Information Insecurity: how the web is fighting itself to death

1 December 2009

Shhh, no-one mention this is the first post here in six months…

The proposed Digital Economy Bill has, perhaps unsurprisingly, garnered a lot of attention in the blogosphere and occasionally beyond.

It had all started so differently; Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report was by no means perfect, but the discussion was broad – on universal broadband provision, opening up the wireless spectrum and looking at reforming traditional media, as well as the inevitable protections against copyright infringement.

Digital Britain’s proposals were criticised at the time, but nevertheless there were careful safeguards – the burden of proof was on rights holders, repeated infringers’ identities could only be disclosed by court order, and the final resort – after all other avenues had been explored – would be capping of bandwidth. Disliked as this aspect of Digital Britain was, it was at least balanced within a wider context: just thirty-one pages (pp 105-135) of the two hundred or so of the report were devoted to ‘Protecting and Rewarding Creativity’, as the euphemism went, and even then, some of that was on reforming fair use and reviving orphan works, rather than punishing infringers.

And there were concessions to hear the public’s point of view, with the public consultations; the Digital Britain Unconferences even got a fuller mention in the final report, with praise for “what is possible for Digital Britain when these tools are combined with channelling existing loosely connected networks and motivations.” Digital Britain at least appreciated the potential of the digital economy, rather than treating it as a threat.

And then… Lord Carter quit on the eve of the report, Lord Mandelson swooped in and all that hard work was for naught. A quick chat with David Geffen and Lucien Grainge, and the Digital Economy Bill put before the houses of Parliament is distinctly heavy on suspected infringement and light on all the other bits in the report. It is not so much one to boost the digital economy, but to protect what is left of the analogue one.

Measures include the threat of cutting off a user’s connection without due process, just on the copyright holders’ say-so, with secondary legislation allowing for “pirate finders” and forcing ISPs to snoop on traffic. This may breach European law, as Glyn Moody notes, and given the government is also committed to providing more public services online, this contradictory policy only works to effectively deprive people of access to public services without a fair hearing.

There is plenty of very good writing on the matter – two pieces by Charlie Stross, as well as Cory Doctorow and Don Tapscott, coiner of the phrase “digital economy”. And it is not just the usual suspects – this Guardian leader captures the point succinctly.

You can sign the petition, join the Open Rights Group and lobby your MP. All of these I urge you to do.

But that is not the sole point of this blog post. The fight over the Digital Economy Bill and “digital Britain” is part of a much, much, larger battle over the control of information, one that goes far beyond copyright infringement. The demands of the bill – registering copyright holders, forcing ISPs to log traffic, registering people blocked from online access – will all require enormous infrastructures and data gathering capability. Just like ID cards, or the proposed communications register, or the national DNA database.

All of these vast, vast systems are backed a political system utterly infatuated with acquiring and controlling information, in the confused and vain hope that merely by collecting it, it becomes knowledge or wisdom. So much information is gathered that the authorities have become notoriously irresponsible with it – remember, even two years on, those lost child benefit discs still haven’t turned up.

This is not to say that the governments is an evil Big Brother (never confuse bumbling desparation with malice), and it is definitely not the sole player in this game. Just look at how Google and Facebook both strive to control as much data as possible to further their business ends, while in other corner, crumbling news media empires are resorting to proposing redefining copyright in an attempt to maintain control over the information so valuable to their business and venal law firms fail in their attempts to superinjunct just about everyone.

And caught between all of them is the ordinary user – often the kind of person who’ll freely download music and movies yet complain simultaneously about the greed of the record companies; moan about our privacy being taken away from us while we Tweet every last moment of our existence; form online mobs proclaiming hate against a hatemonger; rally blog campaigns but then don’t do very much ourselves about it. We’re a funny lot, when it comes down to it.

