Digital Bonapartism, Russia, and America in 2016

American democracy is entering uncharted and treacherous territory. Fabricated news to discredit political opponents, use of social media to manipulate the public discourse, and political hacking have been around for a long time in many parts of the world.

In light of raging debates about fake news, hacking, and other types of online manipulation in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and what to do about it, I’ve decided to make freely available a few excerpts from a key section of the book titled “Control 2.0.”

From Chapter 3: Networked Authoritarianism (mainly about China) see Western Fantasies vs. Reality

From Chapter 4: Variants and Permutations, see Divide and Conquer and Digital Bonapartism. Here is how I explain the concept of “digital bonapartism:”

In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx coined the term “bonapartism” to describe political leadership by a populist demagogue who seeks to legitimize himself with democratic rhetoric and trappings. The term was inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule after the French Revolution: usurpation of popular revolution by military officers, strong nationalist messages, populist rhetoric about reform and equality, and elections lacking strong alternatives. Today, after having thrown off communism, Russia is pioneering a new digital-age version of bonapartism: conservative-nationalist rule unchallenged by viable political opposition despite the formal existence of multiparty parliamentary and presidential elections, which are effectively populist plebiscites, and manipulation of public opinion through the control—both direct and indirect—of digital networks and platforms.

The final paragraph of that excerpt – and of the “Control 2.0” section, concludes:

It remains to be seen whether a more genuine form of democracy, in which dissenters’ rights are protected from extrajudicial threats and vigilante violence, will emerge from Russia’s digital bonapartism. In the meantime, a new model has emerged that can be replicated elsewhere: government leaders use the Internet to carry out a much more direct and populist discourse with citizens in ways that were not possible before the Internet, thus bridging an emotional and psychological gap between rulers and ruled, and building greater public sympathy for the leaders as people. The Internet serves as a “focus group” and early-warning system for the government, alerting policy makers when certain policies just are not working or need modification to prevent unrest. More negatively, pro government bloggers and journalists are encouraged to mount slur campaigns to discredit reformists and activists who pose serious challenges to the regime’s credibility. Anonymous threats against activists who cross the line also help. A full-ranging public discourse about the nation’s political future is thus constrained and stunted, and the status quo power arrangements are more easily maintained. This dynamic begs an uncomfortable question: To what extent are the world’s oldest, most established democracies vulnerable to digital bonapartism?

(Emphasis added to the final sentence.)

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Afterword to the Paperback Edition: Confronting surveillance

The paperback edition of Consent of the Networked came out in late April. I wrote the Afterword last December. It begins:

I ended Consent of the Networked with a call for action, and in 2012 netizens around the world proved they are willing to act, as demonstrated by the movement’s recent successes. But while we have gained momentum, we face continuing challenges in the pursuit of digital liberty that will not easily be overcome.

The most difficult challenges, I argued, are posed by the already well-entrenched, pervasive, unaccountable surveillance in the United States and other democracies. That argument has been vindicated, unfortunately, by recent news about the U.S. government’s surveillance programs.

Writing in December I concluded:

Citizens of democracies, companies that understand that they can build long-term global value for their brand by earning trust with their users, and politicians who understand the need to protect and strengthen the digital commons (even if mainly out of self-interest) must unite to demand a national and global reconsideration of already deeply entrenched surveillance laws, technologies, and corporate practices. There needs to be a more robust public debate about the facts of digital surveillance in democracies, the implications for accountable governance and social justice—and what can be done now that the surveillance state has already been allowed to reach too far, too fast. That debate requires data and information that companies as well as democratic governments have so far been reluctant to share. Companies claiming to support a free and open Internet and that benefit from the existence of a robust global digital commons are doing the commons no favors unless and until they agree to publish systematic and useable information about their relationships with governments.

Furthermore, governments that want their citizens to believe that their support for global Internet freedom and citizens’ digital rights is genuine—and not shallow political rhetoric—must make sure that laws are not preventing companies from releasing such information. All governments that intend to keep calling themselves “democratic” with a straight face should publish their own transparency reports so that engaged citizens can see enough of the whole picture that they can grant or withdraw consent for, or divest from, the surveillance systems and procedures governments and companies have built. Until these things happen, Western democracies and Western companies will remain net exporters of surveillance technologies, legal norms, and business practices that facilitate political abuse of surveillance powers by repressive regimes—and that will ultimately corrode existing democracies.

