Posts about Internet

Bad things could happen

Farhad Manjoo New York Times review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus relies on the argument I hear a lot in privacy circles: Bad things could happen.

Shirky imagines what good things people could do if they watched less TV and created more stuff together (2,000 Wikipedias bloom). Manjoo yes-buts him:

Nearly every one of his examples of online collectivism is positive; everyone here seems to be using the Internet to do such good things.

Yet it seems obvious that not everything — and perhaps not even most things — that we produce together online will be as heartwarming as a charity or as valuable as Wikipedia. Other examples of Internet-abetted collaborative endeavors include the “birthers,” Chinese hacker collectives and the worldwide jihadi movement. In this way a “cognitive surplus” is much like a budgetary surplus — having one doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll spend it well. You could give up your time at the TV to do good things or bad; most likely you’ll do both.

Well, yes, Shirky’s examples are of good things because he’s trying to persuade people to consider new behaviors and thus he is arguing their benefits. Buy the punch line, buy the joke. In Manjoo’s school, Jim Fixx should have written running books leading off by arguing that it could give you skin cancer to be outside that much and it will wreck your knees and cars could hit you and dogs could bite you and you look silly in shorts and, oh, yes, you could drop dead of a heart attack. Feel like a run? C’mon! Get up off that couch! Turn off that TV, now!

As he tries to find his critical yes-but, Manjoo is betraying more about his thinking than Shirky’s. His is a case of classical (if you’ll forgive me that but it’s become a cliché if not classical) internet skepticism, which is really anti-populist fear of a loss of centralized control. Manjoo doesn’t trust people — “perhaps even most” people — to use their time wisely. That’s the snobbery I hear against the internet and publicness and what the public does with the internet.

So the next necessary question to such a critic needs to be: Yeah, and…? What is it you expect we should do then? The only logical answer in this context is that Manjoo wants people to keep watching TV in case they would otherwise do bad things (and he gets to define bad). So whether he knows it or not, he becomes Big Brother and TV is the opiate of his masses. Put down that remote control, now. Back away from the mouse. Just sit and watch media. That’s what it’s there for. Hush now.

The cloud crisis

The ash cloud is on my mind more than yours, I’ll bet, because I outran it and because I’m concerned for my friends at re:publica and elsewhere who are still trying to get home by tortured combinations of planes, trains, and automobiles (and boats). It’s a big deal, a profound crisis with profound implications.

But I don’t see government, the airline industry, and media responding that way. They can’t see past their noses and the ashes right ahead of them.

In media, I’ve seen next to no stories looking at the long-term impact and implications; that’s what Richard Sambrook — ex BBC newsman — asked for this morning. The best I’ve found is Robert Paterson asking whether the volcano presents a Black Swan event. All over Twitter and blogs I see the big questions being asked; I don’t see media trying to answer them. I fear it’s not built to.

The airlines are, understandably, engulfed in crisis. But I’d like to see them get dispensation from governments, airports, and other airlines to ferry passengers out of other airports: Get yourself to Rome, Lufthansa could say, and we’ll use a jet stuck in America to get you back (and not have to refund your ticket).

Governments are issuing edicts about safety, which is, indeed, their job. And now they’re going to face fights from airlines: KLM is sending up test flights and making noise about the bans being overkill: “We are asking the authorities to really have a good look at the situation, because 100 percent safety does not exist,” the spokesman said (how comforting; how good for their band; KLM becomes the Toyota of the air — safe enough). But others are testing, too, and are finding gunk in jets: see this and this (via Suw) and this (via Rob Paterson again). So government will have its work cut out protecting us.

Meanwhile, we, the people, are taking our fate into our hands — organizing without organizations, as Clay Shirky would see it. @calaisrescue organized a Dunkirk-like flotilla to take people across the Channel until French authorities stopped them. Friend Heather Gold, stuck in Berlin on her way to Finland, is sending people to ride-sharing and couch-sharing services to help. Friend Micah Sifry, who left Berlin for Zurich and next Rome, says Twitter — the people who use Twitter, of course — has been a Godsend, as it was for me, along with the Google Maps that navigated me and my rescuers to Munich. We’re doing the best we can.

What’s failing us, all in all, is our power structures, which aren’t built to think big and fast at the same time. They should be bending rules to get planes and people to where planes can fly to get people home. They need to be thinking about and taking action about the bigger implications for the European and then world economies (more on that later). Companies of all shorts should be standing up to provide relief (Skype and Cisco offering video conferencing; pharmacy companies offering to help the people lost without prescriptions I’m seeing in Twitter; airlines should let us use their sites to book seats and work out the refunds later, promising not to rip us off; bus and train companies moving mountains to move people — instead of ripping them off, as is unfortunately happening in some cases). They are treating this is a short-term, one-time event. It may well not be. This piece in the Times of London explains why and how this could go on for sometime — and repeat itself.

