the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender

today’s a public holiday in hong kong.

which one? it’s a really strange one. it’s my first one and my last one. we only have it this year. it’s the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.

two weeks ago, according an op-ed in a Party sponsored newspaper, Japan is forgetting its history:

A great country and nation has the courage to face up to its history. To forget history is to betray, and to deny a crime is to repeat it.

earlier this week, according to Baidu, the only significant events that happened on June 4th, 1989?

    Walesa being elected in Poland as premier
    Ayatollah Khomeini being chosen as Iran’s supreme leader.

that’s really not okay.

after all, a great country and nation has the courage to face up to its history. to forget history is to betray, and to deny a crime is to repeat it.

thanks to fei chang dao for inspiring this post.

why we need decentralized funding for independent journalism

Whether we can continue to get the journalism we need, given the declining revenues and funding in journalism, is a concern of many people around the world, including in Hong Kong. To what extent is it possible to have independent journalism under such economic conditions? Before we get there, let’s ask first, what does it mean for journalism to be “independent”? What exactly should it be independent of?

Journalism is often at its best when it can “speak truth to power”, when journalists can ask the questions nobody else wants to ask, or even speak out against the powers-that-be when nobody else has the courage to do so. It is why it is important to think about how journalism is funded, who pays the bill and who subsequently can exert pressure on editors and journalists. For example, newspapers rely on advertisers (57%) more so than circulation (36%) for their revenues (Pew, 2015). That means it is important for newspapers to keep advertisers happy. It also means that these advertisers can exert disproportional pressure and influence: this is a problem if we agree that journalism is not only a business, but also serves a larger, indeed a public function to society. It is a lesson Hong Kong learned the hard way when House News, an online news outlet, closed down in 2014 because several major advertisers pulled out because of political pressure (SCMP, 2014). In the words of Tsoi, the founder of House News:

“Despite our popularity, many big companies don’t place advertisements on our website because of our critical stance towards the government and Beijing”.

So how can we have “independent” journalism and what kind of funding would this require? We need to start thinking about what I call models of “decentralized funding” for journalism. “Centralized funding” is when your funding comes from only a few, and subsequently, powerful and influential sources. In contrast, “decentralized funding” is when funding comes from many small amounts provided by multiple funders, or indeed, citizens. If all these small amounts add up to something significant, then that creates a situation where no particular source is powerful enough to exert meaningful influence, and where journalism can be more or less “independent”. But is that possible? Here are a few examples of journalism that rely on “decentralized funding”. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, nor do I claim these are entirely new phenomena; that said, new technologies have given rise to several interesting ideas and opportunities worth exploring.

Crowdfunding: websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Fringebacker are online platforms that enable a project to raise funds from a large number of people. Recent cases of journalism funded this way in Hong Kong include Factwire and Hong Kong Free Press. Patreon is another example of a crowdfunding platform, but instead of a one-time fundraising effort to jumpstart a project (like Factwire and HK Free Press) it instead allows people to be a “patron”; that’s to say, to financially support an individual or project on a regular basis.

Subscription: traditional subscription still exists, even online. For example, Malaysiakini, an online news website in, you guessed it, Malaysia, receives significant funding from its many subscribers who are willing to pay a sum every month. People are willing to subscribe, and pay money, because whereas the traditional media in Malaysia are highly censored, the online media are still relatively free and open: the internet is where they can get actual news. Malaysia’s situation is a bit peculiar like that: thanks to a pledge it made in 1998 in an attempt to attract foreign investment, the government will not censor the internet (Open Net).

Micro-payment: for the longest time, micro-payment was seen as the holy grail that would save quality journalism. While this has yet to happen, and I am not sure if it ever will, that doesn’t mean there are no interesting changes in this domain: in China, several platforms now allow users to “tip” content they like. For example, WeChat allows its users to tip writers for posts they like.

Centralized, but independent: Last but not least, independent journalism does not necessarily require “decentralized funding” to exist. Traditionally, foundations have always played an important role in funding important works of journalism. A recent example is ProPublica, funded by the Sandler Foundation, whose aim is to do quality investigative journalism. That said, many places around the world do not have the necessary foundations that have an explicit mission to serve the public interest, including in Hong Kong, a society that is already relatively well-off (I’ve never seen so many luxury cars than here in Hong Kong).

It is paramount that we start thinking and experimenting with models of “decentralized funding” for journalism; so that we can continue to get the journalism we need. If you know of any examples of decentralized funding that I should learn more about, I’d love to hear about them!

the tragedy of the anti-commons and the gridlock economy

When too many people own a resource, the resource will be underused. Cooperation will break down, wealth will be lost. That is today’s message of Michael Heller who is at Berkman to talk about his new book, the Gridlock Economy.

Explaining the economic meltdown as an example of a gridlock economy, he suggests that in the past there was a direct one-on-one relation between lenders and borrowers, that they knew each other. Banks lost money on foreclosures, they’d rather work out a deal with you. But in the new world, there are potentially several thousand owners, and it is much harder to re-negotiate a loan. Too many owners fragment mortgages.

