Government Programs for Expanding Internet

mex2While the global reach of the internet is increasing through wireless, satellite, and other technologies, the local usage of the internet is often spurred by government programs. Regional efforts can target underserved communities and provide training and content development for new users.

In Mexico, for example, where access to the internet is enshrined in the constitution, Mexico Conectado is a government program providing connectivity through parks and public building in order to bridge the digital divide and provide better government services.

A similar government program in Colombia, Vive Digital, has promoted millions of new internet connections through expansion of broadband and distribution of computers.

In Australia, nbn has built a wholesale local access broadband network with government support to serve disadvantaged communities.

Many countries have prepare forward-looking internet plans. A key component is often direct government support for connectivity and training.

Why 5G Won’t Help Poor Regions

5gDeveloping countries often “leapfrog” technologies. Many regions, for example, can skip landlines and go straight to cellular. Many regions can skip the electrical grid and go straight to solar.

Will this “leapfrog” also happen direct to the latest cellular technology, 5G?

No.

Previous standards — 2G, 3G, 4G — all placed equipment on cell towers typically spaced no closer than a mile apart (and often much farther — cellphones can reach towers tens of miles away). Even at this density, however, the economics for building out a network often don’t work for serving rural areas in developing countries (or even in developed countries in many cases).

5G, unlike its predecessors, requires much denser installation of cell stations — around 500 feet apart in urban regions. This is about 100 times denser than previous standards. The benefit is that 5G can be 100 times faster than 4G, connect 100 times as many devices, and be five times quicker to connect.

By the way, placing hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of new cell stations in neighborhoods is unleashing many battles. These are on top of the raging technology battles already underway in defining the 5G standards.

While the poor half of the planet mostly has 2G, is converting to 3G, and aspires to 4G, new 5G standards are poorly suited poor, rural areas. This is another example of the barriers that cellular will have in serving the poorest — and a further reason that alternative connectivity through satellites, balloons, or other means will be necessary.

Fake News is About to Get Way Worse

fakeVideos play a major role in fake news. Online video content can be repurposed from other tragedies to foment outrage (or even from video games). Fake videos can employ actors. In the US, tragedies are often followed by proliferating conspiracy videos.

Unfortunately, the fake video problem is about to get a lot worse.

New tools are allowing individuals to quickly, cheaply, and effectively substitute faces in videos in ways which are extremely believable. The videos, termed “deepfakes”, are popular in specialty communities on Reddit and elsewhere, but are about to become much more mainstream.

Those wishing to sow dissent or chaos now have a new, incredibly powerful tool at their disposal. What happens when an authentic appearing video appears of Donald Trump screaming for a nuclear attack?

Unfortunately, the tools to identify fake videos aren’t keeping up with the technology to produce them. Experts in identifying fakes still need to magnify images frame by frame to analyze shadow patterns, for example.

Educating people about the new technology will be necessary — although unfortunately this will have the side effect of questioning the veracity of all video.

A Quick Primer on Global Wealth

yachtWealth across the planet is distributed very unevenly. So is access to broadband. These two facts are related: broadband now tracks to areas with more wealth. In the future, when broadband is everywhere, we will have the opportunity to serve the poorest parts of the planet in ways heretofore impossible.

How unevenly distributed is wealth?

In 2017, Oxfam produced a report “An Economy for the 99%” which included a staggering statistic: The richest eight men in the world have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the planet (around 3.6 billion people).

(For those keeping track at home, the richest eight men in early 2017 were Bill Gates, Amancio Ortega, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim Helu, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg — combined wealth of around $425 billion.)

Oxfam’s calculations are based on the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Data Book 2016

While all eight of the richest men could fairly be described as “self-made”, that isn’t true for the majority of billionaires (9 out of 10 of whom are men), according to Oxfam analysis. Over half of the world’s billionaires inherited their wealth or work in industries prone to cronyism and corruption.

82% of the wealth created in 2016 went to the top 1%.

Digital Welcome Wagon

wagonWelcome Wagon: a welcoming service that provides information about a community to new residents.

