Free your gadgets

Milena Popova looks at why companies such as Sony and Apple are missing out by stifling attempts for users to hack their own products

I would be willing to bet you a not-insubstantial amount of money that Steve Jobs would love to be able to say that the iPhone was the first mobile phone to control a space craft. But it's not going to be. Instead, British scientists are planning to put an Android phone - exact model to be confirmed - in space.

This may have something to do with Apple's closed approach to its hardware - something they have taken to extremes, for instance by using custom tamper-proof screws to make it more difficult for you to open, tinker with or repair the hardware you have legitimately bought from them.

In a complete u-turn on their previous position, Sony, too seem to have suddenly become incredibly precious about their hardware. Whereas previously they allowed third-party operating systems to be installed on their consoles, they are now suing people who have reverse engineered the PS3 to be able to do that. Anyone who ever visited the PS3 hacker GeoHot's website may find themselves embroiled in this particular mess too.

I would like to put it to you that through their actions companies like Apple and Sony not only prevent perfectly legitimate use of the products you have bought from them - they are also missing out on a lot of exciting opportunities. To illustrate this, I would like to bring to your attention a different shiny gaming platform, Microsoft's Kinect.

On the day the Kinect was released in the US, Adafruit Industries - a hacker/maker enterprise with an Open Source ethos - announced a bounty of initially $1000, later increased to $3000, for the first person to produce Open Source drivers for the new gadget. Microsoft were initially unimpressed, but after some internal realignment grudgingly conceded that maybe people were allowed to play with their toys after all - as long as they didn't call it hacking. [1]

This has given rise to an astounding array of Kinect hacks applications. You only need to search YouTube for "Kinect Hacks" to get an idea of what's going on. Some of my favourites include the Princess Leia demo ("Help me, Obi-wan!"), this incredibly cute puppet, and the Kinect air guitar - every middle-aged man's dream.

The Kinect Theremin remains unplayable, much like its real cousin. All of these hacks are enormous amounts of fun, but there's also a useful side to Kinect hacking. There are various attempts to create a Kinect-based Minority-Report-style user interface which could revolutionise the way we interact with computers. One Toronto hospital is experimenting with using the Kinect in the operating theatre, allowing surgeons to pull up patients' data and medical scan images and manipulate them without having to leave the sterile environment.

Back at Maker Faire I spoke to the guys from London Hackspace, creators of the Evil Genius Simulator, about their love of hardware hacking. Closed hardware, like the PS3 or various Apple devices, doesn't really stop them, they said - it makes hacking it more of a challenge, especially if the hardware is interesting, like the Kinect. It means getting to the point where you can do the really cool things with your new toy takes a little longer, as you have to reverse engineer it first.

This is also why they openly share the results of their reverse engineering efforts and their hacks - it makes it easier and faster for others to get on board. One passing comment really struck me. We were talking about why the PS3 got hacked and the the X-Box so far has been relatively safe. Apparently the way to keep your product safe from people wanting to do cool things with it to make it really boring. And none of us really want that, now do we?

The Kinect is not the only platform that lends itself to hacking. One of the London Hackspace Maker Faire projects was to hook up a Wii balance board to the wonderfully twee game SkiFree which delighted visitors visitors of a certain age while leaving the younger ones somewhat baffled. I have also seen some great music being made by waving Wii-motes around.

Whatever platform it's on, hardware hacking is all about retaining control of your gadgets, building understanding, and making some really cool things. It's about time companies like Apple and Sony understood that, far from threatening them, this only enriches their products and makes them more desirable.


[1] If in doubt, I am not using the Microsoft definition of hacking, or even the mainstream one. Instead, I prefer the older definition from the Jargon File/Hacker's Dictionary.

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra



Image: CC-AT-NC-SA Flickr: Antony Bennison

Block party

As the IWF celebrates its 15th birthday, Wendy Grossman looks at the how successful it has been since its creation

When last seen in net.wars, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) was going through the most embarrassing moment of its relatively short life: the time it blocked a Wikipedia page. It survived, of course, and on Tuesday last week it handed out copies of its latest annual report (PDF) and its strategic plan for the years 2011 to 2014 (PDF) in the Strangers Dining Room at the House of Commons.

The event was, more or less, the IWF's birthday party: in August it will be 15 years since the suspicious, even hostile first presentation, in 1996, of the first outline of the IWF. It was an uneasy compromise between an industry accused of facilitating child abuse, law enforcement threatening technically inept action, and politicians anxious to be seen to be doing something, all heightened by some of the worst mainstream media reporting I've ever seen.

Suspicious or not, the IWF has achieved traction. It has kept government out of the direct censorship business and politicians and law enforcement reasonably satisfied. Without – as was pointed out – cost to the taxpayer, since the IWF is funded from a mix of grants, donations, and ISPs' subscription fees.

And to be fair, it has been arguably successful at doing what it set out to do, which is to disrupt the online distribution of illegal pornographic images of children within the UK. The IWF has reported for some years now that the percentage of such images hosted within the UK is near zero. On Tuesday, it said the time it takes to get foreign-hosted content taken down has halved. Its forward plan includes more of the same, plus pushing more into international work by promoting the use of its URL list abroad and developing partnerships.

Over at The Register, Jane Fae Ozniek has done a good job of tallying up the numbers the IWF reported, and also of following up on remarks made by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey and Home Office Minister James Brokenshire that suggested the IWF or its methods might be expanded to cover other categories of material. So I won't rehash either topic here.

Instead, what struck me is the IWF's report that a significant percentage of its work now concerns sexual abuse images and videos that are commercially distributed. This news offered a brief glance into a shadowy world that is illegal for any of us to study since under UK law (and the laws of many other countries) it's illegal to access such material.

If this is a correct assessment, it certainly follows the same pattern as the world of malware writing, which has progressed from the giggling, maladjusted teenager writing a bit of disruptive code in his bedroom to a highly organized, criminal, upside-down image of the commercial software world (complete, I'm told by experts from companies like Symantec and Sophos, with product trials, customer support, and update patches). Similarly, our, or at least my, image was always of like-minded amateurs exchanging copies of the things they managed to pick up rather like twisted stamp collectors.

