Readers of this blog will be familiar with the planned 1,500km Internet link between La Guaira, Vargas state, in northern Venezuela to Siboney in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba that is slated to open in 2010 or so (curiously, the work on installing it has not even begun in earnest).
So when by the Miami-based TeleCuba Communications recently announced that they got the permission (from the US Treasury) to install the 110-mile fiber-optic cable between Key West and Havana came as somewhat of a surprise: while they could probably do it cheaper than Hugo Chavez, it was not clear how the Cuban authorities would react to such a gesture of cyber-solidarity.
Well, now we know: they do not like and consider it a threat to their...sovereignty, no less:
Francisco Hartmann, director of strategy for Cuba's national Office of Information, said his government has "no official knowledge that there is interest to negotiate" such a project, and he indicated they may frown on it if asked.
"If all the information that we have passes by cable to Florida, that technological independence, the sovereignty that for us is so important, what will happen to it?" he asked at a news conference.
BusinessWeek has more on this. I think it's an important question to ask, especially in our age of regular cyber-attacks, cable cuts, and Internet surveillance. Cuba faces a tough dilemma: they do want cheap, fast, and reliable (and, of course, easy to control) Internet access, but they don't want to get it from the most obvious source - the US - for the reasons of national security (and I think it's hard to blame them).
The question is: will Hugo Chavez pick up the bill for a cable that would be 10x longer and surely much more expensive, only to assure Cubans that CIA won't be spying on them?
I don't care if it's "slacktivism" but this Facebook campaign is incredibly funny: launching DDOS attacks on God by simultaneous prayer
As you may already be aware, recently the Atheist Founation of Australia and the Global Atheist Convention websites were the target of a significant DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, which began on Monday 19 October.
This is a call to all non-believers and advocates for freedom of speech to join us in a global co-ordinated minute of prayer with the aim of inundating God (in this context, the Christian god, God, as distinct from the Greek god, Zeus, the Egyptian god, Ra etc etc) with so many useless prayers that it causes his divineness to go offline as as result of our own DDOS ('Divine' Denial of Service).
The prayer minute will be at exactly 8pm (Eastern Standard Time) and 9am (Greenwich Mean Time) on Sunday 8 November 2009.
According to this article published on a Russian news-site Inbox.ru, Russia has moved one inch closer to the China-style system of filtering the Web. Russia's Ministry of Communications has urged ISPs to start filtering "negative" Internet content in places that provide public access to the Internet (think cafes, libraries, etc). Such filters have already been planned to be installed in Russian schools.
It may not seem that ominous - after all, many European governments have the same filtering restrictions - but it looks particularly bad in the light of a new Russian law on Internet controls, which was preliminary passed by Duma earlier this year. Entitled "Defending children from information that may hurt their health and development" (what a name!), the law would require all users to verify their age before being able to surf the Web. By default all users will be assumed to be 6-year-old kids. It's not yet clear how that verification would happen. The fear is that many ISPs will simply cut access to some Internet sites in order to avoid potential problems if their users turn to be under the legal age...
For all the talk about the positive impact that mobile technology can have on education, officials in the East Java are not convinced. From the Jakarta Post:
The Kediri Education Office has launched raids across schools in the East Java town to crack down on students bringing cell phones to class.
Education officials and teachers at 192 schools have also begun searching students' bags, motorcycle saddlebags and other items for cell phones.
The crackdown was conducted after the Kediri municipal administration issued a regulation prevent all elementary to senior high school students from bringing cell phones to school. Heri Siswanto, head of the education office's public junior education unit, said his office had issued the decree last Friday.
"We've seized dozens of students' cell phones," he said Monday.
"We found many of them hidden in students' motorbike saddlebags, even though we informed them previously about the regulation."
He added all the relevant institutions would continue holding such raids until all schools in the city were free from cell phones.
I guess that's one way to deal with the shortening attention span in the classroom...
On hearing the news that web-sites of several atheist foundations/NGOs have become victims of severe DDoS attacks, I could only think about one thing: it would be quite hard to blame these attacks on either China or Russia. From ZDNet Australia:
The websites of the Atheist Foundation of Australia and the Global Atheist Convention were knocked offline yesterday due to a sustained distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.
At the time of writing the Atheist Foundation's site was still null routed with the Global Atheist Convention site saying that it does not have enough information to confirm the source or reason for the attacks. The site has also called the attacks "not just an attack on atheism, but an attack on freedom of speech".
So how long will it take for the
paranoid cyberwarfare community to link God to those attacks? I am particularly curious how Wall Street Journal would go about this one. I bet it's going to be something along the lines of "our undisclosed sources among former CIA agents reveal that God, acting via cybercriminal groups based in Russia and China, is engaging in acts of cyberwarfare. According to smart guys at CSIS, a prominent Washington think-tank, this may threaten the security of the US power grid and lead to Apocalypse. All because Obama hasn't appointed the Cyber Czar yet".
The amount of energy that had been exerted by the Twitterati to save the now infamous "balloon boy" would probably be enough to prevent at least a few dozen African genocides. They even started their own campaign with its own hashtag: #savetheballoonboy, which for a while was a trending topic on Twitter. That is, it was a trending topic before it turned out that the boy was hiding in his house and had not had any relationship with that balloon.
