Sunday, February 28, 2010

Europe and Australia more worried about passport fraud than Mossad murderers

While the much-publicised hunt continues into the Dubai fake passports affair, no European country has yet launched a manhunt for the killers of the Hamas man slain in the Gulf state despite an Interpol investigation into the crime. Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was murdered in Dubai on 19 January by Mossad operatives who then fled across Europe. The men are believed to have flown to Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands but none of the authorities of these countries have launched investigations. AP say this is because the hit was carried out by a friendly country and arresting Israeli agents or even digging up evidence that Israel was involved could be politically costly. "I would guess that it's in the political interest of certain countries not to get proactive in this case," said Victor Mauer, deputy director of the Centre for Security Studies at Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology.

The countries also say they have yet to receive a request of help from Dubai about the case. The murdered man Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was a senior Hamas commander. He was also one of the founders of the Qassam brigades which were responsible for the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and in the subsequent heavy fighting in the Gaza Strip following Israel’s incursion in December 2008. Al-Mabhouh was born in Gaza in 1960 and has been known to Israeli authorities since as far back as 1989 when he was involved in the abduction and murder of two IDF members. He has been the target of two previous assassination attempts: a car bombing and a poisoning. The poisoning took place in Beirut just six months ago and rendered him unconscious for 30 hours.

In recent years al-Mabhouh was a key negotiator between Hamas and Iran. On 19 January he flew from Syria to Dubai stopping off there on his way to Bangkok. He arrived in the early afternoon without bodyguards and booked into the Al Bustan Rotana hotel using a false identity. He left the hotel an hour later and returned around 8.25pm that evening. It was likely he was being tailed during his absence. His wife rang a half hour later but there was no answer. Israeli news agency Inyan Merkazi reported a four-member squad of Shin Bet and Mossad agents interrogated al-Mabhouh before executing him. Dubai Police say he was dead by 9pm. Hotel footage show suspects following him to his room in the afternoon before checking into the room opposite. Around 8pm they gained entry to his room and waited for his return.

Al-Mahmoud’s body was found the following morning and taken for a police examination. Burns from a stun gun were found under his ear, in his groin and on his chest. Pathologists discovered his nose bled before death. They found blood on a pillow they believe was placed over his nose and mouth to suffocate him. Results from a preliminary forensic report by the Dubai police found that al-Mabhouh was first paralysed via electric shock to his ears, legs, heart and genitals and then suffocated. Dubai police identified 11 people they suspected of involvement in the murder. Five of them carried out the crime while the remaining six served as lookouts. Another four were later added to the list and they all travelled on fake Western passports, six UK, five Irish, three Australian, one French and one German. The fact that many of the passports share names with people living in Israel reinforced widespread suspicion about Mossad involvement.

Reaction in the west to al-Mahmoud’s killing was initially muted. The subtext was here was a known terrorist who was simply getting his just desserts. But reaction quickly changed once it became apparent that Israeli agents used western passports in the hit. Foreign ministers of all the countries involved complained to Israel about the identity theft involved. The EU called the nature of the killing “profoundly disturbing”. Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was also distinctly uneasy in criticising Israel but said it would not be considered the "act of a friend.”

UK Police are now in Israel investigating the passport theft. There they will interview six British-Israeli nationals whose identities were stolen by the suspected killers. Officers say they are being viewed as potential witnesses to a crime, which is the fraudulent use of a passport, and will not be questioned or interviewed as suspects. British authorities say they believe the Israeli secret service Mossad was involved which Israel has refused to confirm or deny.

In a penetrating article in New Matilda last week, Mark Steven skewered western reaction to the crime. Steven said the West’s response to the assassination was simply the result of their principal and shared interest in the expropriation of national identities rather than a horror of al-Mahmoud’s death.” While assassination is condemnable, it seems the requisition of a European or an Australian identity is utterly unforgivable,” he wrote. Stevens asked the question: “While life that coheres behind names printed on European passports is to be valued highly, what is the worth of life that only exists under collective labels, such as ‘Israel’ or ‘Palestine’?”

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Interrupted lives - A story of a Twitter Hack

Yesterday my Twitter account was hacked causing me to spam at last 100 of the people I follow with sexually suggestive Direct Messages. Apparently I was not alone in this phishing attack. There was also something similar recently in Facebook. In my case it was caused by rather stupidly clicking on a DM sent to me on Thursday night. I knew the person who sent it and had no immediate reason not to trust it. As Pete Cashmore said we're less wary when a link appears to be from a trusted contact. The message read “Is this you?” and provided a link (via a deceptively meaningless short URL) which I clicked on almost without thinking.

Almost instantaneously I regretted clicking although nothing happened immediately. Barely minutes later I saw someone’s Facebook warning that the “is this you?” message was malware and you shouldn’t click on the attached link. I was annoyed at my stupidity and hoped nothing further would come of it. But when I checked the Internet on Friday morning it was obvious a lot more had come of it.

Apparently what happens when you click on the link is that your Twitter password is sent to the attackers, permitting them access to your account. According to Cashmore, your friends receive the same message shortly after, which will look like it was sent out by you. I didn’t send out the same message (as far as I can tell) but the one I did send was a classic in its own right.

At approximate 7am yesterday morning, about a hundred DMs were unleashed from my account. Twitter has now cleaned out all the messages from my sent folder however someone however was kind enough to send me a screenshot of how it looked. In the message I was claiming to be “female/24/horny” and added “I have to get off here but message me on my windows live messenger name” It is unlikely that any of the messages would have fooled their recipients. For starters they were all sent out complete with my name and headshot avatar which makes it blatantly apparent I am neither female, 24 nor horny (unless, as I wrote later by ‘horny’ they meant ‘scaly’).

I was blissfully unaware of this activity while munching my weetbix for breakfast. When I logged on an hour later, I became aware of the problem when I checked my regular emails and noticed quite a lot of Twitter DMs sent to me in return. These were all genuine DMs sent to me by friends who were either laughing at the absurdity of the message (if they knew me well) or warning me I was hacked (if they didn’t). When I logged on to Twitter there were many more messages.

“excuse me?”

“Just got a DM from @derekbarry that makes me think his account has been hacked.”

“Time to change your Twitter passwd. Ur sending our "interesting" DM spam. eg "..hi, i'm 24/female/horny...message me on my...”

“unless you are leading a secret double life someone is using your account for spam”.

“Derek, your account has been compromised. Unless you really ARE 24 and horny.”

“You don't look like a 24yo horny female to me.... :) I think you've been hacked!!”

“so u won't hit any "is this you?" messages in future? :) was caught by one back at Xmas. Mine sent out colonic irrigation tweets :P”

One person wrote to tell me he had received one of female/24/horny messages but he also had been hacked and was “going nuts” about how to solve the problem. While I was sympathetic, this was not a reaction I shared. I was momentarily embarrassed so much spam had been sent out in my name but looking at how absurd it was, I found it funny. It was also unwittingly the cause of more real interaction with people than I would normally have had if I'd been left alone.

I sent out a few Tweets apologising for the spam, joked about being scaly rather than horny and immediately changed my Twitter password. This in turn got a lot of responses most of which saw the funny side of what had happened. Here, I hope my reputation in Twitter allowed me to turn a potentially nasty situation into one which people could laugh at. And as far as I know, no one stopped following me thinking I was a spambot.

