Category Archives: communication

Our modern Babel?

I wonder what do people think about the potential repercussions of the introduction of IDNs, particularly in terms of fragmentation of the Internet.  In this post I provide some background about the languages on the web, some of my thoughts, and finally questions for which I would love to hear your thoughts.

After many years of debates, International Domain Names (IDNs) have finally become more tangible with the announcement of the Fast Track by ICANN earlier this year.  Right now it is open only to states and territories recognized in the ISO 3166-1 regulation.  A number of countries have already applied for registering their Internet country suffixes in their local languages (IDN ccTLDs).  For example, Egypt announced that they are going to register “.مصر”, which stands for Egypt in Arabic, and Russia started the registration process for “.рф,” which stands for Russian Federation.

Overall, introduction of the IDNs has been met with a lot of enthusiasm.  In the last ICANN meeting in Seol and at the last IGF this was celebrated as the final internationalization of the Internet.  The minister of communication of Egypt was quoted saying that the “Internet now speaks Arabic” and the European Union has also declared that they are going to allow registration of .eu in all 23 official languages of the Union.  People are celebrating the diversity.

At the same time, as expected, not everybody is excited about this development.  It is widely held that the primary opposition to IDNs has been voiced by the trademarks holders.  After sort of figuring out how to protect their trademarks in the current, Roman script dominated, cyberspace (such as the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy), they are not particularly psyched about the need to do it again in dozens of other languages and potentially under dozens of other regulatory regimes.

However, not only the trademarks holders are not excited about the new IDNs.  There are also those, who voice concerns about fragmentation of the Internet as a result of adoption of domain names that would be accessible only to speakers of a particular language.  Dwayne Bailey, Research Director of the African Network for Localisation, spoke at the IGF about the danger of monolingual silos or as he put it: “A multilingual world of mono-lingualism.”  Karine Barzliai Nahon wrote a post on this topic, addressing particularly the situation in Israel, but alluding to similar concerns.  I personally had thoughts along the same lines when I first heard about the idea of IDNs and we can find similar arguments even at the very beginning of the debate about IDNs (for example here).

From where I stand as a user of the Internet (and I think most of the people who read those lines share this position), the Internet emerges as this enormous modern (knowledge and information) Tower of Babel.  There is so much information out there and it all is accessible to me at my laptop – all I need to do is to type a query in the search engine or enter a URL.  This is possible primarily because I feel at ease with both the technology and the English language.

Even though English is not the only language online, we can still access most of the content in English.  As some of the stats suggest, in 2008 only 31% of the online content was in English and that percentage was shrinking.  Chinese accounted for 20% and Spanish for 7%.  Between 2000 and 2008, the amount of content in Arabic grew 2064%, in Chinese 755%, and in Portuguese 668%.  However, even if the content itself is in a language that I do not understand, there are automatic translators that are good enough to allow me understanding, and maybe even engaging with, materials in languages other than those that I know.  All I need is to enter a URL of a website into an automatic translator, and here it is at my fingertips.  Isn’t it wonderful?

The “danger” of IDNs thus is fragmentation of content and as a result fragmentation of the Internet itself.  If I am unable to type in a URL of a website I won’t be able to access it, even before I reach the point where I need a translation.  The result could be that different cultural groups will isolate themselves by using the language barrier and we might lose the wealth of information that is out there.  This would be an equivalent of what happened to the Biblical Tower of Babel when all the different languages were introduced – the tower fell.  Our modern (knowledge and information) Tower of Babel might fall as well.

These were some of my initial thoughts and these are the concerns voiced by others as well.  However, the more I think about it the less categorical picture emerges.  Here are some of my more recent thoughts:

  • To start with, it is not clear how much attention people pay to the URLs and there is quite a lot of research out there showing that people don’t use URLs for web navigation that much.  I think this is a major point in our thinking about the “threat” and “benefits” of IDNs.  I am not at all convinced that URLs matter.
  • Second, I am not sure how much people in fact consume content that is not in languages that they know.  I mean, it may well be that the content online is already segregated and having internationalized URLs will not change much.  I have yet met a native English speaker who was a regular reader of websites in Russian or Chinese (I see a lot of the opposite, but not that).
  • Third, I think it is reasonable to assume that just as we have automatic translators that allow browsing entire websites in languages other than those that we know, there will be a technological solution that will make the URLs just as transparent.
  • Same goes for keyboards.  If we will insist on typing the URLs, virtual or projection keyboards can allow having an unlimited number of scripts on a single keyboard.  In fact, in this kind of technical solutions, I do believe in letting the markets speak and if there is enough demand for IDNs and enough demand for bypassing the IDNs, the technical solutions will appear.
  • Also, as the rhetoric of IDNs suggests, they are aimed not at people who are already online and are comfortable with English, but at those who for various reasons, are not online yet and for whom English is a barrier.  It is easy for us to talk about potential loss of our access to the (dare I say underutilized) wealth of information from a position of relative power.  It is quite different for those who do not have any access at all.
  • Finally, it may be natural that we do not understand all the content that is out there.  After all this is how our society became as diverse as it is.  Moreover the effort we need to put into learning and understanding another culture makes the experience even more rewarding.  So, maybe the IDNs are just a natural development?

