Media and technology: Beyond the Stockholm Syndrome

Taking part in Storyology, a media conference as far as away as Sidney, I found myself standing still before a scene I had seen identical versions of in Vienna, Bonn, Barcelona and who knows where else.

There is a booth by the conference rooms where people in 3D glasses are watching videos. A few years ago, I was told this was “immersive journalism” through which people get a “first hand experience” of news with 3D technology. I felt a certain unease at how the notion of immersion has been appropriated by tech players in a way such that they claim it is an experience they can create through nothing other than simple gadgets. I wondered how immersion, a highly personalized process of interaction, can be technologically mediated, or otherwise fabricated.

A few years before, I had started to use the word “immersion” with a sense of desire and admiration for some forms of ethnographic journalism and research-based art practices. Journalists or artists spend extensive time with certain subjects in an attempt to share their process of witnessing and encountering these subjects. While this type of journalism has its own issues — in common with the broader anthropological/ethnographic tradition — it has its merits in how it makes us encounter stories.

Little of this is to be found in the conversations at most of today’s international media conferences. Instead, their agendas have been loaded with sessions and workshops on what technology has brought to media practice, of course with the signature booth on immersive journalism, sometimes offered by Google to promote their Google Cardboard. Workshops on news gaming, talks on robot journalism and virtual reality among others have become the star subjects on these meetings’ agendas.

With technology being the prominent interest of these media conferences, both leading tech companies and start-ups have become active participants — sometimes overshadowing media outlets themselves. This may be simply attributed to the economy of these conferences, which are made possible mainly through lucrative sponsorships by companies of the likes of Google. But beyond the conference industry, there is a broader question of the political economy of media today, and the way it has been governed by the technology sector and specifically big private players.

I was intrigued to find interesting interventions in two leading international media conferences this summer, where technology triumphalism and determinism are typically quite predominant. Rather than soothing my disorientation as to how we can we talk about journalism beyond the framework of technology, they did a more basic act of unpacking the contested relationship between media and technology and the power dynamics tying them together. As such, both were critical interventions, interestingly positioned almost as devices of institutional critiques.

The first was by well known Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who came out of six years of imprisonment in Tehran in 2014 for his blogging activities with an influential post published on Medium, defending the open web — the one that existed at the time of his imprisonment and preceding social media networks. He was the keynote speaker at this year’s Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum held in Bonn this past June.

Derakshan spoke about the core of the media crisis today: the loss of control over publishing and distribution, with third party platforms such as Facebook assuming both functions. Facebook has recently introduced Instant Articles, where publishers can post their entire content on Facebook on its own content management system. Assuming the role of publishing is one more step beyond the crucial distribution role that Facebook has been playing, and even in that role it has increasingly been getting a monetary return from page administrators for what had been a free service.

The overriding issue of the control these platforms have over media content distribution is the limits it has put on our ability to explore knowledge through the death of hyperlinks and the filters of algorithms.

Derakshan described the hyperlink as “an amazing achievement in human intellectual history,” one that is being destabilized as most social platforms disallow them in order to retain users in their spaces. With users and their data becoming the main source of monetization for the business model of these platforms, retaining users becomes essential. The result is what Derakshan called “a closed space, an inward looking space, a space that is linear, passive, programmed, homogenous and sequential,” almost in the same way television streams content at us, despite the web 2.0 promises of interactivity.

This closure is exacerbated by algorithmic filtering of content, which Derakshan describes as damaging to both quality and diversity — the cornerstone values of journalism. He discussed how Facebook algorithms — or what he called “imitations of human judgement” — give priority to newness and popularity or “the tyrannies of recency and of the majority.” In this context, minority views are seldom picked and the past is forgotten.

Derakshan tries to imagine disruptions that may be possible ways out, such as liking content you disagree with or posting old reads as opposed to only recent ones. What kind of an alternative feed would one get? We have to imagine a completely different scenario from what we are used to.

He also advocated campaigning for transparency on how algorithms are constructed. “If it is a free market economy as they claim,” he said, “and if their god is the free market, why not abide by the rule of the free market and give more choices instead of secretive algorithms.”

“Imagine if they gave us options to choose between a video-centered news feed, a text-centered news feed, a socially-oriented news feed where we get what our friends are doing or see their kitchens, cats and parties, a minority-oriented news feed, a majority-oriented news feed. Why not have these options as consumers?”

Derakshan imagined an open-source platform developed by third-party developers who can serve struggling media outlets that still want to push forward high quality and diverse content.

But there is a lot more skepticism from Evgeny Morozov, who writes provocatively about politics and technology and is author of The Net Delusion (2012). Morozov was the keynote speaker at the Global Editors Network, another highly tech-oriented media conference, held this June in Vienna.

Morozov, who made his name critiquing the technological determinism with which digitally mediated political mobilizations were perceived, is currently focused on tech firms and a process that he has named “data extractivism.” His eyes are on tech companies that offer advertisement-subsidized services “not just to make money but with the goal to extract data, which would be converted into advanced artificial intelligence platforms and techniques.” Through this data-powered artificial intelligence, the companies can then pitch themselves as providers of sophisticated and comprehensive services.

Going beyond Derakshan’s argument, Morozov’s issue is with more than the creation of a new record of relevance through artificial intelligence. His problem is rather with “building and training systems that are capable of making productions and of automating the work process in whatever industry you look at in a way that wasn’t possible before. This has happened thanks to massive flows of data aggregated and not through a magical breakthrough computer science artificial intelligence.”

Accordingly, companies with such power have managed to “position themselves as the key infrastructure” to a variety of sectors, from health, to education to the welfare state. Morozov cites the example of the British National Health Service giving data to Google to help them better predict how to fight cancer. In a world with this level of control, Morozov predicts that tech corporations will survive a collapse in advertisement, as they will be able to charge for services they offer that are based on advanced data-powered artificial intelligence and their clients will range from users to sectors and states.

Morozov thus confidently uses the term “feudal” to describe a society where a few corporations are key intermediaries, pointing to the fact that six of the largest firms in cash reserves in the world are tech companies with direct access to administrations in Europe and America.

Morozov noted the lack of critical outlook from the media in analyzing tech firms and the use of data as a political and economic resource. He says that there is some kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” within the media industry vis a vis tech companies with which they have partnered and integrated themselves. He added that the music and the media industry were at the forefront of the confrontation with technology some years ago but they didn’t bring enough thinking to the confrontation. In the case of music, the digital realm meant a reshuffling of production processes and relations, forcing the middlemen — the producers, like the publishers in media — to rethink their positions.

But unlike Derakshan, Morozov does not think a parallel world can be imagined — in terms of thinking of different algorithms or creating alternative platforms — because of the massive power accrued by corporations. Instead, he spoke about the need for “an organized battle to reclaim data” through strong alliances, implying industrial and state alliances. This call met with an accusation from one of the conference attendees that he was being Stalinist. Morozov also called for public interventions to reframe data as a key resource to society at large, and to be treated “with the same critical attention that things like labor and land were treated in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Derakhshan and Morozov put on the agendas of these conventions a missing ingredient, returning to media its agency as a critical player. One is left to wonder if such bold interventions will have a comeback in next year’s editions of these conferences, but one is also left content that such interventions have managed to permeate these structures.

This post is published in collaboration with Mada Masr.

Why we need to reconsider how knowledge and innovation are measured

Nadine Weheba

Knowledge and innovation have taken the lead as drivers of economic growth in developed countries and so there has been a growing interest by the international community to measure and assess progress in this area. Excited to embark on new research on alternative metrics of knowledge and innovation at A2K4D, the student of international development in me could not help but right away remember debates on how important it is to measure development from both a mainstream and more alternative perspective. How are existing measures of innovation and knowledge constructed and how useful are these in bringing about positive policy change or change through other channels? Why do we need to measure innovation and knowledge in the first place?

One particular method of measuring development is using indices. For example, the Human Development Index produced by UNDP since 1990 combines variables for life expectancy, literacy and enrollment rates together with GDP to produce a country ranking for ‘human development’.  Economist Martin Ravallion calls this type of index a ‘mashup’ According to Ravallion, a mashup is a composite index with an unusually large number of moving parts that the producer is essentially free to set. The research team producing a mashup index is at liberty to include any variables they see fit in measuring a particular phenomenon. Ravallion posits that while indices of the sort are attractive with their supposedly simple ranking of countries and their ability to combine multiple dimensions together into a single figure, what does it actually mean to rank number 1 on the HDI or any other mashup?

‘Mash up’ indices of knowledge and innovation

There is an endless amount of similar mashups for different aspects of development, ranging from gender inequality (Gender inequality Index) to indices that assess the business environment in different countries, most famously the Ease of Doing Business Index. Knowledge production and innovation are no exception. A quick Google search reveals a number of mashups that measure knowledge and innovation using a similar one size fits all approach. The most prominent index is the Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) based on the Knowledge Assessment Methodology (KAM) produced by the World Bank.

The Knowledge Assessment Methodology is based on the premise that since knowledge is increasingly becoming a key driver of economic growth, it is important to assess different countries’ “readiness for a knowledge economy’.” One hundred and forty eight variables are available to help identify areas of strength and others that require policy intervention. These variables are used to gauge the status of four particular areas identified by the KAM as ‘pillars of the knowledge economy’: appropriate economic policies and institutional frameworks conducive to knowledge creation and dissemination, a skilled and educated labor force, a supportive innovation system, and modern information and communications technology infrastructure.

The Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) is calculated based on a simple average of the score for each of the four pillars (scores are normalized and assigned a value between 0 and 1) of the knowledge economy, using a basic scorecard of 14 variables. The four sub-indices are: the Economic and Institution Regime Index, which includes variables such as tariff and non-tariff barriers, and regulatory quality; the Education Index includes average years of schooling and enrolment rates; the Innovation Index includes patents granted, and royalty payments and receipts; and the ICT Index consists of variables like Internet and computer penetration rates. As of 2012, the KEI included 146 countries, with Sweden ranking as the top knowledge economy and Myanmar at the bottom. The Knowledge Index (KI) does not differ much for the KEI, it only excludes the Economic and Institution Regime Index.

K indecesSource: Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) 2012 Rankings

Other prominent indices in the areas of knowledge and innovation include the Global Innovation Index. It is produced by the World Intellectual Property Organization, Cornell University and the European Institute for Business Administration at (INSEAD). Some organizations also produce their own rankings of innovation and knowledge such as the Bloomberg Innovation Index and the Open Knowledge Index.

The trouble with mash-up indices

Mashup indices like the KEI reflect a mainstream understanding of development, whereby pre-set models are used to explain economic phenomena and issues. A good example are the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) administered by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the 1990s where a single dismal recipe of neoliberal reforms was enforced on a host of developing countries to “fix” their economies. In a similar manner, this understanding of development has resulted in the propagation of a single method and a uniform standard by which to judge all countries’ efforts in innovation and knowledge production. This reasoning is embodied in indices like the KEI. According to this conceptualization, all countries should strive to reach the state of development or knowledge production and innovation that ‘developed’ countries are at. Since these countries are leaders, all countries should try to reach the same standards by the same means. This top-down approach assumes a similar path of development.

Ravallion warned of the appeal of mash-up indices in the case of knowledge and innovation: the simplicity of the indices such as the KEI and their presentation through catchy, user-friendly websites like that of the Global Innovation Index may render them authorities in measuring knowledge and innovation. Ravallion raises a series of important questions with regards to indices of development: 1. What are we measuring 2. What are the trade-offs involved in the index and to what extent are variables weighted accurately (and what does this mean for the accuracy of rankings) and 3. How relevant or useful is the index for development policy?

