Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Black Sheep

Every feel unwanted? Ever feel like a pariah? What if your country starts disappearing from the global zeitgeist? When, I wonder, did Ghana start to fade from view? All right, let's get concrete here. Try this on your iPod Touch or iPhone (I was given a first generation iPod touch - now running iPhone OS 3.1.2 - a while back as a kind of consolation prize when my job seemed in doubt - but I shouldn't digress about the pathologies of corporate America). Anyway, where was I? Yes, take your i-something, open the Contacts App, create a new contact and add a new address. Alternatively just try to edit an existing address. Now try to change the country field to Ghana. Note, if you will, the result: Ghana is not in the list of countries. Search under "Africa (Western)" and you'll see nary a trace of Ghana. Heck, look through the entire list of countries and realize that we didn't make the cut. Ghana is not a country in the eyes of Apple.

ipod touch country list bug: Ghana must go

I came across this issue over Christmas when I was home and trying to enter new addresses in this, my conflicted glorified organizer thingimijig. It's just a bug of course, and presumably if I complain loudly enough or write up a bug report against Apple, it will get fixed. Whoever wrote the Contacts app is certainly not trying to whitewash Ghana from history. They just don't have many Ghanaians using iPhones, nor indeed testing the feature hence the omission slipped through the cracks, embarrassing as it may be. Moreover I've been on the other side of the fence, producing software that at times has been seized upon for subtle local insensitivity. I've even written in the past about the cultural difficulties that any piece of technology can elicit so I won't be calling for boycotts or apologia.

But wait, there's more. It seems that Ghana has been disappearing left, right and center from dropdowns and country selection boxes all over the web. I keep coming across this kind of ethnic cleansing in my browsing. Who decided that Ghana must go? It is one thing to be a literal exiled soul, a man of many countries but no home, but it's adding insult to injury to be cast into virtual exile. What gives? Why are form widgets all of a sudden slimming down and discarding Ghana? Why are even these fleeting elements of identity, that pleasing sight of Ghana nestled in between Germany and Gibraltar, being denied me and my countrymen. For example, in the past week I've been trying to buy gift subscriptions to some magazines for my uncles (Economist, Newsweek, New Yorker) and noticed that the online payment processors that these websites use simply don't feature Ghana in the list... go take a look: Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Gibraltar. Where did Ghana go?

new yorker country list bug

newsweek country list bug

economist country list bug

I opened an investigation into this onset of web deportations but, first, let me tell a story...

My routine, ever since 1998, has been to spend my Christmas vacation in Ghana. As a fairly dutiful engineer son this means that 24 hours or so of my vacation is spent on tech support. I either bring new computers or coax the parental unit's setup into shape. They've tended to use Windows as their operating system so, as a matter of course, I would install or renew the subscription to Norton anti-virus or some software firewall or other, paying penance to the insecurity of the Microsoft ecosystem. Since 2005 however, I have been unable to renew the subscription with Symantec from Ghana. It's the usual thing, any credit card transaction from a Ghanaian or Nigerian IP address would fail silently with only a cryptic error message. I had a US billing address and yet my transaction would keep getting denied.

After repeated instances of this, I eventually worked out that the payment processor that Symantec uses had declared Ghana a nation non grata. Thus for the past 5 years, I would renew the subscription when I returned to the United States, or by using the corporate VPN (back when I was actually foolish enough to take a work computer with me on vacation) in effect pretending to be in the USA. Sidenote: the other alternative that most Ghanaians take is to simply install bootleg software or some open source or more wallet-friendly package (virtually no one actually pays Microsoft or other vendors for their wares).

Containers: cybercafe

Ghanaians have great difficulty using credit cards, PayPal, Google Checkout and the like. If we take ecommerce as one component of modern global citizenship then we are illegal aliens of sorts, and our participation is marginal at best. While remittances are a major part of our economy, we continue to pay a heavy price in all our financial transactions. Banks, wire transfer and check cashing joints salivate at the profits they make on our backs and yet the kind of routine monetary transactions that any idiot with a credit card can do in the West is a pipe dream.

The major reason of course is that a large amount of 419 scams, advance-fee schemes and outright frauds seem to emanate from our virtual lands. Payment processors tend to filter with a broad brush and their geolocation heuristics often tar almost all IP ranges from Ghana. The same story goes with spam filtering and some ISPs are known to ban entire countries arbitrarily as mitigation measure (I've seen this applied to countries like Russia, China, Korea). I have lots of Nigerian friends and their emails are often consigned to the spam folder even in GMail whose spam filtering capabilities seem to be the most discriminating. I can recall a member of the security services in Ghana quipping that two thirds of the 419 scams in the world could be stopped if police could simply round up everybody at Busy Internet and other internet cafes in Accra at the right hour. Thankfully that broad brush hasn't been applied - think of the rule of law, false positives, and Minority Report a priori censorship. Still, the actions of an unruly minority are making life difficult for us all.

Busy Internet

What is most galling now is that even our Nigerian brethren in e-criminality are on the list of countries in the above 4 cases. We have the workings of a different bug. With tongue firmly in cheek, I would say that Ghana is uniquely blacklisted. If you live in America, you expect that you won't see North Korea, Iran, Cuba or the like in your commercial browsing since sanctions and embargos pertain. Why would Ghana be in such august company?

One hypothesis, for the websites at least, is that the bug is at the level of the payment processor: Entrust, or Visa, MasterCard etc. Or perhaps our unreliable postal system is at fault. Another alternative is simply that there is a canned type of widget that is being used around the web. I know how these things work: most programmers cut and paste code when they are developing their sites, I know I do that often enough. A cursory inspection shows that the Condé Nast sites are using the jQuery toolkit, a potential source of the bug, but it could be any of the other popular toolkits, Dojo, YUI, Scriptaculous etc. These are pre-canned form widgets and one can envision that a popular tutorial site or user interface toolkit has the bug and has been widely copied.

But, what about the bug in Apple's iPhone Contacts app, one wonders? That seems like an outlier unless it too was written as a web app using much the same widgets. Does anyone have any theories on the matter?

I won't get into how Orbitz and Expedia have now followed the lead of Travelocity in removing Accra from the list of places you can book travel to - this, even though major airlines like Delta, KLM and British Airways fly there. I know that my small country doesn't warrant much attention, I know my place. But this is different, all I want to do is enter some addresses in my organizer or send my uncles some magazines. Magazines that are ostensibly a dying business won't even let me send my hard earned money to them. Someone help me, I feel like a black sheep.

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