Viewsdesk - chasing the global public sphere

February 2006

Iran17:14, February 27, 2006

My interest in Iran, and how citizen participation – primarily through electronic media – influence the public sphere has prompted me to focus on this in my master thesis in media and communication studies.

Thanks to a generous travel grant from The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), I will be able to travel to Iran and conduct the field studies necessary. I leave in the beginning of April, and plan to say in Iran for about eight weeks before returning to Sweden. During that time, I will meet, listen to and interview as many bloggers as I can.

The main research area is how the organization of the civil society is affected by the increased participation offered by the Internet and blogs. The background is that a well-organized civil society is often suggested to be an absolute necessity in the phases of transition towards a democratic rule.

Other research questions include: How can the Iranian public sphere be classified, and what characteristics does it have? What are the implications of political participation in Iran regarding self-censorship etcetera? How does state-sanctioned censorship affect the public sphere, and how – if at all – can the online censorship be circumvented?

I intend to be very transparent during this research, and I appreciate any feedback. More details will be posted shortly, watch this space!

Naturally, I’m interested in all contacts I can possibly get in Iran. If you can help me, don’t hesitate to drop me an email (jonathan -at- qem -dot- se).

Digital Culture03:52, February 18, 2006

If you buy something – you own it, right? You can repaint your house in any color you like; you can fit eighteen-inch rims on your Fiat Punto; you can use your CD’s as frisbees in the summer and as ice-scrapers during the winter? Well, no, when your stuff is digital, it appears that your stuff is no longer yours.

The right to ownership, access to a secondary commodity market and universal Internet access: they’re all different sides of the same coin. But if the corporations are left to their own devices, all three might not be in our future anytime soon.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act is once again being used to control what people do with stuff that is legally theirs. This is not really news, but has been done lots of times before. This time around, they want to block people from unlocking their cellphones in order to use a different provider. The rationale here is that the phone company need the user to stay within the network to cover the cost of the subsidized handsets.

Let’s investigate why this behavior is a dangerous when seen through the perspective of consumers.

First of all, the right of ownership. If you own it, you must be allowed to do whatever you like with what is yours – if you can’t, its not ownership, but leasing or something else altogether. In the example of the cell phone, this means that you must be free to hack, modify or alter the device, in whatever way you see fit. This includes removing any blocks that are put in there but the operator. Would we accept a fridge that only worked with Nestlé food? Probably not.

Secondly, access to a secondary market. This is really important. If I get bored with my whatever, I must be able to sell it? And the phone, for example, cannot be locked to a particular operator, with no possibility for me to change it. without breaking the law. Also, DRM often limits the right to resale a digital protected file, which is a disaster for many communities, especially in the developing world. For example, libraries can no longer donate used books to other institutions, but will be required to throw them away.

Lately there’s been much discussion about a new threat to cell phone providers – people using open WiFi access points for calling. For example, FON have been getting a whole lot of hype in the last few weeks (mostly because of their recruitment of agenda-setting bloggers, one might argue…). The belief is that handsets will be equipped with dual functionality; use WiFi if its within a hotspot, or fall back to GSM, UMTS, CDMA or whatever low-bandwidth alternative there is when the wireless broadband fail.

The phone companies probably should be scared. A huge source of income is without doubt people in metropolitan cities, exactly those who might get access to WiFi-networks pretty easily.

The problem is that handsets are expensive pieces of equipment, and in order to afford them, most people go for subsidized, branded (and inferior) versions. These are tightly controlled by the operators, who bloat the software with proprietary links and logos to maintain control over the experience. Some phones completely lack the brand name of a traditional manufacturer, such as Sony Ericsson or Nokia, but push only the operators own band. Vodafone is among of the most aggressive operators doing this today. You buy a Vodafone phone – and you get Vodafone service. For life, if they have it their way.

So, consumer behavior has changed, from first finding a cell phone they like and then find a reasonable service for it, to buying everything from the service provider.

Very few people can afford to buy an un-subsidized handset, and considering that it would be outright stupid of operators to subsidize handsets sporting WiFi-capabilities, and thus digging its own grave, I think it is highly unlikely that such offerings will be available anytime soon.

If I, personally, want mobile Internet access through my 3G-phone today, the rate is approximately US$1,20 per megabyte – way too much to do anything useful. In the end, this will lead to a less expansive public Internet, and it will not become a commodity that could serve society.

ICT4D04:33, February 10, 2006

A new book called Wireless Networking in the Developing World – A Practical Guide to Planning and Building Low-Cost Telecommunications Infrastructure, tries to explain exactly what its name implies. Using cheap hardware and existing standards, it is possible to create new networks much more cost-efficiently than with any wired approach, and this publication attempts to explain how and why. The logic is that people in rural areas – in developing countries – can operate and maintain their own network, if given the proper knowledge how these things work. In every village, there are people who can build just about anything – so why not networks?

I am certainly not an engineer and my experience with radio doesn?t stretch beyond flipping the channels on an FM-receiver and some basic high school physics. However, I found the book to be an exiting read. I had no idea you could use cookware and a USB-dongle to make a parabolic dish, or that an empty tin can double as a waveguide. It’s both theoretical and practical in its approach, and explain very well how everything fits together.

The authors are all specialists in their area, and have worked for years with putting these things into practice. Some of the projects are described as case studies in the last chapter of the book.

The whole book can be downloaded under a Creative Commons license.

Digital Culture13:34, February 2, 2006

A couple of days ago the BBC reported that a document called the Information Operations Roadmap (PDF) had been declassified and that it contained some pretty interesting stuff.

The American dominance over the Internet, recently manifested by its unwillingness to hand over some of the critical control to UN-organizations, may have another side to it. Usually, the American model of openness is said to be the main reason for the American reluctance. But, reading the Roadmap, it is not very difficult to find some less appealing ulterior motives.

The document blatantly speaks about the Internet as an enemy weapons system, and that US forces should try to gain and maintain control over the entire electro-magnetic spectrum and that the US must be able to “disrupt or destroy the full spectrum of globally emerging communications systems, sensors, and weapons systems dependent on the electromagnetic spectrum”

This is most definitely the military response of what, a decade ago, as called netwars – a concept, and particular type of information warfare, that the RAND Corporation published a report about, called Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (PDF available).

Also, another RAND report published in collaboration with the National Defense Research Institute U. S. and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in 1999 was entitled The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward an American Information Strategy. (PDF available) It analyses the soft power potential of the Internet and how it should be used to “get everybody in the world hooked on the dreams made in Hollywood”.

The growth of Noopolitik, they say, is a paradigmatic shift:

While realpolitik tends to empower states, noopolitik will likely empower networks of state and nonstate actors. Realpolitik pits one state against another, but noopolitik encourages states to cooperate in coalitions and other mutual frameworks.

Iran12:57, February 1, 2006

Blogger-in-exile, Hossein “Hoder” Derakhshan, is coming to Sweden and will hold an open lecture on the Iranian blogosphere and political life in Iran. Just show up, if you’re interested — and you should be!

Date and time: 8th of February 2006, 1000-1200 CET
Location: JMK-salen, Institutionen för Journalistik, Medier och Kommunikation, Karlavägen 104, Stockholm.