All posts by Juliette Terzieff

Juliette Terzieff is Tech Planet Journal's Democracy blogger.

Kenya sets the stage for global m-health applications

Kenya has emerged as a major global testing point for the use of mobile heath, or m-health, technology to advance public health and development goals—providing examples of both the ingenuity of locally-sourced solutions and the challenges that remain to providing wide access.

More than half of Kenya’s population owns mobile phones, with 18 million people already using applications such as M-Pesa for daily banking services. The country has faced a prolonged battle to tame its biggest killers—HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Combine this with a growing body of research that shows phones can be used to help individuals overcome logistical, cultural, awareness and economic barriers to access, and increase adherence to treatment—and also help medical professionals manage care—and Kenya found an opportunity to become a leader.

Washington-based group mHealth Alliance is tracking 45 active mobile health projects in Kenya—the largest number of any country. Most of these projects were created and funded by aid agencies or NGOs. The projects are varied with some, such as one that uses M-Pesa to deliver money for fistula repair surgeries, focused on direct patient services, and others focused on data collection, administrative and medical logistics.

Though some projects have made a substantial impact, “most are limited in scope and time frame,” and often, there is “no business model for sustaining them when the funding runs out, leaving the field suffering from a bad case of ‘pilotitis,’” says Patricia Mechael, Executive Director of mHealth Alliance. “The space is incredibly fragmented, unfortunately. You have a lot of bits and pieces coming from different angles and lots of pilots going on.”

Richard Lester, a Canadian infectious-disease specialist, studied potential ways in which health services could be greatly improved. Beginning in 2007, Lester noted “the ubiquity of mobile phones, and recognizing that the country has only one doctor for each 6,000 citizens, Lester and his team developed a communication link with HIV-positive patients at three health centers, asking them weekly by text message whether they needed any assistance with their antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).” During the clinical trial, there were 500 participants, and the “results, published in 2010, showed not only that a higher percentage of those receiving the reminders said they took their drugs regularly, but also that viral loads were suppressed in 57 percent of them, compared with only 48 percent of the control group.” Lester estimates that “today, expanding that system to all 410,000 Kenyans on ARVs would suppress HIV in 36,000 people, saving $17.4 million in health-care costs by averting the onset of AIDS or making more expensive drugs unnecessary.”

In 2009, when funding for Lester’s research ran out, $719,000 coming from U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), two of the three sites participating in the program were forced to stop providing the SMS messages. With a vast majority of the world’s 33 million people living with HIV located in sub-Saharan Africa, Lester’s groundbreaking work has reached only a small portion of those who could benefit from the service.

Lester, back at the University of British Columbia, seeks more grants to continue his research. “That is the unfortunate fate of the study,” he says. “It’s been very frustrating to go from research finding to programmatic funding. I think there is an ethical obligation, when you have a clinical trial with positive results, to do everything in our power to provide it as a service.”

With such a need for mobile healthcare, a pair of University of Nairobi graduates named Steve Mutinda Kyalo and Keziah Mumo launched Shima Technologies, and created the MedAfrica platform as a means to provide a technological solution to the country’s shortage of doctors and other medical personnel. The platform serves up “lists of doctors and dentists taken from government registries, plus menus for finding basic first-aid and diagnostic information.”

“What we want is for the common man to have the right information in his hand,” says Kyalo, the company’s CEO. “We can’t replace the doctors, can’t replace the hospitals, but we can improve access to relevant information.”

An important feature of MedAfrica is that the startup “illustrates the power of local entrepreneurship.” Even though MedAfrica has “few connections with the medical community or the health ministry, its health-care app has been downloaded on 43,000 phones, and the company is still only halfway through $100,000 in seed funding.” The service is accessible via app or through a mobile Web interface, and the company hopes to make MedAfrica “available through SMS—an essential feature, because 85 percent of Kenyan mobile-phone owners don’t yet have Web access.” The company’s CEO, Kyalo, “hopes to aggregate other medical apps on the platform and ultimately sell sponsored messages from pharmaceutical companies, health-care providers, and others.”

Recently, research project Academic Model for Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH) in western Kenya “began keeping track of 130,000 HIV-positive patients using electronic health records and automated reminders on Android phones.” Workers throughout the 55 clinics can now quickly assess what tests or drugs an individual patient may need.