And connecting us and them all is this big thing called the Internet. All technologies have their politics but the Internet’s are curiously contradictory; open standards and licences with their roots in counterculture, libertarianism and communitarianism abound, yet if it weren’t for the governmental, academic and corporate worlds backing and building the infrastructure, it would never have taken root in the first place.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that as the digital age has entered its adolescence, we ourselves find ourselves in conflicting times. The traditional information economy has been pulled down yet we haven’t yet worked out what to replace it with. The libertarian view is that information would set us all free; the authoritarian view is that perfect information would lead to perfect governance, but instead we have neither – we’re mired in confusion, ignorance and conflict. We’re only just realising the power in the tools we possess, but everywhere we look we see people, governments and corporations become increasingly insecure. We’re losing sense of what the web should be for, and are taking it out on each other instead.

I hope I’m not taking too much of a bellicose line here; I don’t like using conflict as a metaphor and I’m not a bloodthirsty cheerleader for all this. But there is something dark about the state of cyberspace which the rosier pictures painted in the likes of Here Comes Everybody or Groundswell (fine books they may be) do not convey. If Mandelson’s bill goes through, or if all our emails are snooped on, or if net neutrality is abolished, then it will not just be another step to destroying the open, collaborative nature of the net that has created so much already, but will only deepen the divisions and destroy all hope for a peaceful, mature and secure adulthood for the digital era.

Postscript: As far as I know yet, no-one has written that lengthily on this – the best I’ve seen being Tim O’Reilly’s “The War for the Web“. But that is just a here and now, when what is as interesting is the why; what were the social and political forces that not just shaped the net but modern politics and business, that explains why netheads tend to be libertarian (in some respects), or why governments think they need all this information. Which is a shame – there are a wealth of interesting stories on the forces that shaped these technologies and systems, some of which I used in my Master’s dissertation on the sociology of open source communities, long ago. I have no idea if there is enough for a book, or at least coherent long narrative, but I will start cobbling some blog posts together to see where it takes me.

Liberty AGM 2009

8 June 2009

It’s that time of year again… this weekend it was Liberty‘s annual general meeting and annual conference in London.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the conference on the Saturday, with speakers such as Jack Straw, Doreen Lawrence and Tony Benn – although Jason of Cosmodaddy did, and liveblogged it. But I did go along to the AGM on Friday night instead of enjoying the pub like normal. I Tweeted some of it but here’s a fuller recap of events and my thoughts.

I’m sad to say that like last year’s AGM, a lot of the proceedings were shambolic. Louise Christian, the Chair of Liberty, may be an excellent human rights lawyer but in my view she made a terrible chair of the AGM. Votes to approve the auditors and a nomination to the appeals board were conducted without a call for votes against or abstentions – a numerous show of hands for the motion was taken as unanimity. The results of the elections to Liberty’s council were announced simply by announcing the names of the winners, with no record of the count. When challenged on this, Louise said it was to avoid ’embarrassment’ to those who got a low number of votes (can you imagine if we did the same for MPs?). There were numerous protests from the floor on the way the AGM was conducted, but time and time again the chair attempted to close the discussion and ‘move on’, even though dissenters still had hands raised and wanted to speak. One member spoke of how it resembled ‘railroading’ and I’m inclined to agree.

Had this been in any other democratically run organisation, I’m sure Liberty’s leadership would have condemned it as opaque and anti-democratic. Given the recent furore surrounding MP’s expenses and lack of transparency, a human rights organisation such as Liberty must have an exemplar level of transparency and proper conduct throughout – not just the minimum, but the very highest standard must be adhered to. And this was sadly lacking from the chair. On one motion (on presumed consent for organ donation) after the vote had been taken, she voiced her personal approval that the motion had been turned down – in my view, conduct not befitting the chair, who should remain neutral both during and after such debates. The fact that the AGM was squeezed into two and a half hours (last year, it was held on a Saturday so we had most of a day to deliberate) so that delegates could enjoy drinks at the end, meant that the chair continually sought to expedite the meeting so we could meet the 9pm deadline. It gave it a rushed feel, as if we were just going through the motions.