My bottom line is that while I do share some concerns regarding the IDNs’ potential contribution to the fragmentation of the Internet, I am not at all convinced that this is what will necessarily happen.  Of course, one can think of scenarios where some governments force registration of local domains in a particular language, but even in that case, I am not sure it will work.  Similarly, I am not 100% sure that English is the main barrier to access and effective use of the Web.  I think there are other barriers such as lack of physical infrastructure or lack of technical literacy.  But perhaps more than ever before I think this is a case where we should let the users of the Internet make up their minds whether they want to use internationalized domain names or not.  The history suggests that the currently connected won’t do it, but perhaps the 6 billions of those who are not connected will.

These are some of my thoughts on the subject.  What do you think?  Will IDNs cause further fragmentation of the Internet?  Or will they increase the diversity of the content online and make the Web more accessible?

The Israeli TV industry: Some numbers

Israel is debating another reform in its broadcast TV industry, which allows an interesting peek on the numbers constructing the Israeli media market.

Currently there two private broadcast TV channels in Israel, which are supported through advertising (there is a government supported public channel as well).  Channel 2 started operating commercially in 1993 and Channel 10 joined the competition in 2002.  Both channels are operated through permits, which means that they have to be renewed every few years, which in turn is supposed to give the public body that monitors these channels, the Second Authority, the leverage to make demands for quality content.

One can debate whether or not the Authority is successful in imposing content quality standards, but the reform is aimed at moving from the permit regime to a license regime.  According to those pushing for the reform, this will allow to introduce another player to the Israeli broadcasting media market.  Since such a shift requires amending the law, the story starts with discussions in the Economic Committee of Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

So, what can we learn from these debates?

  • According to Menashe Samir, the CEO of the Second Authority, the annual income of the commercial broadcasting TV stands on NIS 1.2 billion (around US $320 million), while operating a channel costs about NIS 400 million (around US $70 million).  Eran Pollack, from the Ministry of Finance, provided some more specific data, saying that in 2008 the commercial broadcasting channels had incomes of NIS 700 million for Channel 2 (US $187 million) and NIS 400 million for Channel 10 (US $107 million).
  • Eran Polack also said that in 2008 the overall TV industry in Israel had an income of approximately NIS 5.5. billion (US $1.47 billion).   The break down is really interesting.  The commercial broadcasting TV channels account only for a small portion of that pie; the Israeli cable and satellite TV providers account for almost two thirds of it.   HOT, the cable company had an income of NIS 2.085 billion (US $559 million) in 2008, and YES, the satellite company had an income of NIS 1.415 billion (US %378 million).  Also, the public channel accounted for about NIS 350 million of income (US $94 million).
  • As to the viewers, according to Yehuda Saban from the budget department, an average Israeli views 225 minutes of TV a day – over 3 and a half hours.  Children watch TV even more than that.  All this in spite of the fact that the costs of cable/satellite TV in Israel are relatively high; at the bottom 20% of the income group, people spend as much as 1.2% of their monthly income on TV.

It is f course also interesting to see how both supporters and opponents of the reform justify their positions through claims for greater societal benefit, but I won’t torture you with this now :)

“… and communication for all”

Amit Schejter and a group of really impressive colleagues just released a new book titled “…and Communications for All: A Policy Agenda for the New Administration“.  Today (Monday) they held a one-day conference in Washington DC where they presented the book and discussed its chapters.  I really wanted to be there, but couldn’t.  Gladly, the technologies, regulation of which they were discussing, made it possible to watch the conference and even share it with you.

The first video includes some introductory comments from Sascha Meinrath and Amit Schejter, followed by a keynote from an FCC commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein.

