It is fascinating to see how the role of social media in political dissent is changing in front of our very eyes, this time in China. Sina Weibo, the wildly popular microblogging platform used by dissidents and activists, might be supplanted by other platforms like Weixin, a more private chat application that now has 270 million active users and is growing rapidly. Weibo, used by influential activists who have large reach to millions of others is also heavily censored and has been reported to have lost users.
Weibo has more than 600 million users, amounting to an astonishing 30% utilization by Internet users in China. There are more than 100 million messages posted on Weibo every day, making the platform a fertile ground for commentary on all matters. As a colleague on our Asia team recently said: "Online social media has given us the largest depository of unsolicited public opinion in human history. Now a report from the China Internet Network Information Center (not an unbiased outfit as it's backed by the Chinese government) reports that Weibo's user base is decreasing.
The report suggests that users are migrating to Weixin instead. Weixin is owned by Tencent Holdings, which, similar to Sino Weibo, also has close ties to the government. According to CNNIC, Weibo users dropped by 9% from a year ago. Meanwhile, Weixin or WeChat as it is known outside of China, added 64.4 million new users last year, especially among the younger demographics.
One reason for the shift may be the changing Chinese consumer behavior that is increasingly migrating from PCs to social networks optimized for smartphones, particularly among young people. Weixin saw a 1,201% increase in usage among youth in the first three quarters of 2013 alone. Under the brand WeChat, the app is also far more global with a userbase of 100 million outside of China.
Enter the Open Government Guide. It is meant to support the development and then adherence to specific goals in 19 areas currently. These include, for instance, budgets, public contracting, right to information and cross-cutting issues such as parliaments and elections (Disclosure: both of those chapters were contributed by NDI staff.). Each category is divided into initial, intermediate and advanced actions that are also supported by specific recommendations, standards, and case studies. All is presented in a highly accessible visual format. READ MORE »
We work with civil society organizations around the world that are facing increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks against them from relenteless, well-resourced, and tecnically extremely savvy adversaries that attempt to curtail, surveil, and otherwise hinder their work. We are routinely called to assist our partners in preventing and mitigating denial-of-service attacks against and hacking of websites and online services, expecially during political events such as elections. Our partners are under threat in myriad ways, ranging from account compromises, social media takedowns to regime trolls and spammers, and malware.
ACCESS Now, a US-based advocacy organization focused on internet governance and digital security has just compiled the first in a series of reports focused on these threats to civil society organizations. The first assessment focused on fake domains when an adversary creates a similar-looking website or social media profile to one of a civil society organizations. These fake domains are used to dilute or confuse the message of the organization and subvert their effectiveness by drawing readers from the original site, or in order to serve malware to specifically target the audience of the original website. READ MORE »
There is a new report by Hibah Hussein, a researcher at the New America Foundation that sharply critiques the lack of privacy and security considerations in mobiles-for-development projects. As readers of this blog know, mobile phones are proliferating as a communications and information delivery channel in international development - in health care projects, those focused on economic development and livelihoods, and also in social accountability and transparency work. We here at NDI have certainly extensively used mobile phones in systematic election monitoring, for citizen outreach and delivering civic information, and for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable.
But, as Hussein poses, mobile phones are inherently insecure channels easily surveilled and monitored by design (after all, telcoms charge by usage and thus watch closely what you do), poorly regulated if at all with meaingful privacy protections in most developing countries, and thus inherently subject to deliberate or inadvertent privacy and security breaches. Since mobile projects in development often target the most vulnerable and marginalized populations and much of development happens in countries with poor governance all the way to outright dictatorships, this combination, Hussein argues, is a recipe for disaster. She notes that international development projects lack privacy and security procols and guidelines and proposes a framework for them to consider in their projects.
Please join us on Tuesday, July 23 from 5-7 for talk and conversation with Nicco Mele book talk, he will discuss The End of Big: How The Internet Makes David The New Goliath, published recently. In it, he explores the consequences of living in a socially-connected society, drawing upon his years of experience as an innovator in politics and technology. He argues that "Radical connectivity—our breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly, and globally —is in the process of re-shaping our biggest institutions." Please RSVP here.
Where? National Democratic Institute (NDI) , 455 Masachusetts Avenue, NW, 8th floor, Washington, DC 20001
When? Tuesday, July 23; 5 - 7 pm. Refreshments provided.
Crossing borders with sensitive information can be difficult in areas where information is tightly controlled. We have been playing around with ways to encrypt information and hide it in other content - a form of encrypted steganography. So we tried to encrypt data with Truecrypt, an open source file encryption software, and hide it in a movie file.
