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February 25 2014

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February 13 2014

Two Million Mobile SIM Cards Deactivated in Zambia

Mobile phone shop in Lusaka. Photo by Curious Lee (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Mobile phone shop in Lusaka. Photo by Curious Lee (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The SIM cards of over two million Zambian mobile phone users were deactivated last week, according to the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority. After spending several months pushing subscribers to register their SIMs, the regulatory body now says that those who did not meet the January 31 deadline have had their SIMs deactivated.

Most people in Zambia, a country with a population of just over 13 million, own up to three SIM cards, one for each telecommunications service provider. Zambians also use them to access mobile Internet services.

In a statement released shortly after the close of registration ZICTA announced that out of a subscriber base of 9,462,504, “a total number of 8,235,991 SIM cards have been registered while 2,215,376 have been deactivated.”

Apart from cutting off services to subscribers who failed to register their cards, ZICTA also threatened to punish any of the three mobile phone service providers MTN, CellZ and Airtel in the same statement, stating:

As is the case in any process of this magnitude [SIM card registration], some level of margin of error is expected and accepted. Any Service provider found to have mistakes within the margin of error will be requested to re-run their system. However, for any Service Provider whose errors shall be above the accepted threshold will be punished by Law.

The SIM registration process did not go over without problems. Some people who had registered at the beginning of the exercise, four months prior to the deadline, discovered last month that they were not on the final list of registered subscribers. Others had their numbers under different names and even the wrong gender.

Former Vice President Brigadier-General Godfrey Miyanda, a leader of the now-opposition Heritage Party and a vocal critic of SIM registration policy, had one of his SIM cards registered without his knowledge. The phone company later apologised.

Gen. Miyanda is among some subscribers who have threatened to take ZICTA to court for allegedly threatening their rights and freedoms pertaining to privacy, property ownership and communication. On the last day of registration, Gen. Miyanda, in what he referred to as his last post, wrote:

Fellow internet partners and the Social Media family, I wish to inform you that the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA) have reminded me that by midnight this day they will cut me off from civilisation by arbitrarily deactivating my SIM cards without just cause. I have NOT committed any crime, neither is there a credible record of the prevalence and/or abuse of these communications gadgets to justify any derogation from the said guaranteed rights.

Gen Miyanda, who had written several statements on this issue, continued:

By this single act ZICTA is attaching the condition that before I can enjoy my guaranteed freedom of expression I should first apply to the Authority or their agents to be registered. By the same token ZICTA are infringing my right to privacy and other proprietary [rights]. I contend that these freedoms and liberties cannot be taken away arbitrarily or traded for a few minutes of airtime. My communications to ZICTA and the Mobile Service Providers have remained unanswered. This means that by midnight I shall not be able to communicate or use my purchased implements for such communication. In short until this issue is resolved I shall be off air, including off the internet. This is my Last Post for now.

A journalist and mobile phone subscriber who has threatened class action against ZICTA complained that local media had not covered his anti-SIM card registration fight. Kasebamashila Kaseba alleged that the media was compromised by the regulatory body which sponsored various media activities including awards and working breakfasts. He stated:

As we close and review the public and media debates, to open the court process, in view of ZICTA deadline of Friday, 31st January, 2014 for SIM card deactivation, I wish to say and may elaborate later that we may not seek an “injunction” or “judicial review” as the matter is outside the law or SI 65 of 2011. Instead, the “class action” as already mentioned elsewhere may include action against some public media houses that benefited from the ZICTA SIM card registration […] campaign of deactivation and may include “citizen’s arrest.”

January 28 2014

Coursera Blocked in Syria — by US Sanctions

Screen capture of Coursera notice. Capture by Anas Maarawi, used with permission.

Screen capture of Coursera notice. Capture by Anas Maarawi, used with permission.

“Our system indicates that you are trying to access the Coursera site from an IP address associated with a country currently subjected to US economic and trade sanctions. In order for Coursera to comply with US export controls, we cannot allow you to access to the site.”

As of this month, if you try to access the online learning platform Coursera from within Syria, you will see only this message.

Coursera, which according to its site aims “to change the world by educating millions of people by offering classes from top universities and professors online for free,” is now subjected to a recent directive from the US federal government that has forced some MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) providers to block access for users in sanctioned countries such as Iran and Cuba. Coursera explains the change in its student support center:

The interpretation of export control regulations as they related to MOOCs was unclear for a period of time, and Coursera had been operating under one interpretation of the law. Recently, Coursera received a clear answer indicating that certain aspects of the Coursera MOOC experience are considered ‘services’ (and all services are highly restricted by export controls). While many students from these countries were previously able to access Coursera, this change means that we will no longer be able to provide students in sanctioned countries with access to Coursera moving forward.

Syrian developer Anas Maarawi criticized the policy shift on his blog: “Between the censorship imposed by the regime, which includes blocking hundreds of internet sites, and the effect of US sanctions, it has become nearly impossible for the remaining youth in the country to have access to online learning.”

Maarrawi added: “The technological sanctions imposed by the US against Syria do not harm the regime. They only contribute to suffocating the population, especially a youth eager to learn and connect with the outside world.”

The sanctions are not new. For several years Syrian internet users have been suffering their effects, from social networks such as LinkedIn to Google Earth.

In September 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation called on the US to lift all restrictions “that deny citizens access to vital communications tools.” But the US has continued its piecemeal approach, going back and forth between blocking new ranges of transactions to allowing the export of certain services.

“These sorts of export restrictions are overbroad and contain elements which have no effect on the Syrian regime, while preventing Syrian citizens from accessing a wealth of tools that are available to their activist counterparts in neighboring countries and around the world,” EFF stated.

Amid increasing isolation, access to knowledge is vital

Contending with deep isolation and daily loss, many Syrians regard Coursera as an empowering platform that allows them to continue learning, against all odds. Mahmud Angrini, a Syrian doctor who took more than 20 of the online courses the platform offers, shared what Coursera meant to him in a very touching letter that was published on the Coursera blog under the title “It's never too late to start again”:

Once a successful physician, my family and I turned into one of the millions of Syrian refugees. I didn’t just lose my properties I also lost all my relations – friends and supporting family members. I felt sad, depressed, bored and isolated. But then one day while I was surfing the Internet, I found Coursera.

