What do Chinese citizens think about democracy? Would they support political reform? And what might those reforms look like? To answer these kind questions, political scientists and policymakers have historically turned to polling. But polling is notoriously difficult in China. For one thing, China prohibits foreign polling organizations from directly surveying Chinese people. Alternatively, case studies can offer a valuable approach for gauging public preferences. But with a case studies approach, the sample size is necessarily small, and selecting truly representative cases can be challenging.
Big data analysis can offer another way to understand the public mood. Online social media has given us the largest repository of unsolicited public opinion in history. And Chinese citizens are a big piece of that equation. On Chinese social media, tens of millions of people will write a unique post in a given week.
Last year, a debate about enforcing China’s constitution (read: requiring that Communist Party elites are held accountable to the same legal standards as regular citizens) captured public attention. Using Crimson Hexagon’s ForSight platform, a big data analytics platform developed by the Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences at Harvard University, we mapped the online discussion of constitutionalism for the duration of 2013.
ForSight has access to the full content stream of an enormous quantity of public internet data – including China’s most popular microblogging platform, Sina Weibo. Essentially, ForSight almost instantaneously downloads this data as soon as it is created and stores it. Because the great majority of censorship on Chinese social media is done manually (which takes a few minutes), this store of data also includes censored posts. READ MORE »
Last week, many of China’s major websites were inaccessible for nearly 24 hours to Chinese internet users. Chinese users trying to reach a range of websites ending in .com were re-routed instead to an IP address owned by Dynamic Internet Technology, which is the provider of the circumvention tool Freegate. DIT has been closely affiliated with the Falun Gong, a religious organization banned in China.
GreatFire.org, which examines Chinese censorship, has a detailed report investigating this outage, illuminating that all attempts within China to visit popular websites such as Sina Weibo, Baidu, etc. would be incorrectly re-routed to 126.96.36.199 (an IP address in Wyoming).
While state news agency Xinhua raised the possibility of hacking, and CNNIC attributed the breakdown to a "root server for top-level domain names", others blame the breakdown on a failure of the Great Firewall. As Chinese internet censorship expert Xiao Qiang states to Reuters, "It all points to the Great Firewall, because that's where it can simultaneously influence DNS resolutions of all the different networks (in China). But how that happened or why that happened we're not sure. It's definitely not the Great Firewall's normal behavior."
Proper implementation of a DNS to match the domain name and the IP address of a website or web service is critical to ensuring that the Internet functions properly. As GreatFire points out, DNS poisoning, or hijacking of DNS routing to send a visitor to an incorrect domain name or IP address, is a technique deployed by the Great Firewall to render ‘blacklist’ websites inaccessible. READ MORE »
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.
There is an election in a week, you want to poll the citizenry before the election, and your financial resources are limited. What should you do? Should you (A.) Give up because it is simply not possible to get a full-fledged poll out in the field. (B.) Beg your donor to give you a last minute cash infusion to bring on more staff and a polling company. (C.) Join the 21st Century and leverage technology to generate a fully randomized national telephone poll using a platform like Voto Mobile. Voto Mobile's goal is to make interacting with an audience via mobile phones - either one-way via broadcast or two-way in an interactive fashion -- easy and inexpensive.
Over the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to sit down twice with developers and staff from the socially conscious start-up Voto Mobile. Based out of Kumasi, Ghana, Voto Mobile has the straight-forward goal of “Mobile Engagement, Simplified.” The company is leveraging the ubiquity of mobile phones around the world to enable both research and social engagement that offers CSOs, NGOs, Political Parties and other organizations new capabilities. READ MORE »
China leads the way when it comes to controlling online content. A push to counteract messaging that differs from “official” interpretation of events has spurred a wave of crackdowns that started in August, publically justified by the government as preventing the spread of online "rumors”.
Authorities have escalated their campaign against "cybercrime,” designed to prevent “hearsay” and “gossip” from spreading rapidly online, culminating in the arrests of hundreds of activists.
Prominent activist Murong Xuecun in a NYT op-ed stated that, “the vast state censorship apparatus works hard to keep us down. But posts race through Weibo so quickly that it’s difficult to control them with technology. Hence, the government is resorting to detainment.”
Chinese authorities utilize a number of methods for exorcising “bad” speech in its online communities. For over a decade, the government has been employing a task force to publish regime-friendly comments online in an effort to manipulate public opinion. This force has become known as the 50 Cent Army, which pays homage to the rumored 50 cents of Renminbi paid per comment (though in a rare moment of transparency, the government budgets have listed “Internet opinion analysts” as official occupations, most notable at the China Employment Training Technical Instruction Center). In 2012, real name registration came into effect -- requiring web users to register their given name and national identification name with provider sites before posting comments.
