re:publica 10: techno-scepticism and donor-criticism

Of all the impressions from last week’s re:publica 10, scepticism directed at digital activism by several people I talked to has made me think the most, together with controversy over the role of privacy. All in all, it seemed to me like a huge discussion over the political role of information. A collection of ideas.

Evgeny Morozov, the man who coined the term “Twitter revolution” and, despite that, has often been called a “cyper-pessimist” was one of the first speakers of the event. And while I often find Evgeny’s argumentation to be too polemic, sometimes even Andrew Keen’esque in it’s pessimism, the man has some very valid points.

In the times of the GDR, the Stasi supported a huge network of “inofficial contributors” who were coerced – through threats or monetary rewards – into spying on their peers. Nowadays, this is no longer necessary, says Morozov. Authoritarian regimes can instead discover activists’ networks by looking them up on Facebook. In my eyes, the grandchild of the Stasi is China’s “50 cent party”: An enormous horde of people paid for spreading propaganda on the ‘Net.

There has been a change in the role of access to information. Publishing information has become so cheap that it is the new default, even in environments where this would previously have been a “no-go”. And the regimes react – not by suppressing information, but by discrediting the sender. What does this mean for the importance of freedom of information?

Daniel Schmitt of Wikileaks seems to base his work on the conviction that transparency leads to a better world. It’s some kind of a journalistic determinism. Global Voices’ David Sasaki questions the role of investigative reporting: “Is it really true that traditional journalism minimizes corruption?”

For Jeff Jarvis, that’s not even a question. “We now must defend the public,” he says, “because what is public is owned by the public, and that’s us.” And “if you cut down from the public, you steal from all of us. […] If you don’t share your knowledge, you’re being anti-social.”

The evening before, Christian Heller fought privacy at taz’ MediaTuesday event. Data security, he says, can be used against us. It “doesn’t necessary protect the weak from the powerful”. David Sasaki says that more and more raw data is put out on the ‘Net and it’s up to us to put it in context. Christian Heller wants to free information from its context. He calls this a plea in support of postmodernism.

Sokari Ekine, who talked about mobile activism in Africa, in an interview that we did said that revolutions are made by people, not by technology. Sami ben Gharbia wonders why media attention often focuses more on the technological development than on the issue, taking much-hyped crisis mapping tool Ushahidi as an example.

Iranian women right activist Farnaz Seifi tells me in an interview that the Iranian people “don’t need any other help rather than [free access to information]”. Evgeny Morozov explains to netzpolitik.org that the power of information is a myth stemming from America’s efforts during the cold war. Americans, he says, still believe that the US won that conflict – because of Radio Free Europe.

But he’s united again with Seifi when it comes to Western donors supporting projects in foreign countries. Their money disengages genuine activists, he claims. “I personally do not agree with lots of the projects inside the country with foreign countries’ budget”, says Seifi. “This is our internal fight. We have to do it ourselves.”

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YouthExchange in Budapest: Kyrgyzstan, African Hip Hop, Citizen-Proposed Legislation

This weekend I was in Budapest for YouthExchange 2010, “the coolest thing in spring”, as my friend Marietta said. It was a gathering of about 100 (mostly George Soros-paid) people from all over the world working in youth engagement. Here’s a short roundup of what I’ve heard and seen:

Kyrgyzstan: Revolution, social media, activism through contemporary art

The event was attended by a small group from revolution-shaken Kyrgyzstan. Tolkun Umaraliev highlighted Central Asia-centered group blog NewEurasia and social media news site and blogging platform Kloop.kg has valuable sources during the coup d’état. Eventhough only 14% of the population have access to the Internet, Tolkun sees citizen journalism in an important position.

He also told the story of Timur Toktonaliev, a 16 years old blogger who is the youngest journalist ever accredited to the Kyrgyz parliament. Working after school, he reports from the ongoings at the parliament. Readers of his blog can also pose questions to their deputees, which Timur will then try to get answered in interviews with the politicians.

Nellya Dzhamanbaeva of ArtEast told me about how they use contemporary art to raise awareness for social issues. While censors – mostly older people – did not understand contemporary art, the young audience they aim at would get the message, she told me.

As for the current situation in Kyrgyzstan, both Tolkun and Nellya seemed unsure what to expect. Visibly shocked by the second bloody revolution within five years, Nellya told that she doesn’t see a coup d’état as the right way for the country. Tolkun, while praising interim president Rosa Otunbajewa as a “very intelligent person”, said he wasn’t sure what to expect for the future, as the promises of the new leadership could turn out to be populism again, as were those of the revolutionaries of 2005’s “tulip revolution”.

Citizen-proposed legislation in Thailand

Niw Wong spoke about her work at iLaw.or.th, a Thai website that aims to promote citizen-proposed legislation. Since 2007, Thailand’s constitutions requires only 10.000 signatures to bring citizen-proposed legislation into parliament (first introduced through the constitution of 1997, 50.000 signatures were required before). iLaw.or.th collects ideas by citizens and helps them in drafting valid proposals.

