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By Indrajit Basu: Digital Community innovations from around the world.

Singapore: Asia’s Emerging Green Building Hub

September 14, 2011 By Indrajit Basu

You can't just walk into any recently built swanky condominium in Singapore. The sliding-glass doors in the lobby don’t open if you are not a resident or an authorized visitor.

But receive authorization from a resident and you enter an almost dark or under-lit lobby. Momentarily of course, since as soon as the motion-detector switches feel your presence, they light up the area automatically. Press the button for the elevator and its doors open to an under-lit car that, like the lobby, only lights up when occupied.  And as it starts its ascent, the lobby lights dim again.

Enter the apartments and you will find green measures all around; starting from automatic lighting to automatically controlled air-conditioning, automatic water taps, to increasingly ubiquitous automatic blinds.

As the small island nation embarks on its green building drive with renewed gusto, Singapore’s building stock has suddenly gotten much greener. With greener schools, office buildings, malls, industrial parks, public housing, factories and even greener demolition sites, Singapore has emerged as Asia’s greenest metropolis.

Earlier this year, in a study by consultancy firm Solidance, Singapore was ranked first for green building policies amongst other major cities in the Asia-Pacific region.

According to another study conducted by Siemens and the Economist Intelligence Unit, Singapore stands out in particular for its ambitious targets and its efficient approach to achieving them.

The city’s green building effort launched in 2005 has set a target of greening 80 per cent of its building stock by 2030.

Indeed, while the green movement rages globally thanks to skyrocketing energy prices, much of the efforts are centered on conservation of energy, reduction of greenhouse gases, and -- to some extent -- water conservation.

However, when it comes to greening buildings -- although forecasts indicate that by 2015 almost 80 percent of global greenhouse gas will be accounted for by urbanites -- the movement is still relatively young.

This is despite expert views -- like that of the International Institute of Environment and Development -- which say while cities are blamed for greenhouse gas emissions, that fact is, cities can be a large part of the solution. Undoubtedly, well-planned and well-governed cities can provide high living standards and still become green, and Singapore shows how that could be achieved.

But Singapore is notable for another reason. Different metropolises have drivers pushing them toward a greener building practice. For instance while the green initiative is industry-driven in the U.S. and consumer-driven in Australia and much of Europe, it is primarily a government-driven initiative in Singapore.

“Singapore has the most favorable green building ecosystem in Asia-Pacific,” says Damien Duhamel of Solidiance. “There is a very strong commitment and guidance from the Singapore government to overseeing this initiative.”

According to Duhamel, the government has provided a solid platform for green building efforts with not just policies, but also initiatives that encourage industry players.

For instance, the Singapore government takes an active role in academic research and development of green technologies and actively promotes consumer awareness.

The government has also launched a master plan under which all new and major renovation projects for public buildings must meet new green norms.

Besides, Singapore’s Legislature has set a framework to mandate that green building opportunities are not missed by private developments.

Technology has started playing a key role as well in this effort. Aside from usual high-tech applications like motion-detector lighting in toilets and stairwells, and waterless urinals, many buildings have started installing innovative solutions like photovoltaic panels. Use of eco-friendly materials such as green concrete -- that requires much less water for curing -- and light-reflective paints are becoming a common practice.

These days, newer buildings are even controlled by intelligent building management systems -- like intelligent lobbies and elevators -- that are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

According to Solidiance, the city has showcased its potential to become the regional green building showcase, especially with regard to tropical green building solutions.


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India Takes U.S. Help to Improve Cyber Security

July 27, 2011 By Indrajit Basu

Alarm bells have been ringing in India for a while now  -- ever since December 2009 in fact -- when that country discovered that Chinese hackers had launched an aggressive offensive on computer systems owned by the Indian government and the Dalai Lama.

But after three years of self-denial, while India tried in vain to thwart the cyber onslaught on its IT systems, a rattled Indian government is now rushing to the expertise of the U.S. to shield its cyber assets.

Last week, India and the U.S. inked a pact on cyber security to intensify information exchange on threats to computers and networks and initiate joint work on technologies against cyber-attacks.

The pact followed consultations led by the Indian and the U.S. National Security Councils on prospects for bilateral co-operation on cyber security issues, said a joint statement on the India-U.S. strategic dialogue.

The Indian CERT also admitted that cyber security-related threats are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Indeed, cyber espionage is seen as a threat equal in some respects to terrorism.

“Strangely, while India has the largest number of software engineers in the world, for some reason India can’t seem to get its cyber security together,” says Greg Walton, an independent cyber security expert who has advised the Indian government in the past on security issues.

Walton was one of the team members of a 10-month long investigation in 2009 that discovered massive espionage operations directed against Indian government computers.

“India is coming to the realization that cyber espionage in India is much worse than what was thought,” adds Walton.

