Tech companies are changing the way people communicate. And guess what, governments are losing the control battle. Digital politics censorship is not a game you wanna be engaged in unprepared.
A few months ago, when I wrote why Edward Snowden was « my hero », and why he should be yours too, I reckon I was scared of the potential backlash. Well not really scared, just doubtful of the outcome of the whole PRISM revelations sequence. It’s not that I did not believe the gravity and the scope of what Snowden revealed, I was doubtful of the world’s perception of the story.
Now that The Guardian and the Washington Post received a Pulitzer and official recognition for the terrific journalistic job they’ve done revealing Snowden’s documents, I’m guessing public awareness concerning censorship and privacy is gaining traction. Not too late. And certainly necessary.
Mainstream media were already labeling Snowden a traitor, a danger to American national security, a « coward » for fleeing to Hong-Kong and then Russia. All over mainstream media top notch intellectuals were already lecturing Snowden on alternatives he had to fix the problem, if any, through the system. But the whole system is pushing towards more censorship, so what option did Snowden really have?
Lebanon and Viber’s case
Now the story in Lebanon is not that different. Lebanon is a country with a social fabric heavily dependent on emigration, with an imposing diaspora of some 12 millions Lebanese living abroad. Now that figure is the legendary figure that circulates in Lebanese circles, but the number dates from the 90’s, and surely is closer to 15 million.
This trait of the Lebanese social fabric, when conjugated with Lebanon’s love of communications and social expression, have made Viber, the free messaging and voice calling app, a huge success. As a Lebanese living abroad for example, I use from time to time Viber as a mean of communication with my parents and with friends back home. Viber is a serious cost saver for the Lebanese population, and it’s familiarity as a service have made it one of the most successful apps for Lebanese smartphones users.
There’s one problem however: Politics.
Viber’s founder and CEO, Talmon Marco, is an Israeli-American that formerly served with the Israeli Defense Forces. Lebanon and Israel have been in a state of war since 1948, and explaining this whole conflict again is not my subject and would take pages of geo-strategic analysis. But as news of the background of Talmon Marco broke, the Lebanese government rushed to BAN the service altogether since 2012.
Was that a smart move?
Viber, and all voice-over-IP (VOIP) services for that matter, have been banned in Lebanon since 2012, but enforcement is weak and the apps remain extremely popular. Workarounds for the ban are published widely on the internet, so users have typically been able to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
Like almost every government move, we are at the peak of stupid behavior.
Lebanon has one of the most expensive prices for a minute of mobile communication. The sector has a technology lag that puts the telecom sector in severe agony and the country’s brightest elements leave at the slightest opportunity of working abroad. You have here an environment strongly incentivizing the use of free messaging apps like Viber. Banning the App altogether in a similar environment is fundamentally stupid, a move disconnected from the essence of the digital politics world.
So the news that the Lebanese government has dramatically failed in enforcing the ban is of no surprise to me or any fan of the digital world. Why do governments fail in controlling digital politics?
The digital divide
« (..)the digital divide refers to the series of stratifications concerning access and skills in using the internet as well as its opportunities for use and integration into the daily life of a country and its politics. »
Put in other words, the digital divide represents how much digital politics can develop and reach through in the social environment of a certain country, or the globe as a whole. It underlines the possibilities of certain social categories to play a role in digital politics.Internet penetration in the country, the ability of its people to harness and adapt to digital changes, all determine digital politics’ scope and reach through population category.
The term Digital divide is used to describe a gap between those who have ready access to information and communication technology and the skills to make use of those technology and those who do not have the access or skills to use those same technologies within a geographic area, society or community. It is an economic inequality between groups of persons. (Wikipedia)
Jensen and Anduiza state however that the digital divide is not the main factor in determining the political use of social media. A conjuncture of the digital divide, the institutional structure, and the mainstream media structure appears according to their research to have a more explanatory power.
In the cases that I will mention however, the digital divide has played a big role. I believe that the digital divide is exactly why governments will systematically fail in any attempts of censorship or control of digital communications, let alone digital politics.
Cases of digital politics censorship: France and Twitter
Social unrest and tensions in France have peaked since the venue of Hollande’s socialist government. In a year 2013 that witnessed the legalization of Gay Marriage, in a climate of severe economic difficulties and societal questioning by the population, France requested the removal of a record 87 percent of all tweet removal requests worldwide
The global total for that period was only 365, which means France accounted for a whopping 87 percent of all the requests.
One explanation for the number of demands made by French authorities centres around the number of homophobic tweets that were made in the year that France legalised gay marriage.
France has a free speech tradition fundamentally different from the American one for example, where Freedom of Speech is much more tolerated, even concerning hate speech. France’s restrictive legal framework for speech monitoring evokes « pressing social needs » and « protecting the Republic’s values » as probable causes for limiting freedom of speech. But is this the most efficient way of fighting the hate speech in digital politics?
Sadly, traditional politicians respond in digital politics exactly as how they would have responded in traditional politics: Force and Violence.
Instead of censoring these tweets, the French government should interpret them as an urgent sign for the need to better educate the public, especially young people, about the value of diversity and open-mindedness. For example, France may soon allow persons from the same sex to get married and to adopt children, which has sparked debate and public outcry. The French government’s mission should be to continue to put such inclusive policies into place, and to promote diversity in a society as open as possible. This is where the “honor of France” must be, not in censoring speech.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying nothing should be done to fight hate speech. But removing tweets? Censorship? In the 21st century? After the whole Snowden thing?
