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March 25, 2011

Return to the red page district

This week's agreement to create a .xxx generic top-level domain (generic in the sense of not being identified with a particular country) seems like a quaint throwback. Ten or 15 years ago it might have made mattered. Now, for all the stories rehashing the old controversies, it seems to be largely irrelevant to anyone except those who think they can make some money out of it. How can it be a vector for censorship if there is no prohibition on registering pornography sites elsewhere? How can it "validate" the porn industry any more than printers and film producers did? Honestly, if it didn't have sex in the title, who would care?

I think it was about 1995 when a geekish friend said, probably at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, "I think I have the solution. Just create a top-level domain just for porn."

It sounded like a good idea at the time. Many of the best ideas are simple - with a kind of simplicity mathematicians like to praise with the term "elegant". Unfortunately, many of the worst ideas are also simple - with a kind of simplicity we all like to diss with the term "simplistic". Which this is depends to some extent on when you're making the judgement..

In 1995, the sense was that creating a separate pornography domain would provide an effective alternative to broad-brush filtering. It was the era of Time magazine's Cyberporn cover story, which Netheads thoroughly debunked and leading up to the passage of the Communications Decency Act in 1996. The idea that children would innocently stumble upon pornography was entrenched and not wholly wrong. At that time, as PC Magazine points out while outlining the adult entertainment industry's objections to the new domain, a lot of Web surfing was done by guesswork, which is how the domain whitehouse.com became famous.

A year or two later, I heard that one of the problems was that no one wanted to police domain registrations. Sure. Who could afford the legal liability? Besides, limiting who could register what in which domain was not going well: .com, which was intended to be for international commercial organizations, had become the home for all sorts of things that didn't fit under that description, while the .us country code domain had fallen into disuse. Even today, with organizations controlling every top-level domain, the rules keep having to adapt to user behavior. Basically, the fewer people interested in registering under your domain the more likely it is that your rules will continue to work.

No one has ever managed to settle - again - the question of what the domain name system is for, a debate that's as old as the system itself: its inventor, Paul Mockapetris, still carries the scars of the battles over whether to create .com. (If I remember correctly, he was against it, but finally gave on in that basis that: "What harm can it do?") Is the domain name system a directory, a set of mnemonics, a set of brands/labels, a zoning mechanism, or a free-for-all? ICANN began its life, in part, to manage the answers to this particular controversy; many long-time watchers don't understand why it's taken so long to expand the list of generic top-level domains. Fifteen years ago, finding a consensus and expanding the list would have made a difference to the development of the Net. Now it simply does not matter.

I've written before now that the domain name system has faded somewhat in importance as newer technologies - instant messaging, social networks, iPhone/iPad apps - bypass it altogether. And that is true. When the DNS was young, it was a perfect fit for the Internet applications of the day for which it was devised: Usenet, Web, email, FTP, and so on. But the domain name system enables email and the Web, which are typically the gateways through which people make first contact with those services (you download the client via the Web, email your friend for his ID, use email to verify your account).

The rise of search engines - first Altavista, then primarily Google - did away with much of consumers' need for a directory. Also a factor was branding: businesses wanted memorable domain names they could advertise to their customers. By now, though probably most people don't bother to remember more than a tiny handful of domain names now - Google, Facebook, perhaps one or two more. Anything else they either put into a search engine or get from either a bookmark or, more likely, their browser history.

Then came sites like Facebook, which take an approach akin to CompuServe in the old days or mobile networks now: they want to be your gateway to everything online (Facebook is going to stream movies now, in competition with NetFlix!) If they succeed, would it matter if you had - once - to teach your browser a user-unfriendly long, numbered address?

It is in this sense that the domain name system competes with Google and Facebook as the gateway to the Net. Of all the potential gateways, it is the only one that is intended as a public resource rather than a commercial company. That has to matter, and we should take seriously the threat that all the Net's entrances could become owned by giant commercial interests. But .xxx missed its moment to make history.

