Shanghai and Small Mercies

May 17th, 2011|

The Bund, Shanghai

Just arrived in Shanghai this afternoon and checked in to a lovely hotel on the The Bund and overlooking the Huangpu river. You see the view from my room above. Quite nice.

First impressions of Shanghai is nothing short of “wow” mixed in with “oh shit!” and an occasional “daaaaamn!”. Let me explain:

From the air, the city looks very modern as evidenced by the factories, parcels of land, channels, and other man made structures. Tidy, clean, modern and spiffy. This is further strengthened when you land in their airport – which must be one of the quietest in the world, and certainly one of the best organised. We were off the airplane, through a very orderly immigration line and onward to collect the bags without a hitch whatsoever. I was worried that my luggage will be lost as my connection in Doha was a mere 40 minutes, but Qatar Airways came through again, and the flight was quite pleasant. Bags of space, but the food, unfortunately, was terrible. Can’t complain too much though, I’ve had a solid 7 – 8 hours of sleep!

Back to China. I’m here as part of a delegation from the EO Bahrain chapter for a Global Leadership Conference. I’ve arrived a day early but fortunately an EO colleague and friend, Faisal Alireza, was on the plane with me. He had the foresight to book a car to take him to the hotel and offered me a ride, which was very kind, but my much anticipated MagLev experience will have to wait for a few days. Off we went in a latest model Merc limo, which was the cause of the “oh shit!” experience.

The roads from the airport are modern, wide, well routed with nary a bloody roundabout or traffic light in sight. You would think that one would generally put the foot down and compete with the 8-minute-431kph-ride of the MagLev to town. But, human nature comes between that ideal and reality. The driver was amicable enough, but boy he must’ve been completely understanding of Schumi “nudging” Villeneuve in that Australian F1 race to get his racing line! And he’s not alone! Drivers here across the board – yes, I’m generalising – are bonking mad! Their over-riding mantra seems to be I’m in a hurry and to hell with everyone else. They’re driving ultra-expensive cars haphazardly and if they don’t see gaps to squeeze their cars into, go ahead and create the blasted things! They do signal though, and as everyone knows, if one does signal, then one DOES have the right of way! Does that remind you of Bahrain? Of course it does, but to be completely fair, I suggest that we’re a few notches better than the drivers here. Drivers in Shanghai take a gap as a challenge: if you don’t take it then you’re a pussy.

We arrived at the hotel. Absolute luxury that would put the Ritz in Bahrain and other luxury hotels in the Gulf to shame. Half the staff seem to be waiting outside to welcome guests – with smiles! – unbelievable! Get into the lobby to be once again received with smiles and clear professionalism. The check-in process took under five minutes and up to the room I went to be greeted with the view you see above. Not bad.

I was looking forward to check in with the office, pay attention to the email, and the usual haunts before I hit the shower, so out comes the laptop and connected to the wireless Internet without a hitch. The price per day is reasonable enough and the happy thing about it is that it is FAST! Unfortunately, I discovered soon enough that that speed is a trade-off. My usual haunts of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube amongst probably other social media networks is blocked! Damn and double damn.

Might as well get the chisel and tablet out for the duration then, speed or no speed… the Internet here is severely crippled. Thank “godness” that we haven’t reached that stage back home yet.

Small mercies I guess…

The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens?

April 6th, 2011|

Thanks Robert!

“It’s a snafu, honest!”

January 6th, 2011|

BAHRAINI authorities yesterday claimed to have blocked a number of websites and blogs by mistake.

The Information Affairs Authority (IAA) claimed a technical error resulted in blocking of several sites, but said in a statement it was fixing the problem.

[...]

She said her site www.sillybahrainigirl.blogspot.com was blocked on Tuesday after being incorrectly categorised as pornographic, but she was told during a meeting at the IAA yesterday that it would soon be accessible.

GDN

Oh yes, we believe that. What’s worse I wonder, their ignorance of how the Internet filters work after spending tens if not hundreds of thousands of Dinars on them, leaving these systems to be configured and run remotely by a foreign power, or this blatant convoluted lie they’ve thrown into the press this morning quoted within the same article above that:

“The increasing number of blogs and websites indicates freedom of expression in the country,” it said.

Huh? There are almost no bloggers left! They’ve either migrated to Facebook or Twitter or evaluated the situation far too tenuous, fickle and dangerous to continue to expose their personal thoughts especially after the apprehension and alleged torture of our dear friend Ali Abdulemam?

