Publication Project II: Censorship, Online Media, and Digital Culture

As stated in an earlier post, I am currently working on a number of research projects alongside my PhD. In the first of these ventures I collaborate with Tomi Oladepo from Warwick University for an analysis of transnational online public spheres in Africa and Europe. A second one will deal with forms of and conditions for censorship in digital culture.  This second project will be conducted in cooperation with my colleague Jennifer Eickelmann from the Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany). She is also a PhD student (as well as lecturer) and currently works on (postmodern) modes and techniques of content production on the Internet. Before that, she finished her MA in 2010 with a high quality thesis on performance, resistance, and Youtube. You can read one of her articles here (in German).

We will discuss in our article contemporary forms of censorship in cyberspace –  i.e. the multidimensional practice of information control that often combines social, cultural, and political modes of sanctioning content production as well as -distribution. It will focus on the disciplining of the expression of utterances as a mode of power, so to say. Forms of ‘censorship’ need thereby to be assessed against their specific cultural and historical (i.e. discursive) background since they emerge in various different contexts and are subject to constant change; the same goes of course for the definition of concepts like ‘classified information’ or ‘political correctness’. As Wikileaks and the follow-up discussion it caused have shown, the issue of controlling what can be made publicly available and what not is an urgent matter today – not only as regards criticism on totalitarian regimes but especially when it comes to assess the extents of freedom in liberal democracies. However, one has not necessarily to discuss extraordinary political events to address and discuss the issue. In fact, censorship is an inherent part of our everyday live and determines our communicative behaviour both off- and online in multiple ways. Each culture displays it own laws and rules to control what an individual can say and which utterances have to be sanctioned. The historical background and actual context of a statement (as an umbrella term for any sort of text) is in this respect often the determining factor for the implementation/non-implementation of censorship. Regarding contemporary practices of postmodern content production, censorship -as an instrument of monopolising ideas- can also thwart and impede the creation of the “new” by artists, users etc. To create something new, the practice of quoting and reassembling the already available is indispensable (Mathy/Dietrich 1998). Yet many professional content producers try to protect their ‘intellectual property’, sometimes with relatively harsh measures. Hence,  censorship is also a powerful tool for established hegemonies to diminish the creative (subversive) potential of the “networked information economy” (Benkler 2006).

We will provide a taxonomy of modes of censorship and discuss to what extent the Web actually provides the means for genuine social, cultural, and political resistance. Some of the main questions we have to address are: Who does exert control on the Web? What technological and what cultural sanctions exist? What legitimations and justifications do governments (or corporations) refer to when they attempt to apply forms of censorship (i.e. under what circumstances does it emerge)? What factors determine the current notion of ‘political correctness’ in societal discourses? The project is still in a very early stage and the theoretical framework, methodology, as well as actual subject-matter-of-consideration still need to be defined.

Literature:

Benkler, Yochai (2006): The Wealth of Networks. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Mathy, Dietrich (1998): “Vorab ergänzend”, in: Hilmes, Carola/Mathy, Dientrich (eds.): Dasselbe noch einmal: Die Ästehtik der Wiederholung. Westdeutscher Verlag.

Wikileaks and the (alleged) “Diplomacy-Crisis”

Though I should actually be working on an oral presentation on Maoism, I cannot restrain myself from commenting on the latest “Wikileaks-Coup”. Once more, the (allegedly) “subversive” website attracted an incredibly intense media coverage. I will spare you an elaborate recap of what has happened – you can read, watch or listen to the story on each and every media channel.  All major newspapers, news websites, and broadcasters have put the story on the publication of 250.000 “sensitive” diplomatic documents on the top of their agendas; you can find background information on the issue almost everywhere. Sensational headlines  speak of a “real” diplomacy crisis. Another catchy term is “cablegate”, an allegory to the infamous Watergate-scandal of the Nixon administration in the 1970s. Well, I have my doubts here.

