Breaking the language barrier?

Language Translation

CNN has an interesting video of a real time translation device designed for combat operations where troops (aka liberators) don’t understand the language of the native communities (aka the oppressed). While the language of violence is often deemed the only one terrorists understand, these devices spring from the need to be more “culturally sensitive” in long term peacekeeping, humanitarian and so-called stability operations.

Can they succeed? The video ends on a note of skepticism, but we need to see these devices as the first generation of devices and technologies, some of which I’ve covered earlier on this blog, that offer simultaneous cross-translation. As the technology improves, these products and services can only get better.

See also:
The military and the use of technology
Terrorists also use Google: So what?

ICT as a tool for Peacebuilding, Conflict Prevention and Crisis Management: Some pertinent questions

I was invited to attend a panel discussion on “ICT as a Tool for Peace, Conflict Prevention and Crisis Management” on 17 July 2007 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Participants of the panel were asked to respond to questions that pushed them to address the realities of using ICT in conflict prevention, mitigation and transformation. Time permitting, I hope to answer these in a far more comprehensive manner, but for now, some thought pointers to content on this blog that flesh out in detail some of the vital issues raised by these questions.

Do ICT have a special role in promoting peace and if so, how do you see the future of ICTs in conflict and crisis management, what will the priorities and challenges be in coming years? Can ICT be used in other ways, by other actors, to diffuse a situation leading to conflict, help end a conflict, or allow the stabilization of a post conflict situation?

ICT4Peace before ICT4D: Why it is important to look at ICT for peacebuilding and conflict resolution

Negotiating extremism – How to talk with terrorists…
Writing in pacifism to technology – An impossible vision?
What is ICT4Peace?
Academic research on ICT4Peace
Is technology neutral – Redux

How can we enable a greater degree of cohesion, transparency and accountability to processes of conflict transformation? Can ICT augment existing stakeholder interventions, enable marginalized actors to participate more fully in peacebuilding processes, empower grassroots communities, and bring cohesion to full-field peacebuilding activities?

Untying the Gordian Knot: ICT for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding
Thoughts on ICT, ODR and Peacebuilding
Discussions on International Applications of ODR and/or Use of Mobile Technology in Conflict Transformation
How can IT be used for pol. conflict transformation? (Cyberweek 2005 discussion)
Discussions on Information Technology and Disaster Relief and Mitigation – Cyberweek 2005
Discussions on on Information Technology and Disaster Relief and Mitigation – Cyberweek 2006
Humanitarian aid and peacebuilding

Establishing computers and internet connections is insufficient if the technology is not used effectively, if people are discouraged from using it or if local economies and patterns of access cannot sustain long term application. How do we make sure that a strong political will supports these transformations?

Desperate for a revolution
Humanitarian aid and peacebuilding
Discussions on International Applications of ODR and/or Use of Mobile Technology in Conflict Transformation
How can IT be used for pol. conflict transformation? (Cyberweek 2005 discussion)
Wikis, Webs and Networks: Creating Connections for Conflict-Prone Settings

One important application of technology is enabling communication and connection between people beyond their immediate environment. Modern communication technologies such as live satellite broadcasting, the Internet or video cameras have the potential to create empathy and understanding on a global scale. Depending on how technology is deployed, can enable or disable public expression and elaboration of contending interests and give voice to the differences of identity, experience, values and histories that inform conflicts. Does this open up new possibilities for an international public sphere of understanding and solidarity?

Citizens + Media: Amplifying voices for peace through citizen journalism
Citizen Journalism and Peacebuilding: Is there a connection?
Public Service Broadcasting – using technology for democracy
Terrorists also use Google: So what?

How do we integrate ICT in enhancing the competency and profesionalism of the international community in crisis management?

Interview with Information Technology and Crisis Management (ITCM) on ICT4Peace
Technology for humanitarian aid – 6 mantras
Diplomacy and blogs
Open Source Disaster Recovery: Case Studies of networked collaboration

How do we improve inter-agency interoperability and collaboration within the international community (UN system, EU/EC efforts, etc.) to harnessing ICT for peace-keeping, conflict prevention and crisis management?