Bill of Rights in Cyberspace, amended

I’ve amended my proposed Bill of Rights in Cyberspace thanks to a suggestion in the comments from Jeff Sonderman: All data are created equal. I made that all bits are created equal, which broadens it somewhat and is quite relevant today in the discussion of net neutrality that will explode because of an Appeals Court decision in Washington that told the FCC it did not have jurisdiction to tell Comcast to stop discriminating on bits.

Here’s the rub: On the one hand, I do not want government regulation of the internet. On the other hand, I do not want monopoly discrimination against bits on the internet. I see it as a principle that all bits are, indeed, created equal. But how is this enforced when internet service is provided by monopolies? Regulation. But I don’t want regulation. But… That is the vicious cycle of the net neutrality debate.

At a Union Square Ventures event a few years ago, Tom Evslin said that regulation is a temporary necessity until the marketplace and technology open up internet access to competition. In a competitive environment, we won’t tolerate the ISP that hampers our service. Now, we’re stuck.

The other path to fixing this is legislation. But, of course, that is another form of regulation of the internet: a claim of sovereignty by government over the net that I want to avoid.

All this, I believe, is all the more reason to have a set of principles and standards we, the internet nation, can point to, all the more reason to have a Bill of Rights for Cyberspace. Here is mine, amended:

I. We have a right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble.
IV. We have the right to act.
V. We have the right to control our data.
VI. We have the right to control our identity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet shall be operated openly.

: MORE: Dan Gillmor on the decision. The Hill blog has more details.

Guardian column: Google is our ambassador

Here’s my Guardian column this week on Google and China. See also this post proposing a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace.

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This year at Davos, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told a room of journalists that his company is not a country, does not set laws, and does not have a police force. Yet in its showdown with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet. Well, somebody has to.

Next to no one has been willing to stand up to China’s suppression of speech online. Other companies—Yahoo—have handed over information that led to the imprisonment of dissidents. More companies—Cisco—have helped China build its Great Firewall. Many more—from News Corp to the New York Times Company—have coveted the Chinese market and overlooked the regime’s tyranny to do business there. Governments have hardly been better, doing little to nothing to pressure China over human and digital rights.

But Google did. Now it has turned off the filter it never should have created if it wanted to stay true to its don’t-be-evil dictum. It has dared the Chinese government to block search and speech and expose its censorship to its people. By its action, Google also dares other companies and governments to follow.

The fight against apartheid in South Africa had its Sullivan Principles; the fight for free speech and a free, secure internet now has its Google Principles. I don’t mean to equate the virtual repression in the Chinese internet with the racial, physical, and economic repression that occurred in South Africa under apartheid. But in both instances, there came a time when companies had to ask—or be asked—whether they could justify supporting tyrannical regimes. Pulling out of China is a moral decision.

Today, moral decisions are also business decisions. London economist Umair Haque argues that when we can all talk about companies online, the price of doing evil has increased. Google is repairing its social standing.

Cynics say Google left China because it was beaten by Baidu; few Western companies are competing well against Chinese counterparts (even Rupert Murdoch has been foiled). But I say Google is instead defending its entire business—because it is defending the internet itself against censorship, government control, espionage, and attack.

Google’s business strategy is dead simple: The more we use the internet, the more Google makes. If governments are allowed and enabled to restrict freedom on the internet to a lowest common denominator (as the U.K.’s libel tourism does for publishing), and if we worry that our data in the cloud is not secure, and if citizens of totalitarian states fear the internet will be used to jail them, then we will trust and use it less. Google loses. We all lose.

But even Google cannot fight this alone. “No single company and no single industry can tackle Internet censorship on its own,” Google’s director of public policy, Alan Davidson, told a Congressional panel last week. He urged Congress to consider withholding development aid for countries that restrict online speech and including a pledge for free speech online in trade agreements. Davidson said 40 nations censor the internet today and 25 governments have blocked Google.

I wait to see what governments in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe will do to support the freedom and security of the Chinese people and of the internet (so far, it seems, the White House is applauding Google’s actions with one hand). I wait to see other companies matching Google’s guts.

Or perhaps what I should wish instead for popular support for free speech in the internet—a movement from us, the society of users. That is how companies and governments were pressured to divest their interests in South Africa. So where is our outcry for freedom and security? The internet is ours to lose.