The “campaign against cybercrime” has reached new heights in targeting those “perpetrate rumours” in China’s online communities. This provision has paved the way for mass arrests of outspoken netizens across the country, including the Big V’s-- microbloggers known for online activism. An August 24th editorial stated that popular bloggers who “poison the online environment” should be “dealt with like rats scurrying across the street that everyone wants to kill.”
Arrests have also spread amongst China’s Uighur population. July and August were marked by a government movement against “religious extremist content on the internet” in the Xinjiang province. Fearing a militant, religious uprising, police arrested 139 people for spreading “jihadist” sentiments and posting religious content online, according to state-run media.
Early this summer, the Wall Street Journal published a widely-circulated article on the increasing restrictions to free speech online. South East Asia continues to be a region where internet freedom is under threat.
The most notable case is in Vietnam, where the draconian Decree 72 has been implemented. (More details on other restrictions in Vietnam can be found here). According to the decree, “[A] personal information webpage is a webpage created by individual on their own or via a social network. This page should be used to provide and exchange information of that individual only; it does not represent other individual or organization, and is not allowed to provide compiled information.” This law has severe implications for any journalists, academics, and others who seek to share work accomplished by others. In addition, the decree requires all foreign websites to include at least one server in Vietnam, so that the data stored on those servers can be accessed by local authorities. READ MORE »
I’m recently back from Electech Afghanistan, an NDI-hosted elections and technology conference in Kabul. The event brought together senior officials from government, civil society, the private sector, and the international community to discuss applications of digital technologies to enhance transparency and participation in the election process.
Ahead of the Presidential elections in April 2014, the Afghan public lacks confidence in the government’s ability to run a credible election and this is diminishing participation and prospects for stability and democratic development. Afganistan is, of course, a supremely insecure environment with low rates of literacy throughout the population.
Participants identified ways that technology could improve participation and confidence by helping election authorities in administration, improving how political parties compete, increasing citizen’s participation, and enabling civil society organizations to observe more effectively, all while allowing journalists such as Pajhwok News to publicly share results and analysis. Discussion focused on the changing nature of political participation mediated by technology.
Internet freedom has been under threat in Vietnam for some time. The most recent action to repress free speech online is in the form of “Decree 72”, a legislation which requires Internet companies to cooperate with the Vietnamese government to enforce prohibition of: opposing the " the Socialist Republic of Vietnam," undermining "the grand unity of the people", damaging 'the prestige of organizations and the honour and dignity of individuals”, and other ambiguously worded means to express oneself online.
This decree also applies to “organization/individuals inside and outside Vietnam, directly/indirectly involved in managing/providing Internet services and information, and online games, ensuring information safety.” The decree was adopted on July 15th of this year, and will come into force on September 1st. The decree has largely been condemned by human rights organizations and internet industry operating in Vietnam. READ MORE »
It is no secret that the number of people using mobile phones has exploded in the last ten years. In 2002, for example, there were 49 million mobile phones in Africa; today there are more than 700 million. Mobile technology has revolutionized the way people communicate and connect to social, economic and political resources. And while there is still a considerable gender gap with regard to mobile phone ownership and usage throughout the developing world, more and more women are now using mobile phones to access social services and new economic opportunities.
Recently, USAID released a report that supports the fact that even in hard-to reach places with strict societal norms for women, mobile phones have an impact. The Afghan Women’s Capacity Building Organization conducted a survey of 2,000 women from five major provinces to determine their access to mobile technology in Afghanistan. In the report, USAID presented some key positive findings:
As of late 2012, 80% of Afghan women surveyed have regular or occasional access to mobile phones.
Access to mobile phones is growing quickly, especially among young women.
44% of women who live outside of urban areas own their own phones; 39% have access to a family member’s phone.
Mobile phones are becoming gateways to social and commercial services, including those related to health and education.
A majority of women surveyed believe that “connectivity enhances Afghan women’s lives, making them feel safer, better equipped to cope with emergencies, more independent, and more able to access the family members and friends who comprise their networks.”
A majority of women surveyed believe that mobile phones are essential tools.
UPDATE: According to Koryo Tours, the only group that is currently sanctioned to bring foreigners into North Korea, "3G access is no longer available for tourists to the DPRK. Sim cards can still be purchased to make international calls but no internet access is available." Now, the only foreigners with 3G access will be permanent residents of the DPRK, not tourists.
Originally published February 28, 2013
This week, foreigners living in North Korea were able to connect to 3G services on their mobile devices and tablets. Koryolink (a joint venture between state-owned KPTC and Egyptian provider Orascom) informed foreign residents in Pyongyang that it will launch 3G mobile Internet service no later than March 1.
This newly-available access follows the reversal of regulations requiring visitors to surrender their phones at customs, and has been replaced with allowing foreigners to bring in their own mobile phones to use with Koryolink SIM cards.