What exactly are we trying to measure? This involves having a specific theoretical grounding and translating it into quantifiable variables. Ravallion lists some of the concerns with regards to this question for the HDI; whose proponents argue it is grounded in Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. But the index uses GDP to measure what is essentially economic well-being. Well-being, according to the capabilities approach, is more about a set of beings and doings, capabilities to live a good life- such as being in good health. But, good health is not necessarily best reflected in life expectancy, where people may live longer but unhealthier lives. The point is that a lot, perhaps too much, gets lost in translation from theory to measurement.

Let’s take some of these questions to the KEI as an example and specifically the innovation sub-index.

What is meant by innovation in the KEI, and specifically the sub index of innovation? The variables used in the basic score card for this sub-index are: royalty payments and receipts, patent counts (applications granted by the United States Patent Office- USPTO) and scientific and technical journal articles, which are to be found mostly in Western scientific academic journals. The KEI is clearly based on a specific conceptualization of what constitutes knowledge and innovation, best suited to the case of more developed countries.  Another well-known definition of innovation is that of the Oslo manual. The manual defines innovation as the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), a new marketing method, a new organization method in business practices, be it workplace organization or external relations. There is no definition for knowledge per se. This definition is applied for all countries at different stages of development and indirectly makes a link between innovation and the market. As such, traditional knowledge and forms of innovation that do not necessarily reach formal markets may be overlooked.

It is unjust to judge developing countries’ progress with regards to knowledge production and innovation using the same criteria as countries at much later stages of development, especially in a current global regime of maximalist intellectual property. Joseph Stiglitz argues that it is not only a resources gap but also a knowledge gap that separates developed and developing countries. Ha-Joon Chang writes extensively on how international agreements such as the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) puts developing countries at a disadvantage by restricting the flow of necessary knowledge and technology from developed to developing countries. Chang gives historical evidence to highlight the importance of such flows of knowledge and technology in the industrialization of Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and then continental Europe. Much of the transfer of technology and knowledge that enabled these countries to catch up took place outside the scope of the law.

In addition to the problematic proxies used for knowledge production and innovation in terms of the development divide, the KEI does not capture all types of innovation and knowledge production, such as, for example, traditional knowledge production in Africa. Fred Gault, a renowned reference on innovation, acknowledges that innovation takes place in different forms in developing countries, especially in the sites of the informal economy and in smaller size firms. Innovation also takes place in much more unfavorable conditions to those present in developed countries.

Ravallion then points out that it is important to consider the formula in place to determine what happens to the overall index when one variable changes compared to another, or the marginal rate of substitution between variables. The assignment of uniform weights to variables across countries is another point of concern. The reality is that the context in each country, especially in the heterogeneous group often labeled, as developing countries, is unique.  And so, having a fixed marginal rate of substitution between variables and fixed weights for all countries is clearly problematic. While Ravallion is referring to the equal 1/3 weighting of GDP, life expectancy and mean years of schooling in the HDI, the same logic applies to the KEI. The KEI is based on a simple average of the four sub-indices and there is no change in weights for different regions or countries. But how important a change in the regulatory environment or innovation ecosystem is may be very different depending on the country under study and that is not accounted for in most mashup indices.

The politics of measurements

Besides the issues mentioned above, another pertinent question is how useful is an index for policy making or for effecting change? Gault stresses that measurement should be a means towards encouraging public debate and policy change. Ravallion questions the usefulness of mashup indices on the grounds that they do not account for differences in the context of different countries. By context, Ravallion means “the many conditions that define the relevant constraints on country performance.” It is no surprise that most mashup indices, including the KEI, the HDI, the EDBI reflect the development divide, with countries like Switzerland, Sweden or Singapore topping the indices and countries in Sub Saharan Africa coming at the very bottom. But the indices do not tell us about how the countries performed despite the different constraints that they face.

For example, in the case of knowledge production, in Chapter 2 of the Arab Knowledge Report 2009, Nagla Rizk highlights key region-specific constraints on knowledge production that prevent the region from moving closer towards a knowledge society. These include political repression, constraints on creativity including censorship in its many forms and other constraints such as economic ones. Rizk also discusses aspects of what is necessary for an “enabling environment” in the Arab World with a particular focus on political but also economic freedoms. These issues are unique to the region and so indices that aim to assess the state of knowledge and innovation in the region would be more accurate if they take such issues into account. Gault provides an example of steps that have been taken to adopt a more bottom-up approach, such as the Bogota manual for measuring innovation, which adapts the Oslo manual for the conditions unique to Latin America and Caribbean countries.

In the case of the HDI, Ravallion also asks to what extent do indices actually lead to better policies? In other words do politicians need these indices to tell them what areas need support? He gives an example from India where Kerala, compared to other states with twice its GDP like Punjab, fares significantly better on both indicators of mortality and literacy. These differences have not resulted in significant policy changes to improve the situation compared to that in Kerala. Ravallion suggests that the reason for this is not a lack of information but a combination of socio-economic-political processes. In other words, this disparity is not because politicians in Punjab do not have the necessary information to design better policies but it is rather a reflection of conscious political decisions by those in power. In the case of Kerala, prioritizing education and literacy has been on the top of the political agenda.  For example, state spending on education in Kerala represents 38 percent of the state budget in 2014/2015.

Political priorities are not captured properly in the KAM or in any of the indices based on an apolitical view of development. While the KEI includes a number of indicators on governance such as rule of law and regulatory quality, none of these actually capture where government priorities are in terms of spending. The index does not capture the political reasons behind the government prioritizing particular sectors at the expense of education for example. In a world where the playing field is far from leveled between the developed and developing countries on all fronts, it matters even more where government spending goes amongst those trying to “catch up”. Is spending on education, health, and supporting research and development a priority? Or is spending on security or mega projects taking precedent? To what extent can a ranking on an index lead to a political decision to shift such priorities?

A2K as an alternative

Ravallion is not insinuating that mashup indices should be abandoned altogether, but rather that they need to be more clearly grounded in theory and need to better reflect contextual factors. This way they could potentially be more useful for policy making.

The status quo is one where a particular theoretical understanding of development and subsequently of knowledge and innovation dominates and guides the production of indices. A wider, more complex understanding of development that incorporates socioeconomic but also political processes and allows for more bottom up contribution is necessary.

The access to knowledge (A2K) paradigm promotes a more horizontal and democratic conceptualization of knowledge production and of innovation that resonates with more alternative views of development. It emphasizes the right to receive but also to participate in the creation, manipulation and extension of information, tools and inventions, literature, scholarship, art, popular media and other expressions of human inquiry and understanding. Within the A2K paradigm, development is understood in its wider sense and prioritizes human and social development. Rizk and Lea Shaver in Access to Knowledge in Egypt define A2K as a ‘demand for democratic participation and global inclusion and economic justice’ and so by nature it becomes political. It is a demand to participate fairly in the production of knowledge and innovation and for this to be better accounted for. As such the A2K paradigm offers a more nuanced understanding of both development and of knowledge, encompassing more forms of knowledge production and innovation through a lens that is better equipped to capture a more micro, bottom-up image of what is actually taking place on the ground.

From an A2K perspective, it is important to document the knowledge and innovation happening in developing countries, but going beyond the narrow definitions currently used by different indices or manuals. Empirical qualitative research such as case studies and interviews are essential in this regard. For example, the Open African Innovation Research and Training project (Open A.I.R), of which the Access to Knowledge for Development Center is the North African Hub, has done extensive empirical work surveying the knowledge and innovation coming from Africa that is not captured by the metrics used in the KEI. Qualitative, bottom up work, hence, allows for a nuanced understanding of the challenges and constraints each country or region faces and is thus likely to lead to more realistic and useful metrics of knowledge and innovation.

Digital entrepreneurship in Egypt: Opportunities and obstacles

By Nagham El Houssamy

There has been a notable increase in the number of startups and startup incubators in Egypt in the last decade. With an interest in the intersection between knowledge and technologies, my colleague Nadine Weheba and I became engaged with the digital entrepreneurship field and with how technology is transforming business models in the Egyptian startup scene, and the implications of these developments for Egypt’s knowledge economy.

A knowledge economy, or a knowledge-based economy, is one where economic success is mainly based on the effective use of intangible assets such as knowledge, skills, and innovative potential. These intangible assets serve as the competitive advantage of a knowledge economy. In such a scenario, knowledge is the ultimate economic renewable resource. The use of knowledge does not deplete it; on the contrary, more knowledge is created when knowledge is shared. The potential that entrepreneurs have to utilize, store, share, and analyze knowledge with the aid of digital technologies allows them to benefit from the properties of knowledge and its competitive advantage and foster the country’s knowledge economy.

Digital entrepreneurship has the potential to serve as a path towards realizing the knowledge economy. With the depletion of natural resources, the avenue towards competitive advantage is coming from knowledge creation and innovative potential. Digital entrepreneurship can play a role in reinforcing this knowledge generation cycle while at the same time contributing to the country’s sustainable growth.

There are many characteristics of digital startups, including the utilization of social media tools, big data, and mobile and cloud solutions to improve existing business operations and invent new business models.

In a recent report conducted by Mercy Corps and Endeavor Insights, they found that almost 5,000 employees are currently directly hired in the local tech ecosystem in Cairo. This number is expected to grow by a third annually. In a country with a large segment of the population in the youth bracket, any potential source of sustainable job creation should be capitalized on.

The Mercy Corps and Endeavor Insights report also found that between 2010 and 2014, the Cairo tech sector grew at around 30 percent each year, signifying huge potential for growth and contribution to Egypt’s knowledge economy. According AngelList, a website for startups, angel investors, and job-seekers looking to work at startups, there are almost 200 tech startups in Egypt.

According to official sources, Egypt has an Internet penetration rate of 57 percent. More than 49 million Internet users serve as potential consumers for the products of digital startups. These same 49 million Internet users have the opportunity of establishing digital startups themselves.

But what obstacles do these digital entrepreneurs face? What factors do they need to tear down the walls separating them from becoming sources of sustainable growth for Egypt’s economy? How do we create an enabling ecosystem for digital entrepreneurship to thrive?

In trying to assess the obstacles and enablers to digital startups, one of the factors we needed to consider through our semi-structured interviews with several founders of digital startups and other stakeholders is whether or not the startup was incubated, and if so, where.

An incubator is an organization that aims to accelerate the success and growth of startups by offering them a variety of business support resources and services. Although these resources and services vary from one incubator to another, they mainly include physical office space, mentoring services, and cash support or other in-kind support. In exchange for seed investment, some incubators acquire a small portion of a startup’s equity.

There are a number of private, university-based, and government-led incubators for digital startups in Egypt. The main government-led incubator is the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (TIEC). TIEC offers a one-year incubation package for startups in the ICT sector, which includes up to LE120,000 of in-kind services at no request for equity. University-based incubators include the American University in Cairo’s Venture Lab, which aims to commercialize technologies and innovations to contribute to growth and job creation in Egypt. Private incubators include Flat6Labs, a regional accelerator program that provides seed funding, mentoring, and other business support services in exchange for a specified amount of equity.

We interviewed three startups that are at the early-stage phase, but with different incubation experiences. One of the startups was privately incubated, one was governmentally incubated, while the third chose not to go through the incubation experience.

OtlobDoctor.com is an online medical booking platform, incubated at the government-run Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. On OtlobDoctor.com, users can view doctors’ and nurses’ CVs, prices, and insurance arrangements. Patients can reserve for clinic visits or request house visits. The website includes a rating system in order to be transparent and allow users to pick the most suitable choice of physician. OtlobDoctor.com seeks to become the number one medical search engine in Egypt, creating indirect jobs for the younger talented doctors and nurses that are largely unknown to the public. OtlobDoctor.com, a knowledge sharing platform, leverages the playing field among younger doctors and older established doctors, reducing the asymmetry of information in the medical market. In describing their incubation experience, Ashraf El Fiky, CEO and founder of OtlobDoctor.com, explained that TIEC has provided in-kind support in the form of access to office space, mentoring, and other services over the duration of one year. Fiky attested that this has been instrumental to helping the startup mature into its next phase.

