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May 27, 2011

Mixed media

In a fight between technology and the law, who wins? This question has been debated since Net immemorial. Techies often seem to be sure that law can't win against practical action. And often this has been true: the release of PGP defeated the International Traffic in Arms Regulations that banned the export of strong cryptography; TOR lets people all over the world bypass local Net censorship rules; and, in the UK, over the last few weeks Twitter has been causing superinjunctions to collapse.

On the other hand, technology by itself is often not enough. The final defeat of the ITAR had at least as much to do with the expansion of ecommerce and the consequent need for secured connections as it did with PGP. TOR is a fine project, but it is not a mainstream technology. And Twitter is a commercial company that can be compelled to disclose what information it has about its users (though granted, this may be minimal) or close down accounts.

Last week, two events took complementary approaches to this question. The first, Big Tent UK, hosted by Google, Privacy International, and Index on Censorship, featured panels and discussions loosely focused on how law can control technology. The second, OpenTech loosely focused on how technology can change our understanding of the world, if not up-end the law itself. At the latter event, projects like Lisa Evans' effort to understand government spending relied on government-published data, while others, such as OpenStreetMap and OpenCorporates seek to create open-source alternatives to existing proprietary services.

There's no question that doing things - or, in my case, egging on people who are doing things - is more fun than purely intellectual debate. I particularly liked the open-source hardware projects presented at OpenTech, some of which are, as presenter Paul Downey said, trying to disrupt a closed market. See for example, River Simple's effort to offer an open-source design for a haydrogen-powered car. Downey whipped through perhaps a dozen projects, all based on the notion that if something can be represented by lines on a PowerPoint slide you can send it to a laser cutter.

But here again I suspect the law will interfere at some point. Not only will open-source cars have to obey safety regulations, but all hardware designs will come up against the same intellectual property issues that have been dogging the Net from all directions. We've noted before Simon Bradshaw's work showing that copyright as applied to three-dimensional objects will be even more of a rat's nest than it has been when applied to "simple" things like books, music, and movies.

At BigTentUK, copyright was given a rest for once in favor of discussions of privacy, the limits of free speech, and revolution. As is so often the case with this type of discussion, it wasn't long before someone - British TV producer Peter Bazalgette - invoked George Orwell. Bizarrely, he aimed "Orwellian" at Privacy International executive director Simon Davies, who a minute before had proposed that the solution to at least some of the world's ongoing privacy woes would be for regulators internationally to collaborate on doing their jobs. Oddly, in an audience full of leading digital rights activists and entrepreneurs, no one admitted to representing the Information Commissioner's office.

Yet given these policy discussions as his prelude, the MP Jeremy Hunt (Con-South West Surry), the secretary of state for Culture, Olympics, Media, and Sport, focused instead on technical progress. We need two things for the future, he said: speed and mobility. Here he cited Bazalgette's great-great-grandfather's contribution to building the sewer system as a helpful model for today. Tasked with deciding the size of pipes to specify for London's then-new sewer system, Joseph Bazalgette doubled the size of pipe necessary to serve the area of London with the biggest demand; we still use those same pipes. We should, said Hunt, build bandwidth in the same foresighted way.

The modern-day Bazalgette, instead, wants the right to be forgotten: people, he said, should have the right to delete any information that they voluntarily surrender. Much like Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, who participated in the free speech panel, he seemed not to understand the consequences of what he was asking for. Roberts complained that the "slightly hysterical response" to any suggestion of moderating free speech in the interests of child safety inhibits real discussion; the right to delete is not easily implemented when people are embedded in a three-dimensional web of information.

The Big Tent panels on revolution and conflict would have fit either event, including href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wael_Ghonim">Wael Ghonim who ran a Facebook page that fomented pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt and respresentatives of PAX and Unitar, projects to use the postings of "citizen journalists" and public image streams respectively to provide early warnings of developing conflict.

In the end, we need both technology and law, a viewpoint best encapsulated by Index on Censorship chief executive John Kampfner, who said he was worried by claims that the Internet is a force for good. "The Internet is a medium, a tool," he said. "You can choose to use it for moral good or moral ill."

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.

