Facebook, Africa & Net Neutrality.

Almost everybody loves Wikipedia, and while we may not all love Facebook (FB), many of us are somewhat addicted to it anyway. So, if cellular networks offer access to them free of charge, it is an offer that few would resist. But we should remember the cliche about “free” products on the internet: if there’s no charge, you are the product – your attention is sold to advertisers at a price, according to what the seller knows about you.

The debate over “zero-rating” (sponsored data) has intensified since the launch of internet.org, a project whereby FB pays networks to make a bouquet of web services (including Wikipedia and FB) available for free. It’s part of the wider debate over Net Neutrality .

Given that the stated goal of internet.org is to extend internet access to the majority of the world’s population who don’t have it, Africa becomes central to the discussion. Although there may be numerically more not-yet-connected people in Asia, they usually live more densely – often in areas where telecommunications infrastructure exists, even though only used by wealthier members of society. Thus, relatively less investment is necessary to get them online.

Simply put, most of Africa is sparsely populated, and few of the population can afford internet. Although mobile networks have grown massively – and still are doing so – they cover mostly urban areas and transport routes, where people of means concentrate. The network operators have little incentive to invest elsewhere – unless FB, albeit for its own reasons, subsidises them to do so.

People who argue (perfectly reasonably) that what internet.org will bring to the otherwise-unconnected is not the internet as the world knows it, but a curated “walled garden” must concede that the alternative, for millions, is to be deprived even of the possibility of buying a data bundle to be able to get outside of the bouquet.

An additional factor to be considered is the growing importance of the internet in humanitarian responses an area where Africa is historically disadvantaged.

My own modest proposal is that we separate the components of net neutrality – I agree with the principle that all data packets should be handled equally, but I can accept that some of them are paid for by a corporation.

However, since the first edition of this blog, news has emerged that websites or services need to satisfy “lightweight” technical criteria to feature in internet.org (in order to keep data needs low). This includes making no use of basic encryption measures. In other words FB is luring new internet users into an insecure environment where they can be spied upon and defrauded. At the very least they must be made aware of this.

As African internet governance stakeholders we must grapple with these issues.

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P2P Name Systems: Potential Disruptors?

People involved with internet governance need to see the big picture, beyond the practicalities of the existing system and its immediate challenges. As more and more governments resort to interfering in the DNS lookup process, alternatives to it become more attractive.

There are several projects to provide alternative DNSs; in general they are deprecated because they create the possibility that different users clicking on the same link could be directed to different destinations; this could seriously harm the usefulness of the internet as a whole. However this general concern does not apply to all of them, as will be seen below.

Two concepts need to be understood before P2P name services can be fully explained: peer-to-peer architecture as such, and secondly blockchains.

In essence, P2P architecture removes the distinction between client computers and servers. Each machine in a P2P network has similar status as a “node” or “servent”. Early examples were file-sharing systems, where once a file had been seeded from the first node, it would be stored in multiple locations and each time a new request for it was made, it could be sourced from several of those locations simultaneously, according to the traffic load in each part of the network from moment to moment.

The concept of a blockchain is an innovation within the P2P paradigm. First introduced as part of the Bitcoin project, in essence it is a distributed open ledger/database which is constantly synchronised between all the nodes of the network. Hence it is almost impossible to make a fraudulent alteration. Although originally created as a record of payments, new uses are constantly being found and the administration of domain names is one of these, first deployed in the Namecoin project (being free/open-source software, anyone can duplicate and modify it).

How Namecoin’s service works

The domain name serving function of Namecoin relies on its cryptocurrency nature. Because a massive amount of processing power is involved in verifying and recording a transaction (e.g. the leasing of a name domain), the uniqueness of each URL is guaranteed and fraudulent or abusive activity excluded. This processing is performed on the computers of some members of the P2P network, referred to as “miners”. They are rewarded by units of the Namecoin currency, which are actually encrypted digital code. These same units can be used, among other things, to lease domain names.

A user wishing to use this service can install a special add-on in their browser, which enables them to access URLs having the “.bit” suffix by communicating with the P2P network which then returns the relevant IP address. Other methods such as proxy servers are available.

Ways to work around censorship

The main “selling point” of P2P name services is that they prevent the kind of crude censorship mentioned earlier, where a government simply compels the operators of DNS servers to remove certain websites from the lookup list. However, there are other ways of working around such censorship.

Many people may choose P2P name services because they like the do-it-yourself aspect, which leads to collective self-reliance among a community of users. Conceivably, such services could continue to function if the main structure of the internet is disrupted, especially when combined with mesh network infrastructure, which is becoming more common and easier to implement. Such resilient communications have repeatedly proven to shift the balance of power between civil society and repressive regimes. They also offer a cheap and co-operative way to make telecommunication accessible where the market has failed to do so.

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End of Day 4

Having received advice and reflected upon it, I moved on to the most urgent priority: social engineering. In this case, a Skype call to my teammate, to talk about matters of principle and at least one specific: the GPL. At the end of the call, it was all systems go, in this case setting up infrastructure such as mailing lists, wiki etc. Then, to my surprise, Fedora ambassador Mel Chua asked for my assistance in doing a feature on the CES for opensource.com, which is a website about everything except software. We ended up collaborating on it in Etherpad. I have come across someone using the phrase “open source money”, referring to complementary currencies like Cape Town’s talent, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at Mel’s interest in my client organisation (of which I am also an active and loyal member).

