Geert Lovink on Tue, 5 Jan 1999 10:44:28 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Interview with Jonathan Peizer (OSI Internet Program)

Ins and Outs of the Soros Internet Program in Former Eastern Europe
An E-Mail Exchange with Jonathan Peizer
By Geert Lovink

At the end of 1993 Jonathan Peizer created the Network Internet Program
for the Open Society Institute New York (OSI-NY), a Soros network
affiliate, and assumed the role as its program Director. He is also the
Chief Information Officer of the Soros network, defining technology policy
for the organization and managing the system operations for OSI-NY. Peizer
traveled extensively in Central- and Eastern Europe to set up Internet
connectivity, training and content development programs with the goal to
support 'civil society' and its 'emerging' institutions.

Prior to Joining the Soros network, Peizer held a number of technical
positions. He served as Systems Director for Cheyenne Software, (makers of
the network backup solution, Arcserve) where he designed their internal
technology strategy.  Prior to that, he held various technical positions
including Systems Director at AFS International, the student exchange
organization. At AFS, he coordinated the systems operations in the 55
country network, designed the student tracking systems used in many of the
AFS local country offices and introduced E-mail to the organization in
1989. Prior to that, he served as Associate Manager at Citicorp in the
Capital Markets Division. There he automated an eleven billion dollar
asset safekeeping system for the State of California and other clients. He
began his systems career troubleshooting technical problems in the
computer room of New York University while completing his undergraduate
studies in History and Psychology there, and programming for a local news
organization near his home on Long Island.

GL: Jonathan, you have been responsible for the Internet Program. Could
you give us some basic outlines of the choices you have made?  As far as I
have been able to see, you gave priority to the networking of the Soros
Foundation itself, including the affiliated NGOs, and not the general
public. Network for us, not access for all. Tell me if I am wrong in this.

JP: I would conservatively estimate about 750,000 people in the region
have benefited directly from content, training, infrastructure and
connectivity projects funded by our network and local foundation Internet
programs since their inception in the 1993-94 period. The foundation
network consists of approximately 3,000 people, so it's safe to say we
have expanded outside our immediate constituency.

Internally, E-mail is of primary importance to carrying out the business
of our network for all programs. In fact we could not manage our
initiatives as well without E-mail. Our local foundations try to make
their program initiatives as transparent as possible to the general public
and for this reason most offices also support their own Internet sites.

Externally, the independent institutions and constituencies we support are
affiliated with us only in as much as they benefit from our grants.  In
some cases, we have created and spun off institutions from our foundation
programs. We target institutions that are key to the development of civil
society and as such, benefit the population at large.  The primary
constituencies the Internet program supports are academic and research
institutions, schools, NGOS, independent media, cultural institutions,
medical institutions, libraries and in some cases unaffiliated

>From 1994-1997 the program concentrated on 'survival connectivity' - just
making sure access existed. From 1997-2001 it is focusing on content and
training grants to targeted constituencies still lacking Internet support.
Since 1997, the Network Internet program no longer makes infrastructure
and connectivity grants. The foundations are limiting their own local
Internet grant-making activities in this area as well. The exception is
Central Asia and the Caucuses where lack of infrastructure is still an
issue. Even in these locations however, we are more inclined to enter into
partnerships then to 'go it alone' as we did in the early days of the

>From 2001, the Internet program in each country will be integrated as part
of the activities of the other non-internet program area, (ex. media,
education, etc..) rather than existing as a stand-alone projuect. This
will require some internal training of local Program Directors who
currently do not employ Internet as effectively in their projects.

I would conclude by saying that in the CEE/FSU, the Internet program has
always concentrated on satisfying public demand, and we have tried to
insure that our foundations and the constituencies they support are well
connected. In some cases we've had to create infrastructure Because
meeting demand necessitated it. The foundations are not in the business of
running ISP's however. For that reason, they are in the midst of divesting
most infrastructure created in the early days of the program by granting
it to others or spinning entities off into free standing NGO's or
commercial ISP's.