May 20, 2011

The world we thought we lived in

If one thing is more annoying than another, it's the fantasy technology on display in so many TV shows. "Enhance that for me!" barks an investigator. And, obediently, his subordinate geek/squint/nerd pushes a button or few, a line washes over the blurry image on screen, and now he can read the maker's mark on a pill in the hand of the target subject that was captured by a distant CCTV camera. The show 24 ended for me 15 minutes into season one, episode one, when Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer, trying to find his missing daughter, thrust a piece of paper at an underling and shouted, "Get me all the Internet passwords associated with that telephone number!" Um...

But time has moved on, and screenwriters are more likely to have spent their formative years online and playing computer games, and so we have arrived at The Good Wife, which gloriously wrapped up its second season on Tuesday night (in the US; in the UK the season is still winding to a close on Channel 4). The show is a lot of things: a character study of an archetypal humiliated politician's wife (Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies) who rebuilds her life after her husband's betrayal and corruption scandal; a legal drama full of moral murk and quirky judges ( Carob chip?); a political drama; and, not least, a romantic comedy. The show is full of interesting, layered men and great, great women - some of them mature, powerful, sexy, brilliant women. It is also the smartest show on television when it comes to life in the time of rapid technological change.

When it was good, in its first season, Gossip Girl cleverly combined high school mean girls with the citizen reportage of TMZ to produce a world in which everyone spied on everyone else by sending tips, photos, and rumors to a Web site, which picks the most damaging moment to publish them and blast them to everyone's mobile phones.

The Good Wife goes further to exploit the fact that most of us, especially those old enough to remember life before CCTV, go on about our lives forgetting that everywhere we leave a trail. Some are, of course, old staples of investigative dramas: phone records, voice messages, ballistics, and the results of a good, old-fashioned break-in-and-search. But some are myth-busting.

One case (S2e15, "Silver Bullet") hinges on the difference between the compressed, digitized video copy and the original analog video footage: dropped frames change everything. A much earlier case (S1e06, "Conjugal") hinges on eyewitness testimony; despite a slightly too-pat resolution (I suspect now, with more confidence, it might have been handled differently), the show does a textbook job of demonstrating the flaws in human memory and their application to police line-ups. In a third case (S1e17, "Heart"), a man faces the loss of his medical insurance because of a single photograph posted to Facebook showing him smoking a cigarette. And the disgraced husband's (Peter Florrick, played by Chris Noth) attempt to clear his own name comes down to a fancy bit of investigative work capped by camera footage from an ATM in the Cayman Islands that the litigator is barely technically able to display in court. As entertaining demonstrations and dramatizations of the stuff net.wars talks about every week and the way technology can be both good and bad - Alicia finds romance in a phone tap! - these could hardly be better. The stuffed lion speaker phone (S2e19, "Wrongful Termination") is just a very satisfying cherry topping of technically clever hilarity.

But there's yet another layer, surrounding the season two campaign mounted to get Florrick elected back into office as State's Attorney: the ways that technology undermines as well as assists today's candidates.

"Do you know what a tracker is?" Peter's campaign manager (Eli Gold, played by Alan Cumming) asks Alicia (S2e01, "Taking Control"). Answer: in this time of cellphones and YouTube, unpaid political operatives follow opposing candidates' family and friends to provoke and then publish anything that might hurt or embarrass the opponent. So now: Peter's daughter (Makenzie Vega) is captured praising his opponent and ham-fistedly trying to defend her father's transgressions ("One prostitute!"). His professor brother-in-law's (Dallas Roberts) in-class joke that the candidate hates gays is live-streamed over the Internet. Peter's son (Graham Phillips) and a manipulative girlfriend (Dreama Walker), unknown to Eli, create embarrassing, fake Facebook pages in the name of the opponent's son. Peter's biggest fan decides to (he thinks) help by posting lame YouTube videos apparently designed to alienate the very voters Eli's polls tell him to attract. (He's going to post one a week; isn't Eli lucky?) Polling is old hat, as are rumors leaked to newspaper reporters; but today's news cycle is 20 minutes and can we have a quote from the candidate? No wonder Eli spends so much time choking and throwing stuff.