The IWF report says it has identified 715 such commercial sources, 321 of which were active in 2010. At least 47.7 percent of the commercially branded material is produced by the top ten, and the most prolific of these brands used 862 URLs. The IWF has attempted to analyze these brands, and believes that they are operated in clusters by criminals. To quote the report:

Each of the webpages or websites is a gateway to hundreds or even thousands of individual images or videos of children being sexually abused, supported by layers of payment mechanisms, content sores, membership systems, and advertising frames. Payment systems may include pre-pay cards, credit cards, "virtual money" or e-payment systems, and may be carried out across secure webpages, text, or email.

This is not what people predicted when they warned at the original meeting that blocking access to content would drive it underground into locations that were harder to police. I don't recall anyone saying: it will be like Prohibition and create a new Mafia. How big a problem this is and how it relates to events like last week's shutdown of remains to be seen. But there's logic to it: anything that's scarce attracts a high price and anything high-priced and illegal attracts dedicated criminals. So we have to ask: would our children be safer if the IWF were less successful?

The IWF will, I think always be a compromise. Civil libertarians will always be rightly suspicious of any organization that has the authority and power to shut down access to content, online or off. Still, the IWF's ten-person board now includes, alongside the representatives of ISPs, top content sites, academics, a consumer representative, and seems to be less dominated by repressive law enforcement interests.

There's an independent audit in the offing, and while the IWF publishes no details of its block list for researchers to examine, it advocates transparency in the form of a splash screen that tells users a site that is blocked and why. They learned, the IWF's departing head, Peter Robbins, said in conversation, a lot from the Wikipedia incident.

My summary: the organization will know it has its balance exactly right when everyone on all sides has something to complain about.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series

Image: CC-AT Flickr: jontintinjordan (jon jordan)

Human rights and social media

Building human rights into your social site

... goes the name of the panel I spoke on yesterday at SXSW Interactive, alongside Danny O’Brien of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Rebecca MacKinnon and Ebele Okobi-Harris, director of the Business & Human Rights program at Yahoo. Rebecca, Danny and I frequently deal with complaints from activists in respect to account deactivations and other human rights-related issues. One component (undoubtedly of many) of Ebele’s job happens to be handling the same issues, but from the other side of the fence.

Rebecca spoke largely about human rights issues on Chinese sites (as well as on American sites in China), while I touched on account deactivation in the Middle East and North Africa, referencing cases over the years from the Fouad Mourtada affair to the November 2010 takedown of the ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ group (because its admin used a pseudonym).

Though our points were surely well-taken, the conversation blew up when a very recent example of content deletion was raised. Late last week, after Egyptians reclaimed data from the state security services, one item they found were 3 CD-ROM of photographs of various state security officers.

Hossam Hamalawy, a well-known Egyptian journalist and activist, posted those photographs to Flickr, noting on the page where the photographs originated and why he was posting them (here’s why). Flickr then removed the photographs, something which surely happens all the time and may have gone unnoticed had Hamalawy (@3arabawy on Twitter) not escalated the incident, with help from folks like Andy Carvin. Flickr then responded:

The images in question were removed because they were not that member’s work. As stated by the Community Guidelines, ‘Flickr accounts are intended for members to share original photos and video that they themselves have created.’

Flickr isn’t a place for members to just host images but a place where members share original photos and video; and the Flickr community is built around that. For this reason, when we discover images that violate this provision, we may remove such images from the account and, in some instances, delete the account altogether.

While we regret that this action has upset the user, he must understand that this is not a decision we ever take lightly but only as necessary to ensure that Flickr remains a great place to creatively post and share original photos and videos with friends, family and the world.”

In short, the issue is thus: This is not an issue of copyright, but one of Flickr’s TOS, which require photographs posted on the site to have been taken by the user posting them. Because Hamalawy precisely stated that the photographs were not his, Flickr took them down.

On our panel, Ebele explained that she regretted that the issue hadn’t been brought to her attention; nevertheless, she stated that she can’t say the end result wouldn’t have been the same. She also stated that, unlike when (for example) a user on Facebook is required to use his real name, she did not believe that the takedown of the photos put Hamalawy at risk (he disagrees). Today, she followed up our panel with a blog post.

The reactions at the panel ranged from outrage, from Gilles Frydman (who was involved along with Carvin in the escalation), to frustration, expressed by Issandr El Amrani, who was involved in the situation (as the person who paid for Hamalawy’s Pro account) and felt that Flickr was coming out on the wrong side of history and should have engaged with Hamalawy and changed their policies to allow for his photos to remain.

On Ebele’s blog post today, an interesting discussion has begun to take place. In the comments, two people have pointed out two very excellent points: 1) that there are plenty of other examples across the site of photographs clearly not taken by the person posting them and 2) that human rights should be given (or at least considered for) exception.

Here are my own thoughts: The first point speaks exactly to the point I’ve been raising about Facebook for over a year now. Community policing, while probably the only scaleable model, is often skewed against activists and well-known people. This is the situation we’re seeing right now with Michael Anti: there are undoubtedly thousands of Chinese users on Facebook using Anglicized names (as it’s a fairly common thing for Chinese, especially outside of China, to do). I have several as friends. And yet, Anti was caught because he’s a well-known person, and was undoubtedly reported, perhaps by enemies (perhaps even by enemies in the Chinese government).

To the second point, I agree with Sameer Padania in the comments section:

Here’s one suggestion of how Flickr might handle this differently in the future. Flickr has a section called The Commons (, which consists of photos contributed by a growing group of public archives. Much of the imagery therein is shared by, and attributed to, the participating archive, and the photos themselves are considered part of the public domain. The rights/usage statement ( specifies these four scenarios for determining whether copyright on a photo is considered ‘public domain’:

The copyright is in the public domain because it has expired;
The copyright was injected into the public domain for other reasons, such as failure to adhere to required formalities or conditions;
The institution owns the copyright but is not interested in exercising control; or
The institution has legal rights sufficient to authorize others to use the work without restrictions.

