Tamas Bodoky on Fri, 20 Dec 96 06:52 MET

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nettime: Data Conflicts

Data Conflicts - Eastern Europe and the Geopolitics of Cyberspace
Postdam, 13-15 December 1996.

Fear & Loathing in Hungary


Tamas Bodoky, jr.

        To the outsider it might seem that there are no data conflicts in 
Hungary at all. There are no bloody, violent war conflicts, no real killing 
fields apart of that of the multiplayer action games,  the never-ending 
networked battles of Quake, Doom and Duke  Nukem fans. There is no 
institutionalized state censorship, I have to say that at the moment even 
the german goverment is  taking a more conservative approach towards 
the Internet than ours, which has payed little attention to it so long. There 
is not such a great lag in the field of information-technology that relegates 
Hungary to the information third world. But if we take a closer look at 
access to the Internet, the entire international  bandwith of the country is 
less than ten megabits per second, which is used by two dozen  national 
and regional Internet Service Providers, with several tens of thousands of 
users in the academic and research sphere using less than one tenth of it. 
There are still only 64 kilobit per second bandwidth copper lines between 
Budapest and the other  large cities, the only fiber optics cable is a short 
FDDI ring between four Budapest Universities. Statistics say that there is 
ten times more data traveling into the country than out of it on the 
information highway. These facts put Hungary somewhere between the 
data-rich and the data-poor, a rising data-middle-class of this region. 
However, lacking greater conflicts does not equal peace: we do have 
several minor conflicts, which are probably typical of the former Eastern 
Bloc. I give you a handful of examples.

        During the slow erosion of the already rusty Iron Curtain at the end 
of the eighties, Hungary already had a limited Internet-connection in an 
experimental phase, but to tell the truth the network did not play any 
crucial role in the political changes as it was only a very closed 
playground for experts, who were too busy stealing technology from the 
the West to take part in opposition movements. However, the state 
considered it to be dangerous: I know a few system administrators who 
have been asked to cooperate with the secret service. Inspite its presence, 
the Internet did not present an opportunity to exchange uncensored 
information as it does in China or the ex-Yugoslavia today. In 1988-89, 
even xerox and fax machines were rare and strictly conrolled. The 
opposition were using stone-age publishing equipment, much to the 
detriment of their vision during the last ten years of communism, 
cognitive dissidents were hiding stone-age printing presses in their 
summer houses in the countryside. However, these presses and the 
countless anti-communist newsletters and leaflets played a secondary role: 
it was the liberalised passport in 1988 combined with the advertisement 
spots in German satelite programs which dug the grave of communism in 
Hungary. Satelite dishes and cable TV networks made people aware of the 
differences in the standard of living. In these times you had to queue at 
the borders for hours to get through to Austria on the weekends. 
Hungarians had to travel to Vienna to buy freezers, video and CD players 
which were popularized through commercial satelite and cable 
programming which had just become widely available in Hungary. People 
wanted a consumer society, and they believed that they could buy similar 
goods at home if they rejected communism. Later on they  were 
dissappointed as there was no West-Hungary to cover the costs of the  
face-lift. Censorship was indirect, and soft like the regime itself. Private 
persons could buy typewriters or PCs, but in state institutions during state 
holidays the typewriters were locked up, and the power buttons of copy-
machines were placed in safes. To use xerox machines, you had to request 
and obtain permission from your boss. As for computers, strict controls 
were redundant, this job was already done by the United States, who 
prohibited the sale of microelectronics and high-technology to the Eastern 
Bloc through the COCOM list. 

        In spite of COCOM, Hungarians bought computers in the west, 
dissassembled them and smuggled them in parts across the border, which 
made these products available, but very expensive. As for civil use, 
Commodore and Sinclair machines were very popular, as for mainframes 
the states of the former Eastern Bloc officially coordinated the stealing of 
high-technology from the West. Hungary specialized in DEC PDP and 
VAX machines, we even produced clones, while many of bigger state 
ventures owned Checzhoslovak, East-german or Soviet made IBM clones, 
running on stolen operation systems and software. These thefts were not 
considered criminal, because they were condoned by the state, and this in 
turn led to a "lack of morals" in technology and software use in the eastern 
countries, which results in serious copyright infringement cases 

