Viewsdesk - chasing the global public sphere
Digital Culture03:30, November 14, 2010

More than 20 years ago, in Australia, there was a flourishing hacker culture: teenagers with a stick-it-to-the-man attitude roamed the international computer networks. Some for kicks, others driven by ideology. The world was their oyster as time and space morphed at the end of phone lines.

Being something of a mix between Neuromancer, The Art of War and The Cuckoo’s Egg, the book Underground: Tales of hacking, madness, and obsession on the electronic frontier by is quite an interesting read. It tells the stories of a handful of people, all of them involved in challenging the security systems of huge organizations, universities and companies. The book is available in all kinds of electronic formats for your reading pleasure.

As you read it, keep the handle Mendax in mind – and then connect the dots yourself. It just might be key to getting a better understanding of current affairs.

Technologies19:18, October 24, 2010

As Wikileaks first released 70,000 documents from the war in Afghanistan – and then a staggering 400,000 incident reports on Operation Iraqi Freedom, it’s become clear that great sources today means something different than waiting for Deep Throat to call. The question is if old media is up for the challenge?

The Swedish national television network, SVT, was one of the few news organizations invited by Wikileaks to get advance access to the data. Apparently, SVT has a dedicated database editor employed! This is not news for larger, international outfits, like The Guardian, but to my knowledge it’s a first in Sweden. It’s a move that must be applauded, and hopefully this will inspire others to follow.

Understanding data is crucial for journalists and needs to be a prioritized part of the job – and it’s really nothing new. Scientists, even in social and political science, have always been looking at the world through datasets. For them, data mining is a methodology for finding patterns, discrepancies and that particularly interesting angle that’s worth a closer look.

The data is the story, stupid!
In the Wikileaks case it is, of course, quite obvious that a journalist printing nearly half a million pages and, after a quick visit to the coffee machine, start reading from page one is going to fail – and fail miserably. But it doesn’t have to be a massive material like this to make a data based process worthwhile.

In a transparent world, all data – in its raw, true, unedited state – would be made available to the public. The good thing is that the world is potentially filled with people qualified to do such analyses, and where journalists would fail or don’t find that needle in the haystack, maybe someone else will. Because the data is there, for everyone!

The data is the insight, stupid!
There is a tendency to treat whatever knowledge or intelligence is built up within an organization very secretively. In the end, the world has silos of insight, but no way of connecting the dots.

As I see it, there are two ways of looking at it. Firstly, from the point of transparency. This is what scares people, because what if someone finds something to complain about? There’s a tendency to treat data like business secrets, and reserve exclusive right to interpret the data. Transparency is naturally most important for anything governmental, but in that sector at least we can legislate for openness. Doing so for private enterprise is much more difficult.

Secondly, and this is what I believe people are missing, is that data mining and auditing by a third party can actually help the organizations’ internal processes. It will make them smarter; it will help them get better at whatever it is they’re doing. It will help companies churn out better products and better services.

There are, for example, a lot of NGOs that should open up their projects and submit its data of statistics, knowledge and insight for general use by external parties. Not because they have to, by law, but because they would gain from it.

Charity organizations are also dependent on donations, and it’s reasonable to think that donors have the right to know exactly how their money is spent. Understandably it’s scary, but the question is if they can afford not to do it in the long run? What if the donors would require it to make a donation? It’s the route that the UN is taking, for example.

The data is the giant, stupid!
Once data is set free, it can be combined and cross-referenced with other data. It can be plotted to geographical information system or provide answers to questions the creators never imagined. Suddenly, a seemingly dull dataset gets new life, and can possibly be used for something that wasn’t imagined by its creators.

Hans Rosling, professor of public health, and a fantastic public speaker at that, combine UN data, and fight for more open data, and gain valuable insights that would have been impossible to attain in any other way.

Data owners must realize that they are the giants on whose shoulders people want to be standing.

ICT4D17:56, October 22, 2010

Though the fight is less Batman and more committee, the UNs latest report on how ICTs can be used to alleviate poverty is interesting and highlights a very important role for technology to play. There are no guarantees that improved access to ICTs leads to poverty reduction. Information accessed through ICTs has to be relevant and appropriately presented to benefit the poor, reflecting the needs, skills and capabilities of the latter.

