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July 27, 2007

There ain't no such thing as a free Benidorm

This has been the week for reminders that the border between real life and cyberspace is a permeable blood-brain barrier.

On Wednesday, Linden Labs announced that it was banning gambling in Second Life. The resentment expressed by some of SL residents is understandable but naive. We're not at the beginning of the online world any more; Second Life is going through the same reformation to take account of national laws as Usenet and the Web did before it.

Second, this week MySpace deleted the profiles of 29,000 American users identified as sex offenders. That sounds like a lot, but it's a tiny percentage of MySpace's 180 million profiles. None of them, be it noted, are Canadian.

There's no question that gambling in Second Life spills over into the real world. Linden dollars, the currency used in-world, have active exchange rates, like any other currency, currently running about L$270 to the US dollar. (When I was writing about a virtual technology show, one of my interviewees was horrified that my avatar didn't have any distinctive clothing; she was and is dressed in the free outfit you are issued when you join. He insisted on giving me L$1,000 to take her shopping. I solemnly reported the incident to my commissioning editor, who felt this wasn't sufficiently corrupt to worry about: US$3.75! In-world, however, that could buy her several cars.) Therefore: the fact that the wagering takes place online in a simulated casino with pretty animated decorations changes nothing. There is no meaningful difference between craps on an island in Second Life and poker on an official Web-based betting site. If both sites offer betting on real-life sporting events, there's even less difference.

But the Web site will, these days, have gone through considerable time and money to set up its business. Gaming, even outside the US, is quite difficult to get into: licenses are hard to get, and without one banks won't touch you. Compared to that, the $3,800 and 12 to 14 hours a day Brighton's Anthony Smith told Information Week he'd invested in building his SL Casino World is risibly small. You have to conclude that there are only two possibilities. Either Smith knew nothing about the gaming business - if he did, he know that the US has repeatedly cracked down on online gambling over the last ten years and that ultimately US companies will be forced to decide to live within US law. He'd also have known how hard and how expensive it is to set up an online gambling operation even in Europe. Or, he did know all those things and thought he'd found a loophole he could exploit to avoid all the red tape and regulation and build a gaming business on the cheap.

I have no personal interest in gaming; risking real money on the chance draw of a card or throw of dice seems to me a ridiculous waste of the time it took to earn it. But any time you have a service that involves real money, whether that service is selling an experience (gaming), a service, or a retail product, when the money you handle reaches a certain amount governments are going to be interested. Not only that, but people want them involved; people want protection from rip-off artists.

The MySpace decision, however, is completely different. Child abuse is, rightly, illegal everywhere. Child pornography is, more controversially, illegal just about everywhere. But I am not aware of any laws that ban sex offenders from using Web sites, even if those Web sites are social networks. Of course, in the moral panic following the MySpace announcement, someone is proposing such a law. The MySpace announcement sounds more like corporate fear (since the site is now owned by News International) than rational response. There is a legitimate subject for public and legislative debate here: how much do we want to cut convicted sex offenders out of normal social interaction? And a question for scientists: will greater isolation and alienation be effective strategies to keep them from reoffending? And, I suppose, a question for database experts: how likely is it that those 29,000 profiles all belonged to correctly identified, previously convicted sex offenders? But those questions have not been discussed. Still, this problem, at least in regards to MySpace, may solve itself: if parents become better able to track their kids' MySpace activities, all but the youngest kids will surely abandon it in favour of sites that afford them greater latitude and privacy.

A dozen years ago, John Perry Barlow (in)famously argued that national governments had no place in cyberspace. It was the most hyperbolic demonstration of what I call the "Benidorm syndrome": every summer thousands of holidaymakers descend on Benidorm, in Spain, and behave in outrageous and sometimes lawless ways that they would never dare indulge in at home in the belief that since they are far away from their normal lives there are no consequences. (Rinse and repeat for many other tourist locations worldwide, I'm sure.) It seems to me only logical that existing laws apply to behaviour in cyberspace. What we have to guard against is deforming cyberspace to conform to laws that don't exist.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

July 20, 2007

The cookie monster

Google announced this week that in order to improve user privacy it would cut the length of time its cookies stay on our systems to two years. The clock will start ticking again every time you use Google or a site using a Google application. The company also plans to anonymize its user logs after 18 months.