Citizen-proposed legislation is, in my eyes, a great concept. Yet no draft has made it into the parliament since the opportunity was introduced more than ten years ago. Niw points out the complex process required for supporting a proposal as a key problem, which includes providing an ID card at a local . A more simple process, probably similar to Germany’s ePetition system, could make it easier for people to support drafts, thus making citizen-proposed legislation an effective tool for participatory politics.

Preparing for violent elections in Uganda

Next year, Uganda, a country that has not seen a single peaceful change of government in 48 years, will have only the second multi-party elections in its history. Gerald Karuhanga of the Justice and Development Council fears that the country will experience the same post-election violence that in 2009 left thousands of Kenyans dead.

An initiative called “PRESERVE” aims to reduce and document violent events before, during and after the elections through regional workshops, information dissemination, debates, public dialogues and “research based advocacy”, mostly trying to reach out to youth leagues, but also police and women’s organisations.

As tools for information dissemination, Gerald named mostly broadcasting tools such as TV, radio and newspapers. Asked about the use of mobile phones, he presented two ways of using mobile phones for information dissemination, namely through sending out SMS and voice mails. The latter is especially interesting because through voice messages, the huge illiterate part of the population (32%) could possibly be reached as well.

Still I think that mobile phones could also be used as a back channel, i.e. for information gathering. E.g. Ushahidi was developed as a crisis mapping tool during Kenya’s after-election riots, and in Ghana activists have used mobile phones to monitor elections and document possible evidence of vote rigging, one of the stated goals of PRESERVE.

Hip hop spreads political messages in Africa

Parker Mah held an enlightening talk about political hip hop in Africa. “Hip hop is booming in Africa”, he said, asking “why hip hop and why Africa?”. I can only recommend you to check out his presentation on Prezi. The slides are mostly self-descriptive and contain most of the content of Parker’s talk, including some great examples of African conscious rap.

As a personal educated guess, I have made up my own answer to Parker’s question. In the West, for several hundred years we have been used to see political criticism presented in written form (i.e. newspapers). Africa, on the other hand, has a longstanding history of oral information dissemination (e.g. Mali’s griot tradition). So hip hop, in my eyes, can be seen as continuing this tradition.

Hungarian elections

Visiting Hungary on election day (April 11), I got a devastating image of a democracy where young people see no (liberal) politicians they can trust in as an antisemitic, antiziganic, neofascist party – Jobbik – gets nearly as much votes as the currently governing social democrats. My German readers may be interested in my article for Spreeblick where I describe my impressions.

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BerlinInOctober e-democracy summit

On October 15 and 16 I attended an un-conference called BerlinInOctober, organized by politik-digital.de, e-demokratie.org and mySociety. For the third time, people from several international e-democracy projects met in Berlin to exchange experiences and collect inspirations for new services.

That’s why a big share of time was reserved for presentations for individual projects. Many portals are dedicated to bringing more transparency into parlamentarians’ work. Services such as OpenParlamento from Italy and NosDéputés from France analyze the activities of representatives.

NosDeputés tags speeches of congressmen. This way the discussion around a certain topic can be summarized. The site TheyWorkForYou.com on the other hand lets users link videos from the English House of Commons to text from the Hansard, which includes notes from the speeches that are not verbatim.

Thereby the site is one of the few that let users become actively involved themselves to establish transparency. In a session on “action-based sites” it became apparent that still most e-democracy portals are mere services for citizens and rarely offer opportunities to them to take action themselves.

One important task for such participatory sites named in the session was that they have to take up emotions immediately as they evolve – e.g. as someone has to pay a bribe. Therefore it is important that services are structured accordingly. One could use the Obama iPhone app as an example, where the first option was “call friends” – which is the most obvious action to be taken with a mobile phone.

Rob McKinnon of TheyWorkForYou.co.nz made a point in his lecture that it is important to establish transparency apart from big politics. He used the concept of a “web of power” to show that there is a lot of influence located within companies – probably even more than within parliaments.

Therefore it needed more projects that focus e.g. on making lobbyism more transparent, McKinnon said. The goal is to “disentangle” the various circles of influence – politics, media, money. One example for that is journalisted.com, a site that collects information on journalists.

But there was criticism towards those efforts for more transparency as well. Tobies Escher of the Oxford Internet Institute referred to a recent essay by Lawrence Lessig provocantly entitled “Against Transparency“. It is a fact, Escher said, that online even more than offline it is the most well-educated part of society that turns to political activism. E.g. two thirds of mySociety users are academicians. Eschers point is: To only establish transparency isn’t enough, as long as people don’t use the publicly available data.

William Perrin thinks he has found a solution to this problem. He advocates “hyber local community websites”, such as his own project Kings Cross Local Environment. By breaking down information that is available, but hard to understand to its importance for a small neighborhood local initiatives are empowered, he said. This way things could actually be done. Perrin also wants to further spread this approach through is project Talk About Local.

This is a translation of my post for netzpolitik.org (where I am doing an internship at the moment). There’s another report at e-politik.de (in German), and you may have a look at the tweets from the conference, tagged with #bios09.

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