Could the images that Hossam uploaded (and others like them) be considered ‘public domain’ under these conditions? If they were re-submitted by an institution (assuming that the Egyptian State Security are unlikely to submit a copyright counter-claim), would that provide them with a more stable status? Or could a ‘human rights’ category or section be created in The Commons, as a sort of public interest repository of human rights-related imagery?

But, in all fairness, I want to note that these changes don’t happen overnight. It’s hard to say Flickr did the wrong thing in the short amount of time they had to deal with it, but I do believe that they should rectify the situation by re-thinking and amending their policies. That said, Flickr could have given Hamalawy a pass for now while they dealt with this internally.

Ultimately, however, it’s Flickr’s decision, and unfortunately, human rights simply don’t trump the profit that comes from other users. As Ebele said herself (in response to a question from Gilles Frydman in which he asked, “so should I tell activists to just leave Flickr?”), Flickr may not be the platform for everyone. Flickr may simply not be a safe space for activists.

Note: I initially, and erroneously, stated that Ebele was sick when this happened.


This article originally appeared here and is licensed under Creative Commons AT-NC-ND

Jillian York is a Boston-based writer, researcher, and activist. You can visit her blog, or follow her on twitter

Image: CC-AT-SA Flickr: TTC Press Images

Music industry is backward & economically suicidal

Simon Indelicate, from The Indelicates, tells ORGZine about his experiences in the music industry and why the traditional model for record companies is out-dated

Tell me what Corporate Records is all about?

Corporate Records is the record company we started in order to release our second album, ‘Songs For Swinging Lovers’. As well as handling the manufacture and sale of physical music (largely high-end, high quality special edition releases) it operates a web content-delivery platform that anyone can sign up and use for their own releases - selling music digitally on their own terms.

What made you want to start Corporate Records?

The company came from our experiences of being a ‘signed’ band and the astonishingly backward, wasteful and economically suicidal practises that were (and remain) evident in all corners of the music industry. It’s a long and funny story - but, in essence, the music industry seems to achieve the opposite of it’s stated aim: it is a great big obstacle that prevents people who make music from selling it to people who want to listen to it while wasting lots of money.

We figured if we did the precise and clinical opposite of everything we’d seen anyone in the industry do we would probably do okay. So far, this approach has been successful.

What’s the plan to grow Corporate Records?

As far as the online business goes, there are other companies (mostly American with much more investment and silicon valley cred) doing a similar thing so we are looking to develop more engaging ways for users to browse the site and find the brilliant music that people have uploaded.

We see ourselves much more as a record label than as a content-delivery-system. In the next few months we'll be making general site improvements and added functionality. But beyond that, we’re looking at various things to build the community that exists around the company, and connect fans with new music. If that all sounds vague it’s because I’m being deliberately secretive - just to be clear!

Tell me a bit about The Indelicates and your experience with more traditional record companies?

It’s hard to go into specifics without being mean about people who are essentially decent. I could draw on a wealth of anecdotes - panicked phone calls from executives who’ve only just realised that you can rip music from youtube, bitter complaints about illegal post-release filesharing from people who deliberately leaked albums pre-release - to illustrate the endemic failure of the industry to engage with technology. But I think the case is made and proven by the briefest glance at the internet and most labels’ presence on it.

It’s probably worth noting that, discounting the uncompromising positions of paid lobbyists from the BPI, these are not evil or stupid people. It is just that the industry they built and did great things with no longer has an economic foundation. It used to be that the recording, manufacture, distribution and promotion of recorded music were enormous costs that prohibited entry into the market by anyone without serious financial clout.

The technology of the last two decades have now almost eradicated these costs. The ability to effectively record or synthesise music requires only a computer and an internet connection. Manufacture and distribution of physical media is unnecessary when the encoding and transfer of digital music is free. Effective promotion costs only time and the right twitter contacts. Costs have collapsed. Consequently the supply of recorded music has exploded.

You could legally listen to a new, brilliant album every day without ever paying a penny or hearing anything signed to a label just by browsing Corporate Records, myspace, YouTube, Bandcamp, CD Baby or any of the other services that exist in the space between music-makers and music consumers that used to be occupied by the record industry.


So have these record companies have been too static in dealing with the changing environment?

There is enormous supply and around the same level of money that music consumers have available to spend, that is, the same level of demand. Consequently the price of an hours worth of music has had to fall - the failure of the music industry has been to attempt to maintain the old pricing (£8-12 per 45 minutes) as before in the face of a changed economic reality. In the face of this filesharing and it’s persecutors’ spurious link between illegal downloads and lost sales are the merest distractions.

Value in music comes from engagement, participation, quality - it’s impossible to put a general price on these. It’s a social algorithm that returns a different result for every potential transaction. As such, we think the Pay-What-You-Like model does a good job of identifying the right price for the market. Similarly, selling high-end, high-value special editions is an efficient response to the market conditions. Selling plastic discs with data on them in dull boxes for about a tenner is not.


As an artist on Corporate Records yourself, what’s your experience of the Pay-What-You-Like option? Do many people download for free?

We consider our use of it a success. A lot of people did download for free, but many people also paid nearly £80 each for a special edition. Furthermore a few paid £300 for a super special edition which involved us coming to your house, playing the album for you, recording the performance then signing a contract transferring all rights in the recording to you, thereby creating a limited edition of one. Capitalism requires me to point out that this deal is still available.

As I say, I don’t think a free download equates to a lost sale - so it’s hard to say if there were any downloaders who would have paid us who didn’t - but we were thrilled with how well it went.


Were you able to cover the costs of production?

Our experience is that yes, production was covered. While I think that you can produce perfectly serviceable music at home for very little (especially electronic music) there are things we wanted to do that really needed a studio and the costs were recouped.

Ultimately, our main purpose in music is to not have to stop. As far as we’re concerned if we’re able to keep going, to keep travelling to shows and most of all to keep making records then we’re doing fine, and the money we made from the last album has just about paid for recording the new one. We recouped our costs and I think that’s more than a lot of culty indie bands with low end record deals can say.

