Posts about Internet

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

I wrote this for the Guardian, where the discussion is quite lively, approaching 1,500 comments. I’m posting it here a few days later for the purposes of my own archive.

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

Is this really the legacy you want for yourself: the chief executive who trampled rights, destroyed privacy, heightened secrecy, ruined trust, and worst of all did not defend but instead detoured around so many of the fundamental principles on which this country is founded?

And I voted for you. I’ll confess you were a second choice. I supported Hillary Clinton first. I said at the time that your rhetoric about change was empty and that I feared you would be another Jimmy Carter: aggressively ineffectual.

Never did I imagine that you would instead become another Richard Nixon: imperial, secretive, vindictive, untrustworthy, inexplicable.

I do care about security. I survived the attack on the World Trade Center and I believe 9/11 was allowed to occur through a failure of intelligence. I thank TSA agents for searching me: applause for security theater. I defend government’s necessary secrets. By the way, I also defend Obamacare. I should be an easy ally. But your exercise of power appalls me. When I wrote about your credibility deficit in the Guardian, I was shocked that among the commenters at that great international voice of liberalism, next to no one defended you. Even on our side of the political divide, I am far from alone in urgently wondering what you are doing.

As a journalist, I am frightened by your vengeful attacks on whistleblowers — Manning, Assange, Snowden, and the rest — and the impact in turn on journalism and its tasks of keeping a watchful eye on you and helping to assure an informed citizenry.

As a citizen, I am disgusted by the systematic evasion of oversight you have supported through the FISA courts; by the use of ports as lawless zones where your agents can harass anyone; by your failure on your promise to close Guantanamo, and this list could go on.

As an American often abroad, I am embarrassed by the damage you have caused to our reputation and to others’ trust in us. I find myself apologizing for what you are doing to citizens of other nations, dismissing the idea that they have rights to privacy because they are “foreign.”

As an internet user, I am most fearful of the impact of your wanton destruction of privacy and the resulting collapse of trust in the net and what that will do to the freedom we have enjoyed in it as well as the business and jobs that are being built atop it.

And as a Democrat, I worry that you are losing us the next election, handing an issue to the Republicans that should have been ours: protecting the rights of citizens against the overreach of the security state.

Surely you can see this. But you keep doubling down, becoming only more dogged in your defense of secrecy and your guardians of it. I don’t understand.

The only way I could possibly grant you the benefit of doubt is to think that there is some ominous fact about our security that only you and your circle know and can’t breath or the jig will be up. But I don’t believe that anymore than I believe a James Bond movie or an Oliver Stone conspiracy theory. You can’t argue that Armageddon is on the way and that al Qaeda is on the run at the same time.

No, I think it is this: Secrecy corrupts. Absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely. You have been seduced by the idea that your authority rests in your secrets and your power to hold them. Every attack on that power, every questioning of it only makes you draw in tighter, receding into your vault with the key you think your office grants you. You are descending into a dark hole of your own digging.

But you know better, don’t you? In a democracy, secrecy is not the foundation of authority; that is the basis of dictatorships. Principles and their defense is what underpins your office.

First among those principles is the defense of our freedom. Security is only a subset of that, for if we are not secure we are not free. Freedom demands the confidence that we are not under attack, yes, but also that we are not being surveilled without our knowledge and consent. The balance, which we are supposedly debating, must go to freedom.

Transparency is another principle you promised to uphold but have trammeled instead. The only way to assure trust in your actions is if they are overseen by open courts, by informed legislators, by an uninhibited press, and most importantly by an informed citizenry.

As political and media attention turn away from you, you have an opportunity to rise again to the level of principles, to prove that your rhetoric about change was not empty after all, to rebuild your already ill-fated legacy, to do what is expected of you and your office.

You could decide to operate on the principle that our privacy is protected in any medium — not just in our first-class letters but in our emails and chats and calls — unless under specific and due warrant.

You could decide to end what will be known as the Obama Collect it All doctrine and make the art of intelligence focus rather than reach.

You could decide to respect the efforts of whistleblowers as courageous practitioners of civil disobedience who are sacrificing much in their efforts to protect lives and democracy. If they are the Martin Luther Kings of our age, then call off Bull Connor‘s digital dogs and fire hoses, will you?

You could decide to impress us with the transparency you still can bring to government, so that the institution you run becomes open by default rather than by force, as it is now, under you.

You could decide to support a free press and stop efforts — here and, using your influence, with our friends in the UK — to restrain their work.

You could decide that whether they are visiting our land or talking with our citizens by email or phone, foreigners are not to be distrusted by default.

