Words for Words

Words have consequences; there can be no doubt of that. And when they are published in the Vanuatu’s newspaper of record (such as it is), they take on additional weight. But when all is said and done, they are still words.

They deserve a response in kind. Whatever its purported shortcomings, the Daily Post does not failed to publish corrections, opposing opinions and even letters angrily denouncing stories published within its covers. No matter what we think about this particular pulpit, we cannot deny that it belongs to us all.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

A week ago today, four men entered the offices of the Vanuatu Daily Post and attacked publisher Marc Neil-Jones, punching him hard enough to fracture his nose and then kicking him while he was down.

Asked about the assault, Neil-Jones half-smiled and described it in philosophical terms, suggesting that this kind of treatment comes with the territory. “This isn’t the first time this has happened to me,” he said, then added wryly, “of course, I’m older now than I was.”

Neil-Jones was beaten because his staff did their job, reporting on events and recording their views, for the public good and for posterity.

This column isn’t about the events that led to the attack. It’s not about prisons, politics or even publishers. This column is about getting results. It’s about resolving issues instead of exacerbating them.

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Regulating Telecommunications

The proposed new Telecommunications Bill is not a perfect document. But Vanuatu is not a perfect place. Considering the limited resources it can bring to bear, the great gains it’s made in improving communications nationwide are truly commendable.

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

Last Thursday, members of the IT industry, researchers and interested members of the public got together with Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities to discuss proposed new laws governing Vanuatu’s burgeoning telecommunications sector.

At issue was a Bill to define the precise role of the Telecommunications Regulator. Designed to supplement the existing Telecommunications Act of 1989, it outlines in detail the extent of the Regulator’s mandate to influence the newly-liberalised telecoms market.

The draft Bill describes an environment wherein the Regulator has wide latitude to impose his will on telecoms operators if they misbehave. Among other things, he can enforce fair and equitable access to rare or unique infrastructure (known as bottleneck resources), he can intervene if telecoms operators are deemed to be offering preferential or prejudicial prices to others and if necessary he can enforce tariff or pricing regimes on carriers if they don’t play fair.

Viewed in the light of their exemplary track record, the draft Bill reflects well on both the Ministry and the Regulator. To date, their attitude has been to let market forces work with little if any intervention. They have nonetheless made sure that the regulatory stick they hold in reserve holds real clout. The proposed Bill gives this all the force of law. Rather than relying in the language of various negotiated agreements, they’ve outlined a set of rules that applies to anyone and everyone operating in the telecoms sector.

Others aren’t so sure that a big regulatory stick is such a good thing….

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The Rules

As long as clear rules exist around ownership, trade and the economic environment in general, a well-run company will be able to find its way – and possibly to thrive – under just about any regime.

But a company that can’t predict what will happen tomorrow can’t plan effectively. And a company that can’t plan finds itself scrambling from one day to the next. It finds that it can’t commit – neither to its customers nor to its staff. When this uncertainty becomes generalised, with nobody willing or able to say what tomorrow holds, the business climate worsens all round.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

There is only one thing worse than a badly played football match: a badly refereed match.

What makes a bad referee? Players the world over agree that it’s not strictness or laxity; what makes a referee really bad is when he’s inconsistent and unpredictable. The ref consistently calls offsides in favour of the defence? Not great for the strikers, but a team can adjust and try different approaches to the net. The ref calls them consistently in favour of the offence? Drop the zone defence and mark your man carefully.

But when neither team knows how the play will be called, it creates uncertainty, which leads to sloppy play and sometimes a little opportunistic cheating, hoping that this time the ref won’t call a questionable play.

This principle applies everywhere. In numerous business surveys, company leaders consistently report that continuity and predictability in economic management and government affairs matter more to them than the economic structures themselves.

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Safeguarding the Internet Commons

With the creation of a functioning and effective Telecommunications Regulator, we now have proper oversight on how Vanuatu’s communications resources are used. The government of Vanuatu has made great strides in ensuring that all telephone operators manage their systems responsibly and efficiently.

Now we need to do the same for our Internet resources.

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

On January 5th, the Sydney Morning Herald published a story titled, “Dial X for Optus.” The feature recounted the story, by now well known in Vanuatu, of how Optus collaborated with certain Pacific Islands nations to make tens of millions of dollars in profit from the pornography industry.

The scheme,” wrote Vanda Carson, “allowed the telcos to bill customers premium rates for sexually explicit calls or X-rated downloads when they dialled the country codes” of many Pacific nations, Vanuatu included. “Optus was part of the partnership of telcos which acted as gatekeepers in the porn trade between the US and Europe and small Pacific islands.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Optus illegally appropriated 100 Vanuatu telephone numbers and kept all revenues generated by them.

None of that could happen today. With the creation of a functioning and effective Telecommunications Regulator, we now have proper oversight on how Vanuatu’s communications resources are used. The government of Vanuatu has made great strides in ensuring that all telephone operators manage their systems responsibly and efficiently.

Now we need to do the same for our Internet resources.

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Shifting Ground

People have already leveraged their ties to the land in order to make their move into the material world possible. They supplemented their income with food and family support in order to use that monthly 20,000 vatu for essentials.

A market economy is a mobile economy. Where life in Vanuatu seldom required more than one’s legs or a paddle for transport, now we find ourselves bound by the need to cover large distances every day. And you can’t grow a bus.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Much has been written since New Year’s about the rise in bus fares. Scarcely a day goes by but someone submits a long and thoughtful letter deploring the increase and suggesting ways to help drivers earn more without charging more.

