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October 30, 2009

Kill switch

There's an old sort-of joke that goes, "What's the best way to kill the Internet?" The number seven answer, according to Simson Garfinkel, writing for HotWired in 1997: "Buy ten backhoes." Ba-boom.

The US Senate, never folks to avoid improving a joke, came up with a new suggestion: install a kill switch. They published this little gem (as S.773) on April 1. It got a flurry of attention and then forgotten until the last week or two. (It's interesting to look back at Garfinkel's list of 50 ways to kill the Net and notice that only two are government actions, and neither is installing a "kill switch").

To be fair, "kill switch" is an emotive phrase for what they have in mind, which is that the president:

may declare a cybersecurity emergency and order the limitation or shutdown of Internet traffic to and from any compromised Federal Government or United States critical infrastructure information system or network

Now, there's a lot of wiggle room in a vague definition like "critical infrastructure system". That could be the Federal government's own servers. Or the electrical grid, the telephone network, the banking system, the water supply, or even, arguably, Google. (It has 64+ percent of US search queries, and if you can't find things the Internet might as well be dead.) But what this particular desire of the Senate's sounds most like is those confused users who think they can catch a biological virus from their computers.

Still, for the media, calling the Senate's idea a "kill switch" is attention-getting political genius. We don't call the president's power to order the planes out of the sky, as happened on 9/11 a "crash switch", but imagine the outcry against it if we did.

Technically, the idea that there's a single off switch waiting to be implemented somewhere, is of course ridiculous.

The idea is also administrative silliness: Obama, we hope, is kind of busy. The key to retaining sanity when you're busy is to get other people to do all the things they can without your input. We would hope that the people running the various systems powering the federal government's critical infrastructure could make their own, informed decisions - faster than Obama can - about when they need to take down a compromised server.

Despite wishful thinking, John Gilmore's famous aphorism, "The Net perceives censorship as damage and routes around", doesn't really apply here. For one thing, even a senator knows - probably - that you can't literally shut down the entire Internet from a single switch sitting in the President's briefcase (presumably next to the nuclear attack button). Much of the Internet is, after all, outside the US; much of it is in private ownership. (Perhaps the Third Amendment could be invoked here?)

For another, Gilmore's comment really didn't apply to individual Internet-linked computer networks; Google's various bits of outages this year ought to prove that it's entirely possible for those to be down without affecting the network at large. No, the point was that if you try to censor the Net its people will stop you by putting up mirror servers and passing the censored information around until everyone has a copy. The British Chiropractic Association (quacklash!) and Trafigura are the latest organizations to find out what Gilmore knew in 1993. He also meant, I suppose, that the Internet protocols were designed for resilience and to keep trying by whatever alternate routes are available if data packets don't get through.

Earlier this week another old Net hand, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, gave some rather sage advice to the Web 2.0 conference. One key point: do not build your local laws into the global network. That principle would not, unfortunately, stop the US government from shutting off its own servers (to spite its face?), but it does nix the idea of, say, building the network infrastructure to the specification of any one particular group - the MPAA or the UK government, in defiance of the increasingly annoyed EU. In the same talk, Berners-Lee also noted (according to CNET): "I'm worried about anything large coming in to take control, whether it's large companies or government."

Threats like these were what he set up W3C to protect against. People talk with reverence of Berners-Lee's role as inventor, but many fewer understand that the really big effort is the 30 years since the aha! moment of creation, during which Berners-Lee has spent his time and energy nurturing the Web and guiding its development. Without that, it could easily have been strangled by competing interests, both corporate and government. As, of course, it still could be, depending on the outcome of the debates over network neutrality rules.

Dozens of decisions like Berners-Lee's were made in creating the Internet. They have not made it impossible to kill - I'm not sure how many backhoes you'd need now, but I bet it's still a surprisingly finite number - but they have made it a resilient and robust network. A largely democratic medium, in fact, unlike TV and radio, at least so far. The Net was born free; the battles continue over whether it should be in chains.

