How to turn off Twitter’s censorship

It’s clear by now that Twitter’s new censorship regime is a pre-emptive move to keep the scope of censorship to within the jurisdictions of the legal authorities making the requests. This way, if Twitter is obliged by French law to remove a tweet deemed illegal in France, it will only be removed from French timelines — the rest of the world will continue to see it.

In its implementation, Twitter’s censorship system is very easy to circumvent by users — no doubt intentionally. I’ve played around with it using a virtual private network (VPN) to access my account from various countries in various setups; the workaround is trivial, albeit with a few twists.

Twitter’s own FAQ pages give two massive hints as to how to go about it:

  1. Which censorship regime your account will follow is decided by having Twitter geolocate your browser’s IP address to set your “initial country” in the settings.
  2. However, because Twitter might “misidentify” your country, Twitter says you get to manually override the chosen country in your Twitter account settings. Your choice is saved as a cookie in your browser. Twitter says it does not store this information on its servers.

Circumventing Twitter’s censorship is not as easy as choosing the “Worldwide” option from the dropdown menu of countries — a choice which you might assume places you outside any jurisdiction.

Choosing “Worldwide” has the opposite effect, in fact: Your censorship regime will automatically default to whatever jurisdiction your browser finds itself in. So if you choose “Worldwide” from a Swedish IP address, your country setting will immediately switch to Sweden. If you later move to an Egyptian IP address, the country setting will automatically switch to Egypt.

The “Worldwide” setting is Twitter’s default. If you haven’t changed your country manually in your account settings, this is how Twitter will choose your censorship regime. (If your IP address is not on the dropdown list of 59 countries, such as for Belgium, then the country is listed as “Worldwide” *.)

What if you are in the US, and want to ensure that your censorship regime stays American when you travel? Even though your country is listed as “United States” by default, that will change when you leave the US, unless you do this: Select any other country, save changes (and provide your password), then select the United States, and save changes. Even though the before and after settings will look exactly the same, you have now forced the browser to choose the US as your country, as opposed to whatever country you happen to be in.

But regardless of what country you happen to be in, why not choose one with best practices in free speech? A quick look at the Press Freedom Index shows that the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland are great choices. The governments of the Netherlands and Sweden in particular have been vocal in their defense of the net freedom agenda.

I’ve confirmed by using the same Twitter account on several browsers simultaneously across different IP addresses that the country setting for each browser is independent, saved locally in a cookie. This means you can have a second browser set to a different country, in case your default setting coughs up a censored tweet. It’s also a great way to compare and contrast censorship regimes.

In sum, circumventing Twitter’s censorship model is trivial, and I’m sure that’s not because Twitter is incompetent. What I do worry about is that this model is not robust against the future demands of censors. The wording of SOPA and PIPA, had they become law, could have been construed to classify the opt-out nature of Twitter’s censorship model as an enabler of piracy. And what about those Taliban tweets? If the US ever gets around to censoring those, it would certainly not be content with barring them just from the US; Twitter is a US company, and it can be compelled to act globally by US law.

While the newly introduced censorship model will allow Twitter to expand to countries like France and Germany, where historical baggage from World War II results in peculiar censorship regimes, or the UK, which has unique defamation laws, it is possible that new laws or future legal tests of Twitter’s approach will prohibit this censorship model. It’s great of Twitter to try, of course, but it makes Twitter’s expansion into new jurisdictions somewhat precarious, as the company may suddenly find itself faced with the grim choice of having to dismantle its opt-out censorship model in some jurisdictions, or pulling out operations from that country entirely.

Fortunately. Twitter is unlikely to ever set up shop in countries where revolutionaries are still fighting the good fight, and relying on Twitter to do so. In those countries, Twitter will not care about what the regime demands. They’ll just have to block Twitter wholesale, just as Iran, Vietnam and China currently do.

(* I suspect, but cannot prove absent a censored recent tweet to test with, that when Worldwide is selected for an IP address not from a listed country, the censorship regime defaults to that of the US. One reason I think this is the case is that only from a US IP address is it possible to select the “Worldwide” option from the dropdown menu and not have it switch automatically to the current jurisdiction, in this case “United States”. I think this is because the browser compares the two jurisdictions and sees they are the same, so does not bother to force the switch.)

On Twitter censorship: Don’t shoot the carrier pigeon

Twitter’s decision to enable country-level blocking of tweets is a rational response to an Internet that long ago ceased to be that utopian place beyond location. Companies who want to grow global amid the forked legal code of today’s Internet need to follow in Twitter’s footsteps.

It would be great if there were companies that did not want to grow global, who could offer a fortified service from a free speech haven and pay no attention to the thin-skinned legal codes of the world. Such an mission would be difficult to sustain, however: Twitter is not some abstract concept; it costs money to run. Free services need advertising-generated revenue; ads require local sales teams and/or local payment systems. This means local offices, and these are within reach of local laws. A Twitter service used by the world but not paid for by the world is unsustainable. (A hypothetical premium Twitter would have the same achilles heel: local payment systems.)

In terms of fine-tuning its censorship, Twitter is catching up to Google. Google has long had the ability to censor search results on a per-country basis. It also serves mutually exclusive map datasets to India and China, where it is illegal to publish country borders at odds with the official stance. Google does this because it is heavily invested in both countries — not just with sales teams, but with development teams too. Executives face real-world criminal charges for non-compliance, as Google found out in Italy.

A highly relevant question now is: Where should the limits of tolerance lie for Facebook, Twitter and Google when it comes to censorship? When does a country, in Twitter’s own words, “differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there.”? Let’s say we’re even understanding about Germany censoring Google search for Nazi propaganda and France for Nazi memorabilia. What about the case last week of the Indonesian who posted to Facebook that he did not believe in God, and was arrested for it? Should Facebook remove the post globally? Should it remove it only in Indonesia (something it cannot currently do)? I’d say no in both cases, but many Indonesians apparently prefer not to be confronted with expressions of non-belief in their midst. (The BBC reports the page in question has been taken down, but the group still seems to be up when visited from Sweden. Facebook is able to make entire pages unavailable to specific countries.)

Is this really a fight Facebook should fight alone? Should it be YouTube’s fight to serve videos deemed insulting to Ataturk in Turkey? If we demand Facebook and Twitter and Google exit these markets rather than collaborate with laws odious to our free-speech sensibilities, shouldn’t we demand that other businesses boycott the country in solidarity? And is that really feasible?

When to tolerate censorship, then? It depends. It depends on whether a country is on a trajectory towards more free speech. It depends on whether the local laws in question are created through a broad participatory process that gives them legitimacy. It depends on whether the content objected to is an expression of a fundamental human right, such as a sincerely held belief. More cynically, it depends on whether the company in question has business interests there, chasing a growing user base. (For Google in China, this complex calculation turned against collaboration when it became obvious speech was becoming less free, not more, despite its presence.)

