what i have been up to the past three months

since i joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong, i’ve been busy preparing for two new classes, dealing with the Hong Kong protests and getting used to new colleagues and work environment.

i’m also happy to say that i’ve been busy writing. i wrote a piece in the guardian explaining why the hong kong students know that the time to act is now. [local backup].

my friend jason and i decided to take “explaining the students’ perspective” one step further. we took a letter that a student wrote to her parents, and translated it into a comic. this comic went viral on facebook. [english version]

i’ve also given a couple of interviews in Chinese. here’s an article about me in the school magazine, what i research, why i joined the school and also some of my views on the students and the hong kong protests. [local backup].

i also appeared on “money cafe” a casual talk show on business, where i discussed what’s at stake when internet companies want to enter the China market. the best part might not be the actual content, the best part might be hearing me discuss internet surveillance, free expression and the business of this all in my crappy cantonese. [part 1] [part 2]

my latest op-ed is in the south china morning post, on the importance of “one country, two internets” for hong kong. [local backup]

‘One country, two internets’, and why we need to protect it

Late on Tuesday, a small group of people charged the Legislative Council building and broke a glass panel. Reports indicate they did so because they feared the passing of “Internet Article 23”. The original Article 23 is of course the controversial national security bill that provoked half a million Hong Kong people to protest in the streets in 2003. So what exactly is “Internet Article 23”, and should we be concerned?

“Internet Article 23” is actually more than one bill. Lawmakers and advocacy groups use it to refer to at least two different regulations, both with the potential to seriously undermine the free and open internet we enjoy in Hong Kong.

One is the Copyright Amendment bill, a much needed update to the otherwise outdated copyright bill. But many fear that it will punish citizens for remixing original content with social or political commentary as parody or satire. To understand why people are concerned, you only need to take one quick lookonline or walk by the Occupy areas: among the many art pieces, one of the most popular is a life-size cutout of president Xi Jinping holding a yellow umbrella that many people take selfies with.

The other regulation in question is the Computer Crimes Ordinance. Originally intended to battle computer fraud and hacking, it has been drafted in such a way that it has serious potential for abuse. The most recent case involves the arrest of a citizen for “inciting” others to commit an offence. His crime? Posting a message on an online forum asking others to join him in the pro-democracy protests; the original post has been removed and the police have so far declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

Let’s not forget what is at stake. We only need to look across the border to see a tightly monitored, closely controlled internet where citizens have to watch what they say to each other, even on seemingly private messenger apps such as WeChat. Then they might find themselves at a dead end if they try to find out what is going on; Sina Weibo and Baidu have been filtering search results for “Hong Kong students”, “Hong Kong tear gas” and “true universal suffrage”. And because people started sharing yellow umbrella pictures, Instagram is now the latest member to the club of global internet platforms that are blocked in China, joining Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, amongst others.

In contrast, we have a free and open internet in Hong Kong. Anyone can share their story and decide for themselves what is meaningful or not; no longer does a small and powerful elite determine this for the rest of society. Let’s be clear: a free and open internet doesn’t mean that people can say whatever they want without any consequences; all countries regulate speech to some extent. But it does mean that the conversation is open and inclusive: whether you are a yellow, blue or red ribbon supporter, you don’t have to ask anyone for permission to speak.

Whether you agree with the protesters or not, it is undeniable that they have breathed new life into a conversation that most people had given up on, a conversation about the future of Hong Kong and the status of “one country, two systems”. Sometimes we disagree or even yell at each other, but that’s what it means to have a honest, frank and real conversation, warts and all.

To my knowledge, the Hong Kong government hasn’t censored anything related to the protests. This is surely a good thing. But if the last few weeks have taught us anything, it is that our “one country, two systems” setup isn’t sacrosanct or set in stone. That is why I am asking all of us to keep a close eye on “one country, two internets” and to make sure we preserve and protect the free and open internet in Hong Kong.

The author is an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

新媒體中的言論自由 徐洛文教授專訪

特約記者:徐梓傑 (本科四年級生)

震撼全球的佔領運動,新傳上下各人也緊貼着運動的進展。這時要跟老師進行訪問,話題也離不開這場運動。

眼前香港的局勢,相信你我也意想不到。他,新傳學院助理教授徐洛文也如是說。

今年八月,他重返校園,加入中大新傳學院,就遇上罷課和佔領運動,這名回流香港的助理教授以「Surprise」形容。「香港社會累積了好多年不滿,好似好易就『撻着火』,但在很多人已經放棄的時刻,見到學生一直『頂』住」。他這年執教本科一年級生的Development of Mass Communication課,九月下旬,學生罷課,他才剛剛開課三星期,還未趕得及認識學生。但看見學生們對佔領運動的熱情,已令他留下深刻印象。「下一代這麼有心,學生很有理想,我很榮幸當上他們的老師。」