You could try to reverse the damage you have done to the internet and its potential by upholding its principles of openness and freedom.

You could. Will you?

Give up on the net?

Die Zeit asked a handful of people to answer their question, in essence: Have big companies and the NSA ruined the internet? Or to quote the email to me: “Have all the hopes concerning the internet been destroyed?” Here’s my answer in English; the German translation is here.

The battle for control — and the soul — of the internet has only just begun.

I doubt the net’s creators realized how subversive it was to connect anyone to anyone, bypassing the institutions that mediated those connections: from media to government, universities to retailers. These institutions are now circling wagons to protect their prerogatives: copyright for media, secrecy for government.

But as much as they want to take charge of it, the internet is less about institutions than individuals. Now anyone who’s connected can speak to, find, join, and act with a public. Anyone can find information, learn, sell, and create.

Yes, large new institutions are born to serve these needs and opportunities: Google to connect us with information, Facebook with each other, Twitter with everyone. They and we are negotiating norms and ethics regarding privacy, transparency, and control, a process that’s progressing.

Then enter government. It may portray itself as the protector of privacy but it is instead the greatest threat to privacy, for it can gather information and use it against us as no one else can. It abuses the net.

The problem Edward Snowden uncovered in the NSA is not technology. The issue is transparency. The NSA demonstrates that secrecy corrupts and absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely.

We must engage in the discussion Snowden finally sparked about the principles of a free and open society, which we must protect in the face of the new opportunities technology presents to, in the words of NSA chief Keith Alexander, “collect it all.”

Those principles, which I proposed in my book Public Parts, include:
* An ethic of privacy, compelling governments and companies not to steal our data without our knowledge.
* The ideal that government must be open by default and secret by necessity; today, it is the opposite.
* The right to connect, speak, assemble and act online as off.
* The understanding that if any bit on the net is stopped, detoured, or spied upon by any institution then no bit — or the net itself — can be presumed to be free.
* And agreement that the net must remain open and distributed, controlled or corrupted by no government.

Google’s TV

chromecast

Google just demoted your television set into a second screen, a slave to your phone or tablet or laptop. With the $35 Chromecast you can with one click move anything you find on your internet-connected device — YouTube video, Netflix, a web page as well as music and pictures and soon, I’d imagine, games — onto your big TV screen, bypassing your cable box and all its ridiculous and expensive limitations.

Unlike Apple TV and Airplay, this does not stream from your laptop to the TV; this streams directly to your TV — it’s plugged into an HDMI port — over wi-fi via the cloud … er, via Google, that is. Oh, and it works with Apple iOS devices, too.

I’m just beginning to get a grasp on all the implications. Here are some I see.

* Simply put, I’ll end up watching more internet content because it’s so easy now. According to today’s demonstration, as soon as I tell Chrome to move something to my TV, the Chromecast device will sense the command and take over the TV. Nevermind smart TVs and cable boxes; the net is now in charge. There’s no more awkward searching using the world’s slowest typing via my cable box or a web-connected TV. There’s no more switching manually from one box to another. If it’s as advertised, I’ll just click on my browser and up it comes on my TV. Voila.

* Because Google issued an API, every company with web video — my beloved TWiT, for example — is motivated to add a Chromecast button to its content.

* Thus Google knows more about what you’re watching, which will allow it to make recommendations to you. Google becomes a more effective search engine for entertainment: TV Guide reborn at last.

* Google gets more opportunities to sell higher-priced video advertising on its content, which is will surely promote.

* Google gets more opportunities to sell you shows and movies from its Play Store, competing with both Apple and Amazon.

* YouTube gets a big boost in creating channels and building a new revenue stream: subscriptions. This is a paywall that will work simply because entertainment is a unique product, unlike news, which is — sorry to break the news to you — a commodity. I also wonder whether Google is getting a reward for all the Netflix subscriptions it will sell.

* TV is no longer device-dependant but viewer-dependant. I can start watching a show in one room then watch it another and then take it with me and watch on my tablet from where I left off.

* I can throw out the device with the worst user interface on earth: the cable remote. Now I can control video via my phone and probably do much more with it (again, I’m imagining new game interfaces).

* I can take a Chromecast with me on the road and use it in hotel rooms or in conference rooms to give presentations.

Those are implications for me as a user or viewer or whatever the hell I am now. That’s why I quickly bought three Chromecasts: one for the family room, one for my office, one for the briefcase and the road. What the hell, they’re cheap.