For instance, according to latest CERT statistics, in May 2011 alone, Indian government systems confronted 151 computer security-related attacks of which more than half involved “phishing” -- or an intrusion that involves some form of identity theft.

The volatility of Indian cyber space can also be gauged from another incident early last year, when Indian CERT reported over 2,000 defacements of government sites in the first three months of the year.

To make matters worse, there have also been reports of cyber intruders descending on the IT establishments of sensitive government departments, such as the defence ministry and various Indian missions around the world, pilfering classified and restricted documents.

Though spoken in whispers, security analysts predictably feel that pranksters from neighboring countries, specifically China and Pakistan, are behind the recent incidents. However, some argue that although the majority of the attacks emerge from China-based servers, it does not necessarily mean they come from China per se.

Still, according to a research conducted by the Canada-based Information Warfare Monitor, the nature of the attacks and the types of data targeted point to China.

Software security firms -- like McAfee -- say India is under-prepared. The country not only has the lowest rate of security measures for its infrastructure, it is also an easy target legally.

For instance The Indian IT Act and related local laws are primarily oriented to addressing fraud and copyright violations; but they are not security oriented.

Moreover, “while government and specific agencies [in India] have woken up to the cyber security threats sometime back, the corporate sector hasn’t,” says Walton.

Small wonder then that the scientific adviser to the defence minister feels India is increasingly vulnerable. Convergence of technologies are posing a major challenge to cyber saecurity as well as evolving threats for the government’s network-centric systems.

Consequently, seeking foreign help becomes a necessity, feels the Indian CERT.

India also has cyber security pacts, primarily for the exchange of information, with Japan, Korea and Finland, says CERT.
 


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Net Neutrality: The Dutch Move Quickly

July 8, 2011 By Indrajit Basu

While net neutrality in the U.S. is turning into a political potboiler with net neutrality regulations getting stuck in the vetting process, The Netherlands has quietly shown that it is legally possible to separate the interests of broadband network providers and consumers.

Netherlands also established that the Internet is most efficient and useful to the public when it is focused on multiple users instead of a few centralized powers.

Dutch lawmakers on June 22 passed a network neutrality law, which prohibited mobile data carriers from blocking or charging extra money to users trying to make voice calls over Skype or other IP-based voice applications.

The law, passed by the Dutch Parliament's lower house -- which means the Dutch Senate (Eerste Kamer) has to ratify it before turning it into a law; but that’s a formality say some -- will prevent operators including KPN, Vodafone and T-Mobile from imposing extra fees for free services like Skype.

The legislation also requires online advertisers and websites to get "explicit consumer consent" before installing cookies onto users' computers and devices.

But while consumer advocates praised the legislation, comparing it to freedom of speech and press, the incumbent -- KPN -- alleges that the Parliament adopted the law without enough discussion on its implications.

The move is sensational. For one, The Netherlands will be the first country in the European Union to adopt net neutrality laws and only the second country in the entire world, as Chile approved a net neutrality law last year that into effect in May.

But more importantly, The Netherlands became the first country to come cracking down as soon as it realized that the absence of a neutrality law was threatening the use of its Internet.

Reacting to poor first-quarter earnings driven by its customers flocking to a free messaging service called "WhatsApp," KPN, the largest and the most powerful Dutch incumbent slapped extra charges for using Skype and WhatsApp.

The move backfired spectacularly.

Customers were not only outraged, but many also wondered how KPN even knew which applications they were using on their phones.

The Dutch bill took shape in just two months as politicians reacted swiftly to that public outcry over telecom KPN's pricing policies.

FCC Approves Controversial Neutrality Rules in U.S.

Net neutrality has always been controversial around the world, and in the U.S. the issue is increasingly raising a firestorm.

The Federal Communications Commission approved net neutrality rules in December of last year that prohibited phone and cable companies from discriminating against or favoring Internet content and services. And the fight for Internet freedom quickly emerged as a political potboiler.

Spearheaded by Republican lawmakers opposing the FCC’s authority to formulate such a law, a group of U.S. politicians overturned the rules in February saying that the rules would stand in the way of innovation and kill jobs.

According to Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell there is a “better than average chance” that a D.C. coup will stay the FCC’s network neutrality rules.

The FCC has even announced recently that it was done with its vetting and now will hand the matter over to the Office of Management and Budget, which will also undertake vetting. This could mean that even if the court does not issue a stay, the regulations will not go into effect until October or November.

Even then, experts say, various groups and businesses will challenge them in the courts.

An International Issue

According to Door Ot van Daalen of Bits of Freedom, an Internet freedom and privacy group in Netherlands, the Dutch legislation thus is significant for drawing international attention to the issue of net neutrality

For, although net neutrality was mainly a U.S. issue until recently, developments in the U.S. have triggered a number of countries like the UK,  Japan, Norway, and Canada and even India and China to shake out of a slumber. All these countries have either issued orders, or have triggered consultations, guidelines or reports addressing aspects of net neutrality.