If they did really respect freedom of expression, Ali Abdulemam would have never been apprehended, and the thousands of sites blocked at their whimsical behest would have been unblocked. So spare us the violins, we’ve heard this broken record over and over again.

But then wait… while the Information Authority (neé Ministry of Disinformation) is “doing us a favour” and unblocking Amira’s blog, their next door neighbour (by coincidence of course!) the information intelligence agency, which is imaginatively named the Central Informatics Organisation / CIO – has come out in a press conference reported in the very same paper today assuring us that it spending BD800,000 in creating a “single login architecture” for every citizen wishing to access the various government websites and services, will be presumably secure enough too, and hopefully not require too much remote tweaking by the Singaporean vendors.

BD800,000 – that’s 2.1 million greenbacks to the uninitiated – will solve a problem which has never existed! Talk about fixing something that ain’t broke.

I guess as the new new National Authentication Framework – aka, NAF (seriously? did they even look up this unfortunate acronym up?)’s going to:

“The whole purpose of this project is to unify e-services by providing a single authentication profile for users,” Cabinet Affairs Minister Shaikh Ahmed bin Ateyatala Al Khalifa told a Press conference at the Mšvenpick Hotel yesterday.

I thought we had the much vaulted CPR number for that, didn’t we? Or is that old hat now and requires some re-engineering, maybe put in yet another uber-spy-chip to make us feel even more secure? What’s wrong with us using our CPR numbers to access those so called services? Didn’t they spend a humengous amount with yet another foreign firm to bring out these new chipped CPR cards which were supposedly going to be the be-all and end-all for personal transactional processing, even – listen to this – using the card to log in to services using the very same chip introduced?

Whatever.

We’ll probably see these schemes mentioned in next year’s Audit Report… along with yet another brand new unneeded scheme dreamt up by the CIO (or a good salesman maybe) to the tune of hundreds of thousands of Dinars.

Another site blocked in Bahrain

January 4th, 2011|

With the strange blocking of Silly Bahraini Girl, I can no longer speculate as to what the government’s policy, standards or strategy employed other than a heavy handed approach in stifling speech and them hoping – or actually believing – that such methods actually work in this day and age.

Amira Al-Hussaini’s blog’s content is varied but none of it threatens national security. Unless of course the escapades of Persian kittens are constituted as such!

Amira is one resounding voice in and of the Arab world. Being the Regional Editor for the Middle East and North Africa for Global Voices, a published Huffington Post contributor, she has a resolute finger on the pulse of the Arab world. Apart from her being previously a journalist for some 17 years with the Gulf Daily News, the English language national daily in Bahrain, one would be hard pressed to find a better person to represent Bahrain as well as the larger Arab world. As to her character, all one needs to do is read some of the comments her readers enter on her articles, or read what her peers think of her. Apart from her writing, she is frequently involved in international symposiums and workshops as a leading feminist, journalist and writer.

So one is put to task to think of a logical reason for such a move by the government. Is it a genuine mistake by a functionary who wrongly entered this particular blog into the burgeoning blocked sites list? Or is it another concerted effort at censorship? Or is this a message being sent to Amira: be careful! The problem is, when they block a site, they never tell the webmaster, blogger or author why the block has happened. And why should they? Legally, they do not have to explain their reasoning to anyone. All it takes is a ministerial order. There is no reason to use the legal framework that this country continues to do a big song and dance about. They don’t need to get authorisation from a public prosecutor nor do they need to submit reasons to a judge. The fallacy of a “state of laws and institutions” continues, and because of this oft-repeated statement, the lie is transformed into an abject truth. Freedom of expression be damned, and so are human rights.

However, assuming the best and giving the government the benefit of the doubt, again, I clicked on that link to submit a request for unblocking the site, and entered my reasons for doing so:

Hoping for the best, a clicked the “Unblock” button. But in a demonstration of misplaced trust and undeserved benefit of the doubt, I got this:

Due to the fact that I have been faced with the exact same result when requesting the unblocking of every site I visited which presented me with that asinine blocked screen since its inception a few years ago, I am left with no alternative but to think that the unblock link is just decoration and the requests will never be taken seriously. They are there for cheap eye-candy and to fool the simple.

But even the simple if faced with a hurdle thrown in the path of their destination will find a way to circumvent it, and it’s oh so easy to do now that the vast majority of Internet users in Bahrain already have various tools to circumvent these idiotic blocks.