Today’s announcement is a bid by Twitter to ensure that excessive censorship in one jurisdiction does not bleed over into other jurisdictions. In tandem with Google, this approach amounts to a new balance of power between national jurisdictions and the web’s native interest communities. We cannot assume it is a stable equilibrium, however. One risk is that the offer of country-level content blockage is not enough for a censorious regime. It may demand that content be removed globally, else face local legal jeopardy. This is not far-fetched — demands for the removal of military “secrets” from Google Earth make no sense if they can still be seen by everyone except those within a jurisdiction. (So far, with one exception, Google has resisted such requests. China certainly tried.) It is also illegal for Google to post any information about China’s censorship requests globally, as explained in its transparency report:

Another risk is that the outsourcing of censored tweets to is only a temporary solution in a long jurisdictional arms race. Censored tweets are currently listed on, where the offending tweet can be read in full, with link and all, thus:

Since Twitter promises to alert us anytime a tweet is blocked, the Streisand effect will likely ensure wide exposure for all content that ends up there. But SOPA and PIPA were phrased to criminalize precisely this kind of “enabling” of piracy by linking, with an added extra-jurisdictional twist: Companies with a US presence would not only be enjoined from directly linking to illegal content, they would also be enjoined from doing business with non-US companies linking to it. I fear non-US legal codes will innovate to mirror this extra-judicial demand, not just for copyrighted material but for all content deemed not in the national interest. China already does (see Google’s transparency report, above).

Finally, one interesting issue I’ve not seen explained by Twitter: The mechanics of this censorship. It sounds as if there will be a block list of links for each country. I assume that once a country demands a link be put on the list, all tweets containing that link will not be shown to Twitter users in that country. But what about tweets that do not contain a link but which merely contain speech objectionable to censors? Will there be a continuously updated list of blocked terms, as is done with Chinese microblogging tools? Or will each individual offending tweet need to be flagged by censors? If it’s the latter, then there is little worry, as the half-life of a tweet is far shorter than a censor’s reaction time. But that is why China sets its own far more onerous rules for those who want to play there.

What if a country with a conservative culture or oppressive regime does demand a list of blocked terms, ostensibly to prevent obscene or defamatory speech? I suspect (and hope) Twitter decides such countries “differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there.” Twitter could then serve a full uncensored feed to users in, say, Saudi Arabia or UAE or Pakistan; the onus would be on these countries to decide if they want to invest in unilateral blocking technology of the kind China uses for its Great Firewall. That is indeed the route Iran and Vietnam have taken, and which others may yet take as Internet censorship technology gets cheaper and easier to deploy. When that kind of Internet has broadly arrived, we’ll be in the next phase in the Internet censorship arms race.

Resources update: January 2012

Here are the most recent additions to the resources section of, listed in no particular order:

The Centre for Spatial Law and Policy • Blog and online resources on laws and policies relating to spatial and location data in terms of privacy, national security and intellectual property. Run by Kevin Pomfret.

Telecomix’s We Rebuild • Resource pages of projects run by the hacktivist collective Telecomix, aiming to ensure “access to a free Internet without intrusive surveillance.” @Telecomix

The Crypto Project • Organization “designed to assist and encourage anonymity and encryption research, development, and use” by providing “better software, security, and anonymity to individuals worldwide.” @cryptodotis

Fight for the Future • US-based non-profit organizing grass-roots opposition to proposed SOPA and PIPA censorship bills. Facebook page @fightfortheftr

Chaos Computer Club • German hacker group, “Europe’s largest”, with activities supporting “free speech, free communication and internationalism on the World Wide Web” that range from “technical research and exploration on the edge of the technology universe through campaigns, events, publications and policy advice to the operation of anonymizing services and communications.” @chaosupdates

Index on Censorship • UK-based organization promoting free expression, with “up-to-the-minute news and information on free expression from around the world.” @IndexCensorship Facebook page

Internet Rights & Principles (IRP) • multi-stakeholder coalition aiming “to make Rights on the Internet and their related duties, specified from the point of view of individual users, a central theme of the Internet Governance debate.” Facebook page

Yochai Benkler wrote @The Wealth of Networks

Tom Glaisyer • Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, where he is involved with their Media Policy Initiative. Studies “the interplay between digital infrastructure, its use, and democratic institutions in society.” @tglaisyer

Mapping Online Publics • Research blog by the New Media and Public Communication program at Queensland University of Technology, with a focus on Twitter data gathering, processing, textual analysis and visualization.

Web Ecology Project • “An interdisciplinary research group based in Boston, Massachusetts focusing on using large scale data mining to analyze the system-wide flows of culture and community online.”

Free Society Conference and Nordic Summit (FSCONS) • Annual conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, billed as “the Nordic countries’ largest gathering for free culture, free software and a free society.” @fscons

Envaya • “A technology platform for civil society organizations in developing countries” with a mobile component. @Envaya

Governance across borders • Blog by a group of researchers that “shares ideas, concepts and examples on how to deal with old and new forms of such transnational governance.” Loosely affiliated with the research group “Institution Building Across Borders” at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies. @govxborders

Cornelius Puschmann’s Blog • Blog “blog on Linguistics, Digital Humanities and Scholarly Communication on the Internet.” @coffee001

Nexa Center for Internet and Society • Independent research center at the Politecnico of Torino “focusing on quantitative and interdisciplinary analysis of the force of the Internet and of its impact on society.” Aims to “become a point of reference in Europe, interacting with the European Commission, regulators, local and national governments, as well as with business and other institutions.” Facebook page @nexacenter

Knight Foundation • US-based Foundation “supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts.” Journalism is supported through a focus on “funding media innovation, journalistic excellence, and freedom of expression.” Facebook page @knightfdn

European Public Policy Blog by Google • “Google’s views on Government, policy and politics in Europe.”

Res Communis • Blog “on the legal aspects of human activities using aerospace technologies” at the University of Mississippi Schol of Law’s National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law.

GroundTruth Initiative • Website and blog by Mikel Maron and Erica Hagen at their new media and technology consulting company “specializing in community-based participatory technologies, especially mapping and citizen journalism, in poor and marginalized regions throughout the world”.

Joho the Blog by David Weinberger • Senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center writes about “the effect of the Internet on how we think about ourselves, our world, and business.” @dweinberger

Krebs on Security by Brian Krebs • “In-depth security news and investigation” by a former Washington Post reporter, covering online crime investigations, new threats, security updates, data breaches and cyber justice. Facebook page @briankrebs

F-Secure Labs blog • Cyber-security news from F-Secure Security Labs, by “the personnel responsible for analyzing virus, phishing, spyware, and spam attacks.” Facebook page @FSecure

Slight Paranoia by Christopher Soghoian • Blog with analysis and opinion by the Washington DC-based security and privacy researcher. @csoghoian

Infosec Island • News and community site “for IT and network professionals who manage security, risk, and compliance issues.” @InfosecIsland

Code for America • Non-profit helps US city governments improve their services by funding the coding and deployment of web-based solutions. Facebook page @codeforamerica

CJNEWS India • India-focused collective blog with news and opinion about techno-legal issues.