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.

March 18, 2011

Block party

When last seen in net.wars, the Internet Watch Foundation was going through the most embarrassing moment of its relatively short life: the time it blocked a Wikipedia page. It survived, of course, and on Tuesday this week it handed out copies of its latest annual report (PDF) and its strategic plan for the years 2011 to 2014 (PDF) in the Strangers Dining Room at the House of Commons.

The event was, more or less, the IWF's birthday party: in August it will be 15 years since the suspicious, even hostile first presentation, in 1996, of the first outline of the IWF. It was an uneasy compromise between an industry accused of facilitating child abuse, law enforcement threatening technically inept action, and politicians anxious to be seen to be doing something, all heightened by some of the worst mainstream media reporting I've ever seen.

Suspicious or not, the IWF has achieved traction. It has kept government out of the direct censorship business and politicians and law enforcement reasonably satisfied. Without - as was pointed out - cost to the taxpayer, since the IWF is funded from a mix of grants, donations, and ISPs' subscription fees.

And to be fair, it has been arguably successful at doing what it set out to do, which is to disrupt the online distribution of illegal pornographic images of children within the UK. The IWF has reported for some years now that the percentage of such images hosted within the UK is near zero. On Tuesday, it said the time it takes to get foreign-hosted content taken down has halved. Its forward plan includes more of the same, plus pushing more into international work by promoting the use its URL list abroad and developing partnerships.

Over at The Register Jane Fae Ozniek has done a good job of tallying up the numbers the IWF reported, and also of following up on remarks made by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey and Home Office Minister James Brokenshire that suggested the IWF or its methods might be expanded to cover other categories of material. So I won't rehash either topic here.

Instead, what struck me is the IWF's report that a significant percentage of its work now concerns sexual abuse images and videos that are commercially distributed. This news offered a brief glance into a shadowy world that is illegal for any of us to study since under UK law (and the laws of many other countries) it's illegal to access such material. If this is a correct assessment, it certainly follows the same pattern as the world of malware writing, which has progressed from the giggling, maladjusted teenager writing a bit of disruptive code in his bedroom to a highly organized, criminal, upside-down image of the commercial software world (complete, I'm told by experts from companies like Symantec and Sophos, with product trials, customer support, and update patches). Similarly, our, or at least my, image was always of like-minded amateurs exchanging copies of the things they managed to pick up rather like twisted stamp collectors.

The IWF report says it has identified 715 such commercial sources, 321 of which were active in 2010. At least 47.7 percent of the commercially branded material is produced by the top ten, and the most prolific of these brands used 862 URLs. The IWF has attempted to analyze these brands, and believes that they are operated in clusters by criminals. To quote the report:

Each of the webpages or websites is a gateway to hundreds or even thousands of individual images or videos of children being sexually abused, supported by layers of payment mechanisms, content sores, membership systems, and advertising frames. Payment systems may include pre-pay cards, credit cards, "virtual money" or e-payment systems, and may be carried out across secure webpages, text, or email.

This is not what people predicted when they warned at the original meeting that blocking access to content would drive it underground into locations that were harder to police. I don't recall anyone saying: it will be like Prohibition and create a new Mafia. How big a problem this is and how it relates to events like yesterday's shutdown of boylovers.net remains to be seen. But there's logic to it: anything that's scarce attracts a high price and anything high-priced and illegal attracts dedicated criminals. So we have to ask: would our children be safer if the IWF were less successful?

The IWF will, I think always be a compromise. Civil libertarians will always be rightly suspicious of any organization that has the authority and power to shut down access to content, online or off. Still, the IWF's ten-person board now includes, alongside the representatives of ISPs, top content sites, and academics, a consumer representative, and seems to be less dominated by repressive law enforcement interests. There's an independent audit in the offing, and while the IWF publishes no details of its block list for researchers to examine, it advocates transparency in the form of a splash screen that tells users a site that is blocked and why. They learned, the IWF's departing head, Peter Robbins, said in conversation, a lot from the Wikipedia incident.

