The Revolution May Not Be Digitised

The internet is putting down tenuous roots in the Pacific – but do we really understand how to foster its growth?

Over the last year or so, we’ve seen a string of articles and papers about the small but sudden growth of the internet throughout the Pacific region. Ranging in tone between cautious optimism and untempered –and often uncritical– enthusiasm, few capture the essence of the struggle that Pacific island states face even keeping pace with the rate of change in the world of telecommunications and the internet.

When I first arrived in Vanuatu the better part of a decade ago, the entire country was sharing only slightly more bandwidth than I’d had at my personal disposal back in Canada. To add insult to injury, the cost was roughly ten times greater even for the paltry amounts on sale. Getting access to what would be considered even a nominal connection in the developed world involved expenditures equivalent to thousands of dollars a month.

Now, following years of consistent and determined effort, Vanuatu has widely available commercial internet in its urban areas. But prices remain high. As this piece is being written, the cost of a 2 megabit connection (the lowest tier of what is considered broadband in many developed nations) starts at about AUD800 per month, and rises quickly once usage fees are factored in.

In spite of this, internet service providers have found inventive ways to get people started, offering small (cynics might say paltry) connection speeds and bandwidth limits. Comparisons aside, such packages are at least sufficient to move the uptake indicator from effectively zero to… something slightly more than zero.

Make no mistake; that first step is a doozy. It’s allowed tens of thousands of people who never had any access at all to begin using the internet on a regular basis. As many a breathless commentator (including myself, on occasion) has noted, this has led to a vast increase in public dialogue online. This has led in turn to equally breathless speculation about the likelihood of a coming revolution in political awareness and activism, social justice, education and countless other shibboleths of progressive idealism.

With a few notable exceptions, commentators ignore key details about this incipient social revolution:

First, this ‘revolution’ resembles Iran’s Green movement more than Egypt’s uprising. In the vast majority of Pacific countries, price and availability limit access to all but a tiny proportion of the population. And these people are almost exclusively urban, affluent and educated. In short, they are already the best informed and most engaged. Simple arithmetic leads to the conclusion that limited access to internet limits the scope of its impact as well.

The internet is a ‘force multiplier’, in the sense that it renders many kinds of labour-intensive tasks vastly more efficient. While the impact on the minority who have recently begun to access it daily is immense, how much greater it could be if the other number in the equation (the sum of the population using it) were to rise even higher.

Second, the results of public dialogue, awareness and coordination on politics are measurable, but decidedly mixed. In Papua New Guinea, we saw a number of new faces in Parliament whose election can at least in part be attributed to the profile they garnered by participating in online fora such as Facebook’s Sharp Talk group. But we also saw many familiar faces returned, some of whom were widely reviled online. The same can be said of Vanuatu, where populist MP Ralph Regenvanu repeated his record-setting electoral performance, successfully expanded his base and managed to elect three other MPs under his Graon Mo Jastis (Land and Justice) banner. Regenvanu is the first politician since Independence to run an entirely issues-oriented campaign, and his appeal has only been amplified by his consistent presence online.

But popularity didn’t help Regenvanu on the tactical level. He won enough votes individually that, due to the vagaries of Vanuatu’s Single Non-Transferable Vote system (which elects multiple MPs in each constituency), he could have got three MPs past the post. Failures in messaging and on-the-ground organising, however, meant that his party’s second candidate in the capital constituency missed capturing the necessary votes to number him among the winners.

More to the point, Vanuatu too saw many familiar faces returned to Parliament. While its future seems uncertain, the current cabinet is nearly identical to the one that led the country to the polls only weeks ago. Even if it is ousted in the coming days, the champions and heroes of the small but growing online community can hope for a minority voice at best in any new government.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, commentators and researchers often underestimate the fragility of this flowering in the digital sphere and overstate its importance relative to other uses of digital communications. Despite the occasional public bun fight over self-censorship and media standards, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Fiji government has been quite successful in its efforts to, in its words, ‘raise standards’ across the spectrum of media, both online and off, and to introduce ‘balance’. The stifling effects of official disapproval on certain kinds of commentary and content in Fiji are making themselves felt throughout the online community. They reach so far that it’s becoming harder to engage writers to perform any kind of independent analysis of government policy, ironically, even to praise it.

