Category Archives: governance

Digital divide and civic engagement

With the dissertation defended I plan on bringing this blog back to life.

I started a post-doc position with the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI), based in Cornell Law School. The project runs a very interesting operation called Regulation Room. It offers a platform and, even more importantly, a process for online public participation in the federal government rule-making process (if you don’t know what rule-making is, you are with the majority of people out there and should definitely go to the Regulation Room, because it has all the explanations). I will be working on collaborative drafting of policy input and consensus building around policy issues; aspects that currently are absent from the platform and frankly not sure will be necessarily a standard part of it. I hope to write about this work as I move along.

Yet, even before I started working on my own piece of CeRI research, just learning about the Regulation Room prompted interesting conversations that easily linked to my interest in the digital divide. The result is a paper I co-authored with one of my new colleagues, Rebecca Vernon, which will be presented later this week at the “New ICTs + New Media = New Democracy? Communications policy and public life in the age of broadband” (CFP) – a workshop organized by the Institute for Information Policy at Penn State University and the New America Foundation.

I am not sure what the policy of the workshop is about publishing the papers, so in the meantime I’ll post the extended abstract. Hope you’ll find the premise interesting. If you are interested in the rest, please email me or just leave a comment.

Between Twitter revolutions and Facebook elections, there is a growing belief that information and communication technologies are changing the way democracy is practiced. But how universal are those effects? In this paper we look into what van Dijk labels “motivational access” in digital divide as an impediment for citizens to actively utilize information and communication technologies for civic engagement. We focus on the Cornell University eRulemaking Initiative as our case and conduct an in-depth investigation into its recent efforts to get the public involved in the Department of Transportation rulemaking process using online tools. Recommendations based on this analysis address both national policy frameworks and agency specific regulations.

The digital divide is viewed as major impediment to information-technology-enhanced democratic processes. But if you build it, will they come? Will making broadband more readily available necessarily increase participation in democratic processes? Will making government information available online motivate citizens to engage with government institutions? Will opening up communication channels necessarily yield productive feedback from people? Are the barriers for meaningful civic participation online primarily technological?

Regulation Room (http://regulationroom.org) is a project of Cornell University eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI). It is an online platform developed to engage the public in the federal agency rulemaking processes. In addition to its technological platform, Regulation Room has developed a set of moderation and outreach techniques to make both the procedures of rulemaking and the content of the rules more accessible to the general public. CeRI works with the Department of Transportation on actual rules the agency is seeking public comment on. As such, it serves as a real-life laboratory to explore uses of technology in democratic processes.

Over the past 15 months, Regulation Room worked on 3 rules that resulted in formal comments submitted to the Department of Transportation. In this paper we unpack what it takes to engage citizens in democratic processes and help them make their participation count. Our analysis suggests that while digital divide defined in terms of physical access and technological literacy may play a role in impeding civic engagement, they may not be the only important factors. In effect, while ensuring that all citizens have broadband access and well-developed technical skills go a long way toward ensuring public participation in democratic governance, it will not result in the desired breadth and depth of participation without further policy changes and investments in new technologies. Practices that evolved around the use of technology on the one hand and the engagement with government processes on the other, play an important role affecting civic online participation.

The paper presents an assortment of lessons and observations from “Regulation Room” and offers policy recommendations that suggest viewing civic online engagement through the lens of socio-technical practice, wherein the technology requirements for citizens to engage effectively in democratic processes are examined in conjunction with the normative assumptions of individuals as they interact with their government through online media.

Footage from the workshop on core Internet values

With a slight delay, I would like to share video footage of the workshop I organized at the last IGF in Vilnius.  This is the same workshop for which I was seeking your input about a month and a half ago.

The full title of the workshop is “Core Internet values and the principles of Internet Governance across generations” and the idea is exactly that – to have a dialogue between Internet pioneers and young Internet activists on the core of what the Internet stands for.