Getting governments and companies to do these things will make the fights against ACTA, SOPA, and ITU Internet incursion look trivial in comparison. The global movement for digital liberty spread its wings and took flight in 2012, but the real tests of its strength and agility have yet to come.

The whole chapter is available online here.

Mediapolicy.org: China’s Digital Evolution

(This blog post was originally published at the Open Society Foundation’s Mediapolicy.org)

The Chinese Communist Party may have completed its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, but the future of media in China remains as unclear as the rest of China’s political and economic future.

Since Xi Jinping was anointed as China’s top leader last week, a close reading of the freshly-brewed political tea leaves favors gradual, messy evolution over any sudden Internet-led revolution. Those who prefer to read research reports instead of tea leaves will draw similar conclusions after reading OSF’s recently-published Mapping Digital Media China report – even though it was completed well before the leadership transition. According to the report’s authors, the emergence over the past decade of a “vibrant online civil society” in China provides grounds for optimism in the long run. Yet this vibrant online world will continue to coexist with a “sophisticated party-state propaganda and control system” whose grip on broadcast media, licensing of digital services, spectrum allocation, and professional news content production shows few signs of loosening.

Indeed, analysis of last week’s 18th Communist Party Conference indicates an intention to maintain as firm a grip as possible. In a thorough examination of the of the new CCP Standing Committee, Cheng Li, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, pointed out that key liberals in the Politburo, particularly Li Yuanchao who is known to support liberal intellectual demands for rule of law and greater government accountability, were not promoted to the Standing Committee as expected. Cheng concludes that “China’s much-needed political reform may be delayed.” And without political reform, meaningful media reform is unlikely.

Chinese proponents of free expression and media reform are also disheartened by the elevation of Liu Yunshan, head of the propaganda department, known as a faithful enforcer of party discipline on the media. His efforts to bring the Internet to heel have included a licensing system for online service providers and a requirement that microbloggers register their accounts with their real names and ID numbers. As dissident writer and former journalist Dai Qing recently lamented to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper: “Liu’s appointment has reduced our hopes that citizens will be allowed to monitor their government and spread information freely over the next decade.”

Yet online social media – particularly the home-grown microblogging services known in Chinese as “weibo” – are nonetheless forcing more transparency and accountability upon Chinese bureaucrats and news media. Despite strict controls on news media coverage of the party congress, combined with elaborate attempts by social media companies to block the most edgy words and phrases from their services, netizens nonetheless managed to analyze and criticize the proceedings on Sina Weibo, the most popular of China’s Twitter-like social media platforms. Government offices at all levels now recognize the need to engage with the public on weibo: According to the state-run Xinhua News Agency there were over 51,000 government micro-blog accounts by the end of September.

The authors of the MDM China report place these developments in a broader, more sobering media context. They cite government survey data indicating that roughly 30 percent of the internet-using population – about 10 percent of the nation’s total population – actively participate in online discussions or post their own opinions and observations online. The report also reminds us that the majority of Chinese people have yet to use the internet at all: “the internet is still beyond the reach of 800 million Chinese who rely almost exclusively on television for their information and entertainment, in particular the mammoth state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).”

China’s news organizations – particularly the more commercially-oriented ones serving local and regional markets – like news organizations everywhere, are working hard to innovate through creative use of digital technologies. However their ability to conduct independent investigative journalism, and actually publish or broadcast these investigations in their newspapers or on television, is severely constrained by strong party and government controls. Individual journalists have been able to use blogs and microblogs as an alternative distribution channel for some news and information, though the result is that news organizations do not directly benefit from their staff’s most cutting-edge investigative talents. Meanwhile, websites that are not part of government-approved news organizations are not allowed to conduct original news reporting – although online media companies are constantly seeking ways to subtly get around the strict rules about who can report news under what circumstances, particularly on local stories.

When it comes to television – which remains the most important and powerful form of media for the majority of Chinese – the government naturally controls the switchover process from analog signal to digital. It also controls which companies are allowed to participate in the provision of bundled internet, voice, and digital TV services – as well as who is allowed to create what sorts of content disseminated through these services. The same of course goes for mobile services of all kinds. When it comes to allocation of spectrum, politics “plays a decisive role in spectrum allocation policies.” There is no notion of “public service media” independent of party and state which “view themselves as the overseers of the public interest.” Yet there is no process by which the bureaucracy – often a patchwork of different agencies and departments – determines the broader public interest as they go about creating and enforcing rules and regulations.