But to express unmitigated dismay at this outcome would be naïve, to say the least. Given that Fiji has the most highly developed telecommunications infrastructure in the region, and that the current regime has presided over its significant growth and improvement, why should we be surprised if they prove adept at making sure it serves their purposes? There is a very real chilling effect generated by the imposition of state views on the public dialogue, that’s true. But simply to write off the region-leading gains that have been made in telecommunications pricing and availability –as a recent Lowy paper did– is a textbook case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In last week’s budget speech, Voreqe Bainimarama committed his government to building ten new telecentres in the coming year, and to removing duties entirely from smart phones in order to encourage uptake across the board. Informal reports indicate as well that there are plans afoot to provide broadband access to ‘almost 100%’ of the nation’s schools within the next four years.

The plain fact is that Fiji is a regional leader in understanding and embracing the importance of broad and deep investment in telecommunications capacity. They see their role in the coming years as that of a ‘knowledge hub’ for the Pacific.

Improved communications capacity, therefore, does not necessarily equate to increased freedom of speech, nor indeed the flowering of a diverse and broad-based social dialogue. This should not be news to us.

Melanesian and Polynesian societies all feature tight familial bonds and a preference for dialogue over confrontation. It’s not at all surprising, then, to see online groups arise whose membership comprises the majority of the online community. Hunger for change is generally evident, but it’s not overwhelming. There are in fact deeply conservative aspects to Pacific societies that can counterbalance and often quash an individual’s ability to enact change. Wantok-ism and a long tradition of respect for the so-called Big Man can overwhelm the desire to challenge the status quo.

If only to view the development of internet in the Pacific more clearly, it’s useful to look at online discourse and the networks that make it possible as separate, but linked endeavours. Building out infrastructure widely and deeply are necessary preconditions to achieving the progressive ends we most commonly associate with social media. But in and of themselves, they are not sufficient.

When we look at the landscape through this split prism, we can learn important lessons about how to achieve the former. The same paper that was so quick to toss aside Fiji’s recent gains ascribed the massive expansion of mobile services in the region to ‘deregulation’. Actually, the opposite is true. Virtually every successful step taken in this sector has been the result of increased government engagement in telecommunications: by negotiating (sometimes foisting) competition on incumbent monopolies, intervening when players tried to ignore or alter the rules, by closing the door to the back room and by giving their regulatory authorities the ability to bite back.

This may discomfit some, but in the Pacific it seems that more government, not less, is the recipe for success in terms of making the internet a part of their peoples’ lives. While Digicel’s example may have shown that even small markets can be profitable, the relatively large investments required to build out international fibre-optic links and robust nationwide networks carrying more than token bandwidth to the entire country are enough to make even the most risk-loving enterprise blanch. Simply put, no matter how much demand ensues, the capital investment costs per customer are astronomical.

It’s been argued that the only way a commercial entity can countenance such an investment is through a monopoly arrangement –the very thing that Pacific countries have spent the better part of a decade getting out from under. But even when other approaches are tried, the numbers are daunting. Tonga’s undersea cable connection to Fiji is heavily subsidised by the World Bank, and it’s being developed on a consortium basis, but the government the largest shareholder by a wide margin. Even with all of these interventions, prices promise to remain extremely high.

Simply put, it’s nearly impossible to make a profit-based business case for the kind of connectivity that will be required to provide affordable, widely accessible internet services in the Pacific. And those voice and data companies who do invest in the region will go to great lengths to protect their investment, up to and including interfering in the political process. The Pacific’s success (or failure) in embracing information technologies, therefore, will be determined by the level of commitment and firmness of will shown by government.

Even under the best possible circumstances, any gains will likely be tenuous. Renesys, the internet consulting group that broke the news of national internet blackouts in Iran, Egypt and more recently in Syria, recently used their international traffic monitoring tools to find out which countries were most vulnerable to disruptions in internet service. Needless to say, Pacific island countries were over-represented among those faced with ‘Severe’ or ‘Significant’ risk. Not even Fiji managed to find its way into the ‘Low’ risk category.

