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From Broadband to Breadbasket

As addressed in Calestous Juma’s Berkman talk on September 15th, the African continent sits poised on the fulcrum of growth.   Market inefficiencies exist and are held in stasis until government reforms and deregulation opens floodgates of market opportunity, diversification, and stipulated foreign capital injections that create windfalls of improved accounting standards, corporate governance, and transparency. And then there’s technology.

Building upon rapidly advancing technology, Africa is attempting to leapfrog those previously requisite waypoints for growth.  Mobile phones have eclipsed the need for fixed-line communications.  High-bandwidth cables beginning to encircle the continent, coupled with Google’s support of middle-Earth orbit satellites, could lead to a data service revolution, even in rural Africa.  Mobile is trending past voice to data, and mobile is trending past communication to transaction.  The greatest threat to the ATM comes not in the form of bullet-proof glass “mobile banking” units used by Kenya’s Equity Bank, but in the form of hand-held mobile devices. The advent and adoption of transaction services that enable mobile payments such as Safaricom’s M-PESA in East Africa is beckoning obsolescence for brick and mortar banks.  Though Equity Bank has inspired millions of Kenyans to open bank accounts, and is currently home to over 50 percent of all Kenyan accounts, Safaricom’s novelty is groundbreaking and has inspired imitation.

For educated and established African entrepreneurs, these changes herald a time that could not be better.  Though capital markets remain under-developed, investment inflows –comprised of both Development Finance Institute (DFI), institutional, and private capital– are beginning to fuel expansion.  Operating costs in Africa remain higher than in the developed world, but capital structuring focused on post-investment management and execution is becoming more viable as Diaspora repatriation is improving education and presumed operational abilities. But behind the façade of these burgeoning global businesses, it’s still a different story.

Behind the capital injections and international press is a continent comprised of Small and Medium size Enterprise (SME) entrepreneurs, informal labor markets, and tremendous agricultural potential.  Companies such as Karuturi –which raises maize, palm, and flowers–are demonstrating that in East Africa it’s agriculture that can, per dollar of investment, impact the most people via employment. Though technology will continue to improve the lives of Africans through greater access to information, the advent of broadband and mobile will certainly change lifestyle, but may not yet change livelihood.  Tech application for agriculture may not be as sexy as mobile banking, but it is these synergies –moving from broadband to breadbasket– that will empower change in both lifestyle and livelihood across Africa.

Posted in Africa. 5 Comments »

Foreign Media Outlets Targeted in Chinese Malware Attack

Experts at InfoWar Monitor have discovered that journalists working for foreign media outlets in China, including Reuters, the Straits Times, Dow Jones, Agence France Presse, and Ansa, are the targets of a recent malware (malicious software) attack. Nart Villeneuve and Greg Walton suspect that the attack is connected with increased security around the Communist regime’s upcoming 60 year anniversary:

These attacks correlate with reports of increased security measures within China as a result of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. These increased security measures have also been extended to the Internet, with providers of anti-censorship technology reporting increased levels of blocking that prevents people from accessing the web sites of foreign media and news organizations.

One of the key findings in the report is that the attack appears to have originated at a (possibly unsuspecting) university in Taiwan:

The IP addresses currently used by the malware are assigned to Taiwan. One of the servers is located at the National Central University of Taiwan, and is a server to which students and faculty connect to download anti-virus software. The second is an IP address assigned to the Taiwan Academic Network. These compromised servers present a severe security problem as the attackers may have substituted their malware for anti-virus software used by students, employees, and faculty at the National Central University.

It is difficult to prove the extent to which governments use malware and other computer attacks as a tool of foreign policy, but many experts have strong suspicions that, for example, Russia may be exploiting the criminal networks that exist around malware and computer crime in that country for political ends. (More malware comes from Russia, China and the US than anywhere else in the world according to Stopbadware.) For more details on the recent attack in China see the full report or check out this article in the Globe and Mail.

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US Threatens Restrictions on Kenyan Officials

The BBC reports that US officials have threatened to prohibit a number of senior government officials from traveling to the United States and that the US may also weigh in more critically against Kenyan requests before international financial institutions. The list of officials includes MPs and government ministers who have refused to create a tribunal to look into post-election ethnic violence in 2007, when over 1300 were killed. The impact of the Internet, SMS and other technology was an important part of both the orchestration of that violence (SMS), but the crisis also saw the creation of Ushahidi, a new tool to crowdsource tracking of violent conflict, and showed the importance of Kenyan bloggers who provided factual, on-the-ground reporting for both a domestic and international news audience. As Josh Goldstein and Juliana Rotich wrote in our Kenyan case study:

Using the lens of the 2007–2008 Kenyan presidential election crisis, this case study illustrates how digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, were a catalyst to both predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and to civic behavior such as citizen journalism and human rights campaigns. The paper concludes with the notion that while digital tools can help promote transparency and keep perpetrators from facing impunity, they can also increase the ease of promoting hate speech and ethnic divisions.