Disappointing. But enough of that – there was still plenty of interesting debate from the floor and ordinary membership. Seven motions were presented in total and there was plenty of debate about them – particularly two issues of controversy. One was to what degree people should be denied employment or union membership on their political beliefs or associations they join, and the other was on whether Liberty should endorse ‘presumed consent’ for organ donation.

The first is a tricky issue to pick apart – BNP members are forbidden from becoming police or civil servants, and I’d imagine most well-thinking people would support it. But then again, the same line of reasoning was used by anti-union employers discriminating against left-wing union workers. Some good points were raised in the meeting – someone pointed out how it’s easy to defend trade unionists but much harder to stomach defending fascists, even if the rights they enjoy are universal. The original motion did allow for people to be denied employment in “exceptional” circumstances. I would argue that being an instrument of the state’s power means you have to be bound by tighter rules than a normal employer would; with the police’s commitment to racial equality enshrined in law, and how being a racist means you cannot possibly abide by it, I’d see that as an exceptional circumstance enough to deny a BNP member a job as a police officer. But it has to be done on a case-by-case basis, and the burden of proof has to be on the employer, not the employee.

The motion in the end didn’t pass – an amended version by a trade union delegate did; although I agreed with the sentiment, I thought it was wider-ranging and had much less bite than the original, moving the focus onto unions’ right to bar members because of their beliefs rather than questioning the actions of employers. But the debate was interesting, informed and above all passionate without getting ill-tempered, a much more sober and level affair than the usual emotive bullshit in politics.

The other motion of interest was that of whether presumed consent can be taken for organ donation. There are all kinds of conflicting rights here – the right to life and the right to dignity for the recipients, coupled with the putative donor’s right to one’s own body and religious beliefs. Even with a guarantee of opt-out if you did not want to, and opt-out for the relatives of the deceased wasn’t enough. There are some interesting philosophical dilemmas here – as rights are described as human rights, when you die and cease to be a human, what rights does your corpse inherit? Isn’t ‘presumed consent’ a contradiction in terms? As donated organs are a gift, does turning them into a compulsion destroy the gift value? Should we even care if it means more people will live?

Me? I was in a minority that did endorse presumed consent; growing up with my mother working as a nurse for kidney patients on dialysis showed me how horrible a life without working vital organs could be, and their right to life and dignity comes should be given priority over our sensitivities about corpses; I feel that by having an opt-out system for organ donation we reduce the demand for black market organs and help strengthen the rights of the living forced to donate. But I was strongly moved by some of the arguments made (particularly on the rights to the body in reference to slavery, and torture) and it was a difficult decision to stick by and made me question myself.

Being given crises of conscience may seem an odd reason to be a proud member of Liberty, but I am. And even though all of us have common cause and beliefs there was still healthy levels of debate and dissent within the membership – as well there should be for any organisation in a democracy. Even if the chair of the meeting didn’t seem to concerned about due process or dissent, the membership did, and I was proud to be among them.

Go out and vote!

4 June 2009

A quick break from usual service on this blog (i.e. silence) for this quick message. Today the UK goes to the polls in local and European elections. If you have a vote today, please use it. Not least to deny extremists like the BNP, but because the vote is the cornerstone of our democracy and it’s up to us to show politicians the strength of it. Given the recent scandals and the jaded, cynical, state of politics you might be discouraged from participating – but it’s exactly because the political system is so fucked up now that those in power need reminding the power of the vote. And any change or reform of our politics can only be given strength and legitimacy if we show that people still care about how this country is run.

So go out and vote. Haven’t got your polling card with you, or it got lost in the post? Doesn’t matter – as long as you’re on the electoral roll you can just turn up at the polling station and vote by giving your name & address. Don’t know where the polling station is? Your local council’s website should have a list – check out Directgov’s directory of councils to find yours. Not sure who to vote for? Nosemonkey has an excellent roundup of resources to make sure your vote is informed, including Votematch and EUProfiler (I thought the former was better, for what it’s worth), the list of individual party manifestos and the manifestos of the party groupings within the European Parliament.