My summary: the organization will know it has its balance exactly right when everyone on all sides has something to complain about.

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.

March 11, 2011

The ten-year count

My census form arrived the other day - 32 lavender and white pages of questions about who will have been staying overnight in my house on March 27, their religions, and whether they will be cosseted with central heating and their own bedroom.

I seem to be out of step on this one, but I've always rather liked the census. It's a little like finding your name in an old phone book: I was here. Reportedly, this, Britain's 21st national census, may be the last. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has complained that it is inaccurate and out of date by the time it's finished, and £482 million is expensive.

Until I read the Guardian article cited above, I had never connected the census to Thomas Malthus' 1798 prediction that the planet would run out of the resources necessary to support an ever-increasing human population. I blame the practice of separating science, history, and politics: Malthus is taught in science class, so you don't realize he was contemporaneous with the inclusion of the census in the US Constitution, which you learn about in civics class.

The census seems to be the one moment when attention really gets focused on the amount and types of data the government collects about all of us. There are complaints from all political sides that it's intrusive and that the government already has plenty of other sources.

I have - both here and elsewhere - written a great deal about privacy and the dangers of thoughtlessly surrendering information but I'm inclined to defend the census. And here's why: it's transparent. Of all the data-gathering exercises to which our lives are subject it's the only one that is. When you fill out the form you know exactly what information you are divulging, when, and to whom. Although the form threatens you with legal sanctions for not replying, it's not enforced.

And I can understand the purpose of the questions: asking the size and disposition of homes, the amount of time spent working and at what, racial and ethnic background, religious affiliation, what passports people hold and what languages they speak. These all make sense to me in the interests of creating a snapshot of modern Britain that is accurate enough for the decisions the government must make. How many teachers and doctors do we need in which areas who speak which languages? How many people still have coal fires? These are valid questions for a government to consider.

But most important, anyone can look up census data and develop some understanding of the demographics government decisions are based on.

What are the alternatives? There are certainly many collections of data for various purposes. There are the electoral rolls, which collect the names and nationalities of everyone at each address in every district. There are the council tax registers, which collect the householder's name and the number of residents at each address. Other public sector sources include the DVLA's vehicle and driver licensing data, school records, and the NHS's patient data. And of course there are many private sector sources, too: phone records, credit card records, and so on.

Here's the catch: every one of those is incomplete. Everyone does not have a phone or credit card; some people are so healthy they get dropped from their doctors' registers because they haven't visisted in many years; some people don't have an address; some people have five phones, some none. Most of those people are caught by the census, since it relies on counting everyone wherever they're staying on a single particular night.

Here's another catch: the generation of national statistics to determine the allocation of national resources is not among the stated purposes for which those data are gathered. That is of course fixable. But doing so might logically lead government to mandate that these agencies collect more data from us than they do now - and with more immediate penalties for not complying. Would you feel better about telling the DVLA or your local council your profession and how many hours you work? No one is punished for leaving a question blank on the census, but suppose leaving your religious affiliation blank on your passport application means not getting a passport until you've answered it?

Which leads to the final, biggest catch. Most of the data that is collected from us is in private hands or is confidential for one reason or another. Councils are pathological about disliking sharing data with the public; commercial organizations argue that their records are commercially sensitive; doctors are rightly concerned about protecting patient data. Despite the data protection laws we often do not know what data has been collected, how it's being used, or where it's being held. And although we have the right to examine and correct our own records we won't find it easy to determine the basis for government decisions: open season for lobbyists.

The census, by contrast, is transparent and accountable. We know what information we have divulged, we know who is responsible for it, and we can even examine the decisions it is used to support. Debate ways to make it less intrusive by all means, but do you really want to replace it with a black box?

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.

