The Coming Change

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”Leo Tolstoy

On Wednesday this week at a quiet ceremony in Chantilly’s Resort, Minister Rialuth Serge Vohor presented six organisations with telecommunications operator licenses. His action marked the beginning of a new chapter in Vanuatu’s integration into the wider technological world.

The Minister’s speech touched on many aspects of the technical and social challenge ahead of us, but its illuminating principle was his lifelong conviction that Vanuatu should control its own destiny. Acknowledging and applauding the invaluable assistance provided by numerous donor and commercial partners from overseas, he nonetheless displayed great satisfaction at seeing local operations moving into the spotlight.

There was an air of quiet excitement in the room as, after patient months of waiting, representatives from the six groups, along with Digicel Vanuatu CEO Tanya Menzies, strode to the front of the room to accept the newly signed documents.

At the risk of sounding like a giddy shoolchild, I wonder if everyone realises just how fundamentally this moment is going to affect our generation and the next.

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Copyright and the Social Contract

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent. It’s a somewhat fleshed out and more rounded version of this essay.]

Since the arrival of the Internet, there’s been unceasing talk about the imminent demise of traditional publishing models (especially newspapers), the subversive effect of ‘free’ online content and the purported damage done by Peer to Peer ‘pirates’ sharing music, movies and other creative works. At the centre of all this debate over the imbalance that new technology has created between creator and consumer is the oft-ignored conclusion that copyright as a regime for encouraging creativity in modern society is simply unworkable on the Internet.

Pundits, lawyers and media distributors the world over continue fighting the tide, thinking they can shape the Internet to match their expectations concerning copyright. Instead, they should be shaping their expectations to match the Internet.

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Creativity and the Social Contract

Tangled up amidst all the talk about the imminent demise of newspapers, the subversive effect of Free, the purported damage done by Peer to Peer ‘leeches’ and various other riffs on the imbalance that new technology has created between creator and consumer is the often unexamined conclusion that copyright as a regime for encouraging creativity in modern society is simply unworkable on the Internet.

That leaves us with two options: We can continue to tinker with copyright, attempting to redefine fair use, to place reasonable penalties (or at least disincentives) on unauthorised copying… ultimately, to renegotiate the compromise that lies at the heart of the concept.

That’s a commendable, fundamentally reasonable approach that unfortunately ignores the fact that digital information is immune to copyright enforcement. The practical ‘right’ to make copies is the very essence of digital technology. Its usefulness is predicated on the fact that data is infinitely mutable and that copies cost as close to nothing as makes no difference. To pretend that we can place anything more than voluntary limits on this capability is dangerously naive.

Alternatively, we can scrap copyright, go back to first principles and examine in detail what the rights of the creator really are.

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Fibre Optics

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Last weekend’s announcement by Minister Rialuth Serge Vohor of an agreement to participate in the SPIN fibre-optic project had been met with cautious optimism from observers. While nobody doubts the desirability of having an undersea cable linking Vanuatu to the rest of the world, some questions remain.

The devil, as always, is in the details.

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Selling Democracy – ctd.

Farhad Manjoo says the Revolution will not be digitised. His recent Slate column, subtitled “How the Internet helps Iran silence activists” makes the obvious point that technology makes all aspects of communications easier – even the unpleasant ones. But his simplistic analysis misses the import of his own observation.

The key to all this is his failure to distinguish between the network and the protocol. Manjoo says that the Internet helps Iran’s repressive efforts. That’s not true, at least not nearly to the extent he thinks. The network – the physical infrastructure of cables, switching and routing equipment, is what’s trapping people right now. If it weren’t for the end-to-end nature of the software protocols that make up what we conveniently call the Internet, little if any news at all would have emerged from Iran.

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Protecting our Children

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Note: Because of public demand for a printable version of this column, here’s a PDF version of this week’s column.

This week, I’m going to give over much of my column space so that other voices can be heard.

Over the last two weeks or so, there’s been an animated and quite fascinating discussion on the VIGNET technical mailing list. VIGNET is a mailing list service provided by the Vanuatu IT Users Society (VITUS) in order to contribute to a public dialogue about all things to do with technology. With over 220 subscribers, it represents a significant number of people working in IT in Vanuatu.