That said, there are no guarantees and it’s not as simple as just uploading and watching the stats counter go up. There is a lot of work involved. Part of replacing the traditional record company with a direct artist/fan relationship is that you have to get good at doing the things that record companies used to do for you.

I think it also helps (and I’m not making any claims for myself here) if you are producing music that is, in some way or another, different from the competition. The new environment will reward those who are a thousand people’s favourite band more than those who a million people think are alright.


What are some of the other obstacles you have faced?

We tend to have issues every time we try to do anything in a traditional way. We had complaints and problems when we made the decision to block some of our releases in Germany while we talked to our (actually, really excellent) label about what they wanted to do. I think that was a mistake as it contradicted everything we’d been saying about free data, and pushed people onto proxy and torrent sites when our whole thing was that they didn’t need to bother.

We had an issue when a few of our tracks somehow found their way onto a list maintained by a company employed by a major label to harass youtube and soundcloud users a few people got horribly aggressive takedown notices and we spent a few days on the phone sorting it out (and I wonder how often this happens). We find that there isn’t an air of excitement or the corresponding level of investment in new business models in the UK that people tell us exists in America and this has been a bit of a drag.


As the internet makes music more accessible and cheaper for consumers, what impact do you think this will have on live music?

Honestly, I don’t think the argument that piracy will cause a general upsurge in revenue for live music is a convincing one and I always wince when I hear it. Live has huge hidden costs that go up and up with the scale of the performance, and the business model for touring is to make enough money from each show to pay for getting to and putting on the next one.

It’s not unusual for bands quite a lot a bigger than us to tour for three month stretches, come home and immediately restart their old jobs having only made enough on the tour to survive the tour itself. The escape velocity of fame needed to play big enough shows that the costs pulling you back are negated by the revenues thrusting you forward is only reachable by a tiny fraction of artists. Also, the idea that you can raise the value of something by flooding the market for it seems to make little sense.

As far as I’m concerned the case for a free internet, digital rights and an innovative approach to music sales that reflects market conditions is made already without an appeal to the boost to related revenue streams. I’m content to look at the state of music and say, this is how it is, it’s not reversible and that’s a good thing.


Do you believe this is the future of the music industry? And if so, how long before we start to see the mainstream shift?

I don’t know and I don’t think anyone does. I do think that the future of the industry will be forged by those who see the way things are now as an exciting, creative revolution rather than a scary, destructive crisis. If we’d formed the band in 1985 instead of 2005 we might, maybe, possibly have been among the vanishing minority who were ever able to record their music well and distribute it on a large scale and made a bunch of cash too. Much more likely is that we’d have remained among the vast, impotent majority - frustrated and even poorer than we are. I choose now - and the future.


Thomas Quinn, ORGZine editor

Image: All rights reserved by The Indelicates

Standing up for the census

Wendy Grossman argues that the transparency of the census makes it a much better option for data collection than the alternatives

My census form arrived the other day – 32 lavender and white pages of questions about who will have been staying overnight in my house on March 27, their religions, and whether they will be cosseted with central heating and their own bedroom.

I seem to be out of step on this one, but I've always rather liked the census. It's a little like finding your name in an old phone book: I was here. Reportedly, this, Britain's 21st national census, may be the last. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has complained that it is inaccurate and out of date by the time it's finished, and £482 million is expensive.

Until I read the Guardian article cited above, I had never connected the census to Thomas Malthus' 1798 prediction that the planet would run out of the resources necessary to support an ever-increasing human population. I blame the practice of separating science, history, and politics: Malthus is taught in science class, so you don't realize he was contemporaneous with the inclusion of the census in the US Constitution, which you learn about in civics class.

The census seems to be the one moment when attention really gets focused on the amount and types of data the government collects about all of us. There are complaints from all political sides that it's intrusive and that the government already has plenty of other sources.

I have – both here and elsewhere – written a great deal about privacy and the dangers of thoughtlessly surrendering information but I'm inclined to defend the census. And here's why: it's transparent. Of all the data-gathering exercises to which our lives are subject it's the only one that is. When you fill out the form you know exactly what information you are divulging, when, and to whom. Although the form threatens you with legal sanctions for not replying, it's not enforced.

And I can understand the purpose of the questions: asking the size and disposition of homes, the amount of time spent working and at what, racial and ethnic background, religious affiliation, what passports people hold and what languages they speak.

These all make sense to me in the interests of creating a snapshot of modern Britain that is accurate enough for the decisions the government must make. How many teachers and doctors do we need in which areas who speak which languages? How many people still have coal fires? These are valid questions for a government to consider. But most important, anyone can look up census data and develop some understanding of the demographics government decisions are based on.

What are the alternatives? There are certainly many collections of data for various purposes. There are the electoral rolls, which collect the names and nationalities of everyone at each address in every district. There are the council tax registers, which collect the householder's name and the number of residents at each address.

Other public sector sources include the DVLA's vehicle and driver licensing data, school records, and the NHS's patient data. And of course there are many private sector sources, too: phone records, credit card records, and so on.

Here's the catch: every one of those is incomplete. Not everyone has a credit card; some people are so healthy they get dropped from their doctors' registers because they haven't visisted in many years; some people don't have an address; some people have five phones, some none. Most of those people are caught by the census, since it relies on counting everyone wherever they're staying on a single particular night.

Here's another catch: the generation of national statistics to determine the allocation of national resources is not among the stated purposes for which those data are gathered. That is of course fixable. But doing so might logically lead government to mandate that these agencies collect more data from us than they do now – and with more immediate penalties for not complying.

Would you feel better about telling the DVLA or your local council your profession and how many hours you work? No one is punished for leaving a question blank on the census, but suppose leaving your religious affiliation blank on your passport application means not getting a passport until you've answered it?

Which leads to the final, biggest catch. Most of the data that is collected from us is in private hands or is confidential for one reason or another. Councils are pathological about disliking sharing data with the public; commercial organizations argue that their records are commercially sensitive; doctors are rightly concerned about protecting patient data.