March 4, 2011

Tax returns

In 1994, when Jeff Bezos was looking for a place to put the online bookseller he intended to grow into the giant, multi-faceted online presence it is today, he began with a set of criteria that included, high up on the list, avoiding liability for sales tax as much as possible. That meant choosing a small state, so that the vast majority of the new site's customers would be elsewhere.

Bezos could make this choice because of the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Quill Corp v. North Dakota, blocking states from compelling distance sellers to collect sales tax from customers unless the seller had a substantial physical operation (a "nexus") in the customer's state. Why, the reasoning went, should a company be required to pay taxes in a state where it receives no benefit in the form of public services? The decision helped fuel the growth of first mail-order sales and then ecommerce.

And so throughout the growth of electronic commerce Americans have gone along taking advantage of the relief from sales tax afforded by online sales. This is true despite the fact that many states have laws requiring their residents to declare and pay the sales tax on purchases over a certain amount. Until the current online tax disputes blew up, few knew about these laws - I only learned of them from a reader email some years ago - and as far as I'm aware it isn't enforced. Doing so would require comprehensive surveillance of ecommerce sites.

But this is the thing when something is new: those setting up businesses can take advantage of loopholes created for very different markets and conditions. A similar situation applies in the UK with respect to DVD and CD sales. Fulfilled by subsidiaries or partners based in the Channel Islands, the DVD and CD sales of major retailers such as Amazon, Tesco, and others take advantage of tax relief rules intended to speed shipments of agricultural products. Basically, any package valued under £18 is exempt from VAT. For consumers, this represents substantial savings; for local shops, it represents a tough challenge.

Even before that, in the early 1990s, CompuServe and AOL, as US-based Internet service providers, were able to avoid charging VAT in the UK based on a rule making services taxable based on their point of origin. That gave those two companies a significant - 17.5 percent - advantage over native ISPs like Demon and Pipex. There were many objections to this situation, and eventually the loophole was closed and both CompuServe and AOL began charging VAT.

You can't really blame companies for taking advantage of the structures that are there. No one wants to pay more tax - or pay for more administration - than is required by law, and anyone running those companies would make the same decisions. But as the recession continues to bite and state, federal, and central governments are all scrambling to replace lost revenues from a tax base that's been , the calls to level the playing field by closing off these tax-advantage workarounds are getting louder.

This type of argument is as old as mail order. But in the beginning there was a general view - implemented also in the US as a moratorium on taxing Internet services that was renewed as recently as 2007 - that exempting the Internet from as many taxes as possible would help the new medium take root and flourish. There was definitely some truth to the idea that this type of encouragement helped; an early FCC proposal to surcharge users for transmitting data was dropped after 10,000 users sent letters of complaint. Nonetheless, the FCC had to continue issuing denials for years as the dropped proposal continued to make the rounds as the "modem tax" hoax spam.

The arguments for requiring out-of-state sellers to collect and remit sales taxes (or VAT) are fairly obvious. Local retailers, especially small independents, are operating at a price disadvantage (even though customers must pay shipping and delivery charges when they buy online). Governments are losing one of their options for raising revenues to pay for public services. In addition, people buy online for many more reasons than saving money. Online shopping is convenient and offers greater choice. It is also true, though infrequently remembered, that the demographics of online shopping skew toward the wealthier members of our society - that is, the people who best afford to pay the tax.

The arguments against largely boil down to the fact that collecting taxes in many jurisdictions is administratively burdensome. There are some 8,000 different tax rates across the US's 50 states, and although there are many fewer VAT rates across Europe, once your business in a country has reached a certain threshold the rules and regulations governing each one can be byzantine and inconsistent. Creating a single, simple, and consistent tax rule to apply across the board to distance selling would answer these.

No one likes paying taxes (least of all us). But the fact that Amazon would apparently rather jettison the associates program that helped advertise and build its business than allow a state to claim those associates constitute a nexus exposing it to sales tax liability says volumes about how far we've come. And, therefore, how little the Net's biggest businesses now need the help.

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.