Renesys was worried mostly about the ease with which a government could turn off the internet tap on its own people. That may be a worry for some in the region, too, but those very same attributes that make national networks vulnerable to political interference also make them vulnerable to systemic threats. In 2004, the failure of a single satellite resulted in numerous nations going entirely dark, some for days. As the Renesys survey shows, little has changed in the interim.

If –and as we’ve seen, it’s a big if– Pacific nations do somehow succeed in integrating the internet into people’s daily lives, we still have no guarantee a flowering of awareness and online dialogue will necessarily follow. Once again, those in power will play an over-large role. No matter what decisions they make, there will be winners and losers at the top. Canny politicians and parties will follow the example set both by the insurgents in Vanuatu and PNG and by the incumbents in Fiji. Those who are adept at messaging and dialogue will likely flourish. Those who remain aloof, who ignore or refuse to take up these new social tools, will slowly (too slowly for some) but inevitably find themselves pushed to the sidelines. But they may succeed in slowing development for years before that happens.

The revolution, in other words, may not be digitised; there may not be any revolution at all. Every outcome, for better or for worse, will be determined by the will of governments to act.

 

Governance and Goodness

[This column was originally published in the Weekend edition of the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

Just yesterday, Minister Regenvanu was kind enough to respond to my column of last week, in which I expressed more than a little impatience at his silence over the March 4 attack on Marc Neil-Jones. He thanked me for my views and asked, “But who’s done more for good governance and transparency in Vanuatu: you or me?

It’s a fair question –more than fair, actually– one that bears serious consideration.

My first instinct was to reply, “Your colleague beat the crap out of my friend. I said something about it; you didn’t.” That has the benefit of the truth, and it’s a fairly good summation of how I felt at the time I was composing the column.

But it’s not at all satisfying, nor does it do anything to further the goals that I know Minister Regenvanu shares with me and with an ever-increasing number of voters.

More importantly, tit-for-tat point-scoring rhetoric only contributes to the decline of political dialogue, making enemies and sowing confusion in the very places where clarity and unity should be most easily achieved.

So let’s dig a little deeper and see what more we all could be doing to make things better.

First off, let me state that any man of principle who embarks on a career in politics is a better man than I. (Any woman of principle who does so is probably a better man than any of us.) From the very first step, compromises must be made. As I said in last week’s column, the calculus of power is byzantine and counter-factual.

If you’re looking for easy answers to anything, look elsewhere. If someone promises you easy answers, don’t trust them. They’re either naive or they’re deceiving you. To his credit, Minister Regenvanu made a point of not promising anything but the sweat of his own brow during his election campaign.

In my afternoon convos over kava, I’ve often said that politics is a muddy road, so throwing out a politician for having soiled his feet is silly and wrong. It’s the ones who roll around in the middle of it like pigs in a slough – these are the ones we should be objecting to.

It’s easy for someone like me, who won’t even qualify for citizenship for another two and a half years, to sit on the sidelines and imagine that I could outplay those on the field. So it’s healthy to consider from time to time what things look like from the ground, to understand the pressures and exigencies that impose themselves from minute to minute.

The price is a heavy one. It’s impossible, in politics at least, to have friends without having adversaries. If you don’t have any rivals, that’s because you don’t have any power yet. So every choice, every compromise comes laden with the knowledge that, even if you’ve pleased some people, you’ve upset a few others. Victories are measured in inches and the goal line is often miles away.

The question then –the impossible question– is this: When do you stand and when do you sidestep? Which are the battles that must be fought, and at what cost?

Conventional wisdom has it that, following MP Iauko’s assault on Daily Post publisher Marc Neil-Jones, PM Kilman was handcuffed by the fact that removing Iauko from his portfolio would effectively topple the government. So, like it or not, this marriage of inconvenience had to continue.

To make matters worse, the prospect of a successful prosecution was vanishingly small. There was nothing to indicate that the Public Prosecutor and the Police wouldn’t be just as ineffectual in this instance as they’d been on countless occasions in the past. Not only would a powerful man be given grounds for vengeance, he’d likely have the means and opportunity to exact it, too.

