Interview with Jonathan Peizer

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

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 individuals.

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 program.

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 project. 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 premises 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 nationalism.

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 tens 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 objective.

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 independent 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 toindependent 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 cooperative 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 Internet?

JP: Actually I am optimistic by nature – anyone that 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. Fortunately, I work with a lot of committed people in the region who feel the same way as I do about 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 interpret events in economic terms, without any sensibility about the importance of (independent) 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. These initiatives impact the broader Internet community at large. When the program 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 a couple of organizations with expertise in this area interested in creating an international Internet policy initiative were identified, seed funding was provided to each to develop a project.

The next year was spent evaluating the 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 advocacy. 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 of Internet policy issues than most of its European counterparts. After a year of funding however, the European contingency participating 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. 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 that 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 of 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. Other groups will have a choice as to which group to emulate. 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 at once.

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 -(e.g. 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 to the development of civil society 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 general.

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 negligible.

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