Ordinarily, anyone trying to open an encrypted Truecrypt volume found on a computer or thumb drive would receive an error message, making the encrypted files obvious. It just screams that there is something out of the ordinary on a USB thumb drive, SD Card or computer.
We wanted to create a secure volume that fits inside of a video that actually plays -- such as a downloaded YouTube video of cats or family video in mp4 format. Within that video is a hidden TrueCrypt volume.
Below is a step-by-step guide to hiding a TrueCrypt Volume inside of a video. Please be aware that there may be anti-encryption laws in your country, so please educate yourself on local law before proceeding.
Facebook recently added a new feature that will send a password reset command to a set of pre-determined 'trusted friends." This feature is coming in handy already in closed societies and countries where activists under threat of arrest and facebook hacks. The feature allows a Facebook user to pre-determine a set of "trusted contacts" in the security settings. Once trusted contacts are set up, if a user has trouble accessing her account (such as in case of arrest or hack), she can call on these trusted contacts and receive a security code from them to regain access to the account. A user would need three security codes from trusted friends to regain access to the account which would, in theory, minimize any threats to those trusted friends by adversaries.
NDI is pleased to welcome Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain for a conversation on the role of digital media in the recent MENA revolutions. Here is their talk today at NDI.
Howard and Hussain ask: Did digital media really "cause" the Arab Spring? Is digital media becoming fast "Democracy's Fourth Wave"? In their research, Howard and Hussain found that an unlikely network of citizens used digital media to start a cascade of social protest that ultimately toppled four of the world's most entrenched dictators. Drawing from an extensive data set, the two found that the complex causal recipe includes economic, political and cultural factors, but that digital media is consistently one of the most important sufficient and necessary conditions for explaining both the fragility of regimes and the success of social movements. The new book by Howard and Hussein looks at not only the unexpected evolution of events during the Arab Spring, but the deeper history of creative digital activism throughout the region.
NDI's Governance and NDItech teams are co-convening, with illustrious partners (Omidyar, International IDEA, CDDRL at Stanford University, Google.org, and other) a conference in the next few days on how democratic institutions respond to and more effectively to a global citizenry that is empowered with technology in unprecedented ways. Democratic institutions -- parliaments, parties, and governments - are under pressure to perform more efficiently and effectively, to open their often opaque ways, to be more accountable to their citizens - in short, to govern better. Around the world, established and emerging democracies are struggling to adapt to citizens who are mobilized with phones, tweets and Facebook pages. They are often slow to change and reluctant to give up old paradigms of power and access to (or withholding of) information.
Those with vested power are learning that the gatekeeping functions such as access and control of and to information is no longer possible in a socia media and tech-empowered world. At the same time, there is a contraction of civil liberties and freedom of expression online and tech is being used against democratization efforts. One participant describes this as a "cut and paste" movement of autocratic governments learning online from each other on how to surveil, restrict, and limit their citizenries with technology.
One #tech4dem participant put the challenge well: "The game has changed. You can not find the existing reality, you have to come up with a new one."
In the past 18 months, images have re-become the hottest thing online. Pinterest has nearly 10 million unique visitors per month, becoming one of the top ten most trafficked social outlets at the end of 2011. In 2012, Facebook saw some serious value in the mobile photo filtering app Instagram, picking the company up for a cool $1 billion. And everyone has pretty maps. In short, beautiful pictures, infographics, and visual data on the web are hotter than ever.
Enter the Kenyan 2013 presidential elections. The Elections Observation Group (ELOG), NDI's partner, increased its impact by plotting out a way to share the valuable and complex data collected from its massive election observers in a simple way online.
ELOG used an advanced Election Day monitoring methodology, also called a parallel vote tabulation, and explained what that is with a GIF and videos.
In 2010 ELOG systematically monitored the Kenyan Constitutional Referendum by deploying observers to a random sample of polling stations across the country. The observers rapidly reported their data via SMS back to a central data center so ELOG could evaluate how the election was going in near real-time.
That effort was the trial run for what ELOG would do and collect on election day 2013 - a day much anticipated and worried about after the very violent election debacle in 2008. ELOG analyzed the data following the 2010 poll and created simple sharable infographics that could be uploaded to Facebook and Twitter. The goal of these graphics was to demonstrate that ELOG had--and would be collecting--valuable data and key analysis about the quality of the process. The infographics were mainly targeting political parties and the election commission, but ended up also appealing to a keenly involved Kenyan political digerati.
