Nokia Siemens in Iran: Shame or all’s fair game for telcos?

Deep packet inspection is bad under any regime, no matter how benevolent. When a regime such as Iran today gets access to technology with the potential of DPI, you have a justifiable uproar on far more serious and urgent implications than delayed music downloads.

Global media over the past week pointed to Nokia and Siemens as having provided the Iranian regime with technology to detect and filter information they found inconvenient. According to a widely republished and quoted Wall Street Journal article on 22 June that the newspaper stands by, a system installed in Iran by Nokia Siemens Networks provides Iranian authorities with the ability to conduct deep-packet inspection of online communications to monitor the contents and track the source of e-mail, VoIP calls, and posts to social networking sites such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook. As quoted by Wired, the newspaper also said authorities had the ability to alter content as it intercepted the traffic from a state-owned internet choke point.

Commenting on the story was Ben Roome, a spokesperson for Nokia Siemens Networks who noted in a blog post that,

I do want to say to the people commenting here if we’re (I’m) aware of the situation in Iran. We are (and I am), and it is mainly because of mobile phone video, photos and calls from across Iran, communicating events first hand as they happen, that we are so aware. As I said above: we had a choice as to whether we bring the Iranian people this mobile connectivity, in the knowledge that telecoms networks in Iran are required to have the ability to monitor voice calls as they do all over the world. We made that choice and believe there is a net benefit to the people of Iran.

The point made is that the world is angry about Iran, and sees horrific videos such as the murder of Neda Soltani, because of the ICT networks and foundations facilitated by Nokia Siemens Networks. The over one hundred comments to date on Ben’s blog post reveal the frustration and anger of people who point to the culpability of Nokia Siemens Networks in the violence that has gripped Iran today.

I suggested to some colleagues this morning that one can look at this issue from the perspective of power and accountability. The power of these DPI systems in Iran pale into insignificance with the capacity of what, for example, the US and its allies can monitor and intercept domestically and globally. But there is, at worst, retroactive judicial oversight in the US even when the Executive runs amok combined with the enabling Freedom of Information legislation. What can and should business do when this accountability and oversight is not present, and yet government’s ask for powerful technologies that can be used to undermine human dignity and human security?

But let’s not kid ourselves – you don’t do any business with a regime like Iran expecting them to give a free reign to rights, dissent and democracy. Is that a reason to not do any business? Not. Is that a reason to be up front to consumers about the business one does? Perhaps. Is that a reason to brush away a moral responsibility for the death of Neda Soltani?

Definitely not.

Mobile phone based citizen journalism videos on YouTube viewed over 104,000 times

YouTube Video

Inspired by a post on Burning Bridge to do a count of the number of times all the videos on the Vikalpa YouTube channel had been viewed, I was pleased to note that the videos had been collectively viewed over 104,000 times to date. The channel itself has been viewed over 5,000 times. 

Writing in October 2007 I said,

Coupled with VOR Radio, we want to explore ways through which digital media and mobile devices such as the N-series Nokia phones with their built in mobile blogging, multimedia, wireless and video editing features can be used to strengthen the voice of citizens in support of democratic governance, human rights and peace.

We’ve come a long way in the space of a few months. Featuring senior political figures, trade unionists and media rights activists, school and university students, IDPs and refugees, Members of Parliament, award winning human rights defenders and peace activists, rarely heard voices from Jaffna on ground conditions in the embattled region and exclusive footage of significant socio-political events, the channel features nearly 200 short videos in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

Currently featured on the channel is a professional English production on the life of Nadarajah Raviraj, a prominent human rights activist and Tamil politician assassinated in Colombo in 2006.

Nearly all videos have been filmed using a Nokia N93i camera phone to raise awareness on the potential of mobiles to strengthen democracy and bear witness to abuses of power, human rights violations and violence. 

We generated interest from / have been featured on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), France24’s Observers initiative, Global Voices Online and Witness, the source of my inspiration for starting this initiative in Sri Lanka (though the videos are shot, edited and produced by a talented and brave colleague).

Mobile maps on Nokia phones

You can already get Google Maps on the iPhone and now Nokia’s created a technology of its own to get location data to its higher end handsets. New to Nokia’s OVI platform is the maps feature that runs on Vista / XP and most of Nokia’s N-series and Symbian handsets. 

Wired Gadget Lab has a short review here and you can download the application from here. If someone gets this working, let me know if Colombo is featured on it?

Vikalpa on my Nokia 3110c

Chamath’s comment prompted me to upload a video of browsing Vikalpa on my Nokia 3110c. The video shows me using the 3110c’s built in web browser over a GPRS connection to view content in Sinhala and Tamil UNICODE. Nothing was installed on the phone by way of fonts or software on the phone in order for the text to render as accurately as it does. Vikalpa was made mobile friendly using MoFuse.

I’ll be interested to find what other phones support vernacular UNICODE rendering. When I tried this on other Nokia models (incl. the high end N-series) and other phones, bought from outside of Sri Lanka, the fonts simply did not render properly.