Better information – better decisions
Poor people often lack access to information that is vital to their lives and livelihoods, including weather reports, market prices and income-earning opportunities. Such lack of information adds to the vulnerability of the people concerned. In terms of livelihood strategies, information plays a dual role: informing and strengthening the short-term decision-making capacity of the poor themselves; and informing and strengthening the longer-term decision-making capacity of intermediaries that facilitate, assist or represent the poor. The contribution of ICTs to poverty reduction through enterprise lies in their power to give poor women and men access to improved information and better communications to help them build livelihood assets.

Evidence-based insights
Far more needs to be understood about the emerging new roles and impacts of ICTs in poor communities. As few empirical studies have looked specifically at this question, the evidence base remains weak. By placing the spotlight on this area, this the UN-report points to the need for more attention in terms of research and policy analysis to help identify the best ways forward in order to seize maximum development gains from the new ICT landscape.

Wireless is the way forward
Access to most ICTs continues to grow in poor countries, but at very different rates depending on the technology. Growth also varies by region and income level. Access to fixed telephone lines in the poorest countries is extremely low and almost negligible in rural areas. By contrast, mobile access deepens each year as networks extend to more of the formerly unreachable. After a radio or a television set, the next most likely ICT device found in poor households is a mobile phone.

The use of mobile phones to access the Internet is growing rapidly and may eventually become more prevalent in developing countries than in developed countries. In East Africa, for example, Internet access via mobile phones now far exceeds fixed Internet subscriptions. This underscores the potential for mobile phones to transform Internet use in the developing world.

Internet Governance17:38, October 7, 2010


Oliver Johnson, in his article Net Neutrality – The Phony War, published in this week’s CircleID, has a deterministic view on why net neutrality is never going to be achieved. It is, he argues, just a mirage even today. Net neutrality can never be achieved, simply because it is not in the interest of the markets. The problem, he says, is that the ISPs and cable companies must generate growth. This far, growth has been maintained by selling more and more connections. However, as the number of households is finite, that growth is impossible to retain. The only route left then is segmentation. His argument is self-referring.

Stability just isn’t sexy enough. If you want your share price to increase then you have to demonstrate revenue and preferably margin growth.

For whom is the “market”?
We have to stop talking about the market as an absolute. What we call a market is not as inescapable as gravity. It is not a law of nature. Without going too much into specifics, it’s clear that a capitalist market works well – most of the time. There are however, many occasions where it doesn’t work, of perform badly. Exactly where we draw the line depends on where you are in the world: most of Europe, for example, have quite a different view than the US on basic health services. But in all societies, regardless of country, there is a line.

Politicians, step up!
It is the responsibility of the politicians to oversee the market so that society reaps the maximum amount of benefits from it. I wonder if there’s any (developed) country where fire services are privatized, just to name one? When a house is on fire, it’s an issue for the whole community – not just the owner of the house.

History shows that cable companies are not very good at creating, what Mr. Johnson calls, value-added services. In fact, to put it bluntly, they suck at it. The reason the Internet grew, and won over competing closed services (and there were many: The Microsoft Network, CompuServe, AOL to name but a few) 15 years ago was because infrastructure and content is two very, very different breeds of horses.

Focus on what you do best. If companies who build roads would start making cars, or build amusement parks where people could go using the company’s roads in the company’s cars, most would agree that it was a serious case of hubris. Even if it made their shareholders disappointed.

Freedom to invent
Mr. Johnson speaks of a market. But there are others markets. Net neutrality guarantees that there’s a market of competing services on the internet. ISPs have one job to do: deliver bits. They might not like that, but really, that’s what they’re good at. Please, keep your fingers out of the other jars!

Without free competition on the internet market – if there was no net neutrality ten years ago, none of the services we use and love today would have existed. Not Google. Not Facebook. Not Flickr. Not Twitter. Kiva? Delicious? Yahoo? No! Definitely not The Pirate Bay or Torrentreactor and thus not Spotify or Pandora! I could go on. What we would have, in that alternate reality, is News Corp, Time Warner and Disney. In this universe Barak Obama wouldn’t be president of the United States!

