Censorship, Surveillance, Threats: The Dark Side of the Blogosphere

So I set up this website less than a month ago. Every time I got a few ideas and some time left at the end of the week, I would write something down. Or I would not. And then some people would read my very valuable contributions. And some others would not. It is an extremely simple process and every smartypants with internet access can become active easily. In the United States, people have been blogging in a long time already, and it seems that blogs have been quite institutionalized in the minds of American information seekers. Digital marketing expert Jeff Bullas picked up this subject and cited a stat from Technorati’s State of The Blogosphere 2010 Report which reveals 40% of internet users trusting blogs as a source of information and news. Seems like a rather high ratio to me, but it will also depend on what sort of “information and news” was taken into account. I doubt that blogs have already made it to a serious alternative to mainstream media in Western democracies and I suppose that it will require a whole lot of change on the established media markets to get even close to 40% of real trust in relation to blog sources. Nevertheless, the community is growing very fast, especially within specific interest groups, such as tech nerds or expectant mothers. Nobody can blame them for their enthusiasm.

In this post, I want to raise awareness for a different sphere with regards to blogging and social media. Since December 2010, we all have been following the so-called Arab Spring live on television. A string of protests and riots has led to overthrows of governments in countries such as Tunesia, Egypt, Lybia, and Yemen. And considering the recent happenings in Syria, there can be no talk of an early end of violence. People have become aware of their freedom of expression and have legitimately developed a sense for democratic participation. The sources of the revolts have been corruption, an unfair distribution of wealth, and a highly dissatisfied youth, but the main catalysts have been blogs and social media. Everybody knows it, especially the former and current autocrats in power. This means that the internet may have become a very useful tool for political communication, a place where people get introduced to each other’s ideas, but it has just as well become increasingly dangerous for the same people to use it. Today’s situation is that threats are growing massively in terms of censorship and surveillance. Syrian authorities have recently blocked WhatsApp and are continuously tracking people’s communication histories on the remaining communication platforms. Activists are being arrested. Hardly surprising that surveillance is shutting many people up.

But where do the tools to monitor people come from? They are certainly not made in Syria. The truth is that U.S. and European companies have a big influence on the supply-side of such tools. A physical catalogue with related examples might be heavier than the bible. Just a few days ago, a Wall Street Journal article (Spy-Gear Business to Be Sold) revealed how a French company that considers itself a leader in the conception and integration of high-tech systems sold their sophisticated IT products to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2007, who intercepted “emails, online chats and Facebook messages of targets”, such as “Libyan dissidents, journalists, human-rights campaigners and everyday enemies of the state”. The company’s communication policy is vague, and it can be suspected that considerable parts of the total revenue have come from repressive Arab and African governments. Gaddafi was overturned regardless, and today, six months after the information about the deal became public, the French managers do every effort to get rid of the critical business unit. Many tech companies from all around the globe are still highly active in similar trades with today’s dubious political authorities. On the other end, the according governments have not taken any substantial actions to stop this sort of trade. My liberal mind generally reacts against any type of governmental restrictions for the private sector, but it reacts even more against authoritarian governments hindering people from expressing their opinion and gathering knowledge.

At the end of his post, Bullas raises the question on how blogs are about to evolve in the foreseeable future. Fair enough, he is not talking about this dark side of the blogosphere, but it still made me think on a related note. In view of various national and transnational events and dynamics of the past few years, it is very unlikely that the blog will lose its importance as a key communication channel in states with very specific political and social frameworks. Considering such circumstances and taking the online and mobile growth on emerging markets into account, it must be assumed that blogging, as a global trend, is in the early stages of development. What changes though is the enormous range of promotion options, driven by the groundbreaking innovations on the social media markets. In the comment section of my last week’s post about Social TV, I prompted the issue of oversharing, which I still consider a severe problem regarding individual entertainment experiences on the web. This is where the line between emerging and developed markets becomes very clear, because the internet takes up different functions based on respective priorities of the people. Therefore, yes, oversharing can be a problem on our Western entertainment markets, but no, it certainly is not a problem in regions where authoritarian governments suppress every critical review by individual citizens.

The key thing is to raise awareness that censorship exists and to start establishing some sort of global responsibility. There are a lot of associations (Reporters Without Borders, Global Voices, Tor Project, Tactical Technology Collective etc.) trying to make a change. What remains important though is that everybody becomes aware of the issue. It is not crucial that few associations do a lot, but that everybody contributes just a little. Might sound weird, but I am convinced that we are living in a universal internet sphere: a setting that would make us citizens of the internet in a way. The least we can do in this role is care about it and try to understand how new media work.