Despite the data protection laws we often do not know what data has been collected, how it's being used, or where it's being held. And although we have the right to examine and correct our own records we won't find it easy to determine the basis for government decisions: open season for lobbyists.

The census, by contrast, is transparent and accountable. We know what information we have divulged, we know who is responsible for it, and we can even examine the decisions it is used to support. Debate ways to make it less intrusive by all means, but do you really want to replace it with a black box?


Wendy M. Grossman’s web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series

Image: CC-AT-NC Flickr: upshine (Rex Chen)

Fusing open source with... judo

Lance Wicks finds an innovative way to combine his love of judo with open source

My project—DojoList, an open source web application—first started as a quick hack when I was writing to create a Google Map for the Hampshire Judo Association website, in order to locate where all the clubs were on there.

Quickly, I began to see greater possibilities and the project began morphing from a quick hack to a real software project – a web application to maintain a comprehensive list of all the Judo Club Dojo locations and information all over the world. I decided from the start to develop “in public” which meant sharing all the source and the data - I wanted people to be able to use it freely, so as not to have yet another data silo. So I applied a Creative Commons license to the data to explicitly state the data could and should be used by others, which would ultimately result in better and more accurate data. 

As the project developed, I began to add more and more features – I removed the admin interface and replaced it with a structure where the admin functions could be accessed via the main interface. With some difficulty I added the option to edit training sessions, and I enabled the basic upload of images. From here I moved on to more complex ideas, like draggable map markers – this would mean that when a new Dojo is being added, or an existing one being edited, you can simply drag the marker on the map and drop it at the Dojo’s exact location.

I also learned that writing tests against bugs before I wrote fixes for them, was extremely good practice – this is a Test Driven Development (TDD) idea, and one well worth using. The idea is that you write a little bit of code that hits your bug, then after you have a test (that fails) you make your fix and re-run the test, hopefully passing this time round! One of the benefits of working this way is that you have to isolate the bug so you can write a test for it – this forces you to delve pretty deep into the bug and understand it, before you start trying to fix it at all. This also leads you to identifying messy bits of your code. By this practice, I soon started developing must stronger code, and a code that I was far more comfortable playing with. 

Another very tricky feature that I’ve spent much time over is syncing data. I wanted the DojoList to be a system that could send and receive data from one installation to another. For example, DojoList already reads data from, but my initial hack at this was one-way. I wanted to structure things so that, should someone update a Dojo I have imported, those changes automatically feed back and appear everywhere.

A good example case would be this. Your area association might install DojoList on the area website and maintain a list of clubs in your region. This is likely to be an accurate list because it is local clubs and these clubs visit the website, so updates are bound to get made. The national governing body also installs DojoList, but rather than re-enter and re-manage the clubs from your region they point their DojoList installation at your area installation and hey presto! – all your local clubs are listed on the national website. When you change training times on the regional site, it updates the national site too. What’s more—and this is where it gets tricky—if you happen to update the national site, it updates your area site too. 

So you have a two way sync, and everyone gets better information. Of course it's proving tricky to work out how to do this. I have been making some changes to DojoList to make it possible. This has included the creation of a source URL field to show where the site came from originally and a GUID (Global Unique ID) for each Dojo (I am also adding a "last updated" field). Later I even see the system watching the RSS feeds from other sites to decide when and what to update.

That said, I am now moving onto the 0.9.0 release, which should have all the sync functionality up and running – this should be available in no more than a couple of months. As it stands, the 0.8.0 release is pretty well tested and has some great features. It lists over 4,000 Judo clubs from all over the world, and there are just about 40,000 lines of code behind it!

There are several tools I have used to help my project along: PivotalTracker helped me maintain my list of things to do, and I used GitHub to host my source code. I also started using the PHP CodeSniffer tool to push myself to the PEAR Coding Standards, in the hope that it would make the code more friendly to others who’d want to use it, or better yet, contribute.

This open source aspect is a cornerstone of my project – the code is freely available to download from GitHub. I used an AGPL licence for the project, which is an open source licence that protects the code but also gives others permission to use, change or improve the software just as long as they share. I like the fact that it protects my effort but still allows others to use, improve and share it – ultimately benefiting everyone.

The idea is to transform this project from a one-man-band into a community developed project. To this end, I added some basic information on the About page of the website, and have created a mailing list too. The more people that use the system and contribute new ideas, the better it gets. I want to go beyond making the code simply ‘available’, and instead get it to a point where it is a two-way conversation – so get tinkering! I need more eyes to spot my silly mistakes and more hands to create the stuff I can't yet imagine! The latest version of the DojoList codebase is up here. 

And stay tuned for the big 1.0.0 release, scheduled for mid 2011!


This account was complied by Iman Qureshi from, with the permission of Lance Wicks

Lance Wicks works in IT, primarily involved in web services, and is a judo coach. He tweets as @lancew

Image: CC-AT Flickr: tangi_bertin (Tangi Bertin)

Fighting internet oppression in Pakistan

Pakistan coordinator Shahzad Ahmad, of the South Asian internet rights campaign group Bytes for All, tells ORGZine about the media, the internet, the law and their campaigns in Pakistan

How widespread is internet access in Pakistan? How fast is this growing?

Internet penetration and real access is still but a dream. Pakistan has a population of almost 180 million, but the total number of internet users is 4 million, and broadband users still under a million. Internet access is largely confined to urban areas, and despite the efforts of the Universal Service Fund to provide access in remote areas, there is still much to be invested in data networks and service delivery. Although bandwidth rates have been reduced, due to the monopoly of Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) on the copper wire infrastructure, broadband penetration is not possible. Internet access is therefore extremely hard to come by in suburbs and small towns – needless to say, this is detrimental to both businesses and civil society. 

Pakistan has a vibrant and vigorous media – how does the internet fit into this?