According a Marl Del Bianco, a blogger in the European Internet domain, “A surprising feature of internationalization of net neutrality issue is the degree to which national regulators [of some countries] explicitly acknowledge that they are looking at what their colleagues in other countries are doing.”

He added that many more governments in the developing world have also started recognizing the key role that broadband networks play in development and innovation throughout all industry sectors.

“The Dutch move is a definite step forward in the debate that it is possible to draft a rule that gives sufficient freedom to providers to organize traffic in such a way that end users can use the internet freely. On the other hand, it also allows the providers to provide competing services,” says Door Ot van Daalen,

It could also shape the evolving global debate over net neutrality and push other countries to limit operators from acting as self-appointed toll collectors of the mobile internet, said other experts in the blogging community.


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U.S. Lead Fading as Internet Economy Surges Ahead

June 13, 2011 By Indrajit Basu

Two billion people are now connected to the Internet and that number is growing by 200 million annually. It is obvious that the Internet has a huge impact on our lives -- indeed, few can think of life without it. But despite the fact that the Internet embraces all -- individuals, government and businesses, and the fact that business generates as much as $8 trillion in revenues through the Internet every year -- little has been known about how much value it contributes to the overall global economy.
 
A  new study conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute attempts to fill this gap. After studying Internet usage in 13 economies that constitute 70 percent of the world's economy -- the G8, UK, Sweden, Brazil, China and India -- it has come to some interesting conclusions.
 
The Internet has delivered significant economic growth, creating jobs and wealth. Somewhat surprising however, is the magnitude of the Internet's contribution. If Internet consumption or expenditure were sectors, its weight on the GDP would be bigger than energy or agriculture as well as several other critical industries. According to Michael Chui, one of the authors of the report, at the broader level 75 percent of the impact of the Internet is in sectors outside of the traditional high-tech sectors, or sectors that do not define themselves as pure Internet players.
 
In fact, the Internet economies of these 13 countries are bigger than the GDP of Spain or Canada and it is growing faster than the economy of Brazil.
 
The study -- called Internet Matters: The Net’s sweeping impact on growth, jobs and prosperity, also found that in mature economies the Internet contributed as much as 10 percent to the economy, while in developing countries its contribution varies between 0.8 percent and 4 percent.
 
"In the past 15 years, in terms of real GDP per capita the Internet has approximately created as much value as it took the industrial revolution of the 19th century to create in 50 years," says Eric Hazan, another author of the report.
 
Over the past five years, the Internet’s contribution to GDP growth on the 13 countries doubled to 21 percent. And the Internet has been a powerful catalyst for job creation as well. The survey finds that it created 2.6 jobs for every job it destroyed.
 
The Internet is also contributing strongly to wealth. It has not only sired new waves of business models and entrepreneurship but has also led to radical innovations for accessing, using and delivering goods.
 
Finally, said the report, it has transformed governments through innovative approaches and changed how governments engage citizens.

But while the U.S. is still leading in this regard, lack of a national broadband policy has slowed its rate of growth so that it is  falling behind the UK, Sweden, China and India, said experts.
 
The U.S. still leads in the global Internet supply ecosystem, capturing over 30 percent of global Internet revenues and 40 percent of net income, but the UK and Sweden are changing the game.
 
These two countries have leveraged very strong Internet usage across the boards to gain greater importance within the global Internet system.
 
Besides these two European countries, the McKinsey study also found that France and Germany are using their Internet very efficiently to increase their presence in the global supply ecosystem. Notably, so are India and China.
 
And this is disheartening, say experts.
 
"The issue with the U.S. is that it is falling behind due to the absence of a national broadband policy," says the Milken Institute's Kevin Klowden, managing economist, and California Center director. "Most competing countries like the U.S., Sweden, and even South Korea had much more effective national broadband policies that allow these economies to offer competitive Internet that people can use widely and efficiently."
 
He added that the U.S.’s biggest hurdle is that most of its Internet service providers are monopolies. "The problem is that in many cases they might charge more money than the market can bear and the end results is that it is not used by many. There are capacity issues as well, in the sense that in many places the infrastructure cannot handle all the data," he added.
 
“Like some of the European and Asian countries, the U.S. too should craft a broadband plan that encourages ISPs to increase capacities and work out a standard so that everything works together effectively," says Klowden. 
 
But according to Hazan, not only the U.S., but governments across the world should "initiate measures that encourage the usage of Internet throughout the whole economy and throughout the administration" so that public spending could be used as a catalyst for innovation.
 
"Governments' own use of the Internet encourages the citizens to use it [while] government e-transformation crates large-scale and complex demand that stimulated the supply ecosystem," the report said.