What I can assure you is that Coursera changed my life during those painful months. I began to follow Coursera courses, not just in the field of medicine but also in many other disciplines. (…) Soon later, my language skills improved and I engaged in many other courses. The courses and the interesting knowledge impeded in them helped me forget my pain, depression and suffering.

Someday, the war will end, and we will come back to our homes and our former lives to contribute to the reconstruction process in our country. To do so, we need to learn new skills, and this could only be achieved through continuing education. We can take advantage of the high quality courses that Coursera offers at no cost.

The letter was welcome by the Coursera editors, who described Dr. Angrini’s experience as touching and inspiring: “Thank you Mahmud, for living Coursera’s mission to create a world where people can learn without limits.”

Coursera ended the announcement of the changes that prevent access to their courses in sanctioned countries with the following note: “We value our global community of users and sincerely regret the need to take this action. Please know that Coursera is currently working very closely with the U.S. Department of State and Office of Foreign Asset Control to secure the necessary permissions to reinstate site access for users in sanctioned countries.”

If Coursera really believes in its own role as a life-changer (and game-changer) in the field of online education, it should take all steps necessary to ensure that access to their site is reinstated in sanctioned countries such as Syria, where their courses make the biggest difference.

Anas Maarawi contributed to this article.

December 09 2013

Who will upgrade the telecom foundation of the Internet?

Although readers of this blog know quite well the role that the Internet can play in our lives, we may forget that its most promising contributions — telemedicine, the smart electrical grid, distance education, etc. — depend on a rock-solid and speedy telecommunications network, and therefore that relatively few people can actually take advantage of the shining future the Internet offers.

Worries over sputtering advances in bandwidth in the US, as well as an actual drop in reliability, spurred the FCC to create the Technology Transitions Policy Task Force, and to drive discussion of what they like to call the “IP transition”.

Last week, I attended a conference on the IP transition in Boston, one of a series being held around the country. While we tussled with the problems of reliability and competition, one urgent question loomed over the conference: who will actually make advances happen?

What’s at stake and why bids are coming in so low

It’s not hard to tally up the promise of fast, reliable Internet connections. Popular futures include:

  • Delivering TV and movie content on demand
  • Checking on your lights, refrigerator, thermostat, etc., and adjusting them remotely
  • Hooking up rural patients with health care experts in major health centers for diagnosis and consultation
  • Urgent information updates during a disaster, to aid both victims and responders

I could go on and on, but already one can see the outline of the problem: how do we get there? Who is going to actually create a telecom structure that enables everyone (not just a few privileged affluent residents of big cities) to do these things?

Costs are high, but the payoff is worthwhile. Ultimately, the applications I listed will lower the costs of the services they replace or improve life enough to justify an investment many times over. Rural areas — where investment is currently hardest to get — could probably benefit the most from the services because the Internet would give them access to resources that more centrally located people can walk or drive to.

The problem is that none of the likely players can seize the initiative. Let’s look at each one:

Telecom and cable companies
The upgrading of facilities is mostly in their hands right now, but they can’t see beyond the first item in the previous list. Distributing TV and movies is a familiar business, but they don’t know how to extract value from any of the other applications. In fact, most of the benefits of the other services go to people at the endpoints, not to the owners of the network. This has been a sore point with the telecom companies ever since the Internet took off, and spurs them on constant attempts to hold Internet users hostage and shake them down for more cash.

Given the limitations of the telecom and cable business models, it’s no surprise they’ve rolled out fiber in the areas they want and are actually de-investing in many other geographic areas. Hurricane Sandy brought this to public consciousness, but the problem has actually been mounting in rural areas for some time.

Angela Kronenberg of COMPTEL, an industry association of competitive communications companies, pointed out that it’s hard to make a business case for broadband in many parts of the United States. We have a funny demographic: we’re not as densely populated as the Netherlands or South Korea (both famous for blazingly fast Internet service), nor as concentrated as Canada and Australia, where it’s feasible to spend a lot of money getting service to the few remote users outside major population centers. There’s no easy way to reach everybody in the US.

Governments
Although governments subsidize network construction in many ways — half a dozen subsidies were reeled off by keynote speaker Cameron Kerry, former Acting Secretary of the Department of Commerce — such stimuli can only nudge the upgrade process along, not control it completely. Government funding has certainly enabled plenty of big projects (Internet access is often compared to the highway system, for instance), but it tends to go toward familiar technologies that the government finds safe, and therefore misses opportunities for radical disruption. It’s no coincidence that these safe, familiar technologies are provided by established companies with lobbyists all over DC.

As an example of how help can come from unusual sources, Sharon Gillett mentioned on her panel the use of unlicensed spectrum by small, rural ISPs to deliver Internet to areas that otherwise had only dial-up access. The FCC ruling that opened up “white space” spectrum in the TV band to such use has greatly empowered these mavericks.

Individual consumers
Although we are the ultimate beneficiaries of new technology (and will ultimately pay for it somehow, through fees or taxes) hardly anyone can plunk down the cash for it in advance: the vision is too murky and the reward too far down the road. John Burke, Commissioner of the Vermont Public Service Board, flatly said that consumers choose the phone service almost entirely on the basis of price and don’t really find out its reliability and features until later.

Basically, consumers can’t bet that all the pieces of the IP transition will fall in place during their lifetimes, and rolling out services one consumer at a time is incredibly inefficient.

Internet companies
Google Fiber came up once or twice at the conference, but their initiatives are just a proof of concept. Even if Google became the lynchpin it wants to be in our lives, it would not have enough funds to wire the world.

What’s the way forward, then? I find it in community efforts, which I’ll explore at the end of this article.