So, as evening drew nigh we adjourned first to the hotel where the facilitators were staying, and then to a Cuban-themed restaurant across town, where we were later joined by Stefano, another Masters student from UCT. The most memorable feature of the evening was the raconteurship of Jan, embracing everything from punchcards to RMS.

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Day 3 of POSSE

As if to add to my sense of purpose, it happened that my department’s newest prof, Gary Marsden, gave his inaugural lecture last night with a strong emphasis on the human aspect of computing, and the fact that 80% of digital access devices in the world are handheld. UCT is a world leader in researching mobile usage where they are the only digital access.

Meanwhile I also had my first constructive comment on this blog. Matt cautioned me about my euphoric tone and apparent naïveté, and I responded that things were not as extreme as they might seem. Since I have an “exit strategy” in the sense that my (mini-) dissertation doesn’t depend on roll-out or completion of the GSM interface, but rather of my own background research and field trial, I am not endangered by potential success in the open-source dimension.

In fact such success seemed also to commence today, as the POSSE afternoon session was joined by Antoine, who is working on open-sourcing the very type of gateway systems (GSM to HTTP) which in my dissertation project, would be achieved with the help of one or perhaps two commercial service providers. Furthermore he is acquainted with CES and convinced of its potential to unleash grassroots enterprise.

Not that I confined myself to talking about my project; today I also created its sourceforge account and its IRC channel…

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Productively lost indeed.

The Fedora ambassadors have given me food for thought: my humble dissertation project (facilitation of a GSM interface for the ces.org.za website), which hardly involves any coding (but lots of documentation, as well as a field test), could still become “open source” – at least partly. Even if some of the processing happens in “black boxes” outside the project (for now anyway), the project could still have the gamut of open-source accessories: licence, wiki, version control system, repository, community, etc. After all, many thousands of people around the world stand to benefit via the CES website. This would increase the project’s chances of propagating and persisting beyond the scope of my Masters project. Also, I will have proven my capacity not only for research but also in open source project management.

The challenging parts are to do with the other parties to the project: my co-programmer, a non-student and fellow volunteer in the CES; and the university itself, embodied in my department, supervisor and examiner/s. I believe none of these is in any way hostile to open source (rather, the contrary) but at the same time, their knowledge and experience is basically of open source products rather than processes. It could challenge them to have a whole crowd involved, even (/especially?) if it’s scattered worldwide. However, I am aware of two initiatives within the university which could lend legitimacy to such a strategy: the Open Content project, and the Social Responsiveness initiative.

My inclination is to seize the bit between my teeth, and make it a primary feature of my project that it’s open-source, and claim credit for that. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?…Even if I’m forced into the mould of conventional individualistic work, I will have gained valuable experience along the way. Over the next few days I will be looking in more depth at my options…

Suddenly the hitherto cute phrase “productively lost”, which was presented from the beginning as a goal of POSSE, takes on meaning for me. Not so much within the proceedings of the course so far; I have felt somewhat at home there. Rather, I am applying it to my last several months at UCT. Although I had done coursework for my Masters remotely in past years, this time since relocation has been my chance to roam the field of IT, obsessively reading and absorbing the big-picture stuff to the detriment of my last modules of coursework, and circling my dissertation project, planning and preparing. I have been intensely curious about the David-and-Goliath confrontation between corporate and open-source production, seeing it as a crucial sub-plot of the drama of homo sapiens’ redemption or disgrace. Now I am finding my own feet on the stage.

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Day 2 – terminal velocity.

Today we looked at and played with version control systems. For this we had to use Linux command-lines; since there’s still no 32-bit Fedora LiveCD available, I remained in Ubuntu (my BIOS can’t see bootable flashdrives). However, the difference between the systems came down to substituting “apt-get” for “yum“. I also had to reconfigure to use a faster mirror – installing publican (a build app) from leg.uct.ac.za (Linux Enthusiasts’ Group) was slow (on UCT campus you have no option, but it works faster there). Once it finished, I immediately asked my Ubuntu system to find a faster server, and it soon reported that the best would be sun.ac.za (Stellenbosch University). Then, installing git, it went faster. The difference between an official university service and an amateur one! Alas, UCT’s IT infrastructure is dominated by corporate zombies who seem to be hoping for this Ubuntu thing to go away.

Lunch was lasagna and butternut. After that we did patches – mine was an improvement in the documentation for Sugar On A Stick (SoaS). Then we had a look at opensource community translation methods and structures.

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Off to a flying start…

Although I arrived late I was able to join right in, since the content of the first session, history of FOSS, was familiar to me. Then we started getting to grips with IRC, Etherpad etc. – collaboration tools. So far so good. Lunchbreak is about to end…

…but before it did, I was able to test my newly installed Skype & headset, calling my colleague in the CES project. I am working with him to create a GSM interface for the website (www.ces.org.za). That’s my dissertation project as a Masters student at UCT, although the CES itself has nothing to do with UCT. My CES colleague even had a webcam, so I could see him, although not vice versa…

…so, after lunch we practiced using wiki pages, but for the sake of experience we had to get others to edit our wiki pages, communicating with them by IRC. We were uploading pics to our wikis too. A few stragglers came in after lunch!

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