The reasons for this are obvious. If someone takes the bus to and from work every day, they now spend 6,600 vatu a month just for the privilege of keeping their job. And that’s ignoring using the bus for anything but work. Add in a trip to the market on the weekend, a few visits with family in the course of the week, bus fare for the children to get to and from school… suddenly transportation takes a bigger slice of the household income than just about everything except rent.

We’ve known for some time that it’s very hard for the average ni-Vanuatu to make a living wage. Just about every family I know supplements their cash income via informal channels. They run tiny little mom-and-pop nakamals and road markets that are profitable only because family in the village send them produce at only slightly more than cost. They sew or repair much of what they wear, and wear it until it’s unrecoverable. They grow what they can on whatever land they have. They hold fund-raising when cash shortages become critical.

None of that is enough. The plain fact is this: The more people depend on the cash economy in Vanuatu, the more poor people we will see.

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

Here is the ocean, vast and wide, teeming with life of every kind, both large and small. See the ships sailing along, and Leviathan, which you made to play in the sea.” – Psalm 104

In 1651, an Englishman named Thomas Hobbes used the metaphor of the powerful, even unassailable aquatic giant of biblical lore to present the concept of the commonwealth. If we live as individuals, caring only for ourselves, he said, our lives could only be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But if people can find their way to compromise with one another, to accept that respecting mutual rights is better for one and all, a person could “be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself.” Hobbes contended that this commonwealth of like-minded people becomes strong enough to be unassailable – or at least better able to defend itself than any individual ever could. Leviathan emerges where only shoals of darting, frightened minnows existed before.

The Internet lends itself very well to such imagery. Individually, we are tiny minnows awash in a vast, sometimes unfriendly sea of information. Acting alone, we can find some good in it, but we are largely defenceless against the greater forces at work. If we join forces with our like-minded brethren, though, we can achieve great things. Not the least of these is a degree of safety, comfort and predictability in how we experience the Net.

Sometime very soon, Vanuatu’s Internet marketplace is going to be liberalised. The approach will be similar to that used to bring competition into the mobile telephony market. But there are a few significant differences….

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A Fresh Start

Considering its contents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a curious document. If the rights enumerated in it are indeed central to our nature, why do we need to list them at all, much less give them the force of law?

The answer is potentially embarrassing to many of us. Human rights are not convenient. They get in the way of many desires that, for better or worse, are also deep-rooted in the human soul.

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Another year passes and a new one begins; a useful time to pause for a moment and reflect on what we have, what we know, and what we want.

The things we have are stacked side by side like extra timbers kept dry under the eaves – notionally of value, but of uncertain usefulness right now…..

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On Privacy

The ramifications of our ability to transmit, access and synthesise vast amounts of data using technology are consistently underestimated by people because of the simple fact that, as far as they’re concerned, they are sitting in the relative privacy of their own room with nothing but the computer screen as an intermediary.

Slashdot recently reported the release of document analysing privacy issues in a number of major browsers. One of the findings was that the Flash plugin on all platforms and browsers was terribly insecure. One of the commenters had this to say:

“Privacy issues aside, I’ve never had any trouble with Flash.”

To which I replied:

I like your logic: Aside from a single tile, the space shuttle Columbia’s last mission went flawlessly.

Seriously, though: you’ve underlined the single greatest problem in computer security today – what we don’t see can hurt us. I’ve written about this at greater length elsewhere, but to put it simply, privacy is the battleground of our decade.

The struggle to come to terms with privacy will manifest itself in the legal, moral and ethical arenas, but it arises now because of technology and the cavalier approach that the vast majority of people take to it.

The ramifications of our ability to transmit, access and synthesise vast amounts of data using technology are consistently underestimated by people because of the simple fact that, as far as they’re concerned, they are sitting in the relative privacy of their own room with nothing but the computer screen as an intermediary.

On the consumer side of things, this creates what Schneier calls a Market for Lemons in which the substance of the product becomes less valuable than its appearance. As long as we have the illusion of security, we don’t worry about the lack of real protection.

On the institutional side, we see countless petty abuses of people’s privacy. There is nothing stopping a low-level employee from watching this data simply out of prurient interest. In fact, this kind of abuse happens almost every time comprehensive surveillance is conducted. In a famous example, low-level staffers in the US National Security Agency would regularly listen in on romantic conversations between soldiers serving in Iraq and their wives at home. The practice became so common that some even created ‘Greatest Hits’ compilations of their favourites and shared them with other staffers.

They would never have done so[*] had the people in question been in the room, but because the experience is intermediated by an impersonal computer screen, which can inflict no retribution on them, their worst instincts get the better of them.

When discussing software in the 21st Century, we cannot ever treat privacy as just one incidental aspect of a greater system. Privacy defines the system. Starting an argument by throwing it aside in the first subordinate clause gives little weight to any argument that follows.

[*] On consideration, that’s not strictly true. History shows that surveillance societies are perfectly practicable even without significant automation. The East German Stasi are but one example. The critical factor in such cases is of course that the state sanctioned, encouraged, even required this behaviour of its citizens. So let me modulate my statement to say:

They would never have taken this unsanctioned action had they had any sense that they were being subjected to similar – or any – scrutiny.