Strong Angel III
Soldiers and State-Building
How much information should we share in peacebuilding and humanitarian operations?
SSTR – Observations and Recommendations from the Field
The military and the use of technology

How do we promote information-sharing in places of conflict and/or crises?

Building peace through ICT – Ideas for practical ICT4Peace projects
Looking back, moving forward – ICT4Peace in Sri Lanka
SSTR – Observations and Recommendations from the Field
Darfur through Google Earth: The reality of conflict through “Crisis in Darfur”
Darfur is Dying : Using games for political activism

Terrorists also use Google: So what?

The attacks against Estonia by the Russians would have constituted an act of aggression in military terms and even resulted in all out war were it conducted by conventional weapons. Estonia didn’t hear a single bomb. And yet, it suffered the brunt of Russian wrath as system after system, and website after website was downed in massive DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service Attacks) in May this year. And all this, over a statue. As an article in The Economist noted:


The alarm is sounding well beyond Estonia. NATO has been paying special attention. “If a member state’s communications centre is attacked with a missile, you call it an act of war. So what do you call it if the same installation is disabled with a cyber-attack?” asks a senior official in Brussels.

Earlier this month, four men were charged with conspiring to blow up jet fuel supply tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport. What is interesting here is that Abdul Kadir, one of the men accused of plotting to blow up fuel pipelines, fuel tanks, and buildings at John F. Kennedy International Airport, instructed his cohorts to use Google’s online mapping software to obtain more detailed images of the airport, court documents say.

The Sydney Morning Herald, in a blog post titled Terrorists also find Googe useful, stated that:


While I love Google’s mapping tools and would be disappointment if they were taken away, it concerns me that a would-be terrorist can more easily than ever access detailed satellite images of targets – anonymously and for free.

The knee jerk paranoia of the (somewhat obvious) realisation that the interweb can be used for terrorism resulted in posts such as this, which pointed to everything from websites to social networking as potential sites for fomenting terrorism. One of the comments in response to this post was from “Ipanema” who said that “Technology is marching on. It’s advancement, unstoppable. It’s how we use technology that makes it good or bad.”

In an article on this blog I explored whether technology is, or has to be, neutral for us to use it for progressive social transformation. In fact one can argue that the New Terrorism, as its called, can and will use commercially available technology – from airplanes to Google Earth – to plan terrorist attacks. This is a given, and should come as no surprise to those who study the evolution of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, in which the most developed societies founded upon technology are the most vulnerable to attack. Furthermore, there are those – such as Sen. Liberman recently – who make the case that examples such as the plot to blow up the JFK airport highlights the need for greater policing of the interweb.

In Understanding terrorism better through technology I explore how technology can help us respond to Manichean worldviews and actions by extremists – cognisant that the technologies that help us better understand and respond to terrorism may well be the very same that they use to terrorise us.

The SMH blog post in particular got a number of interesting responses. Anton for example said:

“Can Google maps be used to assist terrorist acts – sure! But terrorists also find paper maps useful, and planes, and automatic weapons, and even certain household chemicals. Strangely enough, no-one seems to be recommending getting rid of those so that the world isn’t so terrorist friendly.

If you think about it, virtually anything could be useful for terrorism.”

The general argument is that just because the terrorist use technology for their own parochial ends, it does not mean that the technology itself should be banned, or restricted to a wider population. We do not ban printing because the terrorists print their propaganda, and in Sri Lanka, we continue to consume State media in spite of the fact that they are obnoxious mouthpieces of any incumbent government (and in many occasions in the past, used to foment, exacerbate and otherwise promote State terrorism). The media, not the medium is the problem and as I’ve stated in the past, the best way to address the appropriation of the interweb by miscreants and terrorists is to use the same technology against them and in defense of the principles of liberty, equality and democracy.

See also:
Writing in pacifism to technology – An impossible vision?