I’m left with the feeling that Mr. Johnson is willing to sacrifice what could be the most important infrastructural achievement since the construction of a nationwide road network, all to keep shareholders in a few major cable companies happy. That’s outrageous.

Who is Topic Point?
It seems his argument is not only self-referring but also self-serving. It might be also interesting to note the Oliver Johnson is the CEO of Point Topic, a company that makes a living giving advice to broadband carriers.

Censorship00:13, October 5, 2010

Twenty years ago, this week, East and West Germany was reunited. The Berlin wall had crumbled – and with it fell of one the most oppressive regimes that had ever existed in Europe. Today we look at Iran and Cuba to illustrate censorship, oppression and breeches of human rights, but we shouldn’t forget that evil could just as well happen closer to our own doorstep. And if it does, we won’t necessarily recognize it. Not until it’s too late.

The Deutsche Demokratische Republik was a notoriously paranoid state. Using technology, that at that time was cutting-edge, it spied profusely on its citizens. The fear of subversive elements made Stasi, the secret police, powerful and all knowing. There was no way of knowing if your neighbor was just an elderly lady or an informer for the state. Naturally, this lead to strategies of immense self-censorship that was, in a sense, even worse than the open oppression.

One should tread carefully into the domains of historical parallels. Often, comparing a society with another gets overly simplistic. However, at the same time, there are things we can learn from history as it tells us something about structure and human responses to issues at hand.

There’s a proverb that says that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I feel that there’s a lot too that.

The development in the western world today is very quickly going a direction of more and more surveillance, often with the quite rational argument to fight terrorism and/or child pornography. Suddenly we have filtering systems put in place. We have internet wiretapping listening to each bit we send through the pipes. We have data retention laws that make mobile operators save information about the conversations we’ve had. Let’s face it, mandatory DNA sampling is just around the corner.

And for what?

People will adapt; they will change their behavior and censor themselves. Suddenly, the mind is not as free anymore. In fact, this has already happened.

I would like us to, while marking the German anniversary, also be introspective and rethink our position on our own situation. We are not DDR – we will never be the DDR. That’s not the issue. But we risk becoming something else. Something we didn’t intend. Something just as bad.

Free Speech22:12, September 28, 2010

Hossein Derakhshan, aka Hoder, who’ve been in held in custody since November 2008 without trial, received his sentence today. On charges the of collaborating with enemy states, propagating against the Islamic Republic, propaganda in support of counter-revolutionary groups, “insulting what is holy” and creating immoral websites, Derakhshan received a total of 19-and-a-half years in jail – plus a five-year ban on political and journalistic activities.

A Man With a Mission
I had the opportunity to meet Derakhshan, during a conference here in Stockholm in February of 2006 – and for a brief coffee, the day after, at the Stockholm train station. I was about to go to Iran to write my masters thesis, and he took the time to answer some of my questions. He was a man on a mission – that much was clear. There was something death defying in how he went about his business; he charged like an express train towards one of the most ruthless regimes on the planet, seemingly without fear. I was grateful, though. He bestowed me with some of his courage, and I went to Iran with less on my shoulders.

An Unlikely Country
Derakhshan has been credited with creating the Iranian blogosphere, which was extremely vibrant in the mid-00’s – some years before other countries caught up. And although his claim-to-fame as the blog father might well be exaggerated, it is clear that he did play a vital role, not only within the country but also internationally. He put Iran, unlikely as it was, in the middle of the blog hype. A country best known for oppression was suddenly on the leading edge.

Friends and Enemies
In the years between I met him and his arrest, he made both friends and enemies. And as his activities, ideas and ideology shifted throughout the years, some of his friends also became enemies. Sadly, it would become very obvious that very few of his enemies became his friends. Regardless, the new situation means we need to put aside such differences and back him up. Hoder do not belong in jail. Neither do any of the other Iranian political prisoners.

Act Now!
So what can you do to help him? This will probably evolve as time goes by, but right now it seems like Facebook might be the first step in a campaign that will most definitely deepen as time pass. There’s a group created in his support, and joining will hopefully keep you updated on any new events.