TorrentFreak • Blog “where breaking news, BitTorrent and copyright collide.” @torrentfreak

Collaborative power: The case for Sweden

Two weeks ago in Stockholm, half a dozen technologists hunkered down for a whole-day workshop with Sweden’s foreign-facing government agencies (the usual suspects: The Swedish Institute, VisitSweden, the Swedish Trade Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

The assignment: Brainstorming the future of Sweden’s digital public diplomacy.

Part of my presentation looked at the evolving nature of the power wielded by states as societies get networked digitally, and how a new theoretical framework might be needed to explain what has been happening in the Middle East and elsewhere this year. Intriguingly, a recently proposed network-centric theory of power appears to favor Sweden’s open and collaborative nature as a multiplier of its influence globally.

Soft power and hard power

The now well-known notion of soft power as a success factor in international affairs was first introduced by the noted political theorist Joseph Nye as recently as 1990, just as the end of the Cold War broadened opportunities for states to pursue goals by means other than the coercive “hard power” embedded in military might and financial means. Soft power works not through coercion but through the attraction derived from positive perceptions of a nation’s cultural and social institutions; states will often attempt to manage such goodwill to shape preferences internationally so that they align with their own interests. (It’s called “nation branding” for a reason.)

Within this soft power/hard power conceptual framework, some states are clearly superpowers. The US has long been one in both dimensions, with military and financial supremacy as well as the lure of its world-beating universities, blockbuster movies, music industry and (until recently) openness to immigration. (Hard and soft power can work at cross-purposes, however: Nye in 2004 argued that the hard power expended on an elective war in Iraq was poisonous to America’s soft power.) Japan is a soft superpower but not a hard superpower. China is a hard superpower but not a soft superpower — its immense social and cultural capital is hobbled by an authoritarian state’s predilection for internal stability and a growing regional hegemony that breeds mistrust among its neighbors. Sweden’s small size and limited resources disbar it from superpower status in either realm, but it does manage to punch above its weight in the soft power stakes, not least because it often inhabits the positive extremes of global indices measuring innovation, economic equality, quality of life, creativity

Power in the networked century

In an oft-quoted article in Foreign Affairs from January 2009 (direct PDF download), Anne-Marie Slaughter — a professor of international affairs at Princeton and an old student of Nye’s — began updating this framework to incorporate the rise of the Internet and the digital networks it affords:

In this world, the measure of power is connectedness. Almost 30 years ago, the psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote about differences between the genders in their modes of thinking. She observed that men tend to see the world as made up of hierarchies of power and seek to get to the top, whereas women tend to see the world as containing webs of relationships and seek to move to the center. Gilligan’s observations may be a function of nurture rather than nature; regardless, the two lenses she identified capture the differences between the twentieth-century and the twenty-first-century worlds.

Slaughter sees the rise of digital networks as fundamentally positive for American power — hence the title of her piece, “America’s Edge: Power in the networked century”:

In this world, the state with the most connections will be the central player, able to set the global agenda and unlock innovation and sustainable growth. Here, the United States has a clear and sustainable edge.

Collaborative power

Since then, her thinking has evolved. Back in 2009, she did not explicitly refer to the hard power/soft power framework of her mentor, but in a new article published a few weeks ago in The Atlantic, she contends that Nye’s framework lacks analytical clout with the kind of power that dramatically upended a slew of regimes in the Middle East this year.

Her main point is that Nye’s concept of power is limited to that of “power over” others, whereas the new kind of power mustered on Tahrir Square and in Tunisia is “power with”. The former is top-down, defined in terms of relationships between groups (“relational power”), while the latter is bottom-up, guided and enabled by the logic of informal networks, including digital ones. The term Slaughter settles on for this new power varietal is “collaborative power”.

Briefly, (do go read her piece), Slaughter juxtaposes some key traits of relational and collaborative power. While relational power is wielded by a specific group to command action, collaborative power can be mobilized by calls to action from any number of connected groups with an urgent need. While relational power aims to control agendas and hierarchies so as to better shape the preferences of others, collaborative power is all about broadening access to the network, and adapting one’s own preferences to better communicate with it — to better “move to the center” of the network. Collaborative power “is an emergent phenomenon — the property of a complex set of interconnections. Leaders can learn to unlock it and guide it, but they do not possess it.”

How is the United States positioned to “unlock and guide” this collaborative power so it aligns with its own interests? How is Sweden positioned?

Advantage Sweden

In her 2009 essay, Slaughter lists a series of cultural, social and demographic traits the US possesses which give it an edge in this “networked century”. In most cases, to the extent that these traits favor the US, they also favor Sweden. My hypothesis is that Sweden is very well positioned to become a collaborative superpower, in some case more so than the United States — especially in the Middle East.

Small population

Slaughter posits that in the networked age, a small population is an asset: While territory and population are certainly resources that have contributed to hard power, global trade now ensures that a state’s wealth is no longer tied to the size of its internal market. Smaller populations are more manageable, politically, in part because they are less prone to secessionism. Slaughter considers the US, with its 300+ million people, to have a limited population, at least when compared to that of China or India.

At 9.4 million, Sweden’s population is similar to that of New York City, and over an order of magnitude smaller than that of the US. And while the US is not riven by secessionism (pace Alaska and Texas and Puerto Rico and Hawai’i) its political system is besieged by an increasingly ideological intransigence that has some regional bias. In Sweden, meanwhile, mere policy tweaks separate the left from the right, and the electorate resolutely favors technocrats over populists.


Immigrants are an asset in the networked age, because they contribute strong trusted connections back to their country of origin, facilitating trade and the spread of ideas. (The Economist most recently chimed in on the benefits of diaspora networks.) America’s famed heterogeneity is rightly tagged by Slaughter as a magnet for the world’s creatives and entrepreneurs, no matter what their origin.

But while the US has always been attractive to immigrants, America’s immigration policy is no longer requiting their overtures. Post 9/11, there’s been a turning inward, a hardening towards the notion of immigration. Slaughter acknowledges this, calling for US immigration reform that recognizes the positive impact of diaspora communities.

Sweden, in contrast, is often perceived as a homogeneous nation of blue-eyed gentle giants. But the numbers tell a different story. 14.7% of its population is foreign-born, a percentage that is rising. The US foreign-born population stands at 12.5% of the total, and is stagnant or declining in absolute terms. Granted, a portion of Sweden’s foreign-born population, like myself, hails from the rest of Europe, but that is the case for the US as well.

Sweden has long had a generous asylum policy, welcoming Chileans fleeing Pinochet, Iranians fleeing the mullahs, and most recently, Iraqi Assyrians fleeing religious persecution in the aftermath of the Iraq war. One town alone in Sweden took in more Iraqi refugees than all of the United States combined.

And alone among its Nordic neighbors, Sweden appears to have inoculated itself against immigration fatigue; the anti-immigrant Sverigedemokraterna party remains on the fringes, with a stagnant 5-6% support in opinion polls.