Research shows that “the proportion of HIV-positive mothers passing the infection to their babies has dropped below 3 percent, compared with nearly 15 percent in other areas, probably because more of the pregnant women are receiving antiretroviral drugs consistently.”

“These reminder systems are an extremely important way to make sure all of the ts are crossed and better quality of care is provided,” says Paul Biondich, a research scientist at Indiana’s Regenstrief Institute, who helped develop OpenMRS, the open-source records system platform.

MedKenya, equivalent to WebMD, “puts a library of health information at the user’s fingertips and performs other helpful tasks like guiding the ill to hospitals.”

From banking to healthcare, disaster response to agriculture, the “smartphone is quickly morphing into an indispensable tool of the information age.”

Kenya’s Minister of Information and Communication, Dr. Bitange Ndemo, has expressed the Kenyan government’s views on cellular telephones as a development tool, saying, “In the beginning of the 21st century, the mobile telephone was the reserve of an elite few and the gadget’s sole purpose was to make phone calls and send text messages. Today, all this has changed and the mobile phone is no longer a luxury but a necessity. By morphing and adopting into various aspects of our lives, the mobile phone has gone beyond its original purpose of phone calls and text messages and it now serves as a bank, a computer, a radio, and a television set, among other things. In a nutshell, it has penetrated every aspect of our lives.”

After a successful two-day workshop on e-health in Nairobi April 2012, where approximately 200 people from over 15 countries participated, Kenya said it is “committed to implement the goals of vision 2030, which seek to improve the health outcomes and indicators of Kenyans by shifting focus from curative to preventive.”

“The mission is to promote and deliver efficient health services to Kenyans and consumers beyond our borders using ICT,” said Anyang’ Nyong’o, Kenya’s Medical Services minister. He added that “the main focus should be to strengthen and stimulate access to health care” and that “the country’s success depends on how ICT is applied.”

“The making of information communication through application of knowledge has developed into what is today referred to as Information Communication Technology,” Nyong’o said.

Kenya’s experiences with m-Health applications is an example of government, the private sector and a broad array of stakeholders united with common goals. While progress and results remain fragmented proponents in other countries can use them to jump start efforts in other parts of the world—taking what has worked and replicating it on a larger scale. The results could deeply impact healthcare well beyond the developing world.

Service providers move to guarantee access

Posted by Senior Director, Juliette Terzieff:

Google has joined Twitter as the latest major Internet player to limit content as needed on a country-by-country basis as a means to answer varied restrictions that could prevent the provision of services. Twitter announced earlier this year it would be censoring tweets by country—meaning that if a tweet could be construed as offensive in a country or violate the country’s laws, the microblogger would remove it from view in that country. Google has now followed suit with a similar statement in regards to its blog content.

Google has previously limited its search engine, blocking content specific searches in places like China, where the demand had to be met or the Internet company wouldn’t be allowed to operate in the country.

Blogger, Google’s free blogging website, can now be censored by country, just like Twitter, although there remains a way to gain access. Google changed the URL of each site automatically by country, converting the site to blogspot.co.uk, blogspot.co.nz, .blogspot.co.au, and so on, depending on which country users are accessing the website from. The way around the country by country system is to use blogspot.com/ncr (i.e. no country redirect). Using the bypass will allow users in any country to see all content posted on Blogger.

Twitter employed a similar bypass when it began censoring tweets. In a post on January 26, 2012, Twitter stated, “As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.”

“One of our core values as a company is to defend and respect each user’s voice,” the Twitter post said. “We try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can’t. The tweets must continue to flow.”

The bypass Twitter employs is very easy to find in its Help Center so that content can’t be censored or deleted, and all it requires is changing the country in which one resides, much like Google has done. The tweets can’t be censored if they’re being tweeted from a country where the law isn’t being broken.

While Google’s decision to restrict posts on a country by country basis could be construed as a suppression of expression, it actually allows for the information to remain accessible elsewhere and improves on previous availability.

Before Google made the change, it “needed to take down material under the laws of one or another country,” and that meant that no one could see the content because it was removed from the system entirely. “Moving to the new system means that [Google] can make it inaccessible only to those in a country where the statement is indeed potentially illegal, leaving the rest of the world to carry on as before.”