Especially the last comparison seems to be far from being appropriate. In the original scandal, the then government was directly involved in illegal surveillance and monitoring activities; of course, similar things happen today all the time (in partly much more sophisticated manner), too. However, today’s “cablegate” documents have not shown yet, that the US administration did anything particularly “deceptive” or “evil”. Even if some notes on certain politicians are rather embarrassing. But are they really that surprising? Would secret, diplomatic notes from other countries look any different? Let’s see: Arabia has a problem with a possible Iranian hegemony – tell me something new. Putin is Batman, Medwedew resembles his sidekick Robin and Ahmadinedschad reminds people of Hitler – well, I kinda knew that before Wikileaks told us. And to realise that Berlusconi loves parties you do not have to be a diplomat. Moreover, when I read what the US diplomats think of Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, I literally had to laugh out loud – because the characterizations are simply true (well, at least from my political perspective); nothing “sensitive” here. As regards spying on the UN, history has shown that diplomats had always been involved in rather shady forms of information gathering. That’s scandalous to very naive people only.

The whole issue appears to be a bit overblown and serious consequences for the diplomatic relationships between the involved nations remain to be seen. This has already been proven all day, when the different involved statesmen and -women downplayed the impact of this “revealment”. There is no real diplomacy crisis, just a few blushing faces (and some flattery damage containment). However, I am only mocking about today’s “over-emotional” coverage of the issue – I am not thinking that there is nothing truly surprising or maybe even shocking in this 250.000 documents. All I am saying is: It’s a bit too early to draw any hasty conclusions. We have to wait – and contemplate advantages over disadvantages of a force like Wikileaks in our current information environment. This applies to various dimensions of the issue:

1. The most basic question is of course: When does the monopoly on information of a (democratic) state end – and when do activities of organizations like Wikileaks violate  a government’s right on secrecy? I am far from being an enemy of a “free” information flow and I do not believe that contemporary democracies are the most perfect political system to live in (though, and here I agree with Churchill, all others are still much worse). But I am also convinced that too much transparency can be harmful for a collective, i.e. a nation-state in certain truly sensitive respects.

2. Wikileaks fulfills an important function by keeping debates on information, censorship, the media and the role of the Internet alive. In the case of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, it confirmed what critical observers already assumed: That there is a another, far more complex and difficult reality to both wars. It has also shown that online media can truly circumvent and stimulate traditional media. Hence, there is a moral and political justification for a platform like Wikileaks  – to break established hegemonies. However, in the very moment an “independent” organisation accumulates the strength to challenge the establishment, it is not far from becoming a hegemonic factor within a certain power discourse itself. It is today the no. 1 source for classified information; there are no other notable Wikis for political leaks. In order to hold its position, it actually needs to “produce” constantly new breaking stories. It needs the media and vice versa. This encompasses certain demerits. Therefore, I sometimes doubt that Wikileaks always remembers its enormous responsibility every time it publishes masses of governmental documents – I simply cannot believe that its staff reads and evaluates every single piece appropriately before pushing it over to the media and the public, respectively. So how does who in Wikileaks actually decide which information goes out? I am not the first who questions the organization’s inner and outer transparency. One should never trust 100% in what a government is announcing – the same applies to its antagonists.

3. There is also the question of the actual political impact – I have already touched the problem above. For instance, though there had been a loud and vital discussion on the war logs, the number of anti-war protests did not really increase. As so often, the “scandal” arose broad attention for a relatively brief moment. The new media, the mass media, governments and the public – all factors influence each other, but the actual outcome of each debate needs to be evaluated and scrutinized anew. However, some rather unwelcomed effects of this one are already tangible: Restrictive governments can misuse the whole issue to justify their strict information policies, less restrictive ones will revise their information security policies.

To make one thing clear: Being critical towards Wikileaks here does not mean that I am fully supporting the different official governments’ stands in this debate; I would define my position as a neutral, extremely sceptical one. What I wanted to point out is: It is important that such events are accompanied  by sober, balanced discussions which consider all positive and negative factors; and that it is not enough to throw out a stack of controversial documents and then see what happens.