Within a half hour, I got an email from Twitter saying they believed my account was compromised. They forced me to change my password again and hopefully I’m now clean until the next time I accidentally click on a safe looking link. I say “next time” because despite my increased wariness I’m convinced it will happen again. Spammers are becoming more adept at mimicking convincingly real behaviours – though as my own messages proved they still leave a lot to be desired in matching physical attributes with the text!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Australian media opens new front in Facebook wars

The issue of policing Facebook raised its ugly head again in Australia this week after the tribute sites to two murdered Queensland youths were defaced by pornography, bestiality and statements about one of the alleged killers that could be prejudicial to a fair trial. It didn’t help that the two crimes were extremely emotive. 12-year-old Brisbane student Elliott Fletcher was killed after being stabbed in a school playground brawl with a 13-year-old charged with his murder. And 350km north in Bundaberg, 8-year-old Trinity Bates was found murdered near her home after being abducted from her bedroom.

With an estimated eight million Australians (over a third of the population) now on Facebook, it was only natural the social networking site would be a central point of communal grief over the murders. Thousands of well-wishes and sympathisers flocked to the tribute sites of both children. However it wasn’t long before they descended into grubbiness. On the page dedicated to Fletcher, photos and messages started appearing of murder, child porn, race-hate and bestiality forcing the removal of the page. A similar thing happened to the Bates tribute page where posters also called for the death of the man accused of Trinity’s murder.

The incidents caused Queensland Premier Anna Bligh to write a letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg asking whether he could do anything to prevent a recurrence of these types of incidents. Bligh said the posting of pornography and illegal messages on tribute sites for Bates and Fletcher had compounded the grief over their deaths. "To have these things happen to Facebook pages set up for the sole purpose of helping these communities pay tribute to the young lives lost in the most horrible way adds to the grief already being experienced," Bligh wrote. "And it is something no parent should have to deal with when coming to terms with the loss of their child."

Facebook have yet to formally respond to Bligh. But Facebook’s Director of Communications and Public Policy Debbie Frost said the site had rules to check content and reviewers were quick to respond to any reports of hate or threats against an individual, pornography, or violent photos or videos, and would remove the content, and either warn or disable the accounts of those responsible. "Facebook is highly self-regulating, and users can and do report content that they find questionable or offensive," Frost said. In the Fletcher case, the most Facebook could do was remove the groups and disable the accounts of the people responsible. “It is simply not possible to prevent a person with a sinister agenda from undertaking offensive activity anywhere on the Internet where people can post content,” said Frost. “Nor is it really possible in real life.”

Meanwhile News Ltd’s The Punch pointed out inconsistencies in the calls for the death of the person charged for the murder. “If this happened in a newspaper or on a major news website,” The Punch’s editor Paul Colgan wrote, “the editor would be at risk of going to jail.” Colgan was alluding to the vexed issue whether social network entries can be considered as publications under the law. He also raised several questions related to “the ongoing safety of general Facebook users and what the company is doing to protect the public from being exposed to unsolicited pornographic or obscene material”.

But social networking maven Laurel Papworth launched a vigorous defence of Facebook today and said they cannot be held responsible for the actions of people using the site. Papworth told the ABC she was “actually quite scared of Facebook starting to act as censors of our discussions.” She said other people created the pages and with 400 million members worldwide it is similar to asking Australia Post to be responsible for letters that they deliver or telcos to be responsible for dodgy SMS messages. "It's not their responsibility to be the police of humanity,” she said. "We still get spam, but we have learnt now to put it into the spam folder and move on.”

Papworth is right. Attitudes and the law will adapt to the way people use new technologies. A moral panic against the technology will sell newspapers but it won’t solve the problem highlighted by the Fletcher and Bates cases. That’s not to say Facebook are blameless. Their tendency to treat privacy issues in cavalier fashion will come back to haunt them as the worldwide user base rapidly approaches saturation point. The final word should go to Daniel Solove who wrote about the issue in his seminal text The Future of Reputation
“Although the internet poses new and difficult issues, they are variations on some timeless problems: the tension between privacy and free speech, the nature of privacy, the virtues and vices of gossip and shaming, the effect of new technologies on the spread of information, and the ways in which law, technology and norms interact. New technologies do not just enhance freedom, but also alter the matrix of freedom and control in new and challenging ways”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

US continues to dominate world military spending

I stumbled across a revealing pie chart today of global distribution of military expenditure in 2008. The source was the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook of 2009 and showed that the US spending alone was over two fifths of the entire total. China, France, the UK and Russia (the other members of the UN Security Council) account for another fifth, as do the next 10 countries with the rest of the world accounting for the last fifth. Among other things it confirms the old Eisenhower line that the US remains under the influence of the military-technological complex. And its dominance of world affairs is not about to end any time soon - unless it is undone Soviet-style by budget woes.

US military spend continues to rise. Earlier this month President Obama sought congressional approval for $708b in defense spending. The request included a 3.4 percent boost in the Pentagon's base budget and $159b for missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. The president’s spending freeze on other parts of the budget, designed to rein in the massive deficit, clearly did not apply to the military. The defense department said the funds are needed for a variety of costs including everything from health care to nuclear missiles. Obama said the budget proposal included cuts of "unnecessary defence programs that do nothing to keep us safe” but Defence Secretary Robert Gates claimed the overall increase was due to “broader range of security challenges on the horizon.”

As Chinese news agency Xinhua reasonably asks Why Does US Defence Spending Keep Growing? At a time of economic uncertainty and a national deficit of $1.6 trillion, and a scaled down presence in Iraq and Afghanistan the Pentagon remains immune from cutbacks. Xinhua notes Obama sought congressional approval for $708b in defense spending so it could keep up its role of “global policeman”.

The Department of Defense doesn’t use such emotive language. It said the funding increase allows them “to address its highest priorities, such as the president's commitment to reform defense acquisition, develop a ballistic missile defense system that addresses modern threats, and continue to provide high quality healthcare to wounded service members.” There is a focus on increasing funding of unmanned aircraft while the Pentagon strategy also moves away from the old focus on developing the capability of fighting two major wars simultaneously.

The other big reason for the increase is across the board pay rises. In the 2010 budget, Congress authorised an increase of 3.4 percent, which was 0.5 percent more than requested. This year defence officials will ask Congress to keep the pay raise capped at 1.4 percent. The Army’s base budget request of $143.4 billion is designed to support a force of 547,400 active-duty soldiers, 358,200 National Guardsmen and 205,000 Army Reservists. There is also an ongoing 22,000-soldier expansion of the active component that could bring the service’s personnel strength to nearly 570,000 by the end of 2011.

However nearly all of the increased spending of the last decade can be directly attributed to the impact of 9/11. The average Defense Department budgets has gone up by more than two thirds since the era between 1954 and 2001 according to Carl Conetta at the Project on Defense Alternatives at the Commonwealth Institute in a report titled "An Undisciplined Defense: Understanding the 2-trillion-dollar Surge in U.S. Defense Spending." It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that fighting the supposed bogey of terrorism has been good business for the Pentagon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sudan about to sign Darfur agreement with Jem

The Sudanese Government is about to sign a peace treaty with Darfur’s largest opposition group the Justice Equality Movement (Jem). Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir arrived in Doha, Qatar to sign a ceasefire and "framework" deal, listing agreements to be fleshed out in further negotiation, with Jem leader Khalil Ibrahim. The deal follows a preliminary framework agreement which both parties signed in Ndjamena in Chad. According to a French draft of the document seen by Reuters the deal involves Jem members taking positions in the Sudanese Government. It also includes humanitarian issues, Internally Displaced Persons, wealth and power sharing, and release of Darfuri war prisoners. (photo of Jem fighter by Gallo/Getty)

If the deal holds it will be a major breakthrough in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts of the 21st century. Over 300,000 people have died in genocidal fighting and almost three million people displaced with both parties guilty of war crimes. The Sudanese Government has inflicted the most casualties with its superior firepower and its co-opting of Janjaweed militias. However the deal with Jem does not guarantee the bloodshed will stop.