Immigrants, then, are set to remain a strong asset for Sweden in forging trusted networks with the rest of the world.

Global engagement

Another competitive advantage, according to Slaughter, is that America’s youth is increasingly seeking international exposure.

John Zogby, the influential pollster, calls Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 “the First Globals,” a group he describes as “more networked and globally engaged than members of any similar age cohort in American history.”

The problem is that global engagement has historically not been America’s strong suit (with a notable and appreciated exception in WWII). It’s great that this latest cohort of Americans to deserve a moniker are using their passports “far more frequently” than older generations, but the historical comparisons are not that hard to beat.

It’s safe to say that nothing comes close to the Swedish zeal for global immersion. Swedish backpackers swarm the hostels of the world, while Swedish families lord it over the slopes and beaches. The evidence is not just anecdotal: Some rather gruesome statistics for the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami list casualties for countries that lost citizens travelling abroad in the region. Sweden suffered 543 casualties in that disaster, second only to Germany’s 552, and compared to 51 American deaths. The casualty rate per million inhabitants is truly shocking: Sweden lost 58.1 citizens per million, followed by Finland’s 33.4 and Norway’s 17.3. The United States, in comparison, lost 0.2 citizens per million. In terms of global engagement, the First Globals have a lot of catching up to do.


Slaughter argues that the United States is far more innovative than China, because innovation requires a cultural inclination towards “constructive conflict”, the kind that drives creative destruction and which is found “on American playing fields, in American courtrooms, and in the American political system.” Innovation requires not just critical thinking but the challenging of authority, says Slaughter, and that is a trait China’s rulers are simply not willing to encourage.

The comparison to China is understandable, in view of the oft-proclaimed trope that this is Asia’s century. But the conflict model of innovation is not the only model available to the Chinese as they seek to emulate western success in the information economy. The Swedish innovation model, much admired by visiting Chinese dignitaries when it was the centerpiece of the Swedish pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, stresses a catalytic role for the state in fostering collaboration between companies, universities and research institutes. A Swedish governmental agency, VINNOVA, actively searches out societal challenges to prioritize, then sets about building broad consensual alliances to tackle them. Its strategies include:

Promoting new, cross-sector collaborations to find solutions to needs; solutions to social and societal challenges are rarely found in one traditional sector or a single research field. New collaboration patterns are emerging between actors in different value chains; for example ‘green urban transportation’ is being developed at the interface between energy, automotive engineering and ICT.

Hints of this kind of strategizing can be found in how China has begun promoting industry alliances around emerging green technologies.

Different innovation models suit different national temperaments born of historical contingencies — Sweden and the US should under no circumstances switch models. Two observations are worth making, however: First, conflict-driven innovation is not as network-friendly as collaborative innovation — the former is firmly rooted in the dynamics of relational power. Collaborative innovation is far better suited to the projection of collaborative power, according to Slaughter’s own network-centric theory of power. Second, global innovation metrics show that while both Sweden and the US do well in global rankings (Sweden comes second after Switzerland, the US is in seventh place, vs 29th place for China) most other countries in the top 10 have innovation models similar to Sweden’s. America may be exceptional, but it is not peerless.

Trust and transparency

Slaughter writes in her 2009 essay:

Although trust and transparency are not unique to the United States, it is still one of the most open societies in the world. The Internet world, the wiki world, and the networked world all began in the United States and radiated outward.

The US sets the gold standard for its embrace of open government data, especially after the initiatives by Obama’s administration over the past few years. Most NGOs that embrace networks to mobilize for government accountability, net freedom or democratization have American roots, a marriage of America’s talent for civic-mindedness with a vibrant can-do hacker culture. The academic institutions studying Internet and society are also predominantly American. Events such as the Personal Democracy Forum in New York are a Mecca for networked activists the world over. Such thought leadership is a great asset in the networked era.

But hard power prerogatives can and do undercut this reputation. The US government’s reaction to the Wikileaks diplomatic cable dump betrayed a controlling muscle reflex over American companies such as Mastercard, Paypal and Amazon that worked against the public interest. America’s hard superpower legacy requires it to adopt all kinds of realpolitik-al stances that are inimical to the ideal of openness and transparency. The public airing of such machinations through Wikileaks led to a hypocritical and extrajudicial response that even Slaughter was caught up in.

Sweden’s diplomacy is a far more open book, with a foreign minister that tweets from the hip, and where the electorate expects public positions on international issues to match what is privately communicated. Of course there is secrecy, but it is in the service of discretion, not conspiracy. I suspect an equivalent leak of Swedish diplomatic cables would be far less damaging to Sweden.

Middle East politics

In the Middle East, America’s legacy of hard-power politics interferes with the trust-building needed to direct collaborative power. US-funded initiatives to promote Internet freedom and digital activism are seen as tainted with murkier US policy goals. Tunisian blogger Sami ben Gharbia spelled out the problem at length in a much-noted essay from 2010, when the US still counted Mubarak and Ben Ali as allies:

I don’t see the new [US] Internet Freedom policy as independent from the broader and decades-old US foreign policy, which has been based on practical rather than ethical and moral considerations such as the support for human rights. As we all know in this part of the world, in the name of a short-termed realpolitik, the US has been supporting all kind of dictatorships at the expense of democratic and reformist movements and aspirations.

Over the past four years, Sweden has funded an initiative in the Middle East to build trusted networks between young activists and opinion leaders, both across the region and with their Swedish counterparts. Each year, participants in the Young Leaders Visitors Program (YLVP) are invited to Sweden for a few weeks of networking, training, seminars and internships. Some alumni have ended up among the youth leaders of the Arab Spring. (Full disclosure — I have been involved peripherally with training and reporting.)

Sensitive to the possibility that Sweden sponsoring such a program might be characterized as outside meddling in the internal affairs of another state, we surveyed YLVP alumni for feedback in May 2011. A large majority said that such a characterization would be unfair. Surprisingly, to the extent that some felt YLVP did amount to “outside meddling”, they were in favor of it.

We then asked how they would feel if YLVP were funded by a country such as the US, UK or France. A larger group was wary. Polled for their reasons, here are some typical responses:

“It’s a Swedish initiative and so it should stay. Sweden is perceived as being neutral while if France or the US started to sponsor such programs, we would start to question the neutrality of the program.”

“Having the UK, US or France organize any event targeting youth will definitely raise red flags, which means they might be perceived as holding a different/unknown agenda to take advantage of the fragile situation in the Middle East. I dont think any Jordanian, as a result, would participate.”

In fairness to Slaughter, she was well aware in early 2009 that President Bush’s disastrous Middle East policies would take some time to recover from:

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama will set about restoring the moral authority of the United States. The networked world provides a hopeful horizon.

But the networked world has not so much served as a tool in this restoration as an autonomous organism highly attuned to discrepancies between words and deeds. In the Middle East, Obama’s two inspirational speeches on US diplomacy in the region were no match on Twitter for his administration’s subsequent inability (or unwillingness) to hold its closest allies — Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain — to account for their continued flouting of human rights laws.

