Viewsdesk - chasing the global public sphere

January 2006

ICT4D04:49, January 28, 2006

UNDP has decided to back the One Laptop Per Child-project, initiated by Nicolas Negroponte, Routers and AP reports. The United Nations will work together with the non-profit foundation, to help sell the $100 computer to governments.

Also, Lo?c Le Meur posted a podcast with Nicholas Negroponte, from the Economic Forum in Davos.

Intel however, seems not impressed with the initiative, calling the cheap computer merely “a gadget”, since they seem to believe it lacks both capacity and software. Yeah, I bet you’re scared: If people could put such low-spec computer to good use – how can you make people buy faster and faster chips? Besides, it is a learning tool, and it may well be beside the point whether or not it can compete with products costing many, many times the price.

Censorship04:27, January 24, 2006

In the spirit of defying those who attempt to limit free speech, the radio show On Point broadcasted a special hour-long segment about Internet Censorship and Surveillance last Friday. Featured guests include Ron Deibert of the Open Net Initiative, Tim Wu of Columbia Law School, Julien Pain of Reporters Without Borders and Declan McCullah of CNet.

You can search for whatever you like, but type in “democracy” in China’s blogosphere, or “human rights” or “women” in Iran, and you’re getting nothing. E-mail trails are sending dissidents to jail. Whole realms of thought are being filtered right off the web — and American companies are helping.

The whole show can be found online in RealAudio and Windows Media format. No MP3, it seems, so you can’t listen to it on the subway home, unfortunately.

Digital Culture17:32, January 18, 2006

In a time when commercial messages and advertisements are allowed to take over the public sphere, large-scale art projects are few and far between.

A few years ago, the German Chaos Computer Club took over a building in Berlin to create the largest computer screen ever. By painting the windows white and putting computer-controlled floodlights behind them, the windows were transformed into pixels. Although this is cool in its own right, the CCC went even further and allowed the public to create messages and animations to display on the screen. It was a huge success.

The group was invited to do it all again a year later, this time in Paris – using the fa?ade of Biblioth?que nationale de France. Second time around, the lights were more advanced and could display more shades. Again, public participation was imperative -the people was not just recipients of messages, they were producers of meaning. (Video documentation from the two projects, really cool!)

In Sweden, I doubt any politician would dare to allow this. Commercial messages however, they seem to have less problem with. Graffiti on the subway trains is fought with vigour, but the transit authorities allow companies to buy entire wagons to be used as billboards. And a few months ago, during the renovation of a Clara Church in central Stockholm, H&M was allowed to hang huge posters right on the church.

Everything is for sale, it seems.

Censorship and Iran03:38, January 14, 2006

Laura Secor, reporter with The New Yorker, has written a lengthy piece about the situation in Iran. It attempts to explain the current political developments in the country, and should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the recent chicken-race when it comes to Iran’s atom program.

It’s a really nice read, and she interviews both public and not-so-public people, in her – seemingly genuine – quest to explain the apparent quirkiness of another culture. The result is an honest account, if maybe somewhat normative at the egdes. Hossein Derakhshan, aka Hoder – exile Iranian ?berblogger, gives the article his blessing and calls it the deepest and most insightful piece by an American he’s ever read. That I cannot judge, I’ll just have to take his word for it.

The article describes the political and public sphere, and how participation sometimes is frowned upon – to say the least. She quotes: “We have freedom of expression – just not freedom after expression”. Particularly interesting was the section about blogger Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, who was jailed last fall for writing material on his blog that stirred up emotions among the rulers. The story has been told before, from another perspective, but the account is more detailed.

Censorship and Digital Culture16:17, January 13, 2006

Yesterday Wikipedia was not true enough for some. Today, it is too true for others.

Via: Information Policy

Free Speech02:40, January 10, 2006

After several American companies have been exposed when doing questionable business with repressive governments, Reporters Without Borders are proposing an ethical standard to be imposed on companies doing technology-related business with such nations. The companies should, among other things, be forced to incorporate a white-list of words – such as democracy or human rights, one would presume – that are rendered impossible to censor.

The argument is that the Yahoo’s and the Google’s was spawned out of – and thus are the products of – an environment where speech is free, and that such companies should not be allowed to make a buck by helping governments to deny that freedom from others.

In general terms, I think this is a terrific idea. Or rather – there shouldn’t even be a discussion: the companies themselves should shun business like this like the black plague. But I agree with Rebecca MacKinnon – it should, if at all possible, be resolved without involvement from government or the international community. It should be in the companies’ interest not to be perceived as money-hungry capitalists without conscience by their customers.

However, humor me for a second and consider the academic argument. This problem is a very good example of the inherent problem with an open society. If everybody is allowed to do whatever they want, manufacture whatever they want, trade with whomever they chose – eventually someone’s going to do something stupid, right? There can be no way of stopping that (…and if we could, or would, stop it – would society still be really free?).

My thoughts also linger on the practicalities behind the idea of a universal consensus around democratic principle. What is tolerated in a democracy is always defined within some kind of envelope, and what falls outside those invisible borders are not set in stone. Does not China, for example, have the same right to decide what threatens their society as the USA does? Just fifty years ago, America was witch-hunting communists because the American government believed there was a threat to the society, and today western governments see terrorists everywhere ? and are combating them with any means necessary. Wire-taps and data retention are just a few of the artifacts created by our open society as of late. And in Sweden, the police provides ISP’s with an IP-list to content we can’t tolerate within our open and democratic society. See, the envelope exists even here. We’re just so much closer to it.

This is, without doubt, not as easy as it seems – even though I firmly believe companies like Fortinet, known for trading with Burma, should seize their activities and adopt a voluntary code-of-conduct. By the way, does anybody know if there are ethical investment funds that screen for this kind of behavior?