Practiced dance steps

Few of the insights in this article came up directly in the Boston conference. The panelists were old hands who had crossed each other’s paths repeatedly, gliding between companies, regulatory agencies, and academia for decades. At the conference, they pulled their punches and hid their agendas under platitudes. The few controversies I saw on stage seemed to be launched for entertainment purposes, distracting from the real issues.

From what I could see, the audience of about 75 people came almost entirely from the telecom industry. I saw just one representative of what you might call the new Internet industries (Microsoft strategist Sharon Gillett, who went to that company after an august regulatory career) and two people who represent the public interest outside of regulatory agencies (speaker Harold Feld of Public Knowledge and Fred Goldstein of Interisle Consulting Group).

Can I get through to you?

Everyone knows that Internet technologies, such as voice over IP, are less reliable than plain old telephone service, but few realize how soon reliability of any sort will be a thing of the past. When a telecom company signs you up for a fancy new fiber connection, you are no longer connected to a power source at the telephone company’s central office. Instead, you get a battery that can last eight hours in case of a power failure. A local power failure may let you stay in contact with outsiders if the nearby mobile phone towers stay up, but a larger failure will take out everything.

These issues have a big impact on public safety, a concern raised at the beginning of the conference by Gregory Bialecki in his role as a Massachusetts official, and repeated by many others during the day.

There are ways around the new unreliability through redundant networks, as Feld pointed out during his panel. But the public and regulators must take a stand for reliability, as the post-Sandy victims have done. The issue in that case was whether a community could be served by wireless connections. At this point, they just don’t deliver either the reliability or the bandwidth that modern consumers need.

Mark Reilly of Comcast claimed at the conference that 94% of American consumers now have access to at least one broadband provider. I’m suspicious of this statistic because the telecom and cable companies have a very weak definition of “broadband” and may be including mobile phones in the count. Meanwhile, we face the possibility of a whole new digital divide consisting of people relegated to wireless service, on top of the old digital divide involving dial-up access.

We’ll take that market if you’re not interested

In a healthy market, at least three companies would be racing to roll out new services at affordable prices, but every new product or service must provide a migration path from the old ones it hopes to replace. Nowhere is this more true than in networks because their whole purpose is to let you reach other people. Competition in telecom has been a battle cry since the first work on the law that became the 1996 Telecom Act (and which many speakers at the conference say needs an upgrade).

Most of the 20th century accustomed people to thinking of telecom as a boring, predictable utility business, the kind that “little old ladies” bought stock in. The Telecom Act was supposed to knock the Bell companies out of that model and turn them into fierce innovators with a bunch of other competitors. Some people actually want to reverse the process and essentially nationalize the telecom infrastructure, but that would put innovation at risk.

The Telecom Act, especially as interpreted later by the FCC, fumbled the chance to enforce competition. According to Goldstein, the FCC decided that a duopoly (baby Bells and cable companies) were enough competition.

The nail in the coffin may have been the FCC ruling that any new fiber providing IP service was exempt from the requirements for interconnection. The sleight of hand that the FCC used to make this switch was a redefinition of the Internet: they conflated the use of IP on the carrier layer with the bits traveling around above, which most people think of as “the Internet.” But the industry and the FCC had a bevy of arguments (including the looser regulation of cable companies, now full-fledged competitors of the incumbent telecom companies), so the ruling stands. The issue then got mixed in with a number of other controversies involving competition and control on the Internet, often muddled together under the term “network neutrality.”

Ironically, one of the selling points that helps maintain a competitive company, such as Granite Telecom, is reselling existing copper. Many small businesses find that the advantages of fiber are outweighed by the costs, which may include expensive quality-of-service upgrades (such as MPLS), new handsets to handle VoIP, and rewiring the whole office. Thus, Senior Vice President Sam Kline announced at the conference that Granite Telecom is adding a thousand new copper POTS lines every day.

This reinforces the point I made earlier about depending on consumers to drive change. The calculus that leads small businesses to stick with copper may be dangerous in the long run. Besides lost opportunities, it means sticking with a technology that is aging and decaying by the year. Most of the staff (known familiarly as Bellheads) who designed, built, and maintain the old POTS network are retiring, and the phone companies don’t want to bear the increasing costs of maintenance, so reliability is likely to decline. Kline said he would like to find a way to make fiber more attractive, but the benefits are still vaporware.

At this point, the major companies and the smaller competing ones are both cherry picking in different ways. The big guys are upgrading very selectively and even giving up on some areas, whereas the small companies look for niches, as Granite Telecom has. If universal service is to become a reality, a whole different actor must step up to the podium.

A beautiful day in the neighborhood

One hope for change is through municipal and regional government bodies, linked to local citizen groups who know where the need for service is. Freenets, which go back to 1984, drew on local volunteers to provide free Internet access to everyone with a dial-up line, and mesh networks have powered similar efforts in Catalonia and elsewhere. In the 1990s, a number of towns in the US started creating their own networks, usually because they had been left off the list of areas that telecom companies wanted to upgrade.

Despite legal initiatives by the telecom companies to squelch municipal networks, they are gradually catching on. The logistics involve quite a bit of compromise (often, a commercial vendor builds and runs the network, contracting with the city to do so), but many town managers swear that advantages in public safety and staff communications make the investment worthwhile.

The limited regulations that cities have over cable companies (a control that sometimes is taken away) is a crude instrument, like a potter trying to manipulate clay with tongs. To craft a beautiful work, you need to get your hands right on the material. Ideally, citizens would design their own future. The creation of networks should involve companies and local governments, but also the direct input of citizens.

National governments and international bodies still have roles to play. Burke pointed out that public safety issues, such as 911 service, can’t be fixed by the market, and developing nations have very little fiber infrastructure. So, we need large-scale projects to achieve universal access.

Several speakers also lauded state regulators as the most effective centers to handle customer complaints, but I think the IP transition will be increasingly a group effort at the local level.

Back to school

Education emerged at the conference as one of the key responsibilities that companies and governments share. The transition to digital TV was accompanied by a massive education budget, but in my home town, there are still people confused by it. And it’s a minuscule issue compared to the task of going to fiber, wireless, and IP services.