Elwafeyat.com is another startup we interviewed, which pursued the non-governmental incubation path. Elwafeyat.com is a platform to “announce and honor the death of our loved ones.” Elwafeyat.com creates easy tools for such announcements to quickly notify people in your network when someone passes away. The announcements include the date and location (via Google maps) of the funeral. The platform allows you to track who is attending, and the announcements are shareable on social media platforms. The website also offers an online directory for funerals, mosques, churches, etc. ElWafeyat.com has the potential to revolutionize the over-priced business of placing obituaries in local print newspapers. In the summer of 2013, ElWafeyat.com was accepted for incubation at Flat6Labs. After committing and signing a contract, Flat6Labs provided the Elwafeyat.com team with office space, seed money, and helped them in registering their company.

Through Flat6Labs, Elwafeyat.com had the opportunity of attending an event organized by the Government of Bahrain, and received interest there from a Bahraini investor. Additionally, they were approached to participate in the 500 Startups program in Silicon Valley. This had a significantly positive impact on the founders and their business plan. 500 Startups transformed Elwafeyat.com’s business plan, by providing them with the know-how to become more organized, efficient and have a clearer idea of what they are doing. This incubation experience also pushed the team to raise the bar of their financial expectations, exposing them to the global playing field.

The third startup we interviewed that did not go through an incubation experience is Yaoota.com. Yaoota.com is a price comparison and online shopping website that allows you to compare prices among all online shopping outlets in Egypt, with the option of directing you to the outlets’ website to make a purchase if you wish. Yoota.com’s founders have self-financed the startup and associated costs as opposed to receiving funds through an incubation experience. Yaoota.com’s office is located at the GrEEK Campus, a tech park at the heart of Cairo, thereby benefiting from close proximity with the community startups and events situated there. In our interview with one of Yaoota.com’s founders, we learned that the platform is for knowledge sharing and analysing the knowledge captured from the customers. The platform collects a wealth of data and repackages it in the form of analytics dashboards to lure potential new clients.

Despite the different incubation experiences, or lack thereof, of the startups we interviewed, similar trends appeared when asking about the gaps and desired improvements in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Egypt. This reflects larger deep-rooted issues that need to be addressed in the ecosystem beyond whether a startup is incubated or not. The benefits of an incubation experience depend on the entrepreneur’s utilization of the offered services, and the continued quest for new opportunities. Incubation is not a precursor for the success of a startup; other factors need to be taken into consideration. The willingness of entrepreneurs to take risks and explore new opportunities plays a major role in the startup’s growth.

At the fifth Annual Workshop of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) held on June 9, 2015 in Cairo, a session on digital entrepreneurship discussed a few desirable improvements for the sector’s ecosystem. There is a need for more funding opportunities with higher investment ceilings. In parallel, there needs to be incentives and tax-breaks for digital startups.

There is also a dire necessity for major educational reform, the panelists argued. Instilling an entrepreneurial mindset from a young age is of vital importance to creating an enabling ecosystem and contributing to the country’s knowledge economy. Furthermore, in spite of the high Internet penetration rate, the country’s Internet infrastructure requires major quality improvements.

These quality improvements should to be complemented with outreach beyond Cairo and other urban areas. The entrepreneurial ecosystem, like the Internet infrastructure, also needs to be expanded to include connections beyond the major urban cities. The digital entrepreneurship ecosystem would also benefit from a greater outreach of the Internet grid, providing more job opportunities in remote areas while at the same time increasing the customer pool.

Meanwhile, there remain several unexplored avenues of the digital entrepreneurship ecosystem in Egypt. For example, how do we integrate the informal digital economy into the formal one? Ayman Ismail, Abdul Latif Jameel Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship at AUC’s School of Business, raised this point during the workshop session, referencing the increasing amount of businesses that operate informally from Facebook and other social media platforms. If the digital startup ecosystem is an enabling and attractive one, then informal businesses will have an incentive to formalize and thus integrate into the local economy.

In general, we found that Egypt is attractive for digital entrepreneurs and the market is ripe for growth because of its largest population in the region, its growing Internet penetration, in addition to offering low operating costs. The general feeling is that the digital realm in Egypt is still underpenetrated and thus there is room for development and better enabling practices by both governmental and non-governmental actors.

Transmission through toktoks

Fatema Niazy

A few years ago, Maḥraganat, a branch of Shaʿby music, appeared on the surface out of disenfranchised urban areas. Its appeal lies in the roughness of its electronica infused beats, profane language, relevance to everyday mundane life or nonsensical rhyming lyrics,[i] as opposed to the more common themes of over-romanticism, patriotism and what not.

Numerous accounts, which include the latest documentary “Underground/On the Surface: Raise Your Hand if You Love God,” tackled the rise, history, and evolution of Maḥraganat; yet, access, innovation, transmission, and technology remain un-discussed issues. Little attention has been given to the channels, which have aided the spread of the music itself, and the way it has gone viral. What are the different modes of dissemination in use by Maḥraganat artists? What was the major catalyst for Maḥraganat’s popularity? Did they become organically popular through their environments and the permeability of these environments or is their popularity created through distribution and production labels? And where is Maḥraganat situated in the contestation between mainstream and alternative cultural production and how do they navigate these classifications themselves?

A significant trait of Maḥraganat artists is their ability to self-produce entirely, which is the gem of various independent musicians. In a conversation with Yousef Atwan, the vocalist of an indie/independent band called Like Jelly, he mentioned that the middlemen were disappearing in the process. He was referring to the predominant commercial structure of the music industry, where record labels act as producers, distributers, booking agents and license providers. He elaborated that Oka and Ortega, two prominent Maḥraganat artists produce their own music and use available technology as distribution channels.

He gave an example of “Haty Bossa Ya Bet” a Maḥraganat song that was recorded in Ortega’s room with a webcam microphone and mixed on a pirated version of Fruity Loops, a sound editing program, which Oka taught himself to use. Afterwards, the artist uploaded the song to online forums. But Internet penetration around the release of the song was only at 36 percent while the mobile penetration rate was 112 percent in 2012. Atwan explains that the song was mostly transferred through Bluetooth and memory card readers on phones, computers and finally cheap technology such as sound systems and card readers installed in toktoks (three-wheel motorized vehicles that are cheap transportation means) and microbuses. This elucidated the function of cheap technology to sharing culture, as an important trait of the debate on the broader Internet as a facilitator of culture dissemination.

But cheap technology disseminating the tunes of Maḥraganat artists is only the beginning of the story. How this music reached the consciousness of this writer and her surroundings is a different evolution.

In April, I attended a “We are the 8%” concert at the Greek Campus as part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF). Cairo’s Downtown is space of a middle-class community of residents, but also a hang out for diverse groups for its cultural capital. In recent years, the landscape has been arguably evolving toward more gentrification with the private sector and the state engaging in various urban regeneration projects. The Greek Campus and D-Caf exemplify this tendency. The Greek Campus has become a space for independent music performances after the American University Cairo rented it out to venture capitalist Ahmed El Alfi, who turned it into a technology and entrepreneurship hub. D-CAF brands itself as “Egypt’s only international multi-disciplinary contemporary arts festival”.

When I paid the LE50 entry ticket, I thought of how this fee shaped the audience inside. I was particularly perplexed as the very environment and subculture this concert music emerged from is one where free or cheap access has been a formative trait for dissemination.

While cheap technology was the first step propelling Maḥraganat artists to fame in some form of a self-acquired popularity, they increasingly found their way into the mainstream, through the assimilation of various players, producers, and filmmakers, tuned to the independent scene. While Maḥraganat is barred from public radio stations due to the “vulgarity” of its content according to Wezza, a Maḥraganat artist from the band “We are the 8%,” they are being featured in mainstream films such as “‘Abdo Motta” as well as popular advertisements. In a review of the film “Electro-Chaabi,” a documentary shadowing several Maḥraganat artists such as Safat, Alaa Fifty, Figo, Okka and Ortega from between the period of March 2011 to December 2012, journalist Maha El-Nabawy describes how footage of Maḥraganat artists talking about how media repudiated them is juxtaposed with footage of them being featured intensely on mainstream media.

Production labels played a major role in the dissemination of Maḥraganat music beyond their place of birth. In an article, musician Rami Abadir explains how those bands who deemed themselves independent were not able to further succeed without smaller indie record labels such as 100Copies. When interviewed about Maḥraganat, Mahmoud Refat, the founder of a 100Copies, described it as a “new form” of music as it is not “just sha’abi, popular music, not just world music.” He also claimed that television is not interested in it because it is not elegant enough. The label started as a way to organize festivals and concerts, while building a studio for them to record came at a later stage.

In a conversation with Kinda Hassan, founding member of Eka3, another independent music label, she mentioned that the role provided by labels like 100Copies revolve around booking concerts, promoting artists and pushing them for live performances. Hassan mentioned the example of Islam Chipsy, whose label is 100Copies and who performed at the Oslo Music Festival. He would be one of many pushed into the international scene through their labels.

But As Maḥraganat artists begin to produce in the 100Copies studio, Hassan fears that the identity of this music is transmuting, as one of its important pillars lies in its roughness. Yet, it is a natural progression, she said, as they receive some artistic direction from their label.

The concerns of mainstreaming and loss of some native traits of Maḥraganat music are voiced by others. But while writer Ayman Helmy sees two strict lines between the music of the mainstream and the music of the alternative based on market, audience and content, it would be wrong to assume a clear dichotomy. Openings or magical gates between the independent stream and the mainstream appear and disappear sporadically. Yet, for an independent/alternative/underground artist to cross over to the mainstream, he must assimilate and modify, Helmy writes. According to him, an example would be Okka and Ortega’s song “Aywa Aywa which melodically is recycled from an earlier version of “Haty Bossa Ya Bet (al-Wessada al-Khalya).” Rami Abadir argues that Maḥraganat is “a mixture of popular culture and subculture; it started with independent production, and was quickly assimilated by the major producers into the mainstream.”

It is worth noting that independent labels were born in reaction to the Egyptian mainstream music industry, which, as described by Nagla Rizk, is dominated by two record labels owning 95 percent of market shares. Not only do these labels have complete exclusive rights over the artists’ work, they also act as both producers and distributors through their satellite music channels. Additionally, mainstream artists are broadcasted on the radio, sold en masse in the form of CDs, cassettes and available online digitally. Due to the fact that record labels act as distributers and own their satellite channels, dissemination barriers are posed against musicians from the alternative scene. But one must contextualize this market oligarchy though, as a hefty chunk of the music consumed is not officially accounted for in the formal market due to pirating.

Maḥraganat was also able to spread through a certain instrumentalization of their sub-cultural condition, especially by Western cultural players. Places such as the French Institute in Cairo, hosted Maḥraganat concerts where the artists are represented as “victims of corruption, social segregation and lack of freedom” which they overcome by “partying.” A German channel (DW-TV) introduced them as the voice of the underground, the disenfranchised and the revolutionary. Different western media often interview the artists about their political views and the societal problems they face. Through this level of dissemination, meanwhile, the artists found ways to spread their music abroad by collaborating with European artists such as GoldieRocks or Kode9, Artwork, Faze Miyake and Pinch under the hospice of the British Council and led by RinseFM and 100Copies.

Opportunity is a marker of how Maḥraganat emerged from a subculture and managed to penetrate various spheres of mainstream consumption. With self-taught production skills using basic editing tools, and cheap technological dissemination gadgets, they spread fast in the spaces of toktoks, microbuses and weddings in low-income areas. But these conditions have not only been the features of the subcultures they come from; they have also acted as the features of their own mainstreaming, with various players from music labels, to media and cultural institutes investing in presenting them under the lens of the triumph of the disenfranchised.