There are two other major groups in Darfur not covered by the agreement: Abdelwahid Sudan Liberation Army (mainly composed of Fur tribespeople) and Minni Minnawi Sudan Liberation Army (Zahawa people). The Minnawi faction signed a separate deal with Khartoum in 2006 however the hardline Abdelwahid faction has yet to come to terms with al-Bashir’s administration.

But Jem is by far the largest of the anti Khartoum forces in Darfur. Its leaders claim they have as many as 35,000 well-armed fighters in the region. The group was founded in 2000 following the publication of The Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in the Sudan. Jem members say northern Sudanese Arabs are disproportionately represented within the Khartoum government and political elite, leaving southern Africans and western Arabs disenfranchised and impoverished.

Two years ago Jem fighters launched the first rebel attack on the Sudanese capital itself. They intended to topple the government and were only defeated once they had already reached the outskirts of Omdurman, near Khartoum. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's president was sufficiently unnerved by the attack to instigate peace talks with Jem. On the weekend he cancelled death sentences handed out to more than 100 men accused of taking part in the Khartoum attack and promised to free 30 percent of them "immediately".

He will be hoping that an agreement will come in time for elections in April - the country's first multiparty elections in 24 years. He is also facing a referendum next year on independence for South Sudan. However the Sudan Tribune is reporting that Egypt is asking the two major partners in Sudan’s national unity government to delay both the elections and the referendum until the North-South disputed items are resolved and there is a peaceful settlement in Darfur. It is unlikely Khartoum will agree to these demands but the Tribune says Jem may make it a pre-condition of the Doha signing.

The other tricky issue for al-Bashir is how it will affect his status at the International Criminal Court. The ICC chief prosecutor issued a warrant for al-Bashir’s arrest in 2009 on crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity. However the court ruled the Sudanese president could not be prosecuted for genocide, saying the prosecutor failed to reasonably prove al-Bashir had genocidal intent. Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo appealed the ruling and earlier this month the ICC's appeals chamber ordered the court to reconsider its decision to omit genocide from al-Bashir's list of charges, saying the initial ruling had been affected by "an error of law" for setting the threshold of evidence too high. This means the court's pre-trial judges will have to rule again on the matter.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Polyphonic Spree perform in Brisbane

My second visit to the Powerhouse on Friday was to see the American band the Polyphonic Spree. The Spree is a Texan outfit with anything from 17 to 27 members on stage at any one time. Possibly due to the difficulties of playing in Australia (though this was their second visit in two years) they were down to the “bare bones” 17 that took the stage in New Farm. This included two percussionists, two guitarists, a bassist, three piece brass section, four piece Polyphonic Choir, a flautist, a keyboard player, two piece strings and front man and lead singer Tim DeLaughter. DeLaughter and fellow Polyphonics Pirro and Bryan Wakeland were in the band Tripping Daisy which disbanded in 1999 after the drug overdose death of guitarist Wes Berggren.

I always wondered how DeLaughter and co managed to make money out of touring given the number of band members and they went further in this tour handing out hundreds of free hats, Indian chief headgear, necklaces, masks and bracelets. It made for a colourful audience who expectantly waited for the Spree to emerge from behind the screen.

The foliage was dense.

Finally the band did emerge and put on a terrific show with their own music interspersed by such eclectic offerings as Paul McCartney's Live and Let Die,Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline and Nirvana's Lithium.

Went upstairs to get a better view. This was a restricted ticket area only but I mumbled something about being a journalist and was allowed to take a few photos before being booted out.

foliage heaven.

Cowboys entertaining Indians.

A clue to how the band pays for its expenses. Apparently DeLaughter also makes big money from UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's use of "Light and Day / Reach For the Sun" for its advertising.

Tim takes centre stage.

Tim takes side stage.

Stuck in the middle again with you.

Mad balloon time.

End of Act 1. Just Tim left on stage with half the Polyphonic Choir.

More balloons yet to fall.

The Interval shows the foliage in all its glory.

Back for Part 2 in traditional kafkan garb.

Now its paper time and the venue briefly resembles an Argentinian football game.

I loved the Polyphonic parapharnalia over the stage.

More paper lace.

Finally the white balloons are released.

As Tim takes the final encore.

Time for a victory salute.

Before bowing to the audience.

And lining up to say farewell. An enjoyable (and eventful) gig is over.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Walkley Photo award exhibition at the Powerhouse

On another enjoyably busy weekend in Brisbane I went to the New Farm Powerhouse twice on Friday for different events. The first was the Walkley Press Photo 2010 exhibition and the second was a gig by American band the Polyphonic Spree (which I’ll feature tomorrow night). Every year more than 1000 photographs are judged for selection in the Walkley Press Photo Awards. This exhibition showcases over 100 works by Australia’s best photojournalists selected on the short list nomination for the Walkley Award. The photos chronicle the news, events, elation and tragedy of the year in media. Sorry about the glare in the photos of the photos. While I take photos as part of my job, I doubt if I’ll be worrying the Walkley panel on this evidence.

Renee Nowytarger of The Australian won the 2009 Nikon-Walkley Press Photographer of the Year. This was one of her photos called Tears of Stolen Love. The woman in the photo is 33-year-old Essina Sullivan who was a member of the Stolen Generation. Essina was captured crying as she spoke of her removal from her family in Northern NSW aged just two. It was her last memory of her grandmother who was beating her hand on the boot of the car that removed Sullivan from her family.

This photo “Displaced Future” is by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate Geraghty who was a finalist for best photographic essay in the 2009 Walkley Awards. Geraghty flew to the DRC where five million have died and another million displaced making it the world's deadliest conflict since World War II. Geraghty visited the displacement camps near Goma in eastern DRC. Conditions inside the camps are dire, rows and rows of banana humpies housing entire families with nothing but volcanic rock to sleep on. Thousands queue for food and water and diseases such as dysentery and cholera spread throughout the camps filling the mass graves in near by banana plantations. Geraghty said “many I photographed had lost everything, were terrified, in shock and in mourning but I also encountered dignity and hope where one would expect to find anger and bitterness.”

"Bekasi Waste" by Kate Geraghty. This haunting image is of 91-year-old Muchitar walking down a mountain of rubbish as the day breaks over the Bantar Gebang rubbish dump in the Jakarta suburb of Bakasi. Muchitar scavenges for rubbish, among 5,000 people doing the same at the dump.

This was Brad Hunter’s Lin Family Funeral. The quiet Sydney suburb of Epping was shocked when an entire family was murdered last July. Newsagency owner Min Lin and his family were found bludgeoned to death in their beds. On 8 August over a thousand mourners from the local community paid their respects to the five Lin family members at the Badgery Pavilion in Homebush. Hunter is a photographer at the Northern District Times and he took this shot at the Pavilion.