Better, then, to bide one’s time and wait for an opportunity further down the line. Iauko’s rather incendiary rise has not made him a lot of lasting friendships, and anyway, his countless pre-election promises would soon be coming home to roost. Why fight an overt battle, possibly at significant cost, to achieve something that Iauko seemed to be perfectly capable of doing to himself?

Viewed through the lens of political calculus, there’s some merit to this line of reasoning. One could even be so bold as to argue that the baroque architecture of parliamentary rules and precedents that govern behaviour in other nations using the Westminster form of government are neither appropriate nor desirable here in Vanuatu.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s consider what might happen if things played out differently.

What if PM Kilman had required his Minister for Infrastructure and Public Utilities to resign his portfolio, pending a police investigation? He’s shown he’s capable of moving inconvenient Ministers out of the way. At the same time as the Iauko scandal was unfolding, he manoeuvred the Labour party out of power. This in retaliation for having signed an Opposition confidence motion.

In that case, the immediate goal was to remain in power, to live another day in order to achieve the policy goals that comprise the very reasons for governing in the first place.
Let’s apply the same logic to the Iauko debacle.

On the one hand, sharing power with people who care nothing for policy and are willing to fight every minute of every day for a bigger piece of the pie, people who, more to the point, are willing to stop at nothing… well, you have to ask yourself: Are you making things better or worse? On the other hand, you can’t get into government without them, and they know it. More to the point, perhaps it’s better to have them using these tactics against others than against you.

As the author of the Godfather famously put it, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

The problem with this equation is that it allows the worst excesses to continue unchecked. In other words, there will never be a better calibre of MP in this country, because the others either drag them down or elbow them aside. You either learn how to scrap or you don’t play at all.

So how do we improve governance, then? The only way to maintain one’s integrity is to be able to exert enough power over the other players to force them to play nice. And there’s no way to gather that much power, because of the disunity and distrust that’s endemic in Vanuatu’s political landscape.

It would take a grand, unifying goal, something about which the entire population of Vanuatu could agree, to achieve –even momentarily– the kind of unity of purpose and energy that Fr. Walter Lini managed during the first days of the Republic.

What if taking a stand, even allowing a government to fall, were enough to galvanise such a movement? What if it could be made clear to voters that there are certain kinds of behaviour that simply cannot be tolerated, and that this behaviour is the cause of so many of Vanuatu’s afflictions?

That’s not an easy task. Many voters don’t think in terms of policy and long-term reward. Some are willing to choose self-gratification over nation-building every time. Given Vanuatu’s voting districts, you don’t need more than a few hundred of these to get yourself in the running. Pony up a bit of cash to run some stalking-horse candidates and you can split the vote small enough to get in with the support of a single village.

So the risk, then, is that you take a principled stand, try to galvanise the electorate into an unprecedented level of support, only to find yourself standing on the sidelines, come Election Day plus one.

Worse, you could actually succeed in garnering an unprecedented level of the vote, only to discover that you’d been equaled by, and forced to share power with, the very kind of candidate you were elected to turf out.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I’ll say this again, in all sincerity: A principled man who’s willing to walk that muddy road is a better man than I, because I would always take that principled stand, keep my conscience clear, and fail entirely as a politician.

That may sound back-handed to some. It’s not. Life is a complex and messy thing; there are no simple answers. And sometimes staying pure and principled means staying powerless.

For my part I’m willing to abdicate that power, because once in a while things need to be said at any cost.

It’s easy for me to say this, but I don’t say it lightly. I say it because others can’t:

If a Government Minister resorts to political violence and coercion and the government takes no action to remedy this, that government deserves to fall.

Forget Fear

[Originally published in the weekend edition of the Vanuatu Daily Post]

My name is Dan McGarry. I’ve been using the nom de plume of Graham Crumb since 1995, but today I have decided to draw aside the literary veil. I do so in solidarity with Marc Neil-Jones, publisher of the Daily Post, in order to make it clear that violence and threats have no power to silence the media.

In past columns I’ve dealt with fairly complex topics: technology, society, politics, culture and history. Today’s, however, is a simple one. It can be summed up in a single sentence:

Violence and intimidation only work when we let them.