The company has been under attack lately for its privacy policies. First, a few weeks ago, Privacy International published its report on the privacy practices of key Internet companies, A Race to the Bottom, and Google came last. Not, you understand, that many companies did all that much better.

Privacy International didn't think any company was "privacy-friendly and privacy-enhancing", but it classed several as "generally privacy-aware but in need of improvement". These were: eBay, LiveJournal, the BBC, Wikipedia, and Last.fm. The report excluded travel sites and financial services, on the grounds that these are subject to regulations beyond their control..

You may notice that these sites aren't exactly comparable with Google, to say nothing of other companies included in the survey, such as AOL, Friendster, Microsoft, and Skype. This seems to me a real problem. The BBC, which does not rely on advertising or commercial sales, needs to operate no registration system, and outside its ecommerce sales has no reason to track anybody beyond generating usage statistics to show the patterns of how content is accessed on its site. Skype, on the other hand, can hardly offer a service without retaining user information, call records, and financial data. Practices that Skype must engage in to operate would be shockingly privacy-invasive if adopted by the BBC. More difficult to assess is user privacy on the social networking sites; on a site like Friendster or LiveJournal by publishing the details of their lives and thoughts users may invade their own privacy far more comprehensively than the site itself can.

The sites are also not comparable in terms of how necessary they are. Hardly anyone really needs AOL. Keeping a blog on LiveJournal is optional; my life proceeds quite happily without Friendster or Facebook. But it's almost impossible these days to look anything up without at least considering looking on Wikipedia, and while there are many VoIP services, peer pressure makes a lot of people sign up for Skype. Therefore, while it's reasonable to compare the companies' corporate behavior, the impact of that behavior is not comparable, nor is the amount of effort and money respecting privacy costs the company. It's a lot harder for Google to respect privacy and maintain its revenue stream than it is for the BBC.

It's also ironic that eBay should have scored so well. Police forces all over Britain agree that online auction fraud is one of the biggest sources of complaints they have. Google's ability to track everyone's search history, reading habits, and general interests may be, long-term, the worse privacy invasion. But to most people it's worse to be ripped off, and while eBay says it takes fraud seriously, the site is still awash in counterfeit DVDs, and does nothing to warn people with transactions in progress when a user's account is suspended for fraud. Which is worse? Being marketed at and tracked or being ripped off? Given that so many people are happy to hand over their privacy in return for some money off groceries (loyalty cards) or a truly modest amount of better treatment from their airline, I'd guess most people would think the latter.

But even given all that Google's announcement this week is so trivial that it's insulting. For one thing, as Google Watch points out, Google assigns your computer a unique ID that persists through rain, snow, IP address change and cookie rewrite. For another, you have no idea when you click on a URL whether a Web site you're about to visit uses a Google service. The point of privacy practices is to give users control; this does anything but that. Why not instead widen the user-configurable preferences to include whether or not to accept cookies and for how long? How hard can that be for all those Google geniuses?

The Article 29 working group pointed out also that the bigger problem is Google's storing search histories and IP addresses. As Privacy International noted, most companies regard individual IP addresses as essentially anonymous, impersonal data – absurd in this time of broadband, when people have the same addresses for years on end. My IP address identifies my computer system more tightly than a library card.

To a large extent, Privacy International blames advertising. As long as content and services are going to be paid for by advertising, sites must track user statistics and supply the data that keeps advertisers happy. There's some justice to that.

But the real problem is the users: who is going to stop using Google because of its privacy policies? You might decide to avoid Gmail, or to delete patiently, one by one, the Usenet postings you crazily typed one night while drunk in 1982, but if you want search, or advertising on your own site… Google is successful as a business because it's made itself indispensable.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

July 13, 2007

Constitutional convention

One of the things that surprises outsiders most about Britain is that there is no written constitution. I can only judge what that discovery is like for an American, and in the US in particular our written constitution is regarded with such reverence that the notion of not having one is kind of shocking.