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, follow on Twitter, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

October 23, 2009

The power of Twitter

It was the best of mobs, it was the worst of mobs.

The last couple of weeks have really seen the British side of Twitter flex its 140-character muscles. First, there was the next chapter of the British Chiropractic Association's ongoing legal action against science writer Simon Singh. Then there was the case of Jan Moir, who wrote a more than ordinarily Daily Mailish piece for the Daily Mail about the death of Boyzone's Stephen Gately. And finally, the shocking court injunction that briefly prevented the Guardian from reporting on a Parliamentary question for the first time in British history.

I am on record as supporting Singh, and I, too, cheered when, ten days ago, Singh was granted leave to appeal Justice Eady's ruling on the meaning of Singh's use of the word "bogus". Like everyone, I was agog when the BCA's press release called Singh "malicious". I can see the point in filing complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority over chiropractors' persistent claims, unsupported by the evidence, to be able to treat childhood illnesses like colic and ear infections.

What seemed to edge closer to a witch hunt was the gleeful take-up of George Monbiot's piece attacking the "hanging judge", Justice Eady. Disagree with Eady's ruling all you want, but it isn't hard to find libel lawyers who think his ruling was correct under the law. If you don't like his ruling, your correct target is the law. Attacking the judge won't help Singh.

The same is not true of Twitter's take-up of the available clues in the Guardian's original story about the gag to identify the Parliamentary Question concerned and unmask Carter-Ruck, the lawyers who served it and their client, Trafigura. Fueled by righteous and legitimate anger at the abrogation of a thousand years of democracy, Twitterers had the PQ found and published thousands of times in practically seconds. Yeah!

Of course, this phenomenon (as I'm so fond of saying) is not new. Every online social medium, going all the way back to early text-based conferencing systems like CIX, the WELL, and, of course, Usenet, when it was the Internet's town square (the function in fact that Twitter now occupies) has been able to mount this kind of challenge. Scientology versus the Net was probably the best and earliest example; for me it was the original net.war. The story was at heart pretty simple (and the skirmishes continue, in various translations into newer media, to this day). Scientology has a bunch of super-secrets that only the initiate, who have spent many hours in expensive Scientology training, are allowed to see. Scientology's attempts to keep those secrets off the Net resulted in their being published everywhere. The dust has never completely settled.

Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, said Mark Twain. That was before the Internet. Scientology was the first to learn - nearly 15 years ago - that the best way to ensure the maximum publicity for something is to try to suppress it. It should not have been any surprise to the BCA, Trafigura, or Trafigura's lawyers. Had the BCA ignored Singh's article, far fewer people would know now about science's dim view of chiropractic. Trafigura might have hoped that a written PQ would get lost in the vastness that is Hansard; but they probably wouldn't have succeeded in any case.

The Jan Moir case, and the demonstration outside Carter-Ruck's offices are, however rather different. These are simply not the right targets. As David Allen Green (Jack of Kent) explains, there's no point in blaming the lawyers; show your anger to the client (Trafigura) or to Parliament.

The enraged tweets and Facebook postings about Moir's article helped send a record number of over 25,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission, whose Web site melted down under the strain. Yes, the piece was badly reasoned and loathsome, but isn't that what the Daily Mail lives for? Tweets and links create hits and discussion. The paper can only benefit. In fact, it's reasonable to suppose that in the Trafigura and Moir cases both the Guardian and the Daily Mail manipulated the Net perfectly to get what they wanted.

But the stupid part about let's-get-Moir is that she does not *matter*. Leave aside emotional reactions, and what you're left with is someone's opinion, however distasteful.

This concerted force would be more usefully turned to opposing the truly dangerous. See for example, the AIDS denialism on parade by Fraser Nelson at The Spectator. The "come-get-us" tone e suggests that they saw attention New Humanist got for Caspar Melville's mistaken - and quickly corrected - endorsement of the film House of Numbers and said, "Let's get us some of that." There is no more scientific dispute about whether HIV causes AIDS than there is about climate change or evolutionary theory.