I had my own chance to join the educational effort on the evening following the conference. Friends from Western Massachusetts phoned me because they were holding a service for an elderly man who had died. They lacked the traditional 10 Jews (the minyan) required by Jewish law to say the prayer for the deceased, and asked me to Skype in. I told them that remote participation would not satisfy the law, but they seemed to feel better if I did it. So I said, “If Skype will satisfy you, why can’t I just participate by phone? It’s the same network.” See, FCC? I’m doing my part.

December 05 2013

Controversy Smolders Over Japan's State Secrecy Bill

Image by twitter user @281_ for anti-state-secrecy-protection bill.

Image by twitter user @281_ for anti-state-secrecy-protection bill.

Japan’s proposed State Secrecy bill continues to stoke controversy after its passage in the Lower House last week. The proposed law would introduce harsh new punishments for leaking national secrets related to defense, diplomacy, counter-terrorism, and counter-espionage.

National security is one of the most important agenda items for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The bill, in relation to an already-enacted law that launched Japan's version of the NSA, is considered very important for the party's success.

During a key plenary session and even days after its approval, people opposing the bill rallied in front of the Diet (Japan's House of Parliament), shouting “stop the secrecy bill! The evil bill should be discarded!” This is unusual in Japan — although the Japanese constitution affords citizens the right to assemble, most people will not join public rallies.

Shigeru Ishiba, Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party, found the noise unpleasant, and casually referred to demonstrators as “terrorists” on his blog [ja]:

単なる絶叫戦術はテロ行為とその本質においてあまり変わらない

It seems to me that the tactic of simply shouting at the top of their lungs is not much different from an act of terrorism, in essence.

Taken out of context, Ishiba's comment might sound outrageous, but it's easy for people see protests as hindering political progress, whatever that progress might mean. Later, Ishiba posted an apology and correction [ja] to withdraw the above remark:

整然と行われるデモや集会は、いかなる主張であっても民主主義にとって望ましいものです。 一方で、一般の人々に畏怖の念を与え、市民の平穏を妨げるような大音量で自己の主張を述べるような手法は、本来あるべき民主主義とは相容れないものであるように思います。「一般市民に畏怖の念を与えるような手法」に民主主義とは相容れないテロとの共通性を感じて、「テロと本質的に変わらない」と記しましたが、この部分を撤回し、「本来あるべき民主主義の手法とは異なるように思います」と改めます。

Protests and gatherings held in an orderly nature, are desirable for democracy, regardless of what they stand for. On the other hand, I think protests, which are loud enough to bother neighboring citizens’ peace of mind, and leave citizens in awe by blatantly expressing what they stand for, run counter to authentic democracy. I had written on my blog that such acts are not much different from terrorism because I felt there was something similar about these tactics of scaring and leaving citizens in awe with an act of terrorism, but here I withdraw this part of the sentence, and rewrite it as “different from tactics in the original form of democracy.”

Such remarks have evidently done nothing to turn down the volume of protesters. If anything, it seems to be getting louder. On December 5 and 6, angry protesters marched in Hibiya park at a gathering dubbed “drums of fury” [ja].

A coalition of artists, film-makers, editors and publishers opposing the State Secrecy Protection Bill have gathered over 4,400 endorsements for an appeal [ja] against the bill. Their Facebook page [ja], founded on December 1, 2013, has already reached 8,270 Likes.

In a statement, they called for support from people who engage in acts of expression:

「表現人の会」では、声明の趣旨に賛同いただける方を広く募集しています。
条件は、「声明に賛同する」ことと、「あなた自身が、何らかの表現者」であること。プロ・アマ・経歴・国籍は問いません。

We are calling for people to support our appeal [against the Secrecy Bill]. Anyone engaged in any type of work that involves expressing yourself, regardless of nationality, professional or non-professional work history in expression, is eligible to support our appeal.

Patriotic conservative blogger gintoki commented on the issue, suggesting [ja] that people against the bill are predominantly leftists.

マスコミのみならず、ジャーナリストに弁護士、それに賛同する者達が集まってデモを行う・・・
その集団の後ろには労組系や左派系と思しき団体の幟が林立し、まるで反原発デモか、沖縄の反米・反基地運動かと見間違うほどだが、マスコミが彼らの事を左派系団体だとか、労組系を中心にした…などというその団体の本質的な部分について触れて報道する事は少ない

It is not only the mass media, lawyers, journalists, and people who support them and are coming together and protesting [against the bill] [...] This group appears to look like a protest rally before an anti-nuclear power plant, or and anti-US base in Okinawa, with multiple banners of unionists and left-looking groups behind them. However, no mass media described them as left-wing groups or unionist groups. Very few reports touch on the fundamental part of the protesting groups.

Until recently, acts of protest were considered some what rebellious and often times protesters were labeled as “professional activists”, “commies” or “leftists”. But since the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, more people have started to take action and we have seen many first-time demonstrators. Yet those who oppose the secrecy bill seem to stretch beyond Japan's so-called left.

A wide range of organizations have expressed opposition to the proposed law. Seven doctors and dentists released a statement [ja] opposing the bill that won the support of roughly 200 doctors and dentists:

私たち医師・歯科医師が「特定秘密の取扱者」になった場合、日常診療において患者さんから得る病歴・薬物歴・精神疾患歴・家族歴などのプライバシーを、国に強制的に提供させられることになるかもしれません。特定秘密に指定されれば、強制も秘密になります。これは医療者の守秘義務に大きく反し、たいへん危険な人権侵害に加担することになってしまいます。

We, doctors and dentists, may have to be obliged to provide the government with private information of patients such as illness history, record of medication, mental health history, family history that we keep from daily consultation, if we are assigned as people who deal with ‘special secret'. Once special secret is designated, we would have to keep the fact that it is enforcement. Such an act would be far from our duty of confidentiality as medical workers, and would assist human rights violation.

The Directors’ Guild of Japan [ja], Writers’ Guild of Japan [ja], and Japan Writers’ Guild [ja] also put out a joint statement against the bill.