Best point of contact right now, and a sure source for regular and accurate updates is Cyrus Farivar, an American-Iranian journalist and author, that keeps in close contact with Derakhshan’s family.

Internet Governance03:56, March 7, 2007

We all know that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a bureaucratic organization, but reading this post from a (now former) member of the At Large Advisory Commitee (ALAC), the group charged with representing the interests of ordinary Internet users within ICANN, shows us just how complex it really is. John Levine writes:

I thought hard about what I might accomplish if I spent several more years on the ALAC. Maybe we could get retail domain name prices to be $10.50 rather than $11 […] or get ICANN to fix the loophole that permits domain tasting. […] Or we might not. In the big picture, how much effort is this all worth? Not much. Certainly not almost a month each year.

Personally, I think ICANN’s work is invaluable to the decentralized structure of the Internet. There have been much ado about that the UN should get more control over the organization, but I’ve been hesitant to agree considering that some countries, who would then have some control over the Internet, can be said to have a less-than-perfect track record when it comes to protecting openness and free speech. However, this post by John Levine worries me also. What happens if ICANN gets so complex and opaque that no – or very few – idealists get their hands dirty? If the representatives with the stamina to go on are all paid lobbyists, lawyers and trade mark representatives?

Recommended reading for anyone interested in a inside report on internet governance. Read the full post at John Levine’s blog (also published on Circle ID).

Uncategorized12:36, March 2, 2007

Using the site The Great Firewall of China, it is possible to check which sites are blocked or not by the Chinese Government. The flash application connects to a test server within the country, tries to access the site and return the status of the page. A great resource, if it weren’t for one thing:

Message: Your URL is BlockedThe test methodology seems a bit flawed or there are discrepancies between various Chinese ISP’s, because according to the site, this blog is blocked from access within China, however I have had one report saying that it is indeed accessible – at least from within the network operated by China Telecom. Any more reports on this would be appreciated. (If this blog is indeed blocked, it would be ironic. My guess would have been that Iran, who is not blocking me, would have more reason to be upset than China?)

Iran17:32, March 1, 2007

While the Iranian’s are trying their best to change the world’s perception of them as a breed of inhuman terrorists by posting heartwarming movies on the internet, depicting a completely different Iran than you would see on Fox News, popular culture in Israel is going another route.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a pretty big deal, and this year Israel’s entry in the competition is a political song, where the band Teapacks sing about the Iranian nuclear program and how Ahmadinejad is going to “Push the button” and destroy Israel. Tasteless? You be the judge:

Read the lyrics here, listen to the song here (windows media). Or see the performance on video here (windows media).

Uncategorized02:24, February 27, 2007

In an effort to start blogging regularly again (I’ve been so busy lately that all non-critical things have been sadly neglected) I just want to direct some attention to the new European office of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Even though Europe, compared to many other regions of the world, is a pretty good place to be in for journalists, bloggers and ordinary people, there are serious threats on the horizon. Threats that challenge the personal freedoms and the very basic fundamental rights that we have taken for granted for decades ? if not centuries. In a time when the EU, and national governments, all across the European continent (among them, my own Swedish government) is busy drafting legislation that will, for example, permit extensive wiretapping of all electronic communication and give authority to representatives for the film and music industry to police the networks, we are in dire need of a unified civil liberties movement.

My hope is the EFF Europe, with their excellent track-record, can provide our part of the world with valuable resources in the struggle to ensure that the freedoms that have signified European countries since the enlightenment are not taken away from us. We need to talk about these things, debate them and really consider of the profound consequences before letting something like IPRED2 be turned into law.

Iran17:12, January 2, 2007

Starting January 1st, Iranian bloggers are expected to register (link in Persian) their blogs with a governmental agency and receive a registration number to put on their websites, my Iranian sources tells me. Apparently, failure to comply within the two months deadline will result in filtering. This has also been reported here before, but there are still a lot of unclear issues.

I wonder how many will actually register, and if this apply also to Iranians outside Iran? Only if they write in Persian? Will they filter everything that is not approved, or did they invent this to have an excuse to censor arbitrarily?