[i] We made the sea tehineh and we wrote our names on it, over the waves we passed, nothing affects us

I will give you a flashlight on your eyes

You will see one thing twice

I want it to blossom in you/I want you to be of value?

I give you in the ceiling, tema7ar?

I give you on the floor, you will dig

I give you in the Jerken to park

I give you in the alleyway a cigarette

I give you to wear glasses

Give me a kiss gurl

Give me a piece gurl

My lover is wearing a hat

And tied a ribbon to his neck

And eating a piece of chocolate

And drinking mangoes with a straw

What in you is set correctly

Neither a rafraf nor a kabout work

Even the egg does not have a chick

So should we live or die

They made me smell an onion, I fainted, I couldn’t stand on my feet

The knowledge Forum: The economies of knowledge and development

A talk with Nagla Rizk, Ahmed Hussein, and Samer Attalah

“Knowledge has peculiar characteristics,” said Nagla Rizk, professor of economics at the American University in Cairo. She is also the head of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center, to which this blog belongs. Rizk was addressing a group of students, techies, lawyers, and others at Cairo’s new tech space Mushtarak in late March. It was one more convention where she laid the groundwork of important theoretical frameworks to knowledge, which have implications in different possible ways in our every day life.

“It is non rival, non excludable. Its value increases when you consume it. Think of the lighthouse, a typical public good, as the best symbol of what knowledge is and does,” she carried on. “An intellectual asset can be copied many times and has a cost value of zero,” Ahmad Hussein, a computer engineer and a second speaker at the gathering, said. Hussein sits on the boards and with the teams of several initiatives concerned with fighting barriers to knowledge availability, such as Open Egypt. He is also the initiator of the Knowledge Forum lecture series in Cairo.

These characteristics create tension when knowledge is placed in a market context, Rizk explained. What is the significance of a price tag when an additional user doesn’t affect the cost of knowledge production? And if the premise is that expanding free access is optimal, what will the market incentive be? These tensions between access and incentive are the main reasons behind the emergence of monopolies in knowledge production through proprietary intellectual property protection.

These monopolies are largely the reason behind legal, economic and technological barriers to access. Moreover, monopolistic practices challenge the natural way in which knowledge has developed through accumulation, Hussein added, shortly after he cited Isaac Newton’s famous words, “If I can see further, it’s only because I stand on the shoulders of giants” exemplifying how we have always built on preexisting knowledge.

Hussein took us from these theoretical horizons straight to their on-the-ground implications, citing the exponentially growing gap between rich and poor countries as a byproduct of how knowledge is commodified and how financial barriers prevent access to knowledge. “I don’t buy intellectual property rights, but I buy the product of intellectual property rights, which is infinite,” he explained, referring to the potentially endless production of knowledge.

In situating the conversation in Egypt, Hussein pointed to aspects of knowledge (mis)management as a key to economic sufficiency in juxtaposition to the way it is upheld in the developed world. He referred to the selling of oil and gas, which are depletable resources, for them to be manufactured abroad, just before any knowledge component has permeated them. Once processed abroad and turned into end products with a clear knowledge component, we import them again. “This means debt and dependency,” he concluded, further arguing that this is a new form of colonialism. Egypt is a major crude oil and natural gas exporter, where export deals have commonly been scrutinized by economic experts for harming the country’s national interests.

Meanwhile, mineral, chemical and oil based products represent Egypt’s top imports, followed by agricultural products and foodstuffs as Samer Atallah, the AUC-based economist who focuses on issues of trade, environment and development, put it. Atallah added that when Egypt was happy to reach US$14 billion in foreign direct investment, half of them were in the petroleum sector. “Companies come to invest large amounts of money in petrol to take it afterwards and export it. We pay the foreign partner a chunk of our petroleum and then we import it again from them in the form of petroleum products,” he said

Atallah took up the economic thread from where Hussein and Rizk left it to remind us of the three-steps to economic maturity: a. accumulation of resources, b. quality based on using technology to improve production, and c. innovation as a step that follows the exhaustion of all elements leading to quality production and the orientation toward new ways.

The Egyptian economy lies somewhere between a. and b., Atallah explained, while innovation economics is the main driver of growth in developed countries. At its heart, lies the concept of protection, Atallah said, especially with the growing volume of international trade and the placing of national products in a lot of foreign markets. This is why intellectual property regimes were developed.

International trade agreements, where patent protection is a prominent feature, are a major tool used to subdue underdeveloped economies, which often have weaker position in negotiations.

This resonated with examples cited by Hussein of how the management of knowledge in economies is key to sufficiency. For example, Alan Greenspan the Chairman of the Federal Reserve reported that 70 percent of the US’ GDP comes from intangible assets, such as patents, trademarks, business methodologies, and brands.

Moreover, research in the 1990s showed that only 3 percent of revenues coming from drug sales, which price tags emanate from IP, go to developing new ones, and 1 out of these 3 percent go toward the creation of competitive drugs. Here, pricing according to IP as a justification for the need to develop the drug industry becomes a weak argument since only a small percentage of the sales return go to research and development.

In Egypt, intellectual property rights are defended on the basis of encouraging FDI, particularly in the fields of oil, communications, and real estate.

Indeed, in one of its proclaimed economic goals, Egypt wants to place itself as one of the top 20 countries in the number of registered patents, a questionable goal from an access to knowledge perspective, Rizk opined. At the same time, anti-trust laws remain too weak to protect fair competition and resist monopolies.

As ways out of the restrictions forced on developing countries by IP regimes, Hussein brought examples of knowledge theft pursued by countries like Iran, Japan, and China by means of resisting these controls.

But a less militant avenue is to adopt policies catering to access to knowledge such as open source in the world of software production and open access in the field of research and publications. Hussein also reiterated that centering value on the human component and not the copyright is a way to shift the attention away from patent-based economies and is a call to more focus on the service sector.

Risk also spoke of the need to develop alternative business models, which is the crux of her work on the Free and Open Software industry and the music industry. Rizk added that smart use of legal spaces offered within the law and allowed by international agreements can offer legal room for expanding access to knowledge. For example, she referred to compulsory licenses, which liberate knowledge outputs from property rights so long as they are used for educational purposes.

Hussein spoke also about the need for public pressure on the government’s decision-making process, especially with regards to trade relations, exports, and imports. Rizk brought the example of the Tools Act of the 1700s Britain where machines used in the wool and silk industries and skilled labor were prevented from moving because of the knowledge embodied in them. “Today, a similar model is adopted by maximal intellectual property protection locking up embodied knowledge” she said.

The impossible development: Buying access to knowledge

Fadila Noureldin

Diego Gomez’s career as a researcher took an unprecedented turn when he was charged with violating “economic and related rights” for sharing an academic paper online. Resembling the case of Aaron Swartz, Gomez has recently been sentenced to jail for up to eight years. Gomez is a Columbian graduate student of Conservation and Wildlife Management studying in Costa Rica who needed an article but could not have access to it. The article in question was a master’s thesis that was crucial in identifying a particularly scarce amphibian species under the scope of his study, which he had been examining for several years. The article was not only central to his research but to also that of his fellow students. After finding it online, he shared it on an academic website. Subsequently, the paper’s author sued him for violating his rights. Gomez proclaimed that the article had been shared on several sites before retrieving it; but the American author was able to charge Gomez as opposed to others who had performed the same “crime” due to a reformed criminal law implemented in accordance with a trade agreement between Columbia and the United States in 2006.

“Sharing is not a crime… We are not criminals for sharing knowledge, for researching, for contributing with our efforts for the conservation of our biodiversity and the growth of science in Colombia,” Gomez wrote on his blog on the 7th of July 2014.

The fact that seminal research in his field was not adequately provided confined Gomez to saving money to periodically travel within the region to access databases, museums and biological collections he needed for studies. He also often used the Internet to fill voids of content he was not provided with in Costa Rica’s academic institutions where he worked. Gomez’s story is a case of Darwinism where knowledge is commodified and hence rendered accessible only to those who can afford access to comprehensive and high-value databases, and who accordingly can progress in their research.

Insufficient funds allocated to books and world’s major bibliographic databases are common characteristics for third world academies particularly in public universities. Egypt as a landscape of a third world country and of the co-existence of both public and private universities is no exception.

Graduates of private and rich universities are often granted free access to the world’s elite academic journals and databases such as JSTOR, Taylor and Francis and Britannica alongside many others. The American University in Cairo (AUC) is among one of the few institutions in the Arab region, which buys access rights to digital databases. However, not many academic institutions in Egypt and the region have sufficient resources to do the same for their community, which curbs the potential of research and scholarship development. Some of the largest public universities, such as Cairo University, do not provide their communities with this access. And while the Egyptian University Libraries (EUL) consortium was established in 2005 as the first consortium of academic research in Egypt that serves 12 public universities through e-resources, it is a common feature that academic institutions do not have subscriptions to important journals.

Open Access (OA) becomes the alternative for access to major journals, databases and libraries. OA contributes to widening the dissemination of research, expanding on previous work and opening windows of opportunities. This is because of its potential in removing access barriers, reducing total costs, creating global scholarly communication and dissemination and reducing barriers of participation.

As an early-career researcher, OA journals have contributed the highest value-added impact to outputs I have worked on, specifically to the course of developing the theoretical framework for my MA thesis. OA journals such as the Official Journal of Arabian Research Society for Multidisciplinary Issues, Global Economics Journal and the International Journal of Economics and Management Services have contributed to the shaping of my scholarship. Meanwhile, there are myriad incidences of inability to access crucial articles for my scope of work due to subscription fees placed on articles or login credentials requirements.

But challenges to OA are multilayered.

While advocates of OA, like the Association of Research Libraries, argue that, “increasing the exposure of scientific research through OA will maximize the public benefit,” adversaries challenge the credibility, quality, and impact of OA publications. Editorial, peer-review and technical quality of OA production is often questioned by its challengers. “To become a scholarly publisher, all you need now is a computer, a website, and the ability to create unique journal titles,” wrote Jeffrey Beall, making inferences to questionable standards of content published through OA.

But scholars have extensively probed on measuring the impact of OA journals through several indices. Of most influence are the Citation Impact Factor and the Immediacy Index, which have been used as proxies to compare impacts of OA versus non-OA academic journals. Several studies focus on testing the impact advantage of the two types, directing analyses on comparing citation counts of OA and non-OA articles in the same non-OA journals, revealing significant advantages of OA. Also, recent studies by the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI) found that traditional subscription-based journals had the same citation impact factors as OA journals. BMC Medicine investigated the impact of OA on medicine-related research to address credibility and quality and found that OA journals are, “approaching the same scientific impact and quality as subscription in journals.”

The quality of the research aside, the economic factor is a dominant challenge to OA. Publishing houses not moving towards OA argue that providing free access to research outputs through several options such as the gold-open access model, which shifts financing costs from reader to writer, does not necessarily solve research and scholarship issues. For example, shifting financing costs from reader to writer creates potential disincentives for output production from knowledge producers. Yet, some argue that paying to publish in OA outlets helps popularize their knowledge outputs, which is an incentive to producers looking for further research opportunities and collaborations.

The few institutions that have worked towards the facilitation of research and scholarship, specifically in emerging and developing economies, include Bloomsbury Academic, Hindawi Publishing Corporation of the Middle East, and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). Institutions dedicated to such work mainly focus on promoting information and online resources that provide open access to the public, in addition to the commercially published resources they may produce. Bloomsbury Academic, similar to IFLA, utilizes licenses such as Creative Commons and Bloomsbury Open to publish selected research publications provided online for free in HTML formats. Hindawi is fully focused on publishing OA content in 437 peer-reviewed journals of multidisciplinary fields.

Access is evidently not disjointed from development. With Research and Development (R&D) playing a central role in driving productivity and fostering competitiveness in the global world, barriers to access often lead to R&D failures particularly in the third world, and accordingly attempts by above-mentioned institutions to avail resources partially fills a crucial gap.