In her Atlantic article from two weeks ago, Slaughter’s case study on the effective use of collaborative power narrates the recent spontaneous Twitter initiative to press for the release of the Egyptian-American journalist/activist Mona Eltahawy after she was detained by Egyptian security forces near Tahrir Square. I do not however see this as an example of the state mobilizing a networked collaboration of activists to achieve a positive outcome — rather, the reverse: Activists successfully mobilized America’s hard-power influence over the Egyptian military regime via Slaughter’s State Department contacts.

Horizontal societies for horizontal networks

Slaughter’s 2009 essay also identifies a social trend in the US that impedes it from benefiting fully from the horizontal nature of networks:

A networked world requires a genuinely networked society, which means fostering economic and social equality. The United States has never been as egalitarian as it imagines itself to be, but this divide has worsened in the past decade, as the rich have become the superrich.

While the Kingdom of Sweden is also not as egalitarian as it imagines itself to be, it is by at least one major measure the world’s most egalitarian society: Sweden’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, is the world’s lowest at 0.23. (The US, at 0.45, ranks 100th out of 140, according to the CIA World Fact Book). Other more offbeat pointers to a deeply horizontal society include sky-high choral participation rates, near-universal Internet access, the concept of “lagom“, and the invention and embrace of the ombudsman.

A division of labor?

At the risk of having been long-winded, I hope I’ve made the case that Sweden is well positioned to thrive in the networked century. A nimble, innovative and open society such as Sweden has all the right qualifications to mesh itself deeply within trusted networks that are able to mobilize collaborative power.

The notion of Sweden as a collaborative superpower can sound boastful to modest Swedish ears, but it is important to remember that collaborative power is not the ability to command a network; rather it is the ability to align with a trusted network so that common ideals can be fought for and achieved far more effectively.

Many of these ideals — open societies, democracy, Internet freedom — are shared by the US, Sweden and by the Arab youth at the vanguard of the Arab revolutions. But if a lack of trust is preventing US-funded initiatives from effectively connecting with the networks driving these revolutions, then perhaps the best solution is for the US not to spend more resources knocking on locked doors. Leave the job of networked collaboration in the Middle East to countries not afflicted with hard power, such as Sweden.

The distinction between soft power and collaborative power can be blurry at the edges: Much of what contributes to soft power can also position a country for collaborative power. But soft power is often a resource-intensive pursuit — money does buy brains, build research institutes, and feed starving artists — whereas collaborative power is relationship-intensive — its currency is trust, which enables collective action towards a common goal. And Swedes are easy to trust, in part because they are always seeking consensus: It is what knits together their choirs, what underpins their collaborative innovation processes, and what drives their diplomacy.

Digital public diplomacy strategies for Sweden

The ideas brainstormed at the workshop on the future of Sweden’s digital public diplomacy are still far too tentative to sketch out, but it’s worth musing on some general strategies for Sweden that a network-centric world implies.

In a collaborative power dynamic, the network quickly disseminates best practices for the good of all, with a concomitant boost to the reputation of the originator. In this context, gaining reputation is akin to “moving to the center” of a network, improving both the quantity and quality of connections. This should be Sweden’s aim in its digital public diplomacy.

Sweden has plenty of best practices to share with the world — and the world has plenty to share with Sweden. For Sweden’s foreign-facing government agencies, the challenge becomes ever tighter integration and interaction with the networks along which these ideas travel.

Where networks are scarce, it is in Sweden’s interest to build up their physical capacity. As a nation-state, Sweden has considerable resources available (when compared to NGOs and civil society actors) to build the foundations for networks that can grow autonomously around prioritized issues. Both YLVP and She Entrepreneurs, a network connecting young female social entrepreneurs in the Middle East with mentors in Sweden, are great examples of such capacity building.

Finally, even open networks need to be trusted before they can be used to build trust. For digital networks, this means they need to be safe and secure for users, regardless of where they live. Power attracts attention, and the collaborative power residing in a network is no different. Digital natives cannot afford to be digital naïfs about the fact that censorship, surveillance and cyber-attacks constitute a real systemic risk to networks. The Swedish state should not be responsible for securing such networks but it can work with others do get the job done. Fortunately, Sweden has recourse to some great hacktivist talent.

So: Build networks, secure networks, engage networks. These are three useful motifs around which Sweden can structure its future digital public diplomacy efforts. The devil is of course in the details.

In Slovenia, panoramic photography comes under regulatory attack

In the European Union it is in the main legal to take photographs from public spaces and then publish them, even if they include identifiable people — and people do so every day in the millions to sites like Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, or to their own blogs. This precedence of the right to free expression over the right to privacy in the public space is a long-standing legal norm, and it has made possible some of the past century’s best photography — street photography, pioneered by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, who obsessively recorded the everyday gestures and habits of urban life, away from the headlines of the day.

In Slovenia, however, the past few months has seen a bizarre new legal constraint emerge: Should you take photographs in a public space in Slovenia that are social documents but not newsworthy (for example of a street merchant, or a moped driver) and opt to transform them into a 360-degree panorama format before publishing them, you are now obliged to first remove all recognizable faces, or face fines. Furthermore, this decree is applied retroactively, to all panoramas ever taken in Slovenia.

What happened? The Slovenian information commissioner has decreed that 360-degree immersive panoramas by their very nature cannot have the same purpose as conventional photographs, but also that the balance of rights between free expression and privacy depends on a photograph’s purpose — in this case, as expressed by the photographer’s choice of technical format.

The upshot is that if the following panorama had been taken in Slovenia, all faces would need to be removed before it can legally be published online, because it does not indisputably record a newsworthy “event” such as a concert, protest march or accident, even though it is clearly an example of street photography:

Tin suq, Sana’a, Yemen in Yemen

A conventional photograph in the genre of street photography, however, would have no such constraints, even if it is more invasive of individual privacy in the pursuit of free expression:

Chinese-Arab cultural exchange in Alexandria, Egypt

What is currently unclear, however, is if conventional photography taken in Slovenia that does not pass muster as street photography — with an architectural object as its subject, or a snapshot of friends with strangers in the background — requires the anonymization of people in the image:

Building with Verandas, Kashgar, China

(So that we’re all on the same page: 360-degree panoramas are made by taking several wide-angle photographs from the exact same spot and then using computer software to stitch them together so that they seamlessly portray the view in all directions. The resulting image can be displayed as an interactive experience on a computer screen, an equirectangular flat image format or as an image in any number of different projections. There are edge cases too: A conventional-looking flat photograph may be stitched together from several component images, such as this one (6 images) or this one (5 images). There are panorama cameras that take ultra wide-angle conventional photographs, while smartphone applications let consumers sweep their phone camera to make panoramas, up to and including 360-degree panoramas.)