We had a great group of people.  On the one hand, there were young people from different parts of the world.  On the other hand, there were more senior Internet thinkers and practitioners.  Here is the full list of participants (in alphabetical order):

  • Bill Graham, Global Strategic Engagement, the Internet Society (ISOC)
  • ‘Gbenga Sesan, Paradigm New Nigeria
  • Drew Smith, Student at Elon Univeristy and participant in Imagining the Internet project
  • Grace Bomu, Young Kenyan lawyer, secretary of the ICT Consumers Association of Kenya, and cultural activist
  • Laura DeNardis, Yale Information Society Project
  • Marie Casey, Elected female representative at the ITU Youth Forum of future leaders, Geneva, 2009
  • Nii Narku Quaynor, Ghana.com
  • Rafik Dammak, Tokyo University
  • Vinton G. Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google
  • Vladimir Radunovic, Diplo Foundation

Ian Peter, who chaired the last year workshop on Internet Governance, was also supposed to take part in the workshop, but unfortunately he was not able to make it to Vilnius.

I hoped to be able to share a report from the workshop here, but other tasks take priority at the moment and I will be posting the report later.  I do think we had a very interesting and lively discussion, so I thought at this point I will just share the video footage of the event.  If you have a couple of hours to spare, I think you will find this engaging.

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As always, your thoughts and comments are most welcome!

Is it the time to lobby?

It’s been quiet on this blog for a while, so I decided to share an observation based on some conversations I recently had at one of the Internet governance meetings.  The conversations were about ICT companies and the point was that while Western companies are extremely enthusiastic about emerging markets, they do not consider their regulatory systems with the same rigor as they do in the developed world.  In other words, while in the developed countries these companies invest considerable resources in working with the governments and lobbying, in the developing countries their efforts are primarily in marketing.  Even when they do work with governments, it is mostly done through the marketing departments where the governments are viewed primarily as costumers, less as regulators.

I heard similar observations from a number of industry players and also from a government official.  I listened and “filed” these observations, but they were  brought back to life with the recent explosion of the BlackBerry story.  You may know that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and now also India and a number of other countries, are threatening to ban BlackBerry unless RIM allows them access to the encrypted email data of BlackBerry users, stored on the company’s servers.  India gave RIM an ultimatum until the end of the month to comply and the rumor is that the Indian government has similar plans for Google, Skype, and perhaps others.

I wonder how did RIM find itself in such a situation?  Will other global technological companies find themselves in a similar situation soon too?  Peter Svensson writes in Washington Post today:

“Threats by the governments of India, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to shut down BlackBerry’s corporate e-mail services reflect unease about a technology that the U.S. government also took a while to accept.  The foreign governments are essentially a decade behind in coming to terms with encryption, a technology that’s fundamental to the Internet as a medium of commerce. (…) RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry, doesn’t have years to wait for foreign governments to adopt the more relaxed U.S. stance toward encryption.”

I assume Svensson is right about his historical perspective; after all, writing about this is his bread an butter.  At the same time, given that all the governments currently having an issue with BlackBerry are in developing countries, I think he is missing the point made by the people I talked to about the Western companies’ attitudes to the emerging markets’ governments.

It did not take the US government years to figure out its stand on encryption on its own.  On the contrary, this position is a result of years of dialogue, argument, and debates between the government and the various interest groups, primarily the industry, through its lobbying activities, and the civil society.  We can see a similar discussion taking place these days around the issue of net neutrality.

It seems to me that until the RIMs, Googles, and Skypes of this world won’t take the regulators in the developing world as seriously as they take the governments back home, we will continue seeing more “BlackBerry” cases.  Until the multinational MICT companies will not engage in a meaningful  way with the local governments in the emerging markets, the barriers to their activities there will continue growing and become more sophisticated, especially when it comes to such a politicized area as information.

So, I wonder if it is the time for these companies to start lobbying in the developing world just the way they are lobbying here.  While I am aware of the potentially harmful influences of lobbying, it is an integral part of the policymaking mechanism and, for better or worse, it also has an educational impact on the policymakers.  At the end of the day, usually those are the governments that are catching up with technology, while the industry is ahead of the curve.

What do you think?  Is it the time to lobby?