他從大學校園跳到Google,遊走亞洲各國,現在又到了本院執教鞭。三年前,他離開香港城市大學的教席,轉往Google公司,從事公共政策及政府關係的工作,主要與言論自由有關。負責與亞太區各國政府協商,例如某國關於言論自由的政策出台,他與工作團隊便會提交文件,游說政府改善政策,又或者政府看見上載至Youtube的片段出問題,他便代表Google跟對方斡旋。

他憶述最深刻的一次,要處理「Innocence of Muslims」影片惹起回教人不滿的投訴。影片反伊斯蘭教的主題激發不少回教徒於各國示威,最嚴重的包括利比亞及埃及。面對亞洲大部分伊斯蘭教國家的投訴,他的工作是要應對當地政府。當時,巴基斯坦政府要求影片下架,是否下架他需要考慮兩個主要問題:一、法律問題;二、影片是否違反Google內部的政策(例如不容許有三級片)。就着這段影片,因為其內容並無違反Google政策,因此,公司決定這段影片不用下架,而巴基斯坦政府結果封鎖了Youtube。

他形容,大學教學研究與擔任Google公司的前線工作,猶如「識食」同「識煮」的關係。不論在大學任教,還是較早時在美國修讀博士課程期間,他主要研究互聯網、新媒體的全球化政策,當時的論文大多從批判角度入手,是「評價菜式」。但加入Google工作,他便要「親自下廚」,通過游說工作,改變一國政策。因為政府有關資訊傳播的政策如何推行,皆直接影響Google 公司的工作。離開Google,他放棄了高薪厚職、公司股份,還有每年豐厚的聖誕禮物(通常是智能手機)。為的是甚麼?

徐洛文直言有感於自己在Google的工作發展去到瓶頸:「始終我不是一個政治家」,他在Google的工作,可以影響公司,甚至政府政策,但工作成果相對抽象,滿足感不大。他想多寫評論文章,但又受制於Google員工的身分。只有離開工作崗位,重投校園他才享有自由,延續學術研究;重拾教鞭也因為他希望接觸年輕人,看著學生成長,他說這樣「更有滿足感」。

遊走各國,他還是落腳香港,是因為對香港有感情。他父母為香港人,早年舉家移民至荷蘭阿姆斯特丹。他在荷蘭出生、長大,但一直有跟在港的表姐聯繫,那時還是寫信的年代。他跟表姐閒話家常,也會談到香港文化。小時,他跟香港學生一樣,愛看香港卡通、電視電影:「還是那個熟悉的原因──因為睇無綫劇集大。」回想中學年代,親友更會從香港寄一些劇集光碟給他。

慢慢地,互聯網普及,他跟表姐也改以電郵聯繫,上網也能收看港台節目,不用再等幾星期從香港寄來的影碟。他感受到互聯網的力量,相信互聯網能打開他的世界,能改變世界。他着迷於互聯網和新媒體的發展,後來考上荷蘭的萊頓大學 (Leiden University),雖然本科和碩士並非修讀傳播學相關學科,但他的碩士論文題目是Internet in China。輾轉他往美國賓夕凡尼亞大學修讀媒體傳播相關的博士學位,2010年學成回流香港,展開其教學及工作生涯。

四年過去,他漸漸習慣香港的生活模式,但同時也感受到社會上,新一代與上一輩的矛盾加劇。這次佔領運動,更讓他印證社交媒體的重要角色。「WhatsApp,Facebook等新媒體是新一代的溝通平台,他們透過社交媒體,把自己親身經歷抒發出來,這些內容與主流媒體的故事很不一樣。」。他認為,正因為新一代的溝通方式,催化了這次佔領運動遍地開花。新媒體能夠讓新一代找到身分認同,互相組織起來就成為運動的群眾力量。他又相信,在主流媒體一片「懷疑論」、「河蟹論」的報道下,新媒體的言論空間更見重要。

面對新世代的學生,他謙稱學生們教識他「謙虛」、「勇氣」和「爭氣」。他看見學生面對將來,有勇氣積極爭取更好未來,但又不像上一輩般,否定未來的可能性。在強權之下,他寄語學生要對將來有信心,人權和民主要自己爭取。

為了一盡己責,9‧28催淚彈事件後,他在《衛報》投稿,希望世界更了解香港發生的事,他說,不只年輕人有責任,老師也有。

徐洛文教授小檔案

Hong Kong’s activists know they must act now if democracy is ever to happen

The Hong Kong people are considered the world’s most polite protesters. We queue, recycle and clean up after ourselves. Our protests have always gone without a hitch. Not any more. A lot of people I’ve spoken to this week are in disbelief.

