Government suveillance: comments



The example I chose is SoSafe App, a crime prevention tool developed in Chile. It’s a small startup that became the most downloaded app of its type in the country. So far, seven municipalities in Santiago have officially adopted it as a way to communicate the police with the people.

I’ll use my personal experience to describe the app as a successful example of crowdsourcing. A couple of years ago, the neighborhood I lived started to get more crime. With my wife and another family began to organize our street for exchanging information about everyone. First, we administered a WhatsApp group including over 100 houses and then installed this app. We were connected to the police with the panic alarm function. Whenever someone was in real danger, they had to press the key, and all the 100 houses would get an alert, as well as the police. Overall, it made a real change: we decreased the crime rates in a couple of months, and above all, for the first time we started to get to know in the neighborhood (we even organized a Christmas party).

Applying the functions described by Asmolov (p. 163), crime prevention apps include information, alerting, and engagement. First, the app identifies the user and measures the crime rate in the area. Alerting is the most salient feature from these apps, and it aims to provide instant location, helping other neighbors to check that the police was coming. Finally, regarding engagement with the community, the app mutual support.

Finally, another aspect that I identify in Asmolov’s article is the relationship between citizens and authorities. In a crime prevention app, this is essential. The police receive reliable information about the crime types, hours, exact places in which they mostly occur so that they can be more responsive to both the prevention and the community needs. Again, in our case, we even knew the name of the policewoman in charge of our zone and could contact her directly, something impossible without the app.

As for the motivations (Brabham, 2012: 320), there are some in common with crime prevention apps. I would include in the same order the contribution “to a collaborative effort,” which is to revert a negative social situation. Second, I would mention that people who assisted a victim, got social recognition by the rest of the neighborhood. And another affective and intrinsic was the connection was also an excellent excuse to have more social interaction outside the app, something that was particularly valued by older adults living alone. In a way, it was a form of getting the social relationships that existed in the past, when your neighborhood was the center of peoples’ social life. In this sense, I understand that the primary purpose of the app involves a practical solution, but in the process, I can identify the Uses & Gratification theory as Brabham suggests.

Mobile Internet: Mind the Gap!!


Comparing mobile phones in Sri Lanka and Tanzania

Wijetunga (2014) shows the digital divide between high and lower income groups in Sri Lanka, contesting the assumption that the mere availability of technology diminishes the socio-economic gaps in developing countries. First, the author describes that the same smartphone that allows email and social media use for higher income users are limited to talk and text for the differs group. Second, the use of mobile Internet (from the phones), which cannot be taken for granted for low-income users, as the lack of computing exposure has the consequence of not benefiting from the technological improvement.

In the same vein, Baird and Hartter (2017) describe the mobile use in rural Tanzania. The study makes a more optimistic argument the uses of mobile phones, in this case also showing that technological advances are not shared in the same way, sometimes voluntarily, other for the social divide problem. However, the difference here is the way rural communities use their phones for agricultural production, from simple applications like clocks and calculators to price information.

Assessing urban social media use: the socio-economic dimension of the digital divide

The research is about the use of mobile phones in middle-income urban societies (developing countries), like in my hometown, Santiago (Chile). Many reasons would support this research. First, mobile penetration is one of the highest in Latin America, and mobile phone use is correlated more on low-income population, and not only to younger groups, as it is the case of high-income societies (defined here as GDP). Second, the availability of 3G and LTE technology, affordability of devices, and the pay-as-you-go model – as opposed to a subscription-based one – makes cell phones more attractive to this demographic than computers or landlines. Third, the availability of unlimited data use for WhatsApp (at differs price) has made that today this app is replacing voice capabilities high-income landline and cell phones. Fourth, this group can be characterized as sufficiently capable of literacy – defined here as the educational level – although not media literacy.

Then, the research questions are: (1) To what extent media literacy influence the digital divide? ; and (2) How the use of social media use differs between low and high-income users in Santiago in the same group of 18-49 years old. I hypothesize that use of mobile Internet differs between these two groups, in the following ways. First, WhatsApp main use for friends and family is greater in the to low-income group, compared to the high-income one. Second, Twitter use is significantly lower in the first group, supporting the idea that education level – in this case, media literacy – influences the ability to participate in democratic debates, and therefore creating a digital divide. Third, that Facebook is a replacement for mainstream media access in the first group compared to the second one, thus, increasing the digital divide of media literacy.

The expected results would confirm that social media use, while offering greater democratic participation and engagement, is not available to everyone.

Digital outlaws: between the tragedy and the comedy of the commons

John’s article shows how framing behavior is essential. Calling either “file sharing” or “piracy” for using the same source multiple times and by multiple users – and, although he does not mention it – without expressed consent by the owner, has its consequences. While “file sharing” is a positive account, associated with its historical roots; the “piracy” has a negative connotation, that John discourages. Moreover, as he concludes, this is a strategy for defying private property and copyright protections.

The logic of intellectual property is to protect creation. It is an economic incentive that otherwise would prevent anyone to invest time and money, generating scarcity and status quo. In a negative sense, it means that anyone who uses this property without permission of the owner violates his property, which is also termed “piracy.” In short, this is not a conflict between the big corporations and individuals, but rather between creators and users.

The tragedy of the commons explains that when people identify an “unlimited” resource, tends to consume it indiscriminately for satisfying selfish desires, making this resource to decrease and eventually disappear. Think, for example, overfishing. While John mentioned the common, he goes immediately in proposals on how to prevent this process taking place (citing Elinor Ostrom). Here is where his defense using “file sharing” fails, as he does not distinguish which kind of file use is detrimental to society, and which one is beneficial or sustainable. Therefore, I see that “file sharing” is a euphemistic metaphor to challenge property, which in many cases would end up with lack of innovation.