So how did an arbitrary technical distinction come to decide whether an uncensored photograph is legal or illegal in Slovenia? The following is a cautionary tale of what happens when non-technical regulators meet a new-to-them technological innovation they are ill-equipped to judge. It is also a case study of how Google, by voluntarily implementing facial blurring in its relatively new but hugely popular Street View automated 360-degree panoramas, created norms in the minds of regulators that they are now eager to set in stone legally. By focusing on the technical details distinguishing Street View from more conventional photography formats, these regulators have managed to condemn an entire emerging field of photography to burdensome and invasive censorship requirements that are impossible to scale without Google-sized automation resources.

(This is perhaps a good place to mention that there is currently no Google Street View in Slovenia, and there likely won’t be for some time. That’s because Slovenia said it would require Google to keep the raw Street View images in Slovenia until they were blurred — no unblurred images were allowed to leave the country. Because the blurring makes use of Google’s servers, none of which are in Slovenia, Google respectfully declined to add Slovenia to its Street View program.)

Slovenia’s unfortunate regulatory turn came to a head because Slovenia happens to be home to Boštjan Burger, one of the pioneers of immersive photography. For almost two decades, Burger has been recognized inside Slovenia (and abroad) as an important cultural geographer, collaborating with museums and schools to create immersive exhibitions and courseware using his panoramas. Years before Google Street View, he was creating panoramas of everyday street scenes in Slovenia; in these scenes, he didn’t blur faces — his intention was to be a social documentarian, where these individuals are part of the story. He hosted this “open-air museum” on his personal website.

In July 2011, out of the blue, he was placed under investigation by Slovenia’s information commissioner. The (anonymous) complaint: He was making personally identifiable information available in his panoramas, because he hadn’t blurred faces. Never mind that his 11,000 panoramas had been published on his website for years without issue; pending the result of the investigation, Burger was told his panoramas were “most probably illegal” without facial blurring, and so he opted to take many of them offline.

In September 2011, the office of the information commissioner released a legal opinion which stated that conventional street photography engaged in social documentation did not need to have faces removed under Slovenian law, but that panoramas such as Google Street View did, because Street View’s purpose is as tool for getting a sense of the architecture of a place or for finding a location, not social documentation. When the purpose of a photograph is not social documentation, an individual’s right to privacy gains precedence.

This prompted more questions: Who decides what the purpose of a photograph is? Who decides what passes for social documentation? How can a photograph’s format determine its purpose? Burger asked these questions.

In October 2011, in response to Burger’s requests for clarification, the information commissioner released a directive (not online) which explained what kinds of panoramic photography can legally be published in Slovenia with faces unblurred. The directive decided there were just three different kinds of panoramas:

  1. Panoramas without identifiable people in them — these are not in contention.
  2. Panoramas of events such as concerts, protest marches, accidents — in these cases, the photographs have some news value, and so faces need not be blurred, for example if published on a news site.
  3. Photography of public spaces without newsworthy events, where the purpose is to show the architecture or scenery of a specific place — this kind is meant to contain Street View-type panoramas, and here people’s faces must be anonymized. The commissioner decided that a portion of Burger’s panoramas are of this kind. (There is no fourth kind, for social documentation in non-event situations, which is what street photographers most often pursue.) In addition, Burger may not send the original unblurred versions to others in Slovenia or abroad. He faces fines of up to 5,500 euros if he does not comply.

Burger told me that in face-to-face meetings at the commissioner’s office, he was told that this test of newsworthiness, although applied just to panoramic photography in the directive, was in fact valid for conventional photography as well. He then decided to comply with the directive for the long term, either by keeping his panoramas offline or by creatively masking faces on published panoramas so that individuals were not recognizable.

When news of Burger’s meeting spread through the Slovenian photographers’ community, it was immediately pointed out that this test of newsworthiness directly contradicted the legal opinion from Sept 2011, which had specifically upheld the legality of publishing street photography with faces unblurred. So Burger asked for a further clarification: He was told in yet another meeting that the September 2011 opinion defending street photography was only meant for “master photographers” and artists, pursuing creative work. Of course they would not need to blur images if they were exhibiting their work in a gallery or book, for example. In any case, there would be a further statement, he was told.

That statement arrived today.

In it, the commissioner first references Wikipedia to define street photography and then apparently concludes that while this kind of photography has broad legal protection, the test for what constitutes street photography is also rather precise: (Translated via Google Translate, edited for clarity)

In the opinion of the commissioner, street photography is a photograph of the individual in special circumstances, situations, interactions with living and inanimate nature, or with other individuals. The point [of the photograph] is therefore an individual — a representation of an individual as an integral part of society. It is not so important where exactly a person is depicted. The focus is on an individual’s social position and the consequences resulting therefrom, and his/her interaction with other individuals and the environment, and expressed feelings. The location where the photo was taken is of secondary importance.

It is important to note here is that the commissioner is referring to photography in general. There is apparently a class of photographs — those which are neither street photographs nor news photographs — that do not deserve the same legal protection, for example because their purpose is depicting architecture or perhaps because they fail to be sufficiently artistic. In this class of photographs, whether they be flat or panoramic, the right to privacy of the individuals in them would appear to trump the right to free expression by the photographer. This amounts to an opinion with far wider consequences than the original judgment against 360-degree panoramas.

She also argues that 360-degree panoramas in particular — “spatial photography” in her parlance — cannot fall under the street photography rubric because in panoramas location is important, by her reckoning.

A key element of street photography is that the picture depicts an individual. If you show exactly where a photo was taken, the individual is possibly one element in the interpretation of images, but not its essential part. A photo where the presentation of a location is more important than the presentation of the individual as a rule does not fall within the definition of street photography.

We are also told that it is the photographer who is responsible for determining whether a photograph qualifies as street photography and thus can escape the removal of faces:

Clearly, whether a photo is street photography or not should be determined on a case by case basis. This is the primary task of the photographers themselves […] and of course the editors and curators.

The photographer does not escape liability however, should he/she make this determination incorrectly:

Liability for the lawful processing of individual images as street photography is with the photographer. […] Otherwise, there may be an inadmissible interference with personal rights, and this will be protected before the competent courts.

Finally, we are told why specifically all non-newsworthy panoramas must have faces removed. It is because panoramas make it clear where and when they were taken that individuals who find themselves in them must have greater privacy protection:

The essence of space photography (when not a depiction of an event) is a pictorial depiction of the environment surrounding the camera. The location of the photo is thus an intrinsic part of the spatial image. Also, because of the special technique used to produce spatial photographs, individuals cannot be the central motif — the finished product can even be disturbed by them. […] According to the commissioner, an individual whose recognizable image becomes an integral part of spatial images does not only enjoy the protection of personal rights, but also enjoys personal data protection. Spatial photography not only reveals his/her identity, but also reveals his/her personal data, for example a very precise location and possibly also a time when he/she was at this location. [… Before publishing a spatial image, a photographer needs to] obtain the individual’s prior consent, or in the absence of this consent, make the individual unrecognizable.