That’s it. No excuses now. Go out and vote. And get your mum to go and vote as well while you’re at it. Thanks.

Thinking Digital late(ish)blog #4

19 May 2009

Forgive me – technical & time issues have delayed the rest of these posts, so what was a liveish blog has now become a lateish blog. But plenty to make up for it in this post.

Plenty of the sessions of Thinking Digital weren’t really that digital, to be honest. But there was a distinct theme running through several of them – the irrational, emotional and sensual sides of ourselves, and the struggle to rationalise and co-opt them.

First up – Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine. While his politics are a little wonky (including a slightly bizarre rant about the world financial system), the majority of his talk was an interesting discussion of what makes people believe in the paranormal, in conspiracies, aliens, the Illuminati, Holocaust denial and all the rest. It’s sorely tempting to dismiss them as mere cranks, but Shermer did an admirably level-headed job of using what we know about the brain and evolutionary explanation.

What he calls “patternicity” (but I think is more usually called “apophenia“, one of my favourite words), the tendency to patterns in random noise is one tenet, which he explained is a side-effect of our ability to spot threats and predators. Then there’s “agenticity” (which sort-of ties in with anthropocentrism, the cognitive bias that humans (or some other species) must be the cause of observed phenomena, a side-effect of the development of empathy and a theory of mind. The two combine to make it easy for a belief that random events are actually orchestrated by powerful unseen entities. It’s a compelling explanation, although it still covers perhaps too easy and irrelevant a target – only a tiny minority of people holding irrational viewpoints are utter wingnuts. The more dangerous kind of irrational person, the mainstream kind like climate-change deniers, armchair general liberal interventionists, subprime derivatives traders and religious fundamentalists are influenced by more than cognitive kinks such as these – external factors such as money, power and greed – although cognitive biases of course play a part.

From trying to explain the irrational mental consequences of our evolution to exploiting them for fun and profit. Mostly fun, but also a lot of profit (we’re talking billions of dollars here). Yes, it’s the perfume trade. Chandler Burr, the New York Times’ perfume critic (yes, such a post does exist) gave us an entertaining and illuminating talk about the world of scent, a subject I know bog-all about (so forgive me if I get his words wrong here).

Our sense of smell (detecting molecules from the ambient environment) is perhaps our oldest, and yet at the same time while we’ve seen every colour we’ll ever see in our lives, we will never be able to do the same for smell. Artificial molecules will bring us new smells and experiences, and the course of the perfume industry’s history was shifted irreversibly when they were introduced. Chandler gave an illuminating talk into how it was both complex science – experimenting with different aromas and combining – and yet also art, likening movements in the industry to movements such as Impressionism and Abstract Art in the world of painting.

Interspersed in this talk was a series of smell tests of individual scents – we all got given individual strips to sniff – that are combined together into a full perfume. Chandler was good at explaining how each scent can be regarded as a note, and how you hear a note depends on the context it’s put in and the accompanying notes and tones – one chemical which is a component of artificial strawberry can equally be used in a different combination to form steak. The final sample we smelled was the final product the components were used in, and it was amazing to be able to pick apart the different scents thanks to the talk we had. The perfume in question was Silver Mark by Jack Black (no not that one) which was awesome – spicy and woody and probably not to everyone’s taste.

A different spin on tech for fun and profit was the final talk by Caleb Chung, toy inventor. While this sounds like the most awesome job in the world it seemed to be initially a tale of continued rejection and perseverance, of being forced to keep budgets low and ideas neutered. Chung toiled for years before making a big break with the Furby – which in fact he was almost apologetic for; it seemed he didn’t wager how much of a global phenomenon the simple, cute but above all their interactivity – interacting with their environment in a way that might seem crude now but was apparently enchanting then.

