Digital Diplomacy and the American Advantge

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Heartiest congrats to Nicco & family on their new baby 🙂

While Nicco was attending to his paternal duties, we had the opportunity to hear from Alec Ross, Senior Adviser for Innovation at the State Department.

Wikipedia describes Ross as Secretary Clinton’s tech guru who is “leading the State Department’s efforts to find practical technology solutions for some of the globe’s most vexing problems on health care, poverty, human rights and ethnic conflict.”  (That, admittedly, is a fuzzy job description, but this NYT article by Jesse Lichtenstein titled Digital Diplomacy sheds a lot more  light on what Ross does).

Ross shared a cogent description of the world as he saw it.  Changing demographics – viz. the youth bulge and growing Diaspora – and the end of the Cold War signaled the need to shift from closed – economies, societies and governments – to open ones.  He shared some examples of his work with State (many already mentioned in Lichtenstein’s article) as well as an interesting anecdote  also how a app-development contest in Africa revealed needs that State department officials would never come up with on their own.  (The winner was an application that enabled farmers to track menstruation cycles of their cows for breeding purposes).

But what is digital diplomacy, really?  Diplomacy is defined as the conduct by government officials of negotiations and other relations between nations.  Is digital diplomacy just the same thing but using Nintendo Wii instead of golf clubs?

Apparently not.  Examples of what Secretary Clinton calls “21st century statecraft” include: the State Department’s role in helping to raise more than $40 million for the Red Cross via a text messaging drive in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Secretary Clinton’s Jan 2010 speech on Internet Freedom following Google’s brouhaha in China.

Most notable, and perhaps controversial, was the email from Jared Cohen (then working with Ross in the State Department) to Twitter’s co-founder/chairman Jack Dorsey asking the latter to postpone the site’s scheduled maintenance during post-election protests in Iran in June 2009 (later dubbed the “Twitter Revolution”).

Dorsey obliged, sparking debate as to whether Cohen’s move to keep Twitter running contradicted the US stated policy of nonintervention in the Iranian election.  In her article, Lichtenstein quotes Ross as saying “There’s no casework. There’s no legal statecraft precedent for such things.”

Perhaps not.  But broadly speaking, the sine qua non of diplomacy is to secure ones national interests. (For some countries, the specific goal of diplomacy is the avoidance of war, but this probably does not apply to the US today).

In the context of digital diplomacy, the fact is that US State Department — with its growing fraternal links to Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter — enjoys a significant advantage.  In 2009, Twitter was asked to reschedule its maintenance, hoping to facilitate a revolution in Iran.  Could Google be similarly persuaded to modify its search engine optimization algorithms, or Yahoo! convinced to reveal emails sent by a diplomat in a developing country?

In her Internet Freedom speech, Secretary Clinton recognizes that it will not be easy for the State Department to realign its policies and priorities.  But this will have to be done … and quickly.  Because such attempts to leverage on its digital advantage will almost certainly be viewed as selling out on the values — of freedom, equality, human rights — which the US  espouses.


The Big Bad (Filter) Bubble. Really?

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Had the opportunity to listen to Eli Pariser speak at the Shorenstein Center this week, where he gave an updated/small room version of this talk he presented at the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum on the “Filter Bubble.”  (Pariser is a charismatic speaker who does really nifty Powerpoint slides, but if you don’t have 15 minutes to listen to the whole talk, Ethan Zuckerman has written an excellent summary).

Pariser is a political activist who rose to prominence when an online petition that he launched, calling for a nonmilitary response to the 9/11 attacks, attracted half-a-million signatures in less than a month.  As former Executive Director – and now Board President – of, Pariser knows a thing or two about mobilizing people and (perhaps more importantly) raising money over the Internet.

Beware the Bubble

In a nutshell (in case you have not read Zuckerman’s summary either!) Pariser’s concept of the filter bubble is about how each Internet user is now presented with customized content.  If two individuals used the same search term, Google would give different results.  Facebook apparently gives you newsfeeds from friends who share your views.  (It seems to me that I get all my friends in my Facebook newsfeed, which probably means that I don’t have enough friends for the algorithm to kick in!)