For reasons that remain unfathomable to me, politics and power always seem to attract those who are most willing to take advantage of others. Vanuatu is no exception. Over the years, we’ve seen a long succession of Ministers and MPs who seem to value personal indulgence over everything else. We’ve seen thievery, deception, coercion and violence used so widely and so often that it’s hard to perceive what moral compass –if any– guides our political leadership.

So when a particularly unscrupulous character such as Harry Iauko arrives on the scene, it’s hard for our political leaders to know what to do. In fairness to the MP, he’s only slightly further beyond the pale than MPs Korman or Vohor, to name only a couple. As a group, it seems our leaders really have come to believe that the rule of law, respect and kastom are nothing more than useful tools, to be picked up and cast aside as convenience dictates.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: There won’t be any criminal prosecution for what Iauko did. There may yet be retribution, but it will be that special political kind that avoids doing any actual harm to anyone.

Iauko will not be punished for doing wrong; he’ll be pushed aside because he’s given his rivals an opening. In political terms, his fault is not that he’s broken the law; his mistake will have been that he overstepped and so exposed himself.

And that is why I find politics both fascinating and repugnant at the same time.

So, unlike some, I’m not going to demand action from this government. I’m simply going to do what journalists do: I’m going to bear witness.

It may be that MPs feel they have some special exemption from the law and kastom. But it is equally true that in a free society, everyone has the right to form –and to state– their own opinion. And the best way that we can do that is to remain informed, to encourage a public dialogue, to confront people with the facts.

Let the MPs think what they want; we retain the right to think what we like about them, and to say so publicly. And these days, it’s not going to be very flattering.

Violence and unlawful conduct don’t persist merely because our politicians do nothing to stop them. They persist because we allow them to. They persist because we’ve accepted the fact that the only time we ever hear police sirens is when some dignitary is being ushered around town. They persist because we allow politicians to separate themselves from us. Because we allow them to seduce us with paltry gifts and promises.

But most of all, it’s because we all –white and black alike– love to have access to the corridors of power.

No sooner are we given a glimpse of this separate, special world than we begin to fall prey to its allure. Witness how even principled members of government like the PM and Minister Regenvanu have suddenly, inexplicably, found themselves at a loss for words.

In the face of a torrent of international condemnation, the best PM Kilman was able to muster was a statement by his spokesman he would let the courts decide Iauko’s fate. No mention of the fact that in most parliamentary democracies, any minister under investigation immediately steps down – at least until the issue is resolved.

From Ralph Regenvanu? Not a peep. This from the man whose election slogan was ‘Inaf!’ Maybe he’ll amend it next time to ‘Klosap inaf. Wet smol.’

In a canny bit of manoeuvring, however, the PM pulled his Minister out of the fire just days later by shuffling him from Lands to Justice, thus enforcing his silence. No matter that this is his third portfolio in about as many months. No matter that actually governing is near-impossible while the Cabinet is playing musical chairs. No matter that, despite all these portfolio changes and all the problems he’s caused, Iauko remains at his post.

And what of the Opposition, whose job it is to challenge and question? Even Iauko’s VP arch-rivals Natapei and Molisa have yet to say a word.

Let’s forget the politicians, then. They’re obviously powerless to act, except according to the byzantine, counter-factual logic of power.

They don’t matter, anyway. They can bluster all they like, but as we’ve seen in recent months, they can’t dominate and control us all the time. Inevitably, the people win. Throughout North Africa and across the Arabian Peninsula, people have demonstrated that strong governments which rely on coercion to enforce their will can be rendered fragile as paper in the wind.

All it takes is for people to leave their fear behind them.

It’s almost comical to see how quickly bullies like Iauko can be deflated when people cease to fear them, or conversely, how police and other state officials can be rendered worse than useless when they allow their fear to cow them.

The staff at the Daily Post –and Marc Neil-Jones in particular– learned years ago that they were free to tell the truth once they left their fear behind. It’s a small act, and a fairly simple one, too. But its effects are immense.