There have been various efforts to change this situation. The best known in the time I've been hanging around Britain is, or was, Charter 88. Founded (logically enough) in 1988, the group seemed to fizzle out in the 1990s, though apparently not entirely. The ideas didn't die, in any case, and the dear departed Blair had been making constitutional noises, and now his replacement, Gordon Brown, has made a commitment to constitutional reform.

Wednesday, July 18, therefore, sees the first of what will doubtless be a series of events at the LSE, organized by Fellows Simon Davies and Gus Hosein and featuring a raft of interesting speakers: Exploring options for the process of constitutional change. The project, known as Future Britain, will launch its Web site on Monday, July 16.

It was only after I'd been living in Britain for a while that it occurred to me that the unwritten constitution is that most quintessentially British thing, a gentleman's agreement. The principles by which Britain is governed have accreted over nine centuries, and for much of that time the people in charge of making decisions based on those principles were in fact gentlemen. I always had the sense that Britons regarded our constant American perusal of the Constitution's text as rather childish, a petty, dogmatic insistence on the exact terms of our written contract. Grown-ups trust each other.

Things are of course different now. The country is no longer so homoegeneous; you can't count on the people in charge of making laws to be gentlemen. It was, I think, no coincidence that Charter 88 started up during Margaret Thatcher's years as Prime Minister. She did things that would simply not be possible under the American Constitution, mostly notably abolishing the Greater London Council and several other local governments. That was the moment when I understood just how centralized British government is. It was, or had been, inconceivable to me that in an old and famous democracy a properly elected leader could be deposed in such a way. What was even more amazing was that despite a few protests, these actions were accepted and the country went on as usual. There is no local government if it can be abruptly terminated in that single-handed way, only delegated authority. Britain, I learned from that, is an elected dictatorship.

Writing down a constitution is not the same as reforming one. A constitution is not a blueprint; it has to be flexible enough and general enough in its principles to be adaptable to changing conditions. One of the significant failures of the US Constitution in today's world is that the Founding Fathers left no room for controlling large, multinational corporations. It would not have mattered that there were no such things in the 18th century if they had simply allowed for the possibility of third-party private interests of economic power. But they thought they had it covered when they put in the clause to separate church and state, since at the time the church was the only multinational corporation in town.
Brown's list of desired reforms does not make the kind of deep-rooted change that Charter 88 was calling for. The case for that is made on Open Democracy, by Neal Ascherson, who argues that this is really just an English problem.

The US Constitution, when I read it now, seems to me to be focused on prohibiting the kinds of abuses its drafters had experienced. Separating church and state, limiting the power of government to interfere in individuals' lives, guaranteeing freedom of speech and of assembly – these all speak of bitter experience. Ascherson's argument seems to suggest that something similar happened in creating Britain's undocumented government: the abuse to overthrow was the power of the king. Parliamentary absolutism was an adequate answer. Even the US's Founding Fathers didn't trust the people unless they were sufficiently wealthy land-owning men.

And that's the thing about constitutions: they are not enough by themselves even if they are written down. This point was made to me by the Campaign to Separate Church and State when I was living in Ireland in the late 1980s. The lifetime of the Irish constitution is still measured in decades, and the clause guaranteeing freedom of religion clearly meant the freedom to be Catholic after centuries of British Protestant rule. It did not guarantee equality for atheists, agnostics, or even Jews. So the broader point my Irish friends made was that the constitutional guarantee was meaningless without supporting legislation to enforce it. A constitution is, therefore, only a beginning.