To sound the alarm internationally, Japan Computer Access for Empowerment (JCAFE) released an urgent appeal on December 1, saying that the proposed law is dangerous in the following ways:

We think the law is problematic because:

  • The scope of “specific secrets” is broad and vague, and how exactly “specific secret” will be designated remains unclear. Especially, there is no regulation which forbids specification of the disadvantageous information for the government.
  • The government can permanently designate any information it wants to hide from the public as specific secrets.
  • Any independent third-party bodies will not established that have the power to screen information to determine whether it merits being classified as a specific secret. Even the Diet or courts can not check.
  • The bill includes serious threats to whistle-blowers and even journalists reporting on secrets. Government officials who, in good faith, release confidential information on violations of the law, or wrongdoing by public bodies, should be protected against legal sanctions.
  • Anyone who asks central government employees to offer specific secrets could be subject to punishment on the grounds that they abetted the leakage of secrets. This withers too much the coverage act by all the press containing community media, independent media, and foreign media with the intimidation by punishments.
  • The “aptitude evaluation system” is a privacy infringement not only to public servants and the private citizens that have accepted commissions for government contracts but also to their families, friends, and even their romantic partners.

We call upon all members of the House of Councilors to scrap the bill.

The House of Councilors is expected to vote on the bill on the afternoon of December 6.

November 25 2013

The Internet as a Catalyst for Change in Yemen

Demonstrators gather in Sana'a in 2011. Photo by Sallam via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Demonstrators gather in Sana'a in 2011. Photo by Sallam via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Walid Al-Saqaf is the Chair of ISOC-Yemen.

The economy is suffering, illiteracy levels are among the highest in the world, and most high school and university graduates are struggling to find work. Even worse, the security situation is dire: assassinations, kidnappings, and other violent acts have become routine. This is the state of Yemen today. But one segment of society that is trying to reverse the country’s fortunes is Yemen’s youth. Young Yemenis today could prove the greatest asset in getting the country back on its feet. Technology has a big role to play here.

Young people who are trying to find new ways to find work, engage, do research and get a break from daily hardships have found that the Internet has given them some relief and hope.

The recent launch of Yemen’s chapter of the Internet Society gives me reason to be hopeful. More than 200 people attended the launch event that took place in a remote part of Sana’a City. This leaves me optimistic about the strong desire of Yemenis, particularly youth, to have a stronger, more resilient, more accessible Internet.

Why now?

ISOC-Yemen launch, November 2013. Photo used with permission.

ISOC-Yemen launch, November 2013. Photo used with permission.

With so many problems facing Yemen, one of the questions posed by some audience members at the event was ‘Why now?’ hinting at the many other difficulties that Yemen faces -– severe water shortages and power outages have become a daily norm, and many don’t dare leaving home after midnight for fear of armed gangs. In the face of such direct threats to health and safety, some have asked: Why should one invest time, energy and money in the Internet?

The Internet could bring change, foster ideas and ultimately, play an integral role in lifting people from poverty. A small minority of Yemenis have pioneered this space, developing their own businesses on social media or using the Internet to find work. Success stories of Internet-based development and entrepreneurship could inspire more action. Events such as TEDxSanaa, TEDxAden and Sanaa Startup Weekend have highlighted these achievements.

These examples were fascinating because the Internet was able to help change lives at a personal level despite a poor and relatively expensive connection. One can only imagine how a more open, easily accessible Internet could impact Yemeni society.

ISOC-Yemen is a step towards making Yemen a country more connected to the world.  With a population of 25 million, the majority of whom are under 40, Yemen could become one of the fastest growing countries when it comes to Internet penetration and use. It shows tremendous promise that can help shape the future of the country both at an individual and national level.

Affordability, awareness and transparency

There is much work to be done. At 15%, Yemen's lowest Internet penetration rate is currently the lowest in the Arab World. The country also lacks 3G connectivity – although this is due in part to the government’s monopoly over telecommunications services, infrastructure has also been decimated by acts of violence – in 2012 alone, fiber cables were cut 180 times in attacks against the state and intertribal conflict.

We must start taking bold and strategic steps to seize the moment and use the Internet to its fullest potential. As ISOC-Yemen, we plan to do this with three primary initiatives.

We plan to engage with Internet service providers and public policy makers in an effort to end the government telecom monopoly once and for all. The current system, in which the country has one ISP operated by the government, has proven unsustainable. Yemen is the only country in the region that does not have 3G connectivity and lacks many services that are taken for granted in the region. It is time to open the market with clearly-defined conditions that will protect consumers and establish an environment of healthy competition. Without competition, government-run services could lag behind, failing to satisfy the needs of the public and the market.

We also will focus on awareness. Yemenis need to wake up to the global information revolution. It is unacceptable for students and teachers not to have email accounts and not understand what the Internet is and how it is used. And we must take advantage of the resources that the Internet can offer, not only for economic development, but also for education.

We also plan to promote transparency and e-government initiatives. Recent history has proven that a lack of transparency has led to corruption that has resulted in greater levels of poverty in Yemen. In many countries new and effective e-government services have brought the elimination middle-men and fixers. Having the government publish valuable and relevant information for public scrutiny will allow the public to hold officials accountable for their actions and to ensure that tax-payer money is spent appropriately.

ISOC-Yemen will undertake many other initiatives—these are merely a starting point. As a civil society organization, ISOC-Yemen can help shape the future of the Internet not only in Yemen, but also in the region. As ISOC is soon establishing a Middle East bureau, Yemen could be a prominent beneficiary and partner of the bureau, due to its pressing need for support, its great market potential, and its strategic location for cable connectivity to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

The bright side

Despite the troubles Yemen faces, I can see a bright side that should not be overlooked. It could be summarized in the youth of Yemen, this untapped resource that can fundamentally change the country’s status from being the least developed in the Middle East, to the most competent, skilled and fastest-growing country in the region. It can do so because it possesses something that other oil-rich neighboring countries do not: a robust youth population that is determined to rise up and defeat the odds with a spirit of hard work and dedication.