Pariser’s concern is that customization is bad for citizenship, because public conversation would end if each of us only sees data that conforms to what or who we are.  He admits that filters are needed, because the information created since the beginning of human history through to 2003 (five Exabyte’s worth, apparently) is now produced every 3 days.  Media professionals have traditionally served as gatekeepers, deciding what the public sees.  While they may have had biases, they were expected to behave ethically.

Pariser shared that engineers at Google had not considered the issue of ethics, because they are convinced that their algorithms are “neutral.”  He argues, however, that code is not neutral but is inherently political.

Code can be neutral

I am with the Google engineers on this one.  For two reasons:

First, filters have always existed.  Our parents decide what to feed us and teach us.  Our friends may decide to withhold bad news.  Our governments have a whole bunch of secrets we will never know about.  (Like who really killed JFK?).  IMHO, one key filter is language.  Simply put, if a message not in Chinese and Spanish, you would have alienated the world’s two largest audiences.  Google’s translation software has in fact done more than most to break down this filter.

[And just to make my point, here is this same line in Chinese and Spanish, courtesy of Google Translate:


el software de traducción de Google, de hecho, hecho más que la mayoría de romper este filtro.]

Second, if we define neutrality as the absence of bias, we can probably agree  (assuming no deliberate shenanigans at Google and Facebook) that code is neutral.  After all, it points some people one way, and others another way.  The code simply tries to help you prioritize – out of the 5 Exabytes – the pieces of data you may wish to see (first).

The real issue

Which brings me to what I think is Pariser’s core point – that balanced views are needed for good citizenship.  Pariser himself is trying to seek out people who have different views from his own.  While that is admirable, one could also argue that it stems from his professional interest as a political activist.  I think, however, that there are many, many more of us who would prefer to remain in our comfort zones.

To use an analogy, a record producer would listen to various genres and different acts.  He/she might personally prefer jazz, but would listen to Britney Spears and Lady Gaga because of the need to keep up with the trends in the business.  The individual jazz listener, however, may have never listened to Lady Gaga (nor wish to).

Ultimately, it is not a bad citizen who does not seek out divergent views; it is a typical citizen.

Pariser suggests that Facebook could add a slider to let us see stuff that’s more (or less) homogenous.  I think that’s fine.  Facebook has lots of stuff I don’t use anyway.

A Wiki on Whacking


Wikipedia is perhaps the grandest and most ambitious example of intellectual collaboration – online or off – to date.  Our assignment this week is to become part of this revolution by editing a wiki.

I have previously made minor edits on Wikipedia anonymously, but as of last week, I am officially a Wikipedian! My username is AyamGoreng!

The wiki I plan to edit is [Caning in Singapore].  While the current article is fairly comprehensive, I think that the summary and section on judicial caning could be improved to provide a clearer, more objective and detailed picture of the topic.

The issue of judicial caning is one of those subjects that border on the “clash of civilizations” debate i.e. Asian values (the good of the general community) vs Western liberalism (the rights of the individual) i.e. the tyranny of the majority (of law-abiding citizens) over the individual (criminal who is being caned).  There are online articles denouncing caning as archaic and barbaric; many consider this practice as a human rights violation and call for its abolition.

[Note: My personal view is that judicial caning as practiced in Singapore is not an issue of human rights.  It is done in the presence of a doctor, whose role is to ensure there are no permanent injuries.  The question is simply whether it serves as an effective means of rehabilitation and deterrence.  But I will save this debate for a later post.]

At the same time, there is clearly some support for judicial caning.  When 18-year-old American Michael Fay was sentenced to jail and caning in Singapore following his conviction on vandalism charges in 1993, there were polls in the US that actually showed a majority of Americans supporting Fay’s punishment.

The Caning in Singapore wiki is largely factual and objective, but it could benefit from references to the Singapore Parliamentary debates, as well as press releases from Singapore’s Home Affairs ministry (which oversees law and order issues).  It is possible that earlier contributors have chosen to dismiss/avoid these official sources as national propaganda, but it should be noted that several other sources cited – like Amnesty International and the UN High Commission on Human Rights – likewise have their own agenda.

