Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Could Jordan follow Egypt? Cables released by the Norwegian daily Aftenposten sheds light on US views

Could Jordan follow Egypt and Tunisisa? This question is likely asked in Washington at the moment. Protests are ongoing in the country and although the King remains popular there, there is serious unrest in the country and this unrest appears to rest on the view that political reforms are demanded, but never delivered.

According to Norwegian daily Aftenposten's recently leaked WikiLeaks cables, the US' view of King Abdullah is that he is largely withdrawn from politics and that he does not involve himself in reform efforts. In one of the cables released today (dated October 8, 2009), Ambassador R. Stephen Beecroft writes that...

Jordan´s politicians are looking intently to the King for direction, eagerly (and in some cases nervously) anticipating a royal ruling on the future of reform. They have received almost nothing. The King has been largely absent from the political scene as of late and sphinxlike in his increasingly rare public appearances. Beyond the usual business of meeting tribal leaders, greeting foreign dignitaries, and cutting ribbons, the King has said nothing to indicate his leanings on the future of the government, parliament, or reform efforts.

This view is likely to find support in Amman and other cities of Jordan. King Abdullah has called for reforms multiple times in the past, but has yet to actively deliver.

All of Aftenposten's cables related to Jordan can be read on the right side of this website.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Confidential US governmental information: Putin "cheats" in elections

I have previously looked at a few stories that highlight the trend that the US government is simply too fond of stamping information confidential. Another striking example of this emerged yesterday, and did not even concern the US the slightest bit. No, it in fact concerned Russia and the tendency that Russian governments cheat. This is hardly unknown to anyone,

The document, titled 07MOSCOW5598, concerns the 2007 Duma election in Russia. In the cable, the US Ambassador to the country argues that "three-fourths of the national television coverage and over half of the national print media coverage has gone to United Russia and Putin," and that this is caused by "Kremlin influence and media self-censorship."

Everything else the cable contains is simply references to research done by Russian polling agencies and references to comments on the situation made by other Russians. These names remain uncensored in the leaked WikiLeaks cable, which should indicate that whatever media station redacted it, did not view it as particularly threatening to that individual.

Since the information in this cable is so trivial, the only reason it was classified must have been that the US was afraid that publishing it would lead to increased difficulties in cooperating with the Russians. Looking at the wording of the cable, however, it is quite apparent that the cable hardly would be interpreted as anything serious, since the Russians unquestionably would have known that the US knew everything in the cable, and since the two countries do occasionally use strong words to describe the other.

This is not the only example of the absurd practice of stamping cables that contain what amount to reasonably trivial information.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Mike Huckabee: The Egypt protests threaten the... whole world!

Mike Huckabee recently commented on the recent Egypt protests. Here is what he had to say:

"[T]he events of the past few days in Egypt have created a very tenuous situation, not just for Egypt, not just for the Middle East, but for the entire world, and the destabilization of that nation has the potential of cascading across the globe."

It seems as if Huckabee is here arguing that the ongoing protests in Egypt is a bad idea. It is quite remarkable that Mike Huckabee seems to oppose these protest, but it is hardly remarkable since a number of other American politicians have made similar statements in the past few days.

I am a political scientist, but I cannot claim that this field is one where I hold any form of vast expertise in. That means that whenever someone makes an argument on the issue, I try very hard to understand their argument to see if they may actually have a point.

On this issue, I cannot say that I do -- for a number of reasons:

1) If a pro-democracy movement would actually spread across the world, that cannot be a bad thing at all. What does Huckabee fear? That the Chinese folks will finally stand up to their regime? That the Saudis will grow tired of their monarchy? Or that the Iranians would pick up their gloves and start protesting again? Can someone please explain to me real slowly why this is bad?

2) Even if this would spread, it seems overly dramatic to suggest that these protests could be "cascading across the globe". What does Huckabee think? That the people of France or the Canada may suddenly roam the streets to protest the leadership in their country? No, this will not even spread to Zimbabwe or Burma. It can spread to some countries across the region, but once more, is it a bad thing that people in Yemen may get to abort the corrupt regime there?

The easiest explanation for this claim is that Huckabee is afraid that a new regime may become more hostile to Israel. This is easily also true. In a poll made in 2006, 92 percent of Egyptians declared that they saw Israel as an enemy. Huckabee and other American politicians are thus worried that this would lead to greater threats to Israel. They thus prefer a dictatorship that is friendly with Israel rather than one that is democratically elected since such a regime most likely would become more opposed to Israel.

At least we know that Huckabee isn't necessarily all that positive to democratization.

Julian Assange "targets" Joe Biden and Sarah Palin

Julian Assange recently spoke to 60 minutes about the ongoing WikiLeaks-saga. In the interview, he spoke about the ongoing attempt to extradite him to the United States, and comments made about him by prominent American political figures.

Assange called the effort to extradite him to the United States “completely outrageous” and attacked both the US Vice President Joseph Biden and his contender in the last presidential election, Sarah Palin, for making what he referred to as "threats".

Biden recently called Assange a “high-tech terrorist” while Sarah Palin called for Assange to be "pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders."