The report makes a number of recommendations:

  • Media literacy. With “hundreds of millions of people with little knowledge or understanding of how the media are used and how they might use the media,” greater media literacy education for all ages would “help educate people to participate in public life so that the opportunities which digitization brings can be more widely enjoyed.”
  • Relaxation of government and party controls on media. This would make it more possible for journalists to carry out independent, investigative journalism that would hold authorities accountable to the public interest.
  • Constrain local government abuse of power over media. The central government should take “measures to end the pattern of violent retribution, harassment and victimization meted out to journalists or whistleblowers by local offcials angered by critical media coverage.”
  • Passage of a press law. This would be consistent with existing national policy of governance based on rule of law. A specific press law “can help prohibit administrative control and interference in the media.”
  • Official tolerance and support for press freedom organizations. Such organizations would “defend press freedom and the independence of media from the government and help address a crisis of ethics in the profession.”
  • Independent public service media. A “non-commercial, non-profit, public radio and television system” would help to “guarantee the dissemination of education, science, health, and other content to feed an information-hungry populace.”
  • Better coordination and stakeholder collaboration on the digital switch-over process. There is currently no clear process for mediating different bureaucratic, economic, commercial, and public interests. The report argues that “there should be the means for collaboration between industry players, especially broadcasting companies and mobile operators. Close collaboration between the principal stakeholders— the government, regulators, broadcasters, transmission providers, receiver manufacturers and retailers, and consumer representatives—is essential.”

The results of this month’s leadership transition provide little reason to expect that these things will happen in the near or even medium term. In the long run, however, the report’s authors remain hopeful. The internet, they write, “cannot change China’s political life in a dramatic way. It can, however, enhance the existing social capital, so that social forces that are operating independently of the state can have a chance to grow and prosper.”

Foreign Policy: The Innocence of YouTube

Image courtesy Ramy Raouf

I have co-written an article with Susan Benesch, Director of the Dangerous Speech Project at the World Policy Institute about what the “Innocence of Muslims” video incident teaches us about the dark side of social media’s power, and the questions it raises about how social media platform should balance the need to defend and protect free speech with their efforts to limit the destructive impact of hate speech. Here are the first few paragraphs:

In 2006 Egyptian human rights activist Wael Abbas posted a video online of police sodomizing a bus driver with a stick, leading to the rare prosecution of two officers. Later, Abbas’s YouTube account was suddenly suspended because he had violated YouTubes guidelines banning “graphic or gratuitous violence.” YouTube restored the account after human rights groups informed its parent company Google that Abbas’s posts were a virtual archive of Egyptian police brutality and an essential tool for reform. After the Abbas case, Google concluded that some graphic content is too valuable to be suppressed, even where it is most likely to offend.

More recently, the Innocence of Muslims video led Google to bend its rules in the other direction, temporarily blocking the video in Egypt and Libya “given the very sensitive situations in these two countries,” according to a statement given to reporters, even though those governments had not requested censorship and it was not violent, graphic, or directly hateful enough to violate YouTube’s guidelines banning gratuitously violent images and hate speech. (The video has since been quietly unblocked in both countries.) From the beginning, Google kept the video up in most of the world — and denied a request from the White House to remove it completely, but blocked it in countries including India and Indonesia where it has been ruled illegal, in keeping with Google policy to abide by its own rules as well as national laws.

In the crush of events, Google’s decision was the best it could have done under the circumstances. Yet little of the rationale behind Google’s decisions has been offered directly to YouTube users. Google has made a laudable public commitment to free expression and does a good job of disclosing how it responds to government demands around the world. Given the Internet giant’s power to shape global public discourse, it should be equally transparent about its private governance of global speech.

Click here to read our ideas for how that might work.

Foreign Policy: Ruling Facebookistan

Photo courtesy Max Schrems.