If we're going to behave like a mob, let's stick to targets that matter. Jan Moir's column isn't going to kill anybody. AIDS denialism will. So: we'll call Trafigura a win, chiropractic a half-win, and Moir a loser.

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, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

October 16, 2009

Unsocial media

"No one under 30 will use email," the convenor objected.

There was a bunch of us, a pre-planning committee for an event, and we were talking about which technology we should have the soon-to-be appointed program committee use for discussions. Email! Convenient. Accessible by computer or phone. Easily archived, forwarded, quoted, or copied into any other online medium. Why are we even talking about this?

And that's when he said it.

Not so long ago, if you had email you were one of the cool kids, the avant-garde who saw the future and said it was electronic. Most of us spent years convincing our far-flung friends and relatives to get email so we didn't have to phone or - gasp - write a letter that required an envelope and a stamp. Being told that "email is for old people" is a lot like a 1960s "Never trust anyone over 30" hippie finding out that the psychedelic school bus he bought to live in to support the original 1970 Earth Day is a gas-guzzling danger to the climate and ought to be scrapped.

Well, what, then? (Aside: we used to have tons of magazines called things like Which PC? and What Micro? to help people navigate the complex maze of computer choices. Why is there no magazine called Which Social Medium??)

Facebook? Clunky interface. Not everyone wants to join. Poor threading. No easy way to export, search, or archive discussions. IRC or other live chat? No way to read discussion that took place before you joined the chat. Private blog with comments and RSS? Someone has to set the agenda. Twitter? Everything is public, and if you're not following all the right people the conversation is disjointed and missing links you can't retrieve. IM? Skype? Or a wiki? You get the picture.

This week, the Wall Street Journal claimed that "the reign of email is over" while saying only a couple of sentences later, "We all still use email, of course." Now that the Journal belongs to Rupert Murdoch, does no one check articles for sense?

Yes, we all still use email. It can be archived, searched, stored locally, read on any device, accessed from any location, replied to offline if necessary, and read and written thoughtfully. Reading that email is dead is like reading, in 2000, that because a bunch of companies went bust the Internet "fad" was over. No one then who had anything to do with the Internet believed that in ten years the Internet would be anything but vastly bigger than it was then. So: no one with any sense is going to believe that ten years from now we'll be sending and receiving less email than we are now. What very likely will be smaller, especially if industrial action continues, is the incumbent postal services.

What "No one under 30 uses email" really means is that it's not their medium of first choice. If you're including college students, the reason is obvious: email is the official stuff they get from their parents and universities. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and texting is how they talk to their friends. Come the day they join the workforce, they'll be using email every day just like the rest of us - and checking the post and their voicemail every morning, too.

But that still leave the question: how do you organize anything if no one can agree on what communications technology to use? It's that question that the new Google Wave is trying to answer. It's too soon, really, to tell whether it can succeed. But at a guess, it lacks one of the fundamental things that makes email such a lowest common denominator: offline storage. Yes, I know everything is supposed to be in "the cloud" and even airplanes have wifi. But for anything that's business-critical you want your own archive where you can access it when the network fails; it's the same principle as backing up your data.

Reviews vary in their take on Wave. LifeHacker sees it as a collaborative tool. ZDNet UK editor Rupert Goodwins briefly called it Usenet 2.0 and then retracted and explained using the phrase "unified comms".

That, really, is the key. Ideally, I shouldn't have to care whether you - or my fellow committee members - prefer to read email, participate in phone calls (via speech-to-text, text-to-speech synthesizers), discuss via Usenet, Skype, IRC, IM, Twitter, Web forums, blogs, or Facebook pages. Ideally, the medium you choose should be automatically translated in to the medium I choose. A Babel medium. The odds that this will happen in an age when what companies most want is to glue you to their sites permanently so they can serve you advertising are very small.

