The DRAFT LESSIG movement — to encourage Prof. Lawrence Lessig to run for the U.S. Congress from California — is off to a quick start. Then again, if it’s going to happen, it has to happen fast: the special election is April 8. The Facebook group we set up a few days ago now has over 2,000 members. Supporters have come out of the netroots from every angle. There are fund-raisers pledged in 6 cities.
One of the common critiques of Net politics is that it’s meaningless just to “join a group” to support a candidate or a cause. I don’t buy it, especially since I think that joining a cause or writing about it often leads to further action.
In the case of the DRAFT LESSIG movement, we ought to prove that there’s something different going on here with politics and the net. In the process, we’ll make it clear to Prof. Lessig that we’ve got his back — that ordinary citizens will contribute the funds needed to run his campaign and that it can be run without support from special interests. Let’s get 1,000 people to donate to his campaign (or otherwise commit to volunteer if a campaign is organized) in the coming week. We’ve set up an ActBlue “draft” account, so you can give money now, to be turned over to the campaign if it materializes. If the campaign does not happen, the money is given in full to Creative Commons. You can’t lose. Please join me in donating now.
It’s high time we had our first true Free Culture candidate for public office. Who better than the movement’s founder and hero? I have no reason to believe he’d actually do it, but I think we should send a message to Lawrence Lessig that we’ve got his back if he were to run for the Congressional seat that the sad death of Cong. Lantos has opened up in California. Prof. Lessig happens to live there. It’d be the perfect way to take his message of anti-corruption, and pro-creativity, to the seat of US power.
The special election is April 8. I’ve set up a Facebook group (join us, and please invite others!) and a DRAFT LESSIG web site to aggregate would-be supporters for a run. I will be delighted to hold a sign for him in sunny California between now and election day if he were in fact willing to take on the challenge.
One of the big questions in the digital world is whether the way people use the Internet will lead to stronger democracies — or, in fact, have the opposite effect. This debate is playing out in the United States and around the world. In China, activists use online bulletin boards to organize themselves for the first time across geographic boundaries. In Iran, young people are using blogs to make their voice heard when the state is shutting down established media outlets. At the same time, China and Iran are using the same technologies for quite different aims: to censor what political activists are saying, listening in on their conversations, and putting activists in jail for what they’ve said and done online. The vibrant political blogosphere in the United States has become a political force, to be sure, but many question whether its influence is for good or for ill.
Alexander Heffner and his team at Scoop08 are proving that we have reason for hope. CNN, appropriately, has just made him one of its “Young People Who Rock.” Alexander’s leadership, and the engagement of more than 400 young people, is an inspiration to those of us who have been pushing hard to ensure that the Internet has a positive impact, not a negative one, on politics in the long-term. There’s been a lot written about them: here, here, and here. Alexander has a radio program, too.
Alexander’s work is so important because he is providing a means for young people to prove to themselves that they can have an impact through social action. The Internet is secondary to this story, in a way: the point is that Scoop08 draws young people into a public, civic space. It enables young people to have a voice that is heard all around the world. It demonstrates the power of collective action. It can help teach the responsibility and accountability that come with power, as young people come to see the impact of their words when they have a digital megaphone and are participating in a high-profile public debate.
The output of what Alexander and Scoop08 also gives us reason for hope. Scoop08 is a vibrant community that is helping to bring new and greater perspectives to election coverage around the country. One of the fears about the Internet and democracy is that we’ll each just surround ourselves with words and images from those with whom we’ll agree, famously called the “Daily Me” in the words of law professor Cass Sunstein. Scoop08 doesn’t fall into this trap. The student writers, based around the world, are telling their stories in a positive, careful, generally balanced way. Their coverage is serious and authentic. Their effort is to focus on substantive issues (policy, character-driven) — and distinctive and unconventional beats to generate new interest among young people — rather than exclusively horse-race-oriented coverage. The students writing up the reports are grappling with what it means to write without an exaggerated slant, presenting facts in a more or less neutral way, learning by doing in the process.
