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November 26, 2010

Like, unlike

Some years back, the essayist and former software engineer Ellen Ullman wrote about the tendency of computer systems to infect their owners. The particular infectious she covered in Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents was databases. Time after time, she saw good, well-meaning people commission a database to help staff or clients, and then begin to use it to monitor those they originally intended to help. Why? Well, because they *can*.

I thought - and think - that Ullman was onto something important there, but that this facet of human nature is not limited to computers and databases. Stanley Milgram's 1961 experiments showed that humans under the influence of apparent authority will obey instructions to administer treatment that outside of such a framework they would consider abhorrent. This seems to me sufficient answer to Roger Ebert's comment that no TSA agent has yet refused to perform the "enhanced pat-down", even on a child.

It would almost be better if the people running the NHS Choices Web site had been infected with the surveillance bug because they would be simply wrong. Instead, the NHS is more complicatedly wrong: it has taken the weird decision that what we all want is to . share with our Facebook friends the news that we have just looked at the page on gonorrhea. Or, given the well-documented privacy issues with Facebook's rapid colonization of the Web via the "Like" button, allow Facebook to track our every move whether we're logged in or not.

I can only think of two possibilities for the reasoning behind this. One is that NHS managers have little concept of the difference between their site, intended to provide patient information and guidance, and that of a media organization needing advertising to stay afloat. It's one of the truisms of new technologies that they infiltrate the workplace through the medium of people who already use them: email, instant messaging, latterly social networks. So maybe they think that because they love Facebook the rest of us must, too. My other thought is that NHS managers think this is what we want because their grandkids have insisted they get onto Facebook, where they now occupy their off-hours hitting the "like" button and poking each other and think this means they're modern.

There's the issue Tim Berners-Lee has raised, that Facebook and other walled gardens are dividing the Net up into incompatible silos. The much worse problem, at least for public services and we who must use them, is the insidiously spreading assumption that if a new technology is popular it must be used no matter what the context. The effect is about as compelling as a TSA agent offering you a lollipop after your pat-down.

Most likely, the decision to deploy the "Like" button started with the simple, human desire for feedback. At some point everyone who runs a Web site wonders what parts of the site get read the most...and then by whom...and then what else they read. It's obviously the right approach if you're a media organization trying to serve your readers better. It's a ludicrously mismatched approach if you're the NHS because your raison d'être is not to be popular but to provide the public with the services they need at the most vulnerable times in their lives. Your page on rare lymphomas is not less valuable or important just because it's accessed by fewer people than the pages on STDs, nor are you actually going to derive particularly useful medical research data from finding that people who read about lymphoma also often read pages on osteoporosis. But it's easy, quick, and free to install Google Analytics or Facebook Like, and so people do it without thought.

Both of these incidents have also exposed once and for all the limited value of privacy policies. For one thing, a patient in distress is not going to take time out from bleeding to read the fine print ("when you visit pages on our site that display a Facebook Like button, Facebook will collect information about your visit") or check for open, logged-in browser windows. The NHS wants its sites to be trusted; but that means more than simply being medically accurate; it requires implementing confidentiality as well. The NHS's privacy policy is meaningless if you need to be a technical expert to exercise any choice. Similarly, who cares what the TSA's privacy policy says if the simple desire to spend Christmas with your family requires you to submit to whatever level of intimate inspection the agent on the ground that day feels like dishing out? What privacy policy makes up for being required to covered in urine spilled from your roughly handled urostomy bag? Milgram moments, both.

It's at this point that we need our politicians to act in our interests, because the thinking has to change at the top level.

Meantime, if you're traveling in the US this Christmas, the ACLU, and Edward Hasbrouck have handy guides to your rights. But pragmatically, if you do get patted down and really want to make your flight, it seems like your best policy is to lie back and think of the country of your choice.

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.

November 19, 2010

Power to the people

We talk often about the fact that ten years of effort - lawsuits, legislation, technology - on the part of the copyright industries has made barely a dent in the amount of material available online as unauthorized copies. We talk less about the similar situation that applies to privacy despite years of best efforts by Privacy International, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open Rights Group, No2ID, and newcomer Big Brother Watch. The last ten years have built Google, and Facebook, and every organization now craves large data stores of personal information that can be mined. Meanwhile, governments are complaisant, possibly because they have subpoena power. It's been a long decade.

"Information is the oil of the 1980s," wrote Thomas McPhail and Brenda McPhail in 1987 in an article discussing the politics of the International Telecommunications Union, and everyone seems to take this encomium seriously.

William Heath, who spent his early career founding and running Kable, a consultancy specializing in government IT. The question he focused on a lot: how to create the ideal government for the digital era, has been saying for many months now that there's a gathering wave of change. His idea is that the *new* new thing is technologies to give us back control and up-end the current situation in which everyone behaves as if they own all the information we give them. But it's their data only in exactly the same way that taxpayers' money belongs to the government. They call it customer relationship management; Heath calls the data we give them volunteered personal information and proposes instead vendor relationship management.