What should be optimally done, is using the digital nature of digital politics to respond and shape behavior(if you think that’s still possible, which I strongly doubt). As with the Lebanese government’s ban of Viber, France’s Tweet removal requests solved practically nothing, made the government more unpopular and elitist, and increased defiance towards the mainstream system of politics. As if the country needed that with 20 percent of people already voting for far-right political parties.
The digital divide here plays a crucial role on the digital politics scene. The aptitude of the French youth population to adopt the internet and the digital world as a platform of expression is amazing. The government’s view of social media and web communication however, is pretty much that of the early 20th century, let me demonstrate it for you.
Last February, the Elysée palace announced that Claude Serillon will manage François Hollande’s digital politics communications. For a subject needing a fresh young perspective, and an innovative mindset, Serillon is a joke of a nomination. He s a very respectable man, but a man of communications of the 20th century, a news anchor that witnessed 20th century history. As soon as the news of his possible nomination broke out, Twitter reactions led Hollande to back off this ridiculous nomination. This is just an example of how the digital divide empowers social groups ready to embrace the digital world, and leaves governments trying to control on the sidewalks of history.
Reddit and Snowden/NSA (and any scary word you might think of)
Now this news broke out on April 14. I somehow missed it
(migrating this blog to my own domain has a lot to do with it).
Say what you want about Reddit‘s r/technology, one of its most popular forums. Just don’t say « NSA, » « net neutrality, » « Comcast, » « Bitcoin, » or any of the roughly 50 other words that will secretly get your post deleted.
Another censorship attempt…noticing a trend?
Reddit is practically an online interactive newsstand that offers users the opportunity to vote share and offer users a chance to have all the web’s news on one page. Technically, Reddit should be killing mainstream media, especially newspapers. If not killing them, at least revolutionizing the way they do business.
Instead, Reddit finds itself doing exactly what Mainstream Media do, censorship:
A blanket ban on certain words in headlines may do r/technology subscribers a disservice. After all, « newsworthy » and « controversial » tend to dovetail together; why wouldn’t people interested in technology read about Bitcoin? About Senator Ron Wyden, likely the most dedicated defender of Internet freedom in Congress? About Internet service providers like Comcast and Time Warner?
How did we arrive to this point, in the United States of America , land of Freedom of Expression, home of the internationally recognized set of democratic best practices called the US Constitution?
To resume, Reddit filters « politically sensitive » keywords as « Snowden » or « NSA » and dismisses the articles submitted under these keywords. How an actor of the digital politics world engages in such censorship leaves me bedazzled. I mean freedom is the mantra by which tech companies live and die. Just check how much Google and IBM lost after the NSA scandal (too bad for people who still think the NSA revelations were not a scandal, good luck living in the past).
Governments and digital politics censorship: they just don’t get it.
In a remarkable piece written by Jon Evans in May 2013, a provoking question is asked:
Is The FBI Dumb, Evil, Or Just Incompetent?
I would advise reading the whole article, as it describes exactly the conclusion I want to attain at the end of this post. Digital politics is a game changer. Using old recipes for understanding this new political communication environment is ineffective to say the least, and dangerous if we want to be honest about it:
So we’re left with the last option: the FBI is simply technically incompetent. Unable to come to terms with the new world of technology, and take advantage of the many ways in which new technology can aid their investigations in new ways without turning America into a panopticon, they’re instead still thinking inside the box of 20th-century wiretapping, and insisting that tech companies implement a counterproductive, expensive, and ultimately pointless toolkit…purely to satisfy their own blinkered lack of imagination.
In a country with a unique history of individual freedom, that an agency like the FBI, with all the resources available, fails to create a strategy and a platform to fight terrorism USING the web, is beyond my humble thinking. We are talking about the country that sent the first human-being on the moon’s surface. Now America’s agencies are responsible of setting up a surveillance system as ineffective and as harmful to democracy and transparency as the Chinese one, for example:
In order to claim this empty chalice, the powers that be will require a surveillance system that could be abused by the very kind of people it’s supposed to be used against. Could, and almost certainly would: if you build a tool that can be used malevolently, then inevitably it one day will be. Consider how Google was hacked in 2010 by adversaries who used the intercept facilities built into GMail – at the government’s insistence – to access the private email of Chinese dissidents, and:
Digital politics; It’s all about transparency
Digital politics may not be the determining element in any political strategy today, on its own. However, it’s not supposed to be just an element. It’s supposed to replace the old system of political communications, and shape the new ways people interact with their political environment. Governments are trying to control that change through the three factors Jensen and Anduiza talked about. There is one element they don’t control however, or can’t control on the long run. The digital divide.
The digital divide between governments, mainstream media, and the new generation of heavy social media and information technology users is crucial for those in power.
Nevertheless, internet use may continue to play a particularly important role as it enables individuals to connect to a vastly wider array of communication flows that serve as alternative sources of information, organisation, and value structures than are otherwise available. At a higher level of abstraction, these communication and information practices facilitate the invention of new political identities not linked to local institutions or civil society but oriented towards the advancement of political projects which link individuals to emergent collective identities.
You’ve read right. Digital politics encourages individuals and social groups to discover new forms of political identities. It is understandable that the tenants of the current political identities (status-quo) are panicking.
If those in power do not fully understand that if they don’t convey transparency and honesty, they will lose every-time they engage in digital politics. Maybe not in the short-term, where mainstream media are still influent, but surely in the long run.
Technology and Politics in Context (I strongly advise buying this article, to support the authors’ effort on digital politics research)