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Russians Look Abroad For Political News

In the Russian newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets, Mikhail Rostovsky and Mikhail Zubov argue that Russians must now turn to foreign media to learn about politics in their own country:

Russian society learns about important political developments from foreign experts and foreign media outlets, these days. Consider the news that Medvedev and Putin will decide what to do about presidency in 2012 among themselves instead of letting the people make the decision. Who do we owe this knowledge to? Correct. To American political scientist Nikolai Zlobin. Who did ex-President Mikhail Gorbachev choose to inform that this was not how presidents were supposed to behave? He told it to BBC. Finally, who was Yurgens talking to when he made his startling discovery? He was talking to Reuters.

They are talking about Igor Yurgens, an advisor to Russian President Medvedev who, it seems, is not afraid to tell it like it is to the foreign media. He recently compared Putin to the tottering Brezhnev, and here’s what he told Newsweek last February when he was blaming the government for the economic crisis and the need for democratic reforms:

Freedom of speech is vital. It’s one of the reforms Russia needs most. Then the old institutions of power should be broken. Now is the time to develop real democracy. If the crisis grows tougher, the reputation of United Russia [the ruling party] will suffer gravely. At the moment we do not have any real political competition, and few dare to struggle against the ruling United Russia party. The government needs to strengthen democratic institutions now—it’s a matter of the basic principles of survival. Just as the state created its “vertical of power” by fiat, it now needs to dismantle reform by fiat—for the sake of rescuing itself.

I’d be interested to see if there is any data to back up the assertion that Russians prefer foreign news outlets for their political news. Our exploratory studies of the Russian blogosphere show that Russian Web native sources like are popular with politically oriented bloggers, but foreign news outlets like BBC also do quite well. Even US supported Radio Free Europe does relatively well, especially with more opposition minded bloggers and when compared to Radio Sawa, Al Hurra and other misadventures in the Middle East. And apparently Medvedev is even looking to bloggers for ideas these days.

H/T: Johnson’s Russia List

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Perestroika II Begins Online?

Обращение президента - Дмитрий Медведев_ Россия, вперед! - Газета.Ru
By Karina Alexanyan

On the morning of Sept 10, Dmitri Medvedev published an astonishing article entitled “Forward, Russia!” describing his vision for Russia’s future.

Open Democracy’s Dmitri Travin provides an interesting analysis of the article, comparing it with some of Gorbachev’s first steps under Perestroika.

What is significant about the article – in addition to it’s content of course – is that it did not premier in the morning papers. And there was no mention of it on television before it went “live”. Rather, Medvedev chose to address Russia’s citizens via the online newspaper “”.

In addition to being known as a venue for criticism of the Kremlin and commentary by opposition members., is a “webnative” publication, meaning that it has no print version and doesn’t exist outside the internet.

As a result, at least initially, the RuNet served as the exclusive forum for the entire discussion of the article. The article’s appearance was eventually announced on the “democratic” radio station “Ekho Moskvy” and word spread from there. By noon, the article was available on the Kremlin’s site as well.

The trajectory of this article provides an excellent opportunity to measure the spread of information (especially information this important) from the Russian internet to the mainstream.

In addition, given that the internet remains an elite medium in Russia, and that an overwhelming majority of Russian’s get their news from television, Medvedev’s choice of implies that his intended audience, at least initially, was a select and narrow group – the young & educated urban elite.

Reports on the effect of Medvedev’s announcement are mixed, and, predictably, vary by the source. In his Open Democracy piece, Travin states that the article caused a “sensation” on the internet. In contrast, The Heritage Foundation’s Yevgeny Volk suggests the article received a lukewarm response:

Tellingly though, Medvedev’s target audience, Russia’s young internet readership, had a lukewarm response to their President’s insights. His comments failed to make the spotlight in numerous blogs, being overshadowed by society gossip and sporting events. It looks like Russians are accustomed to hearing Kremlin insiders speak the right words but make no effort to overcome hardships and rectify mistakes.

RussiaProfile also focuses on the reaction online, stating that:

…judging not by the mass media, but by the discussion on LiveJournal, the article was equally poorly received both by our homegrown loyalists, who immediately forgot about loyalty and cruelly criticized the text that came from their favorite supreme authority, and by the regime’s traditional opponents, who mocked the call for the willing and the dissenters to jointly pull Russia out of the present semi-quagmire. 

Nevertheless, the article – and its repercussions – remain a hot topic. A week later, a Yandex search for the Russian terms “Medvedev” and “Forward Russia” still comes up with over 3 million results.

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Iranian Opposition to Turn Quds Day Green, Rafsanjani Not Allowed to Speak

Hamid Tehrani over at Global Voices reports that the Iranian opposition plans to turn Quds Day, a day which many in the region mark to show their solidarity with Palestinians, into a day for supporting the protest movement as well. NiaclNsight also notes:

The 30th anniversary of the International Day of Quds will be Green this year, according to reformist websites in Iran. Opposition leaders Karroubi, Khatami, and Mousavi have all confirmed their participation in this important ceremony, which is traditionally held in every city of Iran.