“There’s calls either for my assassination or the assassination of my staff or for us to be kidnapped and renditioned back to the United States to be executed,” Assange said in the interview.

Assange said he “would like to believe” that Biden, Palin and others have simply exercised their First Amendment rights by strongly condemning WikiLeaks, he does feel endangered by what’s been said about him in the public arena. “The incitements to murder are a serious issue,” he said. “And unfortunately, there is a portion of the population that will believe in them and may carry them out.”

Assange clearly has a point here. That prominent politicians are repeatedly comparing Assange with terrorists is absurd and it can only lead towards inappropriate responses. The word "terrorism" is usually associated with people who agitate violence in some form, something Assange has never done. What Assange openly does is to promote transparency. Promoting transparency through publishing leaked documents is completely legal. The right to do it is guaranteed by the American constitution and it cannot be retracted by any political decision.

It could be that Assange's strategy used to promote transparency may be poor. If so, people has the right to respectfully disagree with it. It is difficult not to recognize that Assange has a point, however. Among the documents revealed by WikiLeaks, one made the striking revelation that the US and Canada are close allies. The mere knowledge that such a cable is kept confidential should underline to people that much that should never be confidential, is in fact kept confidential.

What politicians should be concerned with is what the over-willingness to stamp documents means for people's ability to make a decision on election day. Some of the information WikiLeaks has made available is information that clearly could have affected people's willingness to vote for a given candidate. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, that had the different information that has been revealed about the Bush administration's practices not been unknown to voters during Buh's re-election campaign, he might simply have been re-elected at all. Ensuring that people have access to this information is therefore completely necessary if voters are to be able to make a judgment on who to vote for.

Twitter declares, 'The tweets must flow'

Of all the major, new social media companies, Twitter seems like the one that is the primary defender of the need for freedom of speech and freedom of communication. In a recent manifesto published on the website's blog, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and the company's General Counsel Alexander Macgillivray highlighted this, by calling for the need for free expression and transparency.

Social network tools have proven to be effective threats against dictators around the world. Twitter recognizes that services like Twitter only serve as "the tools that foster these discussions," but that hardly makes them less necessary in todays world. In the manifesto, Twitter argues that the "open exchange of information can have a positive global impact", something that we may have seen evidence of recently in Tunisia and Egypt.

The regime in Egypt has recently attempted to block internet traffic in Egypt now (as the image below shows). This means that accessing information is very difficult for people in the country. What a regime cannot do, however, is to block information that has already spread. Twitter's ability to partake in these developments may thus have been quite important to spread the recent protests.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll on WikiLeaks

60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll Finds Americans Don’t Like WikiLeaks, If They Know What It Is

A new poll by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair finds that few Americans like WikiLeaks. Only 9 percent view it as a good thing, while 22 percent view it as a treasonous website. 23 percent see the website as destructive, but still legal.

The most surprising thing is perhaps that a whopping 42 percent of Americans don't know what WikiLeaks is.

I have a serious problem with this poll. Tons of research has shown just how easily affected people are when they are asked to respond to a question by a polling agency. Reseach by John Zaller, for example, has argued that what we answer in polls is often the result of the last tidbit of information we receive to sway our views in a given way. When 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair thus decides that they are to include two potential negative responses and only one positive, they may therefore be affecting the result of the poll. The two negative responses may simply reinforce one another and lead towards people picking that answer. This effect may be added to by the fact that the positive answer is relatively "neutral" whereas the negative ones are highly negative.

This is a small issue, but looking at polls over the last month, the same seems to be happening over and over again. There is one positive answer and then there's two negative ones.

Why can't these polling organizations not just ask people what they think of WikLeaks and give them the alternatives "a good thing" and "a bad thing"? That would ensure a scientifically easier data to interpret. Only the headlines would get worse...

Google rejects censorship of WikiLeaks in China

In a recent interview with BBC, Eric Schmidt, Google’s outgoing chief executive, recently declared that the search giant will deny Chinese attempts to censor WikiLeaks documents.

This is relatively encouraging given other recent developments with Google, but it could prove to become a block to the company's business opportunities in the country. Twitter is blocked in China and on the Chinese equivalents of Twitter, and, a query with the word "Egypt" returned the response: "According to the laws in force, the results of your search cannot be given."

Google: Quick searches censored

Google has recently introduced its much touted "autocomplete" and "instant search" functions, but with their introduction, it has become apparent that these functions do not complete terms relating to online piracy. Terms like "BitTorrent" and "Vodo" will therefore not show up automatically in your search bar.

This is in no way a major censorship issue, and Google's likely argument that it cannot promote illegal content since it is illegal, certainly holds some merits. It is, however, noteworthy that not every website that uses the torrent technology is actually illegal. There are websites, for example, that provides legal music and legal movies solely. raises an interesting question about Google's willingness to censor information:

"Even if we were to pretend that all torrent downloads were illegal, Google's blocking has raised some interesting questions about its relationship with potentially criminal activities. Last I checked, making an explosive is a pretty serious crime; but when we type 'how to make a bomb' in the search bar, Google suggests 'out of household items' to complete the phrase. Write 'where to buy drugs' and 'where to buy crack in D.C.' is the instant result. Enter 'how to kill a person' and 'and get away with it' is what Google recommends. Gosh, it's really swell of Google to do its part to shut down all of the menacing downloading out there! I'm all for the freedom of potentially scandalous, even illegal information, but shouldn't it be consistent? Autocomplete has even blocked the phrase 'Google and crime.'