        After the political changes, the first East-West data-conflict was 
induced by the fact, that if a single copy of a program hit the country, it 
was copied and distributed through informal circles of users, who 
maintained very active connections through clubs and meetings, and later 
on through modems and telephone lines as well. The use of illegal 
software is so widespread, that it is common even in state organisations 
and offices, and there is a joke about the single copy of Microsoft Word, 
licensed to "Hungary". In 1995 the Business Software Alliance first cast 
its ominous shadow and launched a large-scale legal software campaign. 
Since that time, we have large billboards on the street threatening people 
who use illegal software with handcuffs. The BSA sponsors the hungarian 
police with hard cash, who, of course, like nearly every other state office, 
use illegal software. The police in return are willing to raid the homes of 
FidoNet sysops to prove its dedication to legal software. The BSA 
operates an anonymous hotline where callers can report illegal software 
use, which led to police raids on the software blackmarkets. The first 
actions of the BSA generated panic on the public FidoNet BBS network 
of Hungary, which is part of the international FidoNet system, the result 
was the prohibited distribution of commercial software on the system. 

        FidoNet was a very effective civil BBS network, and is still 
operating, but store and forward networks lost their importance as Internet 
gained popularity in the meantime. There is  an other offline network as 
well, Green Spider, sponsored by the Regional Environmental Center and 
running a single Unix-server which is doing newsfeed and e-mail through 
the phone for hundreds of member organisations. Internet in Hungary 
started as a state information infrastructure development project. 
Hungarian universities and research institutes have been part of the 
system since 1991, which means that there was a limited access to Internet 
before the World Wide Web in Hungary. Several electronic mailing lists, 
gopher menus and USENET newsgroups brought content to the network 
on a non-profit basis. Some of the hungarian speaking forums were started 
in the USA by HIX, the Hollosi Information Exchange, which is run by 
Jozsef Hollosi, a hungarian expert working in the States. I myself, that 
time as a student, started a mailing list for the readers of Magyar Narancs, 
the best hungarian weekly magazine (http://www.net.hu/narancs/), and 
narancs-l soon became and still is one of the most popular virtual 
communities. It was an early experiment of interactive journalism as the 
members of the list could give me direct feedback on my articles, propose 
topic, or even write some articles themselves. The hungarian-speaking list 
is a place of very intensive social life with some international connections 
as well: as the scandal of the so-called "Fishman Affidavit"  flamed 
around the Net, we mirrored the secret document of the Church of 
Scientology on some University servers and BBS systems as well.  

        The global popularisation of the Internet through the World Wide 
Web started the hype in Hungary in 1995, and the first commercial 
providers soon appeared. The cost of full access to the network dropped 
from roughly 200 to 40 US dollars a month in a year, and you don't have 
to pay by the megabyte any more. Hardware became affordable as well. 
The first commercial provider was a subsidiary of SZTAKI, the state 
institute responsible for the development of the Internet, which run the 
National Information Infrastructure Development Program, the state 
project which received grants from hungarian and international sources. 
The Lake Success agreement provided SZTAKI with cheap hardware for 
non-profit purposes, which was misused to make profit on its early 
monopoly on the ISP market. In 1995 about a dozen private Internet 
Service Providers started up,  most of them overestimated the growth rate 
of the market, and now some of them are facing bankruptcy as the one and 
only hungarian telecom, MATAV enters the game. MATAV has a state 
monopoly for the next 25 years over the wires in Hungary, expiring in 
2018. However, MATAV is no longer solely owned by the state. The 
major stakeholder of MATAV is MagyarCom, a joint venture between 
Deutsche Telekom and Ameritech International, which raises the question 
of the economic recolonisation of the former Eastern Bloc by 
multinational corporations. MATAV already controls the greatest amount 
of international bandwidth on the Internet and owns all cable and cable-
tunnel in the country. Nowadays in an experimental phase, officially 
starting on 1st of January, 1997, MATAV will launch an Internet Service 
Provider, MATAVNet, which can easily gain the same monopoly over 
Internet Service Providing in Hungary as MATAV already has over 

        The Internet is far away to become a mass medium in Hungary, I 
doubt if it ever will reach this status. TV is the drug of the nation: 
mainstream means the two state-owned major national TV and  Radio 
channels, and some daily and weekly newspapers, which played an 
ambigous role in the popularisation of Internet. The Hungarian media-
audience has received an extremely polarized picture of the net, either the 
promise of a utopian paradise of the global village to come, or nightmarish 
cliches fueled by conservative and bureaucratic points of view, which 
present the net, as the hotbed of child pornography, international 
terrorism, and a slew of other illegal knowledge, posing as a serious threat 
to traditional Christian and family values, as well as the security of the 
state. The most grotesque part of the story is that the image of the Internet 
in the mass media was partly saved by Microsoft, the company which only 
a year earlier tried keep people out of the Internet, not to mention that it is 
the silent sponsor of  BSA Hungary as well.  Microsoft was donating a 
computer, software and internet access to a handful of important people, 
politicians and journalists, who were surfing the web for a while and then 
praised Microsoft to "bring Internet to Hungary". Bill Gates even visited  
the country and signed an agreement with the prime minister and 
MATAV. The small Hungarian Internet-community was upset, but could 
not do anything apart of  discussing the chances of demonstrate against 
Gates during his speech in the State Opera, as the mass media was not 
interested in the unsponsored truth. 