This image is a photoshopped composite created by Max Schrems, a Vienna-based activist and law student quoted in my latest piece for Foreign Policy about Facebook. As the tag line explains: “The world’s largest social networking site has a population nearly as large as China or India’s. And the natives are getting restless.” Here is how the piece begins:

At 6 p.m. Taipei time on Friday, June 1, Ho Tsung-hsun was suddenly shut out of his Facebook account. When he tried to log back in, a message in a red box announced: “This account has been disabled.” Ho, a veteran activist and citizen journalist on environmental and social issues in Taiwan, immediately took a picture of the message, then wrote an angry blog post on a Taiwan-based citizen journalism platform. He insisted that he had not violated any of the site’s community guidelines. Furthermore, he wrote, “the information I’ve collected and the Facebook groups that I’ve created and maintained all disappeared, which has caused inconvenience to my work and interpersonal relationships.”

Later that night, Ho’s account was restored — also without explanation. As it turned out, a number of Taiwanese politicians and activists hadall experienced similar problems on the same day. Angered by what seemed like an act of arbitrary punishment against people who were not violating the site’s rules in any way that they themselves could discern, Taipei City Councilor Ho Zhi-Wei wrote an open letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, pointing out that Facebook — now a publicly listed company — “certainly has public responsibilities for public welfare.”

The incident underscored the extent to which people around the world have come to rely on Facebook for political activism and discourse — from the Green Movement in Iran, to revolutionaries in Egypt, to U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Facebook is not a physical country, but with 900 million users, its “population” comes third after China and India. It may not be able to tax or jail its inhabitants, but its executives, programmers, and engineers do exercise a form of governance over people’s online activities and identities.

In apparent recognition that it faces real human rights risks and responsibilities, Facebook recently became an observer member of the Global Network Initiative, an organization dedicated to promoting core principles on free expression and privacy in the Internet and telecommunications industries. Whether the company ultimately joins as a full member, committing to uphold these principles and be held publicly accountable to them, will be a key test of its core values. Meanwhile, the postings, pages, likes, and friend requests of millions of politically active users have helped to make Zuckerberg and colleagues very rich. These people are increasingly unhappy about the manner in which Facebookistan is governed and are taking action as the stakes continue to rise on all sides.

Click here to read the rest.

Netizen Report: Intervention Edition

This week’s Netizen Report on Global Voices Advocacy begins in Kuwait:

Throughout this week’s edition we highlight examples of government intervention to limit free speech online, ostensibly “for the greater good”. In Kuwait, a Shi’ite man has been sentenced to prison for ten years for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammad and Sunni Muslims via Twitter. Pleading innocent, Hamad Al-Naqi said the posts were written by someone who had hacked his Twitter account.

From there we travel to China, India, South Africa, Tunisia, Oman, Facebookistan, and beyond. Click here to read the whole thing.

Foreign Policy: The War for India’s Internet

Protests against Internet censorship are taking place this weekend in several cities across India. People are already posting photos and updates to Twitter. Follow the #opindia hashtag keep abreast of latest developments.

On Wednesday Foreign Policy published my latest commentary on The War for India’s Internet. Why does this war matter for the rest of the world? I explain:

Escalating political and legal battles over Internet regulation in India are the latest front in a global struggle for online freedom — not only in countries like China and Iran where the Internet is heavily censored and monitored by autocratic regimes, but also in democracies where the political motivations for control are much more complicated. Democratically elected governments all over the world are failing to find the right balance between demands from constituents to fight crime, control hate speech, keep children safe, and protect intellectual property, and their duty to ensure and respect all citizens’ rights to free expression and privacy. Popular online movements — many of them globally interconnected — are arising in response to these failures.

Only about 10 percent of India’s population uses the web, making it unlikely that Internet freedom will be a decisive ballot-box issue anytime soon. Yet activists are determined to punish New Delhi’s “humorless babus,” as one columnist recently called India’s censorious politicians and bureaucrats, in the country’s media. Grassroots organizers are bringing a new generation of white-collar protesters to the streets to defend the right to use a technology that remains alien to the majority of India’s people.

Click here to read the full piece.

Foreign Policy: Google Confronts the Great Firewall of China

Last week I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy analyzing Google’s decision to roll out a new feature warning Chinese Internet users if they type a search term that could trigger censorship by the government’s network-level “Great Firewall.” In a nutshell:

For the first time, Google is making it crystal clear to Chinese Internet users that their frequent connection problems while using its search engine are caused by the Chinese government, not by its own systems. According to Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president for knowledge, the purpose of this feature is to “improve the search experience in mainland China.” Users are given the option to “refine their searches without the problem keywords” in order to “avoid connection problems.” What Google executives won’t discuss — at least publicly — is the obvious fact that they are exposing the Chinese government’s censorship tactics in an unprecedented way.