— Collins English Dictionary

As the next several billion people come online, what would an appropriate Digital Welcome Wagon look like for them?

Currently, most people are handed a smartphone with some pre-loaded apps (determined by both the manufacturer and the service provider) and maybe some literature about their service plan. In some parts of the world this is supplemented with information about Facebook Basics. That’s about it.  (When I recently started a new service in Nicaragua, I also got instructions about how Facebook and WhatsApp don’t charge for data, and also immediately started receiving multiple text messages with “upsells” for more data, music services, and discounts at Pizza Hut.)

What would an ideal new online experience be for a new smartphone user? How about:

  • A welcome video in an appropriate language from a credible person to greet the new user;
  • A quick tutorial on five really useful basic services to know about (such as phone, texting, camera, weather information, calendar);
  • A curated list of one or two outstanding sites for news, health, education, finance, and government services;
  • What to do if you need help;
  • Simple tutorials for more information, including how to avoid problems with fake news, fraud, or other issues.

Ideally this would be developed and managed by either governmental or international organizations as to not favor any given corporation.

We’re soon being joined online by a few billion fellow humans. Let’s welcome them!

Fake News in Developing Countries

ukraineFake news is a terrible problem in the US. In many other countries it is much worse:

  • According to Freedom House, only 13% of the world’s population live in countries with a free press;
  • In many developing countries, citizens have lower media literacy than those in rich countries;
  • In developing countries, there can be a blind trust of information via new technologies;
  • Many people get information from social networks on Facebook or WhatsApp, immediatly trusting what others have to say;
  • There often is a paucity of credible news sources or professional journalism to counterbalance rumor;
  • Many forces use social media maliciously, often with the backing of the state (such as Russian efforts in Ukraine).

To combat fake news in developing countries, it is necessary to take the same steps required in developed countries.

Even more, however, is necessary.

Often an independent, trained local media will need to be built up from nothing. Internews programs in Afghanistan, for example, have covered the country with professional, local radio broadcasting in regional languages.

Low-tech options for citizen journalism exist. CGNet Swara, for example, lets anyone call in and record a report by cell phone. Submissions are reviewed and curated into a newsfeed for the community.

Media literacy programs become even more important. In Ukraine, for example, media training programs for youth are now included in the national curriculum.

And many organizations need to participate in fact-checking. In Kenya, for example, Safaricom (the mobile phone company and Kenya’s largest corporation) spends 50% of its communications team resources combatting fake news.

Fake news is a major challenge in developing countries. With the rapid expansion of broadband, problems are poised to become even more difficult.

Compendium of Solutions for Fake News

fakeThanks to a perfect storm of political rancor, social media algorithms, and malicious actors, fake news has become a major challenge for American democracy.

Many researchers and journalists have proposed policies and interventions to combat fake news, including those as summarized in recent overviews by Brookings, BBC, the New York TimesForbes, and the Washington Post.

Here are commonly proposed solutions:

News Industry

The news industry needs to do all possible to define and promote honest, fair, professional journalism. Providing more background information and transparency enhances legitimacy of the industry.

Simultaneously, the industry needs to quickly and effectively identify and debunk fake news (easier said than done). The way fake news is corrected often matters: for example, researchers have shown that video often works better than text, repeating the fake news can unintentionally reinforce it, and partisan voices correcting the news (Republicans debunking conservative news, Democrats debunking liberal news) is most effective.

Government

The government needs to value and promote a free and fair press. Government programs should be careful not to censor nor constrain journalists, and should include programs to support and protect quality journalism. Since journalism and government are often (by design) at odds, support for journalism needs to be codified in law.

In addition, government bodies should identify and censure organizations promoting fake news. In the case of hostile activities by foreign actors, government should aggressively identify and sanction malicious entities working to undermine American trust in the media.

Technology Companies

Technology companies, especially social media companies, need to be strict and consistent in enforcing rules about malicious or fake accounts, such as in Twitter’s recent purge of thousands of accounts. In addition, companies require improved systems and algorithms for accurate and fair identification and removal of fake news. Technology firms have made great progress in combatting spam and demarcating pornography online. Similar progress is required for fake news.