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The first panel included the following speakers:

  • Marvin Ammori (University of Nebraska) – Competition and Investment in Wireline Broadband;
  • Richard Taylor (Penn State) – U.S. Cable TV Policy: Managing the Transition to Broadband;
  • Sharon Strover (University of Texas) – America’s Forgotten Challenge: Rural Access;
  • Heather Hudson (University of San Francisco) – The Future of E-Rate: U.S. Universal Service Fund Support for Public Access.

The second panel included:

  • Jon Peha (Carnegie Mellon) – A Spectrum Policy Agenda;
  • Rob Frieden (Penn State) – The Way Forward for Wireless;
  • Ellen Goodman (Rutgers) – Public Service Media 2.0;
  • Kathryn Montgomery (American University) – Creating a Media Policy Agenda for the Digital Generation

I think this video covers both panels.

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I watched substantive parts of the conference and it sounds really interesting.  According to Amit, the four commonly shared points in the book are:

  1. There is a need for deliberative government policy and for clear goals for telecommunication policy;
  2. The new policy direction should be technologically neutral, the segregation of media, information, and communication technology for regulation purposes has proved itself inefficient and obsolete;
  3. Telecom infrastructure should serve both, the commercial aspiration and the public interest; connectivity alone is not enough, it is important that people know how to use the technology in order to be able to acquire knowledge, innovate, and take part in pubic life;
  4. Telecommunication policy should be based on equal opportunity and non discriminatory practices; i other words, the idea of fairness is important for telecommunication policy.

To me it looks like an interesting reading.  Also, the New America Foundation’s YouTube channel seems to have some interesting talks, so it is worth checking out.

Mumbai terror and MICT – an observation

I was really horrified to hear about the ongoing attack in Mumbai this evening.  Currently, there is still not much information about what is actually going on.  I truly hope that the situation will become clearer soon and the loss of human lives will stop.

In an attempt to fill the information vacuum about what is going on, I found myself switching between various website.  Veronica first noticed the report on Ynet (HE), then I checked NY Times, CNN, Washington Post, back to Ynet (HE), Haaretz (HE), BBC.  All the media seem to be rehearsing the same update about the estimated casualties, ongoing battles, hostages, and the fire.  Nevertheless, and this may sound crazy, I couldn’t help myself but noticing a number of media related phenomena.

The comment section on Ynet, included not just the expected emotional reactions, but also practical attempts to establish connection with people in India.  You may know that India is a popular destination for young Israelis who spend there extensive periods of time, usually before they embark on an academic journey.  So, among the comments to various reports about the attack, you could see people asking their friends and relatives to call back home and let them know that everything OK.  This is really interesting not only because the comment section is being reinvented for purposes initially not intended, but also because those who posted those comments, assumed that their friends/relatives in India will refer to the Hebrew online newspaper for information in such a critical time.

NY Times reported that a lot of information about the casualties and what is actually going on in Mumbai, is coming from blogs, Twitter, and other social media.  They mentioned (but not linked to) Noah Shachtman of Wired, who reported on the issue in their emergency blog (not sure how long this link will remain active).  Just a hint of where the journalists look for the information they later report in the mainstream outlets.  It also looks like the same pictures from the scene are circulating all over the cyberspace.

Finally, I briefly checked Facebook, and just a few hours after the the events began, there are 5 or 6 groups dedicated to the topic and a couple of them already have a few dozens participants.  Also, just a few hours after the attack search for “Mumbai terror” on Youtube returned almost 500 results and at least the entire first page seemed relevant.

I am not jumping on any conclusion, but I felt it is important to document those developments.  It got me thinking about (1) the grassroots use of MICT and (2) about the changing relationships between the grassroots content creators and the mainstream media in emergency situation like this.  The last thought was also fueled by a recent conversation with Grisha about his followup of the reports about a plane crush in Russia a few months ago.

If you have any thoughts on the topic, please share.  In the meantime, I hope the situation will get resolved with minimal further casualties.

“Global Network Initiative”

Thanks to Veronica I learned about the “Global Network Initiative” a few hours before it hit my RSS feeds coming from all over the web.  If you haven’t heard about it yet, it is a consortium of universities, NGOs, and industry players (noticeably Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo) that teamed up to suggest a code of practice to protect free speech as the flow of information becomes more global and more complex.  Here is what they wrote on the initiative’s website:

“From the Americas to Europe to the Middle East to Africa and Asia, companies in the information and communications industries face increasing government pressure to comply with domestic laws and policies that require censorship and disclosure of personal information in ways that conflict with internationally recognized human rights laws and standards.

The Initiative is founded upon new Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy – supported by specific implementation commitments and a framework for accountability and learning – that provide a systematic approach for companies, NGOs, investors, academics and others to work together in resisting efforts by governments that seek to enlist companies in acts of censorship and surveillance that violate international standards.