Outside the CEE/FSU -- in addition to working with our foundations in
Haiti and Southern Africa, the OSI Network Internet Program does
grant-making focused on human rights and independent media. The program
has provided grants for Hong Kong, Cuba, China, RRoma, Kurdistan and
minority human rights sites.  It has also funded an independent Arabic
news site. The program is a large funder of global Internet policy
initiatives as well.

GL: I did not want to question the benefits of the Soros Foundation and
the Internet Program in particular. Everyone who has been to the former
Eastern Bloc will admit the tremendous achievements of the Soros sponsored
media structures and initiatives. Here I would rather speak about the
premisses with which these media have been set up. You do not mention the
public sphere... you speak about constituencies, communities, specific
groups, not the public in large. Of course the channels serve the general
population, when we think of all the radiostations, publications,
translations, meetings, education, libraries... and Internet. Still, the
open society seems to be realized in steps, via specific groups and
channels. Is this related to the still strong anti-democratic forces?
Strictly 'open' would mean to also give voice to anti-semitism, racism and

JP: The constituencies I mentioned do represent the public sphere. Making
infrastructure available to the public at large without any focus or
understanding of demand would have been a tremendous waste of resources.
To create open societies when there were none before, you must concentrate
on those sectors most involved in fostering civil society and give them
the necessary tools to achieve that end. We focused on meeting demand,
provided only what people were ready to use. On the subject of public
access however, many of our foundations do employ a 'free mail' service as
a component of their program strategy. They provide this service to
literally ten's of thousands of people.

The Internet is really nothing more than a distribution mechanism.  
Efficient, powerful and literally society-changing, but a simply a
distribution mechanism nonetheless. Once the wires were in place, the
Internet program had as its main goal assisting other OSI programs deliver
content over the infrastructure it had created. This was where the real
benefit of the Internet was realized in meeting our objectives to foster
Open Society Institute societies. Naturally we targeted the constituencies
and areas we were already working with, and where we had developed human
networks. This allowed for the most efficient leveraging of funding and
created a greater probability of success.

In the territories we are discussing, there was certainly enough
nationalism, racism and anti-semitism existing without the Open Society
Institute helping to foster it further. Rather we provided the Alternative
view, and since that was in short supply, we used the most efficient tool
possible to leverage the message, the Internet.

GL: Let us take one example. Albania, Europe's poorest country, just going
through a process of further decay and (self)destruction, was in an urgent
of communication towards the outside world. The isolation, even at this
moment, is stunning. The Soros Internet center, now running well, is using
a satellite link and package radio connections inside Tirana, to link up
university buildings. Still, one gets the impression there of a heroic
project with little or no use for common people. For security reasons such
buildings look like fortresses. In such harsh poverty and political
unstable situation, how do you imagine the Internet to grow? And what will
happen if, within a few years, there won't be anymore Soros funding?

JP: Albania is an extreme example of a country on the verge of economic
collapse and civil war. The government's official position is to not allow
commercial Internet access. The infrastructure is incredibly poor, (and in
many cases none-existent) outside of Tirana and between cities travel to
many parts of Albania (even for Albanians) is rather dangerous. That there
is an Internet program at all speaks to the power of the medium and the
success of the program. We managed to create an Internet link through
affiliations with the UNDP which allowed us to avoid commercial
restrictions. We then created a public access center and linked the
program to our education and other initiatives. This provided access to
NGO's, media and students. Internet growth in Albania will be limited
until the situation changes, but the important thing is that it exists
now, and Albania is linked to the rest of the world instead of totally
isolated from it. Aside from domestic usage, we are using the Internet
links in Albania to assist a unrelated project focusing on Kosovan
refugees -- had Internet not existed in Albania however, we could not have
addressed this issue effectively.