The argument that only panoramas can expose an individuals’ personal data is quite odd: Any photograph taken in front of a landmark automatically does the same for location. All digital photos contain EXIF timestamps that photo publishing sites automatically share. Mobile phone camera applications automatically add GPS-derived location- and time stamps when uploading to Twitter, Facebook or FourSquare. Will these kinds of photographs now also require the removal of faces? And besides, can street photography not also come with location and time data attached?

What next? Burger tells me that there will likely be a legal challenge to the decree, so that it will face a number of tests in progressively higher courts of law — and with any luck, in the European arena, which is usually good about slapping down ill-considered constraints on free expression. And on November 24, the Slovenian Association of Photographers and Journalists will tackle the issue in a public debate that is slated to feature both Burger and the information commissioner.

2011/12/2 Update: After the debate, the commissioner has now come out with a definitive decision. Burger writes (paraphrased somewhat):

The information commissioner of Slovenia has declared that 360-degree panoramas contain personal data. As a database it is under her jurisdiction. Such photography may not be published online unless faces are blurred.


Published 360-degree panoramas with unblurred faces are legal only if the publisher has a written permit of all the people in the panorama. The source images from which the panorama was stitched need to be unrecoverably deleted, e.g. destroyed.


What about other images published online? That is not data collection, but it doesn’t mean that the publisher is without responsibility. To be “safe”, the publisher (photographer, videographer) needs to get (ex-post) the permission of every individual documented in the image.

The decree is valid for all images taken on the territory of Republic of Slovenia and is retroactive (with no time limit in the past).

Fake participation fatigue

Two items make a trend, right?

1. When the UK government hosted an international conference on cyber-security last week, commingling foreign ministers from all over with industry representatives and, daringly, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, it was the backdrop that struck me as incongruous:

Perhaps the organizers were under the impression that getting the #LondonCyber Twitter hashtag to trend would be a sufficient proxy for civil society participation in an otherwise closed talking shop. No doubt they anticipated the criticism, and some tech-savvy mandarin came up with the “Let them tweet hashtags” solution.

And never mind the audacity of David Cameron fishing for tweets so publicly just months after the London riots had him running to sacrifice social media at the altar of public security.

2., in its zeal to embrace participatory media, now allows people to start petitions, promising an official response upon sufficient signatures. The problem is that these petitions do not lead to policy change, but to rote copy-paste responses that rehash the administration’s line (exhibit one and two).

That the following would happen is inevitable:

In case it disappears from the website, here is the petition text:

We demand a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition.
Since these petitions are ignored apart from an occasional patronizing and inane political statement amounting to nothing more than a condescending pat on the head, we the signers would enjoy having the illusion of success. Since no other outcome to this process seems possible, we demand that the White House immediately assign a junior staffer to compose a tame and vapid response to this petition, and never attempt to take any meaningful action on this or any other issue. We would also like a cookie.

Last I checked, over 10,000 had signed, with a goal of 25,000 looking well within reach.

Yes, people can and do set policy — via democratic elections and referenda. One day, the ability to vote online in binding elections or referenda will become commonplace. Until then, administrations who imply that participatory media lets citizens participate in anything more meaningful than government PR campaigns do so at the risk of being ridiculed. (h/t Felix)

Europe arrives? Berlin’s Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society launches

Currently, the leading academic institutions researching “Internet and Society” are Anglo-Saxon affairs, notably at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Toronto and Oxford. This has prompted the question: Where is mainland Europe’s counterweight in this fast-growing and important area of study?

Perhaps language is a barrier to the wider exposure of continental research, or maybe a clash of academic cultures is impeding cross-fertilization. Public universities in Europe might also be facing funding challenges that conspire against the fast founding of topical new research centers. Smaller places do exist, such as in Turin, and universities might have a faculty or lab that innovates in its niche. Whatever the reason, these efforts have not yet managed to steer the global debate regarding Internet and society, or match the impact of results-oriented projects such as the OpenNet Initiative.

The lack of European institutions with the caliber of a Berkman Center has been keenly felt, however, and so several initiatives are in the works. In Lund, plans are afoot to set up the Lund University Internet Institute (LUII). And in Berlin, Humboldt University’s Google-funded Alexander von Humboldt Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG) has just launched, with a symposium to mark the occasion.

I attended this First Berlin Symposium on Internet and Society (#BSIS11) on Oct 26-28. Below are some notes on the event and some wider thoughts on its context.

In a sign of how en vogue the topic is, that week there were at least two more conferences in the same vein — the corporate-sponsored Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference (#rightscon) in San Francisco, and the Swedish government-funded conference on Internet and democratic change (#net4change) in Stockholm. One speaker, Rebecca MacKinnon, even managed to headline two of them, in San Francisco and Berlin.

The audiences at these conferences varied. In San Francisco we saw civil society and corporations getting together for an “outcome-oriented” event aimed at using ICT to do good. Stockholm had NGOs, entrepreneurs and net activists comparing experiences in the trenches and building networks. Both conferences had strong representations from the Arab world.

In Berlin, in contrast, the audience was resolutely academic, first-world, and with a preponderance of competence in the social sciences and law. The focus, too, was not on outcomes or actions but on discussing research questions that the fledgling institute might pursue. These are not criticisms, but they do point to a big divergence in motivation: Participants in Stockholm and San Francisco approached the issues from a user perspective, and tended to place themselves in opposition to the perceived paternalism of state actors. The default stance to regulatory initiatives among this group is mistrust. They tend to see regulation as a necessary evil.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, regulation — whether national or even international — was far more openly mooted as a desirable means to protect society from the ill effects of Internet-mediated change.

This contrast of approaches was most visible in the two keynote speeches. Rebecca MacKinnon was clearly an emissary of the regulation skeptics, and her talk was a well-argued and illustrated cautionary tale of unintended consequences and slippery slopes. She drew a direct comparison between Chinese corporate self-censorship and the West’s regulatory tack towards intermediary liability, with its attendant chilling effects.

Phillip Mueller‘s keynote on open statecraft, by contrast, was a far more academic and abstract treatment by a public policy professor. Machiavelli and Martin Luther were invoked (the latter as a proto-blogger), governance and social production models were contrasted, and differences were tweaked between one-to-many, many-to-many and few-to-few media.

The overall effect was that of a public policy professional sizing up the Internet. MacKinnon, on the other hand, came across as a digital native sizing up public policy. It’s a subtle distinction, and both perspectives are valuable, but as an Internet user, I find myself hoping HIIG’s ethos doesn’t default solely to Mueller’s approach.

Privacy: How might a digital native’s approach to research questions differ? I think it could affect some of the underlying assumptions. An example: In the workshop on “Internet Legislation and Regulation through the Eyes of Constitution” [sic] there was some talk about how constitutional rights such as privacy or free expression must continue to be robustly protected as the Internet comes to permeate society. This is true, though privacy and free expression often stand in opposition to one another, and so a balance of rights needs to be found that corresponds to a society’s needs and expectations — that’s the job of judges and legislators.