For me, this announcement triggered a couple of thoughts.

First, I think this is an interesting example of the centrality of information in social and political processes.  It is also a good example of the complexity of relationships between politics, law, and business on a global scale.  International corporations acting in the field of media and information are caught in a situation where they have to navigate between the global nature of their business; the political, social, cultural, and legal characteristics of their country of origin (US in many cases); and the same characteristics and demands of the localities they are acting in.  This is definitely not a simple task.  There is also little doubt that initiatives such as this one reinforce (Western) principles of freedom of speech and privacy in debates with governments that do not necessarily approve those.

Second, I wonder what is the business interest of commercial entities in this initiative.  Of course there is a chance that they join the initiative for ideological reasons, but I doubt they would do it if such a move would compromise their long-term strategic objectives.  In Israel, in the 1960’s the journalistic community established the Israeli Press Council (HE), which since then focuses on two main issues: (1) guarding freedom of expression and (2) observing ethical behavior of its members.  One of the main reasons behind establishing this voluntary organization was a preemptive strike against the political apparatus making ethical principles into laws.  In other words, the media chose to regulate themselves instead of being regulated from outside.  So, following this story, I wonder if there is a similar sentiment behind the “Global Network Initiative” – the companies volunteer to self-monitor themselves according to a set of values that they decide on (in consultation with other like-minded bodies), before they are forced to adhere to some sort of external regulation whether on the local or the global levels.

What do you think?

November 1 update:

Here is Micael Zimmer’s take on this initiative.

Claiming an acronym – MICT

A while ago a read an article by Boczkowski & Lievrouw, titled “Bridging STS and communication studies: Scholarship on media and information technologies.”  In fact, it became a book chapter in “The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Third Edition” (2007). One of the points Boczkowski & Lievrouw make in their chapter is about the terminology.  They are offering to use the acronym MIT (Media and Information Technology) instead of ICT (Information and Communication technology).  The rationale behind this suggestion is the emphasis on the significance of content in the process of communication.

I think this is a very interesting chapter and I have been trying to use their acronym ever since.  However, using it a ran into two problems.  First, the more substantive problem – it seems that missing out the process of communication from describing the domain of my inquiry is damaging to the cause.  The process of communication and the communication enabling technologies are important factor in what i am trying to look at.  Second, on the more mundane level, the term MIT doesn’t fly because of a very strong brand of MIT the institute of technology.

This is where i would like to propose a different acronym to use for definition of my field of inquiry.   It was created in one of our conversations with Tarleton (i bet the entire credit actually goes to him) where we discussed this issue.  The acronym is MICT (pronounced “mist) and it stands for Media, Information, and Communication Technology.  I think this term does a more comprehensive job in capturing the field of inquiry both Tarleton and I (also probably Josh in our department and many other people elsewhere) are focusing on.

I am actually making a more elaborate argument about it in one of the papers i am writing at the moment, but i would love to hear any immideate thoughts from you.

Politics, popularity, and personalization

I already said that i love DC. Another reason to love it, are the many opportunities offered by this city.

A week ago or so, i participated in a debate/discussion about “new” media and political campaigns hosted by Google and National Journal and titled “The First 21-st Century Campaign“. Being hosted by Google, the event attracted some very interesting people and was held in a format of discussion rather than a traditional (academic) presentation-style lectures. Unfortunately, i wasn’t smart enough to bring a camera even though the event was absolutely open and the organizers even encouraged people capturing it in any possible way. Another unfortunate thing was that i couldn’t stay for the entire event and in fact stayed only for the first panel (out of three).

Ad of the Google's June Symposium

Fortunately, though, the first panel was very thought provoking.  Nothing super controversial or innovative has been said, but it was great to hear thet the industry people are concerned with the same issues that academics are.  Actually, i think the panel would benefit from a visionary academic person who could bring the entire discussion under a comprehensive (dare I say, macro) umbrella.

The first panel, moderated by Judy Woodruff of PBS, hosted Mark Halperin (“Time” – as a representative of the old media), Katherine Ham (Townhall.com, even though she announced she has a new job now), James Kotecki (Politico – he and Katherine were the representatives of “new” media), Phil Singer (Clinton campaign), and Kevin Madden (Mitt Romney campaign _ he and Singer were the political practitioners on the panel).