The mainstream media in Pakistan is increasingly pandering to the powers that be. As a result, people who are able to, turn to the internet for alternative news and information. Interestingly, there have been several instances where online journalism has taken a lead, with the mainstream media following. For example, a horrific case in Sialkot where a mob lynched two teenage brothers, only found mainstream media attention when it was uploaded on YouTube. The same was true of the Pakistani army's alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings in northern Pakistan. That said, B4A is extremely concerned about the increasing controls on the internet. Censorship, surveillance and website ban is rampant in the name of religion, national security and the war on terror.  


In your experience, do governments use technology to target or monitor activists and dissidents?

Bloggers and individuals are generally not targeted, but it is a terrible fact that the government is continuously monitoring Pakistani cyberspace. Take down notices are never issued because offending websites are simply blocked. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) simply issues ISPs with a list of URLs to be blocked, and ISPs have to comply. Interestingly, reasons for blocking are never given, though the Interior Minister regularly issues vague statements about blasphemy or other content which is deemed threatening to national security.

Additionally, PTA’s agreement with notorious US corporations like Narus shows how the government is active in monitoring and filtering through ISPs. Pakistan has been one of Narus' main customers since 2007. Despite claiming to only curb grey telephony traffic, in actual fact, all communication is being monitored in real time; Narus has been selling the PTA real-time data traffic intelligence equipment.

Specific cases where content has been blocked are particularly relevant to Balochistan. The case of Make Pakistan Better and Baloch Hal are examples of how the PTA are exercising blanket bans on content. Due to a media blackout from Balochistan, we are not fully aware of the situation. We suspect that there are stricter controls on the net and content. The increasing number of murdered journalists and political workers is a testament to this.  


Tell me a little about Bytes for All (B4A)?

B4A was founded in 1999 at a time when there was a noticeable rise in the popularity of ICT across South Asia, but there was a definite absence of a regional network that would lobby the needs of concerned professionals and practitioners, and their struggle for issues relating to the whole realm of ICT. Our overall approach is to promote a rights agenda and civil liberties using ICT.  


What work does B4A do in Pakistan?

We are the only national level civil society organisation which has been working on specific issues pertaining to internet governance and internet rights. ‘Computing and the Internet for the Majority of the World’ is our current flagship. It focuses on ICT policy advocacy, online privacy rights, freedom of expression, strategic use of ICT for women’s empowerment, and combating violence against women using ICT tools.


What struggles have B4A faced in pushing their agenda?

As a small team, B4A often lack financial or human resources. In order to be effective, we need to be able to challenge laws in court – particularly those laws which encroach basic human rights and civil liberties.

Generally, the onus of reversing these laws falls on someone challenging them in court – but such class action suits require more commitment than occasional pro bono support. Given that Pakistan has a relatively independent judiciary at the higher levels, with the right resources B4A can effectively fight essential legal battles to generate more case laws for the online sphere.

In order to deal with issues of censorship and invasion of privacy effectively, we need to engage more with legal fraternity. So far, we have seen a great impact by the newly enacted constitutional provision of Article 19-A which deals with access to information; we now need critical financial resources to challenge governmental oppression in online space.  


Can you outline some of your successes?

1. In 2007, the government was eager to pass a Cyber Crimes Bill that was laden with laws which encroached on basic civil liberties. With strong support from several individuals, B4A and our partners lobbied against this bill. The Prime Minister, under sufficient pressure, had to return this legislation for further consultation so that it didn't infringe citizens’ basic rights. 

2.  Take Back The Tech Campaign is one of B4A’s most important initiatives where technology is used to prevent violence against women, highlighting their issues and bringing forward methodologies on how women in Pakistan can protect and counter online privacy invasions, and fight for their rights. 

3. In 2010, PTA blocked the domain under the pretext that Facebook was responsible for hosting a page that promoted blasphemous content. B4A helped challenge the injunction in high court, and successfully opened up the domain, barring only a few particular URLs which are still deemed blasphemous by the Lahore High Court. 


What changes would you like to see happen in Pakistan with respect to the internet?

We continue to dream for a free and open internet both in Pakistan and the rest of the world. In our local context, we hope that it reaches out in its entirety to remote populations and assists in solving persistent socio-economic problems, health, education, professional development, the empowerment of women, and ultimately provides greater opportunity for all.

Shahzad Ahmad is a Pakistan-based internet rights activist and campaigner with B4A and Take Back The Tech. He tweets as @bytesforall

Iman Qureshi is a freelance journalist and currently editor of ORGZine. She tweets as @ImanQureshi

Image: CC-AT-SA Flickr: thewazir (Omer Wazir)

What is hyperbole?

'Freedom Box' and IBM's computer called Watson aren't exactly revolutionary tools and nor will they scale to the mass market, argues Wendy M Grossman

Last week seems to have been one for over-excitement. IBM gets an onslaught of wonderful publicity because it built a very large computer named Watson, that won at the archetypal American TV game, Jeopardy. And Eben Moglen proposes the Freedom box, a more-or-less pocket ("wall wart") computer you can plug in and that will come up, configure itself, and be your Web server/blog host/social network/whatever and will put you and your data beyond the reach of, well, everyone. "You get no spying for free!" he said in his talk outlining the idea for the New York Internet Society.

Now I don't mean to suggest that these are not both exciting ideas and that making them work is/would be an impressive and fine achievement. But seriously? Is "Jeopardy champion" what you thought artificial intelligence would look like? Is a small "wall wart" box what you thought freedom would look like?

To begin with, Watson and its artificial buzzer thumb. The reactions display everything that makes us human. The New York Times seems to think alI is solved, although its editors focus on our ability to anthropomorphise an electronic screen with a smooth, synthesised voice and a swirling logo. (Like HAL, R2D2, and Eliza Doolittle, its status is defined by the reactions of the surrounding humans.)

The Atlantic and Forbes come across as defensive. The LA Times asks: how scared should we be? The San Francisco Chronicle congratulates IBM for suddenly becoming a cool place for the kids to work.