And the answer to Chamath’s question is yes, the 3110c natively supports Sinhala and Tamil SMS messaging, though I’ve never figured out how to type out a message in Sinhala. The entire menu system can also run natively in Sinhala and Tamil (and some Indian languages incl. Hindi). The Sinhala script is very legible and clear, more accurate in rendering in fact than Sinhala on my Mac.

Blogging in UNICODE Sinhala in Sri Lanka

There’s an interesting debate on about the merits of blogging in Sinhala, brought about by Apramana’s Sinhala Blog Marathon. The two central issues of contention are whether blogs in Sinhala capture enough of an audience to be monetised and whether UNICODE is a viable means of writing and reading content in Sinhala online.

The former issue is one that has been debated at incredible length on Lirneasia’s blog, among other places. Rumblinglankan’s post on the other hand, questions the viability of Sinhala blogging because of its abysmal readership. It’s also a post that got some interesting comments by those who feel, as I strongly do, that it is vital to encourage and strengthen blogging in the swabhasha.

Vikalpa gets around 263 pageviews a day. For a site that is entirely in UNICODE, that’s not half bad in comparison to the traffic on other blogs located in Sri Lanka (Groundviews gets around 700 page views a day on average).

The concerns about the installation of UNICODE fonts on Windows XP aside, Rumblinglankan’s contention that UNICODE Sinhala is still not ready for mainstream blogging is different to my personal experience. On the installation front, I agree that things could be better. Though I’ve never had a problem in the installation of UNICODE fonts, many I know including experienced journalists who are proficient in using PCs, have. We also often get complaints from users who have not installed UNICODE on their computers that all they see on their screens is gibberish (easily solved by emailing them with a pointer to the site’s Font Installation help page). I’ve been told repeatedly that UNICODE is annoyingly dissimilar to what many touch typists in Sinhala have learnt as the keyboard mapping in non-UNICODE fonts. There are also some other font rendering issues that have cropped up in our work, having used UNICODE exclusively and extensively on Vikalpa and the University of Colombo’s excellent UNICODE conversion tools. In sum, it’s easier to view UNICODE Sinhala fonts than to enter them. And the fact that they simply don’t display accurately on Macs is a bloody annoyance, but thankfully Bootcamp or Parallels come in handy here. The ICTA UNICODE enabling pack works fine on both.

I tend to agree with Indi’s comments in Rumblinglankan’s post that if we don’t begin to produce and promote Sinhala content, we’ll never have enough impetus to get more people blogging and online. Blogging in Sinhala is not always about or pegged to the ability to monetise content. The growth of Sinhala blogs on Kottu over the past year along is testimony that more and more people are blogging in general, and blogging in Sinhala in particular (and Kottu does not aggregate all blogs in and on Sri Lanka). Hyper-local media in Sri Lanka will not be based on English. Though traditional media forays on to the web still, by and large, do not use UNICODE when publishing content in Sinhala / Tamil, I see the transition to it as inevitable.

For example, Vikalpa attracts a fair bit of traffic from the diaspora – we can only assume that there is a significant audience out of Sri Lanka who do read content in Sinhala and in fact, in the case of Vikalpa, look out for content sadly not to be found in the Fourth Estate.

Personally, the most compelling reason to go with Sinhala / Tamil UNICODE on Vikalpa was that content thus entered could be searched for and accessed through Google, Live, Yahoo and the like. Vikalpa is designed to be a record of alternative viewpoints for posterity and UNICODE made the content as accessible and future proof as possible.

As an aside, it’s interesting in this regard to note the growth of the Sinhala and Tamil SMS applications and services on mobile phones in Sri Lanka, pioneered largely by the thought-leadership and technical prowess of Microimage. However, while the Groundviews Mobile attracts around a 100 page views a day, the Vikalpa mobile site that I created using the same technology worked perfectly on my mobile phone bought in Sri Lanka from Softlogic but did not on more sophisticated N-series phones bought abroad. I can only guess that the Nokia phones Softlogic sells in Sri Lanka, with their built in Sinhala character-set, support UNICODE Sinhala font rendering through the phone’s built in browser whereas phones outside of Sri Lanka obviously don’t. (Which begs the question, is there a software upgrade for Nokia’s that Softlogic can do to make them render Sinhala fonts?)

Nokia N93i and Citizen Journalism in Sri Lanka

Vikalpa YouTube Channel

Reading Reuters/Nokia Collaboration Has Potential for Citizen Journalists on MobileActive echoed what I’m currently facilitating in Sri Lanka with the help of the CPA Media Unit.

We are using a Nokia N93i phone to capture content that is feeding into Sri Lanka’s first citizen journalism YouTube channel, the Vikalpa YouTube Video Channel. The channel will be formally launched in the near future with more content added online.

Vikalpa, the first and only vernacular citizen journalism initiative in Sri Lanka to date, follows Groundviews, launched late in 2006, that was Sri Lanka’s first ever citizen journalism initiative.

Coupled with VOR Radio, we want to explore ways through which digital media and mobile devices such as the N-series Nokia phones with their built in mobile blogging, multimedia, wireless and video editing features can be used to strengthen the voice of citizens in support of democratic governance, human rights and peace.