Which brings us back to email. Invented in an era when the Internet was commercial-free. Designed to open standards, so that anyone can send and receive it using any reader they like. Used, in fact, to alert users to updates they want to know about to their accounts on Facebook/IRC/Skype/Twitter/Web forums. Yes, it's overrun with corporate CYA memos and spam. But it's still the medium of record - and it isn't going anywhere. Whereas: those 20-somethings will turn 30 one day soon.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

October 9, 2009

Phantom tollbooths

This was supposed to be the week that the future of Google Books became clear or at least started to; instead, the court ordered everyone to go away and come up with a new settlement (registration required). The revised settlement is due by November 9; the judge will hear objections probably around the turn of the year.

Instead this turned into the Week of the Postcode, after the Royal Mail issued cease-and-desist letters to the postcode API service Ernest Marples (built by Richard Pope and Open Rights Group advisory council member Harry Metcalfe). Marples' sin: giving away postcode data without a license (PDF).

At heart, the Postcode spat and the Google Books suit are the same issue: information that used to be expensive can now be made available on the Internet for free, and people who make money from the data object.

We all expect books to be copyrighted; but postcodes? When I wrote about it, astonished, in 1993 for Personal Computer World, the spokesperson explained that as an invention of the Royal Mail of course they were the Royal Mail's property (they've now just turned 50). There are two licensed services, the Postcode Address File (automates filling in addresses) and PostZon, the geolocator database useful for Web mashups. The Royal Mail says it's currently reviewing its terms and licensing conditions for PostZon; based on the recent similar exercise for PAF (PDF) we'll guess that the biggest objections to giving it away will come from people who are already paying for it and want to lock out competitors.

There's just a faint hint that postcodes could become a separate business; the Royal Mail does not allow the postcode database and mail delivery to cross-subsidize (to mollify competitors who use the database). Still, Charles Arthur, in the Guardian, estimates that licensing the postcode database costs us more than it makes.

This is the other sense in which postcodes are like Google Books: it costs money to create and maintain the database. But where postcodes are an operational database for the Royal Mail, books may not be for Google Wired UK has shown what happens when Google loses economic interest in a database, in this case Google Groups (aka, the Usenet archive).

But in the analogy Google plays the parts of both the Royal Mail (investing in creating a database from which it hopes to profit) and the geeks seeking to liberate the data (locked-up, out-of-print books, now on the Web! Yeah!). The publishers are merely an intervening toll booth. This is one reason reactions to Google Books have been so mixed and so confusing: everyone's inner author says, "Google will make money. I want some," while their inner geek says, "Wow! That is so *cool*! I want that!".

The second reason everyone's so confused, of course, is that the settlement is 141 pages of dense legalese with 15 appendices, and nobody can stand to read it. (I'm reliably told that the entire basis for handling non-US authors' works is one single word: "If".) This situation is crying out for a wiki where intellectual property lawyers, when they have a moment, can annotate and explain. The American Library Association has bravely managed a two-page summary (PDF).

What's really at stake, as digital library expert Karen Coyle explained to me this week, is orphan works, which could have long ago been handled by legislation if everyone hadn't gotten all wrapped up in the Google Books settlement. Public domain works are public domain (and you will find many of those Google has scanned in quietly available at the Internet Archive, where someone has been diligently uploading them. Works whose authorship is known have authors and publishers to take charge. But orphan works...the settlement would give a Book Rights Registry two-thirds of the money Google pays out to distribute to authors of orphan works. This would be run by the publishers, who I'm sure would put as much effort into finding authors to pay as, as, as...the MPAA@@. It was on this basis that the Department of Justice objected to the settlement.

The current situation with postcodes shows us something very important: when the Royal Mail invented them, 50 years ago, no one had any idea what use they might have outside of more efficiently delivering the mail. In the intervening time, postcodes have enabled the Royal Mail to automate sorting and slim down its work force (while mysteriously always raising postage); but they have also become key data points on which to hang services that have nothing to do with mail but everything to do with location: job seeking, political protest, property search, and quick access to local maps.

Similarly: we do not know what the future might hold for a giant database of books. But the postcode situation reminds us what happens when one or two stakeholders are allowed to own something that has broader uses than they ever imagined. Meanwhile, if you'd like to demand a change in the postcode situation this petition is going like gangbusters.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.