Existing literature has had controversial stances on the relationship between R&D and economic growth and development – in the types, methods and channels of R&D that fuel growth. However, what is undisputed is the ability of research to widen, expand and constantly develop the scope of knowledge, potentially bringing forth cutting-edge growth opportunities.

Specifically in the Middle East, World Bank statistics have shown disappointing figures pertaining to the region’s expenditure on R&D. In 2007, Japan spent 3.4% of its GDP on R&D; the United States spent 2.7% followed by 1.8% in the United Kingdom. By contrast, the Middle East and North Africa’s expenditure in R&D were placed well below the world average of 1%, with Egypt spending 0.2% in 2007, Kuwait 0.1%, and Saudi Arabia decreasing its expenditure from 0.1% in 2004 to 0.0% in 2007. Why are these figures so low? A contributing factor may be how these governments set their budgetary priorities; but of equal importance, is the scarcity of research and scholarship in the region hampered by critical access to the means that make research possible.

The reason for this curbed development opportunity through hampered access lies in a broader malfunctioning management of the world’s most basic resource – knowledge.

Knowledge is identified as a global public good due to its non-rivalry and non-excludability attributes. Theoretically, one individual’s consumption of knowledge does not discount other agents’ consumption of it. Yet, the malfunctioning management of knowledge has shifted its nature to become closer to private good characteristics due to potential excludability. Because of possible appropriation of returns to knowledge by its producers, in his paper Knowledge as a Global Public Good, economist Joseph Stiglitz often refers to knowledge as an “impure” public good. He illustrates such appropriation by depicting the metallurgy industry, where firms in the industry commonly use trade secrets, limiting other competitors’ knowledge of the combination mixtures and alloys utilized for production. Stiglitz intently notes that as part of the patent process, inventors must disclose details of their production process.

Other than producer appropriating knowledge dissemination, knowledge is regularly commodified as it is turned into products sold in the market. With pricing mechanisms applied, supply and demand dynamics are enforced upon knowledge production. Knowledge production becomes a dependent function of market forces, where production is based on what will most likely sell more versus what is actually needed. This incorporates the false notion of scarcity by treating knowledge as a good that erodes with increased consumption, when this is not the case.

An outcome of commercializing knowledge as a commodity of applicable scarcity is the criminalization of knowledge sharing, through rigid copyright legislations, causing Aaron Swartz’s tragic windup and Gomez’s faltering fortune. The resulting manifestation is a conditional type of knowledge sharing; contingent upon upholding “economic and related rights” of knowledge producers and distributors. As the Internet’s Own Boy puts it,

“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”

nolege is power: Rancière’s lesson in inequality

By Stefanie Felsberger

Seeing this picture of the tattoo “nolege is power” for the first time made me laugh. The message of the tattoo stood in such stark contrast with the fact that it was misspelt. But soon after I remembered a quote by Jacques Rancière in his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster where he argues that all intelligence is equal: “there are not two levels of intelligence, […] any human work of art is the practice of the same intellectual potential.” Instead of having laughed at the tattooed mistake I should have recognized its display as what it was: a lesson in inequality. Does the spelling mistake really make the quote that much less intelligent or meaningful? The correct spelling after all is nothing more than one of the tools ‘we’ – as it is explained to ‘us’ – have to acquire as academics, intellectuals, or educated people in order to be taken seriously. Essentially, it is a way of distinguishing between those who have been well educated and those who lack education, those whose minds are formed through pedagogical resources and those who have not had this experience.

Rancière refers to this distinction between different intelligences as a pedagogical myth. According to this myth, Rancière tells us, the only way to overcome the difference between a correctly spelt “knowledge” and wrongly spelt one is education and explanation. The ignorant mind (of the student) has to be guided, formed and moulded by the honed intelligence of the teacher. The teacher’s task is to disentangle a complex subject matter into smaller, simpler, better understandable elements of learning, which he transmits to the student – in “an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex.” However, Rancière postulates that explanation is not necessary to learn. Children learn by encountering a riddle, or a problem. They might stumble over random riddles and each child might learn different things at different times. Almost all teach themselves their mother tongue. He further cites the story of a class of students who taught themselves how to speak and write in French without a single grammar lesson. Through their own will to learn, they learned with the help of only a bilingual book in their mother tongue and French, and a teacher who could not explain a single thing as he was incapable of speaking their mother tongue. A teacher is hence not a pre-requisite to knowledge.

It is at school, in our encounter with the teacher, that we are made to abandon this natural way of acquiring knowledge. The teacher’s task is to make children understand and it is this very word ‘understand,’ which Rancière identifies as the culprit in dividing intelligence in two; the intelligence of an animal blindly stumbling over riddles and figuring out random things and those of a learned man, who is made to understand lesson by lesson, from the simple to the more complex. The fiction that people can seldom learn new things by themselves is created and reified by the very process of explication: by assuming his superiority over the student, the teacher creates the very inferiority his lessons are supposed to eliminate. This logic locks people into a state of dependency; instead of creating equality, it reinforces inequality. Rancière put it as such: “It is the explicant who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such. To explain something to someone is first of all to show him he cannot understand it by himself.”

What further perpetuates this pedagogical myth is also a “temporal structure of delay:” the presumed inequality is described with terms pertaining to velocity – lagging behind, backwardness or ‘underdevelopedness.’ From this temporal distinction between developed and underdeveloped, formed and unformed, arises the need to elevate and educate those lagging behind. There is not only a need to teach but also the question of how to best educate the ignorant. Knowledge in its entirety is cut up in lessons and steps, so that the ignorant can be guided and progress on their path to knowledge, in Rancère’s words, “Progress is the new way of saying inequality.”

This construction of progress transcends the logic that lies behind institutionalized education: it applies to a broader societal dynamic between the uneducated masses and the intellectual elite. Progress means the perpetual effort of the elites to educate the masses and to reduce the inequality between them. At times, the progress mind-set extends to the most progressive of causes such as labour activism and revolutionary politics. As Rancière puts it, “All kinds of men of goodwill … were preoccupied with instructing the people: rulers wanted to elevate the people above their brutal appetites, revolutionaries wanted to lead them to the consciousness of their rights, progressives wished to narrow, through instruction, the gap between the classes.”

Much of this societal dynamic owes its presence to the world of the academy, which is also a site of critique by Rancière. Since the 1970s, academia and the social sciences it produces have increasingly sought to bring to light hidden discourses, structures, and powers which all prove the existence of inequality. While intending to do the opposite, the function of these inquisitive processes is to further marginalize the marginalized. Often these academic endeavours presuppose inequality, prove it and by doing so are bound to rediscover it over and over again.

These academic constructions leave their imprint on the work of international institutions built around the ideas of development and democratization: there, the myth of inequality dominates the relation between the developing and the developed world and is mediated and perpetuated in an institutionalized form. Through this institutionalized form, development agencies shape a more or less defined goal for all countries to reach the desired progress – liberal market-based democracy. But the path there is not definitive. Early arguments stipulate a so called cruel choice for populations in underdeveloped countries, where it is deemed impossible to both progress economically and to achieve democracy at the same time. The proponent of this notion is Seymour Martin Lipset who argues that countries had to focus on social and economic progress first, as they were prerequisites for stable democracies. He sums up his argument in this statement: “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.” The argument is supported by a spread belief that a danger of focusing on democracy is found when elected governments take “economically correct and financially prudent but tough decisions,” which are not favoured by their electoral base but necessary for the economic future of the country. The argument is consolidated later by the success stories in South East Asia such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, whose former prime minister said, “what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy” (Bhagwati 1995, 51).

But the experience from Eastern Europe which both advanced democratically and economically leads to a new paradigm, especially, after it becomes apparent that many countries, which have neglected democratic endeavours, also perform poorly in terms of economic growth and development. Suddenly, democracies become better at providing a more equal, transparent inclusive society, which is less prone to the extravagance of the rulers, especially those in pursuit of national projects undertaken mostly for prestige.

This is when the relationship between development and democracy is seen as less straightforward and the debate starts to shift towards good governance, the fight against corruption, and the need to establish the rule of law – all new lessons for developing nations to learn. Yet the shift in the debate remains incarcerated in a logic where developing countries need to learn as much as possible from developed countries in order to catch up.

Today, the traditional progress-locked debates continue to exit the doors of the academy to enter the realm of practice through international development agencies. Rancière’s “temporal structure of delay” is reinforced time and again, albeit under a different cloak: first, countries must learn how to progress economically, then, to establish democratic structures, and, finally, good governance must be guaranteed, corruption weeded out and the rule of law implemented.

Instead of making assumptions around societies’ underdevelopment and backwardness, Rancière elucidates us to imagining everyone sharing the same intellectual potential. If the assumption of an equality of intelligence is the starting point, there is no need to continue to look for inequality everywhere. Equality would be a presupposition and not a goal, a practice rather than something situated firmly in the unattainable future.

On surveillance; what we do and what we have not yet done: A conversation with Jillian York

We are in Cebu, the Philippines at the Global Voices 2015 Citizen Media Summit. I grab Jillian York, director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, right before we walk into one interesting panel she moderated on online trolling.

Besides being my favorite singer on the sidelines of conferences, York works at EFF on censorship and digital security among other things. She is also on the board of Global Voices and has previously been with projects like OpenNet Initiative and Herdict at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. We talk about surveillance, privacy and the archive among other things.

Lina Attalah: What’s your reflection on the way state control on online spaces is practiced? I am interested in infrastructural control; how infrastructures of the Internet are created with embedded control mechanisms, besides the add-ons that are created in response to people’s attempt to be secure and private. So I am asking how the network is built to control, but also how control is pronounced in economic ways: Who owns the infrastructure? Who owns the submarine cables? Who has access to the switch button?

Jillian York: It’s funny we’re sitting on the table of the Web We Want. So it is the web we want versus the web that the government wants. When Saudi Arabia came online around 2000, it came pre-censored for the population. Most of the censorship was put in place and built in the infrastructure. Because they knew, as did China and a couple of other countries, the web that they wanted was one where citizens cannot use for organizing or political demonstration. They were thinking ahead in a way that a lot of western governments were not. Saudi Arabia was slightly less successful at it than China was. Although the infrastructure that the Chinese government managed to put in place was one that is incredibly capitalistic like the one in the West, it was sort of in line with their own values. So you have people who have a much more satisfying experience than populations where censorship came later. I don’t want to say that people don’t know what they are missing, but China managed to provide them with something that allows them to still feel that they have a connection to the Internet. So then you look at the US as a counter example of a country that didn’t think of these things ahead of time and where the Internet there was wild world west in the very beginning, and really up until recently, and from the Snowden revelations we know that a lot of these programs and corporations were only put in place seven or eight years ago. That is well after I was online. The infrastructural conception of the Internet in the American mindset is incredibly different than the one that the Chinese of my generation were raised with, because for the US, the Internet was intended to be free. If you look at the Declaration for Independence of the Cyber Space, the first thing it says, basically talking to capitalism and governments: you are not welcome here, this is our space. So we have this idea of being free from the confines of the state online and the Internet as this universal place where everyone is equal and then 15 years later, not only do we have that lack of freedom but both governments and corporations working together. The way this affected the Internet specifically in the US is really interesting as corporations have taken more control over politics, as well as the Internet and the way that it is being monitored. What we have now is a situation where the platforms are telling us that providing that same freedom and connectivity that we knew about almost 20 years ago is different as they are taking our data and handing them over to governments. I think that shift is fascinating. I don’t want to say that China is better. But at the same time it is an interesting contrast of what you see is what you get versus a promise that was then pulled back.

LA: Technically speaking, before we even talk about the data traveling through the pipelines, is there a structural control in the way the Internet is set up? One way to think about it is that we always tend to think of the Internet in very virtual terms. What about when we start thinking about the physicality of the Internet?