Your countryman, Daniel Erasmus, astutely points out that if the ratio of
the world's population were reduced to 100 people - only 2 would have
Internet access. Despite the incredible growth of the medium, the global
user population is still very limited - yet this statistic does not speak
to 'collateral benefit' of the medium on the population at large. There is
an oft-quoted statistic that 50% of the people in the world have still not
made their first phone call. But just because everyone doesn't have a
phone or make a call does not mean people don't benefit from the medium.
Think of the village with one phone or radio or television in its
community center.  Not everyone needs to have a phone or the Internet to
realize a benefit from it. The rural villager or farmer in the field may
not need direct access to the Internet -- but if you give access to the
medical practitioner taking care of that villager and his neighbors or the
agricultural representative helping the farmer with crop data you are
making a significant difference. Now is this the 'ideal'. No, it is not,
but it is realistic and it does create impact - which is the real

The same is true as it relates to Internet in Albania, the people who will
eventually change the situation in Albania are the people who are Exposed
to the Internet now. The same is true in Belarus, Yugoslavia, Burma,
etc... In all these repressive contexts, access is limited but still
exists. Lets not forget a couple of the most famous regional uses of the
Internet in these restrictive contexts: Radio B92 during the Milosevic
election annulments and the Gorbachev coup. It's worth noting that during
the latest civil unrest in Albania, the local independent news was also
placed on the Internet.

Using Bosnia as an example of what might happen in Albania in future --
During the war, the Internet program provided first E-mail and then
Internet access through the Zamir Network of BBS's. After the war, people
understood how Internet had helped during the conflict, and in fact the
service flourished afterwards. The seeds were planted during a time of
conflict when the urgency of any type of reliable communication made the
most impact on the minds of the people.

The reason the program does not provide equal access to everyone in equal
measure, is simply because it is not possible from a resource or reality
standpoint. The reality is some people are ready and willing to exploit
Internet in the region and some are not.  Moreover, Buying everyone a
computer and modem for home, training them all and upgrading the entire
phone system in a country to support Internet connectivity is beyond the
means of the Internet Program, Soros foundation and most national
governments.... So what we concentrated on was creating core points of
international access, public access centers, and connections to local
institutions who could best exploit the medium in leveraging the concepts
of civil society.

On the subject of funding, Soros grants are not designed to last in
perpetuity But rather to foster pilot projects.  Our objective is to plant
the seeds, but we expect others to nurture what grows from them. The
really unique thing about the network is that we provide resources to
people with vision and implementation skills who do not have them because
the resources are so limited. Local institutions are loathe to provide
funding for projects with no track record (e.g. new ideas) that could
fail.  Once a project is a proven success though, we expect others to
continue its funding if it is truly a priority issue. When projects have
proven successful, cost effective, and/or more efficient to accomplish a
given task, resources are usually found to continue it. We have
experienced this reality many times with projects we initially supported.
On the other hand, some projects that should continue to survive do fail
for lack of funding, even though they are important priorities. In a
forest, not every tree flourishes. Sometimes other priorities supercede
even a good idea. Our focus is to give people the opportunity to
demonstrate ideas are good and workable in the first.

GL: How do you look at the development of Internet in Central- and Eastern
Europe? One could expect that the 'emerging markets' such as Slovenia,
Estonia, Poland and Hungary will, sooner or later, be integrated into
EU/NATO networks, whereas the wild, abandoned regions be monitored and
contained, outside Fortress Europe. Are you afraid of an increase of
censorship and state control over media and telecoms? And what kind of
commercial culture would you envision? Many of the new Internet firms are
actually not serving the population but merely represent companies on the
web and produce cheap code and interface design for the West. That would
be a tragic result of all the efforts: training a young generation that
will migrate to the West, to earn real money, or will be forced to remain
in their country, to do the job remotely, as a part of the 24 hours
economy. What if the 'open' society gets reduced to only that gateway?