On discourse and shaping of the information society

There was a very interesting talk at the Berkman Center back in January.  Julie Cohen, a law professor from Georgetown University, talked about her upcoming book “The Networked Self: Copyright, Privacy, and the Production of Networked Space.”

What I found particularly interesting about this talk is her attempt to introduce sociological literature into a predominantly legal debate.  Her point of departure is the gap between the rhetoric of law and policy aimed at shaping the information society and the realities on the ground.  For example, she points at the language of economic liberties as fueling the information society governance debate, but at the same time there are laws and regulations that significantly restrict those liberties being that through strong copyright or weak individual privacy protections.  She also highlights that while the policy discourse is usually abstract, the individual’s interpretation of the law and his or her interaction with information and technology is very concrete and situated in a particular physical reality.  Although she focuses on the policy debate in the US, I think her framework can be helpful in thinking about discourse and policymaking elsewhere.

Reaching across the disciplinary isle is not a trivial task and during Cohen’s talk at Berkman it was interesting to see how, during the Q&A, the lawyers in the room took her presentation to different directions from where I think it would go has she been giving her talk in a Communication or an STS departments.  Yet, I think she did a very good job linking the abstract thinking of sociologists about the concrete actions of people to the concrete thinking of the legal scholars about the abstract concepts of the law.  I view it is a part of a very important interdisciplinary dialogue we should have in the field and on purely selfish grounds it helps me to think about communicating the relevance of my dissertation research to the more “hard core” policy debate.

You are invited to watch the talk as well as to read its coverage on Ethan Zuckerman’s, David Weinberger’s, and John Palfrey’s blogs.  In addition, I found a recent paper written by Julie Cohen, which provides an outline of her book (in case you don’t have the time to watch the video).

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Enjoy!

Reading “Delete”

I wanted to post reflections on various readings here before, but never got to it.  This is my first attempt.  I just finished reading “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, who is directing the I+I Centre where I am spending this semester.  The book tackles the phenomenon of digital remembering, its potential social repercussions, and ways to address those.  On the publisher’s website it says that the book:

“…looks at the surprising phenomenon of perfect remembering in the digital age, and reveals why we must reintroduce our capacity to forget. Digital technology empowers us as never before, yet it has unforeseen consequences as well…  In Delete, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger traces the important role that forgetting has played throughout human history, from the ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past to the possibility of second chances. The written word made it possible for humans to remember across generations and time, yet now digital technology and global networks are overriding our natural ability to forget–the past is ever present, ready to be called up at the click of a mouse. Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that’s facilitating the end of forgetting–digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software–and describes the dangers of everlasting digital memory, whether it’s outdated information taken out of context or compromising photos the Web won’t let us forget. He explains why information privacy rights and other fixes can’t help us, and proposes an ingeniously simple solution–expiration dates on information–that may.”

However, I think the book talks more about issues of information control and management, where forgetting is an important mechanism that allows the users to exercise their agency in an environment, which is becoming more and more information-intensive. The first half of the book is dedicated to setting the stage. It is a rather detailed and rich account of the history of the contemporary information environment particularly print, evolution of the memory devices and information storage, and development of information governance institutions (defined in broader terms) such as copyright. While I was aware of some of the stories, many of them were rather new to me. For example, did you know that the subject index, as an alphabetical list of topics covered in a book, was introduced in thirteenth century, but the idea of adding page numbers to the index to ease the actual navigation was added only in the sixteenth century? Quite interesting.

DeleteCoverTelling this history Mayer-Schönberger draws a picture of ever growing body of information about us, as individual members of society, and the way we may interact with it, even if in an indirect way. One of his favorite examples is the story of Stacy Snyder who was denied her teaching certificate because of a picture she had posted on MySpace of her dressed as a drunken pirate. The gist of the argument, if I read it correctly, is that while it becomes easier and cheaper to collect and store information about us and our behavior, we, as individuals, are losing more and more control over that information (once you or somebody else posts your picture online, you no longer have control over where it may appear, who may see it, and in what context). He labels it in terms of remembering and forgetting – if in the past it was difficult and costly to remember and easy and cheap to forget, this balance has reversed.

