Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Drezner's Guide to Thinking About Civil Society 2.0

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, November 9 2010

Tufts international relations professor and master blogger Dan Drezner has a paper in the latest issue of the Brown Journal of World Affairs that lays out constructive ways for us to start thinking about the impact of the Internet on the relationship between the "state" and civil society around the globe. Weighing what modern connective technologies mean for what the U.S. State Department* calls, in the context of its so-called Civil Society 2.0 initiative, "social good" organizations against what the mean for the ability of totalitarian regimes to control their people, Drezner suggests that they often mean more of the same, whatever that same might be:

It would seem, therefore, that the internet merely re-inforces the pre-existing dynamics between states and non-state actors. In societies that value liberal norms -- democracies -- the internet clearly empowers non-state actors to influence the government. In arenas where liberal norms are not widely accepted -- interstate negotiations and totalitarian governments -- the internet has no appreciable effect.

Actually, more than having "no appreciable effect," Drezner concludes a bit later in the piece that networked technologies might actually have a deleterious impact in oppressed lands once things have moved past a sort of magic window of the first round of protests, something we saw in Iran where the regime in Tehran started using tools like Twitter and blogs to track down dissidents and start to turn the wave of public opinion back their way. Things look a bit different in places where, like China, an regime that has restrictive tendencies also would really like to use the Internet and mobile and all the rest to boost their country's economic activity; there, there's a bit more of an opening, because it's nearly impossible for a country that wants to exploit the web to impose a perfect regime of censorship at the same time. To boil it all down, the Internet might seem like a global organism, but its meaning and potential differs tremendously depending on the real-world relationship that already exists between human creatures and the governments under which they live.

Seems obvious. But Drezner thinks that Hillary Clinton's very Civil Society 2.0 initiative lacks such an awareness. Drezner calls them "misperceptions," and puts them as an unwarranted assumptions that, first, all these social tools primarily benefit "'good' groups" and, second, that the most major thing standing in the way of "digital liberalism" is that bad governments keep their people from the Internet.

On that first point, though, at least this FAQ sheet (pdf) from State's Tech@State project implies that they're busy picking winners. The very idea is to equip NGOs and other civil society groups with better tools and practices to better balance out the power dynamic between them and the state. The risk of doing that, it seems, is that it ups the odds that repressive regimes are going to simply up their game, doing whatever it takes get better at doing the web and all its affiliated technologies. But that ship has likely sailed already. The trend is towards networking the world, and it seems to make sense to consider who benefits from that wiring as its own distinct question. That approach still very much requires an understanding that dialing up Twitter in the context of Iran is very different than setting up people with mobile phones in Mexico -- or that meddling in Mexico City is different than doing it in Juarez, Mexico. Drezner, for his part, seems worried that this whole new "civil society 2.0" approach to diplomacy and development is a bit undermature when it comes to appreciating the multitudinous variations of life as it's lived across the planet.

Alas, Drezner's illuminating piece is available only to subscribers to the Brown Journal of World Affairs, or you might get lucky picking up a copy in your local bookstore. Or, should you have access to a university journal database, there's that route too.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.


Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.