JP: State control and censorship is a real concern. The Internet is a
double edged sword in this regard. On the one hand States who try to
control it have learned that it is very difficult, because of the chaotic,
decentralized nature of the medium. It is therefore functions as an
excellent bypass to State control of information. Moreover, it's difficult
for one State to legislate content and use because the Internet by it's
nature is not constrained national boundaries.

On the other hand, because many of those who would seek to control the
Internet don't understand it, it has a tendency to provoke fear and
ill-conceived reactions when legislation is introduced to control or
censor it. I refer to my own country's (US) failed attempt at introducing
draconian Internet censorship legislation through Congress in '96, (aka
the Telecommunications decency act....). I am concerned enough about this
issue to be currently funding a study analyzing examples of how countries
around the world try to censor the Internet, (and why) and detailing ways
to get bypass this censorship.

In terms of corporate use of the Internet -- companies will be
companies... it's all about profit and the bottom line, and that won't
change. I understand 2-3 billion us dollars was spent on-line this holiday
season so I would imagine that vendors have now discovered the medium in
earnest and I can see the stampede on the horizon. In the end, commercial
concerns will use the Internet for WHATEVER SELLS. the question is will
there be compelling 'public access sites' offering alternatively richer
and more worthwhile information and discourse on the 'net for those who
want it?

We may take heart in the fact that companies continue to deploy technology
on the Internet using traditional methods of enticing consumers. But the
Internet is not a billboard or radio or a T.V. -- It is an interactive
medium. And kids today (read that: consumers in training) communicate and
interact differently than we 'older folks' from the baby boomer generation
and prior did.  Commercial concerns are going to have to come up with some
pretty creative and innovative ways to entice and keep the 'eyeballs' of
savvy young consumers who can do more than just 'change channels'.  They
can interact with the medium, quickly display their distaste or approval,
and expect instantaneous results to their queries and concerns.

On the subject of the Internet fostering further migration to the West in
search of opportunity, I would think it might have the opposite effect in
that one can access and transfer the same information from anywhere in The
world to do one's job.

Coming from a country which was founded upon, and literally renews itself
each generation because of immigration I have never viewed this as a bad
thing. There will always be ambitious people who seek a better life and
migrate, Internet or not. As indicated, I think the medium might offer a
real opportunity for those who wish to stay put while still being
connected to the rest of the world.

GL: Could you tell us which projects you are working on at the moment? For
example Russia. In recent years, the Internet program was involved in
wiring the academic institutions. Recently, a program was launched to
support independant media in Russia. Now everyone will agree that this is
not an easy task. What are the practical difficulties you are facing?

JP: Well actually, I am less involved with the Russian Internet program
than I am with the other countries. Because of the special nature of the
situation there, the Internet program like many others, is managed for the
most part by the local foundation with less external support. I have a
light consultancy role and a person on the ground who acts as a kind of
liaison to the local Internet Program Coordinator just to insure
communications and information sharing is occurring with the rest of the
network.  What I can say is that having wired 30 Universities throughout
Russia, any content driven initiative using the Internet would make use of
the Infrastructure already in place.

What I am focusing on these days is Internet policy, human rights and
media initiatives as I briefly discussed above. I am very much involved in
a new media center in Prague managed by the Media Development Loan Fund
(MDLF). MDLF is an independent affiliate of the Soros network with 3rd
party as well as Soros funding. It provides low interest loans to
independent media. The media center is designed to provide training and
some content development to these constituencies. It is also being used in
one of the largest coorperative efforts undertaken by regional programs in
the Soros network. The media, Internet, electronic publishing, arts and
culture and hopefully library program will use the center to "train
trainers" in new media using the Internet. These trainers will return to
their respective countries and train others. This is important, because
while we have created many institutions in different fields in the region,
there is no consistent expertise across disciplines in the use of new
media. We are trying to address the problem with this center by employing
a cooperative effort between the programs to coordinate [human] networks
created over five years of program development. The Electronic Publishing
program is already engaged in a two phased program, first training the
trainers at the center and then sponsoring these trainers in providing
local training to their constituencies back home.