So who benefits? Who benefits from the government spending millions of much needed currency on filtering technologies? Who benefits from the installation of filtered caches which attempt to create a block but the only thing they succeed in is the delayed access to stale information? Who benefits from the anger these blocks generate, and who benefits from the utter frustration that drives much needed investment – both local and foreign – away due to archaic application of blanket punishments? And who benefits from the uncertainty of censorship haphazardly and unnecessarily applied?

I’m certain it’s neither the government, nor the people of this great country.

It’s possibly a few misguided ancient megalomaniacs for whom the basic of redundant communication that is the Internet is all about.

Bahrain redefines the WWW

September 5th, 2010|

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. A new information Tzar at the helm of the “Information Authority” (or if you prefer, the Misery of Information redux); hence, the very first thing which happens is…. yes, you guessed it: ban some web sites, blogs and even political society websites. All that just ahead of the national elections too. Brilliant. The excuse for closing them is not different from all the previous occasions; however, the new new thing is…

أكد عضو الأمانة العامة في جمعية الوفاق الوطني الإسلامية محمد المزعل، أن رئيس هيئة شئون الإعلام الشيخ فواز بن محمد آل خليفة أبلغه بأن إزالة الحظر عن موقع الوفاق الإلكتروني مرهون بوقف بث المواد الفيلمية والصوتية
على الموقع، والتي تأتي في إطار البث المباشر لفعاليات الوفاق، الذي أعلنت عنه قبل أيام وأطلقت عليه اسم «الوفاق TV».

 

قال المزعل: «الشيخ فواز اعتبر أن إعلان الوفاق عن إطلاق بث تلفزيوني على موقعها الإلكتروني مخالفاً للقانون، ووعد بأنه في حال إلغاء هذا النوع من البث سيتم إلغاء الحظر عن الموقع الإلكتروني في اليوم نفسه»، وأضاف «من جهتي أبلغت الأمانة العامة للجمعية بما أكده الشيخ فواز وهي بدورها ستقوم بدراسة الموضوع للرد على الهيئة»

Al-Wasat – 5 Sept 2010

 

The Information Authority stipulates the removal of the live broadcasting functionality from alwefaq.tv in order to reestablish access to Al-Wefaq’s website

According to Mohammed Al-Mizaal, an Al-Wefaq secretariat member, the head of the Information Authority Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa told him tha the removal o the ban on the Al-Wefaq’s website is subject to them stopping the live broadcasting of video and audio on their site, as has been recently announced which the society dubbed “Al-Wefaq TV”

Al-Mizaal said that he was told by Shaikh Fawaz that Al-Wefaq’s announcing this functionality is unlawful and that once Al-Wefaq rescinds that decision, the website will be unblocked on the same day. Al-Mizaal informed the secretariat which will in turn study the situation before tendering their response to the Authority.

Shaikh Fawaz didn’t come with anything new as he re-iterated what Dr. Abdulla Yateem, the Undersecretary of Press & Publications has previously said about a recent similar recent incident when he warned another website not to use the term “broadcast” or “TV” in advertising its functionally.

Worrying, isn’t it? On several levels. One that it doesn’t seem to matter who the minister or head is, the policy never changes, we’ve gone through more than 5 ministers in that ministry, and all have toed a very similar line. The second, which is more dangerous and unwieldy is that what was supposed to be a World Wide Web, something which was supposed to shrink the world into a small informationally-connected village, is, as far as Bahrain is currently concerned, is more like a “WALLED Wide Web” with only the sanctioned and sanctified information allowed to be seen, heard and interacted with. And thus, another window of opportunity for innovation is resolutely shut.

Quite unfortunate really. The whole Internet now is about rich content. About interactive video, gaming, animation, and live programing one could access from a simple smart phone through to affordable personal computers, allowing people to connect with each other, building bridges and crossing cultures increasing world understanding which is the bedrock of peace. Yet, in our country what we find are high walls being continuously built to deter people from even approaching the possibility of cross-cultural understanding.

Is it then a surprise that we continue to be a physical and virtual island in the midst of a highly connected world? What does an action like this tell the world about us? A retarded and afraid society unwilling to open up to the world? Or does it really only reflect badly on the government as the will, tools and knowledge are widely and readily available to all and sundry in Bahrain with which the circumvention of those unreasonable walls is easily achieved?

I once again urge the government to rethink its Internet strategies and take the courageous steps to ensure easy and unfettered access, because it has been proven once and again that none of the adopted measures so far actually worked, and they never will.


Blogged at above 40,000 feet, in an American Airlines 767 with integrated and uncensored WiFi Internet connectivity flying from San Francisco to New York on Sept 5th, 2010.