These days it is so easy and cheap to remember that we start losing our ability to forget. The repercussions of this development are that the accessible, durable, and comprehensive digital record of our past directly impacts the way we conduct and make decisions in the present. For example, I know that once this post will be published, it will become a permanent record of my take on “Delete”. Knowing that, I should probably be very careful with what I say about it, because it may impact my future interaction not just with Viktor (with whom I am currently working), but also with other potential readers of this post. I may choose to self censor myself, to present a biased view, or abstain from publishing it altogether. The point is that my behavior today is guided by the uncertainty about the future uses of this information – on the one hand I know it is there to stay, probably attached to my name, but on the other hand, I have no idea who, when, and under what circumstances will use and interpret this post.

To better understand this idea, I think it is helpful to focus on some aspects of socio-psychological functioning of information, which Mayer-Schönberger discusses in length in the book. One of those aspects is interpretation. The bits and bytes in themselves do not mean much, unless we interpret them (similar to the idea of data in knowledge management). It is through interpretation that the information gains meaning and thus also social functions. This leads to another important aspect, which is context. In different contexts we will interpret the same information differently and this is one of the dangers of digitized memory – information is recorded in a certain time and in a given context, but when it gets retrieved at a different time and in a different context, it will likely have different meaning. Thus we are losing control over the interpretation and meaning of the digital information about us and our behavior. When we, as individuals, are losing control over the information, we are becoming powerless compared to other actors (like the state and the corporate world) who have the capacity to collect, store, and retrieve information about us, thus making them even more powerful (they know more about us than we know about them and they control the interpretation process of information about us). Another aspect of this is the negation of time, which threats our ability to make rational decision in the present. Instead of focusing on the big picture, we are focusing on managing the mundane details of our lives, because those are recorded and stored and will have impact on us in the future.

The shift of control over information and negation of time are at the heart of Mayer-Schönberger’s concern with digital remembering. The rest the book is dedicated to analysis of potential responses to this concern and finally a proposal of an alternative solution. The book lists six different potential responses, each addresses either the power or the time aspect of digital remembering on one of the three levels: individual, law, and technology. The six solutions are digital abstinence, information privacy rights, digital privacy rights (sort of a DRM for personal information), cognitive adjustment, information ecology, and perfect contextualization. Each one of the approaches has its merits, but each one also has its drawbacks either at the conceptual or practical levels.

Mayer-Schönberger suggests expiration date for information as his solution to the negative effects of digital remembering. On the face of it, this is a rather straight forward idea – we need a piece of meta-data attached to each bit of information, which will determine how long this bit of information should be retained. Of course, his suggestion is much more nuanced and he goes into various scenarios of different ways in which information can be forgotten or partially forgotten, but I hope my one-line explanation carries over the gist of the argument. Mayer-Schönberger acknowledges in his book that expiration date addresses the time-related aspect of digital remembering, but it does little at the “power” front. In fact, the “power” is supposedly influenced indirectly, as by allowing automatic deletion of information the powerful side in the interaction is giving up some of its powers (if my power stems from having information about you and being able to mine it for my purposes, giving up the control over when this information is deleted, is equivalent to giving up part of my power).

I think that the main weakness of the expiration date argument lies not in the fact that it focuses primarily on the “time” aspect of the issue, but in the fact that it puts great hopes into the agency of the user. The idea of expiration dates gives user the power to decide for each and every piece of information how long they want to retain it. However, I am still slightly skeptical whether the user will use that power, because it comes with a cost. This idea assumes that (1) people want to make a decision about each bit of information they process and (2) they are capable of estimating the usable time span of each and every bit. I am not sure that people are that zealous about managing their information and are that thoughtful about the future prospects of its use. Just imagine if you had to decide for each one of the 300 pictures from your last trip, how long you want to retain it… wouldn’t it be easier just to keep them all? … just in case?

However, I think the main task of “Delete” is not offering a practical solution (that may be better done through establishing a startup :), but undertaking a rather ambitious conceptual and educational task – bringing the idea of “finitness of information” (p.171) into the public consciousness.  There may be numerous socio-technical solution to the negative effects of digital remembering, but you need a well stated argument to start thinking in that direction.  I think this is what “Delete” is trying to achieve.