Uncategorized08:22, December 5, 2006

Word from Iran has it that parts of Wikipedia are censored for access from within the country. The English language version of the user-edited encyclopedia was blocked for a few weeks but was recently re-opened, my sources tell me. The Kurdish version is still blocked however, and can not be accessed at all from within Iran.

Iran?s Kurdish minority is a constant worry for the Iranian central regime, when some of the people have refused to assimilate into the mainstream of national life and does, along with their fellow Kurds in adjacent regions of Iraq and Turkey, seek either regional autonomy or the outright establishment of an independent Kurdish state in the region.

It appears not only the Chinese are afraid of the power of wikis, although their movements are more closely monitored by the NGOs, the international press and the blogging digerati.

Censorship14:02, December 4, 2006

In this short essay I summarize a not-so-positive view on ICT diffusion and the impact it might have on developing countries in non-western contexts. I also, briefly, discuss the situation in the Middle East.

The American president Ronald Reagan was, in the years following his presidency, convinced that the spread of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) were going to help bring down the Soviet Union, and prophesied “the Goliath of the totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip” (Kalathil and Boas 2003). Optimists take for granted that the introduction of communication technology leads to increased exchange of ideas and that mediation itself is constructive (Bohman 2004:47).

While the information revolution rapidly unfolds, governments around the world are affected by the profound changes that come with it. The advancement of technologies in general and of ICTs in particular, has been discussed in political circles for decades as a means to change the outset for political evolution. Often, a very optimistic view is heard from world-leaders and journalists, who believe that the internet will lead to salvation for the democracy-starved third world. Others mean that this view is simplistic, too positive and that there is no empirical evidence to support the claims.


ICT4D15:58, November 23, 2006

The operating system for the OLPC is now available as a virtual appliance that can be used together with the (free) VMWare Player. Instructions are available here at Tom Hoffman’s site.

The $100 Laptop is coming along nicely, and although I’m sure Mr Negroponte would have liked to have a few more units ordered to secure the projects success, it’s starting to look more and more like a finished product.

I have set up a mirror of the appliance to help with the bandwidth (it was very slow when i downloaded it). Download the OLPC from my mirror (In Sweden) from TPB. Or from other servers here or here. The file is 135 Mb in size.

Iran09:05, November 21, 2006

I realized that most days, on this blog, all I talk talk about is the bad stuff that is happening in Iran: an endless stream of posts about filtering, imprisonment and repression. In this post I would like to show you the other side. I’m not a photographer (and I will not quit my day job) but please take a look at this attempt to a photo essay.

censored magazine coverIran is so much more than what you hear on the news and, quite honestly, the country took me by storm. A endlessly rich culture and tolerant and curious people, living closer to us than Fox News would have us believe. It’s the home of millions of people and carries with it an ancient culture that is both beautiful and profound. The real Iran!

Unfortunately, due to the harsh realities of the Iranian society, the most important thing is missing from the pictures: the wonderful people I met and spent time with, people whose hospitality and warmth towards me as a stranger was incomprehensible then and even more surreal now. For their protection, they cannot be associated with me – and it hurts me not to be able to give them proper credit.


Iran09:34, November 18, 2006

The government in Tehran seems to be changing their use of filtering software, or at least there is an increased diversity. According to older data from and Opennet Initiative, the Iranian authorities use SmartFilter – a commercial filtering solution from an American company – to control the citizens’ access to certain websites. My sources suggest that there seem to be other solutions as well, even though SmartFilter may well still exist. Rumors are floating around however, about German solutions, and about more sophisticated Chinese tracking systems. What?s clear is that there seem to be a plethora of solutions used, without any coherent strategy or use of a single point of exit, such is the case in other countries. This should, in theory, mean that the block lists also differ slightly between ISPs?

Below are five screenshots sent to me from within Iran. The sixth and last screenshot was taken by me in May 2006 and is shown for reference.

The images show different block pages, some clearly identifiable as output from other filtering packages than SmartFilter, but since I don’t have access to the source code for these pages, I cannot examine code nor headers. Chances are that it would reveal more information.

(The images have been altered slightly to avoid exposing my sources.)

Datak in Tehran
Block page from Datak (Tehran) Datak is an ISP offering dial-up, ADSL and Wifi/Wimax internet access in Tehran and some of other provinces. Flicker is blocked, as can be seen in the example. Unknown filtering software.