Having sold 50 billion (or so) Furbys, Caleb became a made man, an experience he likened to a death in the family, as it left him without purpose for the first time in his life. On the plus side it gave him free reign to do what he liked, and so after much work he came up with Pleo – an animatronic robot dinosaur with an advanced AI that reacts and learns from its surroundings. He brought one out to play, and I was astonished. I knew it was just a device of gears and rubber, but it really did accurately simulate a baby animal which could walk, cry for ‘food’ (its favourite was banknotes, ironic given the huge R&D costs), climb and react to human contact with (pseudo-)emotional behaviour.

Perhaps what made this even more like something out of Bladerunner was the fact that it’s not just humans that react empathetically to it. One Pleo owner shot this video (fast forward to 1:40) while taking it to an aquarium – one of the attendants there said they had never seen behaviour like that from the dolphins before. It’s a rare occasion that I’ve been both gobsmacked and smiling, but this video was one of them:

Sadly, Pleo’s manufacturers went bankrupt earlier this year, perhaps hamstrung by the device’s high cost. It’s a device perhaps a little too advanced for its time, too expensive for mass adoption like the Furby, which is a pity as they were finding out new and interesting uses for it beyond the toy world – such as being the ideal pet for those with dementia or mental difficulties who need companionship yet also unable to take care of a real animal. Perhaps when the cost of the parts and manufacturing come down a bit, we’ll see a second generation of Pleos being mass-adopted, and with it an interesting set of questions on the ethics of artificial pets (do they have rights like animals) and what it means to be empathetic.

These examples of using science and technology to understand – and where possible – provoke human irrationality and emotion – were perhaps the most eye-opening and enjoyable aspect of Thinking Digital for me. Partly because it’s a field I’ve dabbled in but can’t claim to even be a skilled amateur at, so tricky is it to grasp. Even comparative failures like Pleo involve a level of understanding of human psychology way above my own, and as for being able to critique and create perfume – forget it. But it’s good to know one’s deficiencies, it’s the best spur to learning we have.

Coming up – more geekery, the future of media, and something that provoked my fear of growing old. In the meantime there’s also a post about a subject I do know a fair bit on the work blog as well.

Thinking Digital live(ish)blog #3

15 May 2009

One of the nice things about Thinking Digital is that some of it is unashamedly, gloriously geeky. Two talks in the middle of yesterday basked in that. The first was by Tara Shears of Liverpool University and CERN, who gets to play with the greatest scientific toy ever made, the Large Hadron Collider. Me jealous. Tara covered a very brief study of particle physics and the Standard Model, before showing off the sheer awesome power & capability of the LHC. She was amazingly lucid and engaging as a presenter – it reminded me of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures – and shows you don’t have to resort to the “OMG it’s going to end the world” sensationalism that was in the press coverage. If all our physics teachers were like her we wouldn’t be worrying about a shortage of decent scientists.

The sheer amount of data that CERN produces is in the hundreds of petabytes, so a special distributed computing network is needed to help process it. But that’s not just the preserve of CERN – Simone Brunozzi of Amazon was here to talk about cloud computing, or distributed computing services for all. The parallel he drew up was of electricity – factories used to have their own in-house power generation, but eventually moved to a national grid; cloud computing does the same for processor power. Simone talked a lot of good stuff – of creating applications that are robust, scalable and on demand. And scalable is difficult – it’s not just a case of throwing more processors at it, it takes a lot of clever management and architecture around it. In an age where we’re going for mobile and lightweight devices, and universal broadband is becoming a reality, then I can see the justification of cloud computing, but it’s still not going to be a household name – its future seems more b2b and quietly in the background. However, I worry as and when the first major cloud security compromise happens (which it will, security is not easy either and I thought Simone was a bit dismissive), and the privacy implications of who’s able to look at your data when it’s uploaded to a cloud application.