I remember visiting the Daily Post offices a couple of days after Police Commissioner Joshua Bong had sent his thugs around to give Marc a thumping. In spite of the bashed-in nose, cracked ribs and bloody lip, Marc managed a quirky smile and a chuckle when I voiced my concern. “I’ve been deported, jailed and beaten up before,” he said. “This isn’t the worst I’ve seen.

I am getting a bit old for this, though,” he added wryly.

I would have thought our ministers of state had matured beyond these schoolyard bully tactics too, but apparently they’re not too old for tantrums.

We should all learn from Marc’s example: We have only to free ourselves from fear and the power of these bullies evaporates in an instant.

My name is Dan McGarry. If you don’t like what I’ve got to say, I’m okay with that. I’m not afraid.

A Novel in Three Links

This + this + this = an opportunity to change the way we communicate, and to change history as well.

The freedom that we experienced on the Internet of the ’90s is waning. Governments and commercial interests take ever-increasing steps to circumscribe people’s ability to communicate digitally. The only way to change this tide from ebb to flood is to fulfill a promise that was first made in the ’90s.

We need to disintermediate the network. It’s an ugly duckling of a word, but cutting out the middle man matters more now than ever.

As long as the cables, wires and frequencies over which we communicate are susceptible to being controlled, curtailed or even disconnected when the things we say -or the way we say them- become upsetting, we will find ourselves increasingly confined.

As I said during an Internet policy session yesterday, if you ask anyone –anyone– whether there should be limits on Behaviour X on the Internet, the answer will always be a resounding Yes. That’s not a problem in and of itself, because X is usually anti-social and contrary to the public good. The problem is that anything capable of curtailing Behaviour X can be brought to bear on Behaviours A through W as well.

The only way out of this is to provide the technical means to do what we have always done in democratic societies: Keep our private discussions private and our public discussions free.

For the former we at last have all the ingredients we need:

  1. Gigabit wifi – We can finally start thinking about getting decent performance out of wireless data transmission, meaning that we can worry a little less about putting a lot of people onto a single wifi network;
  2. Wireless Mesh Networks – Enough with the telcos; we can now start looking at creating ad hoc, self-organising networks, relegating the role of the data carriers to one similar to power and water utilities;
  3. Secure Voice Communications – Security expert Moxie Marlinspike (yeah) and a crew of like-minded individuals have floated a very useful service recently, allowing secure VOIP and SMS communications between phones. By building encryption into the bones of the app, they’ve created software that looks and acts exactly like normal calling and texting. The only difference being that, if the other person is using their RedPhone service, the entire communication remains a secret shared only by the two of you.

The idea behind these things have been floating around for some time (the protocol underlying RedPhone has been with us since 2006), but now they’re all here in usable form.

I’ve said it before: The story of freedom of Internet freedom and online privacy will be the defining social conflict of our generation. As the peoples of the Middle East are discovering, the narrative of freedom is suspenseful, dramatic and exciting in the best and worst ways.

Whoever manages to blend these three technologies together seamlessly and easily enough for anyone to use them will assuredly be one of the main protagonists in this unfolding drama. They may not garner the celebrity of a Jobs or a Gates, but they will have the impact of a Gandhi or a King.

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root…

These are the opening lines of a song made immortal by American Jazz singer Billie Holiday. Her personal story was heroic; battling poverty, marginalisation, racism and abuse, she managed to become one of the most influential singers of the 20th Century.

Strange Fruit’, Holiday’s signature tune, became a hallmark of a quickening social sensitivity to the plight of black people in America. Provocative, courageous and compelling, its twelve short lines could reduce even the most jaded listener to tears.

The song’s central image is the victim of a lynching, the ‘strange fruit’ hanging from a tree. Holiday, who had been raped at 11 and prostituted by 14, and who faced a lifetime of drug addiction and domestic abuse, made it a vessel into which she poured all of her pain and suffering.

Vanuatu has its own strange fruit: Planted between the roots of a nakatambol tree lie the bones of a Tannese woman murdered, burned and discarded after 14 years of neglect by her own people. An overgrown lot in Freswota is a-flower with yellow crime-scene tape marking the place where another young Tannese woman was raped and beaten to death with a timber. Her 3 year old daughter lay strangled nearby.

