Browsing articles in "Technology"
Oct 10, 2013

Freedom on the Internet

On October 3, Freedom House published the 2013 edition of its Freedom on the Internet report ( The most relevant finding is that of the 60 countries included in the study, 34 saw a decline in internet freedom, including three classified as democracies: India, Brazil, and the U.S. Furthermore, ten different types of government internet control were identified. These are: blocking and filtering contents, cyberattacks against regime critics, new restrictive laws, paid government commentators, physical attacks and murder, surveillance, takedown and deletion requests, social media blockings, intermediary liability for published contents, and throttling or shutting down the service. In spite of this environment, the report also notices that internet users are finding more creative ways to evade or neutralize governmental control efforts.

The index used for this report is slightly different than that of the better-known freedom scores. Here, a battery of 21 questions was applied to the countries under study. The questions were divided into three sub-groups: obstacles to access (infrastructure, economic, legal, or governmental barriers), limits on contents (censorship or manipulation, extent of contents diversity, and usage for political activism), and violation of user rights (legal provisions, surveillance and violations on privacy, and repercussions for online activity). Respectively, the maximum number of points for each category is 25, 35, and 40. They add up to a maximum of 100, meaning the worst situation possible for internet freedom. Conversely, a score of 0 is the best situation possible for internet freedom. Countries with a score between 0 and 30 are classified as “Free”, between 31 and 60 as “Partly Free”, and between 61 and 100 as “Not Free”.

There are two trends that are worth noticing. First, the third category, violation of user rights, is the one in which countries tend to have the highest score. This is true for non-democracies, such as Russia and China (with a score of 25 and 38 for this item, respectively), and for democracies, such as the U.S. and the U.K. (with a score of 12 and 16 for this item, respectively). This could suggest this kind of internet freedom violation is the easiest to exercise. Some reasons for this could include the arguable easiness with which surveillance can take place or the large number of pretexts that can be used to break users’ privacy (most notably national security). Furthermore, user agreements for some services could require users to surrender some of their privacy without them knowing because they do not read the agreement.

Another relevant trend is that there seems to be a correlation between the internet freedom scores and internet penetration. Larger scores (or a worse situation of internet freedom) tend to be found in countries with low internet penetration, and smaller scores (or a better situation of internet freedom) tend to be found in countries with large internet penetration. The reason for the association could be the presence of a third variable affecting both internet freedom scores and internet penetration: government control over the internet. If a government restricts internet access, placing high barriers to use the service (with high fees or insufficient telecommunications infrastructure) and hence offering a selected access, it is easier for it to monitor users’ activities. On the other hand, if it places relatively low obstacles to access it, a government could be little interested in checking its users. Hence, government-permitted accessibility seems to be a major predictor of internet freedom.

These two observations, the vulnerability of users’ rights and the possibility of the degree of government controlling internet access predicting freedom in the internet, move to pose the question of what role should governments have in relation to the net. Whether or not governments should actively promote, or even offer, internet access is a question related to the scope of state’s activities: in some countries such a task will be left to the market, and in others the state will have a larger role. In any case, more internet is thought to be related with more access to independent sources of information, more freedom, and more democracy. What is more, some organizations advocate the existence of a right to access internet, and push governments to ensure its full realization. Additionally, there is no doubt that the internet is a “place” where it is relatively easy to commit a wide variety of crimes; hence, governments should also have the capacity to prevent and investigate them. But, as noted above, this is an argument with which governments diminish internet freedom, even in democratic regimes.

For the time being, the question remains open. As in most other aspects of the public life, there is no immediate or definite answer on what role the government should have on the internet. Freedom House’s current task of identifying the ways in which governments violate internet freedom could shed some light on this issue.

Mar 4, 2013
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Kenyans Head to the Polls

Supporters of the Jubilee Alliance at a pre-election rally / (Reuters/Noor Khamis)

Supporters of the Jubilee Alliance at a pre-election rally / (Reuters/Noor Khamis)

Happy election day! That is, election day in Kenya. The long-anticipated contest began earlier this morning (with polls closing as I write), amid growing anxiety over sporadic episodes of violence in recent weeks. Thus far, today’s reports indicate that violence has been isolated to a few incidents in the coastal town of Mombasa and regions near the Somalia border. We will know much more, of course, after the electoral committee begins the important work of counting the votes.

The election is important for a number of reasons. Some are quite obvious. It is a chance for Kenya to demonstrate that the horrendous post-election violence in 2007-2008 was an aberration, and not a trend. The poll pits Uhuru Kenyatta — son of Kenya’s first president (Jomo Kenyatta), and a defendant in an ongoing ICC trial for his role in the 2007 violence — against Raila Odinga, whose unexpected defeat by Mwai Kibaki in 2007 amid allegations of widespread fraud set the country aflame. Odinga’s late father was also an erstwhile ally of Jomo Kenyatta, before Odinga joined an opposition movement and Kenyatta imprisoned him for two years. This election therefore provides Raila Odinga with a chance at redemption — the opportunity to settle a decades-long familial rivalry, and a final shot to win a position that many believe was stolen from him five years ago. It also holds tribal implications, since Odinga would be the first Luo to occupy the State House. Kenyatta, of course, is a Kikuyu, one of only two groups (along with the Kalenjin) to hold the presidency in Kenya’s half century of independence. In a plural society like Kenya where power and resources often flow vertically along ethnic lines, an Odinga win may hold significant domestic implications.

