[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]
Denis O’Brien, owner of the Digicel Group, graces the cover of the August 11th issue of Forbes Magazine. Their profile, titled ‘Babble Rouser’, begins with a tone of detached and vaguely supercilious astonishment at the risks that Digicel has incurred in the course of its lightning-quick expansion across the island nations of the world. It quickly sobers, though, when it reports that the Digicel Group earned $505 million in operating profit on $1.6 billion in revenue in the financial year ending March, 2008.
Forbes leaves it to O’Brien himself to explain his damn-the-torpedoes philosophy:
“Get big fast. [Damn] the cost. Be brave. Go over the cliff. [The competition] doesn’t have the balls.”
I suspect he used some word other than ‘damn’.
Most anyone would enjoy downing a beer with the honey-tongued chancer from Cork, but Denis O’Brien didn’t make the cover of Forbes merely because of a flamboyant devil-may-care attitude. He’s noteworthy because he saw an opportunity where others didn’t, and he got rich capitalising on it.
The idea is simple enough: If you give everyone – literally everyone – access to mobile services, you can make money everywhere. In O’Brien’s world, there is no such thing as low-hanging fruit. Every single market gets aggressively cultivated. The fruits of such labours are truly remarkable.
I’ve been arguing for the last few weeks that what’s needed most for Vanuatu is to invest significant time and effort into the creation of a new crop of technically savvy individuals who can help Vanuatu bridge the growing gap between life in the information age and life as we’ve always known it in the islands.
There’s a pressing need for people to assist with this transition. The barriers have begun to fall that once allowed life in the village to remain consistent, with change seeping in slowly and in tiny doses. Very soon, most everyone in Vanuatu will have access to mobile telephony. We’re already hearing stories about Tannese in Middle Bush bringing their mobile to the garden with them, just in case someone wants to reach them.
Only weeks ago, nobody really got fussed about waiting days or even weeks to hear a bit of news. But now that we can actually get it, we want information immediately. It’s a universal human trait to want to keep caught up on the latest. In the past people here have been content to let information and gossip arrive at its own pace, confident at least that nobody was getting the jump on anyone else. But now, someone who owns a mobile phone holds a distinct advantage over those without. In this culture – and most others – knowledge is power, and in Vanuatu, a new arms race has begun.
I made a mistake this week, or rather a misjudgement. I wrote about a new threat called Goolag, in which a malicious person could use Google to find servers on the Internet that are vulnerable to attack. The servers are infected with malicious code that causes anyone who visits them to be exposed to compromise. This is how many an innocent person’s computer becomes a spam-bot, remotely controlled by hackers and used to send spam, and sometimes to infect its neighbours as well.
I wrote, “Making simple mistakes is the easiest way to expose yourself to attack…. You won’t be targeted so much as stumbled across.”
Within two days of writing about the issue, an online security blog reported a wave of attacks affecting approximately 200,000 web servers. The single most important part of comedy, as they say, is timing.
This latest wave of attacks is important to us for a couple of reasons: It demonstrates that the democratising effect of information on the Web respects no single set of ethics or morality. The very same information-sharing tools that have so empowered people everywhere are being used by vandals and criminals for their own selfish ends as well.
It also means that there are no safe havens online.