The second example he gives is drug patents. He tells a story about an invention, a treatment for Alzheimer. But producing this treatment would touch upon a dozen patents. Imagine a room with a dozen start-ups, each of them thinking they are sitting on the patent that is key to treating Alzheimer. Imagine having to negotiate with all of them. The inventor decided not to go for it and put the treatment on the shelf. The deal could not be made. Heller is making the argument that this is not an isolated case. There is a huge increase and investment in invention and patents in the last thirty years, but there has been a decrease in discovery of major classes of new medicines, what he calls the drug discovery gap. Forcefully, he argues, we have drugs that should and could exist, but don’t. And it is not just drugs, but this problem exists all across the high-tech frontier.

He starts his third example by asking a question: what is the most underused natural resource in the United States? The answer is: spectrum. About 90% is dead air. The licensing of spectrum dates back to Coolidge and basically hasn’t been updated since. We have created a system of geographically fragmented licenses that are non-transferable, making it extremely difficult to assemble public or private networks. The United States has fallen in broadband from number 1 to somewhere number 15. Cutting high-tech will not occur in the United States, the next generation technology cannot emerge here, because it is so hard to find spectrum to facilitate high-speed transfer.

Fourth example: airports. Why do we have to spend so much time at airports? Why not build more airports? Thirty years ago, air traffic was de-regulated, yet Denver is the only new airport that has been built in the United States since 1978. The reason we don’t have more new airports is former real estate law, that allows every community to block the assembly of land you need to build new airports.

Heller concludes that these are essentially all the same problem. There is a change, a shift in the nature of innovation. There used to be a one-on-one relationship between patent and invention, between copyright and song. That is the old style economy. Now the new style economy is much more like a funnel, from many to one. That is to say, assemblage is needed for innovation. Big breakthroughs come from assembling multiple parts into one. Cutting edge is found in mash-ups, remixes, even in the case of resources like land.

He calls this the tragedy of the anti-commons. The tragedy of the commons is that no owners lead to overuse. It was a huge turning point for the environmentalism movement, a metaphor leading to a change in framing, of thinking about public good problems. It was key to a spur to privatization, seen as the solution to the tragedy of commons; that is to say, private property is a great engine to conservation.

But privatization can overshoot.The tragedy of the anti-commons is when too many owners lead to too little use of scarce resources. This is, contrary to the tragedy of the commons, an invisible tragedy – you don’t see when something is not appearing, is not being invented, is not being built.

Edit: See also the much more lucid and detailed blogging of this event by my esteemed colleagues David Weinberger and Ethan Zuckerman. In particular, check out the fascinating exchange on the nature of “property” between Michael Heller and Yochai Benkler that I was unable to capture in my blog. Too many bloggers clearly did not lead to the underblogging of this event, although clearly some blogs were better than others. 🙂

the role of citizen journalism in crisis situations

What is the role of citizen journalism in crisis situations? Some quick thoughts and anecdotal evidence suggests that the role citizens can play in crisis situations is becoming significant. Consider the example of citizens taking snapshots with their cameraphones during the London subway attack. Or think about how the Sichuan earthquake first ‘broke’ on Twitter, a micro-blogging tool. If you think about how journalists cannot be everywhere, but ‘citizen journalists’ certainly are *potentially* everywhere – it will be interesting to see how this further develops.

I had the great pleasure to have lunch with Patrick Meier and Kate Brodock the other day. In tackling the question what role citizen journalism plays in crisis situations, they worked on analyzing and mapping the crisis responses of citizen journalists, mainstream news organizations and Ushahidi reports over time and space during the Kenya post-election violence. They used that information to create a Google Earth map that shows visually how citizen journalists are becoming an important factor in crisis reporting. Check out their fascinating study.

media, power, and responsibility

Why are media and power always a bad combination? Whether it is the elite who is abusing the media for its own purposes (in the words of Chomsky and Herman, to ‘manufacture consent‘) or whether it is the media themselves who are powerful, often heard as in ‘the media are biased‘, the message seems clear cut: the media and power do not go together – but is it?

The notion that media often are (ab)used by the powerful goes all the way back to the origins of communication research back in the fifties when it was primarily obsessed with the effects of propaganda. The concern here is that only a particular group of people, e.g. the elite, the powerful, have access to the media and are able to set the agenda for society – if not what the public should think, then what the public should think about. This line of research carries on in the media ownership concentration literature – who owns the media has the power to allocate resources, to control editors and set the agenda. Famous (notorious) examples include Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi. 

Then there is also concern that the media themselves are too powerful. While the media is supposed to act in the public’s interest, they often underserve certain segments of the public, such as minorities, or they slant news in favor of particular segments of the public – these are the issues of underrepresentation and misrepresentation. Not to mention the many issues the media effects research is trying to address – television violence is bad for our kids, video games make them dumb and lazy, the internet destroys their attention span, etc.