Read the whole piece here.

Meanwhile, in the week since it was published there have been some developments and reactions worth noting. Google has declined to publish a list of all the characters and phrases it has found likely to trigger censorship. But that did not stop different groups from reverse-engineering the list. It is now available on greatfire.org (explanation in English) and atgfw.org (explanation in Chinese).  It also didn’t take long for the engineers working on the Great Firewall to ramp up the arms race by another notch, blocking Google’s nifty pop-up alerts warning users about censored terms. Here is how the anonymous team at greatfire.org, a website that tracks Chinese Internet censorship from within China, reported on the situation:

Within a day, they disabled the new Google feature by blocking the javascript filethat contains the code altogether. This of course makes us wonder what Google’s next move will be. It would be very easy to rename the file or to embed it on the html page making it more difficult to selectively block features.

Going forward, there is much more that Google can do. Rather than just informing users that a search query has been censored, they could offer ways to get around it. The most obvious one would be to redirect users (automatically or manually) to the encrypted version of Google which is still not blocked in China (https://www.google.com.hk).

The fact that this functionality was rolled out, and not just on Google Hong Kong but actually any Google search engine that is accessed from China, shows that Google is actively working on ways to get around censorship in China.

Independent Beijing-based technology researcher Dave Lyons, who I interviewed for my piece, has a more cynical take about Google and its motivations over at the rectified.name blog:

While many people in China know that Google doesn’t always work because of government blocking, I’d bet that the vast majority of Internet users don’t know, or care for that matter, because if you’re planning a vacation to [丽江] [LiJiang, in Yunnan Province] where you want to stay in a [锦江之星] [MianJiang ZhiXing, the name of a hotel] which search engine are you going to use? The one that says: “Sorry, can’t use those words” or are you instead going to use one of those nice search engines that just deletes any politically sensitive search results and serves up those travel links? So while Google describes the move as “improving our user experience from mainland China,” from a user perspective this doesn’t really change anything unless you’re a political dissident trying to find the latest banned words, like a broken soda machine that always gives you Fresca no matter what button you push now has sign saying “In need of service: all buttons serve Fresca.”

Chinese internet users truly committed to seeking banned or sensitive information for the most part already have circumvention tools, and will use the regular Google.com like they did before, so this doesn’t really help them much unless they want vague confirmation from Google that a term is blocked. And this isn’t likely to earn Google any new friends in the Chinese government, which it already sees as in cahoots with the US State Department. If Google were serious about this, they would develop their own built-in circumvention tools, but they won’t — because that’s a bridge too far — and so I can’t help but think that the real audience for Google’s move isn’t in China but in the halls of Internet governance organizations like the ITU and global users who, they hope, will start having warm, fuzzy feelings about Google as a fearless advocate for free speech. Good luck with that.

Mark News: Internet Freedom and the Erosion of Democracy

Canada’s Mark News has just published my latest essay on how increasing government surveillance around the world is threatening the freedoms granted by Internet access. An excerpt:

This week, at least 125 million people are watching the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual competition of singers from 56 countries across Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union. This year’s contest is hosted by Azerbaijan, a country whose human-rights record has come under heavy fire.

Azerbaijan is a classic example of how, even when people are free to connect to the global Internet, they can be subject to pervasive, unaccountable, and unconstrained surveillance. It is also a case of how, while western democratic governments have been quick to follow the lead of the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in calling for a free and open global Internet, they are much more conflicted when it comes to surveillance. The democratic world has failed to address the freedom-eroding potential of government surveillance through commercial networks.

Read the rest of the piece here.

Does CISPA Have Sufficient Safeguards?

Mike Rodgers, Republican Representative from Michigan and Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee, has responded to my article published on the Foreign Affairs website last month. In my essay, I argued that surveillance technologies and practices originating in the United States are undermining the Obama administration’s “Internet freedom” policy. He objected strongly to my critique of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) which recently passed the House under his co-sponsorship, accusing me of repeating what I had read on Twitter instead of reading the actual bill. I responded. The full exchange can be found here.