Google responded in a question and answer statement, “Migrating to localized domains will allow us to continue promoting free expression and responsible publishing while providing greater flexibility in complying with valid removal requests pursuant to local law.

“By utilizing ccTLDs, content removals can be managed on a per country basis, which will limit their impact to the smallest number of readers. Content removed due to a specific country’s law will only be removed from the relevant ccTLD,” the Internet giant said. “If you visit a blog that does not correspond to your current location as determined by your IP address, the blogspot servers will redirect you to the domain associated with your country, if it’s a supported ccTLD.”

The actions taken by Google and Twitter to moderate posts where potential legal action could incur allows the companies to continue offering services in restrictive environments where access to information may be needed most. Even if current conditions require some limitations, keeping the information highway open—even partially—can help foment climates where change is possible.

Google sets sights on slavery battle


Google has taken a strong stance against modern-day slavery as part of the company’s wide-ranging CSR efforts. The Internet giant recently donated $11.5 million in grants across ten organizations to help fight against “an existence that is almost unfathomable in its degradation and inhumanity” that “millions of human beings are subjected to” daily.

From debt bondage and forced labor to sexual exploitation and organ removal, activists, analysts and policymakers estimate between 10 million and 30 million people worldwide are directly impacted by human trafficking and related crimes. The broader associated costs to development and human rights as much as triple the numbers affected by the scourge.

According to Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, “these are among the manifestations of slavery today. All are crimes and egregious violations of human rights.”

“To eradicate contemporary forms of slavery, we need new strategies and measures that can unite all actors. While Governments bear the primary responsibility, the private sector has an integral role to play,” Ban said recently.

Ban Ki-moon has appealed to governments, NGOs, the private business sector and others “to demonstrate their commitment” by making contributions to the UN Voluntary Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. UN.Gift—a multi-agency UN effort to combat human trafficking—and the corporate sustainability effort, the UN Global Compact, have made combatting modern forms of slavery a focus of their efforts.

Ban has characterized the battle as a key part of the UN’s “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework on business and human rights, saying: ”The corporate responsibility to respect includes ensuring that their activities do not cause or contribute to contemporary forms of slavery in the workplace, and taking steps to stop it from happening in supply chains and elsewhere.”

Google announced the $11.5 million grant on its website as part of a total of $40 million it gave in charitable donations last holiday season.

While human trafficking and slavery are one of the most clear-cut human rights issues from a legal standpoint they are also one of the most difficult to combat. The trade in flesh operates almost exclusively behind a carefully crafted veil of secrecy on the black market despite law enforcement, NGO and government efforts. By engaging with a variety of stakeholders working on the issue and promoting efforts to address the causes that contribute to the trade, Google has adopted a leadership position on a challenge common to all multinationals.

Washington-based human rights agency International Justice Mission (IJM) is one of the ten recipients to receive grant funding from Google. President and CEO of IJM, Gary Haugen said Google’s move was a “game-changing investment.” IJM “works to rescue victims of slavery and sexual exploitation in about a dozen countries.”

“This is the largest corporate step up to the challenge that is beginning to apply direct resources to the fight against slavery,” Haugen said.

It’s estimated that 12,000 people will be freed from slavery with Google’s support, and the grant recipients claim that millions more could be prevented from being victimized.

Jacquelline Fuller, Google’s director of charitable giving, said that “the company chose to spotlight the issue of slavery because the topic of freedom—’the most basic of human rights,’ as she puts it—resonated with company employees around the world.”

“Many people are surprised to learn there are more people trapped in slavery today than any time in history,” Fuller said. “The good news is that there are solutions. Google is supporting organizations that have a proven track record and a plan to make a difference at scale.”

IJM in India leads two coalitions that received $8 million, the majority of the $11.5 million donation, with “about half going toward direct intervention and government-led rescue operations, and half toward advocacy and awareness projects.” The Polaris Project, which operates a hotline called the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, and Slavery Footprint, which is an “interactive website and mobile app that estimates how much of a user’s lifestyle relies on forced labor,” and IJM will receive $1.8 million. Both projects are part of the US Anti-Trafficking Initiative.

Most of IJM’s funding is from private donations, and in 2010, less than 1 percent “of its funding came from major corporations or corporate foundations.”