Afghanistan War Logs Leaked – at least 92.000 classified documents now online

The subversive homepage Wikileaks scored last night its biggest coup this far: The website’s organizers obtained at least 92.ooo classified, secret military documents on the war in Afghanistan and put them online. This flood of information draws a quite different picture of the conflict – and reveals the true nature of the war. The documents, covering the whole operation from its beginnings in 2004 until December 2009, include for instance facts and figures regarding civilian casualties caused by NATO troops and corroborate the assertion that the Pakistani as well as Iranian secret services are supporting insurgents, i.e. the Taliban. Wikileaks forwarded the material to the Guardian, The New York Times, and the German Spiegel. Thus, the growing influence of the Internet on traditional mass media seems to prove true once more; this very important example consolidates the WWW as a source of unique information for professionals in journalism – and challenges governmental hegemony on information control. However, the whole issue needs a critical examination as benefits and disadvantages have to be measured.

Update: Julian Assange of Wikileaks on the Afghanistan War Logs (Guardian/youtube)

To get all information, click the link above or here.

Furthermore, here’s an impression of the broad media response to the information leak – almost all major newspapers and broadcasters worldwide reacted instantly to the incident:

Guardian: “Massive leak of secret files exposes the real war in Afghanistan”

New York Time: “The War Logs – A six-year archive of classified military documents
offers an unvarnished and grim picture of the Afghan war”

Washington Post: “Leaked files lay bare war in Afghanistan”

The Times: “Afghanistan files leak lifts lid on realities of war”

BBC: “US condemns Wikileaks revelations”

Al-Jazeera:”US condemns leaked Afghan ‘secrets'”

Tagesschau: “75.000 Afghanistan-Geheimakten im Netz”

Spiegel: “Die Afghanistan-Protokolle”

Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Geheime Afghanistan-Protokolle offengelegt”

Le Monde: “Afghanistan: des rapports secrets explosifs publiés”

El Mundo: “La verdad sobre la Guerra de Afganistán, desvelada en una filtración histórica”

However, various important newspapers have not covered the story, yet – at least on their official homepages. Among those publications are for instance the German FAZ and TAZ, China Daily, Japan Times, Jerusalem Post.

Report on the Future of the Internet

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project conducted a survey among 895 technology stakeholders and critics on the future of the internet. Follow the link to find the report. Here is one of the interesting findings:

Google won’t make us stupid: 76% of these experts agreed with the statement, “By 2020, people’s use of the Internet has enhanced human intelligence; as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information they become smarter and make better choices. Nicholas Carr was wrong: Google does not make us stupid.”

The report represents the experts forecasts for the year 2020 on anonymity, knowledge, information and various other issues concerning the internet.

Report on Next Generation Connectivity

The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University has published its final report on “Next Generation Connectivity – A review of broadband Internet transitions and policy from around the world“. Follow the link to find the report in pdf-files. Read here the report description:

On July 14, 2009, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University would conduct an independent expert review of existing literature and studies about broadband deployment and usage throughout the world and that this project would help inform the FCC’s efforts in developing the National Broadband Plan. The Berkman Center’s Final Report was submitted to the FCC on February 16, 2010.” (Berkman Center 2010)

Judicial, economical, technological and sociological aspects are focused and examined. You can also watch an interview with Prof. Yochai Benkler, director of the Berkam Center, at JohotheBlog.

FCC Workshop on Innovation, Investment, and the Open Internet

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) organized on the 13th of  February a workshop on the topic “Innovation, Investment and the Open Internet”. The organizers put the focus on technological, economical and judicial aspects of the internet, especially on investment and job creation. The issues were approached from different perspectives, such as innovators and entrepreneurs, investors, network operators, equipment vendors, and experts in Internet innovation and investment.

You can find various pdfs concerning the topic and its subitems here on openinternet.gov .

There is also a three-hour-long video on youtube, watch it here:

It gives some interesting insights to what extent the world wide web transforms economical interrelations and work environments.