What’s evident is that over time, the march of technology will naturally favor some rights at the expense of others; in a world of cheap camera phones, Facebook and Twitter, our private sphere shrinks and smudges into various shades of semi-privacy, in part because our friends and colleagues have ever more powerful tools to freely express themselves about us.

A conventional policy reaction to this technology-mediated erosion of privacy might be to legislate ever stronger protection in a valiant attempt to freeze privacy norms at pre-Internet levels. A digital native’s policy reaction would be to embrace this shifting natural balance, and focus instead on enabling emerging norms for privacy management. Privacy is a mutable social norm, and it always has been, waxing and waning over the centuries. The new norms need to accommodate this dynamism.

The Berkman Center’s Executive Director Urs Gasser, in his contribution to the workshop, made room for the digitally native response. He pointed out that policy responses to the Internet could range from enacting wholly new legislation, to the subsumption of old legislation into a new more relevant legal framework, to doing nothing at all. He warned against legislating too soon: Knee-jerk legislation produced the US Patriot Act, after all. And finally, he betrayed an engineer’s sensibility, suggesting that the online effects of legislation should be measurable, enabling feedback loops that would allow the legal system to learn.

Public Domain: In the workshop “The Digital Public Domain Between Regulation And Innovation” there was a similar recognition that traditional methods of rewarding creativity through intellectual property protection are being made obsolete by technological innovation. To digital natives, the concept of “buying” digital content is an increasingly anachronistic metaphor, and yet regulatory activity has focused almost exclusively on perpetuating the notion of property, and hence stealing, into the digital age. Meanwhile, technology strongly favors the duplication of digital content with impunity.

A digitally native policy approach, in contrast, appreciates that social practices are shifting just as much in the creation of content as in its consumption. The old lone-author notion of content creation that traditional IP law has catered to is now just one extreme in a spectrum of increasingly collaborative and reiterative creative processes. This new reality has triggered a Cambrian explosion of more apt content use schemes: Licensing models such as the Creative Commons and GNU GPL, voluntary micropayment reward schemes such as Flattr and Readability, and flat-rate consumption schemes such as Spotify and Netflix.

All of these innovations are blurring the boundaries of the public domain, and constitute a de facto assault on IP orthodoxy. What they also share is a bottom-up, evolutionary genesis, born of disparate social movements and entrepreneurial initiatives, as opposed to a more deliberate, top-down approach championed by University of Haifa Dean Niva Elkin-Koren, who was present at the workshop. Her wish was that “we need to start from the purpose of the public domain and then derive norms.”

I certainly approve of this sentiment, though I suspect such a project would crucially lack broader support among copyright incumbents. In the meantime, the best we can do is have these emerging use schemes reshape the public domain in an ad hoc way, with the net effect so far being positive. Elkin-Koren has a point, however, which she has long argued: The evolution of this process does not guarantee a positive outcome.

So, even among digital natives, the tactics may differ while the strategies align. Fortunately, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. And perhaps the specter of a Darwinian evolution of content use norms will push the incumbents towards a system that more holistically looks at how to maximize creativity with a minimum of constraints — something which ACTA demonstrably fails to do.

With all the great people at the workshops and on the sidelines, HIIG looks set to bring a strong European voice to the “Internet and Society” debate. And with MacKinnon, Gasser and Elkin-Koren contributing to the launch symposium, here’s hoping that voice also embraces the digitally native view.

Resources update: Cybernorms, Digital Democracy

Under Blogs > Development, democratization, crisis management

ICT4D Jester • ICT4D contrarian Kentaro Toyama’s blog, where he “questions, critiques, and sometimes lampoons the endeavor called ICT4D.” @kentarotoyama

Diary of a Crisis Mapper • Crisis mapper Anahi Ayala Iacucci writes about ICT4D, mobile technology and, more broadly, on the “political meaning of information”. @anahi_ayala

Under Institutions > The Internet and society

Cybernorms Research Group • Initiative by the Sociology of Law department at Sweden’s Lund University to explore “the norm-creating processes” that appear in the wake of evolving information technology. Looks set to become the Lund University Internet Institute (LUII). @cybernorms

Under Institutions > Democratization

Digital Democracy • Non-profit helps “marginalized communities to use technology to build their futures”. Promotes civic engagement through “digital technologies and programs that promote education, communication and participation.” @DigiDem

Resources update: Digital Due Process, Sahana Software Foundation, Measurement Lab

Under Institutions > Net freedom, civil rights, privacy

Digital Due Process • A “coalition of privacy advocates, major companies and think tanks” aiming to modernize surveillance laws for the Internet, specifically the US Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

Under Blogs > Development, democratization, crisis management

Communication Crisis • A blog investigating “the ways in which people and organisations in political crisis situations are affected by limitations in communication and the ways and modes in which people bypass these limitations.”

Under Tools > Tools

Sahana Software Foundation • “Dedicated to the mission of saving lives by providing information management solutions that enable organizations and communities to better prepare for and respond to disasters.” @SahanaFOSS

Submarine Cable Map
• Shows physical infrastructure of submarine cables. By TeleGeography telecoms market research firm.

Under Tools > Data

Measurement Lab (MLAB) • Research platform and network diagnostic tool to determine if ISPs are performing application-specific traffic shaping such as throttling email, HTTP, SSH, Flash or BitTorrent. By Open Technology Initiative (OTI), Google.

Under Tools > Online journals, book series, essay series, manuals, reference texts

Freedom on the Net 2011 • Published: April 18, 2011. “Examines internet freedom in 37 countries around the globe.” By Freedom House.

Resources update: Institut für Internet & Gesellschaft, ICANN, IGF, IGP…

Under Institutions > The Internet and society:

Institut für Internet & Gesellschaft at Humboldt University in Berlin • New Google-funded initiative collects “leading academics to engage in innovative research focusing on questions of Internet innovation, Internet policy, information and media law and global constitutionalism.” @WebForschung

The Institute is organizing the 1st Berlin Symposium on Internet and Society in Berlin on Oct 25-28, 2011.

Under Institutions > Internet governance:

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) • “A not-for-profit public-benefit corporation with participants from all over the world” that administers the Internet’s domain name system. @ICANN

Internet Governance Forum (IGF) • A “multi-stakeholder” forum mandated by the UN Secretary-General to discuss Internet governance policy. Meets annually, also comprised of regional and national IGFs.

Internet Governance Project (IGP) • An “alliance of academics that puts expertise into practical action in the fields of global governance, Internet policy, and information and communication technology.” Publishes research and analysis on Internet governance, and is active in ICANN and the UN’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) @IGPAlert

Under Institutions > Accountability, transparency, openness:

Open Government Partnership • A “multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.” Overseen by a steering committee of governments and civil society organizations. Launched September 20, 2011 at Google NYC. @opengovpart

Notes on the global politics of digital networks — how the rise of the Internet affects the distribution of power between citizens, corporations and states. By Stefan Geens in Stockholm.