This was the press photo of the year by Renee Nowytarger. Called “Party Blues” it captures then Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull at a retirement home the day after an unfavourable news poll. The photo epitomises Turnbull’s position (and self-pity) which was soon to become untenable. See a better version of the photo here.

This was one of the many iconic photos from Black Saturday when 179 people died in bushfires in Victoria on 7 February 2009. The Age’s Jason South took this photo of an exhausted firefighter at an unknown location.

This was another Black Saturday moment captured by Alex Coppel of the Melbourne Herald-Sun as firefighters are forced to retreat as a giant wave of flame approaches. The photo was infamously used by a London tabloid (the Daily Mail if memory serves) with the odious headline “hey Bruce the fire is that way”.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Iceland aims to become the Caymans of journalism

A group of Icelandic MPs have launched an exiting new collaboration to turn the country into a haven of investigative journalism. The MPs are collaborating with Wikileaks to amend laws to grant protection for journalists, sources and whistleblowers. The plan would also provide data storage facilities as well as combating “libel tourism”, the practice of bringing defamation charges wherever the law is most attractive for the plaintiff. The intention is to provide a comprehensive Freedom of Information Act, whistleblower and source protections, limited prior restraint, protection for ISPs and protection from the insidious act of “libel tourism”.

The proposal submitted to the Althing (Icelandic Parliament) yesterday asks the government to find ways to strengthen freedoms of expression and information freedom in Iceland, as well as providing strong protections for sources and whistleblowers. The proposal requests changes to law, and an examination of the legal environments of other countries to get a “best of breed” law in freedoms of expression and information. It also recommends the establishment of an international prize to be called The Icelandic Freedom of Expression Award.

The aim is to turn the island nation of 350,000 people into the world's first "offshore publishing centre." According to Mother Jones, the proposals could turn Iceland into the Cayman Islands of journalism. It says the proposal is based on the business model of offshore financial centres like Switzerland, which attracts investors with an enticing combination of low taxes and strict bank secrecy laws. Iceland could be the equivalent for investigative journalists if, as expected, it passes what would be the strongest source protection and freedom of speech laws in the world.

The proposal is the brainchild of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative which addresses the key issues for freedom of expression in the digital age. The IMMI say Iceland is “at a unique crossroads”. The IMMI is feeding of the sense of change in the electorate as a result of the economic meltdown in the banking sector, in order to prevent it from taking place again. It also quotes Reporters Sans Frontiers who say Iceland dropped from first in the world for freedom of expression in 2007) to 9th last year. “It is time,” say IMMI’s founders, “this trend was rectified”.

The IMMI was drafted with help from Julian Assange and Daniel Schmitt, two of the founders of Wikileaks. WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange has been in Iceland for the past two months, consulting parliamentarians on the project. Assange says Wikileaks has fought off more than 100 legal attacks over the past three years by spreading assets assets, encrypting everything, and moving telecommunications and people around the world. He says the Iceland will adopt the strongest press and source protection laws from around the world.

Assange said the move was driven by Icelandic people who have just suffered the largest economic meltdown of any country per capita in the GFC. He said Icelanders believe fundamental change was needed in order to prevent such events from taking place again including better bank regulation and better media oversight of dirty deals between banks and politicians. He quotes the “libel tourism” of Iceland’s largest bank Kaupthing which brought a successful suit against a Danish tabloid, Ekstra Bladet, in London where the costs of fighting libel is prohibitive. Iceland’s second largest bank Landsbanki also sued a Danish media outlet over its Russian mafia connections.

Icelandic writer and blogger Alda Sigmundsdottir says the aim of the proposed legislation is not to allow people to publish freely any old rubbish and get away with it. “The point is not to make Iceland a haven for tabloids, paedophiles or similar low-level activities,” she said. Sigmundsdottir said the idea was to create a framework wherein investigative journalism and free speech can flourish. “Anything that is illegal will still be illegal,” she said. “The amendments will not change that.

However the Citizen Media Law Project says that while the laws are well-intentioned, they probably won’t achieve much because of the principle that publication happens at the point of download, not the point of upload. It quotes the famous (or more correctly infamous) case of Dow Jones v Gutnick where Melbourne tycoon Joe Gutnick sued Barron's Online for publishing a supposedly defamatory article about him. Gutnick applied the writ in Victoria where only a handful of people read the article but the Australian High Court ruled this was where Gutnick’s reputation was and ruled against Barron’s.

For better or worse, says the CMLP, the poorly thought-out Australian ruling has set the precedent in similar cases around the world since. So while Iceland’s protections will suit Wikileaks they will not be useful for multi-national media companies. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain believes it was unclear how broadly the laws could be applied should they pass. "Unless the executives behind a particular media company are themselves prepared to move to Iceland, I'm not sure how substantial the protections can be," he said. "A state can still demand that someone on its territory answer questions or turn over information on pain of fines or imprisonment."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Scammers use Haiti earthquake for online fraud

The Haiti earthquake had an unintended consequence of driving up phishing and scam attacks across the Internet in the first month of this year. In the days after the Haiti quake, scammers asked users to donate money to a charity however any donation disappeared into an offshore bank account. Building on this, spammers began to send phishing messages, pretending to be from legitimate organisations like UNICEF. Hackers also took advantage of the tragedy to deliver malware. In one example, users download a Trojan when they click on the link to view a supposed video of the earthquake damage. The findings were in the monthly State of Spam and Phishing report from Symantec. (photo by alex_lee2001)

The report found both scam and phishing categories doubled as in percentage of all spam in January 2010 compared to a month earlier. The total of scam and phishing messages came in at 21 percent of all spam, which is the highest level recorded since the inception of the report. As well as Haitian scams, the report found the well-known Nigerian 419 scam (named for the section of the Nigerian penal code which addresses fraud schemes) was on the rise again as was online pharmacy spam.

Symantec say spammers have changed their tactics regarding online pharmacy spam. They have now taken to using subject lines such as “Must-Know Rules of Better Shopping” and “You Must Know About This Promotion” which are vaguer than “RE: SALE 70% OFF on Pfizer.” Other misleading subject lines such as “Confirmation Mail” and “Special Ticket Receipt” were also used for online pharmacy spam messages.

They also say phishing attacks are getting more and more targeted in nature and are focused on attacking major brands rather than being mass attacks. Symantec observed a 25 percent decrease from the previous month in all phishing attacks. The decline was primarily due to a decrease in the volume of phishing toolkit attacks which have halved from the previous month. A 16 percent decrease was observed in non-English phishing sites as well. More than 95 Web hosting services were used, which accounted for 13 percent of all phishing attacks, a decrease of 12 percent in total Web host URLs when compared to the previous month.

The US remains the most likely point of origin of spam. Approximately one in four of all spam is American-based with Brazil next most likely far behind in second place with just 6 percent. India, Germany and Netherlands are responsible for 5 percent each. The US is even more dominant in the categories of geo-location of phishing lures and hosts with 52 percent of the former category and 49 percent of the latter. Germany is second far behind with 6 percent in both categories.

Symantec notes that China has clamped down on spamming by suspending new overseas .cn domain registrations. The China Internet Network Information Center stated this suspension will allow them to implement a better procedure to verify registrant information from overseas registrations. This was a follow-up action to a related move in mid-December that required additional paperwork with registrations. As a result, spam messages with .cn domain URL dropped by more than half in January, compared to December with a steep drop towards end of January.