Block page from Parsonline (From When this screen shot was taken, ParsOnline used Websense to filter websites, as disclosed by the page title.

Block page from Sepanta (Tehran) Sepanta is an ISP – not sure about their size or location – and this is their block page. Not sure which filtering software is being used here. (The page you get redirected to is also accessible from outside Iran.)

Block page from Shatel (Tehran) ISP offering dial-up and high-speed access in Tehran, Karaj and Tabriz. Seem to be using the Separ system for filtering. Separ is an Iranian hardware-based product. Switching to this solution was apparently not hassle free for the users, I’ve heard, with hours of downtime.

Block page from a university in southern Iran This block page looks identical to what is reportedly used by the Telecommunications Company of Iran. Said to be based on SmartFilter.

Internet Caf?, May 2006
Block page from Internet café in Tehran, May 2006 This was the block page I saw most often when I was in Iran. (Here is another version of the page, taken in the same café taken just the other day ? still the same.) The Internet Café’s IP resolves to ParsOnline and it’s reasonable to suspect that this is their block page. Why this is different is from the one at blockpage is unclear to me. One is probably newer than the other. Anyone knows?

* * *

Western Companies Chasing Profit?
Looking at the Iranian software market, the first thing that strikes you is that everything is pirated. Everything! The concept buying software is completely and utterly non-existent. Or rather, software is might well be bought, but it’s not the real thing – even though it has the glossy CD-sleeves and plastic wrapping. In any computer store, there is the ubiquitous software shelf with pirated CDs en masse.

This makes me question the outbursts of morality that companies such as SmartFilter receives, when mentioned as the suppliers of filtering software to Iran. Even if they use software from western companies, I sincerely doubt the Iranian regime is paying license fees for them. (And, if producing filtering software is immoral to begin with is another question – but also an entirely different discussion.)

Iran05:23, November 13, 2006

It’s been a couple of weeks since the Iranian authorities put a 128 kbps speed limit on ADSL-connections, and the Iranians have started to organize in protest of the decision. A friend of mine in Iran sent me two links to sites that protest against the decision: here and here.

My friend, however, doesn’t dare to sign the petition himself, since he’s afraid that the protest will get noticed by the government ? and that it could potentially get the signers in trouble. He writes:

I didn’t sign the petition nor joined the sites sponsors simply because I don’t want to act politically. Maybe you say it’s not political, but believe me, here every thing can be turned to political protest.

I really don’t blame him for thinking like that. I would probably do the same, I think. That said, this question on what issues that are considered as being a political act is really interesting, from my point of view.

Censorship and Iran03:26, October 24, 2006

Reports have been coming, in the recent days, that the Iranian regime has capped all privately owned Internet connections to the ridiculously slow 128 kbps. Most of the reports – at least the ones that I have read – focus entirely on the fact that it’s a virtual ban of broadband content such as videos from YouTube and music downloads. I agree that this is a problem, but I would also like to add another structural problem that I feel is potentially worse than missing out on the latest viral advertisements – however funny they may be. I do not believe the only reason for this ban is to stop the influx of western culture. I think it is also (another) way of shortening the leash for freedom of speech inside Iran.

The Internet is a wonderful medium, and one I personally believe is excellent for the promotion of democracy, simply because it is inherently symmetrical. What I mean by that is that those who can receive can also transmit. This argument is well known though the debate of Net Neutrality in the United States (not so much in Europe). Anyone can set up a server and make just about anything available to a global audience. The Iranian imposed limit, however, effectively removes the opportunity to do so. You cannot run much of a web server on 128 kbps ADSL. Not if your intention is to get read. Also, you can’t set up TOR-nodes to hide behind with only that amount of bandwidth to spend.

The regime probably knows that this ban force people to use one of its authorized servers if they want to publish a blog or a forum. And these servers are so much easier to control.

My point is that democracy builds on participation. If you can’t, for example, organize a strike or discuss political issues with your extended network, there will be no democracy. Regardless whether or not you can download the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in less than a minute. And I think it is imperative that the decentralized structure of the Internet is allowed to shape the future too. Even in Iran.


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