All of this fits together because the underlying theme of all parts of the show is control: control of the campaign, the message, the case, the technology, the image, your life. At the beginning of season one, Alicia has lost all control over the life she had; by the end of season two, she's in charge of her new one. Was a camera watching in that elevator? I guess we'll find out next year.


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.

May 13, 2011

Lay down the cookie

British Web developers will be spending the next couple of weeks scrambling to meet the May 26 deadline after which new legislation require users to consent before a cookie can be placed on their computers. The Information Commissioner's guidelines allow a narrow exception for cookies that are "strictly necessary for a service requested by the user"; the example given is a cookie used to remember an item the user has chosen to buy so it's there when they go to check out. Won't this be fun?

Normally, net.wars comes down on the side of privacy even when it's inconvenient for companies, but in this case we're prepared to make at least a partial exception. It's always been a little difficult to understand the hatred and fear with which some people regard the cookie. Not the chocolate chip cookie, which of course we know is everything that is good, but the bits of code that reside on your computer to give Web pages the equivalent of memory. Cookies allow a server to assemble a page that remembers what you've looked at, where you've been, and which gewgaw you've put into your shopping basket. At least some of this can be done in other ways such as using a registration scheme. But it's arguably a greater invations of privacy to require users to form a relationship with a Web site they may only use once.

The single-site use of cookies is, or ought to be, largely uncontroversial. The more contentious usage is third-party cookies, used by advertising agencies to track users from site to site with the goal of serving up targeted, rather than generic, ads. It's this aspect of cookies that has most exercised privacy advocates, and most browsers provide the ability to block cookies - all, third-party, or none, with a provision to make exceptions.

The new rules, however, seem overly broad.

In the EU, the anti-cookie effort began in 2001 (the second-ever net.wars), seemed to go quiet, and then revived in 2009, when I called the legislation "masterfully stupid". That piece goes into some detail about the objections to the anti-cookie legislation, so we won't review that here. At the time, reader email suggested that perhaps making life unpleasant for advertisers would force browser manufacturers to design better privacy controls. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, but so far it hasn't happened, and in the meantime that legislation

The chief difference is moving from opt-out to opt-in: users must give consent for cookies to be placed on their machines; the chief flaw is banning a technology instead of regulating undesirable actions and effects. Besides the guidelines above, the ICO refers people to All About Cookies for further information.

Pete Jordan, a Hull-based Web developer, notes that when you focus legislation on a particular technology, "People will find ways around it if they're ingenious enough, and if you ban cookies or make it awkward to use them, then other mechanisms will arise." Besides, he says, "A lot of day-to-day usage is to make users' experience of Web sites easier, more friendly, and more seamless. It's not life-threatening or vital, but from the user's perception it makes a difference if it disappears." Cookies, for example, are what provide the trail of "breadcrumbs" at the top of a Web page to show you the path by which you arrived at that page so you can easily go back to where you were.

"In theory, it should affect everything we do," he says of the legislation. A possible workaround may be to embed tokens in URLs, a strategy he says is difficult to manage and raises the technical barrier for Web developers.

The US, where competing anti-tracking bills are under consideration in both houses of Congress, seems to be taking a somewhat different tack in requiring Web sites to honor the choice if consumers set a "Do Not Track" flag. Expect much more public debate about the US bills than there has been in the EU or UK. See, for example, the strong insistence by What Would Google Do? author Jeff Jarvis that media sites in particular have a right to impose any terms they want in the interests of their own survival. He predicts paywalls everywhere and the collapse of media economics. I think he's wrong.

The thing is, it's not a fair contest between users and Web site owners. It's more or less impossible to browse the Web with all cookies turned off: the complaining pop-ups are just too frequent. But targeting the cookie is not the right approach. There are many other tracking technologies that are invisible to consumers which may have both good and bad effects - even Web bugs are used helpfully some of the time. (The irony is, of course, regulating the cookie but allowing increases in both offline and online surveillance by police and government agencies.)

Requiring companies to behave honestly and transparently toward their customers would have been a better approach for the EU; one hopes it will work better in the US.


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.