The report also found a new trend in adult oriented phishing. The phishing site tempts the unwary by promising free pornography after logging in or signing up. These scams affect users who enter their credentials in the hopes of obtaining pornography. Upon entering login credentials, the site redirects to a pornographic website before leading to a fake antivirus site containing malicious code. An incredible 92 percent of adult phishing scams were on social networking sites. The phishing sites were created using free webhosting services.

The report offers advice so familiar it beggars belief so many people are still falling victims. It talks about unsubscribing from lists, keeping your mail address secret, deleting all spam, avoid clicking on suspicious links and email attachments or replying to spam, don’t fill in forms online that ask for personal information and finally don’t forward virus warnings which are usually hoaxes. Spamming is a multi-billion dollar industry that relies on the truth of the hoary phrase that “there’s a sucker born every minute”.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

2010 election: Much ado about nothing

Sometime later year Australia will go to the polls to elect a federal government. Following previous precedents, the incumbent Labor administration will be returned to office with a similar majority it gained in 2007 or slightly less. Both sides of politics will portray this is a victory. For Kevin Rudd, there is the obvious success of being returned as Prime Minister a second time at an election – a feat only ever achieved by three Labor leaders (Andrew Fisher, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke). Meanwhile the Coalition will paint a narrow defeat as a success for their strategy of appealing to the right-wing base when it handed Tony Abbott the leadership in a three-way ballot on 1 December last year.

But first to Rudd, for whom the result will be the end product of three years of communications discipline and dedication to the task. This is something he learned from his predecessor John Howard, an equally ruthless electioneerer. Nothing else – be it the GFC, climate change, or reform in education and industrial relations - has come remotely close in Rudd’s everyday calculations. Ever since 25 November 2007, Rudd’s Government has been devoted to one task: how to stay in office in 2010.

Rigid control of communications is the key and Rudd’s closest acolytes are in his PR machine and kitchen cabinet (Gillard, Swan and Tanner). The downside of such a tightly-run communication strategy is that it has left Rudd looking inflexible, remote, humourless and without charisma. Having personally seen Rudd in action at one of the community cabinets in 2008, I can confirm that he is flexible, engaging, and humorous though he is never quite charismatic. But Rudd has been perfectly willing to sacrifice these attributes when dealing with the medium that still most decides elections: television.

His Government deserves credit too for mastering the strategy. With the possible exception of Peter Garrett (whose previous life allows him frequent gaffe credit points which he continues to spend at an inordinate rate), they have been a superbly efficient team that has also managed to successfully communicate the message du jour. And despite the fact that Rudd is a somewhat isolated figure within the party and not attached to any of the factions, they have offered resolute and unquestioning support for his leadership.

It is the matter of leadership which has been the Achilles Heel of the Opposition and a direct consequence of Peter Costello’s refusal to go down with the ship in 2007. Brendan Nelson was a lightweight who offered only comic value as leader. Malcolm Turnbull was a brilliant mind but too out of touch with the zeitgeist of the party and too arrogant to even see there was a problem. Joe Hockey ruled himself out with his ETS conscience vote (though I happen to agree with him that voting on climate change ought to be a primary matter of conscience) and fell between the two precarious stools of the party room.

That left Tony Abbott as last man standing. So far he has enjoyed a good run in the media which is keen to run with his pitch as a virile outdoorsy leader standing in stark contrast to the nerdy PM. It is a risky strategy that could alienate as much as it attracts but so far it is working well. Each photo op of Abbott's pre-dawn lycra excursions or weekend “budgie smuggling” manages to exude an air of virility that was lacking in previous Liberal leadership teams. It also acts as a distraction to the fact that the extreme right has taken over the party and he is surrounded by a bunch of ageing has-beens that looked tired in the Howard era and doesn't look any more inviting five years later.

Abbott is the same age as Rudd so will feel he has plenty of mileage ahead of him. It is unlikely he will want to stand aside as leader in defeat and if he manages to keep the majority of his comrades in office he will be regarded with affection by sitting MPs who thought they were heading to the slaughterhouse as recently as six months ago. But the net result of Abbott retaining power in the party is to make a Coalition victory in 2013 more unlikely. Though the 2010 political narrative has been about the success of Abbott’s aggressive “opposition to everything” approach, it cannot be sustained in the longer run and will make the party seem obstructionist and negative. No one will be listening to him in 2012 if he is still spouting on about a “great, big tax”.

Of course on one level, Abbott is on the money: an Emissions Trading System is indeed a “great, big tax”. But working properly, that is what it is designed to do. It is designed to make traditional means of creating power more expensive so that we move away to non-carbon alternatives. If he was really serious about tackling this problem, Abbott could go further and attack Labor’s hypocrisy over nuclear energy it is prepared to sell but not use. But Abbott is heart a populist without the stomach for a campaign against the large NIMBY opposition it would attract.

Make no mistake, if Australia is to have any chance of getting to 2050 with 80 percent emissions reductions it has to go nuclear - and soon, given the long lead times to build power stations. It may only be a temporary measure for 20 to 30 years while the technology to convert solar or wind energy for mass baseload is ironed out. But that doesn’t make it any less urgent. Or unfortunately any more likely. Rudd is perfectly aware of nuclear possibilities but his dedicated eye to election mechanics stops him from looking too closely at it. The Greens are also too blinded by their environmental purity to actually do anything concrete to solve the problem (witness how they dealt themselves out of the ETS debate last year). And so when scholars of the future look back on the 2010 election, all they will see is squandered opportunity and rank political hypocrisy across the spectrum. Happy voting.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Two months in: Thoughts of a new journalist

In the preface to his book “Not for Publication”, ABC journalist Chris Masters noted how the practice of journalism was imprecise. Masters said journalists are constantly in a rush “calculating the odds of what will become objective truth, based on limited primary information and intelligence.” Faced with this apparently insurmountable difficulty, Masters concluded that journalists survive only by “being right more often than not”. In this world of limitless possibilities and limited time and information, it is judgement that sets apart a good journalist from a mediocre one. (photo of Roma Saleyards by Derek Barry)

Barely two months into my career as a journalist, I have no idea yet which side of the fence I’m going to end up on. I’m confident that in the dozens of stories I’ve written so far I’ve been right more often than I’ve been wrong. But the wrong ones are more memorable because they have consequences that you know about. Very few people ring in to tell you how wonderful such and such a story was (though it has happened and I’m delighted when it happens). But I always know when I get it wrong. People ring in, write in or arrive at the office telling me exactly how and where I got a matter wrong. I’ve had people in tears, people irate, and people shaking their head at the obvious venality of journalists and all because I printed something in the newspaper that was wrong, or misquoted someone or misspelt a name or missed a vital detail.

Imprecision is a daily hazard in a busy environment. And the fact is that much of the news I report has unsavoury consequences for someone, so I can face abuse even when I get the facts right. The other day, a young woman crashed her car into a bottle tree on a nearby street. The car was a write-off but the woman wasn’t seriously hurt. We found out about it and took some photos of the ambulances and police. Someone told us her name and we printed that in the story including an eye-witness account that she was seen running across the road to where her boyfriend works.

Today the lady appeared in the office with her Mum and both were visibly upset and angry. The girl said we had made a laughing stock of her and “everyone knew about it”. Her Mum wanted to know why we printed the name when other reports didn’t have that detail. I defended the story as factually accurate and said we were duty bound to our readers to print the name if we knew it. After 15 minutes of heated discussion, they left slightly mollified but still very unhappy.