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

RCTV: Broadcasting on YouTube in defiance of Chavez

After the Venezuelan government closed RCTV last Sunday, the station turned to YouTube to continue broadcasting news. As of this writing, the YouTube page for El Observador (the name of RCTV’s news program) had more than 9,000 subscribers and 333,0000 views — which made it YouTube’s most-subscribed video of the week.

As Putin in Russia, Chavez and even Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime in Sri Lanka demonstrate, censorship of the media is alive and kicking. Also alive is the spirit of democracy and with the increasing access to web based media (through PCs as well as mobiles), it’s becoming almost impossible to censor news and information deemed unpalatable for a few.

Also see:
The limits of online freedom and activism?
Defeating repressive regimes
Draft Paper on Mobile Phones and Activism

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Policing the internet

www.terror.net: How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet is a publication I often re-read to understand the evolving debates on policing the web and internet. The most recent high-profile statements in the US involve Senator Lieberman, who said that

“We cannot cede cyberspace to the Islamist terrorists because if we do, they will successfully carry out attacks against us in our normal environment”

Similar arguments have been made against the LTTE’s propaganda on the web and internet, and there was recently a call to ban all video clips on YouTube that were pro-LTTE by Glen Jenvey.

The blog post I read on Sen. Liberman’s comments went on to say:

Not to say that terrorism should be tolerated, but is the internet really the source of the problem? Isn’t this merely skirting the issue, and grasping at straws? Even if the Al-Qaida presence is shut down online, will that really end terrorism? At best, it slows them down temporarily. Is that worth the cost? If you start policing the internet for terrorists, why stop there? Why not take down any anti-American website? Why not take down any site that isn’t completely pro-America? Even if you shut down a terrorist site, it’s only a matter of time before it reappears. Perhaps we should be worrying about physical terrorism, instead of online terrorist conversations. If nothing else, these sites give us an insight into what the terrorists are thinking. These sites aren’t doing any harm, it’s the terrorists themselves that are the problem. Leave our blessed internet alone.

which echoes the conclusions of the USIP report, that avers:

While we must better defend our societies against cyberterrorism and Internet-savvy terrorists, we should also consider the costs of applying counterterrorism measures to the Internet. Such measures can hand authoritarian governments and agencies with little public accountability tools with which to violate privacy, curtail the free flow of information, and restrict freedom of expression, thus adding a heavy price in terms of diminished civil liberties to the high toll exacted by terrorism itself.

In Understanding terrorism better through technology I explore how technology can help us respond to Manichean worldviews and actions by extremists – cognisant that the technologies that help us better understand and respond to terrorism may well be the very same that they use to terrorise us.

See also:
Writing in pacifism to technology – An impossible vision?
Is technology neutral?

Beyond O’Reilly’s online civility dictum: Fostering healthy debate on the web and internet

The Kathy Sierra incident sparked a global debate on online civility that in turn resulted in the contentious proposal by Tim O’Reilly on a voluntary Code of Conduct for Bloggers. My first response to the proposed Code was to mirror those who said it was an overbearing effort to promote civility online, and accordingly, doomed to fail. In that first post, I noted my own travails with fostering progressive conversations online from a Sri Lankan perspective, from the erstwhile Moju to the present-day Groundviews and VOR Radio.

There was much that was wrong with the original proposal of O’Reilly and many bloggers took him to task for trying to dictate the terms of civility, to which he thoughtfully responded to in a post that acknowledged that he could have done better, but that the essential need to envision ways through which online communications could be made more civil and less vituperative was still valid.

The Statement on Respectful Online Communication was drafted by Colin Rule and accepted by participants at the Fifth International Forum on Online Dispute Resolution – Liverpool, England April 19-20, 2007. The statement was drafted to reflect the interest amongst participants, many of whom did not have any direct experience of being attacked online but had nevertheless read reports of the growing rate of online abuse, to draft a statement that they could all sign up to that avoided the prescriptive and normative pitfalls of O’Reilly’s proposal and could in turn foster progressive debate that explored how and why we could create healthy debate in fora such as blogs, websites and public discussion forums. The last paragraph of the statement is accordingly very important:

We embrace full and open communication and recognize the unique
opportunity for expression in the online environment. We support
freedom of speech and reject censorship. These principles are not
intended to address what ideas can be expressed, but rather the tone
with which communications take place.