Harder to fully catalog are the implications for the industry — make that industries — affected. Too often, TV and the oligopolies that control it have been declared dead yet they keep going. One of these days, one of the bullets shot at them will hit the heart. Is this it?

* Cable is hearing a loud, growing snipping sound on the horizon. This makes it yet easier for us all to cut the cord. This unravels their bundling of channels. I’ll never count these sharks out. But it looks like it could be Sharknado for them. I also anticipate them trying to screw up our internet bandwidth every way they can: limiting speeds and downloading or charging us through the nose for decent service if we use Chromecast — from their greedy perspective — “too much.”

* Networks should also start feeling sweaty, for there is even less need for their bundling when we can find the shows and stars we want without them. The broadcast networks will descend even deeper into the slough of crappy reality TV. Cable networks will find their subsidies via cable operators’ bundles threatened. TV — like music and news — may finally come unbundled. But then again, TV networks are the first to run for the lifeboats and steal the oars. I remember well the day when ABC decided to stream Desperate Housewives on the net the morning after it aired on broadcast, screwing its broadcast affiliates. They’d love to do the same to cable MSOs. Will this give them their excuse?

* Content creators have yet another huge opportunity to cut out two layers of middlemen and have direct relationships with fans, selling them their content or serving them more targeted and valuable ads. Creators can be discovered directly. But we know how difficult it is to be discovered. Who can help? Oh, yeah, Google.

* Apple? I’ll quote a tweet:

Yes, Apple could throw out its Apple TV and shift to this model. But it’s disadvantaged against Google because it doesn’t offer the same gateway to the entire wonderful world of web video; it offers things it makes deals for, things it wants to sell us.

* Amazon? Hmmm. On the one hand, if I can more easily shift things I buy at Amazon onto my TV screen — just as I read Kindle books on my Google Nexus 7 table, not on an Amazon Kindle. But Amazon is as much a control freak as Apple and I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos is laughing that laugh of his right now.

* Advertisers will see the opportunity to directly subsidize content and learn more about consumers through direct relationships, no longer mediated by both channels and cable companies. (That presumes that advertisers and their agencies are smart enough to build audiences rather than just buying mass; so far, too many of them haven’t been.) Though there will be more entertainment behind pay walls, I think, there’ll still be plenty of free entertainment to piggyback on.

* Kids in garages with cameras will find path to the big screen is now direct if anybody wants to watch their stuff.

What other implications do you see?

Technopanic: The Movie

Disconnect thinks it is a film about technology’s impact on our lives. But it is really just a mawkish melodrama about a random bunch of creeps, jerks, assholes, and loners. It is not a warning about our future. In the future, it will be seen as the cyber Reefer Madness: in short, a laughingstock.

Disconnect begins by throwing us every uh-oh signal it can: online porn; people listening to their headphones instead of the world around them; people paying attention to their phones (and the people on the other end) instead of the boring world in front of them; skateboards; people ruining office productivity watching silly videos; kids wearing Hooters T-shirts; sad people chatting with strangers online; people gambling online; people getting phished into bankruptcy; and worst of all, kids using Facebook. Oh, no!

A series of parallel stories unfold: the loner kid who’ll be drawn to humiliate himself and attempt suicide by asshole teens, one of them the son of a cybercop (irony.com!); the young couple — let’s kill their kid to up the sympathy — who chat with strangers and gamble with machines and find their identities thieved (where’s the product placement for Identity Guard and Reputation.com!); the vulture reporter who exploits — and rather hankers for the loins of (and smokes reefers with) — the teen online hustler exploited by the cyberFagin.

Along the way, the movie delivers quite retrograde messages not only about technology but also about sexuality: It’s the men who are found to be at fault for not protecting their nests. Thus: technology castrates!

I hate to deliver any spoilers but it pretty much ends with everybody fucked up and miserable because they got anywhere near the internet.

Disconnect is merely an extension of a trend (we call it a meme these days) in challenging the value of technology against those of us — and I include myself in the “us” — who try to identify the opportunities technology provides. Instead, why don’t we look for everything that could go wrong and crawl back into our caves?

Defining trolls

"GOBLINHEAD" BY MARKUS RÖNCKE/ELFWOOD.COM

“GOBLINHEAD” BY MARKUS RÖNCKE/ELFWOOD.COM

Here is a post I wrote for Medium.com, reposted here.

In his book Assholes: A Theory, Aaron James proposes a definition and a taxonomy for the species, but he omits a key and particularly toxic genus, a breed with which we are all too familiar online: the troll.