Just as the mightiest tree often comes from the smallest seed, Vanuatu continues to reap this bitter harvest because, in every aspect of their lives, women are subject to coercion.

Continue reading

Wikileaks – Who Cares?

Glenn Greenwald builds the case that bad boy hacker Adrian Lamo deliberately duped and betrayed Spc Bradley Manning, the young soldier notorious for having leaked the ‘Collateral Murder‘ video depicting an Apache helicopter crew gunning down unarmed civilians as they tried to aid a wounded journalist in Baghdad.

In the discussion on Slashdot, someone asks if this isn’t just a distraction from the real story?

That’s what’s bugging me here as well. Who cares how the footage was released? The important thing is WHY we have soldiers killing unarmed civilians.

I do. I care a lot. Why does someone have to face a lifetime in prison just to allow us to discuss ‘WHY we have soldiers killing unarmed civilians’?

Greenwald posits that ‘distractions’ like Manning’s may actually be deliberately manifestations of Pentagon Policy.

Whatever the merits of that argument, the fact that someone had to break the law to show a commonplace incident in the so-called War on Terror can be viewed as a sad commentary on the state of censorship in our time, or (if you’re an optimist) an affirmation that, despite a culture of secrecy, information really does want to be free.

In either case, Greenwald’s conjecture is that Manning really was genuinely motivated by his conscience and that his ‘confessor’ Lamo rewarded his honesty with lies, venality and betrayal. I find his case as presented compelling but not conclusive.

Greenwald’s larger point about wikileaks, however, is, I think, irrefutable:

The reason this story matters so much — aside from the fact that it may be the case that a truly heroic, 22-year-old whistle-blower is facing an extremely lengthy prison term — is the unique and incomparably valuable function WikiLeaks is fulfilling. Even before the Apache helicopter leak, I wrote at length about why they are so vital, and won’t repeat all of that here. Suffice to say, there are very few entities, if there are any, which pose as much of a threat to the ability of governmental and corporate elites to shroud their corrupt conduct behind an extreme wall of secrecy.

As others will no doubt suggest, whistle blowers should understand the consequences of their actions, accepting the sometimes inevitable retribution that follows in order to serve the public good. That does not, however, excuse what Greenwald characterises as ‘despicable’ behaviour by Lamo. If this account proves true, then Lamo really is a sick, sorry individual.

I find this whole story compelling precisely because it demonstrates the stakes involved in something as simple as telling the truth. Secrecy and Transparency both are costly and dangerous when we wander too far towards either end of the continuum.

Stories like Manning’s allow us the opportunity to gauge where we are in that continuum and the price of remaining there.

Disaster? What Disaster?

Neil McAllister seems to think we’re on the brink of an abyss. Digital Armageddon is just around the corner, because business’ increasing reliance on pure information makes them liable to meltdown should they sufficiently mismanage it.

But what I’d like to know -and what McAllister conveniently forgets to mention- is: What, exactly, constitutes a ‘True Data Disaster?’

Are we talking about a leak that effectively kills a company’s credibility dead? I don’t think so, because if incompetence or data mismanagement had any kind of real-world relationship with a company’s success, Yahoo!, Amazon, TJX and Heartland Payment Systems and dozens of others would at very least have suffered losses in stock value following their colossally poor management practices.

Are we talking criminal abuse of private information? If that were the case, then Microsoft, Yahoo! and all the nation’s telcos (save Qwest) should be facing imminent demise because of their complicity in the unconstitutional breach of their customers’ privacy in the US Government’s domestic spying programme.

Are we talking straight-up data loss? If so, then Microsoft (hmm, that name keeps coming up) should have taken a dive when they managed quite literally to lose all of Danger Networks’ data.

Or are we talking non-performance and generalised uselessness on a scale that beggars comprehension? If that were the case, then why do large consultancies still manage to win multi-million dollar contracts that suck up centuries of developer time and never actually deliver a thing? Think of the FBI’s famous foray into modernisation, the now-legendary death of the UK’s online medical database and any of a hundred other projects that ended up entirely written off (to the tune of 100s of millions each) without so much as a downward tick in the value of the contracting companies involved.