The polling stations are slowly closing in Kenya in a so-far largely peaceful day. This is a critical election in one of the most technically-advanced countries in sub-Saharan Africa with many monitoring efforts underway as #kenyadecides (to use the Twitter hashtag of choice). While many predict that is going to be a run-off election, we wanted to give a 'rundown' of all the cool tech used that we are watching:
1. The IEBC, the Kenyan Election Commission, put up (with some help from Google) an interactive map and SMS service for people to find their voter registration stations, registration status, and polling station on election day. It also includes a candidate finder. While the map has some usability issues, it's become a very useful resource for citizens that only can be improved upon. It's a model for other independent election commissions that is commendable. IEBC's Facebook Page is also worth watching. Incidentally, by all accounts, the IEBC so far has done a great job providing security and ballots; it's also been very responsive to incident reports from both systematic election monitoring organizations and citizen reporting efforts. No small feat given the enormous voter turnout.
Most interestingly, IEBC promises to report election results in close-to real time using its API. UPDATE: The API from the IEBC with real-time election results data as the vote is counted is working fabulously and media houses in Kenya are pulling the data and transmitting it live on television. Unprecedented for Kenya. READ MORE »
In Azerbaijan elections are looming and the country's citizens are engaged. Facebook is becoming fast one of the major vehicles through which political movements in the country are communicating and organizing. President Ilham Aliyev is expected to be nominated in the coming weeks as the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party’s candidate. Opposition Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar and the jailed Republican Alternative leader Ilgar Mammadov are among his potential challengers.
While Yeni and Aliyev have built a power base for years, the landscape is changing rapidly, thanks to social media. According to Eurasia Net reporting, the use by citizen gruops of Facebook in particular is growing.
The Internet’s influence was most recently illustrated by a Facebook campaign that led to an unsanctioned rally in Baku in January against police treatment of protesters in the regional town of Ismayilli, and by a similar initiative to pay the fines of those demonstrators arrested. The social network also has been used as an information distribution vehicle about other protests and about a high-profile bribery scandal involving incumbent President Ilham Aliyev’s Yeni Azerbaijan Party.
A “Let’s Collect Five Qapik” campaign, organized via Facebook, Twitter and Internet forums, raised 12,500 manats ($15,930) from “more than 7,000 people” over two weeks to pay fines for those arrested during the Baku demonstration...
According to SocialBakers.com, the number of Facebook users in Azerbaijan is now at over 1 million, by far the largest in the Caucasus and numbers of new users are groing quickly. READ MORE »
There are two projects in Mali that caught our eyes - or should we say, our ears? Al Jazeera, in partnership with mobile vendor Souktel, conducted a mobile survey in Mali, asking citizens' opinions via SMS about whether France's military intervention in the country was legitimate. Al Jazeera then translated, tagged, and displayed responses on a color-coded map as part of its Mali Speaks project. It is not entirely clear how many responses were recorded but the map is illuminating and well designed, illustrating how some sgment of the population feels about France's military intervention (Hint: Overwhelmingly positive). Of course, such citizen polls are not representative and tend to skew towards more literate, more urban, male, and wealthier resondents. Nonetheless, if combined with more systematic and stringent polling methodologies, they can provide a sense of the sentiment of citizens and can be conducted inexpensively in close-to real time. Combined with compelling visualizations, they can also be used by citizen groups as a tool for advocacy and by policy makers as a barometer of public opinion.
Al Jazeera has conducted other Speaks projects in Somalia, Uganda, and Libya. Souktel, earlier this year, also worked in Kenya where local youth leaders used the service to conduct and participate in live polls and votes via SMS to elect a board of directors, choose a name for their network, and determine an organizing structure for their regional youth movement. READ MORE »
Last week was Internet Freedom Day - a year after a bill attempting to restrict content online, the so-called SOPA/PIPA bill, was defeated in the United States Congress. We here at NDItech are people of the Internet. We believe, as described in the Declaration on Internet Freedom, that
a free and open Internet can bring about a better world. To keep the Internet free and open, we call on communities, industries and countries to recognize these principles. We believe that they will help to bring about more creativity, more innovation and more open societies.
But, we are worried. As an organization that supports and works for democratic principles and practices, empowered communities, and responsive and accountable governments under the rule of law, and, as a unit within this organization that believes and works on the effective and innovative use of technology in this work, we see troubling trends.
These are trends not happening on the Internet as we typically define it per se, though even there is plenty to worry about. What we are seeing is in the land of mobile phones - the devices and networks where most of the world communicates today. There is actually very little information on 'internet freedom' issues in telecommunications - there is no 'state of mobile freedom' report, and there is precious little data on mobile censorship, SMS tracking, surveillance, etc. Much of it is anecdotal, unsubstantiated, or both. READ MORE »
One of the best tutorials on 'browsing like James Bond without leaving a trace" using a tool called TAILS that NDI has worked on, take a look at this LifeHacker article. We work with a lot of people who prefer not to leave a bunch of files, cookies, or an IP address out there for someone to find when they browse online.