May 6, 2011

Double exposure

So finally we know. Ever since Wikileaks began releasing diplomatic cables copyright activists have been waiting to see if the trove would expose undue influence on national laws. And this week there it was: a 2005 cable from the US Embassy in New Zealand requesting $386,158 to fund start-up costs and the first year of an industry-backed intellectual property enforcement unit and a 2009 cable offering "help" when New Zealand was considering a "three-strikes" law. Much, much more on this story has been presented and analyzed by the excellent Michael Geist, who also notes similar US lobbying pressure on Canada to "improve" its "lax" copyright laws.

My favorite is this bit, excerpted from the cable recounting an April 2007 meeting between Embassy officials and Geist himself:

His acknowledgement that Canada is a net importer of copyrighted materials helps explain the advantage he would like to hold on to with a weaker Canadian UPR protection regime. His unvoiced bias against the (primarily U.S. based) entertainment industry also reflects deeply ingrained Canadian preferences to protect and nurture homegrown artists.

In other words, Geist's disagreement with US copyright laws is due to nationalist bias, rather than deeply held principles. I wonder how they explain to themselves the very similar views of such diverse Americans as Macarthur award winner Pamela Samuelson, John Perry Barlow, Lawrence Lessig. The latter in fact got so angry over the US's legislative expansion of copyright that he founded a movement for Congressional reform, expanding to a Harvard Law School center to research broader questions of ethics.

It's often said that a significant flaw in the US Constitution is that it didn't - couldn't, because they didn't exist yet - take account of the development of multinational corporations. They have, of course, to answer to financial regulations, legal obligations covering health and safety, and public opinion, but in many areas concerning the practice of democracy there is very little to rein those in. They can limit their employees' freedom of speech, for example, without ever falling afoul of the First Amendment, which, contrary to often-expressed popular belief, limits only the power of Congress in this area.

There is also, as Lessig pointed out in his first book, Code: and Other Laws of Cyberspace, no way to stop private companies from making and implementing technological decisions that may have anti-democratic effects. Lessig's example at the time was AOL, which hard-coded a limit of 23 participants per chat channel; try staging a mass protest under those limits. Today's better example might be Facebook, which last week was accused of unfairly deleting the profiles of 51 anti-cuts groups and activists. (My personal guess is that Facebook's claim to have simply followed its own rules is legitimate; the better question might be who supplied Facebook with the list of profiles and why.) Whether or not Facebook is blameless on this occasion, there remains a legitimate question: at what point does a social network become so vital a part of public life that the rules it implements and the technological decisions it makes become matters of public policy rather than questions for it to consider on its own? Facebook, like almost all of the biggest Internet companies, is a US corporation, with its mores and internal culture largely shaped by its home country.

We have often accused large corporate rights holders of being the reason why we see the same proposals for tightening and extending copyright popping up all over the world in countries whose values differ greatly and whose own national interests are not necessarily best served by passing such laws. More recently written constitutions could consider such influences. To the best of my knowledge they haven't, although arguably this is less of an issue in places that aren't headquarters to so many of them and where they are therefore less likely to spend large amounts backing governments likely to be sympathetic to their interests.

What Wikileaks has exposed instead is the unpleasant specter of the US, which likes to think of itself as spreading democracy around the world, behaving internationally in a profoundly anti-democratic way. I suppose we can only be grateful they haven't sent Geist and other non-US copyright reform campaigners exploding cigars. Change Congress, indeed: what about changing the State Department?

It's my personal belief that the US is being short-sighted in pursuing these copyright policies. Yes, the US is currently the world's biggest exporter of intellectual property, especially in, but not limited to, the area of entertainment. But that doesn't mean it always will be. It is foolish to think that down the echoing corridors of time (to borrow a phrase from Jean Kerr) the US will never become a net importer of intellectual property. It is sheer fantasy - even racism - to imagine that other countries cannot write innovative software that Americans want to use or produce entertainment that Americans want to enjoy. Even if you dispute the arguments made by campaigning organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Rights Group that laws like "three strikes" unfairly damage the general public, it seems profoundly stupid to assume that the US will always enjoy the intellectual property hegemony it has now.

One of these days, the US policies exposed in these cables are going to bite it in the ass.


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.