Government’s around the world that have little regard for the freedom of expression, and I’ve noted in The limits of online freedom and activism are vaunt to use any code that tries to prescribe civility to their own ends to curtail the right of citizens to say what they want and express dissent to practices inimical to democracy, good governance, justice, the Rule of Law and peace. This must be avoided at all costs, and the Liverpool Statement’s rejection of censorship and emphasis on the tone of communication is fundamental to its understanding of civility in terms of delivery, not content.

Ultimately, it may be impossible to draw up a global standard for civility, respect or progressive communications. All of these are rooted in time, context and place and it is impossible to construct a code that applies, without significant adaptation and revision to fit a particular region or context, worldwide.

Or is it?

The basic premise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is that all human beings, irrespective of where they live and what conditions they live under, have the same fundamental and inviolable rights. Clearly, polite discourse, respect and civility may be expressed differently around the world, but universal standards do exist – such as active listening, engaging with the issues rather than abusive personal attacks, acknowledging the other’s right to say and think in the manner he / she does, and recognising that there is always more than one truth and that compromise is at the heart of all negotiations. All these influence the manner in which we communicate if we are interested in fostering progressive dialogue.

There’s another dimension to whatever code proposed to foment online civility – most of what I’ve read, including that which I drew up for Groundviews, is in English. As the latest State of the Blogosphere report by Technorati avers:


In terms of blog posts by language, Japanese retakes the top spot from
our last report, with 37% (up from 33%) of the posts followed closely
by English at 36% (down from 39%). Additionally there was movement in
the middle of the top 10 languages, highlighted by Italian overtaking
Spanish for the number four spot.

The newcomer to the top 10 languages is Farsi, just joining the
list at #10. It has been very interesting to watch the growth of the
blogging world in the middle east, especially in countries like Iran…

There are literally millions of users who primarily communicate in languages other than English, and it’s vital that what we propose as guidelines for respect and civility online are, like the UDHR, translated into other languages.

Finally, there’s a need to stimulate discussions in our blogs on what constitutes acceptable behaviour. For those of us who moderate contentious websites that deal with highly emotive issues in a violent context, it’s something we’ve grappled with for far longer than the recent attention of leading bloggers in the West. However, now that for better or for worse, attention is galvanised by Kathy Sierra’s sordid experience, it’s time we all stepped up to a serious and sustained global conversation to determine how we move forward as a global community of practitioners and theorists dedicated to conflict transformation and online dispute resolution to flesh out a foundation of communications that facilitates progressive debate, and eschews personal invective.

It’s no doubt a significant challenge, and one I trust the thought-leadership of those such as Colin Rule will inspire us to address.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , ,

Auteurs and amateurs: The debates on citizen journalism continue…

Steven Levy’s recent article in the Newsweek highlights the frictional nature of debates in favour of and opposed to citizen journalism. Levy flags an upcoming book by Andrew Keen titled The Cult of the Amateur as the latest voice against the participatory media trends and social networking that have resulted from the growth of blogs and new media.

I find it interesting how a lot of discussions on citizen journalism are informed by what is possible (or not) from a US perspective. What is more disturbing is that authors both for and against citizen journalism rarely take into account developments outside the US (and the oft quoted examples of Europe and South Korea) that have resulted in mobiles, blogs and new media in general being used to create alternative voices that critique the sickening bias and partiality in mainstream media.