“It gives us a sense of what’s possible,” said Haugen. “We can actually change the whole balance of resources between those who are the criminals, hurting human beings and those who are on the side of those who need freedom today.”

Google policy update sparks debate

Google’s new privacy policy—intended to answer concerns about the Internet giant’s efforts to protect users—has triggered a new round of debate from users and governments about the sharing of data. Google claims that it has revised its privacy policy, combining more than 60 policies into one, in order to clarify and make standards more accessible for users.

Previously, Google was criticized “for inadvertently revealing users’ most e-mailed contacts to other participants through the Buzz platform,” the company’s first attempt with social networking.

Attorneys from 36 states sent a letter to Google, expressing concern “over Google’s plan to share personal information across its products,” but mainly worried that user information would be collected and turned over to advertisers.

“We’re rolling out a new main privacy policy that covers the majority of our products and explains what information we collect, and how we use it in a more readable way,” said Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy, product and engineering.

The new update “will apply to Google search, Gmail, YouTube and Google+, its social networking site,” mainly for those who have Google accounts. Google states that “the new policy will give people more relevant search results and help advertisers find customers.”

In an explanation of the changes, Google said, “If you’re signed into Google, we can do things like suggest search queries, or tailor your search results, based on the interests you’ve expressed in Google+, Gmail and YouTube.”

In response, the White House said that “Internet users should have the right to limit the context in which information was collected, should be allowed to correct information and should have the right to transparency in privacy policies.”

President Obama has outlined a “consumer privacy bill of rights,” and Google, Facebook, and other similar companies “have signed on to develop guidelines based on the “bill of rights”, enforceable by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).”

“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” President Obama said. “As the internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy.”

Executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Marc Rotenberg, called the announcement “the clearest articulation of the right to privacy by a US president in history.” However, he also said there were “real concerns about implementation and enforcement.”

“The real question is how much influence companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook will have in their inevitable attempt to water down the rules that are implemented and render them essentially meaningless,” said John Simpson, who works on privacy issues for Consumer Watchdog.

Though “privacy advocates will be involved with the development of the new guidelines,” some are still “concerned about the firms’ ability to self-regulate.”

The firms’ ad networks announced that “they would support a “Do Not Track” browser option,” an option advocated by the US since 2010. The option allows users to prevent information gathered while browsing the web from subsequently being passed on to any third party.

In cases settled in 2011, both Facebook and Google faced privacy complaints with action taken against them by the FTC. As US legislators argue over stopping online tracking, or at least slowing it down, not much has been done to fix the issue. Guidelines developed by US officials in cooperation “with the Internet firms would be enforceable by the FTC once agreed on, but would not necessarily apply to companies that did not sign on.”

Outside the US, the European Commission “recently set out plans for new pan-European data protection rules,” and the French regulator, Commission Nationale de L’informatique et Des Libertes (CNIL), claimed that Google’s new policy “raises deep concerns,” failing “to meet the needs of the European Data Protection Directive.”

The Article 29 Working Party is an advisory board comprised of “representatives from all EU data protection authorities.” The board recently looked into Google’s new privacy policy after concerns were raised in early February. The EU urged for a “pause” to give them time to analyze the changes.

“The CNIL and the EU data protection authorities regret that Google did not accept to delay the application of this new policy which raises legitimate concerns about the protection of the personal data of European citizens,” it said.

The French regulator added it was “deeply concerned about the combination of data across services and will continue their investigations with Google’s representatives.”

But Google said that it had discussed the “latest changes to its privacy policy” with the regulators.

The changes, now in effect, apply globally, and Google has a simpler explanation on its main website for users, as well as what is in its new policy.

Japan a leader in global plastic recycling

Japan has been one of the top leaders in the world over the past 10 years when it comes to recycling plastics. In 2010, 77 percent of plastic waste was recycled, a gain of 4 percent from 2006, putting Japan far ahead the United Kingdom’s 38 percent and a 20 percent recycling rate for the United States, according to data from the country’s Plastic Waste Management Institute (PWMI). Japan’s experience may hold vital lessons for other countries and industries struggling to meet stakeholder demands for broad recycling programs.