JY: A couple of days ago Samir and I did this demonstration and we took a bunch of people: one person was an email provider, one person was an Internet service provider, another person was a router and another was a computer. We had them line up and then we had an envelope. We sent it across as an email to basically give people a sense of all the nodes of control within the network. It is interesting because you don’t think of it that way. Not only do we think of the Internet as very virtual but we also think that governments are censoring us, companies are censoring us, but really it is all these different steps within the network that we don’t think about. For one, it’s not just your government that over hears you. Somebody can implant something in your router or your email provider can hand something to your government and they do it all the time. I think it is because of the way we connect to the Internet, just by pressing a button and this magical thing in the air that allows us to talk to each other. It makes it very difficult for us to conceptualize until you start to unpack it and understand how those nodes of control are operated.

LA: Following your research in the Middle East, what are your insights on trends of online control acquired and practiced by governments? For example there are remote controlling systems with specific targets and there are the more generic mass surveillance, such as what was talked about recently in Egypt regarding the government’s quest to acquire software that monitors social media platforms. Besides infrastructural control, what are newer modes of surveillance?

JY: I said for a long time that instead of mass surveillance, law enforcement has the right to and can absolutely monitor public content. In the context of incitement to violence and terrorism threats, the problem is with the rule of law; when it comes in and how it is used. You can look at France now as one good example of this. One of the cases we saw in the last days is a 16-year old arrested for a tweet. One of the Charlie Hebdo covers right after the Rabea massacre had a Muslim man holding the Quran as bullets are being fired at him and the commentary in French was the Quran won’t protect you from violence. So somebody turned this on its head and put a white man hiding behind a copy of a Charlie Hebdo as bullets are going his way and it had the same commentary: Charlie Hebdo won’t protect you from violence. Some 16 year old tweeted that image and was arrested for it. That is the parallel of open source monitoring, not that the monitoring itself is bad and I actually don’t think it is and I think it is a good alternative to invasive surveillance but the problem is that we don’t have the mechanisms or good laws to control how it is going to be implemented.

I first started researching censorship and surveillance in the region in about 2008 and there were fewer governments that censored the Internet in the region than ones that didn’t. You had your big censors like Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf, and then Syria. But then you had really weak censors or countries that didn’t censor like Morocco, Algeria and Yemen, either because they didn’t have the infrastructure or the finances to do it or because there weren’t that many people online so it was not a priority. Of course that changed and I think a lot of these governments are learning from each other. And so the first thing was the implementation of censorship, which, in many of those cases, was not expensive at all. Yemen for example was using an of the shelf filtering tool that any mother or father could buy to protect their kids for US$100 or $200 and they put that on the country’s entire network. Egypt had not tried to censor the Internet until 2011, except for a couple of instances but we knew the infrastructure was in place because of these instances, and then the immediacy with which they could block Facebook and Twitter in the revolution’s first couple of days sort of made it more apparent how powerful whatever they had was.

Mass surveillance within the region is questionable. I think you have some countries that are getting data from the US from the National Security Agency, such as Egypt and Jordan. We won’t know until the Intercept decides to tell us. But beyond that, mass surveillance probably wouldn’t be useful to these countries because they don’t have the resources or the money to actually utilize this data, just frankly as the NSA is not doing a good job there either.

Targeted surveillance is the more interesting case. I am not the expert in this and I am not able to tell which governments have used these tools like Finspy or Hacking Team. We know Egypt is one of them as well as Bahrain and the Emirates and there are others. Those countries in some cases haven’t even purchased these tools. In a couple of cases, researchers form Privacy International and Citizen Lab found that they were using sample copies. And even if they had purchased them, the cost is not that high. We are talking about $10,000 that any of these countries can easily afford.

So I think that’s definitely one of the trends now. Also the question of censorship and surveillance that result in prosecution and arrest is another thing happening. Censorship is not as interesting because people get around it as none of the censorship in the region is as sophisticated as China’s. But the targeted surveillance of public material is not as talked about.

LA: It’s interesting how in many cases of people targeted for their offline activism, their online activity is increasingly used to go after them. Now tweets are increasingly being used in courtrooms in Egypt by both prosecutors and by defense teams.

JY: I suspect that over the last years, some of laws such as the United Arab Emirates’ cyber crime law or even France’s anti-terrorism law, almost make it much easier for governments to prosecute people who are already considered threats whether because of their offline activity or for their previous online activity. I wonder if these laws are reactionary, so we know the UAE people are talking about certain things but we don’t have a law to prosecute them easily, so we put a cyber crime law where extraordinary additional penalty is used if a behavior takes place online as it is much easier to prosecute them this way than for their offline activity.

LA: How much do you feel the reaction to surveillance both in targeted and mass forms is trumping up access to knowledge? Is this proliferation of a privacy consciousness curtailing access to knowledge? How much are the concerns and the anxiety about privacy creating yet another barrier to information and knowledge production?

JY: I think a lot of the conversation in response to surveillance and especially in the US and probably in a lot of places has become so divorced from politics. It is almost as if we are talking about something that exists in a vacuum and separate from other problems. Now, you don’t have to put yourself out there and say you must use your name or you should use anonymity. If you live in a context like Venezuela, you keep hearing about people being kidnaped everywhere. In Mexico, people are getting beheaded. You might want to use these tools because putting yourself out there almost means putting yourself at the risk of death. Risking death is a lot to ask from someone. But the problem is that the dialogue around privacy tools is this techno-utopian libertarian solution to what is essentially a political problem.

LA: That’s the perfect sound byte.

JY: There are different ways to address surveillance. I list them as four: policy or politics, education, legislation, and through personal responsibility. These privacy tools are the only way you can have a personal responsibility. You can’t also solve the problem by using these tools. This comes back to the economics of this question. We are never going to have the resources that the government has. The problem is mass surveillance is really cheap. The amount of money that the Department of Defense in the US puts into surveillance compared to the amount that the State Department is putting into these privacy-enhancing tools is just massive. We are not going to win this battle through technology and so while these tools are important, if we want to talk about surveillance, we have to ask why does it exist in the first place. Governments want to control populations. But this is not what the dialogue is about right now and I think that is part of the problem. It became so personalized and individualized.

LA: Is the proliferation of a consciousness of privacy canceling out important narrative, important information? Let me give you an example. You mentioned to me once having had long encrypted chats with an activist over the years and now you have no access to these. That’s a record dropped. But there is an additional layer, which is that not only people use encryption but they actually end up not saying stuff altogether. The unsaid can be the product of privacy. That Facebook post that never gets written because people are conscious of their privacy and don’t want to give Facebook this content, for example.

JY: There are a couple of activists who really awakened my political consciousness in a way that I would never have experienced. I was 25 or 26 when I met these people and most of them are from the Arab World. A lot of the things that inform my politics and my choices right now come from those conversations and I will never be able to see them again. One of these people has passed away and I will never be able to remember the things we said. And a lot of this is done in the name of safety for certain individuals, and some of it is just because we use these tools by default. I kept every school notebook that I had somewhere in my mother’s basement but some of the best education I have, I don’t have access to anymore. I do think that a lot of the things that we are doing right now: the self-censorship, the encrypting, particularly OTR which is more ephemeral than PGP, we need to be making more careful choices about why we are using them. Maybe we need to use some of these tools to stay safe but there are some tools that allow us to access this info and keep them encrypted across the wires. There is a balance that we are not finding right now because we are not thinking about this. Those who develop the tools and those of us who use this kind of advocacy aren’t thinking about it that way.

LA: I am just coming from a place where I feel there is very little I can do right now especially in this state of defeat we’re in so I get concerned with producing our history, our archive. I always feel the archivist is missing from the conversation or the consciousness of the archive is missing from the conversation about privacy.

JY: This actually came out when Alaa Abdel Fattah was released the last time. I was surprised to get a ping from him the day he was out of prison. He asked if I had any contacts in Yahoo. He needed to have access to his father’s emails as his father had just passed away and the family wanted access to his email. We talked to a couple of people and it seems that the law would allow for that through the inheritance of communication but not in the US. And so when I spoke to the company, they said they had to follow US law on this and they couldn’t get us the information. Now the reason he wasn’t able to get to the email in the first place is that he had taught his father to use strong passwords and to change them often and his father had done that. The best possible end for a sad story like this is when I asked whether he tried the “forgot password” and it turned out that it sent a message to his father’s phone; they were able to get the email and it was a simple solution at the end. It was interesting for me to understand those two different legal paradigms. In the US, your email remains private even after you are dead. In the US, privacy is important but it is there in the order of magnitude after free speech in the Constitution and it hasn’t been upheld in the same degree as free speech has. The idea is that your mail is private after your death is really surprising to me. I would like to leave some kind of access behind. Aaron Swartz did that when he committed suicide. He had this plan to have people access his archives.

LA: Final thought: how productive is it to talk about law enforcement given what we’ve seen? Is there enough justification for it such as fighting crime, hate speech? Have we seen a model where law enforcement was a good justification for surveillance?

JY: This is a hard one. When I think of law enforcement I think of police and only think about it in the context of the society we live right now not the society in which I would want to live. But, if we were to talk about it in the context of this society or structure of government, the only semi positive example that I have is a really strange case. Maybe you heard of this thing in the Netherlands Party x. That’s an interesting one where the police were able to stop a girl’s house from being completely invaded by hundreds of people because they saw this happening on social media. But that’s in the context of protecting children, which is one of the only and one of the most careful justifications that I have ever found for surveillance. It’s a justification for a very targeted, very carefully implemented surveillance. In the society that we want, we cannot just rely on old ideas of community policing as opposed to authoritarian law enforcement because in such a distributed world, these ideas are not possible. Why aren’t we talking about what we do want? What does this ideal society look like? In terms of the positive uses, this is a reminder for myself to look for more of them and use them in my own construction of what that society looks like.

Exploring knowledge and innovation in Africa

By Nagham El Houssamy

‘Africa is not a uniform continent; it is rich in diversity.’ This pivotal statement was always on my mind while working with the Open African Innovation Research and Training Project (Open A.I.R.). Since 2011, Open A.I.R. has surveyed different intellectual property (IP) systems that govern knowledge production in Africa and explored how they can be utilized for open innovation and collaborative creativity.

With 53 countries, why does the world’s second largest continent lag behind in metrics associated with knowledge and innovation? Simply put, the inadequacy lies in the tools used to assess and measure knowledge and innovation coming out of Africa. Knowledge and innovation coming out of Africa, most of which are informal in nature, escape the mainstream avenues through which measurement takes place. This is further explored in Open A.I.R.’s two publications Innovation and Intellectual Property: Collaborative Dynamics in Africa and Knowledge and Innovation in Africa: Scenarios for the Future.

The first publication is a compilation of 14 case studies across nine African countries giving insights to the linkages between innovation and IP in different settings. Some of the themes explored in the case studies include the relationships between innovation, entrepreneurship and knowledge management in the informal economy, geographical indication trademarks as a branding tool according to products’ place of origin, and traditional knowledge and collaborative innovation. Additionally, the publication includes two case studies from Egypt. One case study surveyed the Egyptian independent music scene and the distribution and marketing of copyrighted creative works via online open licensing and “freemium” models, while the other examined patenting and innovation in the biofuel technology sector in Egypt.

In parallel to these insights, the foresight scenario publication includes three distinct yet interrelated plausible futures for IP in Africa, keeping in mind the diversity of the continent. I will explore how to maneuverer the knowledge maze in these three scenarios: “Wireless Engagement,” “Informal- the New Normal,” and “Sincerely Africa”.

