Mathias Antonsson

Random subjective observations of what's on my mind


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New Noise

As some of you noted I left Kenya briefly in the summer to work from Sida HQ in Stockholm as I was awaiting my new posting. Stockholm did show itself from its sunny side, and learning about the work, processes and strategies at HQ was certainly a good experience. Even better, it was fun to meet up with friends without the usual time pressure I normally experience once I’m back home.

Anyway, the (European) summer has passed and I have – finally – gotten my new posting. As of about a month ago I joined Ushahidi. “Ushahidi”, which means “testimony” in Swahili, mapped reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. This platform is now used in 150+ countries worldwide for all sorts of issues mapping. It’s a non-profit tech company that specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. Ushahidi builds tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.

For those unaware, quite a few readers here I’d guess, Ushahidi is very well known in the ICT4D space worldwide. The people behind it also started the famous iHub and are Ted speakers.

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I joined to work on Making All Voices Count. Funded by, amongst others, Sida. The aim of Making All Voices Count is a substantial push towards effective democratic governance through increased transparency and accountability. Twelve countries across Africa and Asia will be the “playground”. Our Ushahidi team will head the innovation part, focusing mostly on mobile or web solutions. We will award grants to organisations or individuals, place “fellows” within the governments, have mentors to increase the effectiveness of the initiative and so on.

Suffice to say it will be much hard work, but it’s fast looking as the most exciting project I have worked with.

With USAID as another donor the call for proposals was officially launched yesterday by President Obama. So here we go!


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All Along the Watchtower

The focus of this post will be on the post 9/11 conflict between censorship and transparency. Censorship in the name of security versus the ability to exercise your democratic right to vote and hold your government accountable. The Basics.

Post 9/11. You’ve heard the term. In it’s wake much has changed. Not least in the US with Guantanamo, torture, the Patriot Actextrajudicial killings without due process based on the now famous kill list. Speaking of lists, it goes on. It’s not just the US either, Swedish readers might remember how the previous government allowed a CIA rendition flight to deliver two Egyptian asylum seekers back to the Mubarak regime and how they subsequently got tortured.

In 1776 Sweden got its first Principle of Publicity, or as Swedes know it; Offentlighetsprincipen. Try that foreigners! In 1809 it was written into the constitution. Since its early beginnings it has been a simply astounding source of information for the citizenry. In short it means that you can access any information that is not classified. Furthermore, request and you will receive for free. This is however withering away, as the current government has made no less than 69 amendments since 2009. Embarrassingly this DN article reveals they have also been caught classifying non-classified information, deleting an email to save the Defense Minister (didn’t work) or how Annie Lööf doctored her documentation before releasing it.

We can thus safely say this is happening in Sweden too, remarkable since the country has always been a champion of keeping information open and available to the citizenry. Then there’s the relatively new policies, that has already almost been forgotten, about FRA and their digital reconnaissance.

I keep getting back to this issue, why do the laws we take for granted offline not apply online?

To read someone’s snail mail is a grave crime in every country taking civil liberties seriously, yet our emails gets scanned every time they move between country borders (read always due to the global server structure). For the first half of 2012, Google alone, received more than 20,000 government requests for user data. In the wake of the Petraeus affair, Google stated that “Government surveillance is on the rise“. Google responds by sharing user data in approximately 90% of the cases. No wonder the Pirate Party, seemingly lone champions of online data privacy, has won seats in the EU Parliament.

Speaking of the European Union, since its inauguration it has been rather non-democratic. Sure you can vote for the EU Parliament, which an astounding 43% did in 2009, the lowest of an ever decreasing EU voter turnout. We can always hope that the Lisbon Treaty from 2009, which made the EU Parliament more than just a tremendously expensive discussion club, will reverse the trend. Then again the ones with any real power in the EU isn’t the Parliament but a select few ministers and the commissioners. Ironically as the EU is going through a massive crisis this topic is hardly discussed.

So let’s get to the core argument often made; If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

For the moment let’s ignore the complete disregard this entails for our civil liberties. Let’s instead play with this statement. If true, it should apply both ways no? I mean if you have nothing to hide, why do so many governments hide behind the undefined, yet all-encompassing, “national security” shield as they so often do whenever prompted with questions. Who monitors the accuracy of their accusations? Who monitors what data they compile and how it is used? If I have no information about these things as a citizen, how can I use my right to vote properly?

This is basics people. We all know that information is power, and when the information mostly travels one-way, so does the power amass is one place. For anyone supporting democracy and civil liberties this is dangerous territory.

One or two of you might say that the truth will always come out, well perhaps it will, but in time for us to exercise our right to vote based on correct information or many years after the fact? It makes a difference.

Some of you may play the terrorism card, arguing it justifies a carte blanche. The US recently approved legislation that enables them to hold terrorist suspects indefinitely in a process that doesn’t have to undergo public scrutiny as this information is sensitive to national security. See what they did there? The catch 22? Well, do you also see how this is synonymous with the behaviour of authoritarian states? It’s fine says the supporter, you can trust our leader, he/she is good (well touched on here). Well, you couldn’t get further away from the democratic idea, and then there’s the whole “absolute power corrupts absolutely” issue…

It’s fairly simple: If you remove or infringe on the civil liberties we’re supposedly “fighting” for, then how do you expect to win? Where’s the logic?

Others might remind us of the fourth power, our journalists. To those doing that, let me ask you three simple questions in return:

  1. When was the last time you bought a newspaper?
  2. What do you think of the work done by journalists today?
  3. Who do you think pays for it?

You know the answers, and they are troubling. However the second one is more an effect of the first and third than anything else. The internet, and ironically the assumption of free access to information, has resulted in killing the business model. (Not that is was working that well before the internet either.) As such their expense model has been modified. Columnists and “experts” are stalking the pages, while the researching journalists are about to go extinct. Most forced to (or worse, willingly) adjust the story to whatever interest pays the bill. Have you seen MSNBC and FOX News report on the same story? Their different angles and twisting is astounding. More irony, Public Service Broadcasters are often the best around. But this trend is troublesome almost beyond belief.

Any somewhat educated hack can rehash available information. To uncover it however often takes weeks or months of hard work to find reliable sources, document the process, ask people in power to comment and so on. You don’t make any friends in that business, in fact you’re more likely to go to jail. This work is time consuming, thus it is expensive, thus it is going extinct. Once it does, there won’t be anything left for the “somewhat educated hack” to stalk the pages about. What then?

If the trend continues, soon all we will have left are the whistleblowers. As I’ve written before the Obama regime is coming after them with all they’ve got. The same can be seen in many other countries.

It is indeed dire times for freedom of information and transparency. Politics works as a pendulum, it swings back and forth as different competing and mutually exclusive, interests become trendy. Our emerging post 9/11 security societies is sending our democratic values and civil liberties to the emergency room for patching-up time and time again. The only way to bring the pendulum back towards the democracy side of the scales is to highlight the obvious, many governments is currently waging a battle against transparency and buffing up on censorship, this in a time when we produce data and are more easily monitored than any time before in history.