Or what about autocomplete's questionable assistance with what may be legal, but still offensive terms? Type in 'Asians have' and autocomplete is right there with 'no souls.' Try 'Jews have' instead and 'horns' is the result that the search giant recommends. Enter 'Black people are' and Google spits out 'lazy.' And why do we get help with 'sexual predators' but not 'sexual positions'? There are no obvious answers."

The reality here is that Google's decisions are probably affected by industry pressure. It is understandable that the company does not want to end up having to fight these companies in law suits, and that they thus back off. Still, the argument that Google is a company that should actually be able to take the fight, is a compelling one.

Egypt censors Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera on Sunday denounced the shutdown of its operations in Egypt by the Cairo authorities. "Al Jazeera sees this as an act designed to stifle and repress the freedom of reporting by the network and its journalists," the Qatar-based satellite channel said in a statement.

Al Jazeera said: "In this time of deep turmoil and unrest in Egyptian society, it is imperative that voices from all sides be heard."

"The closing of our bureau by the Egyptian government is aimed at censoring and silencing the voices of the Egyptian people," it added.

As someone who has followed Al Jazeera's coverage of the current affairs in Egypt the latest days, I can testify that their coverage of the ongoing protests down there must be quite revolutionary itself. The channel upholds feeds of live images from the different cities in Egypt and constantly show live images of the latest, while also noting what they don't know, introducing views from people in the region, foreigners and political analysts.

The English version of Al Jazeera appears to be running as well as it has the last few days. You can watch the channel for free here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Former WikiLeaks spokeswoman Birgitta Jonsdottir speaks

The former WikiLeaks spokeswoman and now an Icelandic parliamentarian, Birgitta Jonsdottir, recently spoke to the National Post about her time working with WikiLeaks, threats made to her and Julian Assange, as well as her recent decision to change her flight plans so that she avoided landing in the United States on her recent trip to Canada.

On the question of why she changed her travel itinerary to avoid going through the U.S. to get to Toronto, Jonsdottir said:

"I was advised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Iceland and lawyers in the United States right now that while this is not clear about how the U.S. authorities would respond to the complaints from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that it would be better to avoid going through the United States."

About threats made by Sarah Palin, among others, she said:

"You don’t put out empty threats like this. This is a very serious threat. Here is a person that was running as a vice-president of the United States saying things like this. How can you possibly take the United States seriously if this is the quality of the dialogue of the people that are running for the highest offices in this country?"

Profile: Alexander Meiklejohn

I thought I'd deviate a little from the norm and start adding some thoughts on the philosophical views that basically shape the views that I present on this blog. I may start in the wrong place, but the first one I want to discuss is Alexander Meiklejohn.

Meiklejohn is known as one of the most important American advocates of first-amendment freedoms, and he is also one of the country's most notable proponents of the link between freedom of speech and democracy. Meiklejohn argues that the concept of democracy is that of self-government by the people. For such a system to work an informed electorate is necessary. In order to be appropriately knowledgeable, there must be no constraints on the free flow of information and ideas. According to Meiklejohn, democracy will not be true to its essential ideal if those in power are able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism. Meiklejohn acknowledges that the desire to manipulate opinion can stem from the motive of seeking to benefit society. However, he argues, choosing manipulation negates, in its means, the democratic ideal. Eric Barendt has called the defence of free speech on the grounds of democracy "probably the most attractive and certainly the most fashionable free speech theory in modern Western democracies".

Note: Meiklejohn's views and opinions are highly relevant today. A number of the threats he identifies are present in today's American society:
* The governmental trend of withholding information ensures that Americans make decisions in elections based on incomplete knowledge.
* The governmental trend of influencing media coverage to ensure that people support governmental policies. These policies are made with the aim of benefiting society.

Never put your trust in things prefixed ‘Wiki’

David Porter, who works for the Illinois Press Association, makes a few interesting observations in an opinion piece published today.

Highly regarded reporters don’t trust anything that has “wiki” in front of it. To be taken seriously, wiki information must be independently verified. “Wiki,” by definition, is something that is edited by virtually anyone. It’s a Swahili word that means, literally, “not to be trusted,” which you can verify on Wikipedia.

I’ve heard complaints that the “mainstream” media hasn’t taken Wikileaks seriously. That’s because they used the prefix “wiki” in their name. If you want people to take notice, you have to use a different phrase, like “naked pictures of Paris Hilton.”

There's not much to say about this claim other than to conclude that Porter may have a point. The name of the organization may simply harm it. WikiLeaks is taken much more seriously in other parts of the world than in the United States, so it could, of course, be that there's other reasons too.