“Wireless Engagement” speaks to the countries and communities in Africa where formal enterprises exist, interrelated with the global service economy. In this scenario, knowledge and innovation are formalized and protected, whether via copyrights, patents, trademarks or industrial designs, thereby creating an environment that is attractive to foreign investors. One existing example of such an environment is Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah” situated in Nairobi, which has flourished as a result of the success of Kenya’s mobile phone money transfers. Thus, “Wireless Engagement” witnesses a spur of measurable African innovation and economic growth. But, as foreign influence and globalization become very apparent on the continent, they are also evidenced by the loss of local traditions and conformity with Western lifestyle. Meanwhile, those who are geographically remote from the hubs of modernization and thus are unable to adapt to the fast pace of technology will be marginalized. Out of the three Open A.I.R. scenarios, “Wireless Engagement” would most favorably place Africa is the global rankings for knowledge and innovation. This is the scenario with the least walls and hidden avenues to the global knowledge arena, where most knowledge and innovation conform to the formalized understanding of IP.

In a parallel world, “Informal- the New Normal” is a futuristic scenario characterized by informal knowledge governance in Africa, with innovations of necessity dominating. In this world, improvisational, small-scale businesses rely on informal IP mechanisms such as trust, interpersonal networks, customer loyalty and first-mover advantage. The formal economy in this case functions more as a support structure to the dominant informal economy. Relationships play a key role in this scenario, and those who are unable to establish local ties will be sidelined. In a case study from Uganda, Dick Kawooya found that informal automotive artisans were developing innovations tailored to address local problems, relying on a system of apprenticeship and mentoring. As in the world of “Informal- the New Normal,” the informal sector innovation in Uganda’s ‘Gatsby Garage’ is hidden in unexplored avenues and behind walls and thus unaccounted for in global metrics.

“Sincerely Africa” narrates the story of those African communities and countries that have retained their traditional practices and livelihoods, opting to remain disparate from the globalized world order. In one of Open A.I.R.’s meetings, I suggested “Sincerely Africa” as the title for this scenario. In my view, the phrase “Sincerely Africa” is a closing line of a letter to the rest of the world, celebrating the complexity and diversity of the continent and shunning those who wish to change it and influence its cultural traditions. In this scenario, African innovation takes the form of traditional knowledge (TK) and inter-generational cultural practices. “Sincerely Africa’s” IP is mainly culturally grounded as a preservation mechanism for sustainable resource management and to safeguard against the misuse of their TK. Community roots and shared identities bind societies in this world. Collaborative mechanisms of IP are in line with the strong familial and community ties. A glimpse of the world of “Sincerely Africa” can be found in South Africa’s Kukula traditional health practitioners, examined by Gino Cocchairo, Johan Lorenzen, Bernard Maister, and Bretta Rutert. These healers have developed an associated bio-cultural community protocol to govern the use of their knowledge. For outsiders, TK represents a secret avenue behind many walls. Research undertaken by Open A.I.R. aims to tear down these walls and explore IP approaches that strike a balance between the protection of innovative ideas with information-sharing and open access to knowledge.

Given the diversity of Africa, more than one of these Open A.I.R. scenarios could exist in the same setting at the same time. In fact, elements of each of these scenarios already coexist in many African nations. The importance of these scenarios is in highlighting the hidden avenues of knowledge and innovation in Africa. By shedding light on what the future could hold, the scenarios aim to guide policy makers to make informed decisions about knowledge and innovation policies that reflect the realities of Africa.

There is a scarcity in research on Africa done by scholars, academics, and practitioners from the continent. In an effort to address this, Open A.I.R. has created a growing network that has brought together more than 36 researchers from 14 African countries to examine access to knowledge for open innovation. It is my belief that although underlined by common threads, research like the one conducted under the Open A.I.R. umbrella, should always have a contextual basis. Africa is not a country, and research originating from the continent should always focus on exploring Africa’s diversity and uniqueness.

Security; a history and multiple challenges: A conversation with Sherif El-Kassas

Sherif El-Kassas teaches computer science at the American University in Cairo. He has been researching issues of security management and open sources technologies. In this conversation with Lina Attalah, he talks about the history of security, the incentives around it, the large spectrum that exists between being a low hanging fruit for security threats and being secured and tensions surrounding state breaches of users’ privacy.

Lina Attalah: Let’s start with a history of when security became an issue since the introduction and the expansion of the IT sector in this country. Who started thinking about it? Was it the state? Businesses? Users?

Sherif El Kassas: Let me a take a step backward and think of the history of security and computing. This is old history in general. Security in the sense of securing messages and communications is very old and goes back to Ancient Egypt, Julius Cesar, etc… It matured in the 1970s.

In modern times, where we had cyber something in phone networks, the interest in securing communications was primarily from the military. The business interest wasn’t there. Obviously in times of war, you don’t want the enemy to know what you are saying to each other. So people started to invent different ways to encipher messages. Originally it started with enciphering texts on pieces of paper, and then it became online, radio communications, telegraphs and so on. At that time, there was a deep history of how encryption and its tools are top secrets, while stories of betrayal and backdoors are as old as the industry itself. One of the famous stories is that during World War Two, the Germans had the so-called Enigma Cipher, which the Allies have broken with the help of some Polish and British scientists in Cambridge. They never announced that they broke it. But after World War Two, some British and Italian companies started selling the Enigma Cipher as if it is unbreakable. Thirty years later, the documents are made public and it was a bit of a scandal when that happened. This is a case of what the legal people call the caveat antonym, which means you should know what you are buying. Ever since then, when computers became widespread and also used in military and police intelligence, security became an issue. It no longer became an issue of enciphering messages when they are transferred, but computers held important data and there was a question of who has access to it.

So as early as 1975, solid design principles of secured systems came out. Cryptography advanced in huge leaps. The fundamentals of that science were out there. To some extent, this tradition of security carried into the other applications of computing. When you started using general purpose computers, particularly multi- user computers, this idea of securing and protecting people’s data started to rise, not as a military application but as a business application, because now you have bank accounts, and the need for privacy and protecting information, authenticity and so forth. It’s been coined in the three-letter C.I.A.; not the intel agency, but as in confidentiality, integrity and authenticity. Another “a” has been added, which is availability and which has become a big issue. Ever since that time, security has been evolving very rapidly and a lot of people have been studying it.

Up till the turn of the century, 2000 or so, most of the focus was on technical work and trying to solve security’s technical problems: Developing better algorithms, better encryption, better implementation, figuring out why we can’t build proper systems, but there was always this realization that security is not a technical issue only. There is a people factor and a lot of other factors. In 2000, a group of scientists started looking into security economics. It is not an issue of studying the expenses of security. This is an issue of applying ideas from micro-economics and information economics into security to study things like incentive and motivation, because the technical platform doesn’t help you answer these questions. Observations have been that failures of security have resulted because people who are responsible for security don’t lose much if security fails. So the question of incentives and human behavior is becoming more important now.

It’s been 14 or 15 years since the first conference that discussed these issues. This idea has not just expanded to economics, but also to applications of sociology, psychology and so forth. In today’s world, most people think that you can’t fix security by just fixing the technical problems. So you can’t fix security by getting a better encryption algorithm, or a better operating system and so forth. Those things are necessary for sure. But they are not sufficient. You have to look at the bigger picture; the socio-technical enclave that includes people, machines and everything in between. If one looks at modern attacks against systems, like hacking attempts, you will often observe that they typically follow three dimensions: there are physical attacks where someone breaks into your office and steals your hard disc and leaves. There are technical attacks where someone hacks into your computer because of a weakness in it. And there are social attacks where someone convinces you to do something you are not supposed to do, either by coercion, bribe or deception. If you think about it, you cannot really solve security without looking at these three dimensions.

So this brings us to the really important question, which is how do you fix privacy in this world? The other challenge facing security, I think, is our general computing needs. It has always been the case that usability and utility trump security. For example, there is a group of crazy Dutch people on the web that created something called Please Rob Me who decided to exploit weaknesses in how people tweet. So you know how people tweet, they say their locations and say that they are at work, left work, went for coffee, gone home and done this and that. So those guys use public tweets to track people and those who have geographic information, they actually mapped how distant they were from their home, or the office and so forth and as soon as it matches a certain criteria, they would post something like X’s home is free so you can rob it because he is two hours away. Now thankfully, those guys have shut down their service. They only keep their archive and they keep a service: You can give them a Twitter account and they can tell you how bad or well; configured it is. But this brings the message home that if you are blinded by the utility of it, you don’t understand the implications of the other side. There are very profound societal implications for our use of technology and perhaps people like me and technologists are guilty because we are just driven by the excitement of being better, bigger and more advanced. But the implications of how these technologies impact society are not very clear, most of the time, and often just an afterthought, when something goes terribly wrong. Of course the Please Rob Me example is just a joke. But you can imagine what a determined attacker can do and you can imagine the amount of information that is mined about each and everyone of us because of how we use the cloud and because of the incentives associated with this use on both sides.

This study of incentives is very interesting because if you look at companies’ perspectives versus users’ perspectives, a lot of people have made the observation that to Facebook, Google and all the others, we are not the customers, we are the products. And the customers are the advertisers in these companies. It can be a win win situation because they do offer good services that we like using but we have to understand where do we draw the line of where our privacy ends or begins.

LA: And with us becoming the product and the advertisers being the customers, is there a tension by default around the viability of security in the sense of privacy to this economic model, since data and information are core to the product?

SK: The only way to make companies do what’s right to all parties is to have a legal framework. That creates another incentive for us and they have to comply by it to grow users. You need the societal rules because society chooses that privacy is important, so laws are passed to reflect that and companies have to comply. If you are a member of many of the clubs in Cairo you’ll notice how they use members’ data, which is just incredible. The amount of spam you get on your phone is incredible. There is no rule to protect information. It’s the same thing unless somebody sets the rules. It also creates an alternative, because competitors can create a better Facebook because it complies more with privacy. So security can create a dimension for competition. But this requires awareness at the client side.

LA: That’s probably why the alternatives are not picking up, no?

SK: People don’t care most of the time. Convenience trumps security. Actually, often times, mediocrity trumps excellence in IT just because it is more convenient. There is a lot of debate about open source versus closed source for security and which works better. It turns out to be mostly a question of incentives. If you competed in the product market in the beginning of the 1990s which is dying out anyways today, it would be in your interest to get a product as quickly as possible out there because you want to capture more clients and when you capture them they become your network so you build on them. There are so many benefits from doing that. The question of quality can be an afterthought. The prototype of this story is Microsoft because of how they manage their strategy with product quality and security. I don’t mean this as a bash against them, because this is perfectly rational behavior. They want to capture the maximum of the market, and they are, so they are doing their job. So it’s up to us to do our job to create a counter incentive.

LA: If we take this conversation to the local context, and the heavy political framing to it with the state’s ongoing quest to practice control over people’s lives and information. How has this quest by the state been practiced? I am not talking just about surveillance software which is more recent, but also infrastructural control of the businesses providing online access, the fiber optics, the submarines cables, etc?

SK: This is a very old debate. I need to take a step back to put some context to it. There is something very common across all governments of the world, which is the need for the so-called lawful interception. The idea is, if criminals can do their business online, then the state has to be able to catch them and to collect evidence against them. So every telephony device built was designed with lawful interception enabled to them. No body likes to talk about that because it is a backdoor essentially. People don’t like to advertise backdoors because they think others will find out and exploit them. In fact, people have consistently found backdoors and exploited them even of legal interception, which is a big technical problem. Often times, these backdoors are hidden or protected by obscurity. Obscurity as a security philosophy doesn’t work very well because any failure is a complete failure.

This debate of the need for surveillance is an old one and is rooted in other parts of the world. In France for sometimes, it was illegal to use cryptography. In the US, it was illegal to export cryptographic software. In those times, they were called crypto wars, because it was human rights versus the state. Some observers feel that we live in crypto wars again because there is this renewed fear that the civilian cryptography has become so good that you cannot really break it in an easy way. So manufacturers won’t create backdoors in technology to be able to offer lawful interception. In the old days, lawful interception was easy because there was no encryption and you had to go to the phone switch, so a couple of wires would be installed on the line and you can listen to the calls. Now it is more complicated, everything is in software, it can be easily well encrypted, so you can either get into the end points, so instead of going to the switch, you go to someone’s phone or computer, or you have some backdoor in the infrastructure that enables you to capture the message.

