it explicit: “The internet works just fine. The only reason to ‘fix’ it, is to ‘break’ it in exactly the way the ITU wants, which is to favor a few players who have done nothing innovative to actually deserve it.”

I can think of several ways in which the internet doesn’t work just fine. It’s too expensive for too many people. In the developing world, it’s largely spreading through mobile operators whose pricing makes it unlikely that citizens of these nations will become content creators. The process of peering and interconnection creates a great competitive advantage for large network operators and leaves developing nations with very high charges for access. The current configuration of the Internet neither does a great job of protecting anonymity for those who want and need it, or authenticating identity when it’s critical. It’s surprisingly fragile to malicious attack like DDoS or accidental misconfiguration.

Do I think the ITU is likely to propose helpful solutions to these problems? No. Do I have good solutions to these complex problems? Not especially. But we have no hope of solving these problems if we declare that the Internet functions perfectly and needs no improvement.

There’s a tendency for people who love the Internet to become conservative, almost reactionary, about its governance. We’ve seen so many good intentioned attempts to improve the Internet fail and know of so many ill-intentioned plans to break the Internet that we may have raised the ad-hoc and improvisational methods of governance that have worked well into natural laws. Breaking the Internet – as some proposals in front of the ITU might well do – would be a bad thing. Concluding that we can never change the Internet for the better would be almost as bad.


What to make of Ai Wei Wei’s “Gangnam Style”?

It’s a good time to be PSY. The Korean rapper has become an international celebrity with the unexpected success of Gangnam Style, the absurdly catchy song that’s introduced much of the world to K-Pop, while simultaneously critiquing and subverting the genre. The star recently met with UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, who politely relinquished his status as the world’s most famous South Korean, and suggested that PSY was so cool, he might singlehandedly be able to help mitigate global warming. In perhaps the most astounding development, Gangnam Style has surfaced in North Korea, remixed into a parody making fun of a South Korean political candidate, a development that calls into question some commonly-held assumptions about North Korea’s insulation from global media dialogs.

As Max Fisher points out, the success of Gangnam Style has everything to do with PSY’s colorful and energetic video, and less to do with the tune itself. The lyrics are incomprehensible to most of the song’s fans (and require significant contextualization for those who understand Korean), but it’s got a memorable hook, an amusing dance and an easily parodied video. Earlier songs that meet these criteria – “Dragonstea Din Tea” by Moldovan band O-Zone comes to mind – have spread by becoming internet memes. Like a cute cat photo that begs for a satirical caption, the Gangnam Style video is made for remix. It’s clear that PSY is poking fun at his own unhipness, which gives permission to anyone parodying the video to make fools of themselves. And it’s not hard to parallel the (lightweight) narrative of PSY’s video by mimicking a few dance moves and paralleling the locations PSY chose for his antics: a beach, a stable, a parking garage, an elevator.

And so we’ve seen goofy remakes of the video from the US Naval Academy and from Filipino prisoners, to full remixes, celebrating subcultures as diverse as Star Trek fans (you MUST turn on subtitles to fully appreciate Gangnam Klingon Style), to Minecraft players.

And now, a version from Ai Wei Wei.

The dissident Chinese artist’s version of Gangnam style combines clips from the PSY video – though only clips where PSY is not present – with scenes of a raucous dance party in the courtyard of Ai Wei Wei’s Beijing studio. Like PSY, Ai Wei Wei is dressed in bright colors, a pink shirt complementing a black suit, and like the rapper, he’s an energetic and goofy dancer. As Gangnam Style parodies go, it’s not an especially compelling version – it gets repetitive very quickly, with the same group performing the same few dance moves in scene after scene.

Is this the embattled artist blowing off a little steam? Having some fun on a sunny afternoon? Ai Wei Wei’s sense of humor is one of the great halmarks of his work, but it’s unwise to dismiss anything he does as purely humorous. As James Panero observed in an article in The New Criterion, Ai Wei Wei is intensely aware of popular culture and, in the past, has taken inspiration from the New York City punk rock scene. Perhaps PSY’s subversive rethinking of K-Pop has inspired a subversive response?

There are two clear signs that Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam Style is meant to challenge Chinese authorities. About a minute into the video, Ai Wei Wei pulls out a pair of handcuffs and spins them, which is hard not to read this as a comment on the Chinese government’s tendency to arrest and detain the artist for any number of arbitrary reasons. And his version is titled “Grass Mud Horse Style”, a reference to Chinese censorship that’s immediately understandable to viewers in the know. “Grass mud horse” – “cao ni ma” – is a homonym for a rude and graphic Chinese insult, one of the many terms censored on the Chinese internet. Chinese netizens subvert automated censorship, using homonyms, and “cao ni ma” was introduced into the lexicon by an activist who created a viral video where children sang a rousing song about the victory of the grass mud horse over the evil “river crab”, another homonym animal that symbolizes the Chinese censors. But if the video is a commentary on Chinese censorship, why is it so… lame?

My friend Molly Sauter solved the mystery for me this morning, observing that this is the first Gangnam style remix that reads as sad, not joyful. Ai Wei Wei and friends dance frenetically, but they never leave his walled garden, while in PSY’s original, and most of the parodies, a wide range of backdrops frame the dancing. PSY’s tour of the Gangnam neighborhood is an idiosynratic one, focused more on parking garages than lavish megamalls, but it’s a tour of the physical world. Ai Wei Wei is confined in his garden, dancing defiantly, but he’s dancing grass mud horse style, constrained by censorship.

An Xiao Mina, who coordinates translation of Ai Wei Wei’s twitter feed into English, is an astute scholar of Chinese internet memes. Reacting to my observation that platforms used mostly for playful speech (cute cats) are powerful tools for activists, she’s postulated that memes are the dominant form of political expression on the Chinese internet. In a talk at ROFLCon at MIT, she offered a tour of politically subversive memes: Ai Wei Wei and friends posing nude as a commentary on his arrest on trumped up pornography charges, pictures of sunflower seeds standing in for Ai Wei Wei in reference to his famous Tate Modern exhibition, people posing in sunglasses to evoke blind activist Chen Guancheng. Because the memes are images, not text, they’re difficult for authorities to censor, as well as being great fun to make. Given the emergence of Gangnam Style as this year’s remixable meme, how could Ai Wei Wei sit on the sidelines?

Not everyone is a fan. Anthony Tao observes that Ai Wei Wei’s video is posted on YouTube, which is blocked in China, rather than on a domestic service like Youku. As such, it’s less of a middle finger to the Chinese government, Tao argues, than the artist “refilling his cache of cool with the Western World.”

Subversive defiance, or an attempt to stay relevant? Or just some harmless fun? As Freud once said, sometimes a grown man doing a horsie dance is just a grown man doing a horsie dance.


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