On Friday night the police arrested and attacked many of the students present with pepper spray after a few tried to climb a fence to reclaim what many consider a public space in front of government headquarters. Then, on Sunday, when adults joined the students in their protest, not only did the pepper spray return but the police unleashed canister after canister of teargas into the densely packed crowd. It was at this point that I noticed many Hong Kong people saying: “This isn’t supposed to happen here. This isn’t the Hong Kong I know.”

Yet other people I have talked to, many from an older generation, don’t have much sympathy for the protesters. They feel it is not possible to win against the government, especially when it is backed by Beijing, and argue that the protests are not worth the trouble, that there could be repercussions. Tiananmen Square comes to mind, naturally. But Tiananmen is not the only historical context for understanding what is happening Hong Kong, let alone the best one.

The current protests are as much about democracy as they are about growing social inequality. Students see their options shrinking in front of them. An apartment has always been expensive in Hong Kong, but it has become almost impossible for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder. According to a recent survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a family of four must pay 13 times their annual income to purchase a tiny 37 sq metres (400 sq ft) flat. To top it off, Hong Kong took top honours in the recent Economist crony-capitalism index, beating Russia to first place.

Unsurprisingly, trust in the government is at an all time low. This distrust has been building up for over a decade. In 2003, the public came out in massive numbers to protest against Article 23, a national security law that the government was trying to push through, and would have impinged on our freedoms. The protests were peaceful but persistent. To the surprise of many, the protesters pressured the government to shelve the plan indefinitely.

More recently, in 2012, the public protested against the national education plan that the government was trying to push through. This scheme would be mandatory to all students, and many citizens called it brainwashing propaganda because it included textbooks that dismissed the multiparty systems and glossed over Tiananmen and the Cultural Revolution. Yet again, to the surprise of many, the protests pressured the government to overturn its decision to make the plan mandatory.

The latest proposal the government is trying to push through is the election framework for 2017. The Hong Kong Basic Law, ratified by China and the UK in 1984, stipulates that “the election of the fifth chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the year 2017 may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage”. Yet, after years of delays and broken promises, the current proposed framework mandatesthat any candidate running for chief executive has to be vetted by a small committee stacked with pro-Beijing supporters. Simply put, they want to control who can run. For many, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Let’s be realistic. None of the students I have spoken to expect “democracy” to magically solve all their problems. They also understand that many are sceptical about their chances to change the government’s mind. But history has taught them not only that change is possible but that if they don’t do it, no one else will. Armed with little more than clingfilm on their faces, face masks, safety goggles, and umbrellas as protection against pepper spray and teargas, they fight for their dream of a better future. A little hope can go a long way.

i’m back

after more than three years at google, i’m finally coming back to academia. i’ve decided to join the school of journalism and communication at the chinese university of hong kong as an assistant professor. i’ll be focusing my future research on free expression and internet policy.

i had an amazing few years at google, where i had the privilege to witness and shape the direction of the company during many key moments in internet history, including the innocence of muslims video and the snowden revelations. i learned a lot in these past few years and am grateful i was in a position to contribute towards building an internet that is more open, transparent and supportive of free expression.

work at google was fascinating and rewarding, but after several years, i also missed teaching, research and writing. i look forward to teaching an undergraduate class on development of mass communication and a graduate seminar on new media policy this semester. and i’m back to working on turning my dissertation into a book. i’m also developing a new research project on the political economy of free expression online (more on this later).

in short, i’m glad to be back!

where is lokman?

i recently quit my facebook, twitter and linkedin in an attempt to quiet my life and focus on what matters.

if you are looking for me, you can find me through email. i’d love to hear from you.

announcement: I’m joining Google’s public policy team

The big news is that I will be joining Google full-time as a policy advisor and the lead for free expression in Asia-Pacific as of June 27th, 2011. I will continue to be based in Hong Kong. But I will no longer serve as an assistant professor of the Department of Media and Communication at the City University of Hong Kong. I leave with a heavy heart: I had a great time and enjoyed working with the wonderful colleagues and terrific staff there. Furthermore, I really enjoyed teaching the students, whom I found very responsive, hard working and intelligent. I will always be grateful to Professor CC Lee for believing in me and City University for giving me my first job fresh out of graduate school.

Having said that, I am very excited about my new job at Google. As most of you probably know, the future of the internet and the networked public sphere is an issue I deeply care about and have dedicated much of my research to. I believe the upcoming period will be a critical juncture in the institutionalization of the internet. Now I am offered the opportunity to translate and apply directly into policy what I have learned over the past few years. Perhaps idealistic, but hopefully also without much illusions, I see it as a chance to “give back” to “the internet”, which has given me so much. In short, I am excited about the opportunities and challenges the policy team and I will be facing, and most of all, I look forward to work with you in my new capacity as policy advisor at Google.

the Gene Burd Urban Journalism Research Prize (Best Dissertation in Journalism Studies)

I’m incredibly honored that my dissertation has recently been awarded the Gene Burd Urban Journalism Research Prize for the Best Dissertation in Journalism Studies. I will receive this award on Friday May 27, at the ICA (International Communication Association) conference, held in Boston this year. If you happen to be around, do drop by and say hi!

my dissertation lives

On July 29, 2010 I defended my dissertation, passed with revisions. The next day I took the plane to Hong Kong, the following Monday I reported duty at the City University of Hong Kong, and in the meantime I was working on those revisions, while trying to adapt to a new life.