I cannot help but note the similarity to an earlier (and somewhat longer) Facebook campaign in Denmark which purported to save a city landmark that nobody was actually threatening. What a better way to mark Blog Action Day (celebrated today, October 15th) than to organize a meaningless "slacktivist" campaign on Twitter? I think I need to start conceptualizing what celebrations for a Blog Inaction Day might look like: we have many more occasions to celebrate those.
Well, that's all in agreement with the first rule of "slacktivism": tweet first, act second. When tools are available and bandwidth is cheap, activism goes into a 24/7 always-on mode, where slacktivists organize campaigns not because they need to, but because they can. After all, when all your friends are tweeting about some cause, you should too - because if you don't, your friends may ask questions. "Slacktivism" thrives in the digital panopticon that our "networked public sphere" is: we engage in causes not because we care about them but because it's "cool" and it's guaranteed that all our friends will see the badge of honor.
What is often overlooked is the fact that "slacktivists" abandon their causes as easily and frivolously as they take them on. They have very little intellectual or emotional stake in them and this is natural. The problem is that it fosters a very cynical attitude to activism and social change, where every campaign - no matter how serious and noble - can essentially be viewed as yet another Internet joke, perhaps, not as funny as those that deal with funny pictures of cats but pretty close. When people use Facebook and Twitter to campaign on 25 different causes, chances are they don't seriously care about any one of them.
And this all-pervasive cynicism with which members of the slacktivist generation treat extremely serious social problems is very off-putting and disturbing. What was the reaction to the #ballonboy story after the boy's whereabouts were disclosed? Humor. Some of it the jokes were mildly funny; most of it them were in bad taste. For example, the most popular joke - which also became a trending topic on Twitter - was making fun of Anne Frank, of all people (implying that she had a much better hide-out space in the attic - all phrased to sound as it was coming from Kanye West).
Well, if a tasteless joke about one of the most dramatic symbols of the Holocaust becomes the most popular topic on Twitter, there is something fundamentally wrong with the taste and norms of that community. This cynicism is not going to have any positive impact on the nature of civic engagement in the age that is heavily mediated by Twitter and Facebook.
The big tech/politics story of this week is the victory of the Guardian - abetted by hordes of Twitter activists - over Trafigura, an energy company - abetted by hordes of lawyers (Trafigura has allegedly been responsible for dumping toxic waste in the Ivory Coast). Confusion over the exact stipulations of a court injunction issued in the case prevented the Guardian from reporting on a Trafigura-related question that had been asked by a UK lawmaker in the British parliament. After the Guardian complained -- very publicly -- Trafigura's lawyers stated that preventing the Guardian from reporting from the parliament was not the intent of the original injunction and agreed to change its terms, to avoid any future misunderstanding.
Well, before Trafigura's lawyers made that announcement, Twitter users had been outraged by such blatant gagging of a British newspaper from reporting on their own parliament, pushing Trafigura and its lawyers into Twitter's top charts! So, was it a victory for digital activists, who have challenged powerful corporate interests? Well, this is not a lesson that I have drawn from this saga. What we have learnt from the Trafigura story is that digital activism campaigns have much greater chances of success in well-established democracies with a vibrant public life.
Why did Trafigura act so fast? Well, they have a reputation to protect and clients to lose; I doubt that anyone in their right mind would think that forcing a newspaper not to report on what's going on in a national parliament could ever be justified. If Twitter wasn't around, the British yellow press would surely pick up this fight, because it simply looks too tempting not to have a quick jab at the corporate interests here (I think there are simply no cogen arguments to be made in support of the ban on reporting from the Parliament- that's why Trafigura retracted so quickly).
But, broadly speaking, for networks of activists to exert influence on power structures, those structures have to be responsible, transparent, and fluid. The reason why the anti-Trafigura campaign succeeded is that the U.K. already enjoys a rather healthy democracy, whatever its minor shortcomings are. A similar campaign in Belarus or Uzbekistan would almost surely fail, because state newspapers have nothing to lose (they are subsidized by the government), the private sector doesn't exist, and bureaucrats do not really care about their reputations or the reputations of the structures that they represent.
Just look at the failure to mobilize civil society in Azerbaijan over the case of two activist bloggers who are now facing jail sentences. No matter how many Twitter users stand up for their cause, I doubt any digital activism campaigns could sway the Azeri authorities.
For digital activism to be truly effective in repressive environments, one needs ot find a way how to shake (or erode) the rigid foundations of the ruling regime. This is where the power of traditional civil society organizations, intellectuals, and NGOs comes in: without pressure that they exert on the authoritarian state, forcing it to be more accountable (or simply to make mistakes), digital activism would be useless. Digital activists are already light years ahead of most regimes; the same, unfortunately, cannot be said about human rights or politicial activists.
1. Miami-based company is to install a fiber-optic cable to Cuba, compete with Venezuela
2. Missing dot drops Sweden off the Internet
3. Does Facebook help to reduce college drop-out rates?
4. China bans foreign investment in online games
5. Cyberwar readiness recast as low priority
6. City of Copenhagen is working to remove a Wikipedia entry that describes mayor as former prostitute
7. Did Pirate Party help cut P2P piracy in Sweden?
8. Russians gripped by YouTube video claims of government role in hedge fund scam
Evgeny Morozov, originally from Belarus, is a visiting scholar at Stanford and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.