Our research on the Arabic blogosphere showed that Palestine was the one issue that united the entire blogosphere, in particular last year’s war in Gaza, as well as Quds day and other pro-Palestine events such as Nakba Day, which marks the 1948 exodus from Palestine. My informal discussions with Arabic bloggers have also indicated strong support in that part of the Middle Eastern blogosphere for Iranian protesters after the election, so Friday has the potential to turn into a day of solidarity with the Iranian protest movement across the region. In an attempt to undercut their plans, the Iranian regime has banned opposition cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who normally speaks at Friday prayers on Quds day, from doing so this year.

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Iranian Prosecutor Blames Internet for Unrest

Prosecutors in Iran have indicted a student leader for using the Internet to spread false information and provoke unrest during election protests. The New York Times reports:

State television reported the indictment on Monday of a prominent student leader, Abdullah Momeni, who is accused of “spreading reports via Internet to provoke the unrest.” Reading from the indictment, Tehran’s deputy prosecutor, Ali Ahmad Akbari, said that that Facebook, the Internet and YouTube were “used as effective tools to organize illegal gatherings and to spread false information,” the ISNA student news agency reported.

The Times also reports that opposition leader Mehdi Karoubi struck back at the judicial panel that found no cases of abuse or rape of protesters in Iranian jails with more evidence and testimonials from victims. Hamid Tehrani also recently pointed to a number of sites that are commemorating the dozens of protesters that were killed after the election.

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China Requires Use of ‘Blue Dam’ Surveillance Software

Global Voices Advocacy tells us that China’s latest attempt to control the Internet – ‘Blue Dam’ – became active on September 13, and the government is requiring ISPs to use the software or face punishment. Blue Dam is an ISP-level surveillance application that is, apparently, meant to solve many of the problems stemming from the failed launch of Green Dam, which the Chinese government initially insisted must be installed on all PCs sold in China, even those sold by foreign companies, and even though large chunks of the code were stolen from existing, patented software applications.

Carrying surveillance out at the ISP level follows the methodology China employs to filter blogs, as Rebecca McKinnon (the go to source on Chinese Internet issues) has shown, by forcing ISPs to do much of the dirty work of the censors. This is also not dissimilar from how Russia apparently monitors Internet activity. How effective any government will be at monitoring the work of millions of Internet users remains to be seen, but it is certainly a development free speech advocates are going to be concerned about, and could lead to another backlash by Chinese Internet users.

Don’t Look to the Web for Direct Democracy

In the Times Week in Review Anand Giriharadas seems surprised that the Obama team has had more success with the Internet during the campaign than in the White House. As the article tells us, the results of the “Citizens’ Briefing Book,” an online policy proposal initiative, were less than one might have hoped for:

In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.

I was not aware that the legalizing marijuana lobby was so well organized online, but less surprised by the popularity of online poker or anti-Scientology efforts: Both of those movements have an larger presence on the Internet than outside it, in particular the anonymous movement against Scientology.

The Internet is great at organizing campaigns and protests (in the US and abroad), but it will not, at least in the near term, have a huge impact on day to day governance in the way that some in the tech field had hoped. This is particularly true for those that believed the Internet would lead to direct democracy and fundamentally change our form of government in the US. It won’t. Most democratic societies have republican forms of government where we elect representatives to carry out the day to day affairs of state – because for all the problems its problems, this is still the best way to run things when the rest of us have full time jobs. This is more than anything an indictment of direct democracy as opposed to an indictment of the Internet. One need look no further than the mess that Californian voters have created by trying to manage a budget process at the ballot box – this has lead to a situation where nobody wants to pay higher taxes or have deficits, but everyone, especially during the economic meltdown, wants more government services. It’s impossible.

This doesn’t mean that the Internet isn’t having a huge impact on democracy, from campaigns to government transparency to allowing new voices into the process to increased fact checking of government, media and interest groups. Just don’t expect direct democracy to take hold because of technological innovation.

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Links for 9-11-09

Not much in the way of blog posts this week due to travel and conference presentations. Here are some recent good reads to tide you over until next week:

NPR shares a podcast from a retired firefighter who lost both of his sons, eight years ago today, at the World Trade Center.

UN Dispatch and Evgeny Morozov look at the dust up over GQ Russia’s choice to not publish an article linking the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings to the war in Chechnya and Putin’s election.

Profy looks at VKontakte’s (the Russian version of facebook) plans to expand globally.

The Atlantic wonders if innovation will force Google to fall from the tech heights, just as Microsoft and IBM did before it.

Ethan Zuckerman summarizes Hamid Tehraini’s analysis of social media in Iran, while the Wonk Room shoots holes in the idea that Obama’s outreach has strengthened Iranian hardliners.

The New York Times on a blow to anonymity in the Chinese Internet.

And Foreign Policy shows how pigeons are faster than the South African Internet.

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