Bonjour Monsieur le Président

On Wednesday, there was this panel at the American Red Cross, arguing about the question whether the Geneva Conventions could still protect civilians in contemporary warfare. The event was organized by the Consulate General of Switzerland and basically characterized by the two opposing standpoints of Philip Gourevitch (The New Yorker), who thinks that the current law is not sufficient, and Gabor Rona (Human Rights First), who thinks that the debate would not be necessary if the existing rules were better applied. The discussion was interesting, but the really interesting thing happened moments before it started, namely, I got the opportunity to meet Pascal Couchepin, former President of the Swiss Confederation. I considered it an honor, because he is a personality I have actually respected as a politician.
He was member of the Swiss collective head of state (Swiss Federal Council) from 1998 to 2009, and held the presidential office in 2003 and 2008. Journalist Max Frenkel wrote a few years ago that Couchepin could have been one of the best representatives of the Federal Council in a long time, considering his intelligence, inventiveness, and his commitment for disadvantaged groups. However, there was a lot of controversy about his character in the same time. A surplus of self-confidence and a lack of self-discipline is what some people might criticize him for when looking back on his long-lasting term in office. Asking about the date of his resignation became sort of a running gag, because he would just not step down. FYI: It is not the people who elect the members of the Federal Council directly. It works differently. Any yes, Switzerland is a special case in many respects. Anyway, Mr. Couchepin has always had my personal respect for his straightforwardness. He pursued his political ideas persistently and has never made friendly overtures in order to be liked. It is a quality a lot of today’s TV-optimized, mediagenic Western world politicians do not possess anymore.

I wonder what kind of personalities will lead our nations in some 20 years.

The Multi-Screen Experience

First of all, here I am, and yes, New York welcomed me with open arms indeed. After spending the first night on a friend’s couch (thank you!), I got introduced to the beautiful neighborhood of Sunnyside and moved into an own apartment which I share with a very decent roommate. Did not somebody from Jersey City tell me “live anywhere but Queens”? It will take me some time to understand the dogmas when it comes to NYC boroughs. That is a separate issue.

Earlier this week, I attended an insightful event at the NYIT Auditorium on Broadway, organized by the Center for Communication: Social TV and the Multi-Screen Experience. Sabrina Caluori (VP, Social Media & Performance Marketing, HBO), Scott Rosenberg (Co-Founder and CEO, Umami), Galye Weiswasser (VP, Social Media, Discovery Communications), and Natan Edelsburg (VP, Sawhorse Media) discussed the trend of social media turning the traditional one-way model of watching television into an interactive experience. Everybody with an interest in media should consider taking a look at the latest trends and innovations, such as HBO Connect, Bravo TV’s Tweet Tracker or Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco To Go. Once again I had to realize how large the innovation and adaptation gaps between the American and European entertainment production and marketing sectors still are.

U.S. broadcasters are exploring completely new ways to get noticed by offering viewers opportunities to get more engaged with their favorite programming. Today’s wide use of smartphones and tablets enables content distributors to pursue a multi-screen strategy (TV being the first screen). A show’s fanbase is the foundation of the whole concept. Many Americans are very enthusiastic about their favorite shows and very willing to share their thoughts on what they watch. Of course, television has always had a social component, but the times when friends sat together in a living room in order to watch a TV show are pretty much passé for Generation Facebook. Today it is all about virtual buttons (share, comment, tweet etc.). And broadcasters are picking up the trend. The number of screens per person increases, stars begin to interact with fans, and online communication continues to grow. The approach certainly has a huge potential on the global entertainment markets, but I am not sure if I would ever be ready to get engaged with it from a personal user perspective. When I watch a show or a movie, I do not want to get distracted by Twitter feeds or some new ingenious second-screen platforms. This is the point when social media starts to downgrade the experience per se. But people use it and it works, thus it makes sense.

Anyway, after the panel and after some beers in a Midtown sports bar, the term in the title really hit me. Living in New York is more than just an experience of living in a big city. It is sort of a multi-screen experience all through. When I take the inbound 7-Train and close my eyes, I would find myself in a completely different sphere just a few minutes later. New York City is split up into five boroughs and into more than 50 different neighborhoods, while every neighborhood has a different feel and knows its own conventions. Any yet, it would seem that everything is well-matched and synchronized, just like the various platforms and technologies that are being utilized in the concept of Social TV. And everything makes sense at the end of the day. In the very first season of Mad Men, Bertram Cooper expressed this thought in the most sophisticated way I can imagine: “New York is a marvelous machine, filled with a mash of levers and gears and springs, like a fine watch, wound tight, always ticking.” Considering my citizenship, it would be weird if I didn’t like this allegory.