geert lovink on 14 Jan 2001 00:51:25 -0000

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<nettime> Interview with Hapee de Groot, former DDS employee

Interview with Hapee de Groot, former employee of the Amsterdam Digital City

By Geert Lovink

Patrice Riemens has brought the English/international nettime list up to
date about the sell out of several parts of the Amsterdam Internet community
project Digital City ( There are attempts under way to
safeguards the public domain parts of this legendary and still extensive
non-profit service provider. Hapee de Groot is a Dutch activist/political
scientist turned content manager who worked at DDS for a few years. He
resigned in 1999 when the tendency  towards privatization become dominant.
In the following online interview Hapee gives us an critical view from an
insiders perspective why DDS disintegrated in such a tragic way.

GL: Hapee, you have been active in the squatters movement, and done a
variety of other autonomous political activities. How would you compared
those with the atmosphere inside DDS during the time you worked there? Joost
Flint, the director, now owner of DDS, has a similar biography of radical
activist. Why DDS never was - and never became - a collective? Actually, DDS
wasn't "alternative" to start with, was it?. It quickly turned into a large
non-profit service provider for a wild and lose collection of communities,
obsessed with money, having to survive without subsidies. How would you
define DDS in retrospect?

HG: I joined DDS in 1997 and DDS started in 1994. I used the Internet and
DDS since the beginning. I know a lot of the history by hear say but from
close friends and therefore I feel I can speak about the years before my
arrival. From my point of view there always have been two sides to DDS: the
outside and the inside. In the beginning there was no difference between the
two. The whole of DDS was a collective, everybody was doing everything. No
bosses or  dedicated persons. It was a tight group of interested people
working for a good cause, a feeling that I recognize being activist. The
inside DDS slowly changed but the outside picture did not.

When I joined DDS there was already a division of labour: there was a sales
department, programming department, one for the techies, the public domain
department and administration. The head of the organisation was Joost Flint.
At the time it was still a foundation, not supposed to make profit, but
internally it had grown into a top-down organisation. Nothing could be done
without permission of Joost. The board of the foundation received its
information from Joost. It was the board, in collaboration with Joost which
developed the future of DDS. I think the internal structure concerning the
division of labour is inevitable. Combined with an open intern structure it
could have worked perfect. But there was no open structure. Access to the
board was monopolized by Joost Flint. This led to the DDS which we have now.
This lack of transparency was the reason why I left in 1999.

GL: Looking back to the mid nineties how would you describe your passions
for what DDS once stood for? Is the sell out a necessary process of decay?
If DDS would have faded away, not much people would have been upset as they
are now. Instead they would have felt nostalgic to the early days of
Internet pioneering. Instead, there is a smell of betrayal hanging around
DDS. Could you explain this?

HG: A while ago the former foundation got split up in several companies
(LTD's): DDS Services Ltd., DDS Projects Ltd., DDS City Ltd. en DDS Venture
Ltd. The Public Domain (DDS city) then got closed. No news or other
facilities are offered by DDS anymore, because it was not attracting, only
losing money. DDS Services was taken over by Energis, a telecom company with
no Internet experience whatsoever. What is left is DDS Projects and DDS
Venture, which is basically a designing/programming company, capable of
building complicated websites, with no competitive difference regarding
other companies.

The question remains if there would have been an alternative and what  could
be done at this stage. Take a look at, for example. It had
been taken over by Dutch Telecom (KPN). The former directors received a lot
of money for it. There was a lot of fuzz about that too but xs4all still
exists and remained my provider to this very day. Back to DDS. It became big
by offering low-level access, facilitating alternative audiences. With this
audience it attracted customers and started commercial projects. 5 years
later access is not a topic anymore and communities are rising everywhere.
Joost and another person turned into its owners and are looking for a
successful buy out. And we, the users and (former) employees of the DDS have
let this all happen.