If, that is, they're not busy hacking up Freedom boxes. You could—if you wanted—see the past 20 years of net.wars as a recurring struggle between centralisation and distribution. The Long Tail finds value in selling obscure products to meet the eccentric needs of previously ignored niche markets; eBay's value is in aggregating all those buyers and sellers so they can find each other. The web's usefulness depends on the diversity of its sources and content; search engines aggregate it and us so we can be matched to the stuff we actually want. Web boards distributed us according to niche topics; social networks aggregated us. And so on. As Moglen correctly says, we pay for those aggregators—and for the convenience of closed, mobile gadgets—by allowing them to spy on us.

An early, largely forgotten net.skirmish came around 1991 over the asymmetric broadband design that today is everywhere: a paved highway going to people's homes and a dirt track coming back out. The objection that this design assumed that consumers would not also be creators and producers was largely overcome by the advent of web hosting farms. But imagine instead that symmetric connections were the norm and everyone hosted their sites and email on their own machines with complete control over who saw what.

This is Moglen's proposal: to recreate the internet as a decentralised peer-to-peer system. And I thought immediately how much it sounded like Usenet.

For those who missed the 1990s: invented and implemented in 1979 by three students, Tom Truscott, Jim Ellis, and Steve Bellovin, the whole point of Usenet was that it was a low-cost, decentralised way of distributing news. Once the internet was established, it became the medium of transmission, but in the beginning computers phoned each other and transferred news files. In the early 1990s, it was the biggest game in town: it was where the Linus Torvalds and Tim Berners-Lee announced their inventions of Linux and the World Wide Web.

It always seemed to me that if ‘they’ - whoever they were going to be - seized control of the internet we could always start over by rebuilding Usenet as a town square. And this is to some extent what Moglen is proposing: to rebuild the net as a decentralised network of equal peers. Not really Usenet; instead a decentralised web like the one we gave up when we all (or almost all) put our websites on hosting farms whose owners could be DMCA'd into taking our sites down or subpoenaed into turning over their logs. Freedom boxes are Moglen's response to “free spying with everything”.

I don't think there's much doubt that the box he has in mind can be built. The Pogoplug, which offers a personal cloud and a sort of hardware social network, is already most of the way there. And Moglen's argument has merit: that if you control your web server and the nexus of your social network, law enforcement can't just make a secret phone call – they'll need a warrant to search your home if they want to inspect your data. (On the other hand, seizing your data is as simple as impounding or smashing your wall wart.)

I can see Freedom Boxes being a good solution for some situations, but like many things before, they won't scale well to the mass market because they will (like Usenet) attract abuse. In cleaning out old papers this week, I found a 1994 copy of Esther Dyson's Release 1.0 in which she demands a return to the “paradise” of the “accountable Net”; ‘twill be ever thus. The problem Watson is up against is similar: it will function well, even engagingly, within the domain it was designed for. Getting it to scale will be a whole other, much more complex problem.


Wendy M. Grossman’s website has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. 

Image: CC-AT-SA Flickr: charliecurve (Charlie Wollborg)

Is it finally time for P2P infrastructure?

Alison Powell examines just how tricky it is for social media to reach mass distribution whilst still remaining decentralised

Is the dream of alternative peer-to-peer infrastructure getting closer to reality? Last week Eben Moglen, the lawyer for the Free Software Foundation launched a new project called Freedom Box, which is based on the idea that small low-power plug servers, running free software, could provide a latent, autonomous communication network that could also be used to securely store files and personal information.

In the context of internet outages in Egypt and the increasing amount of personal information stored on social networking sites like Facebook, this suggestion seems both radical and timely; for those who have been following the peer-to-peer infrastructure movement over the past several years, this is nothing new. 

The hardware and software for creating meshed networks of individual computers is decades old. The organising principle that it is associated with, is older still. Regardless, we tend to associate the rise of peer-to-peer communication (and a related notion of “mass self-communication” developed by Castells) with the expansion of digital media that lowers the cost (of time, or energy) required to transmit our message to the world. 

Now, as our mass self-communication is taking place on platforms owned and controlled by a small number of companies (Facebook, Google and Twitter), we are facing a new set of problems. It is not just that the internet has a ‘kill switch’ – it’s also that the platforms that make distributed social media powerful are collecting lots of private information and storing it centrally. This makes it easy for sites to profit from the data, but it creates a serious limit on the power of coordination and horizontal organisation that peer-to-peer communication offers. 

Social media is changing the balance of power because more people have the opportunity to communicate with each other. This opportunity is constrained not only by the ability of a government or ISP to shut off the means of that communication, but also by the ability of a SNS (social network service) provider to reveal, sell, trade, or profit from personal information. This reminds us to consider the emphasis on the “mass” in the “mass-self communication”.

Here’s where the Freedom Box comes in, conceptually. The idea is that in a small inexpensive box that’s linked into an alternative ‘non-internet’, you have everything that you hold dear. It’s on your server, and/or it's on the network that everyone’s freedom box makes. Sounds great, in theory.

But as important as autonomous infrastructure can be for providing a decentralised alternative to the centralised social networks and communication systems that we rely upon, we also have to consider why and how social media has changed the balance of power in these eventful past few weeks.

As I noted above, the distributed peer-to-peer method of communication has been around for as long as computer-mediated communication. What has made it important at the moment is the scale at which this form of communication can now operate. This massive scale has been the result of the very centralised service that Moglen and others rightly identify as problematic. But it’s also what makes the transformations so important.  Geeks and hackers have been trying to make peer-to-peer networks for a very long time. They haven’t succeeded, but Facebook has.

Now, we need to confront the challenge of that success. A new box with free software won’t automatically do this, no matter how fantastic the software or clever the networking protocols. Dozens of projects have proven that something like the Freedom Box can work, technically. What is required to transform our communication and extend the transformative potential that we are now experiencing, is a distributed network of communication that locates private information with the end-user. We’re not there yet – but we have lots of examples of networks that have tried and failed to do this. Maybe we should start looking more closely at them.