Clearly, this new journalism has its problems – an inherent parochialism being one of them. The subjective, partial and provincial nature of citizen journalism, if we recognise it for what it is, isn’t necessarily proof that it is useless. As I’ve argued earlier, it’s precisely these individual viewpoints of citizens that the mainstream media, controlled often by interests that have their own parochial agenda, seek to marginalise and over time, erase. Standards matter – and the same standards that we ask for and seek, but rarely find in mainstream media, need to be instilled in citizen journalism that aims to be a cut above the dross that often colours individual blogs. However, the visceral and unpolished nature of citizen journalism is to me what gives it an edge over that which we generally see, hear and read in mainstream media – in stories that are raw and unsanitised by the cynicism, partisan bias or sheer boredom of journalists and Editors who have for too long controlled what we should consume, and how.

To this end, it is necessary that we engage not just with citizen journalism as it is evolving in the US and more developed nations, but also how through mobiles, the growing availability and use of wireless internet and the increasing availability of PCs either through personal ownership or through cybercafes, citizens have access to platforms and media through which even if they are illiterate, they can share their stories.

I’ve noted in an earlier post that it only takes one story – a single photo, a single podcast, a single mobile phone video – to change a regime and hold those responsible for abuses of human rights, and corruption, accountable. Initiatives such as Witness have shown us the way. This is citizen journalism in support of conflict transformation, good governance and democracy – a far cry from the essentially communitarian notion of citizen journalism prevelent in the US that is more about strengthening local voices. Citizen journalism in failing states, or in those that exercise repression, is also about securing and strengthening local voices, but is also about a restoration of civil order, the Rule of Law and democracy.

This nuanced and global perspective is that which I find lacking in much of the online discussion I read on citizen media. Clearly, both sides have much to offer to the debate, and a naiveté of citizen journalism can get one into serious trouble (I should know). There are also significant challenges to online civility brought about by the millions of new creators and consumers of new media content, as those such as Andrew Keen are also quick to point out.

However, the manner in he and others like Amanda Chapel (who strikes me as a woman tragically blinkered by her own genius) and Loren Feldman (who desperately needs to learn that the repetitive use of the f-word is no substitute for essentially vacuous commentary) flag the shortcomings of citizen journalism glaringly ignore the potential of new media, and citizens who find expression through new media, to change the dynamics of polity and society in countries such as Sri Lanka where as Nalaka Gunawardene pointed out in this blog, traditional mainstream media is mainly located in and published through just two urban locations, necessarily marginalising the aspirations, ideas and voices of those resident elsewhere in the country.

Amanda Chapel however does raise a fundamental point – what is the economic basis of citizen journalism?

You cannot have an economic system where half of it is not economic. You can’t have a boat with holes in it! You can’t have a store where you charge at the front door and customers take whatever they want out the backdoor for free. In short order, there will be NO paying customers. And without paying customers, you can’t make anything to sell or give away.

Amanda is surprisingly oblivious to the spirit of the Free and Open Source software development community, the viability of products and services created through open source software development processes, or indeed, the spirit of volunteerism in general.

That said, if citizen journalism initiatives are to scale up and become sustainable over the long-term, there exists a need to create multiple revenue streams, not just from advertising or donor funding. I believe there is an eventual market for the monetisation of citizen journalism content that based on say the ground-rules of content creation I’ve tried to foment in Groundviews, provided that mainstream media is willing to pay for and publish this content, advertisers are convinced that content is read by those with purchasing power for the products and services they seek to advertise and ordinary citizens themselves (based on through models of subscription that operate of scale rather than high-entry costs) see the benefits of subscribing to content that is geared to their interest and have a mix of local, national and global news, analysis and information. The last point would require, especially in countries like Sri Lanka, citizen journalism also engages with the mainstream media in order to tap into their distribution networks and broadcast footprints, which in turn requires a multi-media approach that isn’t solely based on accessing content online.

This is an evolving debate, and through praxis (particularly in the Global South) and the thrust and parry of wit online, I look forward to an evolving understanding of how new media & new technology can support the basic democratic aspirations of all communities and peoples, irrespective of where they live, or who they vote for.

Addition: Just came across Principles of Citizen Journalism, launched recently, which I think is essential reading for anyone interested in the topic.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,