SFANTU GHEORGHE, Romania, 03 September 2006
“Most of the popular (environmental) names were taken… GreenNet, Green Spider, Econet and Econnect,” says Mihály Bakó (39), while keeping an eye on his laptop screen. “Since strawberries make these kinds of runners
when they get close to the ground, they develop roots and another strawberry is growing. So a strawberry field is basically kind of a horizontally connected strawberry network,” says Bakó, when trying to explain how his environmental non-governmental organisation (NGO) came up with its name: Strawberrynet. “Plus, well, strawberries are natural, they’re very nice and have a great taste.”
Since the strawberry days, APC member Strawberrynet remained true to its environmental values and continues to offer internet services, free software support and information and communication technology (ICT) trainings to environmental campaigns and civil society organisations. But it is now broadening its actions and getting into what’s called ICT policy.
From facilitating communication among NGOs, Strawberrynet is now making inroads into technology issues. From copyright law to the politics of free and open source software, the group is now working on a first ICT policy portal for Romania.
ICT policy in Romania
“This is quite a new thing for the general public here in Romania,” Bakó admits. “I believe people don’t realise that ICT policy can have a real impact on their lives.”
This is precisely why the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) has acted as a catalyser and as the initiator of the ICT policy portal project. It is meant to populate the internet with national websites that track, explain, perform research and offer breaking news about communication, telecommunication and information policies in more than twelve countries.
“Romanians see ICT policy as some abstract concept, not in tune with their day-to-day life. From time to time, the minister of communication comes up with policy packages, followed by a big gap of silence, and generalised indifference. People just don’t realise how important ICT policy is,” argues Bakó, one of three Strawberrynet co-founders.
The three associated members that currently run Strawberrynet services are the Nemere Hiking Association from Sfantu Gheorghe, the Ecological Club of Transylvania in Cluj-Napoca and the UNESCO Pro Natura club out of Bucharest.
Nobody is paid, except when it is possible on a project basis. For instance, Ildikó Knop, hired on a temporary basis, is the architect of the Romanian ICT policy portal. Other Strawberrynet activities include trainings, such as the one on environmental journalism on the web.
Bakó says that although the policy portal is only set to run later in 2007, Romanians are already faced with a number of communication issues. “Copyrights are more and more enforced, specially regarding software. People are not informed about the implications of copyright laws on software and alternatives to it,” he declares.
At a time when free and open source software (FOSS) is moving from servers onto desktops and people discover Openoffice.org (office suite), Firefox (internet browsing), Gaim (chatting) Mplayer (video playing) and co, Bakó says that Romanians need to make the link between what they see and the political significance of an open license. “I’ve only seen one high-profile FOSS project in Romania a few years ago (2003). The Polytechnic University of Bucharest received a 1.5 million dollar donation from IBM for a Linux Competence Centre,” Bakó told APCNews.
In Hungary, a quite comprehensive desktop package in Hungarian language called UHULinux was developed. “The ministry of communication of that central European country introduced it in schools through school networking projects. There was support by the authorities,” exemplifies Bakó. “The Romanian state didn’t support any such initiatives yet,” he insists, in part blaming the people’s inaction in advocating in favour of software tools that are freely distributable and changeable.
Ildikó Knop (21) has a concrete plan for the ICT policy portal: “Our first step is to provide very practical information of what the costs are of implementing FOSS, what the advantages and disadvantages of migrating to FOSS are.” She continues, “valuable material has been developed by APC and that would be prime backgrounder info.”
“We first want to express our vision on FOSS,” says Knop. “Once we’ve done this, we will look into the possibility of lobbying as well.” Being a small organisation with limited resources, Strawberrynet might not be the best player to do this, “but we could support other partners to do the lobbying work, in contacting officials and specialists,” adds Knop.
Content licensing is the other major copyright issue Strawberrynet wants to tackle and research once the actual policy website is launched.
“The Creative Commons license is something we want to look into in great detail. We are not sold to Creative Commons but we see it as important for other types of content, not only software. For documentation purposes, publications, for sharing knowledge,” says Mihály Bakó.
The Stawberrynet team sees the Creative Commons license as an important advancement since it is flexible enough to be applied to particular content. “It’s customisable. It can make it appealing to a larger public. When people think of GPL, they think software. That’s not the case with Creative Commons,” concludes Bakó, in reference to the General Public License (GPL, http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html).
Strawberrynet relies on four core values, which are the respect of people and the environment; equality of chances and opportunities; involvement and engagement, as well as digital inclusion (understood here as the opposite to digital divide).
On the matter of digital divide, Bakó explains that in the Romania of 2006, the rift between rural and urban society is the greatest challenge. Here, like in most places where telecommunication legislation remains weak and influenceable, IT companies are entering the bigger markets first. Although the government is trying to hand out incentives to develop the rural regions, the greatest emphasis of connectivity and access was put in urban areas. “That’s problematic in a country where 46% of the 20 million population is rural,” points out Bakó.
But there are signs to believe that this could change. “Connectivity through mobile phones is a major step in the right direction, in closing the gap for rural areas,” Bakó says, before explaining that competition is starting in the latest mobile technology. “Thanks to the spread of G3 technology, it’s becoming cheaper to access the internet through your mobile phone than on landline.”
Romania was one of a few countries to serve as a pilot market lately for the introduction of broadband access through mobile phone technology (CDMA). It has put pressure on the prices and the monthly mobile access is now at approximately USD$9, compared to USD$5 for landline dial-up access. “That higher flat-rate ends up being cheaper since you don’t need to pay for each individual call like on a landline,” explains Bakó.
With speed of 80 to 100 kilobits per second (kbps), the mobile connectivity is reasonable enough to browse the internet and send and receive emails.
“The second gap is between rich and poor,” assesses Bakó. Hardware limitations at home and limited access in schools definitely prevents the not-so-well-off to keep up with richer Romanians. “Although Romania has experienced a huge push with the RoeduNet (education network) project, computer access in schools are quite often limited to computing classes. They are not used enough for public access to the internet,” says Bakó who is employed by a local school commission as a system administrator.
From fighting against the digital divide, to pushing for the advent of free and open source software among Romanian NGOs and schools, as well as promoting content licenses for the public exchange in knowledge, Stawberrynet will not be out of work soon. “We will do some research and try to prioritise these issues,” concludes Ildikó Knop, a determined look in her eyes.
In reference to Strawberrynet’s membership with APC, Bakó underlines the following. “Even if we aren’t doing practically much at this point (for lack of capacity), we sign petitions and we are looking at APC to drive this ICT policy portal. We are looking forward to activate it and to fill it with content that is relevant to Romania and Romanians.”
Read the Strawberrynet profile for more information of Strawberrynet’s history and usual services.