Most of the discussion focused on the tensions between the “old” and the “new” media.  In my view it started pretty awkward with Kotecki’s remark that he doesn’t see himself as a journalist and was (i got a sense that he was implying that he still is) making his video just to feel popular.  It was particularly stonning because one of the main points of the discussion was credibility of the “new” media as a journalistic practice.  Kotecki himself was making claims for being credible, which (together with some of the other comments, such as those made by Singer) got me thinking whether or not the 2.0 culture equates credibility to popularity.  If so, i find that idea pretty disturbing.  One the one hand, i can buy into the idea of wisdom of crowds (that’s the term i think), but, on the other hand, i cannot buy into dismissal of expertise that seems to be attached to it (at least in the current discussion).

Another interesting point came from the campaign people and it was primarily about the use they make of information.  For Madden, the “new” media were all about speed and precision of the media message.  Even though they never got talking explicitly about how they use microtargeting (even though i raised that questions), it was constantly implied in the examples they provided.  Building of the idea of popularity, it was now also the ability of precise targeting of the message.  I would describe that as an ability of talking about “popularities” rather than a single popularity.  To a a degree that appeared as a distinction between the “old” and the “new” media as well.  I found the latter rather interesting – the basic concepts mass (popularity) did not change, but progressed and evolved (into popularities), but the substance became implicitly even less important.  In other words, there is no substantive change in the policy or in the ideas, but the package is more personalized.

As the discussion evolved, it became more interesting and sophisticated.  To one degree or another, the panelists touched upon many relevant points.  This highlight was, I think, when Singer or Halperin, noticed that the mere division between the “old” and the “new” was artificial.  Ham also was very sharp when talking about the relations between the “old” and the “new” media (even though she was clearly advocating for the legitimacy of the latter).  I found this particularly interesting, because usually you hear a very deterministically-dichotomous discourse where the “new” is presented as separate and mostly superior to the “old”.  Even though Judy Woodruff finished the panel with some techno-utopian remarks (mostly as a tribute to the host), it did spoil the overall flavor of complexity.

On the practical level i came out of this symposium with two titles for potential books.  Not that i plan on writing those this summer, but… If i were to write a book with critical analysis of the modern Western society, particularly focusing on the youth, i would title it “The popularity generation.”  Maybe there is such a book already and maybe it will become the label of generation Y with all the reality shows and a myriad of televised competitions (for popularity of course :).  The other book would be about this campaign, or about contemporary politics in a broader sense.  That one i would title “The politics of personalization.”

Finally, kind of getting back to one of my first points, i think the symposium would really benefit from an academic input.  Maybe even more broadly, i think this industry could learn as much from the academia as the academia is learning from it.  At the end of the day, all the points raised by the panelists are being discussed and studied, and bringing those inputs would enrich the discussion and probably take it into the next level.

You can read a short post following the event on Google’s blog or you can actually watch the entire thing on C-Span (and enjoy me asking some questions :).

Washington Post on mobiles

Just recycling the news.  Washington Post technology section is featuring the mobile phone today.  As usual, there is a deterministic flavor to the article (“mobile revolution”, “transform the world faster than did electricity, automobiles, refrigeration, credit cards or television”, etc.).  However, it has many interesting facts about the mobile industry and, even more interesting, the gaps between predictions about mobile communication markets and the actual outcomes (which made me think about my previous post on market analysis again).  If you have a few minutes to spare, it makes an interesting read.

ComFree update

It’s been a few month since i first wrote about the comfree idea, but since then i haven’t heard much from of the people who commented on it and, frankly, didn’t do a very good job in communicating about it. In fact, I did not manage to maintain the routine of first Saturday every month as much as I initially hoped. Life got in the way and sometimes i had to use the technology on the specific dates. It was particularly difficult to maintain while traveling. At the same time i tried to have at least a day a month when I do not use communication technologies. This was especially easy for example when, together with friends, I went for three days to Adirondacks :)

However now I am trying to bring the idea back on track. So, tomorrow is the first Saturday of November and i am going to take a break.

LittleTapperLake

New collection (your help needed)

A while ago, i posted here a few videos featuring communication technology as their main theme. Today, one of my Facebook friends posted this video, which is a remake of Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero“, adapted to the Facebook reality:

So, i decided that i would like to start collecting these videos, songs, and other cultural artifacts that mention communication technology explicitly, or even more so, make it the main theme. If you come across any, please send them over. They don’t have to be in English (though in that case i may ask for help with translation :) and there is no hard criteria for them to be super mature, or absolutely immature. To start with, anything will go.  Actually looking at the YouTube page with this video i could find a few more already, but i am sure there is much more out there.

I find the whole phenomenon really fascinating and would like to study it at some point. So, thank you in advance for anything you send!