Always one to put his effort where his mouth is (Heath helped found the Open Rights Group, the Foundation for Policy Research, and the Dextrous Web as well as Kable), Heath has set up not one, but two companies. The first, Ctrl-Shift, is a research and advisory businesses to help organizations adjust and adapt to the power shift. The second, Mydex, a platform now being prototyped in partnership with the Department of Work and Pensions and several UK councils (PDF). Set up as a community interest company, Mydex is asset-locked, to ensure that the company can't suddenly reverse course and betray its customers and their data.

The key element of Mydex is the personal data store, which is kept under each individual's own control. When you want to do something - renew a parking permit, change your address with a government agency, rent a car - you interact with the remote council, agency, or company via your PDS. Independent third parties verify the data you present. To rent a car, for example, you might present a token from the vehicle licensing bureau that authenticates your age and right to drive and another from your bank or credit card company verifying that you can pay for the rental. The rental company only sees the data you choose to give it.

It's Heath's argument that such a setup would preserve individual privacy and increase transparency while simultaneously saving companies and governments enormous sums of money.

"At the moment there is a huge cost of trying to clean up personal data," he says. "There are 60 to 200 organisations all trying to keep a file on you and spending money on getting it right. If you chose, you could help them." The biggest cost, however, he says, is the lack of trust on both sides. People vanish off the electoral rolls or refuse to fill out the census forms rather than hand over information to government; governments treat us all as if we were suspected criminals when all we're trying to do is claim benefits we're entitled to.

You can certainly see the potential. Ten years ago, when they were talking about "joined-up government", MPs dealing with constituent complaints favored the notion of making it possible to change your address (for example) once and have the new information propagate automatically throughout the relevant agencies. Their idea, however, was a huge, central data store; the problem for individuals (and privacy advocates) was that centralized data stores tend to be difficult to keep accurate.

"There is an oft-repeated fallacy that existing large organizations meant to serve some different purpose would also be the ideal guardians of people's personal data," Heath says. "I think a purpose-created vehicle is a better way." Give everyone a PDS, and they can have the dream of changing their address only once - but maintain control over where it propagates.

There are, as always, key questions that can't be answered at the prototype stage. First and foremost is the question of whether and how the system can be subverted. Heath's intention is that we should be able to set our own terms and conditions for their use of our data - up-ending the present situation again. We can hope - but it's not clear that companies will see it as good business to differentiate themselves on the basis of how much data they demand from us when they don't now. At the same time, governments who feel deprived of "their" data can simply pass a law and require us to submit it.

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.

November 12, 2010

Just between ourselves

It is, I'm sure, pure coincidence that a New York revival of Vaclav Havel's wonderfully funny and sad 1965 play The Memorandum was launched while the judge was considering the Paul Chambers "Twitter joke trial" case. "Bureaucracy gone mad," they're billing the play, and they're right, but what that slogan omits is that the bureaucracy in question has gone mad because most of its members don't care and the one who does has been shut out of understanding what's going on. A new language, Ptydepe, has been secretly invented and introduced as a power grab by an underling claiming it will improve the efficiency of intra-office communications. The hero only discovers the shift when he receives a memorandum written in the new language and can't get it translated due to carefully designed circular rules. When these are abruptly changed the translated memorandum restores him to his original position.

It is one of the salient characteristics of Ptydepe that it has a different word for every nuance of the characters' natural language - Czech in the original, but of course English in the translation I read. Ptydepe didn't work for the organization in the play because it was too complicated for anyone to learn, but perhaps something like it that removes all doubt about nuance and context would assist older judges in making sense of modern social interactions over services such as Twitter. Clearly any understanding of how people talk and make casual jokes was completely lacking yesterday when Judge Jacqueline Davies upheld the conviction of Paul Chambers in a Doncaster court.

Chambers' crime, if you blinked and missed those 140 characters, was to post a frustrated message about snowbound Doncaster airport: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!" Everyone along the chain of accountability up to the Crown Prosecution Service - the airport duty manager, the airport's security personnel, the Doncaster police - seems to have understood he was venting harmlessly. And yet prosecution proceeded and led, in May, to a conviction that was widely criticized both for its lack of understanding of new media and for its failure to take Chambers' lack of malicious intent into account.

By now, everyone has been thoroughly schooled in the notion that it is unwise to make jokes about bombs, plane crashes, knives, terrorists, or security theater - when you're in an airport hoping to get on a plane. No one thinks any such wartime restraint need apply in a pub or its modern equivalent, the Twitter/Facebook/online forum circle of friends. I particularly like Heresy Corner's complaint that the judgement makes it illegal to be English.

Anyone familiar with online writing style immediately and correctly reads Chambers' Tweet for what it was: a perhaps ill-conceived expression of frustration among friends that happens to also be readable (and searchable) by the rest of the world. By all accounts, the judge seems to have read it as if it were a deliberately written personal telegram sent to the head of airport security. The kind of expert explanation on offer in this open letter apparently failed to reach her.