I look forward to Scoop08’s first big scoop. It will be a great day when one of Alexander’s extended team breaks a big story in this election, or an election to come somewhere else around the world.
But even before that day, it’s easy to say that Alexander Heffner and his colleagues have already succeeded beyond any reasonable expectations. What they’ve done, and what the good people at Generation Engage and other similar organizations, is no mean feat. Many have failed to get young people involved in politics. As the youth vote continues to rock — upwards — Scoop08 deserves credit for helping to create and sustain the enthusiasm of young people entering the political process for the first time. And the way they’re going about it stands a terrific chance of having a lasting impact on democracy.
(Disclosure: I am an unpaid advisor to Scoop08.)
The people of Turkey are facing a stark choice: will they continue to have a mostly free and open Internet, or will they join the two dozen states around the world that filter the content that their citizens see?
Over the past two days, I’ve been here in Turkey to talk about our new book (written by the whole OpenNet Initiative team), called Access Denied. The book describes the growth of Internet filtering around the world, from only about 2 states in 2002 to more than 2 dozen in 2007. I’ve been welcomed by many serious, smart people in Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey, who are grappling with this issue, and to whom I’ve handed over a copy of the new book — the first copies I’ve had my hands on.
This question for Turkey runs deep, it seems, from what I’m hearing. As it has been described to me, the state is on the knife’s edge, between one world and another, just as Istanbul sits, on the Bosporus, at the juncture between “East and West.”
Our maps of state-mandated Internet filtering on the ONI site describe Turkey’s situation graphically. The majority of those states that filter the net extensively lie to its east and south; its neighbors in Europe filter the Internet, though much more selectively (Nazi paraphernalia in Germany and France, e.g., and child pornography in northern Europe; in the U.S., we certainly filter at the PC level in schools and libraries, though not on a state-mandated basis at the level of publicly-accessible ISPs). It’s not that there are no Internet restrictions in the states in Europe and North America, nor that these places necessarily have it completely right (we don’t). It’s both the process for removing harmful material, the technical approach that keeps the content from viewers (or stops publishers from posting it), and the scale of information blockages that differs. We’ll learn a lot from how things turn out here in Turkey in the months to come.
An open Internet brings with it many wonderful things: access to knowledge, more voices telling more stories from more places, new avenues for free expression and association, global connections between cultures, and massive gains in productivity and innovation. The web 2.0 era, with more people using participatory media, brings with it yet more of these positive things.
Widespread use of the Internet also gives rise to challenging content along with its democratic and economic gains. As Turkey looks ahead toward the day when they join the European Union once and for all, one of the many policy questions on the national agenda is whether and how to filter the Internet. There is sensitivity around content of various sorts: criticism of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; gambling; and obscenity top the list. The parliament passed a law earlier in 2007 that gives a government authority a broad mandate to filter content of this sort from the Internet. To date, I’m told, about 10 orders have been issued by this authority, and an additional 40 orders by a court to filter content. The process is only a few months old; much remains to be learned about how this law, known as “5651,” will be implemented over time.
The most high-profile filtering has been of the popular video-sharing site, YouTube. Twice in the past few months, the authority has sent word to the 73 or so Turkish ISPs to block access, at the domain level, to all of YouTube. These blocks have been issued in response to complaints about videos posted to YouTube that were held to be derogatory toward the founder, Ataturk. The blocks have lasted about 72 hours.
After learning from the court of the offending videos, YouTube has apparently removed them, and the service has been subsequently restored. YouTube has been perfectly accessible on the connections I’ve had in Istanbul and Ankara in the past few days.