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"Great Firewall of Europe" Under Consideration

May 27, 2011 By Indrajit Basu

Talk of Internet censorship and the first thing that comes to mind is the Great Firewall of China. With a wide variety of laws and administrative regulation, a vast security network, and compliant Internet service providers and companies including foreign ones, Beijing keeps the mainland's Net on a leash; or at least limits the ordinary Internet user. The firewall is supposedly quite ineffective, however, for anyone with technical skills who is determined to get around it.

If the Council of the European Union's Law Enforcement Working Party  (LEWP), however, has its way, Europe too could raise a similar firewall.

In a secret February meeting  the LEWP -- a forum for cooperation on issues such as counter terrorism, customs and fraud --  tabled a proposal to create a "Great Firewall of Europe" by blocking "illicit" Web material with the intention to "to propose concrete measures towards creating a single secure European cyberspace."

According to the minutes of the meeting, the goal is to create a “virtual Schengen Border" and "virtual access points.” This border would ring Europe and block "illicit content" on a continental scale. In other words, it wants to enforce a law that would prevent Internet users from accessing illicit content on the basis of an EU blacklist through the cooperation of ISPs.

Anti-censorship campaigners compared the plan to China’s notorious system for controlling citizens’ access to blogs, news websites and social networking services.

Although this proposal has raised a hue and cry from civil liberties group all around the continent, what needs to be noted is that it is just a proposal. Chances are that as legislation or as a formal enforcement, Virtual Schengen Border may never see the light of day.

For, while it is far easier for authoritarian regimes to institute such a firewall, it is a completely different ballgame for democracies. There are too many powerful forces to oppose it thereby making it very hard to enforce.

And therein lies a bigger problem.

Listen to what Glyn Moody, a UK-based advocate of openness online, and a veteran in IT, has to say;

“I do not think it is possible to put together a formal firewall for Europe. But what will happen is that the European Council and the governments will put pressure on ISPs to voluntarily block what they call illicit sites ... The advantage in a formal legislation is that it could be challenged. It is quite easy to fight and show that it is harmful. But the danger in informal agreements is that one, you do not know it is in place and two, you can’t challenge because it is informal. So in some ways the second is more insidious because it is much harder to fight.”

Incidentally according to Moody, the UK government has already started directing its ISPs to informally block some sites. Reports suggest French President Sarkozy too prefers to exercise some amount of control on the Internet. The French administration, it appears, is unhappy about the independence of the Internet and says it must be "civilized."

Informal firewalls, in fact, carry another danger; that of creeping censorship. Once such informal firewalls are set up, they could be easily extended to sites that may not be dealing with what they were initially intended for. For instance, while a government can start with blocking, say, sites dealing with pornography or terrorism, slowly that censorship could extend to include inconvenient sites -- like anti-government blogs, and the like.

Some of the other concerns raised by critics are that there is no clarification as to what "illicit content" means. Broadband providers such as Malcolm Hutty, head of public affairs at LINX, a cooperative of British ISPs also says that the plan appears “ill thought-out” and “confused” since network-level filtering of the type proposed has been proven ineffective.

Joe McNamee, advocacy coordinator, European Digital Rights, a Brussels-based international non-profit association that defends civil rights in the information society, finds this proposal absurd. “Most absurd of all [is that] -- despite all of the costs in terms of democracy, freedom of speech and even the economy -- there is no analysis of any benefit or expected benefit," he said.

Nevertheless, governments of many democracies, including the developed ones, may claim that they are much superior in terms of online freedom compared to authoritarian countries. But according to Moody, the fact is, many democratic governments, too, are trying to bring the Net under their thumbs.

“There are two things happening,” he says. “One, many governments have found that that there are stuffs on the Internet that people do not like and that is true because there are quite a few things the many wish aren’t there. And the government therefore, feels some pressure to doing something about it.

“But more than that," he continued, "they are using that as a perfect excuse to take control of the Internet. After all, government can easily say they are not actually taking control of the Internet. They are just trying to protect people from the dangerous sites and in the process, use that as an excuse for taming this very inconvenient beast that is the Internet.”


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International Beat
Indrajit Basu

Technology may the one of the greatest enablers of good things in life, but even until recently, it was mainly a phenomenon that benefited the more resourceful section of the world. That's changing though. Thanks to its constant evolution in the last few years, technology, particularly digital technologies, have ceased to be the privilege of a select few. From a hungry child in Niger, to the downtrodden lavatory cleaner in India, to the lonely billionaire widower living in a swanky Manhattan apartment, digital technologies are radically changing the lives of all these days.

As an international correspondent for Digital Communities, I have covered the power that ICT wields, particularly over the inhabitants of the developing world. But often a 1200-word feature does not bring forth the magic of ICT fast enough. My endeavor in this space would be to do just that; highlight some notable ICT-related developments as fast as I can.