Are newspapers really that powerful still that my words can have such a reaction? The answer is obviously yes. I was in a pub last night where I struck up a conversation with a young Canadian lad who had just started in the oil industry here in Roma. He was initially willing to have a friendly chat but when I told him I was a journalist, he immediately clammed up. “I’m not allowed to talk to the media,” he told me. I wasn’t after him for a story but both he and I realised the conversation was finished. The oil and gas industries are not alone in their press paranoia. All the big companies and government departments here have similar rules. No-one from council (except the mayor, CEO and communications officer) can talk to me, nor can anyone from the department of health.

And so when there is a problem such as that arose last week at Roma Hospital with mass resignations of doctors, I found it difficult to get at an objective truth of what happened. I couldn't speak to anyone at the hospital and got shunted to a media unit in Brisbane where I got a carefully crafted, bland and heavily spun message that only vaguely approximated to the truth. It may not have been Queensland Health’s fault that the doctors resigned but their caginess in providing an answer only serves to increase suspicion there is a problem. And so media policies designed to keep an organisation “on message” usually turn out to be counter-productive. Journalists and the public become cynical when constantly provided a diet of unrelenting positivity. And those with a genuine grievance within the organisation will spill the beans anonymously (as has happened at Roma Hospital) and often with a lot more openness than if they were allowed to speak freely on the record.

I’m making it sound like I am not enjoying myself here and nothing could be further from the truth. I love the town and I am delighted people are reading my work and engaging with it. I get a kick out of that and hope that The Western Star is providing a genuinely useful service of describing Roma and the surrounding district to itself. But in the absence of objective truth, I certainly need to develop a thicker skin about criticism and get over my unrealistic desire to please everyone. It is simply impossible. But some things are possible. Getting people’s names right 100 percent of the time would be a useful start. It would not only eliminate a lot of criticism, it is also a basic courtesy to the reader.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Public service workers strike in Greece as austerity measures kick in

Greek public service workers have launched a nationwide strike in protest at government measures to tackle the country's crippling budget deficit. The strike has affected airports, schools, hospitals and government offices across the country as workers fight government attempts to freeze pay, impose taxes and reform pensions. It is the latest headache for beleaguered new socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou who had had to deal with a three-week protest by farmers demanding higher government subsidies. This week he has raised the average retirement age, frozen public sector salaries and increased taxes on petrol.

Greece's deficit currently stands at 12.7 percent which is four times higher than eurozone rules allow. Its debt is soaring towards half a trillion dollars with markets sceptical the country will be able to bail itself out. There is a strong possibility that Greece, Spain or Portugal will default on its debts and require them to either abandon the euro or get an EU bailout. European governments have agreed in principle to support Greece and are considering various options, including bilateral aid. German self-interest to keep the euro zone strong is likely to lead to an aid package from Berlin. It is also arguable Germany has a duty of care. Greece's troubles originated when low interest rates that were inappropriate for Greece were maintained to rescue Germany from an economic slump.

If the eurozone does not come to the rescue, a more desperate option would be to turn to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has helped other eastern European countries like Latvia and Hungary in 2009 but it hasn't had to intervene in the eurozone. This would be a blow to the euro’s prestige and significantly the only support from the idea is coming from non-euro countries such as the UK and Sweden. Former Bank of England policy maker Charles Goodhart said that while such a move would be a precedent, the amount of money required to rescue the Greek fiscal position is relatively minor. “I would ask the IMF to come in,” he said. “From the European point of view, it’s the least bad option.”

There are also untested legal issues to deal with as there is no clear procedure for bailing out a euro zone economy. Article 122 of the EU treaty says the EU Council can decide "upon the measures appropriate to the economic situation", but should be used only if severe difficulties arise in the supply of certain products, notably energy. The treaty also states Council may grant, under conditions, financial assistance to a member state, if that state "is in difficulties or is seriously threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences beyond its control".

The problem is that it was the difficulties were not beyond Greece’s control. The Greek deficit got out of control due to a mixture of incompetence and deceit. Successive Greek governments had managed to pull the wool over the eyes of Brussels’ bureaucrats until the new Pasok Government doubled the projected GDP deficit from 6 to 12 percent late last year. Greece needs to raise almost $100 billion this year to refinance existing debt and keep paying salaries and pensions. Because most of that is front-loaded into the first six months, the government plans to raise 40 percent of it by April whatever the cost. To bankers this smacks of desperation and ratings agencies reacting by downgrading Greece’s credit rating thus making their loans even more expensive.

What the issue is bringing to the table are inherent problems within the eurozone. The currency cannot be devalued because the same currency is used by 16 countries with economies in wildly differing states of health. That means that while Greece’s ability to repay is being crippled by austerity measures, there is no way to lower the cost of the debt. Cuts inflicted on the eurozone's weaker economies highlight a fundamental weakness: the lack of a centralised budgetary mechanism, such as exists in the US, to move resources as needed around the EU. Gerard Lyons, chief economist at Standard Chartered said if monetary union is to survive, it has to become a political union. “If it doesn't there is likely to be some sort of implosion and a move towards a two-speed Europe,” he said.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Government gives $240 million bribe to commercial TV stations

Channel Ten and Seven shares have soared in the wake of the Government’s cynical bribe of the free-to-air commercial channels yesterday. Ten Network Holdings gained 8.9 per cent to $1.65 and Seven Network rose 2.1 per cent to $6.86 after the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy gave hefty licence fee “rebates” to the three commercial stations.

Under the deal, the Government will cut licence fees paid by the networks, which calculated at 9 per cent of gross advertising revenues, by 33 per cent for the 2010 financial year and 50 per cent for the 2011 financial year. The move will significantly boost the earnings for media groups Ten Network, Seven Network and Nine (the latter is owned by private equity company CVC and not on the share market). Instead of paying $286 million in licence fees they will pay $192m in 2010 and just $143m in 2011.

The grubby deal has Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s hands all over it. He and Conroy brokered it with industry group Free TV Australia chair Wayne Goss, a close friend of Rudd and his former boss as premier of Queensland. The Australian says the deal is part of the post digital cutover negotiation. The government could earn a $1 billion when it sells the analogue spectrum after the digital cutover in 2013. Telecommunications companies want the spectrum to build high-speed fourth generation wireless networks.

But it is not hard to see a more immediate political agenda at work. As Glenn Dyer reminds us, this is an election year. Rudd has been toadying up to all the television networks of late in an effort to look good on what remains by far the more important communication medium available to him. It is unlikely the TV stations will be keen to give him bad coverage now that he has showered them in such largesse. Dyer said the deal is also a sweetener to keep the networks onside during the digital transition.

Fellow Crikey writer Bernard Keane (articled paywalled) is also deeply unimpressed. Keane says the free-to-air networks are already handsomely compensated for the transition to digital. These policies include a moratorium on competition until at least 2014, the award of free spectrum for digital take-up, the most restrictive sports anti-siphoning laws in the world, and a grant of $260m to regional broadcasters to offset digital transmission costs. There is also a 20 percent tax rebate for production costs. As Keane notes, “this is an absolutely wretched decision”.

However outrage has been relatively muted outside Crikey (with the honourable exception of Peter Martin). Needless to say, the television stations themselves are not going to badmouth the deal. On the contrary, the Free TV Australia consortium, which represents all of Australia's commercial free-to-air television licencees, welcomed the announcement. The body’s CEO Julie Flynn called it a recognition of the commercial’s key role in delivering Australian content. “Free TV broadcasters are the major underwriters of Australian content despite the challenge of competing media platforms and fragmenting audiences,” she said. “But it is clear that as we moved to a converged media environment the basis for the old system of licence fees needs to be reviewed".