GL: All in all, you remain so optimistic! Is this your nature or does The
foundation leave you no other option? I mean, there is a war in Kosovo,
numerous conflicts in Central Asia, a crisis in Russia, threatening the
entire region... Is Internet the solution for all this? Isn't the Soros
Foundation, in part, creating a managerial class that is further worsening
the already existing social conflicts, maybe without you (or us) having
this intention? Why not also proactive reflexivity when it comes to the

JP: Actually I am optimistic by nature - anyone that really knows me will
tell you that.  Part of it is cultural I am sure. It's a byproduct of
living in the US with its overabundance of optimism.  But the other part
is that I believe personally, like Soros, that we influence our
environments simply by being a part of them. When I am optimistic about a
project, I subsequently influence its outcome in a positive manner.  I
believe perception really is reality, one generates the other. More
importantly, I guess, I don't believe there is anything I cannot do if I
set my mind and heart to the task. It never crossed my mind that it was
impossible to implement Internet even in the most repressive regimes. My
job was simply to figure out a way to do it.

Sorry I cannot resist using this metaphor to answer your examples --
Internet is not the magic bullet to solving the world's problems. However,
communication and information sharing can lesson conflict by eliminating
the fear of the not knowing. It also insures people who can make a
difference have access to good and timely information. While it still took
too long, what we saw on the news at night from Bosnia finally prompted
the international community to act. Compare that to what happened in the
Death camps during World War II when only rumors circulated and there was
no official confirmation of what was happening for years. Rwanda was
horrible, but can you imagine how much worse it could have been if nobody
was watching?

The Internet is an incredibly important tool for timely information
sharing and communication - The nature of the Internet is at the core of
what we as humans require to interact with each other and learn more
ourselves. As such, it cannot help but be an important component of any
solution to problems affecting our society. Let's use medicine or
education as an example of what I am getting at. Problems surrounding
these two areas, like many other problems affecting society, have two
major components. Lack of resources and lack of information in equal
measure. You could easily bankrupt some nations trying to obtain the
resources (medical supplies, educational materials) to resolve their
problems in these areas. On the other hand, for a fraction of the cost,
you could connect people to the Internet so they could share information
and best practices with each other, as well as communicating with people
around the world. Think of what an individual Internet connection linking
all hospitals and health clinics in a country could accomplish?  I always
think about the German Doctor, Mike Frank, who works in the hinterlands of
Mongolia as a surgeon treating patients. He has an Internet connection and
regularly confers with doctors around the world sending images and X-rays
out over the Internet and helping others diagnose rare cases. Mike's
patients, spread throughout the provinces of Mongolia, have access to the
most important single medical resource in the world -- learned and
experienced medical practitioners. They have access to other human beings
who share their information and experience through the Internet. If
information is power, the right metaphor for the Internet is a cold-fusion
powered generator.

On the final point, you can't have it both ways -- The earlier questions
seem to suggest the program is not doing enough. Now I am being asked if
the program is doing too much! As far as creating some type of
Internet-elite in the region, I reject the notion outright. The program is
demand-driven. We try to help satisfy the needs that exist. Fortunately
for all of us, there are insightful, creative people on the ground who see
the use of this medium as an effective means of resolving at least part of
the problems affecting their societies.

GL: These questions are perhaps of importance for all of us who share the
same concerns and passions. It is being said that NGOs lack
accountability. I am not so sure about this. What I do know is the big
lack of vision on the European side. Brussels can only interprete events
in economic terms, without any sensibility about the importance of
(independant) media, even culture in general. Let alone that there is
comprehensive Internet policy (going beyond e-commerce). What we need is a
much broader awareness about the way in which Internet (and other media)
will shape the future's structure of the 'public sphere'. I know, this
sounds big and ambitious. In the case of the Soros Internet activities I
am never sure if you just assist locals, working in the background, or if
you do have the intention, the drive to address these strategic issues on
a much larger, public scale.