During this trip, I’ve been hosted by the Internet Association here, known as TBD, and others who have helped to set up meetings with many people — in industry, in government, in journalism, and in academia — who are puzzling over this issue. The challenges of this new law, 5651, are plain:
– The law gives very broad authority to filter the net. It places this power in a single authority, as well as in the courts. It is unclear how broadly the law will be implemented. If the authority is well-meaning, as it seems to me to be, the effect of the law may be minimal; if that perspective changes, the effect of the law could be dramatic.
– The blocks are (so far) done at the domain level, it would appear. In other words, instead of blocking a single URL, the blocks affect entire domains. Many other states take this approach, probably for cost or efficiency reasons. Many states in the Middle East/North Africa have blocked entire blogging services at different times, for instance.
– The system in place requires Internet services to register themselves with the Turkish authorities in order to get word of the offending URLs. This requirement is not something that many multinational companies are going to be able or willing to do, for cost and jurisdictional issues. Instead of a notice-and-takedown regimes for these out-of-state players, there’s a system of shutting down the service and restoring it only after the offending content has been filtered out.
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The Internet – especially in its current phase of development – is making possible innovation and creativity in terms of content. Today, simple technology platforms like weblogs, social networks, and video-sharing sites are enabling individuals to have greater voice in their societies. These technologies are also giving rise to the creation of new art forms, like the remix and the mash-up of code and content. Many of those who are making use of this ability to create and share new digital works are young people – those born in a digital era, with access to high-speed networks and blessed with terrific computing skills, called “digital natives” – but many digital creators are grown-ups, even professionals.
Turkey is not alone in how it is facing this challenge. The threat of “too much” free expression online is leading to more Internet censorship in more places around the world than ever before. When we started studying Internet censorship five years ago, along with our colleagues in the OpenNet Initiative (from the Universities of Toronto, Cambridge, and Oxford, as well as Harvard Law School), there were a few places – like China and Saudi Arabia – where the Internet was censored.
Since then, there’s been a sharp rise in online censorship, and its close cousin, surveillance. About three dozen countries in the world restrict access to Internet content in one way or another. Most famously, in China, the government runs the largest censorship regime in the world, blocking access to political, social, and cultural critique from its citizens. So do Iran, Uzbekistan, and others in their regions. The states that filter the Internet most extensively are primarily in East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Central Asia.
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Turkey’s choice couldn’t be clearer. Does one choose to embrace the innovation and creativity that the Internet brings with it, albeit along with some risk of people doing and saying harmful things? Or does one start down the road of banning entire zones of the Internet, whether online Web sites or new technologies like peer-to-peer services or live videoblogging?
In Turkey, the Internet has been largely free to date from government controls. Free expression and innovation have found homes online, in ways that benefit culture and the economy.
But there are signs that this freedom may be nearing its end in Turkey, through 5651 and how it is implemented. These changes come just as the benefits to be reaped are growing. When the state chooses to ban entire services for the many because of the acts of the few, the threat to innovation and creativity is high. Those states that have erected extensive censorship and surveillance regimes online have found them hard to implement with any degree of accuracy and fairness. And, more costly, the chilling effect on citizens who rely on the digital world for their livelihood and key aspects of their culture – in fact, the ability to remake their own cultural objects, the notion of semiotic democracy – is a high price to pay for control.
The impact of the choice Turkey makes in the months to come will be felt over decades and generations. Turkey’s choice also has international ramifications. If Turkey decides to clamp down on Internet activity, it will be lending aid to those who seek to see the Internet chopped into a series of local networks – the China Wide Web, the Iran Wide Web, and so forth – rather than continuing to build a truly World Wide Web.
It seems as though there was another promising uptick in voter turnout last night in Iowa. This fact, if true, is the best news out of the caucuses, in my mind. (I am supporting Sen. Obama for president, so I’m excited about that, too.) Early analysis by many of those working on getting youth out to vote, like Adrian Talbott and his colleagues at Generation Engage, suggest that the youth vote is headed up. So reported the Boston Globe as well. Congratulations to all who have been working so hard on this crucial topic.