        Later on this summer, after a bombing case, Objektiv, one of the 
most respected news programs on the state television suggested that the 
recipe of the explosive used was downloaded from the Internet. This 
resulted that the police demanded all the Internet-providers to hand over 
the personal data of their clients living in the area of the bombing case to 
the authorithies. Most of the companies did so, but some of them turned to 
the ombudsman of the data, who investigated the legality of the request 
and found that hungarian law grants a right to authorities for any data 
concerning subscribers of communications services. In the Hungarian 
Parliament there is a law under consideration about the wiretapping of 
mobile phones. Civil courage is very low compared to the western 
countries, there are very few civil organisations which realised the power 
of the new medium, neither did independent journalism so long. On the 
Hungarian speaking World Wide Web you can see the same old power 
structure and some business gizmo.  

        Finally, the organisers of this conference asked me to speak about 
the East-European cyber-politics of the Soros Foundation. As I am not 
affiliated with the Foundation in any official way I don't know much about 
this topic in general, but I can tell you the story of a project I was involved 
in. In the spring of 1995 Geert Lovink, our friend, the well-known dutch 
media-theoretician bring the idea of a non-profit internet service provider 
to Hungary. The idea gain extreme popularity among Internet users and 
NGOs who suffered from the high cost of access and the lack of 
infrastructure. They founded a non-profit organisation, named Koz-Hely 
Association for Public Computer Networks and turned to the Soros 
Foundation for support. The Foundation liked the idea, but decided to 
realize it on its own way. A year later they raised an organisation named 
Center for Culture and Communication (C3), whith own 512 kilobit 
satellite uplink, Silicon Graphics hardware and dial-in terminalservers for 
non-profit purposes. The deed of  foundation of  C3 is pretty similar to 
that of Koz-Hely, written and published a year earlier.  In the meantime 
the original aim of the Koz-Hely Association, cheap Internet-access 
realized through the competition of commercial providers. The Hungarian 
Soros Foundation never answered officially the proposal of Koz-Hely, but  
hired two of the leaders as employees.  C3 is not a real independent 
organisation, as it is part of the closed hierarchy of the Soros Foundation's 
cultural and political activities - the Open Society of the elite - and it is 
sponsored by MATAV and Silicon Graphics as well. C3 gained a 
controversial reputation in short time as it ignited the so-called domain 
name registration war within the .hu registry. They choose the c3.hu 
domain name, which did not match the rules of domain name registration 
which requires to be a legal body with the same or similar name to be 
registered under the .hu domain. As C3 does not have an own legal body, 
the official registrator refused to accept the c3.hu domain name. There 
was plenty of arguments on both side, and I could even agree with the 
liberal approach of C3 towards the registration process. However, in my 
opinion it is not acceptable that the Foundation then used its political 
influence to pressure the registrator into granting the name. As a result, 
the registrator resigned, and since the spring of 1996 there is no person 
responsible for the registry. The Hungarian ISPs started a never-ending 
battle over the rules of the registration, with no agreement after several 
months, and by now the Ministry of Telecommunication is preparing a 
decision to end the conflict. If you want to have a .hu domain name 
registered, either you wait for long weeks or even months, or you have to 
know somebody in the Mininstry, MATAV, SZTAKI, or at the Soros 
Foundation. It is much faster to buy a domain name under .com at the 
InterNIC, in case of the american firm Motherland did not register it first. 
Motherland - seeing the difficult hungarian situation - registered the name 
of several well-known hungarian businesses (for example malev.com for 
the Hungarian Airlines), and offered the names for a few thousand dollars 
instead of the 100 dollar registration fee to be delivered within 24 hours. 

        As you might see now, there are several reasons for fear and 
loathing in Hungary, but unlike some other countries in the region our 
data-conflicts are easy to survive. I would like to express my gratitude to 
Tamás Szalay (tszalay@caesar.elte.hu) for his valuable remarks and Diana 
McCarty (diana@dial.isys.hu) for proper translation.

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