GL: Could you explain something about this sloppiness, if I may say so? Why
wasn't ownership an issue in the nineties? Within alternative circles there
is always a lot of debate about power, hierarchical structure. So many
attempts were made to redistribute revenues of projects. Why this aspect has
been so neglected within the Amsterdam circles of media culture?

HG: Difficult questions. Most people never expected that events would turn
this way. One would never expect that a person with the same background, a
dedicated activist, would work with a hidden agenda in order to become the
owner of a thing like the DDS in order to sell it and become rich. I asked
people from the first hour to describe it and they told me that in the
beginning there was no hierarchy within the organisation. At some point
Joost started to put "coordinator" signatures underneath his email messages.
Some time later, with the commitment of the board,  he was assigned
director. In that time there were no staff meetings and Joost organized the
work on a bilateral level. He has tremendous capability to play individuals
and even groups off against each other. He monopolized the information for
the board, thereby preventing team-discussions. This made it possible for
him to continue to work on his hidden agenda and preventing others from
having one. Later on a kind of management-team came into existence. All the
team members had to achieve their targets, except Joost , because he had his
responsibilities towards the board. If one would question this publicly you
were invited for a job audit. In such one to one conversations one would
lose the discussion.

>From a broader perspective you can see similar developments in the society,
not only in circles of media culture. After a decade of activism a lot of
people, having a lot of energy, were looking for new opportunities. Some
people joined the NGO communities as subsidized unemployment workers. They
became so involved in these jobs that they completely identified themselves
with this work, thereby closing down the possibility for others to unfold
their ideas. Because no big money is involved nobody cares. Internet circles
are different in the sense that money is involved and that makes the

GL: A successful DDS project, ran by high school students,, was recently sold, giving Joost and his partner a
fair bit of pocket money. What is the story behind this sell out?

HG: This is a typical lesson in Microsoft practice, but then on a small
scale. You discover an interesting site which attracts lots of visitors
which fits into your community idea. You approach the owner of the project,
praise him/her into heaven and offer him or her a small fee which is still
more than he or she earned before having stated the project. You thus become
the economic owner of the project. One year later you sell the project,
dismiss the person who started the project leaving him/her with no money. A
common practice but not something you expect from the DDS, but so it
happened. Sjoerd Huyg developed and ran the project
which became successful by itself.  Successful in the sense of attracting a
lot of visitors not attracting in terms of revenue. DDS offered Sjoerd a
salary and to join with the project the DDS. Sjoerd accepted because the
salary was more than he received running the project on his own and he
became part of the magical DDS, for individuals still an impressing move.
For a long time is was DDS most active community attracting most visitors to
the DDS. In October 2000, was sold to Malmberg (VNU)
for a lot of money and Sjoerd was left behind with nothing and dismissed by
November. A normal behavior in capitalist society but not something you
would expect from the DDS and because you do not expect it is suddenly

GL: There is an initiative under way to save DDS, ran by volunteers, within
a democratic structure. Do you still see a necessity for a public domain
within cyberspace? If so, what could be its tasks?

HG: Of course there is a need for a public domain. But more there is an even
greater need to protect the public domain from being monopolized by other
big media. It depends of course on the definition of this so called public
domain. If you define public domain as the aggregate sum of all existing
communities than there is a lot of space already available on the Internet.
HetNet (owned by KPN) is promoting their own communities and internationally
there are to many such initiatives. If you define public domain as the space
were alternative sounds and projects are initiated, where there is space to
develop your own thing, we can see a tendency to monopolize the Internet not
only in terms of access but also in terms of content. The other day the
AOL/TimeWarner merger officially came through. These developments will
intensify. Monopolization of content will have an disastrous effect on the
Internet. Structures to prevent this to happen will become increasingly
necessary. After I left the DDS I joined the development website where I am responsible, among others, for the content of
the news-pages. OneWorld is one of those structures which try to prevent
this monopolization. Niches, audiences and participants might differ but it
is important to keep the Internet open in terms of access as well as

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