In 1997, Japan passed several recycling laws obliging both businesses and individuals to separate plastic waste. A lack of landfill space has been a major drive for the country to put these laws into effect as the country’s large population (127 million) continues to expand within its increasingly crowded urban areas.

PWMI reported that in 2006, “Japan recycled 2.1 million tons of plastic waste, while 4.8 million tons undergoes so-called ‘thermal recycling’, which includes conversion into useful chemicals and burning to generate energy.”

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles have to be separated from other plastic wraps and containers in most households, and the PET bottle must have its label removed and discarded before it is recycled. In 2010, 72 percent of PET bottles were recycled in Japan, compared to 29 percent in the US and 48 percent in Europe.

Japan uses the recycled materials in “textiles, sheeting, industrial materials and household items” like egg boxes. Japan also exports significant amounts of recycled plastics to China, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, where the waste is refabricated for use in toys and games.

“Japan has been able to make progress in plastic recycling because waste-processing agencies have won the support of manufacturers,” Takushi Kamiya said, a PWMI spokesman.

“We are looking at ways to deal with what’s left over, but it’s difficult to imagine at this stage that we’ll get the recycling rate to 100%,” he said. “But I think we do very well compared with other countries.”

Kevin Carroll, the representative director of EA International, explains part of the issue with Japan’s substantial plastic waste.

“Japan differs from other countries in that it tends to overwrap,” he said. “You buy a bento boxed lunch and it comes in a plastic box with a lid, and then it’s put into a plastic bag. Lots of other foodstuffs are the same.

“There’s a tremendous amount of plastic around. The real problem is with household plastic, a lot of which gets burned or buried. The amounts involved are phenomenal.”

Japan has gone to great lengths to ensure recycling happens, working to involve everyone from manufacturers to consumers through legislation like the Home Appliance Law. It has also sparked the creation of innovative companies. Food company Ajinomoto, for example, has revealed a plastic bottle made entirely from recycled PET, which it anticipates using 4,500 tons of in its drink bottles annually.

In Yashiro, resource recovery plant Panasonic Eco Technology Center (PETEC) recycles air conditioning units, washing machines, refrigerators and television sets daily. Beginning operations in 2001, PETEC has recycled more than 1.4 billion appliances, “producing enough materials to manufacture 95 jumbo jets, the equivalent of 81 of the Great Buddha statue at Nara and 158,000 cars from reclaimed aluminium [sic], copper and steel.” PETEC has a system to also capture noxious gases, and recover resins such as polypropylene and polystyrene.

When a consumer drops off used appliances they have to pay a small recycling fee and purchase a ticket that shows collectors the fee has been paid.

Product managers and engineers who work for the manufacturers that build the appliances visit PETEC regularly “so they can pick apart the very products they design,” thereby finding flaws in their designs and creating better products that potentially create less waste. As an example, “on a line of air conditioning units, product designers realized that if they laser printed the company logo instead of embedding and pasting a small tablet sized piece of plastic, the recycling rates of such components would increase dramatically.”

PETEC holds an 85 percent recycling rate and receives approximately a 10 percent ROI. The company believes their efforts are a prime example of ways to create new revenue opportunities while working to minimize the impact of appliances and consumer purchasing on the environment.

Hundreds of millions tons of consumer electronics and home appliances are discarded globally each year, resulting in heaping mountains of electronic waste, or e-waste, that have long been a focus of environmental stakeholders such as the Basel Action Network and Greenpeace. Efforts to create recycling programs to counter e-waste have had mixed success in the EU, U.S. and elsewhere.

Egyptian mothers take to the Internet

SuperMama, an Egyptian website designed to help new mothers and mothers-to-be with accurate pregnancy and motherly advice hasn’t even had its first birthday, but the site, brought to life by Yasmine El-Mehairy, has already won business competitions. The site reached 20,000 unique hits in its first month and attracted 2,000 members when it launched in October 2011. The bilingual Arabic and English site SuperMama is paving its way through the Arab world, dispelling old wives’ tales handed down from generation to generation while still respecting not only important advice from mother to daughter, but also religious views in the Middle East.

Our aim is to become, in the near future, the first website [of choice] for women in the Middle East and North Africa,” El-Mehairy says, and it looks as though she has her wish.