Some have speculated that 3G access follows the highly publicized visit from Google CEO Eric Schmidt; however, Koryolink has stated the new service had “nothing to do” with his trip, and the carrier had "tried hard to negotiate with the Korean security side, and got the approval recently." READ MORE »
So you want to increase citizen participation in government and civil society, but the tech infrastructure is poor and there are low literacy rates with many people living in rural areas who are hard to reach. What do you do to increase transparency and civic interaction between a government and citizens? Poor tech infrastructure, rural populations, and low literacy rates are commong barriers to using tech in many countries where we work. Integrated Voice Response (IVR) provides a mechanism for civic interaction that breaks down many of the barriers to interactive civic engagement listed above. READ MORE »
Myanmar used to have one of the highest costs for SIM cards in the world. However, after the 2011 election and subsequent efforts to open up Burma to the international community, prices for SIM cards have drastically dropped.
Quartz just published its findings on the decline of SIM cards prices, which have become vastly more affordable to average citizens in recent years:
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.
Our trusted friends, the researchers at Citizen Lab recently published Planet Blue Coat, a report detailing the extent to which U.S.-manufactured network surveillance and content filtering technologies are used to facilitate repression against journalists, human rights activists, and other pro-democracy groups.
This is not a new problem. Software developed by Western countries to filter web-hosted content or otherwise obtain data from internet users without their knowledge and consent has been a serious issue for over a decade. It first emerged in China where Cisco Systems sought lucrative business opportunities with China's Golden Shield project, more commonly known as the Great Firewall of China. In recent years, similar technologies have emerged in repressive regimes throughout the Middle East, such as censoring and monitoring technologies in pre-revolutionary Tunisia and in Syria, as well as in closed societies such as Burma. READ MORE »
This is a guest post from David Caragliano, NDI's Senior Program Officer on the Asia team in D.C. You can follow up with David on Twitter.
Citizen participation in Hong Kong is on the rise, but the results of the September 9 legislative council (LegCo) election and the March 25 chief executive election do not fully capture the nature of citizen participation. Voter turnout on September 9 stood at 53 percent – just two percentage points under the historical record in 2004. Public outrage at the candidacy of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung and his push to require Moral and National Education (MNE) courses in Hong Kong schools has been difficult to ignore. However, under Hong Kong’s complex electoral system, political parties have tended to be unresponsive. Civil society has driven political messaging and mobilization, increasingly through online tools.
The candidacy of C.Y. Leung in chief executive election generated frustration among Hong Kong’s voters. His victory only reaffirmed the reality that fifteen years after the Handover a small circle of elites continue to monopolize the chief executive selection process. What if the Hong Kong people could directly elect their chief executive? READ MORE »
The twitterverse is no stranger to hashtag-calls-for-action, spanning from #free an arrested activist to #stop a particular piece of legislation from moving forward. The most well-known example of a hashtag campaign was the one to stop SOPA and PIPA legislations in the United States. Despite the lack of coverage of these proposed laws on traditional media, mobilization spurred through social media was effective to build a full-on campaign that ended up stopping the passage of this legislation. Recently, NGOs and other civil society actors have been trying to capitalize on this success to try and stop the passage of other internet-restrictive laws, such as in Malaysia (#Stop114A) and in Jordan (#BlackoutJo).
While the revisions to section 114a in Malaysia’s Evidence Act and the proposed amendment to the Press and Publication Law in Jordan are alive and well, the online mobilizations to stop them can still teach us some valuable lessons in use of social media in the campaigns. READ MORE »
The need for civil society organizations and activists to understand best practices behind digital security and digital safety has grown exponentially over the past few years. This need has expanded beyond closed environments to more open societies that may not have as looming of a threat of communications interception, targeted malware attacks, and other dastardly deeds.
While there have been a lot of “wins” for civil society in restrictive environments to use ICTs to mobilize ahead of key political moments, these regimes continue to step up their efforts to counteract such communication.
Last week, our team was able to attend the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF). One of my favorite panels was "Online Life in China". In case you didn't know, sometimes content posted online in China is filtered and removed, which can have obvious impacts on how Chinese internet users can express themselves and access information online.
David Wertime from Tea Leaf Nation, a popular blog that follows social media trends in China, made some important distinctions in use of local social media platforms in China. While many people refer to Sina Weibo (one of the largest microblogging platforms in China) as "China's Twitter", there are some key distinctions that make the comparison not quite balanced. While in Roman-based languages, 140 characters is quite limiting in what you can express. Whereas in Chinese, 140 characters is literally 140 words, allowing Chinese speakers to express longer sentiments. (Fact: "Weibo" or 微博 in Chinese literally means "Microblog", based off of "Boke" or 博客 which means "Blog"). In addition, while Sina Weibo does have many similar functions to Twitter (hashtags, retweets, etc.), one can also embed video and image files directly into tweets, and can "comment" on tweets as well. This comment capability is what enables Weibo to be "the closest thing China has to a platform for free speech" and is a strong democratizing feature. READ MORE »
My name is Hillary, and I'm so excited - no, really, you have no idea - to announce that I've arrived @NDITech. I'm a former journalist, teacher, and toy store employee who grew up in a house of tinkerers and tech enthusiasts, and I recently graduated from the Fletcher School in Boston. More importantly, my background has made me passionate about tech and media use across disciplines, and coming to NDI allows me to put those interests to good use.