Simultaneously, technology companies need to review their business models, particularly with respect to online advertising, to make sure that those purveying fake news are not financially rewarded for information going viral.

There are other specific steps which would also be useful. For example, in a recent New York Times Op-Ed, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler suggests requiring social media companies to provide an API to their news algorithms. This would protect both IP and user personal identification, but allow third parties to monitor how the platform might be used for malicious intent.

Educational Institutions

Educational institutions — from kindergarten through university — need to expose students to the challenges of fake news, and train students to be sophisticated and informed consumers of news. This can happen in classes specifically designed for news literacy, but also any class demanding research, analysis, and presentation of ideas.

Individuals

Individuals need to recognize that the news environment is hostile, there are objectively better and worse sources of information, and it is everyone’s responsibility to enhance their own media literacy. Two good initial steps are to work to diversify the news sources you rely on, and to understand the skepticism and effort required to be an honest, productive consumer of news.

Is Extreme Poverty Incompatible with Broadband?

global wifiIs it possible to have a community with extreme poverty (under $1.25 per day per person) in an environment with inexpensive, reliable broadband?

On its face, this seems an absurd question: reliable broadband almost by definition tracks to communities with sufficient resources to afford it. It’s a bit like saying “is it possible to have extreme poverty in an environment where houses also have swimming pools?”.

But it isn’t so simple — in fact, all poor communities on the planet will be getting reliable, reasonably-priced broadband in the next few years. So what does that imply for extreme poverty?

Even if broadband isn’t affordable to individuals, it is typically affordable to government officials, health clinics, some schools, international NGOs, and others. Once broadband arrives, government programs can reach citizens. International efforts, including direct cash payments, are enabled. Economic advantages of better information and price data are available. Efficiencies around transportation and supply chains are immediately presented.

Or to think about it another way, for a community to really be stuck below $1.25 per person, it almost by definition needs to be isolated, cut off from any economic opportunities or support programs whatsoever. $1.25 per day is an amazingly low number.

So it is reasonable at least to postulate that extreme poverty is in fact incompatible with broadband. (Term this crazy idea “Cashel’s Law”?)

Coming to Terms with Fake News

newsFake news (the “purposely deceptive” kind, not the “I don’t like it” kind) is starting to be recognized in American society for the threat to democracy which it is.

Two major development occurred recently.

First, the Mueller investigation issued 13 indictments against Russian nationals for efforts to subvert the 2016 election. While the indictments are consistent with what American intelligence agencies have been saying for many months, the fact that the announcement comes from the Mueller investigation and actually names real people brings a new level of legitimacy and concern to the issue.

Second, a new Air Force research paper (as reported in the Washington Post) provides many specific examples of how Russian, Islamic State, and other propagandists effectively manipulate Twitter and other social media platforms to sow dissent and falsehoods. Efforts are at the national level — such as support for the Trump or Sanders campaigns — or at the local level — such as effectively heightening racial tensions at the University of Missouri.

While the description of the problems are detailed, the description of effective solutions are not. At least the first step to confronting the issue of fake news is to clearly identify and define the problem.

A Quick Primer on Global Poverty

poverty“Extreme Poverty” is currently defined as an individual living on less than $1.25 per day. Using this benchmark, in 1990 47% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. As of today, that figure has dropped dramatically, now approaching 10%. The UN identifies the first of its “Sustainable Development Goals” as the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030.

Much of the progress in reducing extreme poverty is thanks to efforts in five countries: China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Vietnam. These countries alone moved an astonishing 700 million citizens out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2010. Unfortunately, in Africa during the same period, the number of people in extreme poverty rose from 290 to 414 million people.

The task of eliminating extreme poverty gets progressively harder the closer we get to zero. Those still in extreme poverty are generally in rural or remote areas, lacking electricity, sanitation, transportation, internet, or other fundamental services.

While the number of people in “extreme poverty” is dropping, it is important to remember that most of the planet is still extremely poor. About half of the planet lives on less than $2.50 per day.