I felt from my last visit to Yemen eagerness in the eyes of many young Yemenis who wish to surprise the world, turn the fortunes of the past around, and prove that we could once again become a good world citizen. The Internet could help make that a reality.

ISOC is a non-profit non-governmental organization based in the US with the aim of supporting an open and robust Internet. It serves as the umbrella of Internet Architecture Board, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Engineering Steering Group, and the Internet Research Task Force. Learn more here.

 

July 31 2012

New life for used ebooks

This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog (“The Used Ebook Opportunity“). This version has been lightly edited.

Used Books by -Tripp-, on FlickrUsed Books by -Tripp-, on Flickr

I’ve got quite a few ebooks in two different accounts that I’ve read and will never read again. I’ll bet you do, too. In the print world, we’d pass those along to friends, resell them or donate them to the local library. Good luck doing any of those things with an ebook.

Once you buy an ebook, you’re pretty much stuck with it. That’s yet another reason why consumers want low ebook prices. Ebooks are lacking some of the basic features of a print book, so of course they should be lower-priced. I realize that’s not the only reason consumers want low ebook prices, but it’s definitely a contributing factor. I’d be willing to pay more for an ebook if I knew I could pass it along to someone else when I’m finished with it.

The opportunity in the used ebook market isn’t about higher prices, though. It’s about expanding the ebook ecosystem.

The used print book market helps with discovery and affordability. The publisher and author already got their share on the initial sale of that book. Although they may feel they’re losing the next sale, I’d argue that the content is reaching an audience that probably wouldn’t have paid for the original work anyway, even if the used book market didn’t exist.

Rather than looking at the used book world as an annoyance, it’s time for publishers to think about the opportunities it could present for ebooks. I’ve written and spoken before about how used ebooks could have more functionality than the original edition. You could take this in the other direction as well and have the original ebook with more rich content than the version the customer is able to either resell or pass along to a friend; if the used ebook recipient wants to add the rich content back in they could come back to the publisher and buy it.

As long as we look at the used market through the lens of print products, we’ll never realize all the options it has to offer in the econtent world. That’s why we should be willing to experiment. In fact, I’m certain one or more creative individuals will come up with new ways to think about (and distribute) used ebooks that we’ve never even considered.

Publishers Weekly recently featured an article about ReDigi, a startup that “lets you store, stream, buy and sell pre-owned digital music.” As the article points out, ebooks are next on ReDigi’s priority list. Capitol Records is suing to shut down ReDigi; I suspect the publishing industry will react the same way. Regardless of whether ReDigi is operating within copyright law, I think there’s quite a bit we can learn from their efforts. That’s why I plan to reach out to them this week to see if we can include them in an upcoming TOC event.

By the way, even if ReDigi disappears, you can bet this topic won’t. Amazon makes loads of money in the used book market and Jeff Bezos is a smart man. If there’s an opportunity in the used ebook space, you can bet he’ll be working on it to further reinforce Amazon’s dominant position.

Photo: Used Books by -Tripp-, on Flickr

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March 09 2012

Piracy is not a pricing signal

The comments to yesterday's Four Short Links threw up a predictable response from "Frankster":

So why don't you put your money where your mouth is. Why don't you put torrent links next to all of your books here at oreilly.com. Put a big "free" button next to the button that let's you pay. Show us how it's done. Show us how cool you can be. Show us that it works. Don't just give us a "great takedown". Lead by doing!

This is such a well-worn canard that I am reposting my response.

@frankster: actually, you'll find all O'Reilly books in shop.oreilly.com have links to ebooks that are cheaper than the print version. The purchasing system is simple (not one-click, alas, but pretty close) and--most importantly--you can have the ebook in whatever format you want, without DRM. Oh, and there's Safari, our subscription service for ebooks. We try to make it as convenient as possible for you: all our books, all the formats, no DRM inconvenience. What kind of an idiot builds roadblocks to a sale?

Also, as an author of a technical book, I'm well aware that it is readily pirated from around the Internet. Go knock yourself out if price is that much of a barrier to you. I'd rather see you educated than bankrupt for the price of a lousy technical book.

You seem to have me painted as some kind of creator-hating anarchist. You don't understand that I want to pay for movies and TV. There's a huge pool of middle-class downloaders who would gladly buy if it were available: iTunes and Amazon's MP3 sales show this for music, and Hulu and Netflix are the signs of this for movies and TV. (I want downloads, not streams, because of the pricing structure of broadband in my part of the world)

Whatever lost sales there are from illegal downloads are lost because of convenience, not price. The inconvenience of current downloads and streams are not a technology problem, they're a business problem. And rights holders (aka existing distribution companies) perpetuate the piracy "problem" by not giving consumers the convenience that piracy does.

The experience of piracy is actually pretty good compared to that of existing TV and movies online. And, once you get outside the USA, it's pretty much the ONLY way to get digital media--iTunes and Amazon and Google don't carry much digital media for us; they offer a dismal few items to international customers versus the munificent excess of their domestic catalogue.

Downloading isn't a sign of the rise of technoanarchist capitalist-hating communist punks. It's not even a pricing signal. It's a market signal to the distributors that convenience matters. While they ignore that signal, piracy will win. It's that simple.

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February 27 2012

Business models to monetize publishing in the digital era

At TOC, you're as likely to run into media professionals, entrepreneurs and innovators as you are publishers, booksellers and others working in traditional publishing. This, in turn, makes the underlying themes as varying and diverse as the attendees. This is the second in a series, taking a look at five themes that permeated interviews, sessions and/or keynotes at this year's show. The complete series will be posted here.


As traditional publishing is more and more disrupted in the digital era and deeper and deeper discounts in digital publishing become the norm, big questions about revenues — and where they'll come from — arise. Monetization was a major theme at this year's Tools of Change for Publishing conference. Discussions covered a variety of business models suited to monetize content, including subscription/access, freemium, and ad-based models, and models for moving the focus away from the books themselves to monetizing services, experiences and relationships with customers and readers.