Conroy himself also sought to sell the decision as content protection even though there was no new initiative in that direction. He said the rebate recognised the importance of ensuring TV audiences have strong levels of Australian programs. It also addresses problems with the digital cutover and the fact that licence fees in Australia are more expensive compared with other countries such as the US, UK and Canada. Conroy said the Australian Content Standard required commercial television broadcasters to produce and screen 55 percent local content between 6am and midnight, 7 days per week, and provides for the production of Australian drama and children’s programming. “Broadcasters have a unique role in preserving our national culture and the commercial television sector invests hundreds of millions of dollars each year in the production of local content,” he said. “New media platforms are bringing a wealth of choice to Australian viewers, but the Government recognises that Australian television broadcasters have an important role in ensuring that Australian stories remain at the centre of our viewing experience.”

The Pay TV peak body Astra called the tax-breaks anti-competitive and against consumer interests. ASTRA’s Chief Executive Officer Petra Buchanan said taxpayers were subsidising foreign-owned broadcasters to meet existing broadcasting obligations. “It is couch potato policy that reduces their incentive to invest compete and innovate,” she said. “By using taxpayers’ money to prop up the old players, innovation and competition in the television space will continue to be curbed.” Buchanan is right to be outraged. This deal is bad as anything extracted during the Packer era and stinks to high heaven. Labour and the Opposition (which also supports the deal) ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Pew finds the young are deserting blogging for social media

A new report from the Pew Internet and American Life project has found blogging has dropped among teens and young adults while simultaneously rising among older adults since 2006. The findings suggest that as blogging has matured as a practice, so has its practitioners. The survey was conducted as one of a series of reports undertaken by the Pew Research Center to highlight the attitudes and behaviours of American adults ages 18 to 29. The report brought together recent findings about internet and social media use among young adults and situated it within comparable data for adolescents and adults older than 30. Pew surveyed 800 adolescents and 2,253 adults in 2009 to get their data. (photo:eurleif)

The report found the Internet is a crucial “central and indispensable element” of the lives of American teenagers and young adults. 93 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 went online, a number that has remained stable for three years. Nearly two-thirds of teen internet users go online every day. Families with teenage children are also most like to have a broadband connection (76 percent and up 5 points since 2006). It will probably surprise no one that the older you get, the less likely you are to be connected to the net. 74 percent of adults use the internet. But that number is skewed because younger adults (18-29) go online at a rate equal to that of teens (at 93 percent).81 percent of adults aged 30-49 are online while just 38 percent (but still rising) of those over 65 are hooked up.

Use of gadgets
is on the rise as the Internet increasingly moves away from the desktop and onto mobile and wireless platforms. But again the growth is skewed towards the young. In September 2009, Pew asked adults about seven gadgets: (however they listed just six: mobile phones, laptops and desktops, mp3 players, gaming devices and ebook readers). On average, adults owned just under three gadgets. Young adults of age 18-29 averaged nearly 4 gadgets while adults ages 30 to 64 average 3 gadgets. But adults 65 and older on average owned roughly 1.5 gadgets out of the 7.

While the desktop or laptop remains the dominant way of getting online, newer ways of connecting are making headway. More than a quarter of teen mobile phone users use their cell phone to go online. A similar number of teens with a game console (PS3, Xbox or Wii) use it to go online. One in five owners of portable gaming devices uses it for Internet access. Perhaps surprisingly white adults are less likely than African Americans and Hispanics to use the internet wirelessly. African Americans are the most active users of the mobile internet, and their use is growing at a faster pace than mobile internet use among whites or Hispanics.

Less of a surprise is the fact that teens are avid users of social networks. Three quarters of online American teens ages 12 to 17 used an online social network website, a statistic that has been growing at 7 percent each year since 2006. Teenagers are also more likely to use it as they get older. While more than 4 in 5 online teens ages 14-17 use online social networks, just a bit more than half of online teens ages 12-13 say they use the sites. Pew says this may be due to age restrictions on social networking sites that request that 12 year olds refrain from registering or posting profiles, but do not actively prevent it. The other notable statistic is that differences in gender are evening out ending the previous dominance of girls on social networks.

Usage of social networks stays constant in the 18-29 age group but then drops off rapidly for those over 40. Adults are also more likely to have profiles on multiple sites. Among adult profile owners, Facebook is currently the social network of choice; 73 percent of adults now maintain a profile on Facebook, 48 percent are on MySpace and 14 percent use LinkedIn. Analysis by education and household income show that support for Facebook and LinkedIn rises with both factors validating Danah Boyd’s research into the subject.

The news is not so good for Twitter. Pew’s September 2009 data suggest teens do not use the microblogging platform in large numbers. While one in five adult internet users ages 18 and older use Twitter or update their status online, teen data collected at a similar time show that only 8 percent of online American teens ages 12-17 use Twitter. Pew did add a rider to say the question for teens was worded quite differently from how the question was posed to adults so the results are not strictly comparable. With adults there was a sliding scale of Twitter usage with age. 37 percent of online 18-24 year olds use the platform compared to just 4 percent of over 65s.

But while use of all other web2.0 platforms was on the rise among the young, the striking exception was blogging. Teenage blogging has dropped from 28 percent to 14 percent of all users in the last three years. The decline spreads to commenting on other blogs. 52 percent of social network-using teens report commenting on friends’ blogs, down from 76 percent commenting in 2006. Young adults show a similar decline. However blog as a whole had not declined as there has been a corresponding increase in blogging among older adults. The hard work involved in blogging is increasingly becoming an old person’s game.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Nagorno Karabakh: Tensions escalate in the Black Garden

A senior US government official has described the unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus including Nagorno-Karabakh as one of the “most likely flashpoints in the Eurasia region”. Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair was speaking to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at the open Hearing on “Current and Projected Threats to the United States when he made the statement. But while events in Abkhazia and South Ossetia have gotten plenty of media attention in recent times, the “frozen war” between Armenia and Azerbaijan has fallen off the radar. (photo: Matthew Collin)

Blair said the war (dormant since 1994) may heat up again due to the complications of local international relations. There has been some progress in the past year toward Turkey-Armenia rapprochement, however this has affected the delicate relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and increases the risk of a renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Blair said. There was hope that the Turkey-Armenia border would be opened for the first time since 1993. But Turkey is baulking at Armenian calls to recognise the 1915 genocide and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has boxed himself in by proclaiming that the protocols for reconciliation will not be implemented until Armenia withdraws from occupied Azerbaijani territory.

That prospect seems extremely unlikely. Just how far away the sides are, was exposed in the somewhat surreal announcement this week from The Moscow Times that Armenia and Azerbaijan have “agreed on a preamble to an agreement” on the conflict. The principles of the agreement, first proposed in 2007, would see Armenia returning territories occupied by its troops that lie outside Karabakh proper to Azerbaijan but leaving a corridor linking Armenia with the disputed enclave on Azeri soil.