Of course there are good reasons to want to have the police and other legal bodies listen to criminals’ calls. On the other hand, you don’t want it to be abused because too much power will eventually corrupt any person. There is not any clear answer to this problem. The issue is that you often solve these problems by having oversight and scrutiny. Whenever the police do lawful interception, you require a court order for it. But, ultimately, if someone is at the top of the power ladder, there is little scrutiny over them. The idea is that you want to make sure that when you have lawful interception or the equivalent of it, you want to place it at the right level of classification so you have enough scrutiny. So you don’t take everything to national security top-secret level, but you need to try to balance the power. How exactly, that’s of course very difficult because every country has its own approach, but also has broken its own rules. I am sure you are very mindful of the Snowden revelations and this systematic effort to backdoor everything on the planet. There is a lot of redundancy in what Snowden has revealed, and that redundancy is very telling of the scale of the power of this machine. Before that of course there was the famous so called Echelon project or the network of English-speaking nations around the world, probably, a relic of World War Two, but that continued and evolved; eavesdropping on every piece of communication all over the world. That I guess is the big picture.

You might have seen the movie Starman. In one of it, there is this conversation, between the starman and an earthling, and at the end of it, the starman concludes “I think you are a very primitive species.” So we still build silos around countries. We still fight about pathetic things and as a result, there is always this need for an advantage. If you are the major technology superpower like the US, you want your advantage. It is a very rational behavior. You then build all the tools that can give you whatever advantage you need. And this ripples down to everything: businesses, individuals at work, state police and intelligence agencies. We are still competing at that level. That’s the fact of life; we have that type of competition and we have those types of incentives. Being too naïve about it doesn’t help. Some of those competitions and competitive attitudes create a balance that is necessary for progress in general. At every level, people or entities will look at advantages to try to get to information. Those might be legal, like in a typical legal framework, or might be state-driven to compete with other states or to curb internal unrest. Basically, the gloves are off, there are not many controls.

At the technology level, I think it is almost impossible to stop a determined adversary with enough resources to get into your data. You can make their job very difficult, but it is almost impossible. You know I encrypt my hard drive. I do my homework. But I leave my computer here because I have to go to my lectures, somebody comes in, installs a hardware and log on to it, I am not going to know. The next day he is going to collect it and he is going to have all my data. There is very little I can do about it. Somebody really determined can infect the software update sources I update my system from, and the next update will actually contain a virus. Somebody who is really determined can write a virus that can escape all the known anti-virus tricks because it is just brand new, it is written for me only and the person who wrote it is an expert and can bypass control. So it becomes really difficult. I am not trying to promote excessive paranoia.

We often think of security as extremes, I am either secure or not secure. And if you think of those extremes, it’s not going to work out very well. It becomes like you have to stay at home and not do much in your life. But in fact, as we do in life in general, we have to assess risks intelligently and decide what’s appropriate and what’s not. Every time we get into the car and press the breaks we are not sure it is going to work but we accept it as a reasonable risk because it works 99 percent of the time. So that seems like a reasonable compromise for us to move around. We have to able to perform this risk assessment that we do in life in our choices of technology to decide what’s appropriate. If something is incredibly important, you have to go to the bank yourself and do it, unless you can accept the risk of loosing a few thousand pounds for an online transaction. You shouldn’t try to buy into the illusion that any of them is a perfect choice.

This is also an added difficulty with risk assessment in technology. In general we are trained to do risk assessment in the natural world, which is made out of physics and we grew in it and understand how gravity works, and so on. So, it’s fairly intuitive. Now, when you come to take decisions based on technology, we often use our knowledge, our physics mindset, but in a world that is not governed by the same rules. If you are standing outside my door, the only way to come in is either you have the key or I open the door for you. The physical constrains stand there. If you are standing in front of a network gateway, if you think in the same way, you will probably be wrong, because to be in you probably have to change your address. So changing a number changes your state completely from being inside of a room to being outside it or vice versa and this is hard to do because it requires an understanding of the underlying technology. This is actually a criticism of technology and not of the users because not everyone has to have a degree in computer science to be able to figure out the risk associated with technology. How we build technology for users has missed this dimension of helping them make intuitive decisions about security. One of the common examples is when you go to a website, that is HTTPS that is authenticated, you get a warning message saying there is something wrong with this site’s certificate, do you want to continue? Yes or no? Most people just want to continue because the implications of continuing are totally beyond them. They don’t understand that by continuing, they are opening up this door of attacks.

In 2003, a group in the US called the Computing and Research Association came together to coin the so-called 10-year challenges for computer security and one of the challenges were building systems that users can understand and make proper decisions about them. The other challenge was to get rid of epidemics, viruses, denial of service attacks and so on. Another one was building design principles in software engineering so we can build societal applications in which security we are confident. A final one was applying security economics in a meaningful way. Now the 10 years have expired and I think we need 10 more years. So we are still very faraway.

LA: What you are saying is very interesting in the local context where some of the discussion on security is reduced to the binary of being secure and non-secure, particularly in the context of online activists, some of whom promote security as a lifestyle and an expression of being geeky, while others recognize this impossibility of being totally able to protect yourself, which translates into resisting the security discourse altogether and articulating a counter discourse of assertiveness around the information provided online.

SK: Ultimate security is probably impossible. But reasonable security is possible. Judging it is your own personal assessment exercise. Often times, you can draw it as a triangle. At its top, there is the high security level. Anyone who is a civilian can have no hope in reaching that level of security. But you don’t want to be down there as well, because down here you get these random attacks. Down here is every one who is a computer user. Down here is a person who doesn’t have an updated anti-virus, or who doesn’t update their passwords. You don’t want to be at the bottom of that pyramid. You want to be somewhere in the middle. And to be here, you will need to follow some best practices such as making sure you don’t use somebody else’s computer to log on to your email. Following best practices is a good idea because they put you in this medium level. Even in that level, there is a huge distance of deciding what to do. For example, I don’t use Facebook at all. That’s a measure I opted for. Am I really better off? AUC email is on Google and Google knows my birthday, even though I didn’t input it myself. So you have to figure out what that level you want to be at and that’s an important exercise, especially if you have privacy concerns. The two sides of this triangle are adversaries versus who you are.

It seems now that the state of the art of cyber interception is focused on two things: passive interception, which means listening to network traffic and trying to decrypt it, and end point interception, which means someone deploys a device or an agent on your machine or your phone and listens to what you have. I don’t know this as a piece of information, but I am pretty much sure that all governments around the world have invested in these technologies and so has Egypt. Companies are agents of these pieces of software, so they sell and by law you can only sell it to governments. It is a no brainer to know that everyone has these tools and is actually using them. Now, again, everyone targets the low hanging fruit. So if you are the low hanging fruit, then tough luck.

It seems now everyone is depending on Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) for encrypting connections, Transport Layer Security (TLS) depending on who you talk to, so it’s a lot of effort going into intercepting SSL and TLS. I would assume that these efforts can be made successful because there are so many ways to attack trust. Trust is another huge issue. SSL is based on an assumption of trust between systems. And this trust stems from an authority that gives you a certificate. What if I am powerful person? I can go to the certificate authority and tell them give me one that says I am Google or Lina or whatever. If they are obligated to do so by law, I am going to have a legal certificate, but you can’t tell the difference between it and any other one. Therefore the deception would be perfect. When you think you are talking to your favorite site, you are actually talking to what cryptographers call the man in the middle. There is no way to detect that. If you want to make it slightly harder, you have to make a second layer of encryption on top of those messages. But this by necessity is an arms’ race. As soon as too many people start encrypting their messages, it will be realized that too many people are using this tool on top of SSL so we have to figure out how to intercept or to have smart end point agents so we can collect the data before it is encrypted.

LA: Is there a tension between encryption and the archive? Do you worry about the disappearance of the record with more drive for encryption or more generally its absence because of more security consciousness?

SK: For sure there are also so many tensions in that area. If you lose the key to decrypt the data than you have lost all the data. There is also an interesting crime called taking data hostage. So let’s say I am unhappy with AUC, so I encrypt the grades and leave and say unless you pay me that much money, I will keep the key to the grades. There are some viruses that do that. Even people not talking out because of their security consciousness is a huge problem. As soon as people get rattled about their security, a lot of other useful ideas get out of the door unfortunately.

LA: To finalize, what’s your main observation about the evolution of the security mindset in Egypt on the two fronts: the state and the user?

SK: Let me start by the user front. People are aware much more than five years ago of the issues of security. They are worried about security, hacking, keeping their phone private. There is also a lot of misinformation. There is a lot of what cryptographers call snake oil, something that cures everything but doesn’t do anything really. There is a lot of awareness but there is not much security practice. You can see that best practices are not practiced at all. Even though best practices only help you 60 to 70 percent of what you need to do but if you don’t do them, you are at the bottom of that pyramid.

LA: And it is mostly connected to incentive as you said. So you will find more best practices in the banking sector for example.

SK: It is interesting. The banking sector really pulled their act when Visa and MasterCard put their foot down and said here is a standard called PCI DSS and if you don’t follow it, you pay more money for credit card service. But in fairness, the Central Bank of Egypt is doing a great job now because they built the national standards which I think will have a really good impact in years to come.

For the state, I think it is at multiple levels. If you look at government offices, a lot of them need to do more work. The security is terrible. The perception is that because it is not all automated. But a lot needs to be done. There aren’t very clear standards for government security. To do that, you just need to create the incentive. Some laws have been passed like the telecom act and the e-signature law as well. I think we need much more than that like general IT security for governments. And there have also been some interesting bodies established. For example at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, there is the Egyptian Computer Emergency Response Team, which receives calls and information about cyber security. It is hosted in the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority because it is supposed to support the telecom industry at large. I think there should be similar entities for the banking and other sectors as well. It is a start and they have some very good people who are doing some good work. But it is not really enough. There must be a top down mandate that says that you have to be compliant with this standard set if you want to use a data center inside your government office and here is how you do it. But this is very expensive and there needs to be a political will to actually do it.

Law enforcement has made a lot of progress in areas like forensics, recovering data and evidence. I know for a fact that everybody has interest in cyber security both on the defensive and the offensive level. Just by guessing companies that sell software like FinFisher, we know for a fact that somebody is buying this stuff, and using it for some reason or the other. It is expected and normal to find out that these guys have these tools and using them. This example is for end users tools. There are other things for intercepting traffic basically playing tricks on SSL.

LA: Are there tensions between the legal measures taken up by the state with regards to security and users’ quest to protect their security in our context? For example, you refer to the Telecom Act, which prevents users from deploying encryption, which means that by being security conscious, we engage with multiple unlawful acts everyday.

SK: It is unfortunate and I am hoping this can be revised at some point. I heard some talk that there is a plan to do that. What we really need in this country is more transparency in these issues, oversight and proper scrutiny of all these practices. I think if we have enough of those, we can find an acceptable compromise. We need to catch dealers who understand that we have to put those records of surveillance somewhere. We have to know exactly how many people have been eavesdropped on and why, even if we don’t know it before hand, it should be published later on. There should be somebody whose responsibility is to make sure this stuff is published, so that by scrutinizing your work we make sure that you are doing the right thing and not just twisting people’s arms. I think this argument can be made and can be listened to. I think it will take a lot of time to make it happen, here and elsewhere, but here we have more ground to cover.

There is a level beyond which the state will be doing it without telling you that they are doing it. The idea is that you don’t want everything to be at that level. You want things that are really country critical through national security to be at that level. Everything else should be subject to scrutiny. There are so many models for scrutiny and governance.