In a keynote address, Andrew Savikas, CEO at Safari Books Online, talked about lessons learned at Safari and why digital subscriptions and access models matter for publishers.

"There are two reasons why subscriptions matter now for books more than they did 10 years ago when Safari first got started: First, we all know readers are much more comfortable with digital reading and other digital media. The percent of adults who own an ereader or a tablet doubled this Christmas — nearly 48% of adults in the U.S. own a tablet, an ereader, or both.

The second reason subscriptions matter more today has to with something Kevin Kelly talked about last year — the shift toward streams of information ... Streaming models are an important alternative and complement to purchase models, and consumers are growing more comfortable with them ... There's a growing product and service economy around access and membership models that reduce the up-front costs associated with things like buying a car; hiring an assistant; or buying enough music, movies or books to build a great library. In addition to reducing the up-front costs, subscription access models also offer on-demand convenience."

Savikas talked about what ebook subscription models look like and with what kinds of books such models work best. He said the model will work with more kinds of books than it's currently used and outlined three reasons publishers should consider the subscription/access model:

SafariSlide

He broke down the payment model and explained how — and why — it can be profitable. He said, "When a book is sold at retail, the publisher and the author get the same amount whether the book is read once, twice or 100 times. In a usage-based model, the publisher is paid only for what people actually read — but, they're paid every single time that page or book is read." Savikas said that at Safari, it's rare for readers to read books cover to cover, but pointed out that it's the aggregate behavior that matters and that brings in the revenue.

Savikas' presentation slides can be found here, and his entire keynote can be viewed in the following video:

Justo Hidalgo, co-founder of 24symbols, addressed the issue of monetization from a freemium model standpoint in the session "New Ways to Sell — Aggregated Content, Paywalls, Subscriptions, and More." He argued that just having free content or paid content alone is not enough — people aren't going to pay for content, he said, unless you have "extremely high-quality, differentiated content," as the Financial Times has, or you have "impressive brand recognition," as the New York Times has.

JustoSlide1

With a freemium content model, the reader gets something for free with the opportunity to get more content, services or a better experience for a price. Hidalgo shared an example from his company's model:

JustoSlide2

Hidalgo's presentation slides can be found here, and more of his thoughts on freemium, paywalls and subscription models can be found in this TOC interview.

The panel session "The Future of the Cookbook" addressed monetization specifically from a cookbook-genre standpoint, but the overall points could easily apply to other areas of publishing. Some monetization ideas that came out of the session included allowing advertising inside ebooks and finding sponsors or co-branding books, and also included subscription-based possibilities, as Andrew Savikas discussed in his keynote. Here are some of the major points the session addressed in the area of monetization:

CookbookSlide

The ideas of chunking — in this case, selling individual recipes — and bundling could be monetized in many genres of publishing. And as Savikas noted in his keynote, the subscription/access model can be applied broadly across publishing sectors.

The slides from "The Future of the Cookbook" session can be found here, and session panelist Adam Salomone, associate publisher at The Harvard Common Press, has further discussions on monetization, ad revenues and the importance of staying flexible in this TOC Podcast interview and in a post at Publisher's Weekly.

Literary entrepreneur Praveen Madan turned the monetization discussion away from content and books and toward partnerships, relationships and experiences in his session "Kepler's 2020: Building the Community Bookstore of the 21st Century." Madan, who is currently working with The Kepler's 2020 Project, said selling memberships isn't anything new but is a very important source of revenue today and an important way to engage a community around a local bookstore. He talked about diversifying the traditional revenue model, moving away from a focus on selling print books and toward a model based on selling memberships, services and experiences, such as charging small ticket prices for author events and educational classes. His monetization discussion revolved around four core principles:

KeplerSlide

Madan elaborated on the first principle and talked about separating the bookstore business into two business — one for-profit and one non-profit:

"More and more, what we find is all the excellent public education programming that bookstores do is really a non-profit activity, and it belongs in a non-profit organization. The community partnerships program — these 120 community partnerships Kepler's has, schools that they're raising money from — that's a money-losing activity. There are about six people on Kepler's staff who do that work all the time. I looked at that and thought, this is really a non-profit organization, but it's stuck inside a for-profit organization, and it's losing money. So, let's just take it out, call it a non-profit and run it separately and fund it separately."

More information on Madan's session can be found here, and a video with further details about Kepler's 2020 Project can be found here.


If you couldn't make it to TOC, or you missed a session you wanted to see, sign up for the TOC 2012 Complete Video Compilation and check out our archive of free keynotes and interviews.


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November 10 2011

Access or ownership: Which will be the default?

Open QuestionIn a recent article, The Atlantic takes a looks at the threads that connect Steve Case's investments:

A luxury-home network. A car-sharing company. An explosive deal site. Maybe you see three random ideas. [Steve] Case and his team saw three bets that paid off thanks to a new Web economy that promotes power in numbers and access over ownership. [Emphasis added.]

From time to time at Radar we've been checking in on this "access vs. ownership" trend.

For example, Lisa Gansky, author of "The Mesh," explained why businesses need to embrace sharing and open systems

Corey Pressman, founder of Exprima Media, discussed the role customization will play in an access-dominant media world:

... music access versus ownership is very compelling. I could see a possible near future in which "accessible music" (streaming unlimited cloud access) trumps "owned music" (purchased CDs or downloads). In this scenario, customization — creating customized playlists — is external to the media; customization is handled by the conduit, not the content.

More from Pressman here.

In "What if a book is just a URL?", Radar contributor Jenn Webb pointed out ebook companies that ignore downloads and instead provide access to material.

And in an interview with Audrey Watters, education theorist George Siemens noted that in the education data/analytics world, "Data access and ownership are equally important issues: who should be able to see the analysis that schools perform on learners?"

Business, media, publishing, data, education — these are all areas where access vs. ownership has organically popped up in our coverage. And it's easy to see how the same trend applies to the technical side: access requires storage and ubiquity, which generally leads to a cloud solution (and then you get into issues like public cloud vs private cloud, who's responsible for uptime, what happens when there's a breach, who actually owns that data, how do you maximize performance, and on and on ...)