There are alternatives to the tragedy of the commons. One is what has been called the “comedy of the commons,” (Carol Rose, 1986) which is the opposite effect of making available a resource for universal use. In Söderberg’s article, this is exemplified by the discussion between open source and free software. In the latter, the owner of software allows its free use without providing rights for modification, which might seem attractive to governments. Public use of software is massive but imposed free-software in the long-term disincentives creation. As the popular adage states, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” as free-software creators would concentrate the power left by for-profit companies. This is how free-software advocates are not ideologically neutral. They oppose private property and would like to get power ultimately. On the other hand, open-source advocates believe in a sharing a code for further development, but always conscious that their product would compete with commercial and free software. They give up their proprietary rights without diminishing innovation. That is why is a positive result, preferring the comedy to the tragedy.

Contesting intellectual property, either by calling file “file sharing” to a copyright infringement (piracy) or by requiring free software is by any means ideologically neutral. While it might be a legitimate dogma against power and property, it exploits a common at the expenses of innovation.

Foreign Policy and the Internet: A cold war solution for North Korea?

Dr. John Lenczowski, the Director of the Institute of World Politics, proposes in his column “A cold war strategy to defeat North Korea,” published in The Hill, that the U.S. policy would be better off in adopting old tactics from the cold war. His main argument goes in line of the disadvantages of providing Internet freedom to autocratic governments, which make their ways to block or exercise surveillance over dissenters. Instead, Lenczowski suggests that traditional broadcasting – along with technological improvements – with one-way messages would be much more effective to these authoritarian threads. More precisely, his call is for the enhancement of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

This argument favors Shirky’s view on strengthening the public sphere: “[p]olitical freedom has to be accompanied by a civil society literate enough and densely connected enough to discuss the issues presented to the public.” (Shirky, 2011) Moreover, takes the element of content generation, however in an offline version. Indeed, Lenczowski proposes to “flood North Korea with fax machines, printers, copiers, including mimeograph machines, and paper…” He also mentions USB flash drives and any subversive method. Traditional broadcasting might be more difficult to intercept or block, and monitor.

Lenczowski’s proposal is more in the line of propaganda or a one-way communication, and therefore, is a departure from what Comor and Bean (2012) are presenting. There is no attempt to engage, to generate a dialogue, either with the Obama’s policies that these authors criticize nor in their “ethical communication” they defend. However, I don’t read from Lenczowski’s column necessarily an attempt of dangerously imposing democratic ideas solely in the American version – as Comor and Bean would say – but simply to spread messages that would create through adaptation a political meaning. Put differently, it’s a more two-step communication flows, as North Korean dissenters would have to “translate” and construct a meaning on these Western ideals of democracy into their reality.

There is one aspect that I would add. As much as the effort to send messages abroad effectively, I think public diplomacy would further improve if helps on how traditional media in the United States frame not only authoritarian regimes but also U.S. allies. This isn’t a form of intervention on editorial decisions, but policies that promote more contextual understanding of international issues, considering that U.S. media is read abroad, too. Take for instance the Catalonian referendum. Given the importance of the rule of law that the Supreme Court has in the American system, one would expect that after the Spanish Constitutional Court considered the referendum unconstitutional, the media might have valued and provided enough coverage. However, an editorial in the New York Times described these judicial decisions technicalities that eluded the required a political response, as the Washington Post did. If this is the form in which mainstream media describe very complex political debates in a Western democracy, it’s even more challenging to get some contextual accuracy in different contexts, such as North Korea.

Viral online media and solidarity

The case of Dr. Dao, a United Airlines passenger who was dragged with violence from the aircraft –he ended up with a broken nose—, is a good example for explaining virality. The incident happened in early April this year, and in fact was the first of many other similar situations –that also went viral—affecting the airline industry. A passenger in the same plane recorded and tweeted the video of two police officers pulling Dr. Dao.

There are several components from this case that help to understand the motives of a viral content. First and most important, is the definition of virality, not only associated with the message’s reach (Alhabash & McAlister, 2014: 1318). In this case, the video from YouTube has been seen 2.1 million times, while an edited version, more than 4 million times. In this case, it’s clear that this element is present. However, I wouldn’t argue that it’s viral just because of this.

The most important characteristic is the affective evaluation of the message (Alhabash & McAlister, 2014: 1319; Berger & Milkman, 2012: 199). I would argue that five components made this video viral.

First, the video generated a mixture of anger and solidarity. It’s essential to note that it wasn’t a negative emotion, because social empathy and solidarity modified the negative content of anger, and in that, it might be closer to what Berger & Milkman confirmed in their research. Second, it contributed the way in which the media (traditional and social media) described Dr. Dao, as a 69-year-old Asian-American and medical doctor. Then, in this case, the description created more empathy: a person with a relatively advanced age, belonging to a U.S. ethnic minority, and having a profession that has a high social reputation (Please, I’m not trying to make any personal judgement about these features, but it’s interesting to see how the media coverage consistently highlighted them).

Third, is that solidarity is brought against a giant corporation. Personally, I always flight with this airline and have an excellent experience, but I realized for the first time how strongly people feel about major U.S. airlines. Then, perceiving a consumer abuse by a big corporation, in this case with physical consequences, increases virality. This aspect is something that I would add to the components mentioned in this week’s articles.

Fourth, is the role of traditional media. Another aspect that is not well underscored in the articles is how traditional media influence virality, challenging the two-step flow of information theory. Now is the traditional media the one using a citizen-generated content instead of being the source of that video.

This leads us to the fifth element: the corporate response to social engagement. United Airlines had to react. Initially, the PR responses didn’t control the fire, but eventually the company changed its policy. Then, virality affected mobilization, traditional media amplified it, which in turn led to a new policy by the company.