In 1996, Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow wrote a rousing Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (http://bit.ly/dofi): “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one….”

Perhaps we now need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace to claim and secure our freedom to connect, speak, assemble, and act online; to each control our own identities and data; to speak our languages; to protect both what is public and private; and to assure openness. (Please come and suggest and discuss its articles at http://bit.ly/cyberrights.)

With that, our diplomatic mission to the old world—Google—can fight for what’s right. After all, someone must.

A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

In my Media Guardian column this Monday, I will suggest that we need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace as a set of amendments to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Note that I do not suggest the establishment a Constitution of the Internet; I think that would violate the tenets Barlow so eloquently if grandiosely sets forth. We don’t need government in cyberspace; we need freedom.

This Bill of Rights attempts to establish the fundamental freedoms of our internet that must be protected against abridgment by governments, companies, institutions, criminals, subverters, or mobs. I suggest in my column that in its confrontation with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet to the old world under its own (rediscovered) principles. So we would be wise to establish our principles. I ask the column’s readers to come to this post to suggest and discuss articles. Also discuss at the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Here are mine:

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A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

I. We have the right to connect.

This is a preamble and precondition to the American First Amendment: before we can speak, we must be able to connect. Hillary Clinton defines the freedom to connect as “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other.” It is this principle that also informs discussion of net neutrality.

II. We have the right to speak.

No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves operating under a lowest common denominator of offense. Freedom is our default.

III. We have the right to speak in our languages.

The English language’s domination of the internet has faded as more languages and alphabets have joined the net, which is to be celebrated. But Ethan Zuckerman also cautions that in our polyglot internet, we will want to build bridges across languages. We will want to speak in our own languages but also speak with others’.

IV. We have the right to assemble.

In the American Bill of Rights, the right to assemble is listed separately from the right to speak. The internet enables us to organize without organizations and collaborate and that now threatens repressive regimes as much as speech.

V. We have the right to act.

These first articles are a thread: We connect to speak and speak to assemble and assemble to act and that is how we can and will change the world, not just putting forth grievances but creating the means to fix them. That is what threatens the institutions that would stop us.

VI. We have the right to control our data.

You should have access to data about you. And what’s yours is yours. We want the internet to operate on a principle of portability, so your information and creations cannot be held prisoner by a service or government and so you retain control. But keep in mind that when control is given to one, it is taken from another; in those details lurk devils. This principle thus speaks to copyright and its laws, which set the definitions and limits of control or creation. This principle also raises questions about whether the wisdom of the crowd belongs to the crowd.

VII. We have the right to our own identity.

This is not as simple as a name. Our identity online is made up of our names, addresses, speech, creations, actions, connections. Note also that in repressive regimes, maintaining anonymity — hiding one’s identity — is a necessity; thus anonymity, with all its faults and baggage and trolls, must also be protected online to protect the dissenter and the whistleblower. Note finally that these two articles — controlling our data and our identities — make up the right to privacy, which is really a matter of control.

VIII. What is public is a public good.

The internet is public; indeed, it is a public place (rather than a medium). In the rush to protect privacy, we must beware the dangers of restricting the definition of public. What’s public is owned by the public. Making the public private or secret serves the corrupt and tyrannical.

IX. The internet shall be built and operated openly.

The internet must continue to be built and operated to open standards. It must not be taken over or controlled by any company or government. It must not be taxed. It is the internet’s openness that gives it its freedom. It is this freedom that defines the internet.

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More:
* Bruce Sterling quoting Timothy Garton Ash on the state of freedom of information.
* Ethan Zuckerman: We can’t circumvent our way around censorship.
* Ethan Zuckerman on internet freedom.
* Rebecca MacKinnon’s Congressional testimony on internet freedom and Chinese censorship.
* Kevin Marks compares China’s policies and the U.K.’s Digital Britain bill.
* Clay Shirky: “What forces Google to have a foreign policy is that what they’re exporting isn’t a product or a service, it’s a freedom.”

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Thanks to Benoit Raphael here is a French version of the Bill of Rights and here is a German version at Zeit Online. Now thanks to Itai Alter, here it is as a Google Doc in Hebrew.

And now, most appropriately, in Chinese. Note, however, the disclaimer at the bottom of that page (via Google Translate): “?This translation is only the purpose of language learning and reading, the original author and the translator and the translation of personal opinion has nothing to do made by Network].”

Also in Norwegian thanks to Arne Halvorsen. I hope that Arabic and Persian are coming.

And then (in German) there is an alternative version.

Another German translation here.