The fact is that while the government may have its bias (e.g. to downplay accusations of human rights violations), it cannot afford to publish untruths as its credibility would be at stake.  As such, parliamentary debates and government press releases/speeches provide a rich trove of data that should not be summarily excluded.  I would use the following publicly-accessible sources to add to the wiki:

Separately, while the article generally adheres to Wikipedia’s MOS, I also have some ideas on how readability could be improved.  I think the Wiki could also do with a few pictures.  I found a picture titled “Judicial caning in Singapore” here but am not certain if it is indeed a bona fide picture or if there are copyright issues involved.

I propose to rewrite the summary as follows:

Original (as of 12 Oct 2010):

Caning is a widely used form of legal corporal punishment in Singapore. It can be sub-divided into several contexts – domestic/private, school, reform school, military and judicial.

Of these, judicial caning, for which Singapore is best known, is the most severe. It is reserved for male criminals aged under 50, for at least 30 different offences under the Criminal Procedure Code. Caning is a legal form of punishment for delinquent male members of the military (Singapore Armed Forces — SAF) and this is administered in the SAF Detention Barracks. Caning is also an official punishment in reform schools and as a prison disciplinary measure. In a milder form, caning is used to punish male youths in many Singaporean schools for serious misbehaviour.

A much smaller cane or other implement is also used by some parents as punishment for their children of either sex. This is not outlawed in Singapore.


In the context of Singapore’s law and order, caning usually refers to the strokes of a rotan whip that male criminals between 18 and 50 may receive in addition to prison sentences.  Under the Criminal Procedure Code, the courts may impose caning for at least 30 different offenses; in fact, for several offences – including murder, rape, robbery and drug trafficking – caning is a mandatory part of the punishment.  Younger offenders (between 16 and 18) would receive a milder version of the punishment.

Variations of corporal punishment also used as a punishment for serious misbehavior or delinquency in the prisons and military, as well as a disciplinary measure in schools and other schools.  In private, some parents use a much lighter cane to discipline their young children; this is not illegal in Singapore.

The Cathedral, the Bazaar and the new Web


Read two interesting essays recently.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond is a philosophical essay where technical jargon – like the moats surrounding a medieval castle – deter non-nerds from daring to enter.  Which is a huge pity, because its observations apply not only to software development, but are also salient in fields such as business management and public policy, (where, presumably, non-nerds are abundant).

The title of the essay is in itself an instructive metaphor.  “Cathedrals” are built according to a strict blueprint that only an elite few have access to; “Bazaars” on the other hand, grow organically, as each new merchant opens a stall to sell his wares.

Raymond likens traditional software companies to Cathedrals, where access to the source code is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers; the bazaar is analogous to open-source software, where the source code is developed in public view.

The essay basically outlines 19 guidelines for creating good open source software, and this is where some truths which transcend technology serendipitously appears.  Number 11 is my favorite: “The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users. Sometimes the latter is better.”  Just replace “users” with customers/stakeholders/public where applicable.

To social science and liberal arts majors, Tim O’Reilly’s What is Web 2.0 provides a seminal reading into how the Internet has developed in the past 15 years, and what it means.  O’Reilly lists Wikipedia, blogging, open source software, peer-to-peer file-sharing (Napster) as the signposts which herald Web 2.0. This was written in 2005 – which is probably the Internet equivalent of the Middle Ages; written today, he would most certainly have mentioned social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Much ado about “Web 2.0”

According to Wikipedia, the term was coined by Darcy DiNucci, a consultant on information architecture, in her 1999 article “Fragmented Future”; the term rose in popularity in 2004, when O’Reilly Media and MediaLive hosted the first Web 2.0 conference, where Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle outlined their definition of the “Web as Platform.” World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, however, has apparently called the term a “piece of jargon,” noting that the Web in his vision was all along intended as a collaborative medium.

Notwithstanding, O’Reilly continues to evangelize “Web 2.0”; his essay is available online in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish (as well as English).