It is appropriate the Russians try to fix the problem as they caused the mess in the first place. The original name for the area in both Armenian and Azerbaijani was Karabakh (or Garabag) which meant “black garden”. Long a melting pot of Turkic, Armenian, Persian and Azeri influences, the area was subsumed into the Russian Empire in 1828. Under Russian influence the Muslim population declined as more Armenians moved into the province. After the Russian Revolution, the region descended into a series of wars that involved the Armenians, Azerbaijanis and British (who had defeated the Ottomans). Eventually the Red Army took over. Despite initial promises to give the province to Armenia, Stalin awarded it to Azerbaijan to placate a hostile Turkey. Under Soviet rule the appellation “Nagorno” meaning highland or mountainous was added to the name.

Under the Communist ideology, issues of nationalism rarely floated to the surface but tensions remained through the 20th century. As the union began to break up in the late 1980s the Azeri government took advantage by beginning ethic cleansing in the town of Askeran. But when the local legislative body voted for a union with Armenia, the area erupted in all out conflict. Over the next five years, more than a million Azerbaijanis and Armenians were driven from their homes and 30,000 people died.

The Russians negotiated a ceasefire in 1994 which holds tenuously to the present day. As a result of the conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts (which represents 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory) remain occupied by Armenian armed forces. The capital Stepanakert has been rebuilt, with financial support from Armenia and the huge Armenian diaspora. Peace talks have been the responsibility of the so-called OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by Russia, US and France. The Group has been attempting to broker an end to the dispute for over a decade. In 1997 they tabled settlement proposals seen as a starting point for negotiations by Azerbaijan and Armenia but not by the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh itself. When Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosyan tried to encourage the enclave to join the talks he was forced to resign amid cries of betrayal.

In 2006 Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum which voted for the approval a new constitution and referred to itself as a sovereign state. Azerbaijan declared the poll illegitimate but continued to talk peace. However tensions have risen in recent months after a series of tough statements from Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan's long-term dictatorial president. Aliyev has been growing in confidence as energy-rich Azerbaijan has been using some of its huge revenues from oil and gas sales to fund massive increases in defence expenditure. He had now warned that if peace talks don't deliver results, he could order a new offensive to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and the areas around it. Aliyev told military action was “a fundamental right of Azerbaijan”.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Flooding in Roma

The area of Roma I'm living in is doing a passable imitation of Venice at the moment. At around 5pm yesterday evening the normally trickling Bungil Creek peaked at 7 meters. It was enough to burst the banks and flood over the two bridges near my house. The roads around me became rivers and the gardens turned into swimming pools. So far, it is hasn’t been high enough to get into the houses but the Bureau of Meteorology is saying we are not finished with the rain.

The speed was a bit of a shock to me though the warning signs had been growing all week. We’ve had several decent falls during the week and the creek had been steadily getting higher. The cyclepath along the creek has been impassable since Monday but I still wasn’t expecting the water to get to the road level.

There was another huge downpour late on Thursday night and it was starting to wreak havoc Friday morning. I got up to go to work and had to cross the creek to get to Roma’s town centre. The waters had burst the banks and the bridge was under water. That was what the sign said ‘road under water’ not ‘road closed’. Nevertheless I wasn’t keen to drive across in my 2WD car until I saw someone else do it safely. I cagily followed the car across the bridge without incident.

When I got to the office, it was clear the town had suffered storm water drain damage during the night. The waters had gone down but they left the pavements caked with mud and very slippery. In the height of the downpour, some of the drains started to overflow and spilled water onto the lower side of the street. It was the second time this week that had happened. To be on the safe side I parked on the higher side in case it should happen again.

In the office the news soon came through from the SES they were expecting the floods to be bigger than 1997’s version. I knew immediately it was going to be a big day. A few weeks ago I’d done a retrospective in the paper about Roma floods of the past and the 1997 pics were impressive. As were the ones from the several flood events of the 1980s. Much of inland Australia is on a floodplain and Roma is no different. It has been flooded often enough that it caused a 19th century move of the town centre away from the creek.

I figured I would be taking lots of photos for the 2010 flood event so decided I needed to be dressed appropriately and drove home for a change of clothes. The bridge over the creek was now closed but there was a back way via a second higher bridge. I got past a couple of places where the road was “under water” but it was just safe enough to get through. When I got home, the waters were approaching the gate and my landlady was moving everything upstairs that needed to be kept dry. I grabbed a t-shirt, pair of shorts and thongs (footwear, just in case anyone is wondering) and headed back to town the way I came.

On Bungil St just south of where I lived the creek had also flooded the road. The problem here was that there was no other passable road in for those who lived on this street east of the creek. There was one other way in on foot via the Big Rig and I decided to check that out. The Big Rig celebrates Roma’s oil heritage and there is a kiddie train that goes over a footbridge on the creek. The waters had not risen that high and I crossed the footbridge to get to the east side of Bungil Road. I also had to cross the waterlogged sports grounds but it was easy enough barefoot.

The locals I met all looked happy and seemingly unfazed by the rising waters that were starting to get into their gardens. One owner admitted he did not have flood insurance but the atmosphere was almost party-like as they gathered around to admire the novelty of the rising waters. Only once was my own equanimity challenged when some kid casually asked me (perhaps hoping for a reaction) “had I seen a snake?” I said I hadn’t and he told me he’d only seen a baby one. I guess the waters would be flushing them out a bit.

There was an SES boat on hand to ferry people back to the “mainland” west of the creek but that was only being used by a few people to get to the shops or pick up kids from school. No-one was evacuating here just yet. One guy in his 80s was glued to his radio and swore loudly at the council who “couldn’t effin well tell him when the waters would peak”.

In this little field trip I had a camera but left the note pad in the car. I waded back to the footbridge (now extremely wary for snakes) and decided to go back to the office to download the photos. But before that I decided to check out the creek crossing on the main Brisbane road into town. Here the waters were flowing rapidly but just below the bridge so traffic wasn’t affected. While taking photos from the bridge, another 80 year old man joined me. I'd met him before and he sat down on the barrier next to me and chatted about floods past.

He had a cane which he twirled around to add dramatic effect to the stories he told. However I was worried because the shoulder on the bridge was narrow and I thought he would wave it into oncoming traffic which he had his back turned to. This was particularly dangerous whenever the occasional massive road train would shudder past us at 70kph barely a metre away. When I warned him of the impending danger, he pointed his cane imperiously at the dividing line on the ground and said “they can’t come past that”. True, but I was more worried about his cane in the air than on the ground.

Anyway, neither of us came to harm and I went back to the office. The other journalist had been out taking photos too and we compared notes before I headed back to the Creek. Again I went over the footbridge at the Big Rig and waded across the waterlogged grounds. Immediately I noticed the road had been become more flooded in the hour or so I was away and nearly every garden was inundated. Still the mood was optimistic and no house was yet flooded as far as I could tell. One owner on a side street pointed to the brackish water outside his house and said that meant it had peaked. But a few minutes later the SES guys with the boat told me the waters were still rising.

As the rain returned, I went back to the western side of the creek for some more photos. The Emergency guys there told me the creek was now up to 7m and still rising. As if the sight of roads resembling rivers wasn’t surreal enough, a rainbow rose above the scene. It was another picture to add to a great collection today. Finally around 6pm I decided to get back home on foot. I went over the creek bridge that was not overflowing but by now all the access roads to my house were closed. I had to walk back barefoot on the centre of the road as the water rose to waist level in parts.
At my house the waters had crossed the gate and waterlogged the entire garden. The water level had risen to the first of three steps into the house. Although the waters receded again overnight, they are still predicting rain for the next three days and it won’t take much for the inundation to rise further. One thing I’ve learned over the last few days is to not be surprised what water can do.