What's your take? Will access become the default? Or is ownership a hardwired trait?

Please weigh in through the comments or join the conversation at Google+.

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

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January 26 2011

What if a book is just a URL?

bookish.jpgThe idea of access versus ownership is coming to the forefront quickly in the book publishing world. Inventive Labs recently launched the beta site for their HTML5 Book.ish ereader. All you need to use Book.ish is a web browser — you sign in and read your books. There's no software or files to download, just complete no-muss no-fuss access to your books. You don't own your books in the traditional sense — you own the rights to access them.

Australian indie bookstore Readings is in full experiment mode with the cloud-based pay-for-access concept. On Monday, they launched their ebook store, Readings Ebooks, which works together with Book.ish.

This cloud model will allow for lending, and it opens the possibility of resale for ebooks. In a recent post, Joseph Pearson (@josephpearson), one of the minds behind Book.ish, argued that cloud access is a better ownership model:

...if you "own" the ebook file, locked up with DRM — that's actually the most anemic definition of "ownership" I can think of. I don't see how — short of hacking it — that file is any insurance of your continued access to the book if you've purchased it from any of the major ebook platforms.

If we ditch that bad idea, new and perhaps better models of ownership can begin to supplant it. If a book is a URL, it is fantastically easy for you to lend a book to a friend: you simply give up access to the URL while they have it. That seems to me like a vital aspect of ownership, and an incredibly problematic aspect with files. More significantly, the right to re-sell your ebook emerges as a possibility — because you can transfer your right of access to another individual.

It will be interesting to watch the response not only from consumers, but publishers as well.

TOC: 2011, being held Feb. 14-16, 2011 in New York City, will explore "publishing without boundaries" through a variety of workshops, keynotes and panel sessions.

Save 15% off registration with the code TOC11RAD

October 22 2010

"Shiny app syndrome" and Gov 2.0

As citizens turns to the Internet for government information, policy and e-services, government entities necessarily have to respond. Government transparency means using search data to connect with citizens and increasing their findability. It also means "fishing where the fish are," engaging citizens on Facebook, Twitter or any other place citizens are congregating online. As Gov 2.0 goes local, it will naturally be tempting for state and town governments to create applications for the most popular platforms.

This is not a hypothetical scenario any more. At the recent Govfresh Gov 2.0 conference in Manor, Texas, one of the most compelling conversations circulated around exactly this issue. The archived video from the panel is available here.

The context for the conversation is important, since the decisions made by Texas will serve as a case study for other state governments. Earlier this year, Texas.gov relaunched with a new design and many new features, as detailed by Luke Fretwell at Govfresh. The state also developed a Texas.gov iPhone app to provide access to information and services to its citizens. As iPhone apps go, it's both handsome and functional.

Where the conversation in Manor got heated, however, was when Texas state government officials revealed that there was no Android or BlackBerry app, nor was there a mobile version of the Texas.gov site. One attendee, CityCamp founder Kevin Curry, asked a simple but important question: Are .gov iPhone apps "empowering the empowered?" Given that such apps require an Internet connection and an expensive iPod Touch or iPhone, do they essentially add to a digital divide? Is this an evolution of the issue that Michael Gurstein raised in September, where open data empowers the empowered?

The consensus of the attendees in Texas was clear: governments should start by building mobile sites to ensure access for the greatest number of citizens. After that, turn to HTML5 to create applications that will work on any device. Below, Manor Govfresh delegate Brownell Chalstrom talks about whether government mobile app development should focus on iPhones, Android or native HTML web apps first:

For an example of what that might look like in the publishing world, check out the public beta for the pocket reference of the O'Reilly mobile HTML5 app. While the W3C may suggest holding off on putting HTML5 into websites until 2011, the bets that Google, Facebook, the New York Times and the AP are making provide ample demonstration of the power of the HTML5 specification right now.

The power of mobile

Why is this important? As Pew Internet researcher Susannah Fox powerfully articulated in her presentation on the power of mobile:

82 percent of American adults have a cell phone. Six in 10 American adults go online wirelessly with a laptop or mobile device. Mobile was the final front in the access revolution. It has erased the digital divide. A mobile device is the Internet for many people.  Access isn't the point anymore. It's what people are doing with the access that matters.

These choices won't be easy. Everywhere you look in the technology world, there's a new app. Government technology shops, judging by their output, have become afflicted with a kind of "shiny app syndrome," given that an app is a substantive accomplishment that can be trotted out for officials and the public.

It's undestandable. The rapid growth of the iTunes platform has driven the development of a new mobile application ecosystem. Google, RIM, Palm and BlackBerry have launched competing application marketplaces, although only Android has grown to comparable scale. Just this past week, Apple announced a Mac app store for its computers and Mozilla announced a prototype of an open web ecosystem for its forthcoming app store.

What will the rapid growth of app stores mean for the open web? In some ways, the development pits applications against the World Wide Web itself. Mozilla is trying to create a decentralized app store platform. Apple has the quintessential closed app store platform. Google and Facebook's app platforms are somewhere in between.

In late 2010, the web does not equal Facebook, though the growth of the social networking giant into the most popular U.S. website shows how for many citizens, it has become an integral part of their online experience. But hyperlinks on the web still matter more than "hyperlikes" on Facebook, at least for the moment, and that's why the convergence of Google, government and privacy are of critical interest to all citizens.

The complexity of this environment is difficult for even the smartest technologists in the private sector to navigate, much less the relatively slow-moving institutions of government. As they work to apply the power of Web 2.0 to government, government officials will have to choose their investments carefully to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars in a technological deadpool. Tight budgets and limited resources mean those choices have to be smart ones.

The goals that public officials pursue when they create new .gov websites or applications should be based upon civic good. If that civic good is to be rendered to a population increasingly connected to one another through smartphones, tablets and cellphones, truly open governments will employ methods that provide access to all citizens, not just the privileged few.



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