Curtis Wong of Microsoft Research showed off their geeky toy, WorldWide Telescope. What struck me was how great it was having free content (everything produced by NASA is public domain) and with something that allowed people to create their own content; the video of a six-year-old kid talking you through his journey through the stars made me think – damn, I would have loved this as a kid. So much better than just a poster of the solar system on your bedroom wall. It’s not the only such software out there – there’s Celestia for example, but the community & user-generated content aspects make WWT a more fun prospect. That said, I have my quibbles with WWT – the web version’s in Silverlight and no Mac desktop version – come on Microsoft, you must know that’s such a clich?… :) There’s a TED video if you want to see more. Speaking of which, more TED-like stuff in the next post…

Thinking Digital live(ish)blog #2

14 May 2009

Thinking Digital’s been really good. One of the things that has amazed me today has been the variety of topics and speakers. Kicking off was Paul Miller, the man behind School of Everything (matching people who want to learn with people who want to teach) and Social Innovation Camp (bringing together innovators and hackers to solve social problems). Paul was really quite inspired and energetic, calling out “that cyberspace is dead” and meatspace is all it is now (cf. my own discussion on how the barrier between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ has come down) – technology should be more urgently directed to social problems. The kicker is, where is money going to come from – School of Everythng has a half-decent business model of taking commission, but SI Camp is still volunteer and sponsor-powered; as a recession kicks in will this be a problem (or maybe it won’t be – unemployed geeks volunteering to keep them sharp and improve their CVs, maybe?)

In a similar vein, there was also an interesting talk by Jim TerKeurst, director of the Institute of Digital Innovation, something I must confess has never really been on my horizon. Jim showcased some of the IDI’s fellows, who have worked on diverse range in the arts and technology – both art and artefacts. As a things geek, I was initially more impressed with the artefacts, such as chandeliers made from recycled plastic, the silver nanotechnology or the chairs that change according to your mood & clothing – annoyingly the IDI’s site doesn’t seem to showcase much, which is a pity. That said, later on one of the performers supported by the IDI, The Sancho Plan, gave us a great of their combination of live percussion controlling weird and wonderful computer animation, which I really liked – check out one of their videos:

The morning sessions weren’t just about targeting social problems or supporting the arts and creativity, but also about cold hard business. Well, with a cuddly side. Alex Hunter of Virgin group (though a committed Diet Coke drinker) talked about how he’s reshaping the Virgin website for a Web 2.0 & social media outlook. It was for the most part a well-presented Cluetrain Manifesto but still had some interesting lessons; Alex regards Digg’s blog as the best corporate blog – not just because it’s written by the guys at the top, but because it’s a multiplicity of voices and they respond to their fans. Geeks with fans, who would think it? But then, Digg know the audience they’re blogging for, and it’s harder for non-tech brands, so be careful of using them as an example.

Still, Alex was evangelistic about embracing social media in the business word, and made it clear it works for brands big and small (citing Qype and Zappos as examples). We also got some insights in the Virgin process – they have Virgin Eye a beautiful visualisation of mentions of their brands on the web (from over 5,000 sources) and other “labs”-style projects from Virgin at Explore Virgin. They have a new website, more of a community platform out which they’ve spent a year and a half listening, researching and creating, which is an impressive level of care and attention (although in a world where online fads come & go in days, risks being stale on the day it launches).

From another business point of view, Harry Drnec talked about his experiences as MD of Red Bull. His philosophy was from the emotional end of the spectrum rather than the practical – find your consumer, touch them, thrill them. Marketing wank? Possibly. But there’s no denying how attached people are to Red Bull as a brand, despite the ridiculous price it sells at (Red Bull made it a policy of not cutting price to increase sales, preferring the premium cachet). Now he’s trying to do the same for computers – make them rely on as little skill on the user’s part as possible. A noble goal, but I hope they don’t confuse simplicity and intuitiveness; by making things too simple to use we risk destroying their power and potential. Intuitiveness is what counts.

Right, enough business. Next post – hardcore geekery and genuine leftfield afternoon weirdness.

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