A Theory of Evolution

There is no question that the web is rapidly evolving, and that it is doing so in a fashion which is probably better described as being bazaar-like.  At the same time, corporate behemoths like Microsoft and (now) Google, which are more like Cathedrals, continue to dominate the scene at any time.

At first glance, the two seem to be in conflict.  For example, would the success of open source software mean the end for Microsoft?

In reality, however, I think that Cathedrals and Bazaars actually complement each other.  Once, at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, I noticed that many stall holders would shutter their stalls during prayer times and head for the grand Hagia Sofia which sits down the road.  Likewise, programmers at large software companies may in their spare time, help build Linux in open source collaboration; at the same time, those who dabble in open source development are getting the know-how they need to land that lucrative job at Microsoft.  It may thus well be there the new Web will accommodate both Cathedrals and Bazaars.

Singapore Politics in the Digital Age


Noticed that Here Comes Everybody includes a brief mention of Singapore in pgs 209/210.

“Many countries place restrictions on the media in the run-up to elections, but this raises the question of who “the media”is today and what controls should be put on them. Different countries are coming up with different answers — Singapore banned blogging during the last few weeks before a 2005 election but couldn’t control Singaporeans blogging overseas …”

First, a couple of clarifications.  The said events actually took place in April 2006, and the ban was actually against podcasting of political content.

Singapore has Election Advertising Regulations which allow only political parties, candidates and election agents to advertise. The prohibition announcement was the government’s (somewhat less than adroit) attempt to ensure that netizens conform to this regulation.

Blogging on politics per se was not prohibited, although the government did announce that individual bloggers “have to register with the Media Development Agency if they persistently promote political views.”  The government’s view was that individuals should not hide behind the anonymity of the internet to manipulate public opinion.  Such a move, of course, led to vociferous responses from the local blogging community.

And from my own observations, Singaporeans bloggers, at home and abroad (who knows, really?), continued to post regularly on the campaigning. (For more details, see the news article appended below)

Clarifications notwithstanding, I agree with Shirky on how the freedoms which the digital age brings can damage current social bargains (described as the second kind of loss under Solving Social Dilemmas). For Singapore politics, this is a particularly relevant point.

You see, the press in Singapore is not seen as a watchdog, but more as a nation building tool. The dominant media companies are government-linked corporations, and consequently, local journalists observe out-of-bound markers in their reporting.

All fine and good, but as Shirky points out, the Internet (and blogosphere in particular) has blurred the definition of what a journalist is.

The government believes that citizens are entitled to their views, but must be prepared to defend them.  On the other hand, local netizens are aware that government leaders have taken some opposition politicians and (foreign) journalists to court for libel/slander, and some remain behind the cloak of anonymity that the medium allows.

The next general election in Singapore will have to be held in the next 18 months. What will be rules of engagement be this time? I am not sure. The one thing that is clear is that with new media like Facebook and Twitter, the rules may have to be updated with every election.

Just listened to Ariana Huffington (of the Huffington Post) at the Shorenstein Center today (14Sep). She highlighted the importance of trust in new media and shared how the Huffington Post had pre-moderated all its comments despite having meagre resources in its early days so as to ensure civil discourse.

The issue of trust is in fact central to online political debate in Singapore.  The government believes that political commentary should not be anonymous, but some bloggers continue to hide behind pseudonyms.  This said, there are many Singapore bloggers who put their names (and faces) behind their words, and in fact, there are already contenders for Singapore’s version of the Post, such as The Online Citizen.

The issue, it seems, is whether trust can exist alongside anonymity in the political blogosphere.


Podcasting is not allowed during elections
By Hasnita A Majid, Channel NewsAsia
03 April 2006 1806hrs (GMT +8hrs)

Podcasting will not be allowed during elections as it does not fall under the “positive list” which states what is allowed under election advertising.

Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts Balaji Sadasivan added that streaming of videos during campaigning would also be prohibited.

He was addressing a question in Parliament on Monday about the use of new technologies on the internet during hustings.