These storylines certainly provide drama and layers of sub-text. But they also draw attention away from the other important elements of this election. It is the first chance for Kenya to select lower-level leaders to fill new positions created in Kenya’s 2010 constitution, a document that devolved considerable power to county-level governments across the country. This could have a significant impact on future incentives for political candidates as well as citizen-state relations, particularly in a country with a history of centralized power. This election also marks the introduction of a few new technologies to prevent fraud, such as biometric voter registration and electronic submission of results. Many were concerned that the government would not provide the election commission with sufficient resources to procure and deploy these new tools, and today will provide a preliminary look at their capacity to mitigate the problems that emerged in 2007.

For a much more thorough look at these issues, and more, check out this great election primer from IFES. Lots of useful information on both a political and technical level.

I’m sure we’ll be covering the election results, and political implications, in the days and weeks to come. On the presidential level, neither Odinga nor Kenyatta will likely win after today. The new constitution lays out a threshold system, whereby a candidate needs over 50 percent of the national vote as well as at least 25 percent in over half of all counties. Failing that, there will be a second round run-off between the top-two vote winners. Stay tuned…

Feb 27, 2013
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Is There an Emerging Military Drone Complex?

MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan

MQ-9 Reaper in Afghanistan (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

We often think about approaches toward security as a matter of government policy, set by those in executive or appointed positions and implemented by career civil servants at the Department of State, Department of Defense, or the many intelligence agencies. And to a certain extent, this is true. Look no further than Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Iran. Military engagements, by law, are initiated and led under executive authority. Strategic and diplomatic goals often change with administrations. Choices about resources — particularly funding priorities within the various bureaucracies for the military, intelligence, and foreign aid — all carry consequences and must be approved by the president, even if the budgets themselves are first passed by Congress. Policy, in a bureaucratic sense, begins at the top and flows downward.

Yet, it is equally true that policy choices are constrained, even manipulated, by forces that flow upward. This is most visible (and self-evident) in the world of domestic policy, where powerful lobbies combine with regular elections and grassroots mobilization to shape government behavior. But is the same true in foreign affairs? When Barak Obama entered office in 2009, and immediately recalibrated U.S. policy toward Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism, Iran, Israel, Russia, and a host of other issues, how many viewed those choices as anything other than a reflection of party ideology, or perhaps — cynically — derived from a reading of public opinion?

This frame adds to the intrigue surrounding Obama’s policy on military drones. Unlike every other significant area of security or diplomacy, Obama has not only continued his predecessor’s practice on targeted killings using unmanned aerial vehicles, he has escalated it in stunning fashion. For Democrats and liberals, the practice betrays the fundamental principles that they applaud elsewhere in Obama’s foreign policy approach. The New America Foundation keeps a running database of drone activity from 2004 to the present, with figures on strikes and casualties in Pakistan and Yemen. In a comprehensive report released last month, the Council on Foreign Relations also provided a detailed account of the evolution of drone policy and practice. The trend is clear. In only half the time, President Obama has approved seven times as many drone strikes in non-battlefield environments than President George W. Bush.

Much of the recent debate over Obama’s drone policy has centered around two primary issues: their tactical and strategic value in the field, and the concerns over accountability, oversight, and abuse. Do drones provide better operational flexibility and responsiveness? Do they achieve a strategic security objective? Does the combination of negligible risk to U.S. operators and distance from the destruction on the ground create a moral hazard? These are all worthy of exploration. But they each start from the basic premise that drone policy is, in fact, set at the highest levels of government for reasons that emerge from a traditional security calculus.

Here is a different question. Have the drone wars of recent years given birth to a drone lobby? And if so, is it possible that its influence has been magnified by domestic political events? There is little doubt that drone design and development has emerged as a lucrative niche within the broader industry of military contractors. Like any industry that survives off of government resources, it has a vested interest in advocating vigorously for continued funding and long-term commitments. Yet, unlike producers of other military hardware — tanks, planes, ships — drone manufacturers offer something that the military desperately needs: a highly efficient, comparatively inexpensive weapon in an era of shrinking budgets and force reductions. With the political environment as it is, DOD officials cannot rely upon typical funding or procurement strategies of the past. This, combined with what many assume will be an aversion to large-scale interventions for quite some time, has likely created a situation where the quintessential light-footprint weapon serves an even more useful budgetary purpose. Deficit politics, and the subsequent dysfunction we’ve seen with artificial crises and looming sequestration, have made drones an even more seductive weapon of choice, and perhaps emboldened the growing industry of producers to push for more contracts. For better or worse, the assumed benefits of drone warfare have hardened into conventional wisdom, fueled in part by economic and political considerations that begin far below executive-level decision-making.