It seems that in the esoteric world of noughts and ones, belief matters far more than empirical truth, making a true Data Disaster literally inconceivable.

There can’t be a Data Disaster today, because we can’t imagine what one would look like. Likewise, there won’t be a Data Disaster until we become capable of realising that they’re all around us, happening every day.

Human, All Too Human

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

A man paddles his canoe into Lolowei's harbour, sheltered by standing rocks on one side and this massive cliff on the other. A shocking story is emerging from the Northern Vanuatu island of Maewo. Last week, two brothers, fugitives from Kaiovo village, appeared at Lolowei Hospital on neighbouring Ambae island. One was treated for injuries. Witnesses said he claimed he had been stoned following a village meeting. The other walked onward to Tumsisiro, an Anglican mission, and requested sanctuary.

Before long, a caller from Maewo ascertained the brothers’ presence in Ambae, and a motor boat was dispatched. Reports estimate that up to a dozen men armed with axes and bush knives arrived at Lolowei. They proceeded to the outpatient clinic and promptly murdered the first brother. Stunned onlookers watched as they struck him dead, then dragged his corpse down to the shore, mocking and abusing it as they went. The second brother met the same fate soon afterward.

Within hours of the events, the story began to spread that accusations of sorcery and murder were the cause of this tragic episode. As with most such events, speculation is rampant and details are difficult to corroborate. One distraught Ambaean related a tale that seems to align well with others:

She told of a meeting held in Kaiovo to deal once and for all with the death of two local school employees, widely suspected to have been poisoned. At its climax, a local church elder announced that God had given him the names of the perpetrators. He had no sooner identified the two brothers and an elderly male accomplice than the local chief instructed the villagers to kill them.

Before the brothers could react, she said, one of the villagers picked up a large volcanic cooking stone and launched it at one of them. He missed, and the two began to scramble to their feet. Another stone quickly followed, striking one of the brothers and injuring him. They nonetheless managed to escape, leaving the older man to be beaten severely by the villagers.

Reports indicate that they obtained a canoe and paddled across several kilometers of open ocean to Lolowei’s tiny cove. It was there that their pursuers caught them up and murdered them.

Poison, witchcraft, religious visions and mob justice. One could easily dismiss these events as the actions of a backward, primitive people, benighted in superstition.

We should be careful not to mock too loudly, lest we mock ourselves.

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Doubt

[Originally published in Opinion column of the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

Faith. Belief. Trust.

These sentiments spring quickest to mind when we talk about what animates us, about what makes us strong and what keeps us on the moral path. We express these thoughts in terms of light and face constant imprecations to turn our back to the shadows.

I admire them all, but like objects of great value, sometimes they seem to be a little too fragile to handle, too easily sullied by circumstance. When it comes to coping with the world and its complexities, doubt is my tool of choice.

Doubt – the willingness to question every assumption – seems at first to cast shadows on everything. But every light does this, so we can clearly see the contours. True, this makes the picture more complex than it was. In that sense, doubt is subversive and troublesome. It makes our elders fret and leads the naive astray.

But it works.

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Rights and Wrongs

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

Following a recent workshop on copyright, the plight of the local reggae group Naio was used to demonstrate how copyright legislation could improve the lot of struggling Vanuatu artists.

Unauthorised copying, they claimed, had so reduced income from CD sales that the band simply couldn’t make a living on recording alone.

While the principle of respecting creative works is one I support wholeheartedly, I need to make this clear: Recent copyright reform has done little to change the plight of performers elsewhere in the world.

There are numerous interwoven ideas wrapped up inside what people call ‘Intellectual Property’. The World Intellectual Property Organization, a UN body, clumps many of them them together under the term Copyright. In essence, it says that Copyright – the right to exercise control over one’s creation – can be exerted over any creative work, its production or its broadcast.

The idea here is quite simple: Artists deserve to be rewarded for their work. Because they share their work with the world, and because we all benefit when they do so, they should be allowed a limited monopoly on the right to reproduce the work in question.

Well, that seems perfectly reasonable.

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