October 2, 2009

Free thought

Well, this makes you blink and check the date: the Evening Standard is proposing to drop its cover price to zero on October 12. The paper's owner, Alexander Lebedev, expects the move to more than double the paper's circulation, from 250,000 to 600,000. And, one supposes not incidentally, to kick the stuffing out of the free sheets hawkers have been harassing Londoners to take for the last few years. That's how to compete with free: throw away a couple of million pounds of revenue in favor of increased distribution. I particularly like this quote: In the same statement, Geordie Greig, editor of the Standard, called it "an historic moment and great opportunity".

It wasn't so long ago - say, the turn of the century, nine years ago - that the critics used to lambaste Amazon.com and other dot-com upstarts for taking the view that Getting Big Fast was a good strategy, even if it meant you lost money at a rate that would scare a banker. It was even more recently - August - that Rupert Murdoch decided that news was not meant to be free, first closing his three-year-old free London title and then announcing News International would begin charging for online news.

Murdoch's notion was easily dismissed: to date, he has been consistently and persistently wrong in every online venture he's tried. For the history challenged: in late 1993, when graphical interfaces were taking over and the Web was about to explode he bought the 100,000-subscriber king of text-based online services, Delphi. The relatively modest purchase price, estimated at $3-5 million, wound up costing Murdoch hundreds of millions more in trying to adapt to the pace of technological change.

That money went on this plan: to reinvent Delphi as part of Springboard, the long-forgotten 1996-1997 attempt to fashion a mass-market news service in collaboration with first MCI and then BT. And who could forget - well, probably everyone - Currant Bun, the news service for readers of the Sun?

Murdoch's goal is at least clear and consistent: he wants to turn the Internet into a traditional medium that, like television and newspapers offers mass-market access but a walled garden of content he can charge for. One day, if we pay insufficient attention to network neutrality and system design, he may succeed.

But if there's one thing everyone has agreed on over the last year it's that newspapers can't survive on Web revenues - that is, advertising - alone. Can a print version succeed on that same business model with far higher distribution costs? And still do quality journalism?

Based on , you would think not. In 1993, the Times - Murdoch, again - kicked off a price war among Britain's quality dailies by dropping the cover price to 20p. The Independent and the Telegraph were forced to follow. The net result: the Times increased its readership by a lot, the Telegraph, and the Independent struggled. Fifteen years later, with everyone losing readers, the relative positions haven't changed much.

But cheap is not free; it's far easier to slowly raise the price back up again (as in fact has happened) than it is to cross the gap between free and not-free. People get in the habit of thinking that things they don't have to pay for aren't *worth* paying for, where they're more likely to think that something that's cheap now will cost more later. Lebedev is going through a one-way door.

There is also the question of whether the readers you get from distributing 600,000 free copies of a newspaper are the same value to advertisers as the readers you get from selling the same newspaper to 250,000.

It's hard to see how this change will be sustainable in the long run and maybe even in the short run. The newspaper business, however much it needs to be reinvented, is an established one. Dumping an entire revenue stream in an established industry is not the same as being willing to lose money as an investment in the future in a new medium that's growing like crazy. More-than-doubling distribution might slow but won't fundamentally alter the shift of classified ads (on which the Standard, unlike the Guardian depends) from print to online. That shift is fuelled by the ads being (mostly) free to post and instantly updated, not just by their being free for readers to see; the Internet is simply a better medium for most small ads.

The immediate reaction on the part of many commentators is to assume that the Standard's move will put pressure on the national former broadsheets. This seems less likely: local newspapers have been the hardest hit (so far) in the move to the Web. Instead, the first to get hurt, as the ABSW pointed out in a Twitter comment, are the newsagents.

Jettisoning a significant source of revenue seems like divorce: you only do it if you're desperate. Maybe Lebedev will prove to be a genius, but it seems doubtful. As Clay Shirky has written: "There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke."

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, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).