Ms. El-Mehairy came up with the idea for SuperMama after searching online for pregnancy advice for her sister-in-law in 2010 and finding conflicting views and advice on what she thought were outdated traditional wives’ tales. Realizing there was an online niche that needed to be filled, she and two colleagues, Zeinab Samir and Shereen El Sammaa, put together SuperMama—a website that is the “first of its kind in the Arab world.”

Though the site is still quite young, “SuperMama is projected to have an annual turnover of over $1.6m after its first year, making its money in the traditional online way: Selling advertisement banners, sponsorships, and product placements inside the articles and videos.” SuperMama also helps mothers with their budgets by offering special discounts through affiliate sales sites.

However, Ms. El-Mehairy says that the site isn’t just about money. “We didn’t want to have just another commercial product; we wanted an idea that made a difference.”

The site’s information is checked by healthcare professionals, whereas the existing chat forums had unverified information. One example El-Mehairy gave was “the idea that feeding honey to a baby in its first three months could result in disfiguration.” El-Mehairy says it is the site’s purpose and “responsibility to dispel such myths.”

SuperMama doesn’t work from one centralized location instead relying on a network of home-based network of researchers and writers. Administrators facilitate monthly meetings to decide upcoming topics and site content, and writers’ work is forwarded to specialists for verification before publication. The site’s specialists “include doctors, teachers, psychologists, nutritionists and exercise experts—all volunteers—who provide the essential final checks that enable the mothers” to preserve all the “knowledge that has been passed” down from generation to generation.

El-Mahairy took a huge risk in setting up the website, investing her life savings into the project.

She entered the MIT Arab Enterprise Forum Business Plan Competition, a place for Arab entrepreneurs to pitch business ideas. There were 3,800 applicants, and after hitting the top 30 semi-finalists with her business model for SuperMama, El-Mehairy made “invaluable contacts in the IT industry who helped develop the business model and pointed out its weaknesses.” She entered the site into other entrepreneur competitions, winning two more, and developed a network of investors and mentors.

Entrepreneurship and investment is on a slow rise in Egypt, but El-Mehairy thinks “there are promising signs as people return to the country after years away.”

“I think we as a country are new to this entrepreneurship, and therefore it’s going to take some time.”

The site remains non-religious and non-political, something El-Mehairy feels is extremely important. That way, no one across the Arab world is excluded from using the site. After one member became upset that the site and its community didn’t offer condolences after the violence in Tahrir Square in November 2011, El-Mehairy said: “For us what kept us through is that the other mothers on the site supported this argument and told that mother that we are a non-political and non-religious site and that this is a parenting site and not a place to discuss political issues.”

Yet the site is also a reflection of political and social changes happening in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. In the wake of Arab Spring uprisings that shook the status quo throughout 2011, women’s rights advocates have been pushing for greater recognition and participation for, and by, women in charting their countries’ futures. El-Mahairy’s model combines technological advances with the traditional roles of women in a smooth new model that can simultaneously give women a greater collective voice on issues that matter to them and promote development goals in a culturally appropriate way.

She has big plans for SuperMama’s future, to include “the expansion of current online tools which help mothers manage their time and budgets,” as well as directories of local services.

El-Mehairy has hopes that one day “the word SuperMama would be the first to jump into the mind of every mother or pregnant woman when looking for information.”

EU moves to restrict Syria surveillance technology sales

The European Union (EU) has cracked down on the sale of surveillance technology to Syria that would enable the Syrian government to intercept text messages and peruse e-mail content of any of its citizens. Syria has been in the grips of severe crisis since mid-2011 after President Bashar al-Assad launched a bloody crackdown in response to pro-reform protests, and the EU fears Syrian authorities could use technology transfers to intensify abuse or to provide evidence for prosecutions.

In the EU regulation No. 36/2012, dated 18 January 2012, the ban on surveillance technology covers the “sale, maintenance and updates of systems for ‘deep-packet inspection’ of e-mail contents, remote infection of computers, speaker recognition, ‘tactical’ interception of text messages,” and many more technologies.

The regulation is meant to stop human rights violations “during a crackdown that’s killed more than 5,000 people.”