The whole thing is a perfect example of the growing danger of our data-mining era: that casual remarks are indelibly stored and can be taken out of context to give an utterly false picture. One of the consequences of the Internet's fundamental characteristic of allowing the like-minded and like-behaved to find each other is that tiny subcultures form all over the place, each with its own set of social norms and community standards. Of course, niche subcultures have always existed - probably every local pub had its own set of tropes that were well-known to and well-understood by the regulars. But here's the thing they weren't: permanently visible to outsiders. A regular who, for example, chose to routinely indicate his departure for the Gents with the statement, "I'm going out to piss on the church next door" could be well-known in context never to do any such thing. But if all outsiders saw was a ten-second clip of that statement and the others' relaxed reaction that had been posted to YouTube they might legitimately assume that pub was a shocking hotbed of anti-religiou slobs. Context is everything.

The good news is that the people on the ground whose job it was to protect the airport read the message, understood it correctly, and did not overreact. The bad news is that when the CPS and courts did not follow their lead it opened up a number of possibilities for the future, all bad. One, as so many have said, is that anyone who now posts anything online while drunk, angry, stupid, or sloppy-fingered is at risk of prosecution - with the consequence of wasting huge amounts of police and judicial time that would be better spent spotting and stopping actual terrorists. The other is that everyone up the chain felt required to cover their ass in case they were wrong.

Chambers still may appeal to the High Court; Stephen Fry is offering to pay his fine (the Yorkshire Post puts his legal bill at £3,000), and there's a fund accepting donations.

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.

November 5, 2010

Suicidal economics

Toxic sludge is GOOD for you, observed John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton in their 1995 book by the same name (or, more completely, Toxic Sludge is Good For You!: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry). In that brilliantly researched, carefully reasoned, and humorous tome they laid out for inspection the inner workings of the PR industry. After reading it, you never look at the news the same way again.

Including, as we are not the first to say, this week's news that Rupert Murdoch's News International sees extracting subscription money from 105,000 readers of the online versions of the Times and Sunday Times as a success. Nieman Labs' round-up shows how much this particular characterization was greeted by skepticism elsewhere in the media. (My personal favorite is the analogy to >Spinal Tap's manager's defense of the band when it's suggested that its popularity is waning: "I just think...their appeal is becoming more selective.") If any of a few million blogs had 105,000 paying readers they'd be in fabulous shape; but given the uncertainty surrounding the numbers, for an organization the size of the Times it seems like pocket change.

I'm not sure that the huge drop in readership online is the worst news. Everyone predicted that, even Murdoch's own people (although it is interesting that the guy who is thought to have launched this scheme has left before the long-term results are in). The really bad news is that the paper's print circulation has declined in line with everyone else's since the paywall went up. It might have turned out, for example, that faced with paying £1 for a day's access a number of people might decide they'd just as soon have the nicely printed version that is, after all, still easier to read. Instead, what seems likely from these (unclear and incomplete) numbers is that online readers don't care nearly as much as offline ones about news sources. And in many cases they're right not to: it hardly matters which news site or RSS feed supplies you with the day's Reuters stories or which journalist dutifully copies down the quotes at the press briefing.

Today's younger generation also has - again, rightfully - a much deeper cynicism about "MSM" (mainstream media) than previous ones, who had less choice. They trust Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert far than CNN (or the Onion more than the Times). They don't have to have read Stauber's and Rampton's detailed analysis to have absorbed the message: PR distortion is everywhere. If that's the case, why bother with the middleman? Why not just read the transparently biased source - a company's own spin - rather than the obscurely biased one? Or pick the opinion-former whose take on things is the most fun?

As Michael Wolff (who himself famously burned through many of someone else's millions in the dot-com boom) correctly points out, Murdoch's history online has been a persistent effort to recreate the traditional one-to-many publishing model. He likes satellite television and print newspapers - things where you control what's published and have to deal only with a handful of competitors and a back channel composed only of the great and the good. That desire is I think a fundamental mismatch with the Internet as we currently know it and it's not about free! information but about the two-way, many-to-many nature of the medium.

Not so long ago - 2002 - Murdoch's then COO insisted that you can't make money from content on the Internet; more recently, Times editor James Harding called giving away journalism for free a quite suicidal form of economics In a similar vein, this week Bruce Eisen, the US's Dish Network vice-president of online content development and strategy complained that the online streaming service Hulu is killing the TV industry.

Back in 2002, I argued that you can make money from online content but it needs to be some combination of a) low overheads, b) necessary, c) unusual if not unique, d) timely, and e) correctly priced. From what Slate is saying, it appears that Netflix is getting c, d, and e right and that the mix is giving the company enough of an advantage to let it compete successfully with free-as-in-file-sharing. But is the Times getting enough of those things right? And does it need to?

As Emily Bell points out, Murdoch's interest in the newspapers was more for their influence than their profitability, and that this influence and therefore their importance has largely waned. "Internationally, it has no voice," she writes. But therein lies a key difference between the Times and, say, the Guardian or the BBC: enlarging the international audience for and importance of the Times means competing with his own overseas titles. The Guardian has no such internal conflict of interest, and is therefore free to pursue its mission to become the world's leading liberal voice.

Of course, who knows? In a year's time maybe we'll all be writing the astonishing story of rising paid subscriber numbers and lauding Murdoch's prescience. But if we are, I'll bet that the big winner won't be the Times but Apple.

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.