Alison Powell is the LSE Fellow in Media and Communications at LSE. Her research examines digital media policy from a ‘bottom up’ approach; internet governance; and the role of open-source modes of production on the democratisation of communication

 This article originally appeared here

Image: CC-AT Flickr: tomsaint (Rennett Stowe)

Anonymity and the arms trade

Rob Evans wanted the staff directory of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), a hived-off part of the Ministry of Defence, which spends taxpayer money helping UK arms companies (predominantly BAE Systems) win contracts for the export of armaments. He wanted it for several reasons.

‘We were hearing a lot of allegations about corruption within DESO in relation to the arms industry,’ Rob told me. ‘The problem was you had to find out if the employee alleged to be accepting bribes from an arms company actually worked for DESO. There was no way to tell. In the absence of a staff directory we had to resort to, well, subterfuge. It was done in the public interest but in my view that’s wrong. Why should we have had to resort subterfuge? All public officials should be named.’

The Data Protection Act is often used in the most ludicrous ways: reporters’ bylines blacked out and ministers’ names censored. If you’re a public official then suddenly your privacy rights are sacrosanct. DESO and the Ministry of Defence were none too keen to provide Rob with a copy of the directory, so from his desk at Guardian newspapers he filed a freedom-of-information request in January 2005. The directory lists staff names, job titles, work addresses, work telephone numbers and email addresses. In February he received a ‘redacted’ or, in plain English, censored version. And when I say censored I mean heavily. You’ve likely seen the ‘redacted’ MPs’ expenses, but imagine something even more gratuitous. What Rob received was a staff directory with all the names of staff together with all their contact details removed. Even the main switchboard number was blacked out! Only titles remained and for staff based in Saudi Arabia even these were excised. As a staff directory it was pretty much useless, particularly if your purpose was to track staff movement through the revolving door that exists between DESO and the arms industry and vice versa.

The excuses cited by the DESO were the usual – national security and the Data Protection Act (e.g. privacy) – but also the more uniquely bogus exemptions such as disclosures being ‘prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs’ and the risk that it would ‘endanger the physical or mental health’ of individuals. I doubt any of us would have much luck offering such excuses to the government if we objected to state surveillance.

Rob appealed to the Information Commissioner and won his case but the MoD fought on, spending £75,000 of public money to stop the public finding out who worked for them (an irony not at all unusual). The case went to the Information Tribunal where Rob argued that the ‘revolving door’ that existed between government and the arms industry had created a dangerous conflict of interest, whereby the government was working in the interests not of the public but of private arms companies. And it wasn’t just senior officials getting schmoozed. David Leigh, the Guardian’s investigations editor, cited the directory as necessary in a case involving John Porter, a £28,000-a-year DESO official who, evidence showed, had taken gifts including free holidays from arms firm executives. He retired before any action was taken. The newspaper knew of the story at an early stage but was reluctant to publish without proper verification, which the directory would have provided.

Censoring the names wasn’t only wrong but ridiculous, as many were already in the public domain in military lists and the Civil Service Year Book. In addition, Rob discovered the directory wasn’t exactly top secret. In was given to a few friendly journalists and employees of a news agency who covered the defence ministry. Most shocking of all, the directory was handed out at arms fairs to manufacturers and consultants in the arms trade.

John Millen, then directory of Export Services Policy in DESO, said at the tribunal hearing: ‘A copy was provide if the request came from a member of the UK Defence Industry or if the requester concerned had an accepted reason for doing business with DESO.’ Mr Millen then confirmed that in 2004, about 2,000 copies of the directory were sent to ‘named individuals at external addresses, including other government departments’.

Just to hammer home the point that DESO was working for the arms industry and not the public, a reminder was printed on the cover of new directories stating it was for government and industry use only. Sadly this attitude remains unchanged across most public bodies.

It was alleged by the MoD that official business would be hindered if the public were allowed to know who was working for them and how to contact them directly. Think about that for a minute: a public body operating on the principle of cordoning itself away from the public; the public seen as a nuisance rather than the sole reason they have a job. What it smacks of is that paranoid pomposity so typical of public officials, and reveals two main fallacies they commonly hold about the public at large: a) that the average citizen is civically active in a way that all evidence shows they are not (e.g. we are not all busting a gut to phone up the Secretary of Paperclips), and b) that the average citizen is a criminal (in fact, most people are perfectly polite and reasonable if treated with respect and listened to).

The usual made-up disaster-movie scenarios were put forward by the MoD: that we’d all rush out to get a copy of the directory and then get busy stuffing envelopes full of anthrax to DESO staffers. Are the British people uniquely dangerous? I don’t think so. (Though judging by the numerous signs on display in every British institution, we’re some of the most violent people on earth.) There’s never any evidence put forward for these scare stories because that’s exactly what they are – tall tales told to suit the bureaucrats’ love of exercising power unaccountably.

The Information Tribunal ordered the directory to be published, though it did allow anonymity for junior staff, which was problematic. However, by then (20 July 2007) Rob Evans was already in possession of a leaked staff directory.[1] From their illicit 2005 copy, the Guardian reporters discovered some interesting facts: more than 450 civil servants worked in DESO with 161 civil servants working specifically for the ‘Saudi armed forces project’ across Britain and the Middle East. All told, ‘around 40 per cent’ of staff, a minister admitted, was dedicated to selling to one regime: Saudi Arabia. Also interesting when you consider that at the time DESO was headed by former BAE executive Alan Garwood, who was interviewed by the Serious Fraud Office over long-running government-authorised £1billion payments to Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. Both BAE and Prince Bandar said the payments were legitimate but when Tony Blair was Prime Minister he halted the SFO inquiry, again citing ‘national security’. The US Department for Justice then began its own investigation.

That so many UK civil servants, paid for by us, are promoting arms to an autocratic regime in an unstable area is clearly a subject worthy of public debate. Without the directory this information was hidden and no debate could take place.


[1] As we’ll see again, sadly in the UK trying to get information legitimately is always the least effective method. 


Extracted from The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy by Heather Brooke (Heinemann, 2010).

Copyright © 2010 All rights reserved. CC License does not apply to this extract. 

Image: CC-AT-SA Flickr: sermoa (Aimee Daniells)

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Wendy M. Grossman responds to "loopy" statements made by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in regards to censorship and encryption.

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