Enter TAILS - a USB stick or DVD that anonymizes, encrypts, and, according to LifeHacker, "hides everything you do on a computer no matter where you are."
More from the article that describes TAILS way better than the project itself does: "When we say "browse without leaving a trace", we truly mean it. Using the Linux-based, live-boot operating system Tails (The Amnesiac Incognito Live System), you can use any computer anywhere without anyone knowing you were ever on it. Tails is a portable operating system with all the security bells and whistles you'll ever need already installed on it."
TAILS has a lot of tools baked in for easy use (thank you, Lifehacker, for the great descriptions): READ MORE »
NDItech mourns the death of Aaron Swartz who killed himself on November 11, 2013. Aaron was a fiercely brilliant programmer, a passionate advocate for an open and free Internet that supports and promotes freedom of information, and a true democracy activists in the very essence of that word. Aaron Swartz was 26.
The projects Aaron worked on impact our lives here at NDI every day: Open data feeds using RSS, news and opinions on Reddit, a simple way to write via Markdown, secure web browsing in Chrome via HTTPS Everywhere, a way to share and reuse content using Creative Commons, and a more free Internet thanks to Demand Progress that used his technological savvy, money and passion to leverage victories in huge public policy fights, to name just a few of his astounding accomplishments.
Changing the world to be better, more true, and more free animated Aaron. Wired.com editor Kevin Poulsen said it well, articulating the loss of Aaron to the world:
“Worthy important causes will surface without a champion equal to their measure. Technological problems will go unsolved, or be solved a little less brilliantly than they might have been. And that’s just what we know. The world is robbed of a half-century of all the things we can’t even imagine Aaron would have accomplished with the remainder of his life.”
We are deeply saddened by his death. In this tribute we are posting his inspired speech to the Freedom to Connect conference last year, describing how he and Demand Progress fought against SOPA/PIPA, the online censorship act that was ultimately defeated. Here he describes what drove him to become involved in this fight for a more free, open, and equitable Internet and ultimately, world.
Our deep condolences go to his his family, his partner, and his friends in our Internet tribe.
IIn Ghana's recent election NDItech partnered with the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO), an independent Ghanaian NGO focused on election accountability. Our goal was to increase information to citizens about the election. CODEO ran a large monitoring program where 3999 citizen observers transmitted incidence and election results data via SMS to a central data center - a standard systematic election observation.
CODEO also used social media as part of a citizen communication campaign to voters via a Facebook page where political issues facung the country were actively debated, and a call-in service for radio stations to broadast voter information (listen to the audio below this post).
We spoke with NDItech's Program Officer Chris Doten about this innovative mobile audio-to-radio project.
Ghana has a robust technology infrastructure and a great NDI partner that was willing to try some new campaigns for this election and invited us to work with them. There also was a little bit of funding in place to do new media voter outreach, and we were able to run with it on a short time frame. Additionally, CODEO has a very good reputation in the country and we worked with them before in several previous election. The staff there is exceptional and was a pleasure to work with.
The ever-prolific Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, not surprisingly, found in its latest research that social media is ubiquitous - at least among the young and the wealthier in the 21 countries studied. Social networking online is spreading fast round the world, and not just in richer, Western countries.
It's not just about Gangnam style. Very usefully, Pew Global asks respondents about the content they share online and while music and movies are commonly shared, there is also significant content sharing and discussion about political issues. The survey notes: "Expressing opinions about politics, community issues and religion is particularly common in the Arab world. For instance, in Egypt and Tunisia, two nations at the heart of the Arab Spring, more than six-in-ten social networkers share their views about politics online. In contrast, across 20 of the nations surveyed, a median of only 34% post their political opinions."
Social networking is not just popular in rich, Western countries. The survey found that "there is considerable interest in social networking in low- and middle-income nations. Once people in these countries are online, they generally become involved in social networks at high rates. For instance, the vast majority of internet users in Mexico, Brazil, Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Russia and India are using social networking sites."
Social networking is for the young. The Pew research notes that "in every country polled, use of social networking sites varies by age. In 17 of 21 countries, there is a gap of 50 points or more in usage of social networking sites between those younger than 30 and those 50 or older."