Following the roll-out of Digicel’s GPRS mobile Internet service, concerns have been raised about children and youth in Vanuatu having access to unsuitable content, especially pornography, through their mobile phones.

With nearly 100 messages from dozens of different contributors, the discussion was illuminating, intelligent and remarkably respectful, especially given the delicacy of the topic. What follows is a small but representative sampling….

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The Supply Question

I write for two newspapers, and love nothing more than flipping through the pages over a good cup of coffee. But I still get the vast majority of the commentary, analysis and hard news I read in a day from my computer. None of that is going to change.

That said, it’s hard to imagine how this essay by Nicholas Carr could be more wrong. While his analysis is dead on, his conclusions consist of little more than wishful thinking.

From his post:

“The fundamental problem facing the news business today does not lie in Google’s search engine. It lies in the structure of the news business itself.”

This is exactly right. The digitisation of publishing and distribution militates strongly in favour of bytes over atoms. While holding a newspaper in one’s hands is not without a certain appeal, the desire for specific information, delivered quickly and at low cost, trumps the old approach most of the time.

Carr thinks the problem is supply, and he’s right, as far as that goes. But he’s dreaming if he thinks there’s any practical way to arbitrarily limit supply in an economy defined by ubiquity and ease of access. The problem is mechanical in nature: Bytes are infinitely replicable and transportable. Reducing the number of bytes requires that we control all sources of replication and I can’t see this happening even in a police-state online environment.

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Digicel Mobile Internet Service – Take Two

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

This hand is more accustomed to holding a bush knife than an Internet-connected mobile phone. This week, Digicel Vanuatu officially unveiled their new GPRS mobile Internet service. Their first event was held on Thursday last week at the Port Vila market house. Digicel staff demonstrated their service to passers-by and helped those with compatible phones to activate the service.

The process is simple enough. Just call Digicel’s Customer Care centre at 123, then tell the service representative the brand and model of your mobile phone. (Salesperson Maureen George offered some sage advice on this count – if you’re not sure what model you’ve got, just tell the service rep what brand it is and how much you paid. The service rep will know which model you mean.)

If your phone supports GPRS, Digicel will enable your account for the Internet service free of charge. You will then be sent a message containing the proper setting for your phone. Just enter the PIN number (1234) and accept the updated configuration.

If your Digicel mobile isn’t on the list of phones for which Digicel provides automatic configuration, don’t despair. You can still use the service, but you’ll have to enter the configuration values yourself. It’s not too difficult, but if you’re feeling uncertain, you might want to find a helpful geek to lend a hand.

Remember, though: Whether your phone is supported or not, you still need to call Digicel Customer Care at 123 to get your account activated.

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Digicel Rolls out Mobile Internet Service

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Update for online readers: Digicel Vanuatu’s Manager for Commercial Operations did finally contact me, too late, alas, for the publication deadline, which had been pushed  forward this week to accommodate the Good Friday holiday. We had a thorough discussion, and he cleared up a few things that were left as question marks in the original column. I’ve updated the text below, and have tried to show what’s changed between the original version and this one. – DM

About 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday this week, an email hit the VIGNET mailing list, announcing that Digicel had rolled out its long-awaited mobile Internet service. Using radio waves to send data over the Internet, Digicel’s GPRS service significantly increases the value and flexibility of their services.

Charging rates cheaper than many in the US and Australia, Digicel have raised the bar in terms of customer expectations once again. Now, Digicel subscribers can send multimedia messages to one another or browse the web from their laptop or mobile phone. You can now take a photo with your camera and send it to a friend, send them a ring tone they like, read your email from your phone, or check out an important web page.

Sending photos from your phone may sound frivolous, but think about it for a second: Hubby is sent to pick up some baby products at the supermarket. Faced with a dizzying array of choices, he take a photo of one, sends it to his wife with the question, ‘Are these what you meant?’ Domestic harmony is well worth the expense.

A caveat before I go on: I’m composing this column less than 24 hours after the initial public roll-out, and Digicel management have yet to reply replied too late to my requests for information, so whatever information you find here is of necessity incomplete and possibly mistaken. Some of the information in the print version of this column is incomplete.

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