You raise a lot of points, let me try to address the broader issue and the
focus Of our program in the same example. The Internet is a grass roots
phenomenon, so trying to organize it top down and addressing the entire
Internet does not work very well.  The 'broader awareness' you speak of is
best fostered using the natural 'character' of the Internet and its
modular nature.

I mentioned above that we sponsor Internet policy initiatives, which
obviously impacts the Internet community at large. When I first set out to
do this in 1994, Internet policy as a concept was still in its infancy,
with issues of privacy, encryption and censorship not fully developed in
the mind of the public or legislators. For one year I canvassed potential
partner organizations, knowing we did not have the expertise in-house to
develop the initiative.  More importantly I didn't feel we should develop
it in-house in a kind of synthetic way. When I finally identified a couple
of organizations interested in creating an international Internet policy
initiative, seed funding was provided to each to develop such an

The next year was spent evaluating results of these efforts. Further
funding was finally provided to the organization most successful at
developing the initiative and attracting other groups to the cause. This
organization was the Global Internet Liberty Campaign - founded by EPIC
and the ACLU with a membership now exceeding 40 Internet Policy related
organizations world-wide. GILC provides information, alerts and advocasy.
It acts as a natural resource to legislators seeking to approach Internet
policy rationally. When we started this, the US contingent was definitely
farther ahead in experience and knowledge regarding Internet policy and
legal issues than most of its European counterparts. After a year of
funding however, the European contingency who participated in GILC had
gathered a tremendous amount of expertise sharing experience over the net
with other members. It wasn't long until the more Internet savvy European
members of GILC decided to form a regional Internet policy coalition to
address policy issues unique to the nature and character of the European
community and its Internet users. I refer to privacy issues which are more
developed in Europe and sensitive issues like hate speech which we in
North America do not have the same history with. My program will fund this
European initiative at the outset in order to nurture it as it did GILC.
Other funding partners will be involved too.

The point is, our Internet program approached Internet policy and the
means to tackle it, using the nature of the Internet to guide it. We
started with interested parties who attracted others, and created a
cascade affect rather than trying to address the problem Internet policy
throughout the world all at once. In Asia, Latin America, Africa, etc...
Internet Policy is still underdeveloped, but now at least there are tested
models that can be adopted to address it - there are organizations which
can be joined on the Internet. Soon two groups, (one in the US and one in
Europe) with similar mandates but different priorities will exist, and
that can be emulated. To create the public sphere and greater awareness
that you speak of, sometimes you have to start small and let a solution
develop further, in phases, rather than tackling the entire problem all a

I think this is the secret to the success of Soros programs. People are
surprised we can spend a fraction of what government agencies and
International organizations like USIS and EU spend, and still be more
effective. But the reality is that these agencies and governments have a
restriction that we do not. They are generally mandated to approach the
entire problem and solve it for the benefit of their entire constituency -
(eg. Give all people all the benefit). Whereas the Soros foundation
approaches a problem and simply tries to solve it by introducing
successful pilot initiatives. We do not start out mandated to resolving
problems to the benefit of the entire society, but simply in creating
approaches that work. That these solutions have the potential to work
better and satisfy a larger constituency more effectively than a
government initiative only speaks to the nature of problem solving in

If you modularize a problem, and focus on solving a piece of it, many
times that solution can be applied to other pieces of the problem to solve
them too. Some problems are best not addressed trying to find a solution
that is all things to all people from the outset. Unfortunately, this is
not a politically correct concept and is the reason government directives
sometimes fail. Many times the vision is grand, as is the resource
allocation, but the impact is negligable.

If you build a bridge, you have to approach the solution in its entirety -
half a bridge doesn't work. On the other hand. Solving the problem of
Internet in the public sphere may be an easier puzzle to resolve if you
create a viable example and propogate it using the strength of the
Internet -- Its decentralized method of disseminating good ideas.

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