Talking Politics Online: Who does and who doesn't?READ MORE »
A recent article in the New York Times argues that Twitter is used by citizens in Saudi Arabia to increase the political space for public discourse that did not exist before: "Open criticism of this country’s royal family, once unheard-of, has become commonplace in recent months. Prominent judges and lawyers issue fierce public broadsides about large-scale government corruption and social neglect. Women deride the clerics who limit their freedoms. Even the king has come under attack. All this dissent is taking place on the same forum: Twitter."
The NY Times staff writer Robert Worth, an often-astute chronicler of the MIddle East, argues that "Unlike other media, Twitter has allowed Saudis to cross social boundaries and address delicate subjects collectively and in real time, via shared subject headings like “Saudi Corruption” and “Political Prisoners,” known in Twitter as hashtags."
Is Twitter becoming "like a parliament, but not the kind of parliament that exists in this region,” as Faisal Abdullah, a 31-year-old lawyer, is quoted in the story - even a "true parliament, where people from all political sides meet and speak freely?"
Or is allowing citizen to express themselves publicly via social media a clever tactic by rulers in highly restricted to allow citizens to let off steam while violently quelling real reforms and street protests? Is Twitter really expanding 'political voice' and 'space' - the ability of citizens to have the capacities and articulate their interests and needs and engage in democratic processes to claim their rights and identify appropriate avenues to address their issue concerns? READ MORE »
It's election day in a Georgia where a critical parliamentary election is under way. Dubbed as "a litmus test of the way democracy works in Georgia" by NATO Secretary General Rasmussen, it is a also a test for election-related real-time data of incidents and results. NDI has worked with three civil society partners in Georgia on an impressive election portal that records incidents at the polls, showcases historical data from prior elections dating back to 2008, and will be streaming live election data released by the Georgia election commission as soon as it is released.
The Elections Portal is a joint initiative of non-governmental organizations and NDI, namely the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Georgian Young Lawyers' Association (GYLA) and Transparency International - Georgia (TI-Georgia). Citizens can submit electronic reports about any electoral incident they experience via text messages or on the web, while ISFED is also deploying 1271 accredited and trained observers at precinct, district and central election commission levels who are reporting back to a data headquarters sample-based systematic observations. READ MORE »
The Open Government movement that has been groundbreaking in getting governments to open up their vast data sets on the delivery of services, is seeing a new frontier: Parliaments. Opening Parliament, a project led by NDI, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Latin American Network for Legislative Transparency released its groundbreaking Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, a set of principles that has been signed by more than 80 organizations that are monitoring parliaments. Parliaments and their data on bills, amendments, and proceedings are on of the big frontiers for open government advocates that are now beginning to see traction of their work to open up legislative bodies the world over.
We took a look at some of the exemplary parliamentary monitoring organizations and how they are presenting parliamentary information to get a sense of the state of affairs in parliamentary openness. While we have a long way to go to present legislative data in compelling ways that tell effective stories about key issues, legislation, and legislative processes, there are some interesting examples of groups all over the world that are worth highlighting.
Newpublik.nl from the Netherlands features a great timeline of media coverage of specific bills, mixing different data sets to create context to legislative data that gives a viewer a sense of how a specific bill fits into the current social context. Adding additional, contextual data such as news coverage makes parliamentary data far more useful.See for instance this dossier.
Golos, a long-time partner of NDI in Russia, was awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize of the Norwegian Helsinki Commission today. The Commission especially lauded Golos for its innovative work during the recent Russian legislative and presidential elections. Golos, Russian for "The Voice", is the only independent election monitoring organization in Russia. It has worked for over a decade on independent domestic election monitoring but became extremely popular during the recent Duma and then Presidential elections for its interactive map that allowed citizens to report violations during the election period and on election day. These elections were marked by the savvy use of Russians of social media and camera phones to record and report election violations on YouTube and on Golos' map.
The map became one of the 25 most-visited sites in Russa at the time, noted the Commission. Shortly after launch, the site was removed from Gazety.ru where it had been published, Golos director was detained, and the organization was fined multiple times. Golos was accused of collaborating with Western agents and a slander campaign was launched against the organization on state media.
I will be working with the pioneers at NDItech, and the creative program staff in the NDI offices that are using tech in innovative ways to support representative democracy in areas such as citizen participation, elections, open parliaments, strong parties, and accountable and transparent institutions. Democracy and governance, as the field is affectionately known by those inside it, is where I started more than 20 years ago, and I am thrilled to return to it, throwing into the mix creative uses of online technologies, new media, and mobile (of course). And while 'innovation' is a much-(over)used term these days, I'm hoping to put our own imprint and interpretation on it as a part of the growing #tech4dem field.