But they’re done now, and the dissertation has been deposited and put online.

A big thank you to a lot of people, but to my advisor, Barbie Zelizer, and the incredible folks at Global Voices in particular.

Here is the abstract:

A Journalism of Hospitality

How would a newsroom look if we could build it from scratch, current technologies in hand? My project answers this question through a comparative study of legacy mainstream professional newsrooms that have migrated online, what I call “adaptive newsrooms”, and two “transformative” newsrooms, Indymedia and Global Voices. In particular, it takes up the challenge of rethinking journalism in the face of new technologies, by analyzing the cultures, practices and people of a new kind of news production environment: Global Voices, an international project that collects and translates blogs and citizen media from around the world in order to “aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online – to shine light on places and people other media often ignore.”

An ethnographic study of Global Voices spanning four years reveals that the internet enables a radical shift in several key facets of news production: its political economy, its sociology and its culture. The Global Voices newsroom, for example, demonstrates how the internet allows for different kinds of newsroom routines that are designed to bring attention to underrepresented voices, whereas it was previously thought routines determined the news to be biased towards institutional and authoritative voices. I argue that these changes in news production challenge us to judge journalistic excellence not only in terms of objectivity or intersubjectivity, but increasingly also in terms of hospitality. Roger Silverstone defined hospitality as the “ethical obligation to listen.” Understanding journalism through the lens of hospitality, the internet presents a unique opportunity as well as poses a radical challenge: in a world where everybody can speak, who will listen? I suggest that in a globally networked world, there continues to be a need for journalism to occupy an important position, but that it will require a process of rethinking and renewal, one where journalism transforms itself to an institution for democracy where listening, conversation and hospitality are central values.

You can also download the entire PDF. (300+ pages, 2+ MB)

dear facebook, freedom or friends? that’s not a choice

facebook fail

I finally decided to leave Facebook.

I won’t lie, that was not an easy decision. In fact, it was really hard. See, Facebook is the only place where all my friends are together. Leaving Facebook is not just quitting a website, but it also means saying goodbye to all my friends. I am afraid I will no longer be invited to birthday parties, see cute pictures of their babies, or be able to find out that they have graduated and congratulate them.

But I have also seen Facebook slowly change over the years, for the worse, a decline that is beautifully documented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. There are many good reasons why you might want to consider leaving Facebook. One of them is that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, apparently says that he “doesn’t believe in privacy”. Well, he just happens to be the guy who is in charge of the website where I hang out pretty much all the time with my friends. I compare this to being invited to a house party with all my friends, but where the owner secretly records everything we do and say, and tries hard to sell it to advertisers. When he gets caught, we rage, and he says “oops, sorry”. Again and again, like an abusive partner, he promises to clean up his act. At what point do we say “enough is enough”? Should we trust him never to do it again? Not if it is clearly against his financial interest. Why not leave?

Facebook effectively holds our friends as hostages. The ransom is not our privacy, but our freedom. Let me explain: I do have (some) privacy on Facebook. Most of my information on Facebook was not exactly secret. The problem is not privacy: it is not being in control of your own life. Facebook might give us privacy, but always on their terms. They make it incredibly hard to leave. They make it almost impossible to save your messages, photos and profile. We are talking about them refusing to give back our information, our photos, /our/ life! It is almost impossible to leave, so we stay and they will continue to take whatever privacy they feel they can get away with. How much do they feel they can get away with? Let me ask you: how much privacy are our friends worth to us?

Dear Facebook, freedom or friends? That’s not a choice. So I quit. Instead, I plan to write on this blog, twitter, and longer e-mails to friends. It will not be a perfect replacement, but it will have to do until a better option comes along (psst there was life before Facebook!).

Allow me to make a wild analogy, one I believe is not entirely out of left field. Many people know that there is censorship in China. Many people also tell me that 1) the poor Chinese must feel really repressed or 2) they must be okay with it. But if that’s the case, who in their right mind can be okay with censorship? They must be brainwashed.

Ask yourself this: if I decide not to leave Facebook, yet I know they do not care at all about my privacy, what does that mean? How is that different from the people who continue to use the internet in China day in day out despite the prevalent and prolific practices of censorship? This is not a rhetorical question. Of course I realize Facebook is not the Chinese government, but I do think there are similarities between them, in kind although perhaps not in degree. Are you still on Facebook, and if so, why?