My main interests on the tech team include nonformal education, public diplomacy and outreach, and social marketing, as well as the larger (and related) issues of user interaction and the effects of tech projects from a systemic perspective. I believe strongly that technology needs to be engaging and desirable as well as accessible - not just from an infrastructural perspective, but in terms of the ways in which people go through their daily existence. Which brings me to the title of this post.
As anyone who's ever taught can attest, children can be a very, very tough crowd. A few years ago, I was teaching English in Korea, and one of my fellow teachers put on her Facebook an exchange she'd had with a student. It's now been added to the (long) list of internal memes I maintain.
STUDENT Teacher! Today play game?
TEACHER No, we played a game yesterday.
STUDENT Yesterday game boring and hate. New game! READ MORE »
Late last week, news broke that following several self-immolations among Tibetan Buddhist and clashes of violence against protesters demanding Tibetan autonomy, China has cutoff Internet connectivity and mobile phone signals for 30 miles around the main clashes taking place in Sichuan province. Last resort techniques like these are unfortunately not new. Even prior to the most famous case of unplugging the Internet, China cut off internet access and limited mobile services in the Xinjiang region in 2009 for several months as a response to outbreaks of violence. But while key officials under the Mukarak regime have been punished in their pocketbooks, the ability and desire of repressive regimes to deploy internet outages as a means to eliminate dissidence presents yet another hurdle in attempts to ensure democracy and transparency worldwide. During volatile political moments, it becomes challenging to verify information on current events. Currently, foreign journalists are prohibited from entering affected Tibetan areas, making it extremely difficult to verify reports about the current situation. Adding to the complexity of obtaining verifiable information are the “human elements”, where concerns about the threatened safety of involved persons can add a panic-induced frenzy and desperation for accurate information. READ MORE »
Restriction of open dialogue can take a variety of forms. Systematic and pervasive technical means to block keywords, denial-of-service attacks against websites, and overcrowding discussion platforms in order to drown out dissenting points-of-view are just a few popular methods used around the world. However, many regimes do not have the resources to conduct these widespread and labor-intensive means to enforce people to fall in line with government rhetoric. Therefore, it becomes imperative to create regulatory framework which ensures punishment to those who “cause national panic,” “offend the public," or other ambiguous jargon to quash “undesirable” discourse. Undesirable, that is, to the regime in power.
The Thai Computer Crimes Act is one such law, where content regulation issues are combined with cybercrimes like hacking and email phishing under vaguely defined terms. One of the most startling features of this law is that internet intermediaries, under Articles 14 and 15, are held just as accountable for the actions of other users to disseminate content “that can cause damage to the third party or public.” READ MORE »
The Mapping Local Internet Control project launched last week by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society illustrates the ability of Internet users within a particular country to access the global Internet through their Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or other Autonomous Systems used to route web traffic. One of the key findings of this project is that approximately 96% of all web traffic in China is routed to websites hosted within China. So why is this significant?
This mapping is able to demonstrate one of several means that Chinese authorities use to restrict content online - through centralizing Chinese web traffic to 4 points of control (ways to access the Internet), Chinese authorities can more readily curtail access to any content deemed objectionable.
Visualization of how this control takes place in China is even more striking when compared to other countries guilty of censoring independent content online, such as Iran and Russia. This visualization on the nature of accessibility in China is especially valuable, given the more limited information available on mapping online discourse in Chinese when compared to research on the Arabic, Persian, and Russian blogospheres. READ MORE »
NDI does some cool stuff, but for real influence you can't top good ol' Uncle Sam.
One of the most important audiences for NDI's AfghanistanElectionData.org visualization tool is policymakers at the State Department, USAID, and on Capitol Hill.
By developing open tools that can be used by all - including top policymakers - efforts like this make for better informed decisionmaking by the people who really control the levers of power. And our friends in government tell us they get a lot of milage out of the site.
Of course, State or AID could have built their own, private version to use internally. But by providing the resources to let NDI and our coding partner Development Seed put this together, everyone can make use of the data.
The folks who have the most invested in this information are the Afghan people themselves, of course. During the launch of the data from the Presidential elections last year we found that the demands on bandwidth and browsers were too much, and that for some the site was too slow to be of practical use. The 2010 site is much faster; I can't wait to hear stories of how the site is used by the citizens of Afghanistan.