The EU regulation states: “In view of the continued brutal repression and violation of human rights by the Government of Syria, Council Decision 2011/782/CFSP provides for additional measures, namely a prohibition on the export of tele­communications monitoring equipment for use by the Syrian regime, a prohibition on the participation in certain infrastructure projects and investment in such projects, and additional restrictions on the transfers of funds and the provision of financial services.”

In Chapter II of the EU regulation, Article 4 for export and import restrictions, paragraph 3, prohibitions include the “equipment, technology or software which may be used for the monitoring or interception of internet or telephone communications.”

It was reported in early November by Bloomberg News that Italian company Area SpA built a “surveillance system that would have given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime the power to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail” that traversed cyberspace in Syria. After the report aired, Area SpA exited the deal and said that the system, which was slated to include components originating from German, French and American companies, would not be completed.

Member states will have “authority to permit exceptions to export” equipment, but if it would be used by the “Syrian government for monitoring or intercepting communications,” they would be banned from doing so. The regulation states that member states have to inform the EU of exceptions within four weeks of granting them.

Some companies have already encountered stakeholder resistance to their business dealings with Syria.

According to online activist group Telecomix, Blue Coat Systems, Inc. (BCSI), a US company, filtered websites inside Syria in early 2011. In December 2011, BCSI stated on its website that it reviewed its data and agreed that the potential for some of its’ appliances could be in Syria, thereby prompting the company to perform an internal review of shipments to see if they were illegally diverted to the country. BCSI provided the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) with the information for review. BIS announced that the appliances were “transshipped” and “have been the subject of recent press reporting related to their potential use by the Syrian government to block pro-democracy websites and identify pro-democracy activists as part of Syria’s brutal crackdown.”

“Blue Coat is lying to everyone about Syria,” said Jacob Applebaum, a Tor researcher. “They know exactly where serial numbers are being used because of a phone home process.” The process doesn’t allow Blue Coat devices to be in use without the company’s knowledge.

Blue Coat has stated that it will continue is “cooperation with appropriate government agencies to develop evidence on the unlawful diversion of any” of its products.

Area SpA defines itself as the leading Italian provider of “technology solutions to support Law Enforcement Agencies in interception activities.” The Italian firm reportedly has an agreement with the Syrian government to help the Syrians track and analyze data on mobile phones, traditional landline telephones and the Internet as well as providing training for government agents. Concerns that the company’s activities may be contributing to human rights abuses have yet to result in any serious legal questioning. Area SpA uses equipment from Germany’s Utimaco Safeware AG and France’s Qosmos SA, as well as NetApp, Inc., a US company.

This is not the first time sales of technology to repressive governments have drawn the ire of human rights stakeholders. When post-election protests erupted in Iran during the summer of 2009 and authorities were able to monitor calls and text messages, and again in 2011 when Bahraini authorities reportedly used information gleaned via technology purchased from Western companies to coerce confessions from pro-reform demonstrators, human rights stakeholders cried foul.

The issue, according to Rebecca McKinnon, is one of “amoral technology being used for immoral purposes has been exacerbated in the Internet age. As long as engineers and companies claim to have no responsibility for the political context in which their inventions and products are used, the problem is going to grow worse.”

Internet Companies, Stakeholders Back Energy Efficiency

When Internet giants such as Facebook, Yahoo!, Twitter and Google leave a large carbon footprint, activist stakeholders like Greenpeace are going to notice. Greenpeace has been campaigning on increased energy efficiency in the sector and in 2011 released its report—How dirty is your data?—on the pollution cloud the IT sector was generating.

Greenpeace has “argued that IT companies, by increasing their electricity consumption while avoiding increasing demand for coal, could become a strong force in helping move countries to low-carbon economies”—a position also supported by a variety of multinationals within the ICT realm like AT&T and stakeholders such as the Carbon Disclosure Project.

Taken from “published figures for data-center power consumption and electricity utilities’ reports of their energy sources,” Greenpeace estimated that “Facebook’s reliance on coal” was at 53.2 percent use in its data centers, just below Apple’s 54.5 percent, but “higher than Google’s 34.7 percent.” Twitter’s coal reliance was at 42.5 percent, while Yahoo!’s reliance was at 18.3 percent, the report stated.