I don’t mean to undersell the relevance of strategic debates over how to best address our evolving security challenges. In fact, that is exactly the topic of our upcoming issue in Democracy & Society (shameless plug…don’t miss the chance to submit a piece!). But it is important to remember that domestic political forces can influence foreign policymaking in unexpected ways, far beyond public opinion. As much as we like to think that policies on issues as vital as security begin and end with professional assessments from the experts, incentives matter. On a purely economic and political level, drones provide numerous benefits for a wide array of actors. That, unfortunately, can carry much more weight than the moral or strategic arguments that have thus far failed to gain much traction during Obama’s tenure in office.

Jan 9, 2013

China and its Information

Caption that appeared when a term searched for in Google was censored. (From Le Monde.)

Caption that appeared when a term searched for in Google was censored. (From Le Monde.)

Largely unnoticed at the time that it happened in December, Google China removed the feature from its browser that allowed users to know that a term they were searching was censored. Some specialized websites have highlighted the contrast between the relatively large diffusion with which the anti-censorship tool was introduced in May 2012 and the lack of information regarding its elimination. Apparently, this was only made public in the West thanks to the, a censorship-monitoring in China organization. Later on, the news was retrieved by the press.

It is not so easy to assess how to understand this move. The blog of the British paper The Telegraph reads it as an act of cowardice or surrender. Chinese censors were able time and again to fight back against any tools proposed by Google to counter walls in the national internet. Therefore, Google got tired of it and decided to give in to censorship. Even more, Chinese authorities would have threatened Google with completely blocking its services if such anti-censorship tools were not erased. The Telegraph reminds the reader that although the presence of Google in China is relatively small (around 5% of all internet searches), it still represents 25 million users. It might be too costly to close such a market. The muteness with which the anti-censorship tool was removed is a point in favor of those arguments.

Except for the concerns originally raised by, there seems not to have been much opposition against Google’s move. This contrasts with a set of protests in the rapidly industrializing city of Guangzhou, in the southern province of Guangdong (Canton). Here, some journalists and citizens have called for more freedom of expression and democracy, supporting the efforts of the local weekly publication Nanfang Zhuomo, which called in its New Year editorial for China to undertake political reform and become a full and real constitutional government. Authorities have had a clear reaction: many communiqués have been issued, blaming “foreign forces” and dissatisfied former employees of the publication of organizing the protests.

These incidents show that the Chinese government is apparently in very good shape to exercise control over information in its territory, either by making the best of the very large market its population represents or by making it clear that freedom and democracy are topics not to be discussed in the public space. This further strengthens the idea that the Chinese government is aware that one of its potential vulnerabilities is the free flow and discussion of information.

Dec 18, 2012

More Years of Solitude

Kim Jong Un fiercefully looking at a screen with information on the progress of the rocket launching. (Source:



Yesterday one year ago Kim Jung Il, Supreme Leader of North Korea, died. He was succeeded by one of his sons, Kim Jung Un. At the moment of the transition, there seemed to be some very vague hope of some sort of change. What is the state of this hope today?

Some months ago there was a post in this blog which also dealt with North Korea. At that time, the topic was also the probability of change; in such occasion, it was boosted by rare second reunion in a year of the Supreme People’s Assembly. It was expected that, among other things, the very necessary agricultural reforms would be agreed upon. Instead, some seemingly innocuous changes in the education law were the major outcome of the meeting.

Another event recently drew international attention to North Korea: the launching last week of a rocket which, unlike other four previous attempts, succeeded in completing its planned trajectory and, officially, put a satellite in orbit. International reaction was of condemnation: the launch was interpreted as the first step towards developing missile launching capacity.

It is tempting to speculate what North Korea might was actually trying to achieve with this launching. Among the options, not mutually exclusive, are: showing the world that they are a state with the sufficient resources as to put an object in space, showing its citizens that they are a modern nation with a nascent space industry, and that neighboring countries must realize that they are on their way to match them in technological development. In all those alternatives the idea that North Korea has changed is implicit.

The change might come about not because North Korea is trying to reflect the image of a country interested in technology (which is one of the goals of the Kim dynasty; the central image in the national coat of arms is a power generation plant). Instead, the idea of change could point out that now North Korea has more things in common with its neighbors by pursuing high-technological goals such as launching a rocket. However, more likely than not this image will not be constructed; except China, its nearby countries have reacted negatively to the launching of the rocket. In addition, there is no guarantee that another successful launch can repeat itself; in such a case, the whole strategy of North Korea will be smashed into pieces. In any case, the only certainty in this country for the time being is that it will continue its authoritarian system for some more years, at least.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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