Before I attempt to define the troll, let me use as a guide James’ definition of the asshole. “The asshole,” he writes,

(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and (3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. So, for example, the asshole is the person who habitually cuts in line. Or who frequently interrupts in a conversation. Or who weaves in and out of lanes in traffic…. An insensitive person—a mere “jerk”—might allow himself to so enjoy “special advantages” in such interpersonal relations. What distinguishes the asshole is the way he acts, the reasons that motivate him to act in an abusive and arrogant way.

That last criterion—the reasons that motivate—is what leads me to believe that the troll is a subset of the asshole rather than the product of a separate line of DNA: the jerk, the boor, the cad, the schmuck, the douche bag, or the ass, to borrow James’ hierarchy of the hard-to-take .

What distinguishes the troll from the mere asshole is, I believe, that he* (1) has a target; (2) seeks to get a response—a rise—out of that target; and (3) believes he is acting out of some ordained moral purpose to destroy, to bring down his target. By contrast, the asshole seeks only to enjoy privilege. He demands personal convenience—and may cause collateral damage in the form of inconvenience to others in getting it—while the troll seeks destruction. He hunts for the kill. The troll believes he has a right and even a responsibility to waste his nemeses.

James gives specific examples of public figures as assholes—and may their lawyers and flacks complain to him, not me: Douglas MacArthur, Silvio Berlusconi, Hugo Chavez, Simon Cowell, Mel Gibson, Donald Trump. Though I could name trolls, as I’m sure you could, I won’t, for that would give them precisely what they want: recognition and the confirmation that they got a rise out of me. We all know the cardinal rule in troll management: Don’t feed them. Ever. Give them a morsel, they’ll take a leg.

Trolls also feed on irony as a side dish. If I were to label someone a troll, he no doubt would complain that I was just trying to dismiss him through name-calling when, of course, ridiculing and thus dismissing his victim through personal insult is the primary weapon of the troll. Trolls don’t argue ideas. They attack people.

I recently heard of a troll who went after a respected writer for being gay though married. The barrage of baiting was so relentless the writer revealed himself publicly simply to end it. At least he succeeded in silencing his unnamed assailant. I have seen other trolls who will pop up like a recurring infection to harangue their victims on the same complaint in comments or tweets, over and over and over again. They can be monomaniacal. I have seen trolls issue lengthy broadsides against a foe: the bomb vs. the gatling-gun approach.

Let me be clear that trolls are not an invention of the net. One can do a fine job of trolling in a magazine article or a cable TV show or, for that matter, from the floor of Congress. But in the net, trolls have found their dark, dank, underbridge paradise.

Let us also note that trolls, like assholes, need not be anonymous. Whenever I hear editors, legislators, and other wishful thinkers argue that we could eliminate animus from online if only sites required verified identity to speak, I point out that we can all identify assholes by name. Yes, anonymity is not only a vital tool for the speech of the vulnerable and oppressed as well as whistleblowers, it is also the cloak of cowards. But identity is no cure for the common asshole or troll.

So what are we to do about trolls? Though they existed before the net, they do flourish here, attacking victims from under rocks on Twitter, in blogs, and especially in comments and too often setting the tone of online discourse. As I said, the worst thing a troll’s victim can do is to respond in defense, explanation, attempted discussion, or counterattack. That only feeds the beast. I have had to relearn that lesson all too often.

So are we to concede the net to the trolls, to accept their rule over this new domain? No. We cannot. I will argue that it is the responsibility—the moral duty—of bystanders to call trolls on their trolling. This is a corollary to a plea I made here:

The next time you see someone on Twitter point to an argument and gleefully announce, “Fight! Fight!” and you retweet that, think about the net you are encouraging and creating. You’re breeding only more of the same.

The next time you see a troll rubbing claws and cackling at his attack on someone you know and respect and you do not call him on it, then you must ask yourself what kind of net you are fostering. I’ve tried to come to the defense of the trolled a few times recently. When I’ve seen cries of “fight! fight!” I’ve sent the criers links to that paragraph above. When I saw someone I know attack someone else I know over daring to criticize Apple—red meat wrapped in a red cape for many a troll—I asked: “Did you have to launch off with an insult? Is that really the kind of conversation we want to have?”

OK, one risks coming off like the schoolmarm at the rave. But I ask: What choice do we have? Do we let the trolls destroy every sprout of optimism with their curmudgeonly naysaying and ad hominem spite? Do we really want to encourage their mean-spirited destruction? Do we want to give them the last word?

No.

* * *

* Note that I, like James, use the male pronoun on the assumptions that most assholes and trolls happen to be—or are born to be—male and that few women would object to being excluded.