Here is also Viktor’s talk about the book at Berkman, just about a month and a half ago (caution: it is rather long – over an hour):

Apply for ICANN fellowship!

If you are interested in the Internet Governance issues (or even more generally in the politics of the Internet) and you live in a low income to upper-middle income economy, you should definitely apply for ICANN fellowship to attend one of their meetings.

I have recently discovered ICANN dashboard, which allows you a glimpse over their various statistics.  As you can see in the chart below, as long as you meet their qualifications, your chances of being accepted are rather high.  For example, in the last round of fellowships there were 33 qualified entries and all of them got funded.  Meeting the qualifications criteria is the greatest barrier to entry for this fellowship and it is not completely clear to me how so many unqualified people apply.  From reading the fellowship conditions, the two basic criteria are your citizenship and having at least some relevant experience.

ICANNfellowship

Unfortunately, I don’t have more details about this opportunity other than what is available on their website.  Nevertheless, and regardless of what you may think about ICANN and its role in the regulation of Internet, it seems like an interesting chance to observe the process of Internet policy deliberation in real time.  The next ICANN meeting will take place in Seoul, Korea, 25-30 October 2009, however at this point you can only apply for the following meeting to be held in Nairobi, Kenya on 7-12 March 2010.  The fellowship applications window for that meeting is September 28 to November 6, 2009.  Good luck!

P.S. The underlying logic of limiting fellowship eligibility to people from developing countries is completely understandable, but it would be great if ICANN could at least link to other resources, which are open to people from the rest of the world.

Governance, gardening, and structuration

I truly hope that I am not becoming like in that saying “when all you have is hammer, everything looks like a nail,” but I do feel that I observe more and more implicit references to the Theory of Structuration.  Earlier this week, I started a semester long fellowship at the Information + Innovation Policy Research Center in the School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and as part of getting familiar with the center’s activities I finished reading a report from a conference organized by the head of the Center, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger.

The conference, named after a place in Switzerland, called the Rueschlikon Conference on Information Policy in the New Economy.  It is a gathering of a small group of policymakers, industry leaders, and academics, who come together to discuss issues related to information governance.  The meeting in 2007 was dedicated to issues of information governance and the report, compiled by Ken Cukier, is titled “Governance as Gardening“.  Behind this metaphor stands a number of observations, particularly:

“In the past states regulated domestically, and international accords were sought.  But because technology advances quickly, states cannot keep up. So new, non-governmental mechanisms and institutions to govern information globally are taking shape. As online communities evolve, they establish their own norms and practices: the rules are emergent. Ironically, the rules are shaped by the community, but the properties of those communities are shaped by the rules” (emphasis added)

and consequently:

“Rather than something something that can be known at the outset, implemented and followed with minor adjustments, regulation must constantly evolve, adapting to new environment. In this respect, we need to think of information governance as ‘gardening’ rather than ‘engineering.’  This is not new in nature, but novel in scope and pace, for which today’s agents, mechanisms and institutions are unprepared.”

What I see in this observation is the realization of the duality of policymaking processes. Quoting from my dissertation proposal:

“…the policymakers react to unintended consequences created by diffusion and adoption of new technology and at the same time they set the agenda and provide guidance for future technological developments that impact social structures and institutions.”

As it is mentioned in the last sentence, these dynamics are not new, but they were made more vivid due to the growing dominance of information technology, or in other words, attempts to systematize processes of communication.  Not surprisingly, this duality is the most visible in the area of information governance, where the matter of regulation is an inherent component of the processes of policymaking itself.  As Cukier writes at some point:

“… there is a paradox behind the governance of information: rather than learn the rules and play the game, we need to play the game to learn the rules”

Even though I think the report sometimes delves into semi-deterministic arguments (see the first quote  above), and as such neglects the duality of technology itself, it is really exciting to see that a conversation between practitioners and researchers yields observations similar to what is going to be at the basis of my dissertation.  Moreover, they used Internet Governance as one of the prominent examples where such duality of policymaking is taking place.