As a foreigner, I don't think it's up to me to say what a British – or English – constitution should be. But I do know it shouldn't be written by the elected dictatorship in power. To have meaning, a constitution must be written by the people. It's our chance to devise a governmental design to which we give consent.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

July 6, 2007

Born digital

Under one of my bookcases there is a box containing 40 or 50 5.25inch floppy disks next to an old floppy drive of the same size. The disks were created in SuperScripsit in the early 1980s, and require an emulator that pretends my Core2Duo is a TRS-80 Model III.

If, like me, you have had a computer for any length of time you, too, have stowed somewhere a batch of old files that you save because they are or were important to you but that you're not sure you could actually read, though you keep meaning to plug that old drive in and find out. But the Domesday Book, drafted in 1085, is still perfectly readable. In fact, it's more readable than a 1980s digital Domesday Book that was unreadable only 15 years after its creation because the technology it was stored on was outmoded.

The average life of an electronic document before it becomes obsolete is seven years. And that's if it survives that long. Paper can last centuries – and the National Archives, which holds 900 years of Britain's records, has to think in centuries.

This week, the National Archives announced it was teaming up with Microsoft to ensure that the last decade or two of government archives do not become a black hole in history.

The problem of preserving access to today's digital documents is not newly discovered. Digital preservation and archiving were on the list of topics of interest in 1997, when the Foundation for Information Policy Research was founded. Even before that, NASA had discovered the problem, in connection with the vast amounts of data collected at taxpayer expense by the various space missions. Librarians have known all along that the many format changes of the digital age posed far greater problems than deciphering an unfamiliar language chiseled into a chunk of stone.

But it takes a while for non-technical people to understand how complex a problem it really is. Most people, Natalie Ceeney, chief executive of the National Archives, said on Tuesday, think all you have to do is make back-ups. But for an archivist this isn't true, even for the simple case of, say, a departmental letter written in the early 1980s in WordStar. The National Archives wants not only to preserve the actual text of the letter but its look, feel, and functionality. To do that, you need to be able to open the document in the software in which it was originally created – which means having a machine you can run that software on. Lather, rinse, and repeat for any number of formerly common but now obsolete systems. The National Archives estimates it has 580Tb of data in obsolete formats. And more new formats are being invented every day: email, Web, instant messages, telephone text messages, email, databases, ministers' blogs, internal wikis…and as they begin to interact without human intervention that will be a whole new level of complication.

"We knew in the paper world what to keep," Ceeney said. "In the digital world, it's harder to know. But if we tried to keep everything we'd be spending the entire government budget on servers."

So for once Microsoft is looking like a good guy in providing the National Archives with Virtual PC 2007, which (it says here) combines earlier versions of Windows and Office in order to make sure that all government documents that were created using Microsoft products can be opened and read. Naturally, that isn't everything; but it's a good start. Gordon Frazer, Microsoft's UK managing director, promised open formats (or at least, Open XML) for the future. The whole mess is part of a four-year Europe-wide project called Planets.

Digital storage is surprisingly expensive compared to, say, books or film. A study reported by the head of preservation for the Swedish national archives shows that digital can cost up to eight times as much (PDF, see p4) as the same text on paper. But there is a valuable trade-off: the digital version can be easily accessed and searched by far more people. The National Archives' Web site had 66 million downloads in 2006, compared to the 250,000 visitors to its physical premises in Kew.

Listening to this discussion live, you longed to say, "Well, just print it all out, then." But even if you decided to waive the requirements for original look, feel, and functionality, not eveything could be printed out anyway. (Plus, the National Archives casually mentions that its current collection of government papers is 175 kilometres long already.) The most obvious case in point is video evidence, now being kept by police in huge amounts – and, in cases of unsolved crimes or people who have been sentenced for serious crimes, for long periods. Can't be printed. But even text-based government documents: when these were created on paper you saved the paper. The documents of the last 20 years were born digital. Paper is no longer the original but the copy. The National Archives is in the business of preserving originals.

Nor, of course, does it work to say, "Let the Internet archive take care of it: too much of the information is not published on the Web but held in internal government systems, from where it will be due to emerge in a few decades under Britain's 30-year rule. Hopefully we'll know before then that this initiative has been successful.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).