Greenpeace launched a massive campaign two year ago to “Unfriend Facebook,” garnering 700,000 supporters, “to lobby the company to change its energy policies,” especially after the social networking giant announced it would open a new data center in Oregon in February 2010. Though the facility was intended to be energy efficient, PacifiCorp was its source of power, which uses coal as its main source of energy.

In October 2011, Facebook announced that it would build a new data center in Lulea, Sweden, “using hydroelectric power for the servers and relying on the local climate to cool the data center for free.”

Facebook has also announced that it will “develop its platform to work more closely with Greenpeace to ‘promote environmental awareness and action’,” and move away from coal, powering its data centers “with clean and renewable energy.” The two organizations came together to publish a joint statement regarding the effort.

“[Facebook] looks forward to a day when our primary energy sources are clean and renewable, and we are working with Greenpeace and others to help bring that day closer,” said Marcy Scott Lynn, of Facebook’s sustainability program. “As an important step, our data center siting policy now states a preference for access to clean and renewable energy.”

For the company’s existing data centers, it will “engage in a dialogue with our utility providers about increasing the supply of clean energy that power Facebook data centers,” in order to make the company less coal-reliant. Through the Open Compute Project, an organization promoting “low-cost, low-energy computing infrastructure,” Facebook, along with Greenpeace, will distribute and promote the results of its “research into energy efficiency.”

“This move sets an example for the industry to follow,” Tzeporah Berman, co-director of Greenpeace’s international climate and energy program, said. “This shift to clean, safe energy choices will help fight global warming and ensure a stronger economy and healthier communities.”

Using Facebook was “particularly effective” for Greenpeace, added Ms. Lynn. “We are excited to work with them to explore new ways in which people can use Facebook to engage and connect on the range of energy issues that matter most to them—from their own energy efficiency to access to cleaner sources of energy.”

In post on January 19, 2012, Google announced that it “has been working on a project to bring” its facilities to “higher standards for environmental management” and that its data centers had “received ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 certification.” The company claims it is “the first major Internet services company to gain external certification” for its US data centers. Google set some challenging goals for itself and followed through on meeting the key elements required to reach its goals. Some of the improvements Google has implemented are minimizing the “run time and need for maintenance” of its generators, and extending “the lifetime between oil changes” for them. In the process, the company has reduced its oil consumption by 67 percent.

Google has also implemented a system to “handle, package, ship and recycle every single battery” it uses for its servers’ power supply in each data center, ensuring “the safety of the environment” and its workers.

The company states that its decision to be more responsible when it comes to the environment and safety of its workers, it wants “to be the gold standard in environmental and workforce safety, and because we care about the communities where we live and work.”

The Google data centers that have received the dual certification are:
•The Dalles, Oregon
•Council Bluffs, Iowa
•Mayes County, Oklahoma
•Lenoir, North Carolina
•Monck’s Corner, South Carolina
•Douglas County, Georgia

Google intends to pursue certification for its European data centers as well.

As prominent companies within the sector Facebook and Google are setting powerful examples on how technology and sustainability can be paired to move the world toward a less-fossil fuel intense economy.

China is an online tinderbox

 

With access to information on the web and an economic slowdown on the way, China may be in for some changes. The Party tries to contain the tempest that is brewing.

China recently summoned the heads of various internet companies to Beijing to “discuss” how to deal with unwanted speech online. The Chinese Communist Party knows that it has a virtual tinderbox on it’s hands. More and more information is making its way to the great unwashed and that challenges fundamentally the China the Party has created.

For the past 2 decades China has ridden a wave of economic and technological growth despite heavy handed regulation. In the wake of Tiananmen Square the Chinese people basically struck a deal. You give us economic growth and a higher standard of living and we will in turn allow you to remain in power with all the trappings.

But this contract may be on the verge of breaking down for any number of reasons but chief among them is the increasing access to information online. But perhaps almost as important as access to information is the economic slowdown China may very soon witness.

We have become so used to 10% increases in Chinese GDP that we almost take it as a given that it will continue forever. This won’t be the case. The dirty little secret in China right now is that the economy is slowing a good deal off of its recent pace.

Put new access to information and an economic retraction together and the current Chinese system quickly becomes unstable. The Chinese leadership wants to control the burn because they know that in one form or another a fire is coming. They want to avoid a wildfire.

It may be too late.

Click here for more on the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to control the Net.