Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Indonesia Seeks Blogger's Identity

Some debates simply refuse to go away. And those that keep recurring are obviously no close to being resolved.

The Indonesian government has announced that it is seeking the identity of a blogger who posted the controversial newspaper cartoon that purportedly insults Muslim Prophet Mohammad, and will detain him/her for defamation. Indonesia's Deparment of Communication and Information has formally requested for the blogger's identity from the blog host, Wordpress.

This, once again, raises the debate between respect for religion and freedom of expression. When the cartoon first came out in a Danish newspaper in 2005, it triggered a wave of protest actions in Islamic countries, including Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. The protests intensified after the cartoon was reprinted by several European newspapers, whose editors defended their move under freedom of the press. But some publishers, subsequently, restrained further reprints.

The question now is, will Wordpress give in to Indonesia's demand? If it does, it will not be the first blog platform to do so. In 2007, Google gave up the IP address of a blogger who had been sued for defamation in Israel. Three months ago, Google was also directed by a local court in India to provide information on a blogger who complained about a Mumbai-based company. In 2006, Microsoft admitted that it blocked a blog by a Chinese journalist, which was hosted by MSN Space, to conform to Chinese laws. In 2003, Yahoo was accused of providing information that led to the conviction of a Chinese writer who was accused of providing state secrets to external parties.

Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have all defended their decisions, saying that they have to follow local laws and that they only provide information after a due process. Meanwhile, Wordpress appears to have made the first step to appease public opinion in Indonesia. It archived the offending blog, http://lapotuak.wordpress.com, for violating Wordpress' terms of service.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The New Kid in Malaysia's Blogosphere

One of the most exciting developments in the blogosphere is happening in Malaysia where bloggers are slowly but surely trying to chip away the government's notorious sensitivity to press freedom. And guess who is Malaysia's most popular blogger these days? It is no other than the former prime minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, whose government designed the draconian laws that kept an inquisitive media at bay for the 20 years he was in power. Through his blog, www.chedet.com, Mahathir now "fights the system he perfected," reported the New York Times two weeks ago.

The first entry was made on May 1, 2008, Labor Day, which is traditionally marked by labor protests in various parts of the world. His blog is clearly a form of protest to the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. The first entry was a criticism of Mr. Abdullah's decision to form a commission to appoint judges. Since then, the 83-year-old leader has commented, in either English or Malay, on various political, social and economic issues of the day, from lobbying practices, the rule of law, and race, to traffic and attending a school reunion. He has criticized U.S. policies and recently wished President-Elect Barack Obama "the best of luck." Occasionally, he attacks his former deputy prime minister and now opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, and answers allegations against him and his family. But his harshest criticisms, for now, are reserved for Mr. Abdullah's government.

Indeed, Dr. Mahathir is now enjoying the very freedoms that his leadership sought to suppress. Malaysians, too, welcomed the entry of the iconic leader to the blogosphere. On its first day alone, Chedet received at least 10,000 visitors.

One wonders how the government is taking Dr. Mahathir's renewed popularity. His iconic status may have spared him the typical government reaction against its critics, but others have not been as lucky. One of Malaysia's most popular and outspoken bloggers, Raja Petra Kamaruddin (RPK), who manages Malaysia Today, was detained in September 2008 under Malaysia's Internal Security Act, and was freed only two months later. But RPK's problems are far from over. Yesterday, he was summoned for police questioning over reports that he had insulted Muslims.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Need to Teach Evaluation of Information

The sheer volume of information available online today is often overwhelming. The problems this creates for those who do not have the time to sort through it all, or those who are inexperienced in evaluating the quality of information, became apparent during this past election. I would hazard to claim thousands of Americans, and likely many others around the world, relied on sources such as FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.org, and the Washington Post's Fact Checker to gauge the truthfulness of claims made during the campaign. But beyond a presidential campaign, what resources are available in evaluating information on the internet?

I recently spoke to a group of high school students, all pursuing research projects that excited them. All were also overwhelmed by the volume of information they were dealing with. The common question: How can we tell what's true? Simple corroboration was sometimes just not enough, and not unlike the rest of us, the more extreme claims stuck in their minds the most, for good or bad. Responsible research of their sources often led to competing claims regarding the agenda of that source, further complicating the picture of whether or not the information was truthful and objective. 

Fortunately, their teacher understands the problems and provides assistance. But what happens to the millions of other kids who may not be so lucky? Young people know how to operate the internet, but how many really know how to use it? To promote good citizenship, nationally and globally, students need to be taught how to evaluate information and the sources producing that information beyond the simple warning against reliance on Wikipedia.

The problem is not limited to the young. During the campaign, I received e-mails tying then-candidate Barack Obama to Armageddon by people who seemed to be believe Revelations clearly stated Armageddon would begin with the election of a US president approximately 40 years old and from a Muslim background. Never mind that Mohammed wasn't even born at the time Revelations is believed to have been written, nor that the US was about 1300 years from its founding. People receive unfiltered biased claims in their inbox every day without questioning the agenda of those producing it. After all, many of these e-mails are from trusted "sources," namely family and friends - the adult version of education on the grade school playground. For the newest in internet capabilities to inform and educate the masses, we should all take a lesson in fact-checking and information evaluation. Figuring out how is the challenge.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Prizing Academic Freedom

Recently, the Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University School of Law in New York City awarded its prestigious Stein Ethics Prize to Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Fordham University calls itself the Jesuit University of New York and continues to see its Jesuit founding as an integral part of its teaching students to serve the community and be good citizens. However, the question of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Fordham Law School came into question when Justice Breyer was awarded the Stein Prize.

Seemingly due to his authorship of the Supreme Court's decision that overturned Nebraska's ban on late-term abortion, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, reportedly rebuked school administrators. The cardinal's spokesman was quoted as saying, "As a result of these discussions, the cardinal is confident that a mistake of this sort will not happen again."

Fordham Law School students and professors were immediately incensed. An on-line petition was started as students decried the parochialism of the Catholic Church and the erosion of academic freedom. Many in academia would agree that blanket statements barring the law school from engaging in certain activities or giving awards to a Supreme Court justice smacks of censorship and harms the integrity of the academic institution.

However, this disagreement raises some fundamental questions that both academia and religious institutions have failed to deal with effectively. On many levels, religious leaders have failed to continue to play a real and relevant role in academia without impending academic freedom. With the fight over teaching intelligent design raging on in the public schools, the debate over the meaning of academic freedom continues in Fordham Law School and throughout the United States.

Religious leaders and academics both seem incapable of engaging each other in meaningful discussions. Instead of rebuking administrators after the decision, why wasn't there engagement with the decision making process? It could have been during that time that someone would have pointed out how Justice Breyer and the Church share a commitment to social justice and civil rights. That may not have been enough to satisfy the cardinal, but I've always thought education is really more about learning to live with people you disagree with than anything else. Although, that may simply be too much to ask of priests and lawyers.