Most research seems to indicate that power and media don’t go together – bad things happen if they do. What I am wondering is – can the powerful use media for good, rather than bad? Power and media leading to bad things is a relationship of correlation, not causation. What responsibilities, obligations do the powerful have to use media for the greater good? This is a question that has been asked in democratic theory – the media should be a watchdog, should serve as a platform for the public to discuss important issues, etc. More specifically, and something I am interested in, is what kind of obligations are imposed on the media as a result of a particular power disparity – that is to say, what obligations should be imposed precisely because the media are powerful/are controlled by the powerful? 

In broadcast television, the imposition of rules that made sure political issues would be covered in a way that was honest, equitable and balanced was called the ‘fairness doctrine‘. The primary justification for imposing this (controversial) rule was that broadcast television only could carry so many channels because of spectrum scarcity. In other words, only a few limited number of channels could be broadcasted – because of the power this would give to those who control these few channels, the FCC made sure that important issues were covered in a ‘fair’ way. The fairness doctrine had many problems (partially because it wasn’t quite clear what was meant with ‘honest, equitable and balanced’ coverage) and was subsequently abolished. However, one could consider if the fairness doctrine or some kind of equivalent would still have relevance in modern days – in other words, if we’d had to ressurect this, how would it look like? Some have linked the fairness doctrine to the debates we have on network neutrality, arguing that it is in essence a fairness doctrine for the internet. 

One could thus compare the internet protocols – the rules that describe how connections on the internet are established – to rules we have for media access (besides the fairness doctrine, there have also been regulations such as the equal-time rules, specifying that broadcast stations must provide opportunity to opposing political candidates to speak).

But are the internet protocols by themselves enough? The internet protocols are famous for ‘not caring what kind of content they carry’ – as long as the protocols are followed. Should protocols care? The telecom providers argue the internet should care – they say it makes a difference (and a big burden on their network) whether content is video, peer to peer traffic or just text. They want to be able to prioritize some content over others. They want to be able to regulate traffic in such a way that a small number of users don’t end up hogging most of the bandwidth, or at least charge them more for it. Skeptics, and network neutrality proponents, fear that the telecom providers will abuse this power to prioritize content (“let’s make getting to the Microsoft Live search website really fast, and let’s slow down access to Google”). 

But the ability to be able to distinguish, to prioritize some content over others might not be a bad thing. We can disagree about who should be able to prioritize, on what basis – for example, many people might not want the telecom providers to be able to prioritize on the basis of profit maximization – but what about the following: Clay Shirky has helped us understand that the blogosphere follows a powerlaw – that is to say, a small number of so-called A-list blogs gets a disproportionate amount of attention.

If you are such an A-list blog, and you wield a certain power in the form of mass attention, what kind of moral obligations follow out of that kind of power?

welcome to David Karpf, guest blogger

I wanted to give a big welcome to David Karpf; we are very honored to have him here on our blog and we look forward to see him post some of the many brilliant little nuggets that I have come to expect to hear from him over our coffee talks together. Dave is a Phd candidate at the political science department of the University of Pennsylvania and researches the internet’s effects on political associations. Welcome!

senate approves secret spying program

Bad news, as the Senate overwhelmingly voted to legalize President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program and also decided not to amend a bill that would prevent telecom companies from getting immunity for giving the government access to phone records of millions of people.A quote from an article from Wired that talks about this reads:

“The bill, which expires in six years, allows the government to install
permanent wiretapping outposts in telephone and internet facilities
inside the United States without a warrant. However, if those wiretaps
are used to target Americans inside or outside of the country, the
government would have to get a court order. However, if the target is a foreigner or a foreign corporation, and they call an American or an
American calls them, no warrant is required.”

In other words, Americans are screwed, but international students and other foreigners are even more screwed.Being an international student at an American university myself sensitizes me to this problem. Consider this ability to wiretap all our phone and internet traffic without requiring a warrant in the following context:

  1. the government is already tracking every move of international students and visitors.
  2. the university is asking students to provide their cellphone number so that they can be contacted in cases of emergencies.
  3. while the university has good privacy policies in place
  4. they have to comply under the Patriot Act if the government asks them to disclose private information (including cellphone numbers)
  5. the government also has the phone records from the telecom companies
  6. the government doesn’t even need a warrant or court order if it decides it wants to wiretap foreigners

You do the math. International student? Check. All his/her personal and not-so-personal information? Check. Cellphone number? Check. Phone records showing who is calling who at what time for how long from where? Check. Permission to wiretap and spy at will? Check. Civil Liberties? Uhm.

On a smaller side note, it is interesting to see how the presidential candidates have voted on this. McCain voted in favor of giving telecom companies immunity. Obama voted against. Clinton decided to abstain from voting. It’s too bad I don’t get to vote in this country.

lessig on corruption

elucidating, and brilliant as always, Lessig is giving us a preview of his work on corruption. Some of his arguments relate strongly to those made by Etzioni earlier, who helped us understand that oftentimes it is dollar for dollar more efficient or profitable to invest money in lobbying than actual innovation.