Pictures of candidates, party histories and manifestos are on the “positive list” and are allowed to be used as election advertising on the internet.

Newer internet tools like podcasting do not fall within this “positive list”.

Dr Balaji said: “There are also some well-known local blogs run by private individuals who have ventured into podcasting. The content of some of these podcasts can be quite entertaining. However, the streaming of explicit political content by individuals during the election period is prohibited under the Election Advertising Regulations. A similar prohibition would apply to the videocasting or video streaming of explicitly political content.”

The Parliamentary Election Act was amended in 2001 to allow political parties to advertise on the internet.

This was to ensure responsible use of the internet during campaigning as the free-for all environment of the internet is open to abuse.

Dr Balaji added that individual bloggers can discuss politics, but have to register with the Media Development Agency if they persistently promote political views.

When registered, they’re then not allowed to advertise during elections – something only political parties, candidates and election agents are allowed to do only.

Despite new internet technology, there’re no plans to change the law on campaigning on line during an election.

The government’s view is that people can have diverse views, but should not hide behind the anonymity of the internet, to manipulate public opinion.

Everything’s changed

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Signed up for DPI-659.  As required, I read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Went through Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail and the first part of Groundswell.

I should be getting a sense of deja vu.  Been there, done that.

After all, once upon a time, I too was a computer geek.  Well, kind of.  Built my own 486 during my undergrad days. My 96k external modem tapped (against hostel regulations) into a shared incoming telephone line to connect to the local ISP.

My undergraduate thesis (circa 1997) was on the (then nascent) Internet advertising industry.

In the late 90s, I worked briefly at a web consultancy, where we helped brick and mortar businesses to create their online presence.  In most cases, these were static, information-only pages that simply proclaimed “Hey, we have a website too!”  (Most of our clients were not ready to go into e-commerce in a big way; setup costs were high and the online population in Southeast Asia was relatively small.  Contrary to the Long Tail, it was a small number of clients and angel investors who were keeping us fed.)

When my son was born (in 2001), I even had a website to post his baby photos, lovingly assembled in HTML.

So this new media/digital age stuff ought to be familiar.  Except that it isn’t.

In the past few years, my work as a bureaucrat pretty much only required me to use email and Microsoft Word.  Pre-assembled laptops became cheaper than DIY bespokes.  So it has been some time since I’ve seen the inside of a computer, wrote a line of code, or given any thought to the Internet (except for figuring out which ISP gives me the best deal).

The Radical Transformation (from my perspective)

And now, everything’s changed.

With Facebook, publishing on the web is just a step from having an email account. Mobile computing has increased the time the online population remains online. And now, even my mom’s buying stuff online in between her mahjong sessions.

Shirky, Anderson and Li & Bernoff (along with others) rightly herald these changes as a paradigm shift.  In class, Nicco described several radical transformations.

For someone who has been in a state of virtual hibernation over the past 8 years, the difference — in a nutshell — is this: it used to be two distinct worlds — the real world and the virtual world (like Second Life).  These days, however, it is hard to see where one ends and the other begins.

Same but Different in Singapore

It is not clear if the trends discussed in class are entirely applicable to Singapore (where I come from).  The quoted figures on online/mobile penetration/activity are usually US- and Europe-centric.  Singapore is probably not too far behind the adoption curve (if the queues for iPhones and iPads are anything to go by).

So in a way, what happens here or in Europe is often a foretaste of what will generally happen in Singapore some time later. This applies not just to the adoption of new technologies but also social networking trends.  Shirky’s book mentions several examples of the flash mob since 2003.  In Singapore in July 2006, about 30 people turned up at a central subway station dressed in brown in silent support for Singaporean blogger who goes by the moniker of Mr Brown, whose weekly newspaper column had been suspended after the government criticized his satire on high living costs.

Methinks, however, that the impact of the digital age on politics will be different in Singapore.  Our political system diverges from the US in many ways; for example, our political parties to not raise funds from voters in the same way that US presidential campaigns do.  Nonetheless, I believe that the online revolution will change Singapore political landscape.  More on this later.